IDS shows his Victorian values
by Claudia Wood
This week at Conservative Party conference, we saw the welfare reform team take to the stage. It was a similar to last year’s panel show format, as we heard from people who had been successfully helped back into work, interspersed with ministerial speeches, before the keynote address delivered by IDS.
There were a few early clangers – work and pensions minister Chris Grayling started the session stating the Government would ‘reassess IB claimants to try and give you the right support’. Clearly the ‘right support’ in the Government’s eyes is ‘less support’, as the reassessments are migrating around two thirds of incapacity benefit claimants on to JobSeeker’s Allowance (£26 less per week and on a penalty system for failing to take work).
The minister for disabled people, Maria Miller, then joined in. In the same breath as talking about Disability Living Allowance reform, she spoke of giving people who cannot work unconditional support – confusing DLA with an out of work benefit. This is indicative of the fact that whilst DLA is non-means tested – given to people regardless of employment status –its reform is increasingly being linked to incentivising work (perhaps to justify its 20 per cent reduction).
But these faux pas paled in significance once work and pensions secretary Iain Duncan Smith took the floor. He began by making a clear link between worklessness and a ‘damaging, broken culture’ of poor parenting, family breakdown, violence, criminality – even citing the kidnap of Shannon Matthews and death of Baby Peter as examples. Welfare reform is a cure for psychopathy, apparently.
I felt transported to the Victorian era, where moral delinquency and worklessness were one and the same thing. I also wish I had counted the number of times IDS used ‘culture’ – damaging culture, broken culture, gang culture, ‘something for nothing culture’ and ‘IB culture’ – because this is telling.
‘Culture’ implies that unemployment is a social, collective phenomenon, where groups of workless youths have an expectation of getting something for nothing, which inherently links to their criminality. It is no accident that IDS embarked on a long monologue about the riots – the implication being that getting money for free through benefits makes people think they can loot shops.
Within this context, the veiled threats IDS that made, which seemed to portray the Work Programme as a punitive system – and where he claimed that ‘failure to seek work, take work and stay in work’ means ‘you will lose your benefits!’ – were totally in keeping with the narrative that unemployment was somehow a punishable offence.
Most striking was the incongruence between IDS’s moral crusade and the previous tone set by the guest speakers – the Work Programme provider immediately countered the ‘benefits culture’ line and said most of his clients were keen to work. The two former job seekers who had been helped by the Work Programme were full of praise for the system and spoke of their desperation to get a job. Such a positive tone was quickly dismantled.
IDS captured the entire speech in his closing line – he said he was undertaking ‘More than welfare reform , but social reform leading to social recovery’. No mention of economic recovery with higher employment – but ‘social recovery’, instilling correct moral behaviour through reduced benefits.
This was his big mistake. Caught up in the fire and brimstone, IDS forgot the first rule of a good speech – know your audience.
IDS spoke as if we are a nation of ‘hard working taxpayers’ on one side and a minority of morally corrupt unemployed on the other. But 2.51 million people are unemployed. He was speaking to hundreds of thousands of young graduates, desperate to start a career; middle-aged former-taxpayers, made redundant and frantic to get back to work to pay their mortgages; and disabled people overwhelmed with frustration at employers not willing to give them a chance.
All were looking for a speech targeted at them – majoring on job creation and re-skilling. By tarring them with the same brush as the rioters and Shannon Matthew’s mum, IDS really missed his mark.