Where to Next for Welfare?

Within a few minutes of Iain Duncan Smith’s resignation as Work and Pensions Secretary, the presiding general consensus seemed to be that his exit was more of a Brexit, and his alleged motivation for leaving – concern regarding the scale of disability cuts – was more of a convenient excuse. This is hardly surprising, given the scale of the benefit reforms he presided over during his time at the Department of Work and Pensions (DWP).

After all, was this not the same man responsible for the 20 per cent cut in Disability Living Allowance payments through the introduction of Personal Independence Payments (PIP)? The man who introduced the much-derided Bedroom Tax, and now the dreaded Work Capability Assessment? It seemed bizarre to consider he might also be the sort of man who would suddenly have a crisis of conscience over the further tightening of PIP criteria.

As initial reactions in the aftermath turned to reflections about his legacy, the conclusion seemed to be that IDS’ tenure had been, more or less, a story of incompetence. Articles spanning the entire range of potential interpretations of his role – from Johnathan Portes in the Guardian to Nick Wood, former Head of Communications for the Conservative Party, in the Mail on Sunday – seemed to unite in the opinion that IDS had fundamentally failed to implement his “vision” for reform.

In short, welfare reform under IDS might be described as poor policy, poorly implemented. The crowning glory, and his ‘legacy project’, was supposed to be Universal Credit, a pink elephant of an idea pushed forward against expert advice, now massively over-budget and overdue. As Philip Collins wrote in The Times a couple of years ago – beware ‎the man driven by religious fervour but with limited grasp of the technical detail at the Department of Worship and Prayer.

The Cabinet may continue to mudsling, but now the dust has settled in IDS’ wake, it’s time to shift our attentions to the future of the DWP under its new Secretary of State, Stephen Crabb. The big question is: did the Prime Minister cynically embed a puppet willing to push Osborne’s cuts through? A ‘salami slicer’‎ without a moral mission to get in the way?

Perhaps surprisingly, it seems that this has not indeed been the case. In fact, on the surface, one could argue that Cameron has replaced like with like.

Stephen Crabb is a practicing Christian,‎ and also has a “vision” for welfare reform. One of the few interviews where he reflected on welfare, before being catapulted from the Welsh Office to the DWP, found him explaining how his mother, moving from “welfare dependency” to independence through skills training and a new job, inspired him to believe in the importance of a welfare state that motivates people to work. This anecdote is slightly lower key and closer to home than IDS’s famed “Easterhouse conversion”, but the import is the same. Work tackles welfare dependency, work fixes families.

Does this mean, at a policy level, that we should be expecting more of the same from Mr Crabb? There are a number of factors to take into account.

Firstly, Osborne’s very pragmatic financial imperative to cut welfare spending will always sit uncomfortably against a moral mission to change people’s behaviours. But new into the job and from a quieter department, Crabb may understandably not feel like locking horns with the Chancellor just yet. That doesn’t mean we won’t see a change in pace. IDS’s exit and backbench discomfort has sparked a rethink of the latest PIP cuts, with the Treasury perhaps recognising their presentation in the Budget alongside a tax cut of the same value wasn’t wise.

Welfare reform has never been so politically sensitive, so the new Secretary might expect a few months’ grace from Treasury pressure to regroup before a fresh set of cuts are planned. These may well arrive alongside the forthcoming Disability and Employment whitepaper: an opportunity perhaps now for the new Secretary to put his own spin on welfare policy.

And then there’s Universal Credit.

IDS’ legacy project won’t leave with its evangelist, but don’t be surprised to see it pushed to the back end of this Parliament. With six years under his belt in the job, IDS was understandably in a rush to see his legacy project finished – particularly so he’d be remembered for something other than the Bedroom Tax. Crabb isn’t in such a rush, and his imperatives are starkly different. He needs to make his name with a fresh direction, not throw himself into the same black hole of resources.

After all, if Universal Credit fails on his watch, he will be blamed. If it succeeds, IDS will be credited. Best to let it slide into obscurity and use the whitepaper to start the claim of new ground. We might expect to see in this some more personalised welfare-to-work support, greater use of work experience, and a renewed focus on in-work poverty and eliminating disincentives to increased working hours.

Importantly, we may well also see a change in style.

IDS’s welfare “vision”, inspired by the Glasgow Easterhouse estate, where he was reportedly moved to tears by the plight of the poor like some visiting middle class missionary, is a far cry from Crabb’s own “vision”, forged from watching his single mother struggle to get by on a Welsh housing estate. In being driven by something altogether more personal, it is internalised, less paternalistic and, we might hope, more empathetic.