The day we met Iain Duncan Smith

By Virginia Moffatt
November 9, 2016

In July 2015, Ekklesia and the Centre for Welfare Reform published an open letter to Iain Duncan Smith from Catholics asking him to abandon his welfare reforms. In the letter we asked the then Secretary of State for Work and Pensions to meet us, but though he replied, he declined our offer.

You can read the initial letter here, Iain Duncan Smith's reply here and our reponse here

Disappointed but undeterred, Ekklesia continued to critique government policy on welfare. Shortly afterwards we commissioned a research project to replace the Work Capability Assessment (funded by the St Joseph’s Province Passionists Grant Fund). Earlier this year (2016), as the first stage of the report was being drafted, we decided it would be helpful to contact politicians across the political spectrum to discuss our initial findings. Pondering who we should speak to, someone suggested we contact Iain Duncan Smith, who had recently resigned from government. (http://www.ekklesia.co.uk/node/22870). Given his lack of willingness to meet the previous summer, we thought it unlikely, but it seemed worth a try. And much to our surprise, he invited us to come and meet him.

It was with some trepidation that Stef Benstead, the researcher, and I accepted. After all, we’d spent the last six years decrying his policies and we knew how unpopular he was amongst campaigners. Would we be compromising ourselves by even being in the same room as him? However, we could also see it was an opportunity to come face to face with the person who had instigated the reforms we disagreed with. And as the open letter had been a genuine attempt at dialogue; it would seem churlish to reject the invitation. Besides, we were both a little curious as to what he might have to say.

So in April 2016, we found ourselves sitting in the lobby at the Houses of Parliament, waiting to meet the man who has angered so many of us. The meeting didn’t get off to an auspicious start. After waiting for over half an hour, we were informed that he was delayed and would have a limited amount of time with us. And when his delightful parliamentary secretary finally came to collect us, we had to be taken on a long circuitous route to reach the only lift that would accommodate Stef’s electric scooter.

However, once inside his enormous room, the former minster was polite and welcoming. He was solicitous of Stef, helping her with her scooter and ensuring she had a suitable chair to sit in. Though we couldn’t help but compare her treatment to that of people waiting for Work Capability Assessments in poorly adapted seating that can cause them discomfort. I was gasping for a cup of tea, but alas, only water was on offer..

Iain Duncan Smith was initially wary, but gradually relaxed when it was made clear we were trying to seek common understanding, and that as fellow Christians we should all want the best for society. Which was when he began to talk (and boy, did he talk).

First, we were treated to an explanation of why Universal Credit was the solution to all the problems of welfare. He argued that it will simplify everything, giving a single taper from benefit to work, offering tax relief for those on low incomes and bringing extra money for disability.

He did nothing to persuade us that Universal Credit will be effective, given how disastrously the pilots have gone, but there were one or two good aspects to his proposed scheme. For example, it is intended that if a recipient's income goes up and down each month according to earnings, it will be reconciled each month. In the current tax credits system, this reconciliation takes place at the end of the year which often means people have to pay a lot of money back, causing stress and debt. That would be one improvement.

He was keen to tell us how he had taken on the Treasury on many occasions. One example he gave was an argument about helping people on Universal Credit to have enough income when their tax credits are reduced. Although he lost the argument, as George Osborne reduced tax credits and kept Universal Credit allowances down, he was able to get an agreement that tax credit reductions should be tapered to help people with the transition. And he was proud of the fact that he had introduced flexibility in the system – the government can now increase income by increasing tax credits or by reducing the taper.

We then moved into discussions around fitness for work. And here, unsurprisingly, he had a distinctly rosy view of the world, which again differed somewhat from ours. He told us about his programme for employers, ‘Fit to Work’,  which provided a system for staff who had developed an illness, to see if they were still able to work. It is a reasonable system (though it is difficult to see how it differs from current occupational health services), but when I asked if it was backed up by support for employers so they could be flexible with hours, he did not reply.

