In politics it is more constructive to focus on policies and ideas rather than on individuals. In footballing terminology, it is better to ‘play the ball, not the man’. Very occasionally however, a politician becomes so wedded to a policy that their personal reputation and the credibility of the policy become inextricably linked: they may stand or fall together. Arguably this is now the case with Iain Duncan Smith, welfare reform and his flagship policy, Universal Credit.
No matter how badly things are going, no matter how much money is wasted, no matter how much
distress is caused, faith in the Minister responsible and the reputation he has acquired in this area seem to act like a protective shield. There may be problems, but in some circles it is considered unreasonable to question the Secretary of State’s good intentions or knowledge of his subject.
This was illustrated recently when Cardinal Nichols spoke out about the damaging human impact of welfare reform, as witnessed in parishes throughout the UK. The Catholic Herald published a very strongly worded response by William Oddie, robustly defending Mr. Duncan Smith and saying that by "sounding off" the Cardinal had shown he had a lot to learn on such matters. To support his argument and justify Mr. Duncan Smith’s policies, Oddie quoted a paper on ‘welfare dependency’ published by the Centre for Social Justice, and concluded by addressing the Cardinal personally with "And do you not think that this good man deserves something better from the leader of his own Church than ill-informed abuse?"
With Iain Duncan Smith’s reputation appearing to be such a key factor in the support for welfare reform and a prominent Catholic commentator rebuking a Cardinal for questioning his policies, it seems reasonable to take a look at that reputation and examine how it was acquired.
The Secretary of State’s reputation for being a well informed man, on a moral mission to reform the social security system, appears to be based on two main factors: one became known as the Easterhouse Epiphany, the other is the think tank he established, the Centre for Social Justice.
In 2002 Iain Duncan Smith was shown around Glasgow’s Easterhouse estate by veteran community organiser Bob Holman, whom Duncan Smith was later to describe as a "living saint". He saw the problems faced in such a severely deprived area: family breakdown, unemployment, drug and alcohol abuse, gang crime etc. He was visibly moved. But he seemed to have little appreciation of how Easterhouse had arrived at that point, or why people living there had succumbed to such problems, when people in other areas had not.
Built in 1954 to house people displaced by the slum clearances of Glasgow city centre, Easterhouse was isolated from the rest of the city, and people were moved in before any essential amenities were provided. Schools did not open until 1960 and it was 18 years before a shopping centre was built. With a peak population of over 50,000, there was no police station until 1968. Add to this the decline of heavy industries like shipbuilding which people had relied upon for jobs, and it is hardly surprising that the Easterhouse community entered a downwards spiral. All of these were factors far beyond the control of the people living in Easterhouse.
Yet rather than seeing the social problems in Easterhouse as the effects or symptoms of poverty and industrial decline, IDS perversely seemed to see these social problems as the causes of poverty. He all but ignored the structural factors which needed to be addressed and focused entirely on the personal responsibility of people to get themselves out of poverty. Once in government, he went further, introducing policies which have made Easterhouse people even poorer. A desperately disappointed Bob Holman, who was at the time convinced of Mr. Duncan Smith’s sincerity, says, "He wept at the plight of the poor, yet now hands out punishments that must bring tears to their eyes."
IDS carried this approach forward when he founded his Centre for Social Justice (CSJ) think tank. Again, despite its name, the CSJ very rarely addresses the causes of poverty and social injustice, but concentrates heavily on the social problems to be found in disadvantaged areas. It addresses these issues without challenging the inequality inherent in the economic status quo, or saying anything about taxation, a living wage, or other measures which might put more money into the pockets of the poor. Whilst Pope Francis has said, "Inequality is the root of social evil", Mr Duncan Smith and his supporters seem studiously to avoid the subject of inequality.
With this in mind, it is interesting to look at the CSJ Board of Directors, which consists of eight men and two women.
According to the CSJ website: Mark Florman, Chairman and Co-founder with IDS, has a background in US banking, "where he co-founded the interest rate swap business in America and worked in corporate banking…" He has been "active in politics, advising the UK Conservative Party on strategy and financing, and was Senior Deputy Treasurer of the Conservative Party."
