Another moral wrong from IDS on work and welfare

By Simon Barrow
December 31, 2012

Should the welfare system be reformed? Is the tax credit system flawed? Is a universal credit a good idea in principle? The answer to all these questions is 'yes'. But if the question is about whether the government is tackling these issues in the correct way, the answer is 'no'. A huge change of direction is required.

Rather than listening to constructive and well-informed criticism of its policies, however, the coalition is continually trying to justify its present welfare changes and cuts, which research shows to be damaging to the most vulnerable, with a raft of misleading claims about those who receive benefit support. This regrettably shows that its agenda is not reform but punishment, not efficiency but withdrawal of funds, not support for the poorest but gain for the wealthiest.

In its self-justifying rhetoric, the government is bypassing the fact that all but a handful of those who receive support also contribute to society, in tax and other ways. It is effectively labelling all claimants (the majority of whom are in work), as 'scroungers', all disabled and sick people (irrespective of their real-world circumstances) as 'shirkers', and all the jobless (without regard to the actual availability of viable paid work) as 'skivers'.

Now the government, through an article in the Daily Telegraph by the Work and Pensions Secretary, is highlighting an alleged £10 billion loss through tax credit (mostly government error, according to its own research, incidentally), while glossing £500 billion lost through tax avoidance by the wealthy in the same period, alongside some £10-12 billion per year in unclaimed entitlements by people who deserve and need them.

The article has been shown to be largely inaccurate in its assertions by the Channel 4 News 'Fact Check' team (see below).

In fact, Iain Duncan Smith's latest claims about tax credit look suspiciously like an attempt to divert attention from up to 500,000 disabled people and their families who may lose out under Universal Credit, which replaces it and other benefits.

Equally he is facing sharp and well-researched criticisms from the Social Security Advisory Committee (December 2012) and the Work and Pensions Select Committee (November 2012), mounting pressure from charities and church groups to change course, and a new e-democracy petition (http://epetitions.direct.gov.uk/petitions/43154) against the government's 'war on welfare'.

It is important to examine the bigger picture here. Just as housing benefit subsidises high-rent landlords and shows the need for rent controls to support those in housing need, so tax credits subsidise low-wage employers and need to be replaced by a fair credit system alongside real action to tackle poverty pay and lack of sustainable jobs.

Policies that stigmatise and punish poorly paid, unemployed, disabled and sick people, along with those with mental health and other problems, are morally, politically and economically wrong, no matter which government introduces them.

Iain Duncan Smith's visible anger at commentator Owen Jones confronting him with the fatal human cost of the government's policies on BBC TV's 'Question Time', and his similar reaction in the Commons to Ian Lavery MP holding out a suicide note from a Wansbeck constituent who had taken his own life after being informed that he was no longer entitled to disability benefits, were among the low points of 2012.

For many, it may be additionally shocking that a punitive approach to welfare (one which seems to lack both compassion and understanding towards the most vulnerable in society) is being pursued by a government minister who uses the cloak of 'Christian values' for such policies, and appears to have no serious regard for much of his own Church's social teaching.

* Duncan Smith condemns tax credits as 'not fit for purpose': http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-politics-20873180

* FactCheck: IDS tax credit claims discredited: http://blogs.channel4.com/factcheck/factcheck-ids-tax-credit-claims-disc...

* Duncan Smith's attack on working poor a 'smokescreen', say critics: http://www.ekklesia.co.uk/node/17715

* 'How IDS measures up to Catholic Social Teaching', by Bernadette Meaden: http://www.ekklesia.co.uk/node/17235

* No (tax) credit for Iain Duncan Smith, by Symon Hill: http://www.ekklesia.co.uk/node/17714

* WOWpetition: http://epetitions.direct.gov.uk/petitions/43154

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© Simon Barrow is co-director of Ekklesia.

Although the views expressed in this article do not necessarily represent the views of Ekklesia, the article may reflect Ekklesia's values. If you use Ekklesia's news briefings please consider making a donation to sponsor Ekklesia's work here.