THE fate of a controversial 'lie detector' scheme as a means to catch benefit cheats is in doubt after confusion about cuts to the programme.
Harrow Council has claimed it has been forced to dump the 'pioneering technology' because of the withdrawal of government funding, but the body that supplies the software and subsidises the programme says it has done no such thing.
Harrow was the first borough in the UK to pilot the Voice Risk Analysis system, in May 2007, despite damning research from a leading scientist who said 'believing it works is like believing in fairy tales'.
The council claims to have recouped the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) an estimated £50,000 a month in suspect claims but admits that it cannot afford to pay for the technology and its running costs, which are part-paid by the DWP.
But a spokes-woman for the DWP said it was yet to make a decision on whether to continue the funding and was assessing the success of what was intended only as a pilot.
She said: "We always said that the two-and-a-half-year pilot scheme would come to an end in December 2009 and the 24 local authorities involved in its testing were fully aware of this.
"It's entirely normal that at the end of a pilot you take some time to assess its merits, and we have not said either way whether the subsidy will be available in the future."
One man who will not be surprised if the funding is slashed is Professor Francisco Lacerda, a lecturer at Stockholm University in Sweden, who led the criticism of the scheme.
The phonetics expert has been leading research in his field for more than 30 years and said the equipment is a waste of money that relies solely on psychological impact, not technology.
He said it could lead to law abiding citizens being falsely persecuted and is no more likely to find the fraudsters.
He said: "It picks up on stresses in the voice or changes in pitch but neither of these things actually make people liars.
"It is completely unreliable and very dangerous.
"I personally think staff might as well flip a coin prior to the call and make a decision based on that because, quite frankly, believing in this is just as silly as believing in fairy tales."
The DWP was coy when asked if it could point to any actual prosecutions following use of the device.
Jane Griffiths, a DWP spokeswoman, added: "It would be inappropriate to reveal the amount of money recouped as a result of using the technology or prosecutions brought about as a result of it while the success of the technology is under evaluation."
For the past two-and-a-half years the scheme has cost the DWP £50,000 and Harrow Council £80,000 a year in manpower, training and equipment.
Leader of the council, Councillor David Ashton, said: "We regarded the lie detector system as a great success, but it is important to remember that the money saved went straight back to the Department for Work and Pensions, not Harrow Council's coffers.
"We could not justify to our residents the fact that we were effectively subsidising a government experiment.
"Unless the government chooses to extend funding, we won't be able to use this hi-tech method of combating benefit fraud. Given the endemic levels of benefit fraud in London, I think that shows a terrible paucity of vision."
During the trial the technology was used to test people claiming housing benefits but it was hoped the programme could be expanded to claims including council tax credits, which go direct to local authority coffers.