Iain Duncan Smith & The DWP: From Reformist Rhetoric to Tory Social Engineering
When he was appointed work and pensions secretary in 2010, IDS was feted by many as the perfect man for the job. Formerly the ‘quiet man’ of British politics, he had a self-professed desire to deal with Britain’s welfare state. He had no upwards ambitions, burned as he was by his doomed spell as Tory leader in opposition to Tony Blair. After losing a no-confidence vote in 2003 he retreated to the backbenches and formed a think tank – The Centre for Social Justice.On its website, the CSJ identifies Smith’s time as leader of the Tories as its raison d’etre. During his leadership tours of ‘disadvantaged communities’, he found ‘’levels of social breakdown which appalled’ him. He talks of families ‘trapped on benefits’, of children leaving school without qualifications, and of drug and alcohol abuse. As a left-winger, I personally found it very comforting to think that a leading Conservative was talking about disadvantage and deprivation as social ills to be cured rather than demonising the indolent or work-shy. I am uncomfortable with the idea that he had discovered poverty in the UK upon becoming leader of the Tories, but it’s better to be late than to never show up at all.
Fast forward nearly 3 years, and we find that IDS has changed the record. Soon after assuming office, The Guardian quoted IDS as saying ‘I am here because I want this to be the most reforming government on benefits for a generation. I think we have a once-in-a-generation opportunity.’ This talk of reform was received with trepidation by some on the right. It is, after all, not the Tory way to treat the unemployed as anything other than lazy scroungers who only need bikes, boot straps and a can-do attitude to find work. They needn’t have worried. The global trend towards austerity, criticised by such left-wing firebrands as the World Bank and the IMF, has been not so much adopted by the Coalition as it has been surgically grafted to its very soul. In the UK this has manifested itself as “Plan A” – welfare cuts for the poor and tax cuts for the rich. Despite his reformist rhetoric, IDS is thoroughly wedded to this concept and has proven himself to the Tory right.
Unemployment has now risen above 2.5 million. As austerity increases the number of poor people in the UK, IDS should be in his element. This is surely the perfect crucible within which to force through the evolution of the bloated welfare state, to give those disadvantaged people he so desperately wants to help a chance for a brighter future. His response has been pitiful. While I should acknowledge that the work and pensions secretary has a relatively limited amount of political clout, his department has been responsible for some of the most spiteful and pernicious policies to come out of this government.
Take the Bedroom Tax – or rather, ‘the removal of the housing benefit spare room subsidy’ to quote to DWP website. It has been spun by the Tories as a common sense alignment of private and social housing legislation. It means that ‘those tenants whose accommodation is larger than they need may lose part of their Housing Benefit’. Sounds fair enough – sensible even. Why shouldn’t people in social housing be subject to the same rules as people in private rented accommodation? Francis Maude recently appeared on BBC Question Time and responded in broadly those terms when questioned on the subject. In fact, the result of this benefit cut will be to eject the neediest from their homes without an alternative provision. A trial in Wales has shown that rent arrears will increase many times over, and that homelessness is a likely result. And for what? As Theo Paphitis so effectively demonstrated, the projected saving of £400 million will likely be eaten up by administrative costs and exceptions. That means there will be no substantial saving, and the only significant result of the policy will be homelessness and increased poverty.
Under IDS the DWP has been responsible for the vilified Workfare programme, where the unemployed are forced to work for the government’s partner companies in order to keep receiving their Job Seekers Allowance. Again, this policy lends itself to a certain kind of spin. Why shouldn’t people on JSA be made to contribute? Why should people get something for nothing? In fact this fails to address the fundamental point. Workfare is not a scheme that gets people into work. The roles that jobseekers fill are not meant to be permanent. They are temporary, and those people who work for a company as part of the scheme are not paid for the work they do. Rather they continue to receive JSA.
The irony is that JSA is in place to support people while they look for work. Apparently that is not the case under this government. The policy has rightly been criticised as tantamount to slavery, and has been challenged successfully in court under Human Rights laws. Thanks to tireless campaigning from groups like Boycott Workfare, many private sector companies (Sainsbury’s, TK Maxx and Boots to name a few) have withdrawn their support for the scheme. It has been a PR catastrophe from start to finish, and with any luck the whole concept will be scrapped before long.
Workfare and the Bedroom Tax are two high profile examples of a problem that has long been associated with the Conservative Party in this country, and which IDS has spectacularly failed to address. The Tories aren’t concerned with reality. Rather than tackling rising unemployment and financial hardship, they are using the economic crisis as cover for a programme of measures which target those people in our society who most need state help. Their desire to reduce state involvement in public life and let market forces attend to the needs of the population is no secret. What they do hide away is the fact that this reliance upon the market to solve all our ills has nothing to with common sense or economic reality. It is an ideology, and it is being inflicted upon the people in our society who need government help the most.
By implementing reforms of the welfare system that have more to do with Tory ideology than the welfare of the British people, IDS has shown himself to be more loyal to his party than to the country. Governing is about making choices. It should be about choosing where to invest and where to cut, about identifying where the money the state has can best be invested for the good of the people. Rather than searching for ways to help people, the Conservative-led Coalition has brought us a programme of targeted cuts, executed without regard to their effect on the vulnerable in society. Austerity Britain is an experiment in Tory social engineering, where the dreams of a right-wing government (with their centre-right fig-leaf, the Liberal Democrats) can be enacted under cover of “sorting out the deficit” and “cleaning up the mess left by the last lot”. IDS and the DWP are at the forefront of this social experiment. I can only hope that they are sent packing in 2015 so that this whole Orwellian episode can be consigned to the scrap heap where it belongs.