Farewell to the Great Social Reformer

You go away for the weekend and suddenly everything goes mad: it turns out that Iain Duncan Smith was really a Socialist or a Liberal Democrat all along.

The Great Social Reformer (this is what the many ‘friends of’ IDS speaking to journalists call him) has not just resigned, not just skewered George Osborne, he’s also questioned the fundamentals of the post-2010 Conservatives narrative. We are not ‘all in this together’, the most vulnerable will not be ‘protected’ and the deficit reduction target is ‘more and more perceived as distinctly political rather than in the national economic interest’.

Yet this (apparent) modern day heir to Tory Great Social Reformers like Shaftesbury and Wilberforce is also the same Iain Duncan Smith responsible for punitive benefit sanctions, the bedroom tax, the £30 a week ESA cut and all the other salami slices taken out of the social security system in the last six years that were not ‘compromises too far’. The man who took the moral high ground about cuts that benefit the better-off is the same one who stood on a manifesto of cutting inheritance tax and £12 billion from benefits.

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Good cop, bad cop and mad cop

Originally posted on November 13 on Inside Edge 2, my blog for Inside Housing

Inside Housing: ‘Clark promises deregulation package’. FT: ‘Osborne eyes social housing stake sale.’ Daily Mail: ‘Duncan Smith’s great council house giveaway.’

Three rival visions for housing in England from three rival politicians who all think they know best.

Let’s assume some of this is the result of private disputes about budgets (especially between Osborne and IDS) playing out in public. The run-up to any spending review features media briefings designed to promote pet projects or scupper those of others. But this is still different: it’s not pet projects at stake here but potentially the entire future of housing. And the rival visions directly contradict each other.

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If the cap fits

Worried about the impact of the benefit cap, social landlords? You should be because what happens next seems to be your responsibility.

As housing organisations slowly wake up to the dire implications of reducing the cap to £23,000, Iain Duncan Smith was asked about it at work and pensions questions on Monday. Labour’s Clive Betts asked what consultations the DWP had done with social landlords on the effects of the introduction of universal credit and the benefit cap on direct rent payments to landlords. After the usual guff about roll-outs from IDS, Betts pressed him with a points raised by Tony Stacey of South Yorkshire Housing Association (and Placeshapers):

‘Currently, if a household is in rent arrears and gets housing benefit, the benefit can be paid directly to the social landlord. When universal credit is introduced, if the family also gets a welfare cap, it is the housing cost element that is squeezed by the cap. No longer will the amount of universal credit be paid directly to the social landlord to cover the rent. Can the Secretary of State not see that that could lead to a rise in evictions? Is he aware of the problem, and what will he do about it?’

The context for this was highlighted ahead of this week’s CIH conference in Manchester in a UK Housing Review briefing on Monday. After allowing for other benefits and tax credits, the £23,000 cap will leave a couple with four children just £33 a week to spend on their rent and a couple with three children just £110 a week. Here are the impacts by family size:

impact of 23k cap

Effectively that means larger families will be priced out of even social housing throughout the UK and a couple with three children will not be able to afford the average housing association rent anywhere in the Midlands or South of England. The impact will be felt far beyond inner London and the CIH estimates that four times more households could be affected than under the current £26,000 cap.

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Fly in the ointment

Could the Conservatives really admit they got it wrong on the bedroom tax? Hard as it is to imagine Iain Duncan Smith admitting he was wrong about anything, pressure is growing for a rethink.

In the Times yesterday, David Cameron’s former speechwriter Clare Foges offered her ex-boss some advice a series of options on how to break with the party’s image as the nasty party, including this one:

‘Move on from the bedroom tax. It is not working as had been hoped and will remain a fly in the one-nation ointment. Have a mea culpa moment and move on.’

Note the lack of pretence that it’s really the removal of the spare room subsidy and that it’s all working brilliantly to save money and use social housing more fairly.

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Little progress

It’s time for another peek inside the workings of universal credit. IDS look away now.

The work and pensions secretary told us about his latest triumph two weeks ago: the start of the national roll-out heralded a new benefits era; it was £600 million under budget; and it was helping people find work quicker. The commentariat seemed to agree: in his final Telegraph column Peter Oborne was gushing; and in The Guardian Matthew d’Ancona wondered if IDS might even be ‘the man to save the Tories’.

However, as I’ve blogged before, universal credit exists in two states at once: triumph and not-triumph. It didn’t take long for the other state to be highlighted: Nigel Keohane pointed out that only 0.3 per cent of claimants are on universal credit so far plus a host of other practical problems; and a claimant who advertised it told the BBC he now thought it was a nightmare.

And today’s progress update from the House of Commons Public Accounts Committee concludes that ‘very little progress has been achieved on the frontline’.

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Own goals

Could housing hold the key to the Conservatives’ chances of winning the general election?

I’d assumed till now that the fact David Cameron made housing (or rather home ownership) one of his six priorities for speeches signalled no more than a desire to put aspiration at the heart of the Tory campaign. Mixing a few dubious claims about Help to Buy with some boasts about the Starter Home Initiative might mean some extra votes but housing would remain a secondary issue behind the economy, the NHS and immigration.

But two tweets this week by influential Conservative Tim Montgomerie made me wonder about this. Montgomerie is a Times columnist but that understates his influence in the party as the co-founder of the Centre for Social Justice, creator of the Conservative Home website and speechwriter for two Tory leaders.

-> Read the rest of this post on Inside Edge 2, my blog for Inside Housing


Iain Duncan Smith’s cat

In the wake of yet more delays and questions about value for money, I wonder what Erwin Schrödinger would have made of universal credit.

In the Austrian physicist’s famous thought experiment, a cat is placed in a sealed box with a flask of poison and a radioactive substance. The decay of a single atom of the substance during the test will trigger a hammer that breaks the flask and kills the cat. The point is that an external observer cannot know whether or not the atom has decayed, the poison has been released and the cat is dead unless they open the box. Since we cannot know, the cat is both alive and dead.

Schrödinger’s Cat was meant to illustrate a paradox in quantum theory but it could just as easily be applied to Iain Duncan Smith’s flagship welfare reform. It’s not just that universal credit is meant to be simple and transparent but is actually fiendishly complicated and impossible for outsiders to understand. These have become givens over the last couple of years. IDS’s cat also exists in two states at the same time and we cannot know whether it is alive or dead until we open the box or see it in action. Read the rest of this entry »