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.

Garry Knight via Creative Commons
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Why Barack Obama was right to release Chelsea Manning

A Presidential act of mercy is good for Manning, but also for the US.

In early 2010, a young US military intelligence analyst on an army base near Baghdad slipped a Lady Gaga CD into a computer and sang along to the music. In fact, the soldier's apparently upbeat mood hid two facts. 

First, the soldier later known as Chelsea Manning was completely alienated from army culture, and the callous way she believed it treated civilians in Iraq. And second, she was quietly erasing the music on her CDs and replacing it with files holding explosive military data, which she would release to the world via Wikileaks. 

To some, Manning is a free speech hero. To others, she is a traitor. President Barack Obama’s decision to commute her 35-year sentence before leaving office has been blasted as “outrageous” by leading Republican Paul Ryan. Other Republican critics argue Obama is rewarding an act that endangered the lives of soldiers and intelligence operatives while giving ammunition to Russia. 

They have a point. Liberals banging the drum against Russia’s leak offensive during the US election cannot simultaneously argue leaks are inherently good. 

But even if you think Manning was deeply misguided in her use of Lady Gaga CDs, there are strong reasons why we should celebrate her release. 

1. She was not judged on the public interest

Manning was motivated by what she believed to be human rights abuses in Iraq, but her public interest defence has never been tested. 

The leaks were undoubtedly of public interest. As Manning said in the podcast she recorded with Amnesty International: “When we made mistakes, planning operations, innocent people died.” 

Thanks to Manning’s leak, we also know about the Vatican hiding sex abuse scandals in Ireland, plus the UK promising to protect US interests during the Chilcot Inquiry. 

In countries such as Germany, Canada and Denmark, whistle blowers in sensitive areas can use a public interest defence. In the US, however, such a defence does not exist – meaning it is impossible for Manning to legally argue her actions were in the public good. 

2. She was deemed worse than rapists and murderers

Her sentence was out of proportion to her crime. Compare her 35-year sentence to that received by William Millay, a young police officer, also in 2013. Caught in the act of trying to sell classified documents to someone he believed was a Russian intelligence officer, he was given 16 years

According to Amnesty International: “Manning’s sentence was much longer than other members of the military convicted of charges such as murder, rape and war crimes, as well as any others who were convicted of leaking classified materials to the public.”

3. Her time in jail was particularly miserable 

Manning’s conditions in jail do nothing to dispel the idea she has been treated extraordinarily harshly. When initially placed in solitary confinement, she needed permission to do anything in her cell, even walking around to exercise. 

When she requested treatment for her gender dysphoria, the military prison’s initial response was a blanket refusal – despite the fact many civilian prisons accept the idea that trans inmates are entitled to hormones. Manning has attempted suicide several times. She finally received permission to receive gender transition surgery in 2016 after a hunger strike

4. Julian Assange can stop acting like a martyr

Internationally, Manning’s continued incarceration was likely to do more harm than good. She has said she is sorry “for hurting the US”. Her worldwide following has turned her into an icon of US hypocrisy on free speech.

Then there's the fact Wikileaks said its founder Julian Assange would agree to be extradited to the US if Manning was released. Now that Manning is months away from freedom, his excuses for staying in the Equadorian London Embassy to avoid Swedish rape allegations are somewhat feebler.  

As for the President - under whose watch Manning was prosecuted - he may be leaving his office with his legacy in peril, but with one stroke of his pen, he has changed a life. Manning, now 29, could have expected to leave prison in her late 50s. Instead, she'll be free before her 30th birthday. And perhaps the Equadorian ambassador will finally get his room back. 

 

Julia Rampen is the editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog. She was previously deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines.