The poorest deserve a change from our broken benefits system

Iain Duncan Smith says the coalition’s plans for reforming welfare are based on a sound new social c

Everything this government does sits in the shadow of our need to cut the deficit we inherited from Labour. The simple reality is that we are spending £120m a day servicing the interest on a deficit of the same size as the one run up by Greece.

Yet even if this deficit hadn't existed, we would have had to do something about our high level of social breakdown. About 1.4 million people spent almost ten years on out-of-work benefits under the last government, while, for an abandoned group of 16-to-17-year-olds no longer in school or college, employment rates declined significantly even before the recession started. Progress on child poverty has been pursued through huge increases in child-related welfare payments, yet improvements in the past decade have been minimal and Labour left office with income inequality at a record high.

At the heart of this is an entrenched work­lessness, produced by a welfare system that penalises positive behaviours while rewarding destructive ones. At the Centre for Social Justice, we worked hard to highlight these damaging structures, from the punitive withdrawal rates to the complexity that left people struggling to understand whether they would be better off in employment. Alongside this were myriad complicated work schemes, which too often measured success in terms of processes carried out, rather than numbers helped back
to work.

Universal picture

Our response to this broken system is based around two pillars - the universal credit and the Work Programme. The universal credit will simplify the welfare system and make work pay, replacing an array of benefits and tax credits with one payment set at a single taper of around 65 per cent. This will make work worthwhile at any number of hours, rather than clumping support around the 16- and 30-hour points.

Almost 85 per cent of the gains from these reforms will go to those in the bottom 40 per cent of the income distribution, and we expect to pull almost a million adults and children out of poverty.

Linked to the universal credit, and fundamental to its success, is the Work Programme, which will pay the best of the private, public and voluntary sectors for getting people into work and keeping them there. It is worth bearing in mind that, with jobcentre support, 75 per cent of claimants are back in work six months after becoming unemployed and 90 per cent are back after a year. That's when the Work Programme kicks in to provide specialist support.

The key to the Work Programme is that we will pay for what works, and in so many cases this will be the local expertise brought to bear by voluntary and community groups - almost 300 of which will be involved in delivery of the Work Programme, amounting to a sub­stantial investment in the sector. This is what the "big society" is all about: investing in voluntary organisations when they are the best at what they do.

Alongside these changes, we are also making disability benefits work better by reforming incapacity benefits and the disability living allowance. On the former, we are building on an approach started under the previous government, reassessing all claimants to build a better understanding of who needs support and who may be able to take steps towards work. We are constantly reviewing the assessment criteria with Professor Malcolm Harrington to ensure that they are fair; but the principle remains that disability support should be based on clear, objective and regular assessments of need.

This is a principle we are also applying to disability living allowance, where we are introducing an objective assessment to ensure financial support is getting to those who face the greatest challenges to taking part in daily life. I am pleased that, in many of these areas, there is some all-party support for the changes.

Not fair

At the same time we are getting to grips with housing benefit, bringing fairness to a system that has run out of control. Under the previous system it was possible for someone to be claiming around £100,000 in housing benefit a year, but to pay such a rent when not on benefits you would have to earn nearly £500,000 a year. This is unfair and unaffordable, and it's why we are re-forming the system by clarifying limits to the amount of housing benefit a claimant can receive. It isn't kind to a benefit claimant to put them in a house they couldn't afford to pay for if not on benefits, only adding to the disincentive for them to take a job. It is also unfair to hard-working families that commute to work and pay for those on housing benefit to have to pick up the spiralling bill, one that has nearly doubled from £11bn to £21.5bn in ten years.

There are two people in this new welfare contract, the taxpayer and the claimant. Taxpayers seek only fairness, accepting their obligation to help when someone falls on hard times, but expecting those on benefits to do their best to move off them and contribute where they can. While they know there are some who are severely sick or disabled, they have become angry at the level of abuse in the system, where some find ways to stay on benefits rather than work.

Claimants must be helped and we will do this through the reforms I have outlined, but on behalf of the taxpayer we have a right to expect full co-operation in return. They must try to break the dependency culture by working with us to prepare for work and take work when it is offered. Failure to co-operate will result in a series of penalties, surely reasonable after so much effort has been made on their behalf? In short, we seek life change for a group in society that has been left behind for too long.

