Iain Duncan Smith. Photo: Oli Scarff/Getty Images
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Welfare reform: proof that you can get away with failure if it's boring and it doesn't affect People Like Us

Don't believe the hype about the rollout of universal credit and how the Tories are finally "making work pay" - Iain Duncan Smith has presided over perhaps the failure of this parliament.

Whenever I talk about the need for better representation of women and minorities in politics, there is a stock response. “Surely we want ministers appointed on merit?” people ask, making a serious face. And I always think, “So how do you explain Iain Duncan Smith, then?”

IDS is one of the great enigmas of modern politics. In person, he appears quiet, self-contained, borderline pious: stick him in a robe and sandals and he’d make a very good abbot. He has devoted allies who believe in him with quasi-religious zeal.

Yet welfare reform is perhaps the failure of this parliament, which has been allowed to go unnoticed because: a) it doesn’t really affect People Like Us and b) it is protected by a tedium shield three miles thick.

These past weeks, the spin doctors tell us, were devoted to trumpeting the Conservatives’ alleged success in saving the taxpayer sackloads of cash by chastising scroungers and layabouts into honest employment. Tory commentators are in ecstasies. “Like an unstoppable cyborg programmed with bourgeois decency – the Suburbinator – IDS has simply refused to give in,” swooned Matthew d’Ancona in the Guardian on 15 February. “His welfare revolution is potentially the most important achievement of the government,” wrote Peter Oborne in the same day’s Telegraph. (If only we could get all jobseekers to work as hard as the word “potentially” does in that sentence. I am potentially the most acclaimed supermodel of the 21st century. Tony Blair is potentially the man who will bring peace to the Middle East. Don’t all rush to Ladbrokes at once.)

Let’s start with Universal Credit, since that has apparently now been recast as a success. It is actually a failure: a good idea in theory that was horrifically bungled in practice. In 2010 the government quite reasonably acknowledged that navigating a maze of more than 30 benefits was causing huge problems for claimants. But ministers seemed less aware that the complexity would not go away under Universal Credit; it would merely be dealt with by a computer system instead.

There is a reason why “government IT project” rivals “rail replacement bus” as the most chilling three-word phrase in our language. This didn’t bother Duncan Smith and his circle at the Department for Work and Pensions, who were infused with a sense of divine purpose. Throughout the process, the department has made avoidable errors by insisting that all naysayers must be enemies rather than critical friends. In September 2013, a National Audit Office report raised alarms about “a ‘fortress’ mentality within the programme team and a ‘good news’ reporting culture”. The public accounts committee, led by the indomitable Margaret Hodge, reported in November that year that the team was “isolated and defensive” and “gave misleading interviews to the press” indicating that all was well. There were also some sharp questions about how well the £425m invested up to that point had been spent.

The problems are not confined to the distant past. In December, the Office for Budget Responsibility delivered an exquisitely crafted blow, saying, in effect, that it didn’t believe the department’s figures any longer. It cited “the recent history of optimism bias in Universal Credit plans and other projects of this sort”.

That optimism bias was still on show on 15 February as IDS announced the roll-out of Universal Credit. It might happen, although Labour says it will “pause” the programme if elected and George Osborne (who seems never to have rated his colleague’s intelligence or ability) may well find a way to kibosh it out of the spotlight of an election campaign. The Treasury has still not approved the business case for Universal Credit and the rollout has a host of exemptions. You cannot claim it if you own your home or are homeless, for example.

Even if it does finally emerge, Universal Credit seems unlikely to deliver the huge savings needed to slash the welfare bill to the levels demanded by Osborne. It might also have unintended consequences that haven’t been sufficiently offset. For instance, the vaunted ambition of “making work pay” – by stopping the steep reduction in benefits for those working just over 16 hours a week – might encourage claimants to take insecure, irregular part-time work and allow employers to get away with offering it.

Universal Credit is not the government’s only troubled welfare reform. The expanded work capability assessment backfired so badly that the outsourced provider ditched the contract. The Jobseeker’s Allowance (JSA) system has become incredibly punitive. Declan Gaffney in the National Insti­tute Economic Review records that JSA sanctions are running at 6 per cent, the highest on record; among Employment and Support Allowance claimants (who are currently not fit for work), sanctions rose from 2,200 in the first quarter of 2012 to 15,900 in the first quarter of 2014. To gain public support for these measures, the government has relied on myths such as “families where no one has worked for three generations” (of which the Joseph Rowntree Foundation failed to find a single example).

The unpalatable truth is that a high benefits bill stems not from a badly structured welfare system but from a badly structured society. Take housing benefit: accounting for inflation, it has risen 150 per cent in the past 21 years. The answer is not to cut housing benefit but to build more homes.

Welfare reform in this parliament has been about running to stand still, huffing and puffing and achieving very little. As Gaffney notes, “Labour’s spending plans for 2014/15 were for £216.8bn, compared with the current forecast of £215bn.” I bet the Quiet Man won't have much to say about that. 

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

This article first appeared in the 20 February 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Still hanging

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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.