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 They have a bit withdrawn, then a bit more, then eventually [you] have to say you will eventually lose all your benefit.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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We don't need to build more prisons - we need to send fewer people there

The government talks a good game on prisons - but at the moment, the old failed policies hold sway

Some years ago the Howard League set up an independent expert review of what should happen to the penal system. We called it Do better, do less.

Too many governments have come in with enthusiasm for doing more, in the mistaken belief that this means better. We have ended up with more prisons, more prisoners, a bulging system that costs a fortune and blights lives. It is disappointing that the new regime appears to have fallen into the same old trap.

It is a big mistake to imagine that the justice system can be asked to sort out people’s lives. Prisons rarely, very rarely, turn people into model citizens able to get a great job and settle with a family. It is naïve to think that building huge new prisons with fewer staff but lots of classrooms will help to ‘rehabilitate’ people.

Let’s turn this on its head. There are more than 80,000 men in prison at any one time, and 40,000 of them are serving long sentences. Simply giving them a few extra courses or getting them to do a bit more work at £10 a week means they are still reliant on supplementary funding from families. Imagine you are the wife or partner of a man who is serving five to ten years. Why should you welcome him back to your home and your bed after all that time if you have hardly been able to see him, you got one phone call a week, and he’s spent all those years in a highly macho environment?

The message of new prisons providing the answer to all our problems has been repeated ad nauseam. New Labour embarked on a massive prison-building programme with exactly the same message that was trotted out in the Spending Review today – that new buildings will solve all our problems. Labour even looked at selling off Victorian prisons but found it too complicated as land ownership is opaque. It is no surprise that, despite trumpeting the sell-off of Victorian prisons, the one that was announced was in fact a jail totally rebuilt in the 1980s, Holloway.

The heart of the problem is that too many people are sent to prison, both on remand and under sentence. Some 70 per cent of the people remanded to prison by magistrates do not get a prison sentence and tens of thousands get sentenced to a few weeks or months. An erroneous diagnosis of the problem has led to expensive and ineffective policy responses. I am disappointed that yet again the Ministry of Justice is apparently embarking on expansion instead of stemming the flow into the system.

A welcome announcement is the court closure programme and investment in technology. Perhaps, in the end, fewer courts will choke the flow of people into the system, but I am not optimistic.

It is so seductive for well-meaning ministers to want to sort out people’s lives. But this is not the way to do it. Homeless people stealing because they are hungry (yes, it is happening more and more) are taking up police and court time and ending up in prison. We all know that mentally ill people comprise a substantial proportion of the prison population. It is cheaper, kinder and more efficacious to invest in front line services that prevent much of the crime that triggers a criminal justice intervention.

That does leave a cohort of men who have committed serious and violent crime and will be held in custody for public safety reasons. This is where I agree with recent announcements that prison needs to be transformed. The Howard League has developed a plan for this, allowing long-term prisoners to work and earn a real wage.

The spending review was an opportunity to do something different and to move away from repeating the mistakes of the past. There is still time; we have a radical Justice Secretary whose rhetoric is redemptive and compassionate. I hope that he has the courage of these convictions.

Frances Crook is the Chief Executive of the Howard League for Penal Reform.