A universal welfare state is the essential bedrock of a civilised country. A civilised country ensures that no one goes without healthcare because they can’t afford it, no one is treated as if worthless because they cannot work, and that anyone who loses their job needn’t fear destitution for themselves or for their family if they don’t find another job instantly. A civilised country ensures that no one needs to work when they are too young or too old or too disabled or too ill. This is not a system that can be replaced by random acts of charity: to become civilised, we pay taxes and national insurance and we all benefit.
Iain Duncan Smith became Secretary of State for Work and Pensions in May 2010 – a role he has held ever since, despite efforts by David Cameron to unseat him in the 2012 reshuffle. He has virtually no further-education qualifications and spent several months on the dole after leaving the Scots Guards in the recession of 1981. But the next year he married a very wealthy woman, the daughter of a very wealthy man, and he and his wife and four children still live in a house rented from his father-in-law on his wife’s father’s estate: he became an MP in 1992, inheriting Norman Tebbit’s safe constituency of Chingford. Whatever Iain Duncan Smith’s experience of unemployment thirty-two years ago, it’s safe to say that in thirty years he hasn’t had money worries – except when he became Leader of the Opposition and it was discovered he’d given his wife one of those plum “assistant” jobs which used to be a bonus for the spouse or child of an MP.
Betsy Fremantle Smith was paid £18,000 from Parliamentary Staffing Allowance. The Commons Standards Committee, investigating the situation in 2003, found that she was doing non-constituency work which should have been paid for out of Short Money. IDS was acquitted of deliberate wrong-doing and was not sanctioned of any MP benefits: but while his Department of Work and Pensions actively makes use of tip-offs to catch people claiming money they are not entitled to (whether they are doing so deliberately or out of the same honest confusion that led IDS to pay his wife money he was not entitled to claim) Iain Duncan Smith still harbours vindictive feelings towards the two officials who uncovered his own wrong-doing.
The difficulty with Iain Duncan Smith is not how to expose his hypocrisy, but how much of it can be fitted into a few hundred words. He has four children, yet argues that families with more than two children ought to be sanctioned: in 2009 he took six months paid leave without notice to care for his wife when she was desperately ill, yet has instigated changes in benefit to ensure that neither sick people nor their carers will be supported.
In 1981, jobless and unqualified, he took full advantage of the welfare safety net to claim benefits for months while looking for suitable work, yet in a recession as bad as that of thirty years ago he claims graduates are “snooty” if they don’t agree to work for Poundland for free. While attending further education for two short periods, IDS gained no qualifications, and asserts that shelf-stackers are more valuable than scientists. While benefiting hugely from MP expenses, Iain Duncan Smith tells many untruths about the cost of people claiming disability and welfare benefits.
Iain Duncan Smith has made many speeches in favour of law and order. Yet when IDS’s workfare sanctions were ruled unlawful by the courts, instead of accepting that millions taken unlawfully would have to be repaid and that people unlawfully made to work for commercial organisations for free had a claim to minimum wage for their hours (or, if determined to fight lawfully for welfare, proceding to the Supreme Court for a further appeal) IDS decided to have emergency legislation passed making his unlawful sanctions retroactively lawful.
Iain Duncan Smith lives in a large and comfortable home which he does not own and which it’s doubtful he pays market rent for, yet has instigated the bedroom tax. The idea behind the “bedroom tax” is that the housing shortage can be remedied not by building more social housing or by preventing bankers from gambling on house price rises, but by forcing people who live in social housing and have a “spare room”, to move out into private rented accommodation of a more suitable size. This won’t save money at any level. (Iain Duncan Smith calls this the ending the spare-room subsidy.)
In the UK, most homes are built with two or three bedrooms: family accommodation, built on the assumption that the average family has two or three children and same-sex siblings will usually share a bedroom. There’s flexibility in this: families where one person is disabled may need more rooms than average for equipment or an overnight carer or other special accommodations: parents may have children serving overseas or be the non-custodial parent whose children stay only at weekends or use their “spare room” for foster children.
