Battle for Britain

Posted On: 
20th March 2014

Iain Duncan Smith says his mission to reform welfare is not just about saving money, but saving lives. The combat-tested Work and Pensions Secretary remains as determined as ever to see his plan through

Iain Duncan Smith is admiring a portrait of one of his ancestors on his office wall. Amid impressive oil paintings of seascapes, hangs a sketch of Admiral Adam Duncan, who defeated the Dutch fleet in the Battle of Camperdown in 1797. Duncan was “not an ostentatious man at all”, IDS points out, but managed to cope with a mutiny within his ranks and used his guile to outwit a bigger enemy. “Nelson always said that it was he who had taught him more about tactics than anyone else. He’s one of the forgotten naval heroes of the Napoleonic war.”

Unpretentious, doggedly determined and tested in battle by both his own side and the opposition, Duncan Smith seems to share at least some of the family traits of his distinguished forefather.

And the Work and Pensions Secretary is quick to point out that the right tactics and strategy are just as essential in his own field. “As they say, politics is war without the death…” he says, smiling.

Reports of IDS’s own political death have been much exaggerated over the years. After his brief tenure as Conservative Party leader, he quietly rebuilt his career with a crusade for welfare reform, before being rewarded with his current post in 2010. Battle-scarred by both his time in Opposition and in Government, he’s still flying the flag for radical change while trying to deliver big cuts in the welfare budget. From the Universal Credit to the ‘bedroom tax’, allies and critics alike recognise that he’s in this for the long haul.

Duncan Smith often says that his mission is to ‘save lives, not just save money’. He insists that “the number one priority of the economy” is to get the deficit down and cutting welfare is a key part of that. “But it’s also important that you do that by reforming the system so that those who are in the system are essentially rewarded for the right behaviour and no longer does the system perversely reward behaviour that is destructive,” he says.

“So this is what the housing benefit changes are about, it’s what the Universal Credit when it comes in will do, this is essentially what the reforms of sickness benefits will do. None of these are easy, but they are important because if all we did was just cut the welfare system, then every time that happens it balloons later on as you don’t change the nature of what the demand is. If you change the nature of the demand, you have a much better chance of keeping control over the welfare budget as you run into the future.”

Warming to his theme of the link between a healthy economy and welfare reform, he goes on: “What the Left does all the time is they conjure up an idea that you’ve slashed benefits. If you want to look at a country that has really slashed benefits, go to Ireland. The reason they’ve had to do that is because they didn’t have the resources and support to be able to get through their recession without having to go and borrow money.”

Duncan Smith points out that at the end of this Parliament he’ll have got spending back to the level of around 2008, before the crash hiked up the bills. Before his reforms to housing benefit, the bill was set to rise by £5bn alone.

One of the most controversial reforms has, of course, been the ‘spare room subsidy’ for council and other social housing tenants. The key has been to change both councils and tenants’ behaviour, he says. “Under social housing, when I inherited it, there was no value to this. It didn’t matter what house they built and it didn’t matter what kind of family they put into a house. No one cared.

“So the result is we’ve got families, half a million of them, living in houses where there are spare rooms. Now we can debate and argue about this on the margins, but the truth is that’s a fact of life. My point is we can’t go on paying and subsidising a council to just put families in houses that they don’t completely utilise, unless either those families make a greater contribution or the council themselves organises the housing so that you get value.

 “We’ve got a quarter of a million overcrowded homes, often two to three kids in a room, dying for it and no one ever talks about them. The only way we could drive council staff to start focusing on this was to say ‘I’m not going to pay any longer for the rooms that are not occupied’.”

So is the true measure of success going to be how many people have been removed from the housing list rather than how many more people pay the ‘bedroom tax’?

“I want some behavioural change, but most of all I want councils to value their council property and the rents so they actually manage that property better,” he says. “The measurement of success is, first of all, that we end up not having to subsidise people in spare rooms. So in other words we get financial control of this. There’s significant sums of money in this, going on £500m a year. And most of that’s paid by average taxpayers – not by upper rate taxpayers – who are often themselves having to make choices about housing.

“If you go to the private sector you don’t find too many people earning with kids who have lots of spare rooms because they make choices about where they live and they afford it. The choices that people make in work must be the same as those who make choices out of work, otherwise they’ll never choose to go back to work.”

Duncan Smith wants more ‘house swaps’ and more town halls building the right kind of homes. “For example, 61% of the level of housing demand right now is for one-bed room properties, but councils continue to build three-bedrooom plus properties. They’ve known about this reform for three years before it came in…Many of them made absolutely no effort whatsoever and then they moaned and complained on the arrival of the policy as though it was drafted the day before.”

