Major incompetence: IDS’ reforms descend into chaos

As someone who joined the Labour Party under John Major's period as Prime Minister, I find it odd to agree with his comments on Iain Duncan Smith’s welfare reforms.

Neil Coyle is Labour’s prospective parliamentary candidate for Bermondsey

As someone who joined the Labour Party under John Major’s period as Prime Minister, I find it odd to agree with his comments on Iain Duncan Smith’s welfare reforms.

Major suggested IDS would fail if he didn’t listen to advice – and apparently made disparaging comments about IDS’ overall intelligence (although the latter is disputed by the Mail’s political editor James Chapman).

Whatever Major specifically stated, there is growing concern with IDS’ policies at the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP). There is of course a basic competence issue in ensuring people can get into work or can access help if unable to work. But the Coalition has also attached significant savings to IDS’ policy changes.

Delays are now occurring across a range of measures, but Osborne’s spending forecasts have not been formally adjusted. The treasury (and taxpayers) will be footing the bill for IDS’ failure to listen.

Anyone familiar with risk management (especially in the civil service) will be aware of the flagging system: green for all’s well; orange for ok/smaller challenges; red for significant concern.

Examining three areas in more detail shows the reasons the treasury are keeping the red flag flying high over Duncan Smith’ department.

1) Abolishing Disability Living Allowance (DLA)

IDS has been forced to delay plans to cut DLA from 500,000 disabled people. Some believe this is due to rising fears at how much the cut will cost and the associated negative publicity before the 2015 election.

Disability Rights UK highlighted the potential costs of DLA in 2012 – which DWP have ignored to date.

However, Polly Toynbee has highlighted research coming soon demonstrating the risk that disabled people will be tipped out of work by DLA mobility cuts – resulting in higher costs for out of work benefits (than in work DLA payments).

2) Universal Credit

New potential costs of the overdue and over-budget Universal Credit were raised in leaked DWP papers. The flagship DWP policy has run off the rails amid significant concerns at the costs (some reports claim six times its original estimate) and the capability of a new IT system.

The delayed rollout is the latest indicator that IDS is heading for the failure warned by Major for not listening even to departmental advisors who it is believed warned that the politically imposed timeframe was insufficient to deliver such significant change.

3) Work Programme

That you are more likely to find work by not being on the Programme is perhaps the most damning finding given the £5billion cost of this scheme. Disability organisers have aired strong concerns about the failure rate of the ‘flagship’ programme, as have homelessness charities collectively. But no change is yet available to improve this Titanic policy.

IDS has always defended the Programme, but after his sacking as employment minister Mark Hoban MP claimed he’d turned it around. Not quite enough it seems: 1.3m people have been referred to the Programme, just 14,000 have found sustained employment.

Politics before policy

Why has such an abysmal record been permitted? The Emergency Budget estimated £18b of savings in welfare cuts – now at risk from the failure to get people into work or ensure smooth delivery of plans. There were rumours IDS might be shunted in the last reshuffle but, like many of his plans, this failed to happen.

Worryingly, there is worse than acquiescence with failure: politicians responsible for such epic costs without success have been promoted. Maria Miller was minister for disabled people overseeing DLA abolition and is now culture secretary.

Chris Grayling was employment minister, introducing the Work Programme and now heads up justice where he is attempting to impose a similar system for the probation services. Given the Work Programme failure, it is unsurprising to see significant opposition to his current plans.

Ideology and friendly media coverage of being tough on welfare arguably explains the Tories’ intransigence. Both prevent the admission of failure. But as real people are affected even the most right-wing news outlets have expressed concern at some elements of reform and the worst is yet to come: 15 year old disabled children have been receiving letters from DWP outlining the timeframe for the cuts in their support.

Weak, weak, weak

With warning alarms reaching fever pitch, it’s almost make or break time. Blair famously called Major weak, weak, weak – Cameron now risks looking the same if he is unable to get a grip on IDS and his failing reform agenda.

Neil Coyle is PPC for Bermondsey and Old Southwark and a Steering Group member of the Disability Benefits Consortium but writes here in a personal capacity.

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