The Work and Pensions Secretary has presided over profound changes to our welfare systemby James Bartholomew, / March 18, 2015 / Leave a comment
Five years ago, Iain Duncan Smith was a forgotten man. He had been a flop as Conservative party leader in 2001-03. Like many formerly senior people, he tried to do something interesting. He made a study of welfare and founded a think tank called the Centre for Social Justice. But he did not even have a shadow cabinet job. He was a mere backbench MP. His political life could have dribbled away until retirement, as has happened with many other formerly senior Tories.
But then, in a move which surprised most people, David Cameron chose Duncan Smith to become his Secretary of State for Work and Pensions. At that stage, many people probably thought of him as a well-meaning, army officer type—the sort who might make colonel, but probably not general. Not bright enough.
Yet something strange and remarkable happened. Under his leadership, Tory welfare reform has come to be regarded as an electoral asset. Yes, there are those who fulminate at the alleged cruelty of his policies. But the opinion polls show that Iain Duncan Smith’s policies have wide support in the country.
Even stranger, his brand new and radical benefits system—Universal Credit—is not actually up and running, except in a tiny part of the country. It has been embarrassingly delayed. Yet, even without the Universal Credit and its supposed advantages, the rate of unemployment has fallen dramatically. Since the latter part of 2011, it has fallen by 813,000. That is an astonishing drop. But most people don’t realise just how astonishing. There are only two other times in the past 60 years when unemployment has fallen at a comparable rate. One was in the late 1980s and the other in the mid-1990s. But on both those two occasions, the British economy was roaring along at well above the trend rate. In the late 1980s, the growth rate was about 5 per cent. In the mid-1990s it was about 4 per cent. But this third, dramatic drop in unemployment has not been helped by any such boom. The growth rate since late 2011 has been below trend, running at 1.6 per cent in 2011, then 0.7, 1.7 and 2.6 per cent. That is an average of only 1.65 per cent.