Open letter from Catholics to Iain Duncan Smith - update

By Bernadette Meaden
July 8, 2015

By Bernadette Meaden and Virginia Moffatt

We thought long and hard about writing an open letter to Iain Duncan Smith. As a way of trying to influence government policy, this method would certainly not be our first choice. We believe in focusing on policies, not politicians. But we also believed we had reached the point where to appeal to Mr Duncan Smith as an individual, and to make a strong public show of concern, was necessary.

Mr Duncan Smith is remarkable in that he has developed, formulated, passed into law, and then delivered, a highly significant body of policy, bringing about what he himself has described as the biggest change to the welfare state in sixty years.

His views and approach have dominated the agenda and the debate on welfare reform for over a decade, which is quite an achievement. But we feel that this achievement has come at a high price for some of the most disadvantaged people in our society, and we felt compelled to speak out.

Opposition to welfare reform is frequently met with the claim that welfare spending is 'spiralling out of control' and 'unsustainable'. In fact, according to the Office for Budget Responsibility, as a percentage of GDP, 'Over the past 30 years........the proportion of national income devoted to welfare spending has not shown a significant upward or downward trend over time.'

Full Fact recently reported, 'If we express social spending as a share of national wealth..the UK is almost exactly in the middle of the spectrum of advanced OECD economies.'

In a recent study of working-age disability benefits, the IFS found that by 2018/19 spending on disability benefits, as a share of national income, is projected to be at its lowest level since the late 1960s. It is hardly out of control.

Another problem with welfare reforms (and this applies to the reforms carried out by the Labour government too) is that we believe they are often founded on incorrect assumptions. Take sickness and disability benefits, for example.

A belief developed that too many people were claiming these benefits, and that once people started claiming them they were 'trapped', 'parked', or 'languishing'. True, the numbers of people on these benefits did remain fairly constant, but they were not all the same people. What seemed to be ignored was the fact that every year, hundreds of thousands of people move on to these benefits as they become ill or disabled, but then move off and back into work, or onto Jobseeker's Allowance, as they recover.

Likewise with Jobseekers Allowance. The introduction of stricter conditionality and harsher sanctions was justified by a belief in 'a culture of welfare dependency', 'entrenched worklessness', and famously, 'intergenerational worklessness'.

But when researchers tried to find examples of this intergenerational worklessness, they could not. The truth is that unemployment rises and falls with our economic fortunes, and spending on Jobseeker's Allowance is a tiny part of the social security budget. Yes, we now have falling numbers of Jobseekers Allowance claimants, but we also have a record number of people who are unemployed but cannot, or will not, claim it. Sanctions are often driving people off benefits, but not into work.

The truth is that the main drivers of welfare spending are not a 'culture of welfare dendency', but an aging population, low pay, and a dysfunctional housing market which means hardworking families need Housing Benefit to pay their rent.

By focusing so intensely on people in receipt of working-age benefits, we believe Mr. Duncan Smith is addressing the wrong problem, and so delivering the wrong solutions. The government could bring down welfare spending by building truly affordable social housing and making employers pay higher wages. Instead, the DWP may arguably be helping to suppress wages, by providing highly profitable companies with unemployed people to work free for six months through workfare.

One of the reasons we decided to go ahead with the open letter was the feedback we get from unemployed, sick and disabled people. Many feel utterly abandoned and cast adrift by the rest of society, as they get more and more worried about their futures, relying on foodbanks and other charities to survive. They ask, 'Why are people letting this happen to us, why aren't they speaking out? Don't they care?

We know that there are many people of goodwill working quietly and patiently behind the scenes to try to protect the most disadvantaged people in our society from further hardship. We are grateful to them for their efforts, and will continue to work with them, as we have in the past. But a public stand is also necessary at times, and we believed that time had come.

As we began to invite people to sign the letter, any misgivings about whether this was the right course of action were soon dispelled by the response from signatories. Many thanked us for taking the initiative, and were glad of the opportunity to express their concerns. As Father Shaun Smith, from Hallam Diocese responded, "Please add my name to the letter, which I fully agree with, as one who runs a food bank from the presbytery, and sees the impact of sanctions every single day."

Our concern is that in politics and the media, a consensus is developing that Mr Duncan Smith's policies have been successful, and the severe problems reported by charities and campaigners are dismissed. This mirrors what happened after welfare reform was implemented in the United States. A major welfare reform was implemented there in 1996, and a year later President Clinton said, "The debate is over. Welfare reform works." But unintended consequences emerged, including an increase in extreme poverty and a reduction in life expectancy for claimants.

Ron Haskins of the Brookings Institution, who helped draft the US welfare reforms, expressed a fear that it may have increased destitution amongst the most disadvantaged families. He said, “This is the biggest problem with welfare reform, and we ought to be paying attention to it….we have what appears to be a big problem at the bottom....“This is what really bothers me: the people who supported welfare reform, they’re ignoring the problem.”

As poverty is forecast to rise steeply, foodbanks proliferate, and homelessness increases, we simply ask Mr Duncan Smith to talk to us, to at least consider the possibility that his policies may have had unintended consequences, and to explore with us ways we can address them. As yet we have had no response from the Secretary of State, but all the signatories of the letter remain keen for a dialogue to be established.

* Full 2015 budget coverage and commentary from Ekklesia at: http://www.ekklesia.co.uk/budget2015

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© 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

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