A promising start on welfare reform risks spiralling into confusion, warns MARGARET CURRAN


The groundbreaking Welfare Reform Bill, long hailed as the Tory answer to ending worklessness and benefit dependency in this country, reached its final stages in the House of Commons this week. Given the scale of the change that it represents and the life-changing impact it will have on thousands of people across the UK, it is truly remarkable just how little media coverage it has received.

Maybe that’s because it has been Lansley, Clarke and Huhne that have been falling over each other to grab all the latest headlines, or maybe it’s because Ian Duncan Smith garners a certain degree of sympathy – after all, we all feel a little bit sorry for him given the mauling he got during his time as Tory party leader. Perhaps there is a sense that the Secretary of State genuinely wants to do “good” and has found some of the answers to the questions previous Government’s have long tackled with before him. Dare I say it, maybe some of the changes to welfare that he is proposing are actually the right thing to do.

In fact, I think it’s a little bit of all of these factors.

When in Government, Labour came to terms with the need to reform welfare – both for the good of our Party, and for the wellbeing of our country. We understood that it would be a rolling programme of reform – largely driven though by the leadership of one of our most thoughtful Secretaries of State, James Purnell.

In government, we believed that you can’t tackle deep rooted social problems, poverty, post industrial blight and depressed inner-city estates, without tackling inter generational worklessness and bringing in a strong social contract of rights, responsibilities and conditionality to the welfare state. Past reforms led to some real progress – the process of reassessing the thousands of people on Incapacity Benefit was started by us – but we always knew that wholesale reform had to continue and it had to go further.

With Iain Duncan Smith at the helm, the Tories had the opportunity to take that next logical step. But has he blown it?

Some of the principles of the Welfare Bill are right and some of the promises are welcome. It is right that it should always pay to be in work and we welcome the decision to simplify a system that many people struggle to understand.

But the problem is that the proposals in the bill overreach, they have been cobbled together to meet an arbitrary timeframe of delivery, and the obsession to simplify has produced a framework that may very well serve to undermine many of the admirable goals that they set out to achieve in the first place.

I have been involved in scrutinising the welfare proposals since I was elected to Westminster in May 2010 – initially as a member of the Work and Pensions Select Committee and then as the opposition front bench spokesperson for disabled people.  There is no doubt that, along with my colleagues, I have witnessed a clear shift in opinion on these proposals throughout the passage of this Bill; from one of generally positive support, to constructive questioning of the detail, and finally to alarm and concern about its implementation.

Because although we are now at Report stage, there are glaring holes in the Welfare Reform Bill that simply don’t answer key questions for many people: what are the government’s plan for childcare support? What families on Universal Credit will be eligible for free school meals? The answers to these important issues matter as they will determine whether it really does pay to be in work. Furthermore, the once concealed losers of IDS’s reforms are starting to emerge: disabled children will see their support halved, while elderly people in residential care homes are still at threat of losing their DLA mobility.

There is a real worry that many people will pay a very high price for a rushed bill that has lacked the thought, scrutiny and patience that is required in order to get things right.

I’m told IDS works very long hours. I’m not surprised. The bill introduced is half baked with glaring omissions and key elements unanswered. What was meant to be a simplification of the benefits system has the danger of turning into a plethora of cuts and confusion.

Reforming welfare is not easy, but IDS made a promising start.

He told us that he had all the answers to of all of our problems – but he simply hasn’t bought them together in enough time for the passage of this bill.

The Secretary of State will be hoping that he can get through the next week without joining his fellow Tory frontbenchers in the headlines for all the wrong reasons.

Margaret Curran was an MSP from 1999 until 2011, serving as Minister for Communities and for Parliamentary Business. She was elected as MP for Glasgow East in 2010. Follow her on Twitter at @Margaret_Curran.

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13 thoughts on “Has IDS blown a genuine opportunity for reform?

  1. ‘In government, we believed that you can’t tackle deep rooted social problems… without…bringing in a strong social contract of rights, responsibilities and conditionality to the welfare state. Past reforms led to some real progress – the process of reassessing the thousands of people on Incapacity Benefit was started by us – but we always knew that wholesale reform had to continue and it had to go further.’

    I don’t agree at all with the above. We caused a huge amount of anxiety for a very vulnerable group in society and I think that we opened the floodgates for what we are now seeing emerging from the Tories.

    I am not convinced that ‘conditionality’ does have a place in the welfare system.

    The vast majority of people will work if they possibly can, in part, for their own human dignity, but also let’s not kid ourselves that you can live the life of riley on welfare payments.

