This article originally appeared on Filibuster UK on the 18th of March, you can find the article here.
Well, nobody saw that coming. After serving as secretary of state for the Department of Work and Pensions for six years, since the start of the coalition government, Iain Duncan Smith has resigned in protest against cuts to the Personal Independence Payment (PIP), the money that is given to disabled people to help with costs caused by a health condition or disability. The former Conservative leader wrote in his resignation letter that, “I have for some time and rather reluctantly come to believe that the latest changes to benefits to the disabled and the context in which they’ve been made are, a compromise too far”. It is difficult to overstate the significance of these words from a secretary of state who has overseen cuts in the billions to the welfare budget.
Although he says in his resignation letter that he is proud of the welfare reforms he has implemented while acting as secretary of state, Iain Duncan Smith’s legacy is nothing to be proud of. The DWP has repeatedly introduced cuts to the most vulnerable, and the latest cuts to the PIP are merely a continuation of the attacks on those who need help the most. During his time as welfare minister, 500,000 more children were classified as being in ‘absolute poverty’, despite the attempts of the government to redefine what poverty is. The number of homeless people is also on the rise – in 2014, the Guardian reported that over 112,000 people declared themselves homeless, an increase of more than 25% since IDS became secretary of state. Although the Department of Work and Pensions sought to portray cuts as incentives to get people back into work, it was not primarily the “workshy feckless” that are so often talked about by the Conservative government who suffered the most – the majority of those who fell into poverty since Iain Duncan Smith took over at the DWP were in work.
But Iain Duncan Smith’s biggest monument to failure is Universal Credit, the welfare benefit launched in 2013 to replace six means-tested benefits, introduced as part of the Welfare Reform Act 2012. Originally proposed at a cost of £2.2bn to the taxpayer, the scheme ended up costing a whopping £15.8bn, even though the number of claimants was reported as being only 14,170 in 2014. It is odd that IDS has resigned over benefits cuts to the disabled when it was reported that the implementation of Universal Credit slashed benefits by £28 per week for 100,000 disabled children and £40 per week for 116,000 who needed extra support for their disability. There have also been claims that some of the roll-out of Universal Credit has been illegal: Owen Smith, the shadow work and pensions secretary, argued that Universal Credit was unfairly discriminating against single mothers, given that a single mother working full-time on the minimum wage would be £3,000 worse off than a mother doing exactly the same work but who happened to be on tax credits.
Another unsavoury result of Iain Duncan Smith’s time as welfare secretary has been the huge surge in the use of food-banks in the UK. The Trussell Trust reported in 2015 that in 2014-15, the trust’s 445 food-banks distributed emergency food that could feed 1.1 million people. 22% of users were referred because of low income and 44% because their benefits had either been delayed or discontinued. Possibly for the first time since World War Two, food has becoming a contentious political issue, and people have been forced to choose between heating and eating, with the Independent reporting in 2015 that, due to the high cost of living coupled with the DWP’s welfare cuts, 750,000 (mostly elderly) people would not be able to both heat their homes and have enough food to survive on.
Although Iain Duncan Smith’s legacy shows that he has overseen some of the gravest crises in living standards for the poorest in the UK, this does not mean that his decision to resign is insignificant. Indeed, the fact that a secretary for the DWP with such a legacy would resign shows just how destructive the new cuts to the PIP are. The results of the new budget are not only significant to the disabled people who are affected by it, they are also politically significant. Although as recently as a year ago George Osborne was seen as the clear front-runner for the Conservative leadership after David Cameron’s premiership is over, this resignation is another huge setback to Osborne’s leadership ambitions, and, in conjunction with the tax-credit U-Turn that he made late in 2015, the momentum seems to have fallen to Boris Johnson after he gave his backing to the Vote Leave Campaign last month. Iain Duncan Smith has made a huge impact in both his time as Welfare secretary, and in his resignation. His legacy is clearly a rotten one, but it remains to be seen what impact his departure will have.