An open letter to Iain Duncan Smith

Dear Iain

You once described yourself as “the quiet man”. It didn't quite work for you at the time, which is a pity, because quietness implies a capacity for reflection, listening and, in the words of our Quaker 'Advices and Queries', for finding space to “consider it possible you may be mistaken”. These are not qualities which are much in evidence among our noisier politicians.

You have recently been loud in your insistence that capping benefits at £26,000 will not push families further into poverty and that “They're not suffering. The point about this is that what makes you suffer is the state that plunges you into dependency."

A quiet moment to consider some of the facts? In many areas of London, the cost of accommodation for larger families is at least £400 a week. That's £20,800 a year (paid directly to the landlord), leaving these families with £5,200 to feed and clothe themselves and to meet all their other costs. It shouldn't be too hard to see the potential for suffering here. Your solution - that they should rehouse to less expensive accommodation in cheaper areas - takes no account of some facts you might want to think about were your own family to be thrust into this situation.

Children will be moved from their schools – yes, that also happens to people who are more fortunately placed – but they usually have some choice as to the best time to relocate in relation to the school year and the proximity of important exams. A good level of disposable income also enables the choice of a desirable catchment area. Those who are forced out of their homes by hardship are powerless to exercise these choices.

People who are already under the strain of severe financial difficulty will be removed from their circle of friends and relations. This uprooting of families from their support systems will inevitably lead to an increase in instances of mental and physical ill-health. And even if you take no account of the human distress, remember that both educational failure and illness have to be paid for.

Sometimes being quiet is to collude with rank injustice. It is to your credit that you have not overtly bought into the nastier end of populist comment on the lines of “they shouldn't have kids they can't afford” (indeed, that could be a dodgy area for a practising Catholic to venture upon), but neither have you chosen to acknowledge that misfortune can befall anyone. A responsibly conceived and previously sustainable family may be plunged into need by redundancy or chronic illness.

And then there is the implicit assumption that all families receiving housing benefit are both unemployed and 'workshy'. In fact, only one in eight are unemployed. So there are questions to be asked as to why you have chosen silence on the matter of low pay and rapacious landlords. This is a combination which plays a malign role in perpetuating welfare dependency and is not addressed by your proposals for a 'Universal Credit' benefit.

Where benefit recipients are out of work, how is their situation to be helped by forcing them to move to cheaper areas? One of the reasons for lower housing costs is high unemployment. So a reduction in housing benefit, particularly in London, will have the effect of pushing people into the areas of highest unemployment. How will this help them to escape welfare dependency?

When Beveridge wrote his blueprint for our welfare system, it could reasonably be seen as a temporary 'safety net.' There was much less unemployment and affordable social housing was plentiful. Seventy years on, that is far from being the case and it is unjust to use the conditions from so long ago to inform today's rhetoric and decision-making.

EM Forster wrote that “Money pads the edge of things”. Decisions made by well padded politicians, however well-meaning, can be way off the mark. I believe you are genuinely concerned about deprivation and that you have done more to inform yourself about its causes and effects than most of your colleagues.

But what you have said and left unsaid in relation to the benefit cap, indicates that you nonetheless observe the situation through the lenses of comfort and status. You are described as a millionaire and it is reasonable to assume that an ex-army officer, former party leader and now cabinet minister, will not suffer from want of means nor from the lack of confidence and capacity which may arise from deprivation.

Causing fear and distress to the most vulnerable and colluding with the stirring up of hostility towards them is cruel and wrong. You claim that they are "not being punished" but it is hard to justify that interpretation. Benefit claimants - a wide and disparate group - are a soft target and they should not be made to suffer still further for the failures of politicians and the excesses of bankers.

It is my hope that the 'quiet man' might take a little time out to distance himself from received opinion and 'scrounger' rhetoric and to do some joined up thinking on the long term personal, social and economic effects of the policies on which he speaks.

Yours in peace,

Jill Segger

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© Jill Segger is associate director of the beliefs and values thinktank Ekklesia, which has been honoured to work with disabled and sick people on research and action related to the Welfare Reform Bill (http://www.ekklesia.co.uk/welfarereformbill), particularly the promotion of the Spartacus Report on 'Responsible Reform' (http://www.ekklesia.co.uk/responsiblereformDLA).

See also: 'Time for a change of name at the Centre for Social Justice?' (http://www.ekklesia.co.uk/node/16190).

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