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4 November 2015updated 26 Jul 2021 2:40pm

A false epiphany: Easterhouse reveals the chaos of Iain Duncan Smith’s welfare revolution

We return to the Glasgow estate famed for hosting the former Tory leader’s “conversion” to compassionate Conservatism in 2002 and find his reforms causing more hardship.

By Anoosh Chakelian

A deep, white scar snakes up the underside of Paul’s right wrist. Spreading out his hand in front of my face, he demonstrates how he can’t move most of his fingers.

“A guy attacked me with a tumbler, and shattered my ankle,” he tells me. He walks fast as we talk, but is clearly limping. Metal pins in his ankle cause him pain.

I find Paul – not his real name, which is tattooed in spidery lettering on the lefthand side of his neck – wheeling a moped past the grey, pebble-dashed terraces along the west edge of the Easterhouse estate. He is a short, stocky 28-year-old with a buzzcut, wearing a fluorescent yellow windbreaker and a tough grin.

Sunshine is washing the morning fog over Glasgow’s outskirts away. Paul squints against the glare.

“I’ve lived here all my life. It’s not as good as it used to be, when everybody knew each other and looked out for each other. But it’s great here. I’m a father, and I think it’s an amazing place for my daughter to be – she’s 14 now.”

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At odds with his optimism, Paul has never managed to find work, a task made harder by his injuries. He has been moved into a bed and breakfast hostel by the council, because he can’t afford to rent. He relies on Employment and Support Allowance (ESA), state support brought in for people with disabilities to replace the Incapacity Benefit in 2008.

He fears losing this support. As an ESA claimant, he is subject to work capability assessments, used by the government to decide whether or not someone is “fit to work”. If this is the outcome of his most recent test, he will have to seek employment and have his disability benefits withheld.

“I can’t get a job. I’ve got nothing in my life. That’s why I’m selling this old motorbike. Because I need to get money . . . I can’t work. I get a little bit of ESA, and otherwise I’d have nothing,” he shrugs, before saying goodbye and walking his rickety bike down the road.

Paul is one of many working-age locals here who are at the whim of the Department for Work and Pensions’ welfare reforms, which are making it harder for the unemployed, low-paid and disabled to depend on the state for income. This is an irony, considering the Work & Pensions Secretary, Iain Duncan Smith, is the man who, 13 years ago, put Easterhouse on the map.

In 2002, as leader of the Conservative party, Duncan Smith visited this sprawling Glaswegian estate, which was built in the Fifties to rehouse people who were living in the city’s slums. The visit was organised by his former adviser Tim Montgomerie, now a political commentator, with a local grassroots charity called FARE (Family Action Rogerfield & Easterhouse). When asked why the Tories chose this location, FARE founder Bob Holman has in the past commented that he was simply told: “We’re interested in compassionate Conservatism”.

Pictures of Duncan Smith – his smart suit incongruous against the dismal backdrop – looking close to tears outside a dilapidated tenement block illustrated what the press labelled his “Easterhouse epiphany”. His visit was framed as having “converted” him to fighting for social justice, so moved was he by the poverty he saw.

At the time, he said he wanted to “listen and learn” to discover how his party could improve the lives of people living on such estates, admitting the failure of previous Conservative governments in places like Easterhouse:

“It’s not just about winning votes for the Conservative Party in places like Easterhouse,” he told the Conservative Spring Forum in March 2002. “It’s about meaning what we say: that there are no ‘no-go’ areas as far as we are concerned. It’s about being a party that doesn’t just drive past Easterhouse on the motorway.”

The MP for Glasgow East, Natalie McGarry, has invited the Work & Pensions Secretary back to visit. She first wrote to him in August, and received no reply. She has since written to him several times, asking the Commons in September: “When will he reply to my invitation to visit my constituency to meet the people of Easterhouse again to listen to them about the effects of his punishing policies on their lives?” His officials eventually confirmed in mid-October that he will revisit Easterhouse, but no dates have yet been agreed.


In reality, the compassionate Conservatism project was already underway when Duncan Smith visited, and the tenement behind him in the infamous photos had already been condemned and was about to be torn down. What the country saw as a realisation of the plight of the poor, many locals dismissed as a cynical photo op.

The crumbling tenements have since been ripped out, replaced with grids of functional terraces and squat apartment blocks. Regeneration had begun by 2002 and most of Easterhouse’s transformation took place under New Labour.

