back to article Thatcher-era ICL mainframe fingered for failure to pay out over £1bn in UK pensions

UK spending watchdog the National Audit Office has found that a 34-year-old computer system was one of the causes of a scandal which led to more than £1bn of state pensions not being paid. In a report published today, the NAO said that contributing to systematic errors were processes which relied on systems with "limited …

  1. Snowy Silver badge
    Coat

    Underpaid but better off?

    If you do not have enough pension coming in the government tops it up with https://www.gov.uk/pension-credit

    Pension Credit tops up if

    Your weekly income to £177.10 if you’re single

    Your joint weekly income to £270.30 if you have a partner.

    You also need to have less than £10K savings. (If you have more than £10,000, every £500 over £10,000 counts as £1 income a week. For example, if you have £11,000 in savings, this counts as £2 income a week.) If you own your own home this does not count :)

    Other help if you get Pension Credit

    If you get Pension Credit you can also get other help, such as:

    Housing Benefit if you rent the property you live in

    Support for Mortgage Interest if you own the property you live in

    Council Tax Reduction

    a free TV licence if you’re aged 75 or over

    help with NHS dental treatment, glasses and transport costs for hospital appointments

    help with your heating costs

    1. RegGuy1 Silver badge

      Re: Underpaid but better off?

      Thanks.

      a free TV licence if you’re aged 75 or over: hasn't this been scrapped? I think everyone has to pay if they want to watch Bargain Hunt.

      1. Yet Another Anonymous coward Silver badge

        Re: Underpaid but better off?

        Everyone pays if they watch Bargain Hunt.

      2. Snowy Silver badge
        Go

        Re: Underpaid but better off?

        Not been scrapped they just introduced the condition that you must be on pension credits to get it.

    2. Andy The Hat Silver badge

      Re: Underpaid but better off?

      And in other completely missing the point of the story news, it is rumoured that the Red Dwarf crew are coming out of retirement after 3 million years in space. It is not known whether any claim a pension or are owed a refund ...

  2. Wellyboot Silver badge
    Unhappy

    Future events for diary.

    The multi year, over running, massively over budget project to tie these decades old systems together.

    As provided by one of the well known incompetent outsourcing crews.

    Prediction - project will be announced in the next year for delivery in 2025 with the first cockup story arriving in 2024.

    1. Doctor Syntax Silver badge

      Re: Future events for diary.

      Given that the client is DWP this is a case where insourcing might have been worse.

      1. Snowy Silver badge
        Mushroom

        Re: Future events for diary.

        In or out the problem is it the the same shitnoozles are in charge

    2. Yoshi

      Re: Future events for diary.

      It's called out in the BBC article and hinted at here, a large part of the problem is that the rules are very complicated. There is many years of tweaks in legislation layering things on and most the original legislation is old in Gov't years. So much so I'm not convinced anyone 100% understands it. The people who might have are either enjoying retirement or demanding handsome contracting terms (I am sure IR35 is having an impact here but that's for a different thread)

      1. chr0m4t1c

        Re: Future events for diary.

        It's worse than that, the rules are often contradictory saying that someone both is and is not eligible for things depending on which piece of legislation you use.

        That only really became clear as the system was rebuilt in the 1990s and has never been resolved.

  3. RegGuy1 Silver badge

    Fujitsu -- what else have they done?

    Let me think. Fujitsu, where have I heard that name before? Ah, I remember, The Post Office.

    Hmm.

    1. teebie

      Re: Fujitsu -- what else have they done?

      Yes, at least the pensioners only ended up falsely empoverished, instead of falsely imprisoned.

    2. Chris G Silver badge

      Re: Fujitsu -- what else have they done?

      Black belt holders in the art of Feck Up jitsu.

      As. Pensioner, I am filled with confidence knowing they are on the job.

  4. spold Silver badge

    Move along

    My ICL 1902 is working just fine thank-you. Just bootstrap it using the hand-switches - they are in the middle of the thing that looks like a touring caravan. That will get you console access and you can mount the paper-tape reader. Bob's your uncle.

    1. hammarbtyp

      Re: Move along

      "Bob's your uncle."

      Not according to the Government person tracking database

      1. TimMaher Silver badge
        Paris Hilton

        Re: Bobs your uncle and the govt database.

        Git off of me uncle dad.

        Yer crushin’ ma smokes.

    2. Persona Silver badge

      Re: Move along

      Hopefully the uncle in question knows George ..... 3.

  5. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    "These rules are only fully understood by a small group of specialists"

    And have they laid him/her off yet?

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: "These rules are only fully understood by a small group of specialists"

      They would have laid them off but they died 10 years ago.

    2. Dan 55 Silver badge

      Re: "These rules are only fully understood by a small group of specialists"

      They've all retired, now they're fighting to get the right pension but nobody in the DWP understands how it works.

      1. jake Silver badge

        Re: "These rules are only fully understood by a small group of specialists"

        In this country, they turn consultant and bid on the job that they were laid off from ... the contract winner usually manages to make 30 or more times what they would have had to pay him as an employee.

        Governments. Gotta love 'em.

        Or not. I vote. Do you?

    3. HildyJ Silver badge
      Devil

      Re: "These rules are only fully understood by a small group of specialists"

      Don't worry. The next Fujitsu contract will be to replace all specialists with AI.

