Blogs > Ian Duncan Smith's resignation over welfare policy was sincere - he did believe in the Common Good

21 March 2016 | by Clifford Longley

Ian Duncan Smith's resignation over welfare policy was sincere - he did believe in the Common Good

Though the integrity of the former work and pensions secretary has been called into question, reform was on his agenda

We are witnessing one of the most serious government crises in recent years, both over the Budget presented to the House of Commons last Wednesday (16 March) and over the referendum on European Union membership which has divided the Tory party from top to bottom.

Ian Duncan Smith is central to both issues. He spectacularly resigned from the Government over what he said was an issue of conscience. He is, as is well known, a Catholic. As such he has frequently been the target of recrimination from his fellow Catholics for his willingness to see cuts to the welfare benefits that many poorer people need to live on. There were many such appeals to his Catholic conscience, which he appeared not to heed.

We now know the reason for his resignation, according to his resignation letter to the Prime Minister and to several interviews he has given since, was his principled opposition to further cuts in the welfare budget, particularly payments to the disabled.

His sincerity has been questioned and it is being put about that this is really all about the EU. But I believe him, though his resignation may have slotted easily into that other cause he has been promoting, namely opposing Britain's membership of the European Union. One reason I think he is sincere is because his trajectory is consistent, ever since he visited certain Scottish housing estates and concluded that the welfare benefits regime was calculated to keep people in poverty, not relieve them of it. It led to habitual long-term dependency, which was an impediment to human growth and development.

As he later wrote, he encountered "levels of social breakdown which appalled me. In the fourth largest economy in the world, too many people lived in dysfunctional homes, trapped on benefits. Too many children were leaving school with no qualifications or skills to enable them to work and prosper. Too many communities were blighted by alcohol and drug addiction, debt and criminality, many of them with stunningly low levels of life expectancy." 

 Though already a Catholic (and an ex-army officer) when he read it, Duncan Smith has said that he was converted to the idea of social justice by the publication in 1996 of The Common Good and the Catholic Church's Social Teaching by the Catholic bishops of England and Wales. He reacted as an army officer would, who had just received direct orders from the top. Not only that, but he must have been well aware that Margaret Thatcher's favourite guru, Friedrich Hayek, had famously denounced the very idea of social justice as an "absurd superstition". Hayek was a determined advocate of the free market, an early market fundamentalist. So to set up a think tank and to call it the Centre for Social Justice, as Duncan Smith did after relinquishing the leadership of the Tory Party, was a bold and controversial move. He was throwing down the gauntlet to all those Thatcherites who followed the Hayekian way, such as the Institute of Economic Affairs (IEA).

Indeed The Common Good document did contain a warning about welfare dependency on the basis of Catholic Social Teaching, though it did not go as far as Clause 48 of the 1991 encyclical Centesimus Annus. The wording of that attack on the "so-called Welfare State" left many Catholics, myself included, very uncomfortable. Nevertheless it does shed a lot of light on Duncan Smith's whole approach. It said:

"In recent years the range of such intervention has vastly expanded, to the point of creating a new type of State, the so-called 'Welfare State'. This has happened in some countries in order to respond better to many needs and demands, by remedying forms of poverty and deprivation unworthy of the human person. However, excesses and abuses, especially in recent years, have provoked very harsh criticisms of the Welfare State, dubbed the 'Social Assistance State'. Malfunctions and defects in the Social Assistance State are the result of an inadequate understanding of the tasks proper to the State. Here again the principle of subsidiarity must be respected: a community of a higher order should not interfere in the internal life of a community of a lower order, depriving the latter of its functions, but rather should support it in case of need and help to coordinate its activity with the activities of the rest of society, always with a view to the common good.

"By intervening directly and depriving society of its responsibility, the Social Assistance State leads to a loss of human energies and an inordinate increase of public agencies, which are dominated more by bureaucratic ways of thinking than by concern for serving their clients, and which are accompanied by an enormous increase in spending. In fact, it would appear that needs are best understood and satisfied by people who are closest to them and who act as neighbours to those in need. It should be added that certain kinds of demands often call for a response which is not simply material but which is capable of perceiving the deeper human need. One thinks of the condition of refugees, immigrants, the elderly, the sick, and all those in circumstances which call for assistance, such as drug abusers: all these people can be helped effectively only by those who offer them genuine fraternal support, in addition to the necessary care."

This is relevant not only to welfare policy in general but also to David Cameron's  project for a "Big Society" whereby the voluntary sector would be empowered to take over, and carry out more humanely, many of the functions that the Welfare State had put in a statutory basis. We now know that the Big Society project foundered through lack of joined-up thinking in Whitehall and Westminster, lack of resources and cuts to local government funding, and a failure to explain convincingly what it was about.

It is ironic that one of the most telling manifestations of the Big Society has been the growth of the food bank movement, growth largely driven by the withdrawal of benefits payments to the needy in order to punish them for breaking the rules of welfare eligibility. Cardinal Nichols made a public protest at the cruelty of such a system, saying the safety net of the welfare system was no longer in place to prevent hunger and other hardships.

Duncan Smith resented that and recriminated with the cardinal, saying he had got his facts wrong. Nichols stood his ground, relying on what he had seen with his own eyes when visiting food banks in his diocese and what he had been told by Westminster parish priests. Duncan Smith failed to acknowledge that many of the points the cardinal had made were fully enforced and reinforced by a recent House of Common Select Committee report on the imposition of benefits sanctions by the staff at Job Centres, which raised serious concerns about the social damage they were doing to some of the most vulnerable in society. Duncan Smith's department responded that they also had got their facts wrong.

The problem was that Duncan Smith's approach to benefit reform suffered from a highly dogmatic mindset, which refused to recognise the difficulties of dealing with human frailty and fallibility. It may even be that his dogmatism, as a personality trait, had been transferred from his Catholicism to his political work. It is for such reasons that Catholics engaged in the welfare sector, whether voluntary or statutory, will not greatly lament his departure, but may, just a little, respect his reasons for it.

Let Luke 15:7 have the last word - "I tell you that in the same way there will be more rejoicing in heaven over one sinner who repents..."

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