Iain Duncan Smith: the legacy

By Bernadette Meaden
March 19, 2016

From the very beginning of his involvement in social security policy, Iain Duncan Smith got it wrong. From his famous 'Easterhouse epiphany', when he visited a deprived Glasgow housing estate and saw the poverty there, he saw, not the planning mistakes, the big economic shifts, and the government policy decisions which had left people without livelihoods or opportunities. He saw the symptoms, the drug addiction and the unemployment and decided what needed to be changed was not the economy, but the people.

Politically unable to imagine a redistribution of wealth and opportunity that would help people abandoned when industries like shipbuilding declined, he could only prescribe policies that would demand they pull themselves up by their bootstraps. He did not seem to seek economic justice, he seemed to seek to change people to comply with an unjust system. His reforms have always seemed to be more about behavioural change for the poor than social justice. Perhaps the Budget simply made the lack of social justice too blatantly obvious.

The hallmark of Iain Duncan Smith's career at the DWP has been his disconnection from, and refusal to engage with, the impacts of his policies. He refused to carry out an impact assessment of how all his reforms would affect disabled people, and when negative impacts were pointed out to him, he usually reacted with anger and accusations of scaremongering.

His detachment from reality, even to the point of denying his own actions, were at times unnerving and frankly bizarre. Only in the last fortnight, he was captured on video  telling a Conservative Councillor, to his face, that the benefit sanctions regime had not been changed. This from the man who personally steered through parliament the Welfare Reform Act which changed the sanctions regime. One of the changes he was responsible for was to make 100 per cent of a disabled person's Employment Support Allowance sanctionable. That is, he ensured that should someone with say, a mental health problem or learning disability miss a Jobcentre appointment, they could be left with no income whatsoever.

It has been said that Mr Duncan Smith, a former leader of his party, found it very hard to be a junior colleague of George Osborne, and his annoyance at the Treasury certainly comes out in his resignation letter. It is also said that given his position on the European referendum, his days in the Cabinet post-referendum were numbered. So to choose to resign now, ostensibly in protest at cuts to Personal Independence Payments, was perhaps the best outcome Mr. Duncan Smith could hope for as far as his reputation was concerned. He is now being portrayed by supporters as a champion for social justice. But let us look a little deeper, at some of the issues that are not receiving such media coverage.

On the day he resigned, the DWP lost  a four year legal battle to keep the problems with Universal Credit secret. Mr. Duncan Smith's flagship project is in deep trouble, but until now we haven't been allowed to know quite how deep. Universal Credit may prove to have been a colossal waste of public money, and if it is abandoned, it would be a humiliation for Iain Duncan Smith. As one commentator pointed out two days ago, "the more IDS fights publication, the more it looks as if he has something to hide." He may prefer not to be at the helm if his flagship crashes on to the rocks.

There is also, thanks to the excellent work of the Disability News Service (DNS), more information emerging about how Mr Duncan Smith's department has handled concerns about the suicides of benefit claimants. The day before Mr Duncan Smith's resignation, DNS revealed evidence that the DWP had dismissed concerns raised by a coroner under Rule 43, the “prevention of future deaths” process. The letter concerned the death of Stephen Carre, who had taken his own life after losing an appeal against being declared fit for work by the DWP without reference to information from his GP, his psychiatric nurse, or his psychiatrist.

Who can say what the consequences of dismissing such concerns, aimed at preventing future deaths, have been. We do know that research last year found that the WCA may have been associated with an additional 590 suicides. And we know that other aspects of Welfare reform, like sanctions and the bedroom tax, have been associated with other people taking their own lives.

So in reputation management terms, perhaps Mr Duncan Smith has chosen the right time to go. The United Nations is currently investigating the UK for the violation of the human rights of disabled people. Inclusion London last year issued a report which said that disabled people’s rights are regressing in every area of their lives, with disabled people reporting less choice and control in their lives, growing poverty, dramatically decreasing levels of support, and increasing levels of hostility towards them as a result of the scapegoating of benefit claimants. In the short term, Mr. Duncan Smith's resignation may have enhanced his reputation. In the longer term, his legacy, particularly regarding disabled people, may be viewed very differently.

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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

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.