In praise of Iain Duncan Smith

The former Tory leader might not be right on marriage – but he should still be listened to.

Iain Duncan Smith has undergone one of the most comprehensive rebrandings in modern politics. He was an abysmal failure as Conservative Party leader. But instead of heading for the lucrative speaking circuit or the City to lick his wounds, the "quiet man" went to some of the most challenging parts of our country.

He was determined to find out why, in a highly developed nation like ours, so many people struggle to get out of the poverty they are born into.

When he speaks as Work and Pensions Secretary, I am minded to think positively and listen with an open mind. The Lib Dem minister for pensions, Professor Steve Webb, said that he was learning to not have a "knee-jerk" reaction to Conservative policies within that department.

I am not alone in thinking one should have an open mind when IDS speaks. One of the most fascinating blogs of last year was by the former general secretary of the Labour Party Peter Watt, who said:

Take the example of welfare policy. Listen to Labour and the assumption is that IDS wants to punish the poor, somehow that he gets off on increasing vulnerable people's suffering. What we don't think is that he wants to improve the lives of the poor but just doesn't think that the current incarnation of the welfare state is the best way to achieve this.

I agree with Peter. I believe that IDS genuinely wants to improve people's lives.

IDS believes there is a need for muscular rhetoric when it comes to the issue of marriage. In a speech today, he will say:

Over the years the political establishment has frowned if a mainstream politician mentions marriage. The prevailing view was that to extol the virtues of this most fundamental institution somehow meant that you were going to stigmatise those who were not married. This is an absurd and damaging assumption. Government must understand the effect that family breakdown can have on the well-being of both adults and children.

Tough words, but then read the detail outlined here in the Telegraph.

None of the policy substance is about tax breaks for married couples. Instead it is all about helping couples to stay together: a service available to all, and not just married, couples.

It reminds me of the Work and Pensions Secretary's predecessor Peter Lilley, a cabinet member in Margaret Thatcher's government whose right-wing rhetoric sent the flag-waving blue-rinse ladies at Conservative party conference into paroxysms of delight. Back in Whitehall, however, he was seen by many of his civil servants as one of the more reasonable ministers.

To me, as a Liberal Democrat, IDS's rhetoric on marriage is unappealing. The idea of financial incentives for people to get married is from a different age. But failing to look at the detail of his proposals would be disrespectful to the time, effort and dedication he has expended to overcome a critical problem in the UK today.

Tax incentives for marriage may be a goal for IDS – but they will not become reality for some time. He will beef up the talk, but the advice and assistance will be aimed at all couples, not just married couples.

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Autumn Statement 2015: will women bear the brunt again?

Time and time again, the Chancellor has chosen to balance the books on the backs of women. There's still hope for a better way. 

Today, the Chancellor, George Osborne, presents his Autumn Statement to parliament. Attention will be focused on how he tries to dig himself out of the tax credits hole that he got himself into with his hubristic summer budget.

He’s got options, both in terms of the sweeteners he can offer, and in how he finds the funds to pay for them. But what we will be looking for is a wholesale rethink from the chancellor that acknowledges something he’s shown total indifference to so far: the gender impact of his policy choices, which have hurt not helped women.

In every single budget and autumn statement under this Chancellor, it has been women that have lost out. From his very first so-called “emergency  budget” in 2010, when Yvette Cooper pointed out that women had been hit twice as hard as men, to his post-election budget this summer, the cumulative effects of his policy announcements are that women have borne a staggering 85 per cent of cuts to tax credits and benefits. Working mums in particular have taken much of the pain.

We don’t think this is an accident. It reflects the old-fashioned Tory world view, where dad goes out to work to provide for the family, and mum looks after the kids, while supplementing the family income with some modest part-time work of her own. The fact that most families don’t live like that is overlooked: it doesn’t fit the narrative. But it’s led to a set of policies that are exceptionally damaging for gender equality.

Take the married couple’s tax break – 80 per cent of the benefit of that goes to men. The universal credit, designed in such a way that it actively disincentivises second earners – usually the woman in the family. Cuts and freezes to benefits for children - the child tax credit two-child policy, cuts to child benefit – are cuts in benefits mostly paid to women. Cuts to working tax credit have hit lone parents particularly hard, the vast majority of whom are women.

None of these cuts has been adequately compensated by the increase in the personal tax threshold (many low paid women are below the threshold already), the extension of free childcare (coming in long after the cuts take effect) or the introduction of the so-called national living wage. Indeed, the IFS has said it’s ‘arithmetically impossible’ that they can do so. And at the same time, women’s work remains poorly remunerated, concentrated in low-pay sectors, more often part time, and increasingly unstable.

This is putting terrible pressure on women and families now, but it will also have long-term impact. We are proud that Labour lifted one million children out of poverty between 1997 and 2010. But under the Tories, child poverty has flat-lined in relative terms since 2011/12, while, shockingly, absolute child poverty has risen by 500,000, reflecting the damage that has been by the tax and benefits changes, especially to working families. Today, two thirds of children growing up poor do so in a working family. The cost to those children, the long-term scarring effect on them of growing up poor, and the long-term damage to our society, will be laid at the door of this chancellor.

Meanwhile, at the other end of the age spectrum, low-earning women who are financially stretched won’t have anything left over to save for their pension. More are falling out of auto-enrolment and face a bleak old age in poverty.

Now that the Chancellor has put his calculator away, we will discover when he has considered both about the impact and the consequences of his policies for women. But we have no great hopes he’ll do so. After all, this is the government that scrapped the equality impact assessments, saying they were simply a matter of ‘common sense’ – common sense that appears to elude the chancellor. In their place, we have a flaky ‘family test’ – but with women, mothers and children the big losers so far, there’s no sign he’s going to pass that one either.

That’s why we are putting the Chancellor on notice: we, like women across the country, will be listening very carefully to what you announce today, and will judge it by whether you are hurting not helping Britain’s families. The Prime Minister’s claims that he cares about equality are going to sound very hollow if it’s women who take the pain yet again.