Today’s Sunday Politics interview was an almost reasonable attempt at getting facts from the slippery Iain Duncan Smith.
Most of the information provided by the Work and Pensions Secretary wasn’t factually accurate, but at least Andrew Neil had the guts to ask some of the questions this blog did not expect from him.
Let’s be honest, though – he bottled the Big One. The Elephant in the Studio was the number of people who have died due to the Incapacity Benefit/ESA sanctions regime imposed by Iain Duncan Smith (never mind Labour’s early involvement; it’s a Tory baby now) and policed by Atos (although the firm has realised this is commercial suicide and is trying to get out of the contract).
Oh, you thought the reference to elephants was aimed at Messrs Neil and Duncan Smith themselves? No – they might be large, lumbering monsters but the largest pachyderms in the room were metaphorical.
The question is topical as it is still only a matter of days since we all learned that Mark Wood died of starvation after the DWP found him fit for work – despite mental problems including an eating disorder. The DWP has maintained, in the face of all the evidence, that there is no reason to relate claimant deaths to loss of benefits, but this fantasy is likely to be ruined by the verdict of Mr Wood’s inquest.
The relevant questions are: Why has he decided to cover up the number of suicides? And does he have a figure relating to the number of deaths before he accepts a policy might not be working?
Why were they not put? Did Mr… Smith impose a moratorium on them before he entered the studio?
But let’s be fair to Mr Neil. Questions from the POLITICS’ Facebook page WERE directed to the Secretary-in-a-State, starting with one from Lesley Roberts, asking why so much Universal Credit funding has been written off. The response was a rehash of the excuse given to the Work and Pensions Committee; that the money has been written DOWN (meaning, I think, that the value of the investment has been downgraded in the same way your computer is worth less now than the amount you paid for it – “the amortisation of cost over a period of time”). That’s not an acceptable answer as the money has still been spent.
“You’ve written off £140 million,” said Mr Neil.
“No no no, we haven’t,” insisted Iain Duncan Smith, starting a pattern that would continue throughout the interview.
As Vox Political commenter Shaun Gardner remarked: “It’s more than a little frightening that every set of statistics, be it ONS or Institute of Fiscal Studies, is wrong and IDS is correct. He’s a bloody madman.”
“But even your Conservative cabinet colleague Francis Maude says the implementation of Universal Credit has been, quote, ‘pretty lamentable’!” This was laughed off as a reference to a time before … Smith made changes to the project. Emergency changes, these were, that he didn’t mention to anyone until many months later, maintaining that everything was hunky-dory in the meantime.
Challenged over the fact that he was predicting a million people would be on UC by April, and only 3,000 are currently in receipt, the man we call RTU (Returned To Unit) said: “I’m not going to bandy figures around,” then immediately went back on this with, “It’s over 6,000 and rising.” He said he wanted to roll it out carefully, having made changes two years ago. That won’t wash, because he ALWAYS said he was going to go slow with this disastrous white elephant of a scheme.
One aspect of what he said that disturbed this writer was when the Secretary of State claimed Universal Credit would make it easier for people to take short-term work while they look for long-term jobs. He said the current system penalises people for doing this, and we can see from people’s recent experiences http://voxpoliticalonline.com/2014/03/08/sanctioned-for-working-and-being-honest-about-it/ that there is truth in it. But the nature of Universal Credit means that benefits are adjusted according to the amount people have earned; if someone does a day’s work and is paid even minimum wage for it, then the UC computers (if they ever work) will dock that amount from that person’s benefit – they will be no better-off. In fact, they may be worse-off, as there may be knock-on effects on other aspects of that person’s income. How is this making work pay?
“Universal Credit IS supposed to make work pay – that is your mantra,” said Mr Neil. “Under Universal Credit, the marginal tax rate can still be 76 per cent!
“Er, no, actually,” said the interviewee, going on to say it would be 76 per cent for lone parents “in the tax bracket”. What tax bracket? Was he really saying this only counted for lone parents who found a job paying enough for them to cross the ever-higher Income Tax threshold, and he doesn’t expect these people (who would also have to pay for child care, of course) to ever cross that threshold? What does that say about the kind of work he expects people to be taking under a Tory government – the kind of pay they will receive? What does that say about his expectations for lone parents ever to find work that pays? What does it say about the Conservative Party’s expectations regarding Income Tax, if most people are only ever expected to find work that doesn’t mean they will ever earn enough to pay it?
Mr Neil’s response: “You’re going to tax poor people at the same rate that the French socialist government taxes billionaires!”
Moving on to the Work Programme, Mr Neil quoted the Commons Public Accounts Committee, who said it was “worse than doing nothing”.
Response: “No, they’re wrong, it’s actually way better than doing nothing.” Backed up with some statistics about 280,000 people getting into sustained work for more than six months. He added that a company had been sacked in the past week for poor performance as there is competition in every area and WP provider companies don’t get paid if they don’t hit targets. The last point is extremely debateable, considering the woeful lack of effort to help people, as witnessed by many people who have been through the process and then commented about it on this blog.
Mr Neil’s riposte: “‘The best-performing provider only moved five per cent of people off-benefit and into work; the worst managed just two per cent. The programme is failing young people and the hardest to help.'” Mr… Smith said this was from a National Audit Office report that referred only to the first few months of the programme. In fact (see Vox Political articles of the past) the Work Programme has been a failure for both of its first two years; it is still in its third.
