The quiet man loudly leaves 

by Ken Gibb

Last night we heard that Ian Duncan Smith has resigned as Secretary of State for work and pensions, apparently in response to the Chancellor’s budget this week which had sought further large cuts in welfare benefits, this time targeting the disabled through Personal Independence Payments. This was deemed  unfair in IDS’ resigination letter contrasting low income working households facing cuts while higher income groups benefited from proposed tax cuts. Others have attributed the departure from his post in part at least to the growing divisions over the Brexit referendum.

As the dust settles, how should we assess the IDS tenure in DWP?

While in opposition, IDS laid the groundwork for his subsequent policies via his Centre for Social Justice. The welfare reforms that followed were in part a strongly held set of convictions developed by the politician but they were also an opportunistic response to the Government’s narrative around the deficit and the chance to clobber the poorly designed and high cost housing benefit system. So, from the very beginning in 2010, we have had two forces operating broadly together: the desire to make comprehensive reforms and a new settlement for working age households across the means-tested benefits regime, and, at the same time, a Treasury-led (but DWP supporting) downward squeeze on spend either directly or through increased conditionality. 

It is difficult to see the process of reform and cuts as anything but the two departments working closely together and apparently broadly as one.

In previous posts I have been I think consistently critical of the welfare reforms since 2010. But to be clear, there is a case in principle for a single or greatly simplified means-tested system of support for working age households. But it was always going to be difficult to achieve and made much worse by the climate of deficit reduction and cuts. I have also many times written about the structural problems with housing benefit that predate IDS and in many ways are still with us. But that is not an argument for  the reforms we have actually seen.

There are many concerns, for example:  the exclusive focus on working age households and the difference in treatment between old and young (remarkably raised in the IDS resignation letter); the aforementioned conditionality/sanctions regimes; the massive challenges to make universal credit the comprehensive benefit it is supposed to provide; the management of live updates to the UC system; the treatment of housing costs in the UC system; the ideological disinterest with evidence on impacts and behaviour (and actual outcomes); the spare room subsidy or bedroom tax. One could go on or simply look at the back file of Paul Spicker’s blogs.

Even if you were a fan of the reforms, it would be hard to say that independently they have made the sort of progress hoped for; only that it costs a lot to make change and that UC has a long way to go. Cutting spending on social security is hard and you are not of course fully in control of it. Moreover, it should take time to design and launch and then transition the system. It is not going to win short to medium run political plaudits. 

What happens next? Will the new Secretary of State change things? I can’t imagine a big shift in direction any time soon but there will be smaller scale opportunties to make eye-catching announcements and reforms. Perhaps these will be progressive and coherent but I am not hugely optimistic. Meanwhile HM Treasury must be under real pressure over the PPP proposals. Whatever else, the resignation and the problems between IDS and the Chancellor demonstrate the internal divisions in parts of the present Government, especially with the backdrop of the EU referendum. And it is only March.