The Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) has claimed that it can’t pay people more social security above this year’s real-terms cut of £10bn because its IT system are too old. Problem is, this is an outright lie. The Canary spoke to a former IT contractor for the department, who confirmed that its excuses were “horseshit”.
DWP: computer says ‘no’
The Times reported on the story. It said that “Whitehall sources” told the Treasury that “creaking government IT systems” meant that legacy benefits like Jobseeker’s Allowance (JSA) could not be increased more than once a year. This comes as the DWP has put up social security by just over 3%. Because of rocketing inflation, this means that it is actually cutting people’s money – to the tune of around £10bn.
The Times noted:
It has emerged that Sunak discussed raising payments only to be told by officials that it would be impossible. Whitehall sources said that the antiquated payments system could increase certain payments only once a year. “There were definitely discussions about how you could raise benefits but the message came back that you could only do it once a year and this was not the time of year that you could do it,” a government source said. “The system was simply not built to be flexible.”
It also said that:
hundreds of thousands of people remain on the old benefits system administered using an inflexible IT system operating since the 1980s.
It is set up to change benefit levels automatically at the start of the new financial year in April.
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The Guardian also ran the story – repeating the DWP’s claims about the “antiquated” IT system. Here’s why the department is lying.
“Creaking” IT that’s only a year old?
The DWP began upgrading its IT infrastructure for legacy benefits in 2016 and it now works off a new system. It’s called VME-R. Without getting too technical, a case study on the issue by Micro Focus noted:
- Night time “batch processing” of things like Housing Benefit went from taking 90 minutes on the old system to 15 minutes under VME-R.
- JSA batch-runs were improved by 60%.
- The DWP’s “ability to deploy changes” has “accelerated” by 75%.
Also, the VME-R system can now rapidly change the way benefits work. This admission comes from Mark Bell, the deputy director responsible for the project. He told Micro Focus:
Thanks to the flexible and agile new environment we could quickly make government-mandated policy changes to allow for COVID-19, such as increasing our capacity for additional users, and supporting quicker benefit processing changes.
DWP: 800 updates a year – just not to pay claimants more
Perhaps the most crucial factor is the number of changes the DWP can now make a year under VME-R. The Times article claimed that the DWP said it could only change benefit rates once a year. But as Bell himself admitted in a DWP blog:
At last count we had already delivered over 800 updates across the various platforms in the last year thanks to a more flexible implementation system. Previously we planned two major releases a year on each system.
So, it seems that the claims by the DWP that it can’t make changes to benefit rates appears to be nonsense.
The Canary spoke to a former outsourced contractor from the original Department for Social Security (DSS) systems who designed code for the now-replaced IT. They told us:
The DWP had a two year planning cycle to get to know how to do things quickly. So two years of learning to be faster at code and system changes. Which means, as an organisation the DWP is now more capable of rapid response.
That two years of planning at the tail of a decade of work brings valuable skills and experience into the DWP. It could be kicked out the door in the next “reorganisation”. So, again, the DWP has no great interest in saying that “we trained people up in the DWP to make changes really fast”. Because that might oblige it to… make changes really fast.
No technical barriers
Overall, they told The Canary that, as an example, the moving of Winter Fuel Payments to the VME-R system in 2016:
shows proof of concept for rapid change which can be driven by political will not technical constraints. If you can change Winter Fuel Payments in 24 hours then rerating legacy payments of any kind loses the technical barrier.
In other words, Winter Fuel Payment transference to VME-R demonstrates something beyond the technical. The civil service is capable of delivering the technical infrastructure rapidly. It has been able to conceptually do that since 2016 and not only conceptually but practically since 2020.
But there is one issue, this time with Employment and Support Allowance (ESA), which doesn’t come under VME-R. The Canary‘s source told us that because ESA did not exist in the 1980s, it’s already operating off modern IT anyway. They said:
It’s effectively the code standards that the VME-R programme is updating to… so is not really requiring the VME-R process. In theory, any code for ESA should already be adaptable.
The DWP says…
The Canary asked the DWP for comment. Specifically, we wanted to know why the DWP is claiming its IT cannot update legacy benefit rates more than once a year. Because this appears not to be the case. A spokesperson said:
Universal Credit is a dynamic system which adjusts as people earn more or less, and simplifies our safety net for those who cannot work. It makes it easier for people to claim support they are entitled to, is more generous overall than the old benefits, and it successfully met the demands of the pandemic in 2020.
Parliament voted to end the complex web of six legacy benefits in 2012, and as this work approaches its conclusion in 2024 we are fully transitioning to a modern benefit, suited to the 21st Century.
We recognise the pressures people are facing with the cost of living, which is why we’re providing support worth £22 billion across the next financial year including our Household Support Fund. Parliament voted in March 2022, to uprate benefits by the usual measure.
They pointed The Canary to the fact that legacy benefits’ changes take “several months” to process (contrary to what the Times reported as once a year). Under Universal Credit the DWP can make the same changes in weeks. The DWP cited the volume of new claims to Universal Credit during the pandemic as being one such example.
The former DSS contractor summed the situation up:
- DWP systems can be uprated at a technical level three times a day.
- It requires parliament to instruct the DWP if the change involves money.
- The parliamentary process of legislation cannot make three changes a day.
- The decision to uprate yearly was made in 1970’s.
- The technical systems have supported that since then VME-R simply makes faster change possible.
- The rate of changing of benefits is limited by Parliament not the Civil Service.
- The story is horseshit.
Overall, they said that the story may show several things:
First, it suggests that ministers do not really understand technology. No surprise there. They are not understanding just how rapidly they can change technical support for policies. Winter Fuel Payments being changed in 24 hours is a technical change. But it could equally be a technical change that reflects a policy change. Technology could be used to support policy.
Second, it suggests that the civil service are not really supporting the government, technically. Because the government has no idea what support it actually needs. It is now technically possible to update Winter Fuel Payments in 24 hours. So that technical update needs the government to be able to formulate policy in 24 hours. That is a radical disconnect between ministerial ability and technical delivery.
So, third, it suggests the government are actually very much out of their depth. Not from an ideological point of view but just from being useless fuckers. They’ve failed upwards as far as they can. That makes it dangerous for them – and us.
It’s one thing for the DWP to lie about its IT systems. It’s another for the Guardian and Times to repeat the lie like it’s a statement of fact. But it’s entirely heinous that the DWP thinks it can lie to make excuses for not paying social security claimants more during a time of state-sanctioned class war.
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