    One of the big disappointments of the Labour Westminster Government was the way they bought into the Tory agenda of villifying those who really, are victims of the Thatcher years.

    We ought to be ashamed.

    1. “I am not convinced that ‘conditionality’ does have a place in the welfare system.

      The vast majority of people will work if they possibly can, in part, for their own human dignity, but also let’s not kid ourselves that you can live the life of riley on welfare payments.”

      The amount of welfare fraud that goes on in this country is incredibly small. Is it a problem? A little. Should government address it? Yes. Will it do that by making people sign contracts, go to a job centre where there are no jobs more frequently or have humiliating and stressful fitness assessments? No.

      Simplifying the benefits system has to be a good thing, especially if it removes some of the perverse incentives that are built into the system but by and large getting people who can work into work and off benefits requires there to be jobs for them to take.

  2. “the process of reassessing the thousands of people on Incapacity Benefit was started by us”

    It’s mindboggling that this appears to be something you’re proud of. ATOS Healthcare are nothing but vultures profiting from victimising the sick and vulnerable, and to have unleashed them on the weak and helpless is perhaps the single most despicable thing Labour ever did in all its time in power.

    1. I agree 100% with this, and I’m not the only Labour member who does. The demonising of the sick and vulnerable must end.

  3. As an aside to your contribution margaret, can you please explain why i as a resident of/in scotland am barred/prevented from Volunteering to participate in the new Work program.According to DWP website only residents in England may volunteer. It seems like discrimination to me and again i am not happy that the much appreciated Condition Management Program has been dropped.

  4. How can any Labour member support only modifying the bill when it must be opposed as an attack on the most vulnerable in our country? Labour was formed as the voice for those without voice and appears now to be the apologist for the bosses. It is time for Labour members to take the party back from those who area abandoning everything this party has fought and bled for since its inception.,

  5. As one of the evil SNP voters infesting this noble site I am not only glad, I am PROUD to associate myself with the comments of Mr Ruddy and others.

    John. I salute you

    I am a carer for someone who is on Incap and hs recently gone through the Atos mill.

    The report bore no relation to either the information submitted by ourselves or the proceedings within the Assessment (it isn’t a medical) and as a result my partner was denied Incap, despite never having been renewed in the past.

    Of course we won the appeal, 7 months later or no benefit.

    Not only was this instigated by Labour, it was instigated with Private Industry who stood to make money out of the process as described here New Labour, the market state, and the end of welfare

    The advisors are still working with the Tories.

    I do not know how any form of the Labour Party that I grew up with could have done this. I am repelled by Mr Milliband and others still defending the point of view.

    The “undeserving poor” is a smokescreen for dismantling a safety net for the worst off in society.Benefits are not generous, fraud is 0.04% (DWP figures) yet Labour politicians WHO SHOULD KNOW BETTER demonise the sick by only talking about the very rare fraudster as if they are norm.

    As you can tell, it makes my blood boil

    Once again, than you Mr Ruddy. Glad to know the Labour Party still has SOME of its old heart left

    1. Thanks for your kind words, John. I try to read Sue’s blog when I can, but I missed that particular post, so thanks for highlighting it.

      Labour did many great things during its time in office, but it also did some apalling things – and this rush to demonise the vast majority of people who are forced to live on benefits is shameful. I challenge anyone to say that they would prefer to receive the meagre benefits we give people instead of having a job, the use of ones legs, or the ability to breath properly etc. I dont know anyone who would trade their health for a (relatively) few quid a week. I know there are frauds and the law should rightly deal with the few rotten apples – but there are more people NOT claiming benefits who qualify for them than those who have them who shouldnt.

      More money would be realised dealing with the tax evaders and avoiders.

      1. With a tax gap of around £120bn, yes billions, this should be the focus of our efforts. With this collected we can treat our weakest in society with the dignity we all deserve and attack the causes of our societal woes. Until we resolve the problem of viewing welfare as a burden we will continually be looking for ways to reduce costs many of which will be pernicious and unfair (like the removal of mobility elements of DLA).
        The human condition is one of adaption and those on benefits adapt (making the most of the system as it exists), yes there is some fraud (approximately 1 to 1.5bn) but nothing like the scale that the tabloids would have us believe. It is not a life of luxury (or riley) but one of low self esteem and stigma. Worklessness is a symptom of years of failed policy and not a ‘structured choice’.

        I believe IDS started from a paternalistic desire to do good but his prism of reference wont yield the result he hopes for.
        Welfare benefits are a thorny nettle to grasp but one which has a long term solution. Education, jobs, growth. With these worklessness will diminish over time. There is no silver bullet or quick fix. Anyone suggesting there is doesnt understand the issues.