Neil: “Why is long-term unemployment rising?”
Duncan Smith: “Long-term unemployment is falling.”
Neil: “Not in figures that have been announced by the ONS.”
Duncan Smith harped back to the competition among WP providers, saying it was what drives up performance. In fact, we’ve seen that this competition drives performance DOWN, as these for-profit companies scrabble to make the most money by providing the worst service.
Courageously, Mr Neil moved on to Mr… Smith’s religious beliefs. He pointed out that the Secretary of State is a practising Catholic, but the most senior Catholic in the land, Archbishop Vincent Nichols, has attacked his “reforms”, saying they are becoming “more and more punitive”.
Response: “I don’t agree… Most of the facts they put in were incorrect. Disposable income… is at its highest level that it has been for a long time.” He said the poorest 10 per cent are now spending a lower proportion of their income on food “because their disposable income has improved”.
What an interesting insight into Planet Duncan Smith THAT was! Who thinks the more likely reason is that they have less money to spend on food because they are having to spend a larger proportion of their DWINDLING income on the rent (thanks to the Bedroom Tax) and on utility bills (because the Tory-led government has allowed private electricity, gas and water firms to charge whatever they wanted, unchecked, for too long)?
Housing benefit: Mr Neil pointed out that David Cameron announced people with disabled children would be exempt from the Bedroom Tax – but only after the DWP fought a High Court battle in support of the opposite position. Iain Duncan Smith fudged the issue. He said it was usual to go to appeal, but that he had said it was reasonable to exempt this group. The fact is that he fought tooth and nail to ensure disabled children would be victimised, failed, and cut his losses.
“The courts have upheld all of our positions on this, against much complaints,” he insisted. Let’s see… The Supreme Court has ruled that regulations governing “back to work” schemes were illegal. The Court of Appeal has rejected the government’s appeal against a ruling by the Upper Tribunal that the work capability assessment discriminates against people with mental health problems. The DWP itself admitted that Bedroom Tax regulations had ignored legislation exempting people who had occupied social housing and been in receipt of Housing Benefit since before January 1996 – but not before one such person, faced with a bill she could no longer afford to pay, walked onto a motorway where she was hit by a lorry and killed. The rules have since been amended to ensure that this group can be victimised along with everyone else.
The Work and Pensions Secretary went on to say that he hadn’t cut the rise in Housing Benefit; he had lowered it. If anyone wants to explain that distinction, please do.
He also said councils needed to use their accommodation more carefully, to improve the lot of people living in desperate overcrowding. Perhaps he is unaware that his government has been allowing (if not encouraging) councils to continue selling off their housing stock, making this increasingly less achievable – but this is doubtful. It’s his business to know.
Jobseekers’ Allowance: “A centre-right thinktank [Policy Exchange] that you’ve been associated with says 70,000 jobseekers’ benefits have been withdrawn unfairly.”
He said this was “a very small subset”, that “there is an immediate review within seven days”, and that people are “immediately able to get a hardship fund”.
Let’s ask Vox Political commenter Shaun Gardner (again) about this. He says: “Err no you can’t. It’s a never ending stream of BS and denial. IDS is bad for your mental health. He should come with a government health warning.”
Thanks for that, Shaun!
“This is not a nasty, vicious system,” claimed Iain Duncan Smith, straight-faced.
Back to Mr Neil: “Is child poverty rising?” (We know it is – Vox Political has carried figures from the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, and those quoted on this show came from the Institute of Fiscal Studies, a right-wing thinktank that once boasted Margaret Thatcher as one of its members.)
“No. Child poverty is actually falling.” A flat-out lie.
Final observation from Mr Neil: “More people in poverty are now in working families… For them, work is NOT paying.”
Final gambit from Mr Duncan Smith – and it’s an oldie: “Those figures refer to the last government’s time in government.” What a shame it isn’t true. The figures we have, from the JRF (again) include the first three years of Iain Duncan Smith’s time in office (up to and including 2012). In other words, this was another bare-faced lie.
And that was it. Apparently 20 minutes was not long enough to get all of Iain Duncan Smith’s lies broadcast, so he has agreed to come back and do some more lying at a later date.
Let’s leave this with one question that was definitely not going to get anywhere near RTU. It came from Sophie Hawthorne and runs as follows: “I was wondering if the Obersturmführer might be asked whether or not he understands what will happen to quisling lackeys like himself, with a solid track record of ideological, dogmatic hatred and pathological dishonesty, when his privileged masters need a scapegoat to sacrifice in order to assuage the anger at the chaos he has created at their behest?
“I suggest he reads up on the fate of another thuggish bully-boy just like himself, during a previous regime which had a fondness for social, racial and ethnic cleansing… Nacht der langen Messer [Night of the Long Knives], Herr Duncan Schmitt, and remember the fate of Ernst Rohm?”
For those who aren’t aware, Rohm was a lieutenant of Adolf Hitler who founded the SA (forerunner of the SS). He was executed as a potential rival of Hitler’s as part of the Night of the Long Knives in 1934.
After this performance, there will be plenty of people across the UK sharpening their knives for Iain Duncan Smith.
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