The Spectator this week has an interview with Iain Duncan Smith, secretary of state for Work and Pensions (print edition only, so far). Well worth reading if you have an interest in where the Conservatives plan to take the welfare system.
The interview is a mixture of the good, the bad and the ugly. Taking them out of order: the ugly is IDS’s ungracious and faintly misogynistic reference to his Labour predecessor at the DWP, Yvette Cooper: “what was her name? Ed Balls’s wife…”.
The good is his sincere commitment to tackling poverty. He complains that Labour focused too much on a single measure of poverty: people whose income was less than 60 per cent of the median. As the interviewers put it:
Money was spent moving people from just below the line to just above it, and those people were then declared to have been “lifted out of poverty” even if their income had increased by only £10 a week.
A fair criticism – provided we remember that £10 a week isn’t a trivial amount of money for many people. Duncan Smith told civil servants on his first day at the DWP that he wanted it to become “the poverty-fighting department in government, not the place that simply pays money out”. Some of his proposals – such as continuing paying benefits to those in low-paid work in order to help reduce the “poverty trap” – are positive (though IDS admitted the other day that he hadn’t managed to get that particular idea past the Treasury as yet). I think he is also right about the socially-destructive effects of cheap alcohol.
The bad, however, is the distinct whiff of past attitudes towards poverty in some of IDS’s proposals and those of his think tank, the Centre for Social Justice (CFJ). I’d made a sarcastic comment on Twitter when IDS was appointed suggesting his brief was to “reintroduce the Poor Law”. Well, here is his “most radical” idea, for a “universal benefit”:
At the CFJ, he proposed abolishing all 52 current benefits – from incapacity to housing – and replacing them with a universal benefit designed entirely to make sure that no one is better off out of work.
Compare this with the principle of “less eligibility” that lay behind the nineteenth and early-twentieth century Poor Law, as described in this article on the 1909 Minority Report on the Poor Law:
Its central principle of “less eligibility” demanded that the condition of the able-bodied pauper must be kept inferior to that of the poorest independent labourer. This was seen as the “just deserts” of those entering the workhouse, and was designed to force the pauper from the workhouse in search of whatever employment he could find on the open market.
I’m not for one minute suggesting that IDS wants to take us back to the cruelties of the old Poor Law – let alone the days of the workhouse. (Days more recent than you might think: the workhouse was abolished only in 1930, and the Poor Law in 1948.)
But there does seem to be a lingering assumption that the poor are to blame for their own poverty (“poverty was generally seen as a voluntary condition, with the pauper not so much the victim as the perpetrator of his own distress”) and that the poverty trap is mainly due to too-generous benefits rather than excessively low pay for those jobs that are available (“anxiety that the existence of poor relief would tempt many that were otherwise self-sufficient to claim”) – so that only the stick of minimal state support (rather than the carrot of decent, well-paid work) can encourage people to work.
Above all, it is dispiriting to see the problem of “economic inactivity” laid yet again at the feet of the indolent, feckless poor and their welfare state enablers. Unemployment for the last quarter was 2.5 million; the Tories’ preferred measure of “economic inactivity” (which includes those on incapacity benefit/ESA) covers 5.9 million people; but the number of vacancies was 475,000 (src). To talk as if we lived in a country of plentiful jobs ignored by indolent benefit-claimants is a fantasy – and will become all the more so as public spending cuts begin to take effect.
So I’m not going to paint IDS as a heartless Victorian throwback – however tempting it may be to compare Philippa Stroud (defeated for parliament but still able to end up in government as a special adviser – welcome to the New Politics, same as the old politics) with Helen Bosanquet of the Charity Organisation Society, guiding spirit of the Majority Report. He clearly has a genuine desire to reduce poverty, and an engaging lack of ambition (“I didn’t come to do anything else … I am not interested in climbing rungs of ladders any more”).
The question is whether spending constraints prevent his best ideas finding fruition while leaving his more paternalistic and moralistic tendencies intact.