The former Minister then waxed lyrical about the importance of work in improving health. He was clearly pleased that he had persuaded the Department of Health that work is good for health. Stef challenged him on this, pointing out that it flies in the face of researched evidence. She cited her own personal experience that work often makes her ill. He did listen to her explain this at length and was respectful of what she had to say. He noted that some illnesses may be progressive and some people want to remain in work for as long as possible. He accepted that some conditions fluctuate and people may move in and out of being able to work. However, he clearly didn’t realise how bad the system he has created is. He believed Stef would easily be found unfit for work, though the current guidelines are likely to find her fit for work related activity. And he thought mental health patients could see a consultant in eight weeks, even though this isn’t the case.

After that, he continued to argue that work is a health treatment. This is a matter for huge concern, though he did at least seem to have got the message that people with mental health needs can only get back to work with the right support. His idea is to have specialist mental health advisors in job centres. Their task would be firstly to assess what help the person needed, including talking therapies, then to ensure that was in place, only assisting them in looking for work once they were in recovery. Work would be seen as part of that recovery and linked into their GP's surgery. This isn’t necessarily a bad idea in itself, but given how stressful people find the DWP, combining mental health services with the job centre could actually make their experience worse..

It was just as the meeting was drawing to a close that, he came out with the statement we were least expecting. Much to our surprise, the man most associated with the WCA, agreed with us that is too rigid and prescriptive. He also agreed that we need to move to a clinically led system about what people can do and how they may do it. Of course, he was keen to explain that he had only inherited the WCA from Labour, and experience had taught him it didn’t work, but this was nonetheless a crucial admission.

So what should we make of this meeting? At the time, Iain Duncan Smith was bitterly angry with George Osborne and David Cameron and we wondered if he had hoped we might go public with some of his complaints against them. (This hunch was confirmed for me shortly after we met, when he gave a newspaper interview that was highly critical of them).

It is also possible that he hoped we would help him reclaim the role in which he had cast himself. He clearly sees himself as the social justice warrior, fighting the Treasury, absorbing things he didn’t agree with due to party loyalty, and resigning on principle. Given that he had spent six years developing policies that have been so destructive, it is hard to take that image of him seriously. But nonetheless, we did detect some genuine desire to make things better, even if he can’t acknowledge the damage he has done. But his strong belief that work helps people stay healthy is  problematic as he doesn’t seem to understand that this isn’t always the case. He also underestimates how difficult it is for small employers to keep sick and disabled people employed without government incentives.

The real glimmer of light was that he appeared to have started to hear messages about some of the issues faced by people with mental health needs, and that he acknowledged that the WCA had failed and needs to be replaced. Sadly, this position seems to have gone into abeyance since the film  I, Daniel Blake came out. He seems offended by the criticism and has vigorously defended his welfare reforms. Sadly too, his successor, Damien Green, has inherited his wilful ignorance, refusing to watch the film yet labelling it as fiction. Furthermore, Duncan Smith’s ideas about work being good for you seem to have re-emerged in the new Green Paper, with the Conservative answer to a broken system being to continue to push sick people into work.

Which is why it is so timely that Ekklesia has been conducting its own consultation on replacing Employment Support Allowance, based on the findings the first  and second stages of our research:.The consultation has now been extended to the end of November, and we are continuing to build cross-party consensus for the need for a new system based on these ideas.

It is not every day you come face to face with a political opponent, so we are glad we had the chance to meet Iain Duncan Smith and discuss these issues with him. But since the government still seems determined to force sick and disabled people into the workplace, we remain equally determined to make sure they change tack. The WCA has harmed too many people for far too long. It is time for it to be replaced.

* Read the consultation (extended to the end of November) on replacing ESA  here

* Read the  2015 survey here

© Virginia Moffatt is an Ekklesia Associate and formerly Chief Operating Officer

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.