One of the less expected and likely unintended consequences from last week’s Chancellors Budget statement was the resignation from the government of its Work and Pensions secretary, Iain Duncan Smith (IDS). A number of things hit me and if I had the time I would dig deep and explore every nook and cranny before coming up with some profound observations. As it happens, a number of thoughts, some profound and some less so, did cross my mind. As pertinent, I thought to use the blogosphere to give vent to some of these.
Welfare spending is undoubtedly a contentious and complex subject and has been so ever since I can remember. Few would argue it needed reforming and given the “economic crisis”. Given the huge costs, this is the main fertile ground where savings might be made. And under this government and the coalition that preceded it, considerable savings have been in the amount spent on welfare along with the intention of making it fairer and more efficient. Inevitably there have been casualties, including tragic cases of people who have taken their own lives when benefits have been withheld. In my dealings with soup kitchens, for example, I have come across many examples of those whose benefits have been cut, often as a result of being “sanctioned” for some or other minor “misdemeanor” or simply failing to tick the right boxes, and what appears to be anomalies and contradictions in the system.
When following the Chancellor’s announcement, one of my Conservative friends posted on his Facebook page the comment: “The rise in personal allowance to £11,500 PA proves that the Conservatives are helping the poorer in society more than Labour ever did” my automatic response was “Having had to deal with the casualties of benefits sanctions these past few years, who are you kidding?” Yet I am not altogether unsympathetic to what the government is trying to achieve and the part IDS has played over a considerably long period. Watching for example exchanges between Labour’s Glenda Jackson and IDS on You Tube makes interesting viewing and the vilification of the man (who responds with quiet dignity) is the tip of the iceberg. Some of my “sensible” Facebook friends have pulled no punches as to what they think of IDS. Many will find it hard to forgive one who for the past few years has defended the indefensible and in their view consigned the vulnerable to a life of misery, with himself doing very nicely.
I first became aware that the Welfare system was not what it should be when growing up. My dad, who wasn’t particularly good at organizing his life and who could well have been one of the casualties if he were alive today often remarked it was more advantageous financially to be unemployed than to be working as an unskilled labourer. My mum, a lifelong Labour supporter, once shocked family members by saying that she would be voting for Margaret Thatcher. The reason was basically because of the “scroungers” – people who got benefits that did not deserve to do so and people who did not reveive benefits who were deserving. My own foray into the world of welfare was in helping starting off the “Growing Together” project in the early 2000’s when it came to many of those coming to us in our therapeutic garden related project. Some were signed off as disabled but clearly were able to work and some were required to put on the façade of looking for work who were clearly incapable of holding down a job without considerable support. We also found on the funding side we could get money when the outcomes were getting people back into paid work, but not for those who it was unlikely would be able to achieve that end, yet could considerably benefit from what we had to offer.
I also remember that short and painful experience of claiming benefits to which I was entitled for a short time, after years of well paid work, when I admitted to working, albeit unpaid, and finding that it was disadvantageous to do so – something I found later to be a recurring theme. I was impressed later when the imho decent Frank Field was given the job under new Labour to think the unthinkable and reform welfare. While the barriers for him managing to do so were huge and in the end were to prove insurmountable, he did at least try. I liked what appeared to be a catch phrase used by my then JobCentre colleagues, which went something along the lines: “we aim to support those who can’t work for whatever reason with an appropriate level of benefits and for those who can we try to help them get back into work”.
All this brings me back to IDS and his surprising stand down and with it the likely ending of a career, unless of course his euro-skeptic colleagues managed to secure a “No” vote in the forthcoming EU referendum, one reason as far as some cynics are concerned why IDS did stand down. Here my lack of deep analysis comes in, I do not know enough about the man and the policies for which he had to carry the can to be able to authoritatively comment upon. I first became aware of IDS when he became Conservative Party Leader (2001 – 2003) and my impression then was he was principled and decent even if there were things I did not agree with. Despite all the criticism, my impression remains. One headline is “Ian Duncan Smith has resigned as work and pensions secretary, denouncing £4bn of planned cuts to disability benefits as indefensible“. My take is that IDS took up his “poisoned chalice” for noble reasons. He was interested in social justice (far more than many of my critical friends are prepared to concede) and really felt he could do what Frank Field failed to do and what my Jobcentre colleagues tried to impress on me was the rationale behind welfare benefits. Clearly there is a tension between IDS and George Osborne and the budget announcement, which among other things granted tax concessions to the rich, proved to be the last straw. I suspect there is a lot we don’t know including IDS wrestling with his own conscience.
I wish IDS’s replacement, Stephen Crabb, another who I believe to be is a principled politician, as he takes on this unenviable job, well. Whether or not there will be a climb down by the government when it comes to reducing the welfare pot yet again, particularly in the area of disability benefits, remains to be seen. It is regrettable that the Prime Minister is bemused over IDS’s motives. Whether or not the government’s austerity programme is working, remains a contentious question and some of the objectives of getting the UK out of debt does not appear to be happening anywhere as fast as projected. We live, as I often say, in ”interesting” times, and in the meanwhile I fire this salvo in what some would say is the impossible hope we will get the welfare system right, and spend the rest of my life picking up the casualties of a broken society where there is unfairness in every quarter. I sign off while listening to IDS being interviewed by Andrew Marr. My impressions are if anything reinforced and in IDS we have a man that truly is interested in social justice and has been concerned for a long time over the benefit cuts where the burden has disproportionately fallen upon the “have nots” rather than the “haves”, who believes passionately in one nation Conservatism, yet who sees present government policy as divisive.