Adam Wethered is "Co-founder of Lord North Street Limited, Private Investment Office, which manages the investments of very wealthy international families, endowments and charities. He is active in all areas of the business."
Mark Yallop is a CEO of UBS and was formerly with Deutsche Bank, where he "served for three years on the board of the International Swaps and Derivatives Association (ISDA), the international industry body representing the global OTC derivatives market."
Louise Hobbs is an employment lawyer. "Her practice includes day to day advisory work, as well as transactional employment work (due diligence, acquisitions, outsourcing, consultation exercises, harmonisation of terms)."
Rory Brooks "is co-founder of the international private equity group MML Capital Partners."
It is admirable that people with such privilege are concerned for the welfare of their less fortunate neighbours, whom they could quite easily ignore. They all generously use their talents or considerable wealth in a philanthropic manner and should be applauded for doing so. But it seems reasonable to assume that people with such a background may have a rather particular view of society, and of what changes may be desirable. It is difficult to imagine such a group considering favourably any radical measures which would disturb the financial interests of the section of society to which they belong.
It may also be significant that CSJ Director, Christian Guy, was previously Iain Duncan Smith’s speechwriter, the Co-Director Cara Usher-Smith was Iain Duncan Smith’s Constituency Secretary, and the Director of Policy was an adviser to a Conservative Shadow Minister and helped formulate Conservative Party policy.
With this in mind, and with the CSJ having been founded by the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, the CSJ’s boast that it is highly influential on government welfare policy is hardly surprising. In a press release on the day the Welfare Reform Bill was announced, the CSJ said, "Through its analysis and policy recommendations …the CSJ has heavily influenced the coalition Government’s reform agenda."
The CSJ seems to share Iain Duncan Smith’s belief that poverty is not about money, and both conflate poverty with other forms of deprivation. When calling for the government to "Scrap flawed child poverty targets" Christian Guy said, "The ‘relative’ yardstick takes no account of the true, underlying causes of a deprived upbringing, for instance whether a child has the love and care of two parents, whether he or she has the role model of adults who go out to work for a living, or whether drug or alcohol addiction scars family life." By these criteria, a boy at Eton could be judged to be living in poverty. Conflating poverty with undesirable behaviours or lifestyles distracts from any need to secure a fairer distribution of wealth and resources.
So: Iain Duncan Smith was visibly appalled by conditions on a severely deprived housing estate, as most people would be. He then went on to establish a think tank largely staffed by like-minded people, which supports and reinforces his ideological approach to the subject. This certainly shows commitment, but can it be said to make his policies any more likely to be right?
Many of the assumptions on which his work has been based have been called into question by others who are equally committed. ‘Truth and Lies About Poverty’ a report from the Joint Public Issues Team, addresses five myths the general public tend to believe about people in poverty. They point out that the emphasis on addiction, on ‘intergenerational worklessness’ and ‘welfare dependency’ have fuelled myths which have made welfare reform popular with the general public, but are just that: myths.
Whilst the Secretary of State is given respect for his work in this field, he rarely shows equal respect to his critics. He has taken the unusual step for a Cabinet Minster of blaming civil servants for problems with Universal Credit, and has simply dismissed criticism from; the Public Accounts Committee, the Institute for Fiscal Studies, the Office for National Statistics, the National Audit Office, the Department for Work and Pensions Select Committee, numerous charities, the Archbishop of Canterbury, the UN, the EU….The list is long. His Department has acquired a reputation for being less than careful with statistics, and has been officially rebuked by both the UK Statistics Authority and the Office for National Statistics.
So when considering welfare reform and Universal Credit, we have to acknowledge that yes, the Secretary of State is passionately committed to his own particular approach and his policies. But does that necessarily make him more competent, or more of an expert, than many others who are equally committed to a different approach? Mr. Duncan Smith is a Conservative politician who seeks to cut public spending and shrink the state, which is a legitimate position. But when any politician’s commitment or reputation serves as a barrier to questioning his policies, and their consequences when implemented (intended or otherwise), it is surely a barrier to democratic accountability.
© Bernadette Meaden has written about political, religious and social issues for some years, and is strongly influenced by Christian Socialism, liberation theology and the Catholic Worker movement. She is an Ekklesia associate and regular contributor. You can follow her on Twitter: @BernaMeaden