The rise of the use of foodbanks has been another focus for criticism and controversy. IDS is adamant that his reforms are “not the main driver” and that the greater publicity has been a factor. As for delays in benefit that some blame for leaving families reliant on food charity, he says they’ve been cut “dramatically”. “Something like 96% now get their benefits on time, whereas before it was just under 90%. It’s improved. If it’s improving, then where would the driver be? It’s not.”

As for the way the Coalition has overseen a rise in sanctions or cuts in benefits for those claimants who break the rules, he’s unrepentant. “In most cases people get lots of warning. And there are reviews of the sanctions. The reality is these are about choices. People get sanctioned on Job Seeker’s Allowance because they did not do what they were asked.

“I’ve been in these Job Centres and I can tell you now categorically that no adviser that I’ve ever seen just wilfully sanctions somebody for no reason. You’ll find that sitting behind this is a long tail of ‘I told you to do this, why haven’t you done it?’ ‘This was on your claimant commitment which you are now signing’.  When people come to food banks and so ‘oh, I got sanctioned for nothing’, often when we’ve checked back, that’s not the case.

“They’ll never say the real reason. Sometimes people didn’t just get their stuff in in time, the delay they are referring to is when they’d like to have to benefit versus when they actually made the application.” 

None of that has stopped Vincent Nichols, the Catholic Archbishop of Westminster and Cardinal-designate, from branding IDS’s reforms ‘a disgrace’. The Secretary of State is as equally robust in his response, pointing out that food banks are the embodiment of Christian charity. “I’m in favour of decent people, who want to help, doing what they think needs to be done to help…To my view, it’s part of the whole process. This also surprised me about the Church that they somehow felt that having a food bank was a problem. I actually think having a food bank is part of what people want to do to help people out of difficulty. Instead of laying the finger of blame and saying ‘it’s Government’, the truth is society is trying to fill a gap somewhere.”

IDS also suggests that the clerics were silent over the 2008 crash. “What is missing from all of these critics is the admission that actually the biggest single driver of problems for families is the fact that we’ve just come through a staggeringly large recession, the Great Recession, is how we should describe it. Of course Labour doesn’t want to admit that because it happened on their watch and others don’t want to admit it because somehow that helps explain it.”

Should the church now recognise it? “They’ve never once mentioned it in anything they’ve ever said. My main role is to restore a sense of security to people and a sense of a future for their children, taking the decisions we’ve taken are part of doing that. Which is beginning to yield dividends. But never once do I hear from any of the critics on this an admission that the issues around the problems that Britain had start with the crash.”

A quick briefing for the clerical critics “would show they basically got almost all their facts wrong”. But as a Catholic, did he feel personally wounded by Archbishop Nichols’ remarks? “He’s entitled to his views. As a Catholic I don’t put my faith in the way of anything like that. He can do what he likes, I don’t have any ownership over his comments or he for that matter over mine. I just thought it was a bit peculiar to have couched it in the terms they couched it in – but never once having come to see us at all. In fact I don’t think I’ve ever seen anyone from the Catholic hierarchy.”

He adds: “Listen, my door is always open. To be fair to the present Archbishop [of Canterbury] he’s been in to see me, we’ve talked on the telephone, I don’t always agree with the rest of his bishops but we have a good relationship. I think he’s a reasonable man. That’s Welby by the way, not the Catholic Archbishop who has now become Cardinal, because I’ve actually never heard from him.”

As for the growth in food banks and their usage, IDS insists it's not down to his changes. "Welfare reform is not the main driver for food banks. One would be that now there are more food banks being set up than ever before so people are more aware of it, they’ve been more in the news.

“We advertise them in the Job Centres unlike the last government, so that helps people know where they are. Trussell Trust, they are an acquisitive food bank, they actually take over a number of food banks, they badge them so when you say food banks have increased, some of that is food banks that existed, badged now as Trussell Trust. They’ve already said they intend to have food banks in every single area, so there’s been a big growth”

And what about complaints that delays in getting benefits are to blame? "On delays, we’ve cut the length of delays dramatically. Something like 96% now get their benefits on time, whereas before it was just under 90%," he replies.

It’s not just Labour and the Church who dish out the brickbats, the DWP invariably has a demonstration outside its London HQ every other week from disabled campaigners and others. Has he had to develop a thick skin?

“I just know what we’ve got to do ultimately will improve the lives of people. If I doubted that for one moment I couldn’t put up with what I do every day. But I believe in it. I believe passionately that what I’m doing is the right thing.

“Do you get a thicker skin? No, I don’t think you ever get a thicker skin, you just kind of keep going because it’s the right thing to do. No one ever likes being called names etcetera but, as I know, names are not that important at the end of the day.”

