Why Iain Duncan Smith needs to get his facts straight

The Work and Pensions Secretary insists that “almost everyone” can find work. The statistics tell a

Iain Duncan Smith, the Work and Pensions Secretary, is interviewed by Mary Riddell and Andrew Porter in the Daily Telegraph today.

Discussing the much-feted universal credit welfare reform, the article notes that there will be a "marked shift" away from Britain's generous welfare system to a "more punitive, American-style one" that punishes "those who refuse to work".

This is the passage that caught my attention:

"The message will go across; play ball or it's going to be difficult," he says.

Pressed on the penalty regime and the gradual taking away of benefits from the most recalcitrant, Mr Duncan Smith first offers lengthy and detailed explanations about why almost all people will get back into work if they can.

But some, he acknowledges, will refuse. What will happen to these people and how will the system come after them?

"I think most of the public think that progressively you send them signals. They have a bit withdrawn, then a bit more, then eventually [you] have to say you will eventually lose all your benefit.

"The signal will get round very quickly that you are serious about this. We may have to do it initially to some of the more recalcitrant people. But I have a view about human nature: most people, once you start to show them the right way out, I think most people move.

"Those who won't play get lost in the system at present and they infect everyone else."

Let's just recap on the facts here. There are currently just under 2.5 million people claiming Jobseekers' Allowance in the UK. Analysis by the TUC in the summer found that dole claimants outnumber job vacancies by five to one. In London, it's more like seven to one, and in some boroughs even higher – in Hackney, it's 24 to one.

The number of job vacancies across the country has fallen consistently over the past 12 months. It is unlikely this will change. The government itself estimates that about 490,000 public-sector jobs will be lost as a result of the cuts set out in the Spending Review.

While ministers suggest that this will be offset by growth in the private sector, there is no indication of why this would be the case. A report by PwC last month argued that cuts would hurt the private sector, too, and forecast a further 500,000 job losses here – bringing the total to one million. Another estimate this week put the figure as high as 1.6 million.

Sadly, the interview does not elaborate on the "lengthy and detailed explanations" that Duncan Smith gave as to why everyone can get back into work. Given these figures, I would certainly be interested to know: getting "on your bike" to find work is irrelevant if there are five people for every job – if not dramatically more, once the cuts hit.

If the new system is going to be, as the article says, more akin to the punitive American system, one need only look across the Atlantic to see that this is difficult to maintain in such straitened times. President Obama has had to extend the 99-week limit on claiming benefits several times because of the dearth of jobs in some states.

A simpler benefits system that doesn't trap people in a dependency cycle is a commendable aim. Yet the continued suggestion that people are "choosing" not to work in the present economic climate is not only unreasonable; it indicates a worrying view of the poor. It also shows a wilful misunderstanding of current times, given that many, many more people will soon be forced to claim state support, whether they want to or not.

Samira Shackle is a freelance journalist, who tweets @samirashackle. She was formerly a staff writer for the New Statesman.

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Richmond is a wake-up call for Labour's Brexit strategy

No one made Labour stand in Richmond Park. 

Oh, Labour Party. There was a way through.

No one made you stand in Richmond Park. You could have "struck a blow against the government", you could have shared the Lib Dem success. Instead, you lost both your dignity and your deposit. And to cap it all (Christian Wolmar, take a bow) you self-nominated for a Nobel Prize for Mansplaining.

It’s like the party strategist is locked in the bowels of HQ, endlessly looping in reverse Olivia Newton John’s "Making a Good Thing Better".

And no one can think that today marks the end of the party’s problems on Brexit.

But the thing is: there’s no need to Labour on. You can fix it.

Set the government some tests. Table some amendments: “The government shall negotiate having regard to…”

  • What would be good for our economy (boost investment, trade and jobs).
  • What would enhance fairness (help individuals and communities who have missed out over the last decades).
  • What would deliver sovereignty (magnify our democratic control over our destiny).
  • What would improve finances (what Brexit makes us better off, individually and collectively). 

And say that, if the government does not meet those tests, the Labour party will not support the Article 50 deal. You’ll take some pain today – but no matter, the general election is not for years. And if the tests are well crafted they will be easy to defend.

Then wait for the negotiations to conclude. If in 2019, Boris Johnson returns bearing cake for all, if the tests are achieved, Labour will, and rightly, support the government’s Brexit deal. There will be no second referendum. And MPs in Leave voting constituencies will bear no Brexit penalty at the polls.

But if he returns with thin gruel? If the economy has tanked, if inflation is rising and living standards have slumped, and the deficit has ballooned – what then? The only winners will be door manufacturers. Across the country they will be hard at work replacing those kicked down at constituency offices by voters demanding a fix. Labour will be joined in rejecting the deal from all across the floor: Labour will have shown the way.

Because the party reads the electorate today as wanting Brexit, it concludes it must deliver it. But, even for those who think a politician’s job is to channel the electorate, this thinking discloses an error in logic. The task is not to read the political dynamic of today. It is to position itself for the dynamic when it matters - at the next general election

And by setting some economic tests for a good Brexit, Labour can buy an option on that for free.

An earlier version of this argument appeared on Jolyon Maugham's blog Waiting For Tax.

Jolyon Maugham is a barrister who advised Ed Miliband on tax policy. He blogs at Waiting for Tax, and writes for the NS on tax and legal issues.