It was a dramatic exit from government which sparked political fallout in the Conservative Party of epic proportions. Iain Duncan Smith’s resignation has seen serious questions raised about the credentials of the Chancellor of the Exchequer, George Osborne. But what of Duncan Smith’s own record? The self-professed “quiet man” certainly made plenty of noise on departure from the Department for Work and Pensions, but as the department’s longest serving Secretary of State, how will his legacy be perceived?
Much has been made of Duncan Smith’s “Easterhouse Epiphany” back in June of 2002. A visit to a socially deprived Glasgow estate supposedly convinced the then Tory leader that wide-ranging reform of Britain’s welfare system should be at the centre of his political vision.
Looking back 14 years later, the IDS approach to welfare reform was quite simple. Employment was the antidote to Britain's welfare crisis and the system needed to make work pay. His answer to this was twofold: to work with colleagues to provide a “jobs miracle,” and to ensure the benefits system did not incentivise long-term joblessness.
In the first regard he has had some success. Though sceptics will quickly note the base from which IDS began on employment was low (the Coalition took office, of course, just two years after the financial crisis hit), his tenure coincided with impressive jobs growth with Britain reaching its highest employment rate since comparable records began in 1971.
On the second aim, that IDS genuinely believed the welfare system was trapping Britain’s poor in a cycle of unemployment seems clear enough. As was his evident delight at the announcement made by George Osborne that Britain was to introduce a new “national living wage” of £9 an hour by 2020. It is also striking that reports have emerged since his resignation (over proposed cuts to PIP payments to disabled people) that he considered his position previously over cuts to tax credits. Cuts to in-work benefits and payments to the disabled were not, it seems, considered fair game by IDS.
This helps paint a picture of a man deeply committed to a belief in alleviating welfare dependency and poverty through the promotion of work. Unemployment did fall under his watch, measures to make work pay were celebrated and policies that targeted groups who were not perceived as work-shy were seemingly subjected to opposition.
However, the agenda born out of the “Easterhouse Epiphany” also led to a particularly scathing view of those cast as being in the grasp of welfare dependency. IDS bellowed his approval at the national living wage as it was the carrot in his plan, but it was his wielding of the stick which has most often drawn the fury of his critics.
A tumultuous 6 years for IDS at the DWP were characterised by bitter criticism, protest and legal challenge, brought on by a number of tough measures targeting what he felt were Britain's excesses when it came to welfare.
Firstly there were sanctions. Though a legacy of the DWP prior to his arrival in office, as Secretary of State IDS professed a belief in zero tolerance on improper claims to welfare. Reforms implemented mean benefit payments can now be stopped for up to 3 years.
Then there was the benefits cap, setting a legal maximum in welfare that could be claimed by any individual. Set initially at £26,000 it was subsequently dropped to £20,000 for those living outside of London.
And let us not forget the removal of the spare room subsidy, or as it came to be better known, the “Bedroom Tax.” Disproportionately affecting the disabled and victims of domestic violence it became a lightning rod for frustrations towards the government – who are currently challenging in the Supreme Court a ruling which branded the policy “discriminatory” and “unlawful”.
With each policy came real life examples of the people affected, painting the work of the DWP in an extraordinarily poor light. Tough reform drove people to food banks, or even in some cases to premature death.
Fury at measures deemed draconian were only enhanced by the bullish single-mindedness of the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions. Confronted by those living their life on sanctioned benefits he boasted of being able to live on £53 a week and got into hot water when it emerged his departments had creatively used statistics to support their reforms.
Of course these unpopular moves were devised in the contexts of wider cuts, part of his party’s “long term economic plan.” But a close reading of the IDS vision suggests he agreed in principle that cracking down on welfare was essential in reforming the system. Though he might have challenged the Chancellor on occasion it seems disingenuous to paint IDS as an unwilling passenger on this journey.
The centre-piece of the IDS reforms was undoubtedly Universal Credit. The scheme would see 6 existing welfare payments (income support, jobseeker’s allowance, employment support allowance, housing benefit, child tax credit and working tax credit) combined into one.
In the mind of its creator, Universal Credit would simplify the benefits system and streamline the process for those claiming and those in government alike. For sharp minded critics, the amalgamation would make continued cuts more easily justifiable. The tax credits fiasco showed that though the British public were open to the government raiding benefits to make savings, the recipients of in-work top-up payments were not the caricatured shirkers who in the public eye were considered worthy of being penalised.
Cuts to Universal Credit (which let us not forget are where the tax-credit-shaped hole in George Osborne’s plans is to be filled) are more media friendly. It might be that those in work are the ones who feel the pain, but the combined measure allows the government to continue to espouse rhetoric referencing society’s “shirkers.”
However, Universal Credit became a debacle more generally. Requiring substantial bureaucratic change, particularly in the form of IT systems to support its implementation, the scheme has absorbed vast sums of money at a time of supposed frugality in government.
It has also been subject to a series of embarrassing delays in rollout, leading to serious questions about whether the key component of IDS’s reform vision will ever actually see the light of day - questions that are especially pressing now that its chief advocate has walked off into the proverbial political sunset.