Iain Duncan Smith is the Christopher Wren of benefits reform. If you seek his monument, look around you.
You will find Universal Credit, which proved capable of such miraculous expansion at the start of the pandemic, and you may wonder whether IDS thinks the Government is taking good care of it.
Paul Goodman, chairing a ConHome fringe meeting held in partnership with the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, asked IDS the question of the hour, which is whether benefits should be uprated in line with inflation.
IDS spoke in a peaceable tone, but made it clear that benefits certainly should be uprated: “My view is very simply that the support that we give right now, we’re going to give out on the cost of living – which is huge a package we should be talking more about – but at the same time, it wouldn’t make a huge amount of sense then to withdraw some of that by actually reducing or not uprating benefits at the same time.”
He also pointed out that the Government wants growth, and the people who can really be counted on to spend any money they get are benefits recipients, who “need things most”.
Chris Pearson, in the audience, asked IDS whether the solution was to put him back in charge of the Department of Work and Pensions, as “you’re clearly on top of the brief”.
IDS said Pearson hadn’t asked him whether he wanted to go back, and added: “There’s no end to what you can achieve provided you’re prepared to let others take the credit for it.”
In IDS’s view, “we shouldn’t be talking about benefits reductions”, but about the further reforms which are needed. He pointed out that the lockdowns had been “an unmitigated disaster” for many already hard-pressed people, and also “the worst three years that I can ever recall in government”.
There was evident harmony between IDS and the other two members of the panel, Katie Schmuecker, Principal Policy Adviser at the JRF, and Charlotte Pickles, Director of Reform.
Schmuecker pointed out that even before the pandemic destitution was rising, observed that Universal Credit is at present unlinked to the cost of the necessities of life, and proposed an Essentials Guarantee within Universal Credit, so it does become linked to actual costs.
Pickles touched “on the question of legitimacy”, public support for “a robust safety net”. In Birmingham, the Prime Minister and the Chancellor were today told there is strong Conservative support for a robust safety net.