The death of Duncan Smith’s dream
Just yesterday, we described the proposed changes to PIP assessment as part of an “unstoppable force of welfare reform”. Since then Iain Duncan Smith, the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, has resigned and the policy has been “kicked into the long grass.”
Events have moved at an astonishing pace, and today we find ourselves covering Iain Duncan Smith’s resignation. Some have described it as a change of heart, and the internet is full of people understandably doubting his sincerity.
Why would he draw the line at PIP cuts, they reason, when he has pushed through reductions to ESA, championed the work programme and staked his reputation on Universal Credit? These are all measures seemingly designed to make life immeasurably more difficult for sick and disabled people.
In fact, IDS is probably completely sincere and no “change of heart” was needed. This is about the death of his dream. In the very first line of his resignation letter IDS stands by his record, stating how proud he is of “welfare reforms” motivated, he claims, by his desire for “social justice.”
The association of Universal Credit, PIP and the Work Programme with “social justice” is one that fills me with anxiety and disgust, but it is completely consistent with IDS’s politics. In his world, people are poor because they are lazy or have flawed characters. Work is the answer and poor people can be bullied into prosperity. This is his idea of “social justice.”
IDS saw the social security system as a barrier to this project: a complex and slow-moving tangle of inducements to sit about and do nothing. He even viewed Tax Credits – brought in, let’s remember, to incentivise low paid work – as part of the problem. Theoretically, it could allow working families could coast along on a minimum of part time work, rather than strive to be more productive.
IDS’s solution was to abolish all means tested benefits and replace them with one “Universal Credit” which would put everyone under the cosh of their own “claimant commitment”, subject to benefit sanctions if they failed to meet its demands. Depending on the claimant’s circumstances this could be anything from occasional work focused interviews to several weeks of unpaid labour.
This regime would apply to everyone: unemployed, low waged, single parents, carers, sick and disabled people. Only the most severely disabled would be exempt. Administration of this “support into work” would be outsourced to private companies under the flagship “Work Programme”
A moment’s thought will tell you that this sort regime is not a “cut”. It is complex to set up and expensive to administer. IDS should not be thought of primarily as a hatchet man. We should think of him instead as a sort of anti-Beveridge.
Sir William Beveridge was the man who, fuelled by personal ambition and indignant at not being put in charge of war production, laid the foundation for the welfare state by massively overreaching his brief to “just do something with workman’s insurance.”
Instead his famous “Beveridge Report” proposed an elegant, internally-consistent system of cradle-to-grave coverage encompassing healthcare, education, social security and legal aid. He is remembered as a hero.
IDS imagined his trajectory in similar terms, except that instead of creating the welfare state, he would take the bloated system that the welfare state had become, strip it down and recreate it as neoliberal machine for behavioural change, priming working class people for their role in a deregulated and casualised economy.
IDS refers to this in his resignation letter:
“A nation’s commitment to the least advantaged should include the provision of a generous safety-net but it should also include incentive structures and practical assistance programmes to help them live independently of the state. Together, we’ve made enormous strides towards building a system of social security that gets the balance right between state-help and self-help.”
IDS refers to his vision being “compromised” and this is exactly right. You cannot implement a punitive welfare panopticon at the same time as budget cuts. His plan is in tatters. So-called “Universal Credit” is now so universal that only 175,000 claimants receive it nationally. IDS himself is bitterly angry that the Work Programme has been “salami sliced” and refers to it in his letter of resignation.
There is also a very telling reference to his team being “pressured in the immediate run up to a budget or fiscal event to deliver yet more reductions to the working age benefit bill.”
This rings true. What kind of a person would invent a new benefit and then cut it, before it has even been implemented, unless external pressure was at work. IDS has done this twice: with Universal Credit and then again with PIP.
IDS is not concerned about disabled people, but he has not claimed to be. On his own account, he is resigning due to the impossibility of implementing “the government’s vision of a new welfare-to-work system” during a period of self-imposed austerity.
His resignation letter rings true, and cuts to the heart of this Tory government’s failure: needless cuts are even undermining the pet projects of the party’s right wing.