Iain Duncan Smith's welfare reforms could end in chaos by GlynnePowell


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Iain Duncan Smith's welfare reforms could
end in chaos

Delivery was the watchword in Downing Street as the prime minister
shuffled his pack last week. By that token, an innocent observer might
have imagined that there are calm waters ahead for the Department for
Work and Pensions. After all, the new ministerial team is remarkably like
the old one. Steve Webb and David Freud stay in place as the brains of
the operation on, respectively, pensions and welfare. Former TV
presenter Esther McVey picks up disability, and a man from the Treasury
– Mark Hoban – moves into operational charge of employment, but
neither move signifies any great shake-up as much as the fact that their
ambitious predecessors have taken another step up. Most important of
all, the grand architect of the universal credit, Iain Duncan Smith, remains
at the helm.
Our innocent observer, however, would not have clocked that the
promotion of the outgoing employment minister, Chris Grayling, who has
taken charge of the Ministry of Justice, was possible only because
Duncan Smith had obstinately refused to budge when the PM pleaded
with him to go there. The reality is that Whitehall in general, and the
Treasury in particular, is decidedly nervous about looming welfare
reforms. Indeed, George Osborne and his officials were desperate to
send IDS packing, fearing that this former Scots Guard, who is supremely
convinced that he has the answers, has set off on a merry march that will
end in big bills, or – worse – abject chaos.

Whitehall intrigue aside, what does the prospect of another two years of
IDS entail for benefit claimants? First, the good news, so desperately
needed with all those cuts in the pipeline. Duncan Smith will fight to
prevent the next phase of austerity being so heavily loaded on to working-
age poor. Indeed, he went public against Osborne when the chancellor
signalled he wanted another £10bn on top of the £18bn in annual cuts
already announced. Duncan Smith is proud of his big idea, and painfully
aware that the credit is compromised by want of funds. He won't stop the
blood-letting from social security, but – popular with his party – he might
just have the clout to minimise it.

Design is one thing, however, delivery is another. The bad news is that
another prolongation of the IDS tenure carries acute operational risks.
Duncan Smith is far better on the morality (or his version of it – which
mixes charity, reward and punishment) and big sweeping themes, such
as simplification, than the detail. That much is evident in his breathtaking
decision to cede control of council tax rebates to hundreds of cash-
strapped town halls, freeing each to reinvent the poverty trap in their own

But it is evident, too, in the disregard for potential practical snags that
could yet unravel the whole system. It was only decided this summer, for
instance, that landlords will lose their right to demand direct payment of
rents. Some warn of a vicious cycle of defaults, evictions and owners
turning benefit cases away. Case workers fear that the move to pay
benefits monthly and to process them online will pose huge problems for
the millions of poor Britons who are unfamiliar with computers and not
used to managing budgets over long periods. There are persistent
rumours about software glitches, and – it emerged at the weekend – 70
organisations, from charities to businesses, have submitted evidence to a
parliamentary committee about these practical dangers to a system that's
meant to go live in months.

I've not even got on to the Work Programme where providers are said to
be feeling the pressure of operating on extraordinarily tight margins in a
flatlining jobs market. A separate crisis here could soon test both Hoban
and Duncan Smith. The good ship DWP is set for choppy waters all right,
even though – for better, or worse – the same captain remains at the

Tom Clark is the Guardian's social affairs leader writer

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