In which I come a poor second to Jules Birch in drawing out the parallels between the problems with the1983 housing benefit changes as recounted by Nicholas Timmins and the current worries about Universal Credit

Last night I was looking at Nicholas Timmins's indispensable 'The Five Giants: a biography of the welfare state' trying to refresh my memory of social security reforms under Margaret Thatcher. I was struck by the following passage about the implementation of housing benefit reforms in 1983 under Norman Fowler, who had inherited the policy from his predecessor Patrick Jenkin- who in turn had inherited the main proposals from a review carried out under the Callaghan government. The aim of the reforms was to simplify and streamline housing support by bringing together what had previously been separate benefits and rebates for local authority and private tenants. Sound familiar? Read on:

'Jenkin, in legislating for it, had ignored the warnings ... that extra cash would be required to make it work without an unacceptable number of losers. Rather than find the money, ministers fiddled with the scheme.Instead of producing a unified benefit.. ministers effectively ended up with the old systems running in parallel but with a third scheme ... imposed on top. To save the 2,500 civil service jobs which the reform promised, the whole was introduced in such a rush that the computer programmes to run it were both desperately late and subject to endless amendment. The new benefit proved so complex that only about five people in the country seemed to fully understand it- none of whom proved to be the ministers responsible. And just as it was getting up and running, Fowler agreed in the 1983 spending round to lop another £230 million off its £4billion cost.

'The result, in the words of the Times, was 'the biggest administrative fiasco in the history of the welfare state'. Across the country, dozens of council housing offices closed their doors early, took phones off the hook and locked long queues outside as they attempted to sort out backlogs which left claimants without rent and rates payments for weeks and in some cases for months. In places the police had to be called in to quell disturbances. Evictions mounted. Private as well as public landlords were in despair. When Rhodes Boyson, the minister nominally in charge of the scheme, addressed a furious meeting of local authorities and housing pressure groups, his understanding of it was so poor that he refused to take questions and retreated from the hall to jeers. Fowler was left with no choice but to review it.'

And from the Local Government Chronicle today:

'The government has rowed back on its ‘digital-by-default’ stance on universal credit, which expects the vast majority of benefit applicants to make and update claims online, LGC has discovered.
The shift in emphasis has been noted by sources who met Department for Work & Pensions officials last week. One source said officials employed the term “digital as appropriate” during discussions.The government had previously insisted the credit would be “digital by default”, and set a target for 80% of claims to be made online by 2017.

'The shift comes amid growing concern among senior local government figures about the government-commissioned universal credit IT systems. A second source from one of the ‘pathfinder’ authorities, which are expected to pioneer the new welfare regime, said the technology was “not “fit for purpose”.The department appeared to be “in disarray” as it grappled with the scale of change, the source said, and added that such uncertainty was “alarming” for councils which will be expected to offer face-to-face support for claimants.'

I'll leave the reader to draw the parallels. My only comment is that every incoming secretary of state and minister in DWP should be obliged to read and absorb Timmins's great book as soon as they are appointed, and certainly in advance of making any major decisions.