We need to change the terms of the welfare debate

While financial prudence is vital if Labour is to win power, we cannot put it before compassion.

While financial prudence is vital if Labour is to win power, we cannot put it before compassion

When he arrived at DWP headquarters in 2010, Iain Duncan Smith made clear his desire to radically reform the welfare state to simplify the system, support people into work and reduce the amount spent on the benefits bill.

Laudable aims and, according to polling and Conservative commentators, just the kind of bread and butter issue that David Cameron should be talking more about if the Tories are to address their UKIP problem.

The fact remains, however, that much of the current government’s welfare policies, far from being a triumph, have amounted to an illusion with the chief magician Iain Duncan Smith simply failing to accept reality that his policies are hurting but not working.

Last month, the Major Projects Authority published its annual report in which it was forced to classify the ailing Universal Credit scheme as a completely new project owing to the difficulties and substantial delays in delivering this flagship policy.

In March, it was reported that just 48,000 people have found long-term jobs under the government’s work programme during its near three-year life – despite the hyperbole from ministers that it would support millions into work. Almost 20 per cent of 16-24 year olds meanwhile are out of work or education.

And ministers themselves have admitted that ATOS, the now infamous contractor charged with carrying out work capability assessments for the Employment and Support Allowance, has developed a backlog of over 700,000 cases. The only question is why it took the DWP so long to realise what a poor job it was doing before deciding to end its contract with them.

What makes it worse is the failure of ministers to take any responsibility for the disastrous impacts on communities up and down the country of their policies.

It was Thatcher who declared that there was “no such thing as society”, and sure enough IDS is presiding over policies that in many cases are tearing the fabric of society apart.

One only has to look at the alarming rising in the use of food banks.

As a country, we sit around the G7 table of the richest countries in the world, but as David Cameron discusses ways in which the country could become even richer through greater trade, back home, last year the Trussell Trust reported that 913,138 people were given three days of emergency food and support in 2013-14. This figure is up from the 61,468 in the year that this government came to power.

If society is judged by how it treats its poorest, what does it say about this country that almost a million people are having to rely on food parcels from volunteers? What does it say about David Cameron’s unique brand of ‘compassionate conservatism’?

And the response to all of this? Today we learn that people close to the work and pensions secretary have been threatening the Trussell Trust over its high profile work to highlight the injustices of the country’s growing reliance on food banks.

While financial prudence is vital if Labour is to get in to power, we cannot put it before compassion. Let’s put people before money and decide what kind of society we want to build and encourage, then do the maths to make that happen.

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