“There were no schools, no churches, nothing,” says Julia, who moved to Easterhouse with her parents in the Fifties at the age of 11, and now runs the Women’s Centre at the Community Church. She is telling me about pre-regeneration Easterhouse. “You would have to cram into these green buses that they sent to take you to town, which ran you from the tenements to go to school. The homes were rotten, full of dampness.”

One elderly woman who has lived here all her life, and is quietly knitting in the corner of the church hall, chips in: “There were coal fires in the bedrooms; we had to burn old shoes on the fire when there was no coal.”

Another recalls using newspaper as toilet roll in the shared lavatory on her tenement block.

Janice, who came to live in Easterhouse when she was three years old and is now in her sixties, recalls: “There were no streetlights, no roads, you used railway sleepers to make the main entrance to your flats . . . There were no banks, no shops, just mobile shops, and only two police officers – eventually they built shops, in about the late Sixties.”

But she is disparaging about Duncan Smith’s effect on Easterhouse’s reputation: “He did it to promote him, not to promote us.”

She also found the popular Fifties crooner Frankie Vaughan’s obsession with publicising gang violence in Easterhouse equally damaging. He repeatedly visited the estate in the Sixties and set up a project to tackle gang crime. “He made out like it was blood everywhere,” says Janice. “It was just people shouting, having fights – cowboys and Indians.”

Although the east end of Glasgow was once known for its teenage gangs and knife crime, most of these problems have since died out.

Post-war city slum clearances resulting in isolated estates like Easterhouse are partly to blame for decades of poverty ensuing in such places. But the women here have fond memories of growing up in Easterhouse. “It was a big adventure,” smiles Janice. “It was a vast promised land – to be part of that was amazing . . . They say there is a lot of poverty now, and there must have been poverty then. But people put a tag on us. They say it’s a notorious place to live, but there are problems everywhere!”

Yet they have had to fight to keep the Women’s Centre open after funding cuts over the past few years; paid employees have become volunteers. And all reflect that the area’s community spirit – “you could always have your door open; we lived in each other’s pockets” – has taken a hit. They also observe that opportunities for young people have not increased over the years.

Four Easterhouse boys I meet during my visit are testament to this. Sitting awkwardly on a sofa opposite me in a cramped IT room during a break from their community-organised employment course, they politely tell me about their prospects. They are all in search of a job and each one of them has at least one parent in work.

One, a lanky 18-year-old in a navy bomber jacket, used to have a job. He did labelling in a factory but was eventually laid off. His view is that visiting the Jobcentre is “like walking into a jail”, because of the hours you must put in to jobseeking to avoid having your benefits sanctioned. “You need experience but you can’t get experience without experience,” he sighs.

These boys used to aspire to be mechanics or bricklayers, but say the opportunities to pursue such occupations are now scarce. Retail is their best chance, with the giant shopping centre, Glasgow Fort, glimmering just out of town. But transport links from Easterhouse are tricky; having to take more than one bus to the retail park eats into your wages and energy.

Another boy, a 17-year-old wearing a scarlet polo shirt, tells me shyly, “I wanted to be a plumber, but now I think I might try and join the Navy.”

His friend, a fiery 17-year-old in a dark tracksuit with a shaved head, says, “it was very difficult [growing up]. I could barely afford the bus in the mornings, so I would have to walk to school or just wouldn’t go”.

A long-haired, softly-spoken 17-year-old sitting beside him adds: “We do struggle. The amount my stepdad has to do is ridiculous. Mum volunteers – she’s tried to look for work but it’s hard. At least she’s doing something rather than just sitting in doing nothing.”

As McGarry puts it: “You can’t put a plaster over poverty. It’s all window dressing. You can put people in new homes, but you can still see the deprivation on their faces.”

Although Easterhouse looks like an ordinary suburb, pockets of degradation remain. There are overgrown and yellowing wastelands containing rusty football posts and abandoned furniture, sagging mattresses by the roadside, and discarded polystyrene chip boxes along a long stretch of pavement.

Yet the bleak spot where Duncan Smith posed for his photos 13 years ago is now unrecognisable; the tenements he was pictured with have been ripped down, replaced by ordinary terraces. And it appears his zeal for social justice has lost its way. The reforms he is overseeing in government are hitting the pockets of society’s most vulnerable.

Low-paid and insecure jobs make residents’ lives precarious. And those who rely on welfare suffer a more punishing system of benefit sanctions and assessments since the DWP’s reforms began.