IDS has had to suffer some ‘friendly fire’ too. Matthew D’Ancona’s book on the Coalition claimed that George Osborne felt the Work and Pensions Secretary was ‘not clever enough’ for his post. Sir John Major told a Press Gallery lunch last year that IDS “may be genius but last time I looked it was unproven”. How does he deal with such slights, real or imagined?

He says Major later suggested he’d been misinterpreted, but is happy to respond. “I don’t mind really, it doesn’t bother me at all. I never really care what people say or think. Everyone has their axe to grind. People grind them away.

“All sorts of things are said about all sorts of people. I’m in quite good company here, the two people who were actually told they were not intelligent enough to cope with this were Mrs Thatcher – she was told she didn’t understand what she was doing by Enoch Powell – and Winston Churchill was regularly told that he wasn’t intelligent enough to understand anything he did from an early year.

“I don’t compare myself to the two of them but I simply say honestly, snap judgements like that are invariable not what people remember. What they remember is ‘did we get the job done?’ And this has never been about me personally anyway.”

Despite claims of opposition from the Treasury and Liberal Democrats, Duncan Smith’s appetite for further reform appears undimmed. He says that a new measure of child poverty is still on the agenda, because the current measure “has no connection with work, no behavioural change”. “You’ve got to see life change in their lives. So trajectory is the word that I use. You’ve got to find a way of measuring trajectory…If somebody has no qualifications, comes from a difficult family, in a difficult area, then that looks like to me the trajectory is flat or possibly going down, that’s where you need to focus your work to get them above the line.”

Will that cost more money? "It’s expensive at the moment to do it this way. It will certainly not be any more expensive. I would suspect it will be a lot less expensive. But what will happen is that those who really need the help will get much greater levels of help.”

“What we are all agreed on or trying to get to is a measure that gives us a much better way of measuring people who are in poverty and likely to remain in poverty.

“I am the one actually that stopped any kind of measure going out because I didn’t think we were right. Because after discussions with everybody I just didn’t think there was any point putting out a half baked measure. What we needed to do was complete that process. We need more data. And in some areas the data has never been collected so this is a slight problem and it takes longer to do. So I’m content where we are. I think we have to reach that point whether we reach it within this Government, which I hope but certainly whoever gets in power next, us I hope, I believe will actually reach that conclusion.”

So it might not happen this Parliament? “I think it will. It’s going to happen, because this present measure completely distorts the way you spend money. It has no connection with work, no behavioural change."

Restricting child benefit to just two children is another idea the party has been testing out in focus groups. “It’s part of a debate about what do you do about a system that seems within it to support a process where people get larger families and there’s a very expensive cost to it. 

"That one measure alone scores very high up the measure of popularity because the average number of children in families is two or just under. The highest number per family you have at the top two deciles and at the bottom two deciles." As for the manifesto, he says: "All I’m saying is we’ve got a debate. We will eventually decide what’s in and what’s out.”

On ending universal elderly benefits like winter fuel allowance and TV licences, he’s also pleased with progress beyond 2015. “The Chancellor has made it clear that they go into the welfare cap. So straight away they will be looked at in the same way as other benefits. Whether we have a specific view on those is a matter for the manifesto.”

But IDS is keen to stress that the ‘triple lock’ and single-tier state pension has helped those in retirement. “I’ve always maintained that during the recession one of the groups that gets hardest hit is elderly people because they can’t change their income. Their income is fixed, they’ve often had to buy annuities at very poor rates. You have to recognise that when you deal with pensioners, that they have much less flexibility, much less scope. They are very vulnerable to big changes in the economy, they’ve done their bit, they’ve retired, made their savings.”

Polls show that many pensioners, like other voters, are tempted by UKIP in the coming May elections. One minister recently claimed it should be made as socially ‘embarrassing’ to admit to voting UKIP as to admit to voting BNP. But IDS doesn’t agree. “I don’t think it’s up to us to do that. I think that you’ll see that the public will make their own mind up about this. The Euro election is the Euro election, you can protest in the Euros, they are very important, but the public doesn’t still think that so I suspect we will see a lot of protesting. But in the run-in to an [general] election, I think people have got to recognise who they are voting for and what they stand for and what you get after it.”

Many Tory MPs are nevertheless nervous of the UKIP vote, with some ready to hit out if there’s a very bad result. Loyalty used to be seen as the Tory Party’s ‘secret weapon’, but IDS is deadpan about that claim. “I sometimes think it was a pretty big secret…as William [Hague] and myself will tell you,” he smiles, wearily. “And Michael Howard, at times, or Mrs T even. I think there’s been almost too much made of that really. In fact parties need to hang together. Because we don’t have a PR system, that means essentially that parties like the Labour party and the Conservative party are coalitions.”

