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20 March 2016

Shameful and shambolic: the worst of Iain Duncan Smith’s welfare legacy

The former Work and Pensions Secretary’s legacy to the welfare system is one of inefficiency, division, and cruelty.

By Ashley Cowburn

When Iain Duncan Smith – or IDS, as we know him – first took over the reins at the Department for Work and Pensions many believed the failed party leader had finally found his niche. “A round peg in a round hole,” a BBC profile described the newly appointed cabinet minister at the time.

The “Easterhouse epiphany” nearly a decade earlier had framed IDS as having “converted” to fighting for social justice, so moved was he by the poverty he encountered on the Glaswegian estate. Duncan Smith, the Great Social Reformer, his friends declared. And now, 14 years after his epiphany, he is attempting to cement a legacy following a dramatic resignation.

Allies of Duncan Smith have come out in their droves portraying a man with the poor and vulnerable in society at the centre of his heart. But over his five-year fiefdom (his colleague’s word, not mine) at the DWP, both the policies and rhetoric are at odds with this description.

Sanctions help claimants “focus and get on”, IDS claimed just two weeks ago during a meeting with a councillor in Belsize Park. He didn’t, however, confirm whether those were the claimants his department invented and attempted to pass off as genuine people in the summer of 2015.

Duncan Smith will say that he inherited benefit sanctions from his predecessors. But during his five-year term, the sanctions regime has become increasingly bureaucratic and excessively punitive. Claimants can now have their benefit payments stopped for anything between four and 156 weeks.

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While I can’t say I’ve met people who confess a sanction has helped them to “focus and get on”, I have met a man who was forced to walk seven miles to the nearest foodbank for three days’ worth a food. Another who, over the 2014 Christmas period, had to beg on the streets of Manchester city centre and search through bins for food, after being sanctioned. And I was told by an adviser at one emergency food centre that a family, who couldn’t afford nappies for their child, was forced to improvise with a carrier bag and kitchen paper.

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Then there’s David Clapson – the man who died 18 days after his benefits were sanctioned.

When his body was found by his sister Gill in July 2013, his fridge was almost bare – and because his electricity had been cut off it was useless for storing the insulin that he needed. He had just £3.44 in the bank and 5p credit on his phone. The 59-year-old former Lance Corporal died of diabetic ketoacidosis just two weeks after Job Centre staff stopped his benefits for missing two appointments. Close to his body his sister found a pile of printed CVs.

Just two weeks ago his grieving sister carried a banner to the DWP headquarters, engraved with the names of 96 people she claims to have died while on a benefit sanction. In her opinion, she told me, the sanction her brother received was a “death sentence”.

His story is not uncommon.

We’re also aware of the peer reviews the Department has undertaken. A Freedom of Information request, in 2015, revealed that 60 reviews following the death of a claimant had been carried out. A peer review, according to the DWP guidance for employees, must be undertaken when suicide is associated with DWP activity to ensure that any DWP action or involvement with the person was appropriate and procedurally correct.

Duncan Smith’s personal vanity project, Universal Credit, has also been delayed at every corner. It is the legacy he wanted to secure at the helm of the DWP, but never achieved. A policy that was supposed to have been rolled out in October 2013 and three years later, fewer than 200,000 are on its register. The latest guesstimate is now autumn 2021 – though, with his resignation, the political willpower to proceed with Whitehall’s IT nightmare could well be fading.

His Department’s removal of the spare-room subsidy – more commonly referred to as the Bedroom Tax – has caused misery for vulnerable people across the country. On the last day of parliament before the Christmas recess, the DWP quietly published, alongside 380 other government documents, an assessment of the Bedroom Tax. It found the central aim of the policy, which is to get claimants to move to smaller residences if they have an unoccupied bedroom in their home, had largely failed. Only one in ten had escaped the Bedroom Tax by moving to a smaller property.

The study added that three-quarters of the people affected had said they had cut back on food, 46 per cent had cut back on heating, 33 per cent on travel and 42 per cent on leisure.

But the most damaging legacy will be the rhetoric espoused by the Department during IDS’s tenure. Speaking last month at the Centre for Social Justice, a London-based think-tank he co-founded, he said Labour’s legacy of benefits entrapped individuals . . . and created a growing underclass”. He added that his benefits cap “said the welfare system is not a bottomless pit of cash . . . the system was there to help if you need it, but we would not tolerate excessiveness from those who wanted to take advantage.”

This work-shy fallacy, the myth of the scrounger, the epidemic of the so-called welfare dependent, seems to have informed and laid the foundations for a whole raft of policies at the Department for Work and Pensions. It is the idea that there are thousands of lazy, feckless people who have one intention: to sponge off state hand-outs from the comfort of their living room sofa.

DWP advertising campaigns, promoting their telephone hotline and encouraging members of the public to report suspected benefit cheats have fostered a climate of hostility between neighbours: where people on the same street are made to feel a degree of patriotism if they peek through their curtain windows to find the next benefits fraudster.

“I will not be shedding any tears for the evangelical, aggressive and routinely failing welfare reforms that were the personal fiefdom of the Secretary of State for the DWP,” said the Conservative MP Stephen McPartland, shortly after Duncan Smith handed in his resignation on Friday evening. My feeling is that many people across the country, and those on the Glaswegian estate where IDS first had his epiphany, will share McPartland’s sentiments.