McGarry, who won this constituency for the SNP in May from Labour’s shadow Scotland secretary Margaret Curran, says a significant number of her constituents in this area are affected by Duncan Smith’s policies.

“The problem [in Easterhouse] is not unemployment particularly,” she tells me over a coffee in the noisy cafeteria of The Bridge community hub, which sprung up in the New Labour era. “It’s the level of wages, and the types of jobs people are doing, and the median wage, which is lower than the whole of Scotland and across the UK.

“Some people are in two or three jobs and they still can’t make ends meet at the end of the month. It’s a scandal. Work should pay.”

And McGarry also despairs about the harsher climate for those who are unemployed, and need benefits to live.

“You can now be sanctioned for three years,” she says of DWP’s punitive system of sanctions. “Will that force somebody into work, or are you not materially changing their circumstances which would make them employable? You can’t punish people into work if you don’t give them the tools.”

McGarry says welfare crops up most during her Easterhouse surgeries, which are held here at The Bridge. She recalls numerous cases of claimants having their benefits sanctioned, or disability benefits taken away.

“People come to me who have disabilities in absolute, abject despair,” she says. “People who have long-term conditions, who have been told they’re fit for work, forced to go to Edinburgh, without anybody alongside them, to go to the assessment . . . [Some] with long-term mental health issues.”

Glasgow is the worst-affected area in Scotland by child poverty. In the council ward that includes Easterhouse, over 40 per cent of children live in poverty (the UK figure is 28 per cent). Health inequality here is also widespread; there is a 20-year gap in male life expectancy across Glasgow (59.9 – 80.1 years; in Easterhouse it’s 69.9 years). And about 27 per cent of Easterhouse residents have a disability (the UK average is 19 per cent).

Indeed, the number of people, young and old, in wheelchairs is noticeable when travelling around Easterhouse just for the day. Their MP says work capability assessments are causing them “increased hardship”, and despairs that a 40-minute assessment by a stranger is used to test their ability to work.

“A lot of what IDS has come to stand for has been based on the ‘Easterhouse epiphany’,” she grimaces when using the phrase. “I think it does a disservice to the area that the lessons he should have learned aren’t the actions he’s put into place under this government.”

Bobby, an Easterhouse resident born and bred who works for FARE, accompanied Duncan Smith during his original visit.

“His ideas were pretty good but he’s done a complete u-turn,” he says, when I visit him at FARE’s glossy new building, funded partly by Scottish millionaire businessman and Dragons’ Den star Duncan Bannatyne.

“Since he took this job it’s been an absolute nightmare,” says Bobby, regarding the more brutal conditions for claimants since Duncan Smith has been Work & Pensions Secretary. “I met him quite a few times; he seemed quite genuine. I wouldn’t sit in the same room with him at the moment.”

He has experienced the welfare system first-hand, recalling the ridiculous questions assessors asked his wife – who had worked all her life – when she became ill for a year. “Things like ‘Can you move your hand?’” he shakes his head. “Three weeks later, she was dead.”

FARE’s acting CEO, Jimmy Wilson, who joined the charity in 2003, points out two other DWP innovations he views as negative for Easterhouse. He has seen the Bedroom Tax force people out of their homes following a family member’s death because they can’t afford to stay with a spare room. And he worries about the introduction of Duncan Smith’s flagship welfare reform, Universal Credit, already infamous for being repeatedly delayed and wasting millions.

“People will misuse their Universal Credit, rightly or wrongly,” he says about the change to paying all benefits in one monthly instalment, like a salary. “Parents could misuse family funds – potentially they could be addicts, or they haven’t had the background to cope with that amount of money all at once.”

He is concerned about domestic abuse, “if it’s [the money] all lumped into one bank account, and only the partner or husband has access – that’s a bad, sorry road”.

Steph, who runs some of the courses at FARE and is bringing her young family up in Easterhouse, adds that claimants could also be “excited” about spending their monthly income on “treats for the kids, not always on bad things, and then being unable to pay rent at the end of the month. It’s a trap”.

Easterhouse is still awash with crisp sunshine as I leave for the centre of Glasgow in the late afternoon. This community has battled through every tweak, twist and turn of successive governments’ attempts to transform society and eliminate poverty, with little opportunity to define itself. As Duncan Smith puts off retreading his Road to Damascus, will he wake up to how his policies are causing the very deprivation for which he made Easterhouse a byword?

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