Iain Duncan Smith is Secretary of State for Work and Pensions. He founded the prominent think tank the Centre for Social Justice in 2004

This article first appeared in the 13 June 2011 issue of the New Statesman, Rowan Williams guest edit

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The deafening killer - why noise will be the next great pollution scandal

A growing body of evidence shows that noise can have serious health impacts too. 

Our cities are being poisoned by a toxin that surrounds us day and night. It eats away at our brains, hurts our hearts, clutches at our sleep, and gnaws at the quality of our daily lives.

Hardly a silent killer, it gets short shrift compared to the well-publicised terrors of air pollution and sugars food. It is the dull, thumping, stultifying drum-beat of perpetual noise.

The score that accompanies city life is brutal and constant. It disrupts the everyday: The coffee break ruined by the screech of a line of double decker buses braking at the lights. The lawyer’s conference call broken by drilling as she makes her way to the office. The writer’s struggle to find a quiet corner to pen his latest article.

For city-dwellers, it’s all-consuming and impossible to avoid. Construction, traffic, the whirring of machinery, the neighbour’s stereo. Even at home, the beeps and buzzes made by washing machines, fridges, and phones all serve to distract and unsettle.

But the never-ending noisiness of city life is far more than a problem of aesthetics. A growing body of evidence shows that noise can have serious health impacts too. Recent studies have linked noise pollution to hearing loss, sleep deprivation, hypertension, heart disease, brain development, and even increased risk of dementia.

One research team compared families living on different stories of the same building in Manhattan to isolate the impact of noise on health and education. They found children in lower, noisier floors were worse at reading than their higher-up peers, an effect that was most pronounced for children who had lived in the building for longest.

Those studies have been replicated for the impact of aircraft noise with similar results. Not only does noise cause higher blood pressure and worsens quality of sleep, it also stymies pupils trying to concentrate in class.

As with many forms of pollution, the poorest are typically the hardest hit. The worst-off in any city often live by busy roads in poorly-insulated houses or flats, cheek by jowl with packed-in neighbours.

The US Department of Transport recently mapped road and aircraft noise across the United States. Predictably, the loudest areas overlapped with some of the country’s most deprived. Those included the south side of Atlanta and the lowest-income areas of LA and Seattle.

Yet as noise pollution grows in line with road and air traffic and rising urban density, public policy has turned a blind eye.

Council noise response services, formally a 24-hour defence against neighbourly disputes, have fallen victim to local government cuts. Decisions on airport expansion and road development pay scant regard to their audible impact. Political platforms remain silent on the loudest poison.

This is odd at a time when we have never had more tools at our disposal to deal with the issue. Electric Vehicles are practically noise-less, yet noise rarely features in the arguments for their adoption. Just replacing today’s bus fleet would transform city centres; doing the same for taxis and trucks would amount to a revolution.

Vehicles are just the start. Millions were spent on a programme of “Warm Homes”; what about “Quiet Homes”? How did we value the noise impact in the decision to build a third runway at Heathrow, and how do we compensate people now that it’s going ahead?

Construction is a major driver of decibels. Should builders compensate “noise victims” for over-drilling? Or could regulation push equipment manufacturers to find new ways to dampen the sound of their kit?

Of course, none of this addresses the noise pollution we impose on ourselves. The bars and clubs we choose to visit or the music we stick in our ears. Whether pumping dance tracks in spin classes or indie rock in trendy coffee shops, people’s desire to compensate for bad noise out there by playing louder noise in here is hard to control for.

The Clean Air Act of 1956 heralded a new era of city life, one where smog and grime gave way to clear skies and clearer lungs. That fight still goes on today.

But some day, we will turn our attention to our clogged-up airwaves. The decibels will fall. #Twitter will give way to twitter. And every now and again, as we step from our homes into city life, we may just hear the sweetest sound of all. Silence.

Adam Swersky is a councillor in Harrow and is cabinet member for finance. He writes in a personal capacity.