Over the past five years, I’ve spoken to people who have genuinely dreamed of the day Iain Duncan Smith would resign: mothers forced to live off toast to keep a roof over their child’s head because of the bedroom tax, Parkinson’s patients reduced to tears during a “fit for work” assessment, sisters grieving for brothers who died after having their benefits taken.
That’s the power of the man we can now finally call the former work and pensions secretary: a politician who not only embodied the Conservative government’s most zealous cuts to Britain’s welfare state but who became a hate figure – a source of daily fear – to people whom he will never even meet.
In the hours since his resignation, there’s been much analysis of the reasons behind the move. That the relationship between him and George Osborne has been strained for years. That Duncan Smith – pro-Brexit and part of Tory infighting over Europe – was looking for an excuse to quit. Or that he wanted any so-called reforms to personal independence payments (PIP) to take place more slowly than the Treasury was demanding. As Duncan Smith’s damning resignation letter put it, he has “found some of these cuts easier to justify than others”.
I can only imagine that’s why just last week Duncan Smith was helping force through another policy to take £30 a week from people found “unfit to work”. To put that in context, that’s from a benefit rate that already leaves cancer patients and paraplegics struggling to be able to afford to eat.
Indeed, he seemed content enough when he was growing a benefit sanction system that made it easier to take money from sick or disabled people – when a pregnant woman with mental health problems, sanctioned for missing one appointment at the Jobcentre, was left to walk two miles to a food bank or a man was crushed to death by a refuse lorry when a 17-week benefit sanction forced him to scavenge in a bin for food.
Duncan Smith launched the mass testing of employment and support allowance – the benefit for those too ill to work – despite evidence the assessment was causing physical damage to the people forced to go through it.
He oversaw the introduction of PIP – that very benefit he is now apparently uncomfortable with cutting – based on the premise that disabled people and the chronically ill needed “tougher” testing.
With an apparent concern for “the most disadvantaged people in this country”, Duncan Smith is trying to leave the Department for Work and Pensions on some sort of moral high ground. But if we are not “all in it together” – as Duncan Smith’s resignation letter damningly suggests – that’s in large part because of him.
As the opening line beams: “I’m incredibly proud of the welfare reforms that the government has delivered over the past five years.”
Pundits and politicians can spend this time analysing why Duncan Smith left office – but it should not distract from what he did while he was there. You do not get to oversee the bedroom tax, unpaid “work for benefit” schemes, the near-destruction of the disability benefit system, or the acceleration of benefit sanctions and walk away with clean hands.
But today is for the hundreds of thousands of people who have endured financial, psychological, and physical turmoil as a result of his policies.
This article was written by Frances Ryan, for theguardian.com on Saturday 19th March 2016 11.47 Europe/Londonguardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010