Welcome to Whitehall, Steve: some advice on your new job

by georgehep

Dear Secretary of State,

I always enjoy visiting Wales. Whether climbing Cader Idris or making my way along Offas Dyke, I receive a warm welcome and generous hospitality. I imagine you have packed your bags for Whitehall with some regrets.

But Steve, if I may be as bold, what a great opportunity has unexpectedly opened up for you on your appointment as Secretary of State for Work and Pensions. Will you complete the long march of your predecessor across the mountains  to  welfare reform or will you step back and strike out in a new direction?

Will you follow Michael Gove’s example at the Department of Justice? He has torn up just about every measure introduced by his predecessor, Chris Grayling, such as the reforms of legal aid, the controversial criminal court charges and the madcap ban on books in prisons. Michael Gove has rehabilitated himself in the process. What does he say to Grayling when they sit together on Brexit platforms?

Iain Duncan Smith’s alleged life mission was to introduce the Universal Credit scheme. This followed a much publicised trip to visit poor people in Glasgow in 2002, when he discovered compassion and set up a think tank for social justice. It might be best not to go out too much Steve if you want to be objective in cutting the welfare budget.

In particular, don’t visit food banks. IDS refused to have anything to do with the body that runs them. This will be difficult as foodbanks are now well established in every town around the land. The Trussell Trust claims that the cuts and delays in benefits have been responsible for the huge increase in people depending on hand outs. Over one million people received three day food packages last year.

Perhaps your predecessor meant well. The idea of his great scheme was to reduce a number of benefits to one single payment but he couldn’t see it wasn’t working. Don’t take my word for it. Paul Spicker, Professor of Public Policy at Robert Gordon University said, ”I am flummoxed Universal Credit has lasted as long as it has given the repeated failures of implementation. Will the government say this is a policy mistake?”

According to Prof John Seddon, the centralised computer driven way of delivering Universal Credit is not suitable for such a complicated benefit. He says it would be both better and cheaper see claimants face to face.

The introduction of Universal Credit is running at least two years behind schedule and £13bn over budget. It was only introduced in Northumberland last month ( Like Wales, we have splendid beaches and mineshafts. You’d feel at home.)

It is only available so far to the most straightforward of claimants. Although the roll out started in 2013, only 175,505 people were claiming Universal Credit by last December.  By all accounts it is deeply unpopular with staff at the Job Centres. Why not visit a few offices this week and ask questions?

Duncan Smith said in his resignation letter that he was “incredibly proud” of his welfare reforms but, in my personal view, they have deliberately made the lives of claimants much more difficult in a concerted attempt to reduce the benefits bill. Too much stick and not enough carrot.  Ideology not compassion.

The unemployed ( a word removed from the lexicon) are expected to be constantly seeking work whether or not jobs are available. They face financial penalties if they fail to meet up to expectations. Sickness claimants all face examinations. Young mothers are expected to return to work after a year. The self employed have to jump through endless hoops. Payments are made monthly in arrears. This is no way to treat people in this way. There is time for you to think again.

You will need a steadfast Welsh heart to fight battles around the Cabinet table but there are reasons to be hopeful. Although the Chancellor has pulled countless rabbits out of the hat on budget day like sugar tax and saving breaks for yuppies, the small print has always included further reductions in local authority budgets and the benefit bill.

It has been depressing to realise that no one votes for welfare anymore.  The Daily Mail has turned the perception of claimants into scroungers. You know better.

It has been embarrassing to me, as someone a few years older than you, that pensioners have been exempt from cuts and that the working age claimants have been hit so hard. Claimants may not “vote for us”, as IDS put it, but pensioners do.

The disability lobby did a brilliant job last week exposing MPs who voted to reduce benefits for the sick and disabled by £30 a week whilst claiming all sorts of parliamentary allowances. Your name is mentioned among them. Your record on gay rights is deplorable too.

But cometh the hour cometh the man, Steve. Here is your chance to redeem yourself and your party. Providing you win the referendum, you will have time to turn this around. We are all with you because, of course, we are all in this together.

published in Newcastle Journal Tues 22nd March