Channel 4 screens the second episode of its Benefits Street documentary tonight, as a petition calling for it to be taken off the air has gained over 30,000 signatures. Labour MPs are trying to use it as an example of the way the media, and by extension the Conservatives, stigmatise benefit claimants. So perhaps it was only natural that a Conservative MP would do the same and use the programme to make a political point during Work and Pensions Questions in the Commons this afternoon. Philip Davies asked Iain Duncan Smith whether he too had been struck by ‘the number of people on there who manage to combine complaining about welfare reforms whilst being able to afford to buy copious amounts of cigarettes, have lots of tattoos done and watch Sky TV on the obligatory widescreen television?’
‘He’s right, many people are shocked by what they see, but the reality is that is why the public backs our welfare reform package, to get more people back to work to end these abuses, and all of these abuses date back to what the last government left, which was massive spending and trapping people in a benefit dependency.’
He then defended both universal credit and his relationship with the Cabinet Office after Francis Maude last week criticised the implementation of Universal Credit. Duncan Smith said:
‘We know in reality the other side does not support Universal Credit, but it would be better if they came clean, this will be delivered and they will be thankful in the end.’
If Universal Credit does come good in the end (which is far from certain, with Duncan Smith appearing increasingly isolated in his support for it), then the Left will indeed have the Conservatives to thank for the reform as Labour did spend 13 years trying to introduce reforms with similar aims, and then rowing back from them. The intentions were good, with Frank Field and James Purnell both having a go, but the political will was not there. But if it fails, then it will doom welfare reform for another generation, as no party will want to touch it. So those who are sincerely opposed to reform will also have Iain Duncan Smith to thank if his reforms collapse: they will suck the political will for welfare reform out of Westminster for a long time.
For the time being, though, there is political will, and public support. Duncan Smith also had the opportunity to drop hints about the most popular welfare reform this government has ever touched, the £26,000 benefit cap. He told Andrew Bridgen, who had asked for the cap to be lowered, that it was ‘under review’.
You can read Fraser’s post previewing tonight’s episode here.