Britain has never suffered from a shortage of mad inventors, nor from a lack of officials in high places who will listen to them. Whitehall departments have given serious consideration to all kinds of eccentric and grandiose schemes, and attempts were even made to put some into practice.
The DWP’s plans for Universal Credit is the latest.
During World War II, a plan to create a raft many miles long and float it off the British Isles to confuse German radar received an initial amount of scrutiny. For a brief period, the War Cabinet explored using flattened icebergs as runways, a scheme known as ‘Project Habbakuk’. The wartime government also received numerous proposals for perpetual motion machines that abated only when working models were requested. In the early 1950s, it was predicted every small town in England would have its own nuclear power station. Equally ambitious was Mr AP Pedrick of Selsey, Sussex, who took out a patent in 1966 to irrigate the world’s deserts by way of ice balls conveyed along giant pipelines from the polar regions.
However, all these paled in comparison to the cosmic 1971 proposal from Mr P Norcott of Broadstairs, Kent, to cut the Moon in half and tow one hemisphere round to the other side of the Earth, harnessing gravitational forces to prevent future earthquakes.
Now the Department of Work and Pensions is attempting the Earthly equivalent of cutting the Moon in half with its welfare reforms and plans for Universal Credit system. Already it is going wrong.
No one with a passing knowledge of the complexity of the social security system – including many claimants, lawyers, judges and administrators at every level – would object to it being reformed. Unfortunately, the way it is being attempted flies in the face of what is real, practical and even possible.
The problems are threefold:
- The complexity of the social security system
- The belief that computers can do anything
- Some serious problems that the government itself has overlooked and is even creating.
The social security system
Social security is often discussed in terms of failures and problems though, from a legal and administrative perspective, parts of it work quite well: old age pensions, attendance allowance and winter fuel payments, and certain specialised disability-related payments (though admittedly, the up-take on some is rather small).
Some parts work badly, and provide legal problems and headaches for claimants and administrators. The problems stem not from social security itself but from the complex rules and regulations adopted in 1987 and still in force in some form today.
The seven leanest years of benefit thinking resulted in the following benefits, which created the bulk of the problems:
- Housing Benefit (created in 1987 and currently the second most expensive payment);
- Income Support (created 1987);
- The Social Fund (created 1988 – John Major’s concept);
- Community Charge Benefit (created 1990, abolished 1993);
- Council Tax Benefit (created 1993); and
- Job Seeker’s Allowance (created 1995).
These benefits have become notorious for their bureaucratic complexity and the problems associated with them; rather than repeal them, New Labour simply wove in new measures. Repeated amendment rather than proper reform in 1997–2010 only added to claimants’ and advisers’ difficulties. In addition, the tax credit system New Labour created at the end of the 1990s has become notoriously complicated, adding to the problems already being suffered by claimants, local government and the DWP.
This is what Universal Credit was set up to reform. No one objects to this in principle: rationalisation is long overdue. Looked at globally, the idea behind Universal Credit is essentially going back to the supplementary benefit system that operated under the Social Security Act 1975 and the Supplementary benefit Act 1976. This system began to be dismantled 30 years ago, and was replaced from 1987 with the bureaucratic monster we have now.
Universal Credit is supposed to fix many of the problems by heading back to a supplementary benefit model. However, it is attempting to do it without the physical infrastructure and simultaneously trying to preserve a version of the housing benefit system, one of the worst features of today’s welfare state. The hope of Universal Credit is that by amalgamating six types of benefit, long queues at the local Job Centre will be ended, and even dole queues will become a thing of the past. Unfortunately, by trying to create Universal Credit without proper infrastructure and ignoring the problem of housing costs, the DWP is embarking upon the legal and administrative equivalent of trying to cut the Moon in half.
Giant computers are not a solution
In times of crisis the idea of a giant computer to run things seems particularly appealing. The belief that computers can run administrative systems on an awesome scale continues to seduce national politicians and civil servants appears particularly rife amongst the current generation to any informed observer. Naturally, it is only central government, along with a few big corporations, banks and supermarket chains that can afford to operate computer systems on a national scale. Official faith in the power of technology is undented by a track record of expensive failures in the past. Despite failed IT schemes for magistrates’ courts, the NHS and many sectors of state provision, in its passion to reform welfare, the government has embarked upon the most ambitious plan of all, a single computer system to run Universal Credit.
It is dreamed that wherever possible, Universal Credit services will be delivered via on-line technology, with claimants reporting changes of circumstances online and accessing their money via chip-and-pin cards. This may have already contributed to a spike in pensioner deaths last year. 
However, various legal and administrative timebombs are ticking away under the Universal Credit system. Some were planted decades ago; others are being created. The biggest one has been inadvertently planted by the Government itself.
What these are will be revealed in forthcoming instalments…
1 Ongoing research by the Benefits Legal Group [Back]