Tech

Takes from the taxpayer, gives to the old – by squishing a bug in Thatcherite benefits system

On Call What’s the saying? The more things change, the more they stay the same. Welcome to On Call and an account from nearly 40 years ago when one hard pressed engineer was dealing with a ham-fisted response to the policies of the UK’s Thatcher government.

Today’s tale of public sector woe comes from a reader dubbed “Andrew” by the Regomiser who was working for a county council in the north of England.

“They had IBM mainframes running PL1,” he recalled. “I was a programmer and also on call for problems.”

Originally introduced in 1979 (just like the Thatcher government), the IBM 4341 Processor Andrew worked with was an impressive beast. Big Blue claimed compatibility with System/370 and a boost in execution speed “up to 3.2 times of a System/370 Model 138 with one million characters.”

An IBM 3278 Model 2A console, with a breath-taking 1,920-character display and keyboard, could be used to operate the device and the processor used memory chips that could store “64,000 bits of information.”

Heady stuff.

“The languages in use were PL1 RPGII and Filetab,” explained Andrew. The council itself ran the rents and housing benefits system for all the local councils in the area.

mouse dirty

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As is so often the case when a government changes (or a new minister arrives with a desire to make a name for themself), processes get overhauled. Of immediate impact to Andrew was a new housing benefit system, which the council team duly designed, specified, and implemented in-house. No expensive consultants needed here, oh no.

“It didn’t take long for a weird problem to arise,” he told us. “Some pensioners were getting their housing benefit automatically terminated by the system. No warning, it just stopped the payments.”

Those who remember some of the more brutal changes brought in by the Thatcher regime (or enlightened updates, depending on which side of the political divide you sit) would be forgiven for wondering if this was somehow by design.

It most definitely wasn’t, and as programmer on-call, it fell to Andrew to work out why a bunch of pensioners had dropped off the face of the Earth as far as the council was concerned.

With the ticket for investigation raised, he duly began sleuthing. It was certainly a strange one – the records were present and correct, with names, addresses, and personal details.

As he looked at the list of those that were being missed, he noticed a common factor. All those affected were well past the pensionable age. A long, long way past.

He looked again at the system. Either the IBM was able to grant eternal youth (“under 18-year-olds were not allowed housing benefit,” he explained) or something had gone very wrong with the age calculation.

Perhaps mindful of memory constraints or maybe just out of sheer wanton muppetry, somebody had decided to store the date of birth with only two digits for the year.

The result had been an impromptu axing of benefits for the elderly residents of the community.

Andrew applied a fix, and restored benefits to those who had lost them, most likely reducing his chance of a peerage in the process.

In fact, it got a bit worse for the bean-counters concerned. The fix, according to Andrew, meant that “some pensioners that had been refused on the original applications because they were over 100… were also now eligible and were brought onto housing benefit.”

Clearly nobody had thought to pick up the On Call phone when faced with a form filled out by a centenarian. Andrew, on the other hand: the IT world’s Robin Hood (with RPGII and Filetab skills replacing the bow and arrow).

Tell us about your own run-ins with date formatting, or that time you did a simple fix and undid millions of pounds of savings. All it takes is an email to On Call to share your story. ®


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