Welfare reform: playing it straight, not playing it tough
‘Tougher than the Tories when it comes to slashing the benefits bill’ was how Rachel Reeves positioned herself and Labour when she was appointed Shadow Secretary of State for Work and Pensions back in October. Today’s news that the DWP failed to make all the legislative changes that were necessary to implement the bedroom tax as intended, shows the inadequacy of this ‘we’re tougher than they are’ rhetoric.
Getting this sort of thing right – that is, identifying the legislative changes necessary to implement government policy – is one of the main things the civil service machine is for. Today’s failure is unquestionably a huge error. The question is: who should be blamed? By advertising itself as tougher than the Tories, Labour has failed to create a position from which to hold the political leadership of the DWP responsible for what on the face of it is an administrative mistake. After all, whatever has gone wrong here, it is not because government has been too soft.
In order to do this – to be able to pin administrative errors on the political leadership – the opposition needs different criteria by which to hold Iain Duncan Smith to account. Instead of talking about playing it tough, the opposition should demand that his department should be playing it straight. This means three things.
First, whenever rules and regulations are amended, it must be done with scrupulous care. They must recognise the complexity of both the human situations that they cover and the wider legislation involved. The problem here is the pretence that welfare reform is simple. Today’s error is ultimately a product of this irresponsible ‘faith-based’ policy making.
The story in today’s Metro, about a family falling foul of the bedroom tax following the death of their 11 year-old son in a car accident, is another illustration of the same thing. Dealing justly and compassionately with the exceptions is one of the main reasons why the benefit system is so complicated in the first place.
Second, playing it straight means halting the rhetoric that demonises claimants. People who are entitled to support from the state should be helped to access it, not just by the independent advice agencies, but by the state itself. Discouraging people from making a claim undermines the intention behind the support being offered.
Third, playing it straight means ensuring that the cost of mistakes does not fall on the claimants. While some of those impacted by the errors announced today may end up with more money than they might otherwise have had, I doubt that this will come close to compensating most of them for the disruption and distress they have suffered.
This is not an exceptional incident. The jump in numbers receiving a benefit sanctions since 2010 is testimony to the fact that the system is now run on the principle of ‘claimant beware’. Make a mistake, and it’s you who’ll be punished. The motivating belief is that too many claimants are abusing the system and need the toughest incentives to behave. Its consequence is that those running the system can afford to be careless. Playing it straight means a system in which it is clear to the claimant what they must do to conform – and clear, too, that once they have done so, the system itself will recognise the fact.
Those appalled at fiascos like today’s need to be able to pin the blame where it lies. Acting tough gives a free pass to the ministers to blame the civil servants. To the despair that most who work in the DWP can be expected to feel today, for some at least will be added fear. This is no way to run such an important organisation.
What the Shadow Secretary of State for Work and Pensions should do is promise that Labour’s first priority for work and pensions will be to restore the system to one that plays it straight, one that is reliably legal, decent, honest and truthful. Nobody wants this for social security more than the millions of people who have to engage with it.