Iain Duncan Smith still doesn’t get it – four weeks is too long to wait for benefits

Five disastrous years on, and Universal Credit’s creator continues to back a damaging delay.

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The only thing worse than Iain Duncan Smith being Work and Pensions Secretary is Iain Duncan Smith being former Work and Pensions Secretary. Ever since he left the job in March 2016, he has been issuing sanctimonious and hypocritical condemnations of his own policies to anyone who’ll believe him.

Remember the time he said he was resigning because he didn’t like the government’s planned disability benefit cuts? Apparently forgetting that his changes to the benefits system had been destroying the lives of people with disabilities for years.

Fast forward less than a month after his resignation to when a BBC clip was released of him weeping about a single mother on a council estate he met? Ignoring, of course, that it was the policies of his department – cutting the welfare budget – that had put her in a situation where she’d “written off her life”.

And now he’s popped up, grave-faced, on ITV News to call for Universal Credit’s in-built delay to be reduced from six weeks to a month. “The idea of the extra days was not something which I or my colleagues came up with,” he claimed, blaming the Treasury instead.

First of all, this is disingenuous. The reason behind a longer wait for payment than under the old benefits system (which was paid weekly and fortnightly) is an ideological one – concocted by IDS and his team at Universal Credit’s inception at the DWP in 2012. The idea was to roll all benefits into one lump sum and pay it monthly, like a salary.

The waiting time is based on assumptions that you are accustomed to being paid monthly, would be paid a notice period in the event of losing your job and so could get through the waiting period, and could survive for six weeks on savings.

Of course, this isn’t the reality for many people claiming benefits. Because of wage stagnation and inflation, people on low pay are unlikely to have the savings required to see them through six weeks. And as for the monthly salary expectation, many who require benefits – particularly young people – are more used to zero-hours contracts, irregular work or unemployment than being paid their wages each month.

Secondly, four weeks – to which IDS and other Tories during the emergency debate in the Commons have suggested reducing the delay – is still too long. Claimants are relying on food banks to eat and are being evicted from their homes because they are not receiving money in enough time to live and pay rent.

Reducing the delay by two weeks, when the system’s complications and glitches are already withholding benefits for months at a time, won’t change this. It’s only a change in ideology – and therefore policy – that can change this.

The government must accept that nearly a decade of cuts, lack of growth, wage stagnation, inflation and pay and benefit freezes have put claimants – both in-work and out-of-work – in the position where they cannot save or live off benefits paid monthly in arrears.

And if they don’t buy the argument that austerity and unnecessary reforms to cut corners on the welfare budget have put people in poverty, they should listen to the experiences of people who cannot wait six – or four – weeks: the single mother I spoke to who can no longer buy fruit for her seven-year-old daughter, because she doesn’t have money in the month for perishable food, or the 21-year-old student who fell into £4,000 worth of debt and couldn’t feed himself.

So if you’re really feeling repentant, Iain Duncan Smith, spare us your old feuds with the Treasury and urge your party to pause this policy – to end its own old feud with the low-paid and vulnerable.

Anoosh Chakelian is the New Statesman’s Britain editor.

She co-hosts the New Statesman podcast, discussing the latest in UK politics.

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