“You don’t always agree with each other on everything but by and large you agree on the same philosophy and the same values etcetera. So it’s always a case of saying ‘well, it’s a trade off’. And I just think we need to rediscover that this needs to be countenanced in a much more balanced way at times.

"But the party in the last few months has been much more settled. And I think that as we go through to the Euros and afterwards, you’ll see a Conservative Party that focuses on the fact that we have an election coming up and basically we have one single message to get across to the public. It’s that we had a long term economic plan and it’s delivering.”

“We are delivering on welfare, we’ve capped it. we got the deficit down, we’ve got immigration still coming down (and I know that’s a difficult measure), improving schools, all these simple messages and who’s the party that offers a referendum. Only the Tories can give you a referendum after the next election.”

“The trouble is in Parliament people think ‘well, we’ve said all that’. But I’ve seen polls that say when you test them out ‘do you know any of this stuff coming from the Conservative party?’ most say 'No' they don’t because people often get their news coming in bite-sized bits. So it means you’ve got to keep on focusing on the simple message: families to be more secure, with a greater chance for their kids to get on, a long term economic plan is the route to delivering that and we are the only party that can deliver that. And if you care about Europe at all, this is the party that will actually deliver you a chance to make a choice at a set time.”

With migration a key worry for UKIP voters, Duncan Smith says Home Office Minister James Brokenshire was right to warn that people ‘at the bottom end’ felt its impacts more than others.

“That is the issue. People that I deal with every day, they feel very squeezed by people who come in, undercut them in price. I was in a Job Centre at the time of the Olympics in my area of Waltham Forest. We were in the Olympic boroughs and there’s a big debate about how much work actually went to those boroughs. I was talking to a plumber and a carpenter, trained, qualified individuals. And I asked them about the Olympic sites. And they said ‘They’re all or mostly people coming in from Eastern Europe who undercut us because they all hotbed in these areas and then they’re gone. I can’t compete with them on this because I’ve got a house, I’ve got kids, I’ve got commitments, there’s only so far I can go on salary, otherwise it’s worse for me than being on benefits’.

"I think there’s been a big change so that now more jobs are going to British workers than went originally. That is the beginning of a change, but I’m very keen to thrash that out to ‘try one of our unemployed people first before you go anywhere else’.”

As for the criticism that IDS can’t understand what it’s like for millions on the breadline or on benefit, he has a ready answer.

“I don’t understand that because I’ve been unemployed,” he says. “We didn’t have smart Job Centres in those days. I’ve been made redundant when I thought my career was heading in the right direction. I know what it’s like to be without work, without an income, worried about what you are going to do. I had a family and kids at that stage, things were a little difficult, interest rates had jacked up. The economy wasn’t looking great. It was under Nigel Lawson, I remember categorically worrying about where that went.

“And I remember when I came out of the Army, I didn’t come out into work. I had to go searching for work. And I did. I went to the library, I got the stock market yearbook out, I wrote to people, names.  I spent all day writing; I must have written hundreds of letters to people, asking for jobs. We didn’t have universal job match then, I had to look in the newspapers, I applied for every job. I didn’t inherit vast great monies at all, any monies really, so the money that I’ve had has been the money that I’ve worked for.”

And ultimately, it’s that sense of determination that has seen him stick with a reform agenda that started back with his tour of Easterhouse in Glasgow in 2002.

“I feel very strongly that I’m right on this. And if there’s one thing that I’m taught about all of this is that when you believe that passionately you have to keep going. I keep trying to sell the message that we are doing the right thing. Public opinion is by and large on our side on this so I just think that we are winning the battle, but it’s still not easy.  I’m content to see what history’s judgement of me will be, not what my contemporaries think of me. Politics is a silly game.”

Politics is indeed warfare without bloodshed. But like his naval ancestor, Duncan Smith is unafraid of battle, whether it’s in his personal or political life. His allies certainly hope he’ll win the war. 


"It's about improving their security, knowing there's a way out, a way up, that they can actually improve their lives." 


"We didn't do it in a harsh way, we've tried to do it in a way that makes logical sense and gets it under control."


'We are not responsible for food banks, that policy area generally is Cabinet Office and so it should remain. I'm happy for people to visit food banks, I don't have a particular problem with them." 


"It's part of a debate about a process where people get larger families and there's a very expensive cost to it. These ideas amongst the general public are enormously popular." 


"I just didn't think there was any point putting out a half-baked measure. It's going to happen, because this present measure completely distorts the way you spend money." 


"I don't lecture anybody about how they vote, I just wish they would vote Conservative because I think we have the best platform."