Thursday, November 11, 2010


Iain Duncan Smith had some of us fooled there for a while. After his ejection from the Tory leadership back in the early 2000s, he laid low, set up a thinktank called the Centre for Social Justice, visited estates, met some of the poorest people in society and emerged as a quasi-progressive figure who would sort out the iniquities and complications of the welfare system.

Such was the shock at seeing a Tory taking an interest in the plight of the poor, some on the left even gave him a cautious welcome when he was appointed as Minister for Work & Pensions. Imagine their deflation today when they read IDS's White Paper, entitled Universal Credit: welfare that works. The general thrust of its contents will have taken nobody by surprise, but its lack of nuance, its wanton warping of reality and its clodhopping crudity are remarkable.

The Centre for Social Justice always contained a strong Protestant strain. It linked poverty with social malaise and moral deficiency, which in turn was linked to welfare itself. It said that people don't work because they have been made apathetic, indolent, fatalistic and dependent by the existence of a welfare state. Hence the headline-grabber: three strikes and you're out. There is no indication of how many benefit claimants have refused offers of work; indeed, commentators have noted that most jobseekers would jump for joy if they got a single job offer, never mind three. With 18 people applying for each job vacancy, how many applications would you have to complete to stand a realistic chance of getting three job offers?

Defenders of these reforms (and how that word has been bastardised in recent years) ask: well, if there are so so few jobs around that this policy won't actually affect anyone, what is there to worry about? The answer is the rhetoric, the idea that the unemployed deserve to be unemployed. The White Paper sets up this idea; the Comprehensive Spending Review, with its massive cuts to benefits and public services, will punish the undeserving poor by hacking back benefits, by stymying growth, and by creating disincentives to finding work (see my earlier post).

There is one other important point to make. These policies will leave vast numbers of people with medical conditions and disabilities in poverty. Duncan Smith has said the DWP's Work Programme scheme will provide tailored support for people with disabilities who are looking for work. The Tory Minister for Disabled People, Maria Miller, has said she wants to see a million more disabled people in work; yet the number of places available on the Work Programme for disabled people had just been cut by George Osborne to 16,000 per year. Perhaps a greater mathematical mind than mine will explain how you get 1,000,000 from 16,000.

Furthermore, a group of Labour, Conservative and Liberal Democrat MPs have just blasted Pathways to Work - a similar scheme on which the Work Programme is based - for failing to provide disabled people with sufficient support. The private sector, they said, had performed particularly badly. The Work Programme, of course, will be delivered by the private sector.

Local Authorities have known for several years that Pathways didn't work, which is why extra funding was ploughed into support provided by local charities which had expertise in working with people with learning disabilities, mental health problems, single parents etc. With a 28% hole in their budgets, some Councils may be forced to cut this funding, leaving the most vulnerable and stigmatised in society without the support they need.

Labour is in no position to oppose these measures seriously. It was they who introduced Pathways, they who contracted ATOS to assess people with serious medical conditions as being fit to work. They must abandon the cautious line that Douglas Alexander took today and return to first principles. Universal Credit is based on making the most unwell and financially disadvantaged people pay for capitalism's mistakes. These cuts are unnecessary, and they will create poverty on a massive scale. Yesterday gave a sense of the public's anger towards the Coalition. The cuts may go through, but in time they will be the undoing of this government.


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