    4. W.S.Gosset Silver badge

      Re: "These rules are only fully understood by a small group of specialists"

      "Reason for Dismissal: excessive competence"

  6. ColinPa Silver badge

    It doesn't sound much faster

    The report said "batch was 50-60% quicker". Another project went from a batch window of 5 hours to 1 hour.

    Assuming these were on the ICL hardware, modern systems should be much faster for example solid state disks.

    Disk response times have dropped from > 10 ms down to 0.5 ms or less.

    CPU's should be much faster.

    Machines have so much more cache than before, most of the active data should be in cache.

    1. Dave Pickles

      Re: It doesn't sound much faster

      Yes but you need to factor in 30 years of code bloat.

    2. Snowy Silver badge
      Joke

      Re: It doesn't sound much faster

      It is easy to batch quicker just lose a few records, lose them all and what did takes days is now instant!

      1. W.S.Gosset Silver badge

        Re: It doesn't sound much faster

        Switch off the Verify flag on the tape backup too. Runs MUCH faster that way.

    3. Roland6 Silver badge

      Re: It doesn't sound much faster

      You are forgetting back then batch systems basically ran on mag tape DB's. So I expect the rehosted system did benefit from the hardware performance enhancements, but not much else because it was still sequentially processing the entire mag tape DB every run, just to process circa 5% of the records.

      With a little intelligence, it is possible to replace the mag tape with an RDBMS and have this present just the records the legacy application is wanting. For one utility company this meant only circa 200,000 records were processed every night rather than the full 5M on the tape...

      1. Peter Gathercole Silver badge

        Re: It doesn't sound much faster

        I seriously doubt that this particular application was ever a tape-to-tape system. For those, you're talking at least two decades before this system was first introduced.

        Thirty years is a long time, but not that long. When I first started work forty years ago, even local councils could afford systems with mainly disk storage.

    4. Peter Gathercole Silver badge

      Re: It doesn't sound much faster

      The chances are that this system is not, and has not been running on ICL hardware for many years.

      VME also runs on other Fujitsu platforms over the years, including as an emulated layer on both Linux and Windows on x86-64 hardware (this may be what the "re-platforming" in the article is referring to).

      It is quite possible that the basic application software is an evolution of the original in 1987, but I seriously doubt that anybody would try to keep a 30 year old ICL System 39 running in production. The power consumption to do the same work as a modern system would not be worth it on it's own.

      This is like so many stories in the press. "System" can refer to either hardware or software or a combination of both, and the journalists do not differentiate, assuming that civil servants just want to keep things running without any change.

      I would imagine that many organizations, when faced with aging hardware will at least look at the minimal disruption route of replacing the hardware with a compatible but more modern system that allows them to lift and shift their existing applications with minimal change.

  7. jollyboyspecial

    Funny how the system only seemed to have faults that resulted in non-payment or under payment. It's a very convenient fault that doesn't result in overpayments.

    1. Wellyboot Silver badge

      Initial testing was only looking for over payments

      1. Diogenes8080

        Pennywise and pound-simple

        Makes you wonder if the "small group of specialists" was being progressively diverted to tackle a rising number of fraud cases, leading to a backlog of queries. They couldn't recruit more? Now the department owes GBP 1B, with an additional 15k cases reckoned untraceable and data on the deceased deleted after 4 years due to convenient data protection.

        The oldest cases go back to 1985, so it sounds as if the problem really is procedural rather than due to a coding error. I suppose there is some excellent reason why on retirement the NICS record of a taxpayer could not just be copied over to the DWP in a "thats-all-folks" file. Give it the data and a VME box will happily chomp through a lot of complex rules, batch or interactive.

  8. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    This doesn't seem to be a problem caused by "mainframe" or "ICL", but by poor design/architecture and lack of improvements spanning decades. The people in charge would have screwed it up if it was running on any platform, I would guess.

    1. A.P. Veening Silver badge

      This doesn't seem to be a problem caused by "mainframe" or "ICL", but by poor design/architecture and lack of improvements spanning decades. The people in charge would have screwed it up if it was running on any platform, I would guess.

      On a positive note, those screw-ups have been pensioned of by now and are reaping the rewards of their labour (underpayment of their pensions) ;)

    2. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      ...and the good news is that this system has been "re-platformed" rather than fixed.

      1. Roland6 Silver badge

        Yes I saw that and thought - bet it is still a 34 year old VME application...

        1. martinusher Silver badge

          Software doesn't wear out and there's absolutely no danger of any Internet malware group being able to hack the system.

          Its an ill wind.....

          1. Roland6 Silver badge

            >Software doesn't wear out and there's absolutely no danger of any Internet malware group being able to hack the system.

            True, however, the platform and development tools do go out of support. It would not surprise me if these systems are effectively unsupported BLOB's. the source code is around somewhere, there may be people who are prepared to take the time to read it, however do they have the necessary development environment to actually make changes and create a new production BLOB...

  9. TV nerd

    VME isn’t the problem …

    This is not an ICL or VME problem - it’s a problem of the civil service unions resisting any and all automation.

    I have too many stories to tell …

    Btw, VME had been in central government for over a decade before the NICs system entered service. Oh, and the system didn’t run batch from tape either - it uses on online database. It was the first online system that the DSS could use and had terminals in all office.

    1. W.S.Gosset Silver badge
      Big Brother

      Re: VME isn’t the problem …

      Have you paid the licence fee on that username, sir?

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