Iain Duncan Smith, sanctions, and that video

By Bernadette Meaden
March 11, 2016

We have, sadly, become accustomed to politicians making dubious claims, or even telling what appear to be lies when they feel cornered, or are trying to make a weak argument seem stronger. This usually occurs in the highly pressurised setting of the House of Commons, or a difficult media interview. It is wrong, but has regrettably become a feature of political life.

But to see a politician spontaneously, unnecessarily, and quite enthusiastically tell a friendly individual, to their face, things which are simply not true, takes us to a new low.

This week Iain Duncan Smith visited Belsize Park to support Zac Goldsmith's campaign to become Mayor of London. This coincided with a protest against benefit sanctions. To his credit, local Conservative Councillor Jonny Bucknell approached Mr. Duncan Smith to raise the concerns of the protesters. What happened next was fortunately caught on video, which you can watch here and was quite extraordinary.

In defence of benefit sanctions, Mr. Duncan Smith said sanctions had always existed, which is true. But he then said,  "We haven't actually changed the sanctions regime". This literally caused my jaw to drop. The Secretary of State appeared to be denying the existence of the 2012 Welfare Reform Act, which he personally steered through Parliament and which  he himself boasted was "the biggest shake-up of the welfare state in sixty years". 

Section 46 of the Welfare reform Act 2012 introduced a new sanctions regime, which took effect in October 2012 for Jobseekers Allowance, and in December 2012 for Employment Support Allowance. Here is a press release from Mr Duncan Smith's own department explaining it. Note, for Employment Support Allowance, paid to sick and disabled people, "the sanctionable amount increased to 100 per cent of the prescribed amount for a single claimant". 

 As anyone who works at a foodbank can testify, since 2012 when Mr Duncan Smith succeeded in passing his welfare reforms into law, we have seen an explosion in the number and severity of benefit sanctions imposed on people, particularly those with mental health problems. So for Mr Duncan Smith to say, "We haven't actually changed the sanctions regime", is not only to deny the truth, it is to erase from history a significant part of his own political career.

As for the Secretary of State's claim that “Seventy-five per cent of all those who have been sanctioned say it helped them focus and get on" - this is so outrageous, with no detectable basis in fact, it is almost funny. If the result of sanctions weren't to have people going hungry, it would be hilarious. One would have thought that with his Department having been caught issuing leaflets using made-up stories from fictional claimants to demonstrate the positive impact of sanctions, Mr. Duncan Smith would have learned a lesson on this issue at least, but evidently not.

In this situation, an unscripted encounter on the street, Mr Duncan Smith could have given Councillor Bucknell a classic politician's response, saying something about taking his concerns on board, would look into them, etc. Or he could simply have refused to engage. The fact that he chose to talk, and with obvious enjoyment, almost glee, come out with wild assertions with no basis in reality is quite frankly disturbing.

Also disturbing was the fact that with apparent relish, Mr Duncan Smith declared, gesturing towards the protesters, "These people are never going to vote for us. You have to understand, these people hate us." It gave the impression of a bunker mentality, a man to whom opposition or concern is of no significance, and only confirms in him his own sense of absolute righteousness. To have this impervious and unreachable mindset, when making decisions which affect some of the poorest and most vulnerable people in society, is dangerous. 


 © 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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