Iain Duncan Smith, cancer, and compassion

By Bernadette Meaden
October 7, 2015

During his party conference speech, Iain Duncan Smith said he was motivated by compassion. This evoked anger and disbelief from many disabled people, their families and friends, as they contrasted his words with the impact of his policies. Many asserted that Mr. Duncan Smith must be entirely lacking in compassion, given his department's treatment of sick and disabled people.

But if we look at the Secretary of State's own life, we can see that when he experienced the serious illness of a loved one, he reacted in exactly the way we would hope anybody would - offering support, empathy, compassion and dedication.

When his wife Betsy was diagnosed with cancer, Iain Duncan Smith told the Daily Mail,
"It took my breath away. I said: 'right, I'm coming home.'

"I went straight back to my office, picked up my bag and caught the train. I didn't come back to Parliament for some time after that.'

"In the event", the Daily Mail explains, "he didn't return to work for more than six months. Virtually the only time he left the house was to drive his wife to hospital, where she underwent gruelling sessions of chemotherapy and radiotherapy, and frightening surgery."

Mr Duncan Smith obviously gained a very good understanding of what cancer treatment can be like, saying, "Anyone who has been through this knows the treatment is part of the problem and knocks the stuffing out of you."

He responded compassionately, by abandoning his job and devoting himself to supporting his wife – "I just downed tools and said: 'That's it.'"

And so, with his experience of what a cancer diagnosis means to a family, one would have hoped that the Secretary of State, even if he could not make things better for people with cancer, would certainly have avoided any policy which would make their lives harder.

And yet. With his latest Welfare Bill, Mr. Duncan Smith will drastically cut the support for new claimants in the Work Related Activity Group of Employment Support Allowance (ESA).This group includes cancer patients. All have been assessed as unfit to work by the DWP, which is why they are receiving ESA. Yet Mr. Duncan Smith says that the extra money they receive for being too ill to work (about £30 per week more than Jobseekers Allowance) discourages them from getting a job.

As the New Policy Institute has said, "Criticising ESA claimants for not behaving like people on Jobseeker’s Allowance is contradictory given that this group will have been through a lengthy assessment process to determine that they are not jobseekers."

Macmillan Cancer Support says, "The Government’s proposed cut to the sickness benefit, Employment and Support Allowance (ESA), will see a £125 reduction per month in payments for some people who have been medically assessed as too sick to work.

"We believe this cut will hit people at a time when they are already facing increased financial hardship as a result of their cancer. Email your MP and help ensure that all people with cancer are financially supported while they are too ill to work."

The contrast between Iain Duncan Smith's compassion in his private life and the policies he is implementing is highly confusing. Why would anybody who has the experience and understanding of cancer that he so obviously has, pursue such policies, which are causing additional fear for people going through the most frightening time of their lives?
Duncan Smith is placing cancer patients on the same financial footing as healthy Jobseekers, deliberately increasing the hardship they face, and appears to think that this increased hardship will encourage them to get a job.

Of course, it is not just cancer patients who are affected by this policy. There are people with Parkinson's disease, Multiple Sclerosis and many other serious illness in the affected group. But one would have thought that, as cancer patients will be affected, Mr. Duncan Smith's own experience would have given him pause for thought at least.

Yet whilst Betsy's illness was obviously a very distressing time for the Duncan Smiths, they did have certain advantages which would make life easier in practical terms. Financially secure, they had no worries about the cost of transport to hospital, or parking when they got there, an expense which many cancer patients find onerous.

Their home, on the estate of Betsy's parents Lord and Lady Cottesloe, is set in three acres, with a tennis court, swimming pool and orchards. They would have no worries about rent, or heating their home, or any other bills which many sick people worry about.

Whilst none of these financial advantages make a serious illness any less frightening or distressing, they do remove many of the additional pressures faced by people without those advantages, allowing the patient and their family to devote all their energies to recovery.

One would have hoped that Mr. Duncan Smith could have applied some of the care and compassion he felt for his wife to less prosperous people enduring the same illness. Sadly he appears not to have made the connection.

The Welfare Reform and Work Bill has not yet passed into law. We can still campaign to limit the harm it could do to sick and disabled people.


© 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

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.