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Esther McVey’s approach to the government’s welfare problem is running out of road

The Conservatives can’t decide what the purpose of their changes to welfare are.

By Stephen Bush

There was an odd and revealing contradiction in Esther McVey’s speech to Conservative Party conference today.  

She described reports of welfare cuts as “fake news”, which simply isn’t true: the government has made real terms cuts to benefits, to the social security bill, and in both absolute and real terms: the money being paid to individual disabled people is in many cases less than it was under the old disability living allowance.

It was all the more incongruous, as it was preceded by an announcement that the government will provide more cash to Citizens Advice to provide support to people as they move onto Universal Credit.

It speaks to the central confusion the government has over the troubled Universal Credit programme: is it a Treasury project to reduce the total benefits bill, or is it an Iain Duncan Smith project to make work pay and to ease the passage of single parents and people with disabilities into the workplace? If it’s the former, the policy is a success, albeit one with a heavy human cost. If it’s the latter, the policy has been a failure: not only are most people in poverty in work, half of people who are homeless are in work. Work is very far from paying and in-work poverty has become a bigger, not a smaller phenomenon.

The government very badly needs to pick one option or another. If the aim is to save the government money, frankly there are considerably more humane ways to do it (if your aim is to have a lower benefits bill, just shutter a lot of Jobcentres and other delivery services while decreasing the amount of conditionality – essentially the old Thatcher-era approach of shunting a bunch of people onto incapacity benefit and forgetting about them). If the aim is a benefits system that rewards work, the Treasury is going to have to find a lot more money to fix or replace Universal Credit.

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The McVey approach to squaring that circle has instead been to say things that are, at best, technically true but are on closer examination false, and in some cases to tell outright falsehoods. But that approach is running out of road, for the simple reason that Universal Credit is, finally, being rolled out on a massive scale. Its flaws – and the real losers it creates – are going to rapidly become issues that no rhetorical sleight of hand can hide.