Duncan Smith can't hide the death of "compassionate conservatism"

The Work and Pensions Secretary wanted welfare reform to be defined by Universal Credit. It has been defined by the bedroom tax.

After George Osborne began the year by promising to scythe another £12bn from the welfare budget in the next Parliament, Iain Duncan Smith's speech at the Centre for Social Justice, the think-tank he founded 10 years ago, is an attempt to reaffirm his original "compassionate conservative" mission. The message from the Work and Pensions Secretary will be that reform is not about saving money but about saving lives. In a conspicuous rebuke to Osborne, who frames welfare almost entirely as a fiscal issue, he will say: 

We would have wanted to reform the welfare state, even if we had no deficit. As Conservatives, we should hate the idea of people with unfulfilled potential languishing on welfare. Welfare reform is fundamentally about opportunity and life change.

The rhetoric is admirable but, nearly four years into this parliament, the reality is not. After multiple management and IT failures (with £40.1m of assets written off), the introduction of Universal Credit, Duncan Smith's masterplan to transform welfare and "make work pay", has been so slow as to render it almost invisible. At the end of last September, just 2,150 people were claiming the new benefit, 997,850 short of the original target of one million. When Duncan Smith complains today that "the present system makes criminals out of those trapped in its clutches" by "withdrawing up to 94 pence of every pound they earn" through means-testing, it will be a reminder of his failure to reform it in office. 

Rather than Universal Credit, it is Osbornite welfare cuts such as the benefit cap and the bedroom tax that have defined the government's approach. Duncan Smith will again defend the abolition of the "spare room subsidy", but it is something no "compassionate conservative" should. His claim that it has forced people to move to smaller council houses, freeing up space for larger families, ignores the reality that, in most cases, such properties simply don't exist.

In England, there are 180,000 social tenants "under-occupying" two bedroom houses but just 85,000 one bedroom properties free to move to. Rather than reducing overcrowding, the policy has simply become another welfare cut, further squeezing families already hit by the benefit cap, the 1 per cent limit on benefit and tax credit increases (a real-terms cut) and the 10 per cent reduction in council tax benefit. A survey by the National Housing Federation of 51 housing associations found that more than half of those residents affected by the measure (32,432 people), fell into rent arrears between April (when the policy was introduced) and June, a quarter of those for the first time ever.

Worse, the policy takes no account of those for whom additional space is not a luxury but a necessity, most obviously the disabled. Of the 660,000 social housing tenants that have been affected by the bedroom tax, the DWP estimates that 420,000 are disabled. They now face the unpalatable choice of either falling into arrears (by paying an average of £728 extra in rent)  or downsizing to a property unsuitable for their needs. Yet, absurdly, Duncan Smith will claim that his welfare cuts "have helped people feel that bit more secure about their futures, feel more hopeful about their children’s lives and rekindle their pride in their communities". 

The effects of the household benefit cap have been similarly pernicious. To date, there is little evidence that the measure is achieving its stated aim of moving claimants into work (principally because few choose to live "a life on benefits"). In Hackney, one of the London boroughs where the benefit was piloted, a study found that just 74 of the 740 households affected had found work, a number no greater than one would expect without the cap given the regular churn of claimants. In many cases, the lack of affordable childcare continues to represent a insurmountable barrier to employment. Indeed, by requiring councils to relocate families hundreds of miles away, the cap actually reduces work opportunities by forcing them to live in an area where they have no employment history. 

Yet for all the human misery they have caused, these policies will save just a few hundred million between them (merely a rounding error in the social security budget of £201bn). But to judge the cuts on these terms is to misunderstand Osborne's motives. The benefit cap is less a serious act of policy than a political weapon designed to trap Labour ("the welfare party") on the wrong side of the argument and to perpetuate the belief that the unemployed are to blame for their own misfortune. With new proposals such as the abolition of housing benefit for under-25s and the restriction of child benefit to two children, the Chancellor is doing all he can to sharpen the divide between "the strivers" and "the scroungers". It is this poisoning of the debate, more than anything, that means today's speech is not the rebirth of "compassionate conservatism" but its funeral. 

Iain Duncan Smith speaks at the Conservative conference in Manchester last year. Photograph: Getty Images.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

Photo: Getty
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Like it or hate it, it doesn't matter: Brexit is happening, and we've got to make a success of it

It's time to stop complaining and start campaigning, says Stella Creasy.

A shortage of Marmite, arguments over exporting jam and angry Belgians. And that’s just this month.  As the Canadian trade deal stalls, and the government decides which cottage industry its will pick next as saviour for the nation, the British people are still no clearer getting an answer to what Brexit actually means. And they are also no clearer as to how they can have a say in how that question is answered.

To date there have been three stages to Brexit. The first was ideological: an ever-rising euroscepticism, rooted in a feeling that the costs the compromises working with others require were not comparable to the benefits. It oozed out, almost unnoticed, from its dormant home deep in the Labour left and the Tory right, stoked by Ukip to devastating effect.

The second stage was the campaign of that referendum itself: a focus on immigration over-riding a wider debate about free trade, and underpinned by the tempting and vague claim that, in an unstable, unfair world, control could be taken back. With any deal dependent on the agreement of twenty eight other countries, it has already proved a hollow victory.

For the last few months, these consequences of these two stages have dominated discussion, generating heat, but not light about what happens next. Neither has anything helped to bring back together those who feel their lives are increasingly at the mercy of a political and economic elite and those who fear Britain is retreating from being a world leader to a back water.

Little wonder the analogy most commonly and easily reached for by commentators has been that of a divorce. They speculate our coming separation from our EU partners is going to be messy, combative and rancorous. Trash talk from some - including those in charge of negotiating -  further feeds this perception. That’s why it is time for all sides to push onto Brexit part three: the practical stage. How and when is it actually going to happen?

A more constructive framework to use than marriage is one of a changing business, rather than a changing relationship. Whatever the solid economic benefits of EU membership, the British people decided the social and democratic costs had become too great. So now we must adapt.

Brexit should be as much about innovating in what we make and create as it is about seeking to renew our trading deals with the world. New products must be sought alongside new markets. This doesn’t have to mean cutting corners or cutting jobs, but it does mean being prepared to learn new skills and invest in helping those in industries that are struggling to make this leap to move on. The UK has an incredible and varied set of services and products to offer the world, but will need to focus on what we do well and uniquely here to thrive. This is easier said than done, but can also offer hope. Specialising and skilling up also means we can resist those who want us to jettison hard-won environmental and social protections as an alternative. 

Most accept such a transition will take time. But what is contested is that it will require openness. However, handing the public a done deal - however well mediated - will do little to address the division within our country. Ensuring the best deal in a way that can garner the public support it needs to work requires strong feedback channels. That is why transparency about the government's plans for Brexit is so important. Of course, a balance needs to be struck with the need to protect negotiating positions, but scrutiny by parliament- and by extension the public- will be vital. With so many differing factors at stake and choices to be made, MPs have to be able and willing to bring their constituents into the discussion not just about what Brexit actually entails, but also what kind of country Britain will be during and after the result - and their role in making it happen. 

Those who want to claim the engagement of parliament and the public undermines the referendum result are still in stages one and two of this debate, looking for someone to blame for past injustices, not building a better future for all. Our Marmite may be safe for the moment, but Brexit can’t remain a love it or hate it phenomenon. It’s time for everyone to get practical.