Even where none of these apply, the idea that everyone who lives in a council house can easily find a new place to move to is itself false: even if it were true, moving home is expensive and disruptive: being evicted for non-payment of rent still more so. Most people whom the bedroom tax affects are in work – being forced to move house to a location not of their choice will massively disrupt their childcare, their travel costs, and their children’s education.
But Iain Duncan Smith calls the £14 per week that on average families in social housing claiming housing benefit will lose “the spare room subsidy” and complains that the term bedroom tax is inaccurate. To IDS, one of the Cabinet’s millionaires, living in subsidised housing for thirty years and earning over £130K a year with a £90K a year expenses budget, £14 a week may seem a trivial subsidy. As trivial as the £18,000 which he accidentally paid to his wife.
Update: Please sign: We call for a Cumulative Impact Assessment of Welfare Reform, and a New Deal for sick & disabled people based on their needs, abilities and ambitions and No freeze or cut to minimum wage. Thanks!
Appendix: From the written evidence to Parliament it appears that although the scandal was called Betsygate, the problem seems to lie squarely with Iain Duncan Smith:
The other item I raised for discussion with Mr Paterson was an apparently cavalier attitude with which we appeared to be treating our most regular donors—those with private planes who frequently lent them to Mr Duncan Smith if requested. These issues were considered once again to be so sensitive that Mr Paterson was delegated to raise them with the Leader. It was against this background and these on-going concerns that I felt obliged to send my email at all.
With hindsight, the response was perhaps predictable. Although the email had been marked ‘high importance and sent to the most senior people at CCO, it was passed to Mr Duncan Smith first thing the next morning. I received a telephone call before leaving for work from Mr Duncan Smith who was extremely agitated and requested that I go to see him. I consulted Mr MacGregor by telephone and placed a call to Mr Baverstock who did not return my call. It transpired that it was Mr Baverstock who had raised the email with Mr Paterson who subsequently passed a copy of the email to Mr Duncan Smith. I eventually saw Mr Duncan Smith at approximately midday on Friday 31st January. After inviting me to sit down he became very angry and expressed his irritation at my raising the subjects in writing in the email. I accepted unreservedly his rebuke for committing the matter to written form but he advised me that he had already instructed the IT Department at CCO to expunge the email from the central server.
Mr Duncan Smith did not ask me for an explanation. He did not ask why I was concerned. Indeed, besides my own apology for having formalised the matter in the form of an email I did not utter another word as Mr Duncan Smith spoke without break. I was so distressed by his manner and conduct that I was reduced to tears in the meeting. He advised me in the strongest terms that I was to send out an immediate response and asked me to bring my own copy of the email into his office for his attention. He then in effect dictated exactly what the email was to say. I did not and could not agree with what he had asked me to write but it was absolutely apparent within the context of the meeting that I had one of two alternatives—I either wrote the email as he had instructed or I could draft my own letter of resignation. (Select Committee on Standards and Privileges Written Evidence, 13. Written statement by Dr Vanessa Gearson, 16 October 2003, In the matter of the investigation into the employment of Betsy Duncan Smith)
- Memorandum to Dr Vanessa Gearson from Mrs Christine Watson, 24 October 2002
- Written statement by Miss Annabelle Eyre, 18 November 2003
While Vanessa Grearson never became a Tory MP (she stood for the Cheltenham constituency in 2005, but it was a LibDem hold) and despite Iain Duncan Smith’s animosity and vindictiveness towards her, she does seem to have been well taken care of by her party.
Update, March 2015
Even now it looks sadly likely that Iain Duncan Smith, unapologetic enforcer of lethal sanctions, will retain the safe seat he was awarded in 1992.
Update, March 2016
On 18th March 2016, Iain Duncan Smith resigned, after the longest and least successful tenure on record as Secretary of State for the Department of Works and Pensions.