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Wednesday, 16 July 2014

The Toxic Welfare Debate: real reason IDS is still in a job?

Many are asking how it is that Iain Duncan-Smith remains Secretary of State at the Department for Work and Pensions in the wake of a deep and wide-ranging reshuffle this week.
Patrick Wintour, without citing the evidence argues that, in contrast to Mr Gove, Mr Duncan-Smith’s policies are‘popular’ with the electorate. The BBC’s Nick Robinson is unequivocal – IDS has ‘won’ the debate on welfare.

Others think Cameron didn’t sack IDS because no-one else wanted the job. But I find this a bit of a stretch.
Granted, the DWP is in a mess: Universal Credit is failing; the Work Programme works poorly; sanctions against people with a disease of disability are going through the roof; the system of Mandatory Reconsideration of appeals seems close to breaking point, the Ministry of Justice recently billed the DWP £20 million after receiving a tsunami of unexpected appeals against DWP decisions.
Practically anyone you speak to whose job involves engaging with DWP officials talks of a department on the defensive, a department in crisis even.
But this would not have deterred an ambitious MP from taking Duncan-Smith’s job. Afterall, as Wintour and Robinson argue, his policies are ‘popular,' aren’t they?
In truth I doubt the electorate has a clue what IDS’s policies are. I doubt that Wintour or Robinson have a clue either.
What they and the electorate are familiar with is the rhetoric about 'welfare reform' and claimants who rely some form of social security. What the commentators really mean is that IDS is winning the propaganda war on welfare policy.
For the past few years we have seen ‘welfare reform’ framed as a battle between ‘strivers and shirkers’ (and here, for Labour's contribution) accompanied by a rhetoric of ‘hard-working families’ that ignores the fact that, for many, work is not a route out of poverty. It is a rhetoric in which the media portrays claimants as dishonest for exercising their rights. It is a rhetoric in which the employment minister seeks to infantilise the unemployed.  It is a rhetoric deployed in a criminalising way to marginalise the unemployed for the crime of being… unemployed (Donkey Passim). It is a rhetoric that is reproduced in shows like Benefit Street, a form of ‘poverty porn’ lauded by Mr Duncan-Smith

But if you speak to people whose job involves engaging with actual policy, they repeat the same message: the welfare reform debate has become toxic beyond rational discussion.
And in large part this must be down to the rhetoric of politicians. They should know better, but they indulge in it anyway.
The problem when debate degenerates to this awful level is that ‘you reap what you sow.'
I recently spoke to a charity that has persuaded the DWP to make concessions on aspects of its welfare to work policies. The concessions, though small, seem hard won and potentially significant. They were the result of sustained, but evidence-based, campaigning and engagement with DWP officials. The concessions will not change the world but may be a start.
But pressure groups and members of the public rounded on the charity when news of the concessions leaked. Much of the anger seemed to come from people who have borne the brunt of ‘welfare reform’ and the rhetoric that comes with it.
A member of staff at the charity told me he felt that this reaction, whilst depressing, was understandable and predictable. The rhetoric of welfare reform affects the way everyone thinks, he argued, including those worst affected by actual policy.
The well has been poisoned. And despite the charity’s efforts to change policy for the better, there is a disillusion, to the extent that people have started to mistrust the motives of the charity itself.

Commentators who argue that Mr Duncan-Smith’s policies are popular, should reflect on this.

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