  6. “Reforming welfare is not easy, but IDS made a promising start.”
    -If you call demonising and scapegoating sick, ill and disabled people as a ‘promising start’ then fair enough.

    These so-called ‘welfare reforms’ are killing the sick and disabled, with many being driven to suicide.

    Atos and the Department of Work and Pensions are disregarding the medical evidence of the experts of the NHS when it comes to assessing wether sick, ill and disabled people are fit for work – so what is the point of having a welfare state when the medical part of it has been completely divorced from the welfare benefit part of it?

    Atos doesn’t not carry out medical assessments, so why should it need to employ professionally trained and qualified medics?

    And if we no longer need the NHS when deciding wether someone is too sick or disabled to work, what is the point of having the very expensive institution when we can just employ Atos and its cheapskate methods of dealing with sickness and disabilities?

    Having medical evidence ignored by the DWP-Atos, with many patients claiming fraud on the part of these two august organisations, the sick and ill are forced to survive for 8-9 months, and more, on £50 a week. Many are in great pain and suffering, and are then forced to exist in poverty, whilst having their nerves shredded with worry about the uncertain outcome of an Appeals Tribunal of which they have little knowledge of how it works.

    If this is ‘welfare reform’ looks like, then I would hate to see what using the welfare system to abuse those who need it just to stay alive would look like.

  7. A difficult area to tackle Margaret. The headlines are easy but in every review a truly deserving individual is punished. I don’t have the answer but be very careful of the impact on those who can leat bear it!

  8. Years of paying tax and national insurance means nothing if you become disabled or severely and chronically ill in the UK in the 21st century.

    Beware committing the crime of becoming severely sick with any incurable disabling disease that does not kill you quickly enough for our governments satisfaction.

    Citizens who suffer from diseases that can be cured are classed as deserving and virtuous NHS users. But if your disease cannot be cured and so is long term and disabling you are reclassified from innocent citizen to scrounging deviant who could work really.

    The sickness benefits system was inhumane before. Labour made it worse. Now disability and disabling chronic illness and disability is being politically Disappeared.

    We are too sick and/or disabled to work. Not unemployed. Simply too sick and/or disabled to work to support ourselves as we would do if our lives had not been devastated by serious disabling diseases.

    How wonderful to have a vision that the financial mess that the people did not create can be sorted out and solved by scapegoating some of the most vulnerable in society. In the last 10 years government advisors have intoned the Litany of Work makes you Happy and Work makes you Healthy.

    Now its – Work Makes You Free.

    Expect a sharp rise in the suicide rate of chronically sick and disabled citizens. Too many have been inhumanely hounded for many years already by the irrational punitive sickness benefits system and are at the end of what can be endured and are very frightened and traumatized by it.

    To process and hound sick people into jobs they are too ill to do (into jobs that don’t exist) will be ** Action T4 By The Back Door for some chronically sick and/or disabled citizens who can take no more at this stage, as so many who are too sick and/or disabled to work have already been inhumanely hounded by the disability/sickness benefits agencies for years and years.

    As one severely sick person put it: “I am not an animal. I am not a criminal.
    I am not a subhuman. And I am not guilty!”

    Please wake up to the fact that the political disappearing of sickness benefits means that YOU will all have to pay into and rely on private health insurance companies.

    In fact Executives of the big health insurer UNUM, based at the UNUM Centre at Cardiff University are amongst the very people who advised our last government on its punitive sickness benefit reforms. UNUM is also amongst the companies that will profit the most from the sickness benefits reforms.

    In the meantime the Health Insurer UNUM have been busy redefining the words sickness and incapacity in such terms that the Health Insurance companies don’t have to pay the full whack or pay out At All.

    But UK governments have unwisely welcomed Unum into Britain and made the greedy ruthless health insurance industry an actual partner in policy making.

    Mainly because of relentless biased reporting on Disability benefits in terms of fraud only by conflating fraud figures (which are tiny) with official Error figures and touting it as one figure – but also partly because its hard for anyone to envisage losing their health life and independence to disability and severe sickness the British public remain in the dark about the vested interests behind sickness and disability benefit reforms and about the outrageous profits now being made by health insurers and unemployment training companies which are profitable new industry.

    By the time the British public has woken up to the Facts it will be too late to stop the Health Insurance industry, Unum, ATOS and the Back to Work training companies cruel, inhumane but profitable juggernaught.

    *Action T4 was the Nazi euthanasia program that euthanised (killed) citizens with incurable diseases (both acute and chronic illness) and disabilities.

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