Iain Duncan Smith, the Work and Pensions Secretary, likes to think of himself as a Tory radical. And his new plans for a fundamental review of our benefits system would certainly support that image.
But is this just another cost cutting exercise from a government determined to make massive cuts in spending?
Iain Duncan Smith, or IDS as he is often known, is a Scot who has spent most of his life in England. He came into parliament in 1992, replacing Norman Tebbit as MP for Chingford. Always a right wing Eurosceptic, IDS was often a thorn in John Major’s side, before becoming Tory leader himself in 2001. He beat Ken Clark in the final vote, and had support from Margaret Thatcher.
His time as leader was a failure. He could not make any impact on the Labour government and Tory support fell under his leadership. IDS claims to have an interest in tackling poverty, and makes great play of the fact that he once visited Easterhouse in 2002 whilst he was Tory leader.
Duncan Smith has now published proposals to reform the benefits system, which he described as “antiquated” and being on the verge of collapse.
His big idea is to scrap all out-of-work benefits and tax credits and replace them with a single payment.
Sounds simple, doesn’t it? And superficially at least he has a point. There have been so many reforms to the system over the years that it is now extremely complex, and even many of the staff who administer it are often confused.
But exactly how do you combine up to 50 different benefit payments into one?
Like any major reform it would take time and cost money in the short term. A new computer system would be required and we all know that big government IT projects have a habit of coming in vastly over budget. Then all of the paperwork would have to be redesigned. And of course all of the staff would require to be retrained.
In opposition IDS costed the implementation of such a system at £3 billion. And that was a couple of years ago. There are no costings at all for his latest proposals. Will his Chancellor allow him to spend a large sum up front on the promise of savings in future years?
Duncan Smith believes that many people are still caught in a poverty trap, where they would net so little money from working rather than remaining on benefits that they simply don’t see the point.
That may be true for some people, although the introduction of both a national minimum wage and a tax credit scheme by the previous Labour government have gone a long way to tackle the problem.
But there is one big issue that IDS refuses to acknowledge with his picture of the feckless unemployed who simply choose not to work.
There are very few jobs around. And his government’s cuts will make the situation worse. Much worse.
For Labour, shadow Work and Pensions Secretary Yvette Cooper said the proposals are “a sham to cover the fact that the Budget actually cut work incentives, cut jobs and cut help for people to return to work”.
IDS’s new plans come on top of the abolition of Incapacity Benefit and reductions in entitlement for those on Disability Living Allowance (DLA). And the government has also that announced a new test for DLA will be introduced in 2013, which will reduce the numbers able to claim it by an estimated 20%.
Cutting the welfare bill is a priority for a government that is ideologically determined to reduce the role of the state. Perhaps IDS is taking an idea from his predecessor as MP for Chingford who told the unemployed to get on their bikes.
The bottom line is that many people will fear that the proposed changes will simply make it more difficult for them to claim benefits when they need the support the most.
Where are the Tory’s coalition partners in all of this? Do they support the proposals? Now that’s a good question.