Do you ever have bad days at work? Do you make mistakes? Well, we all do. No system is perfect and that's exactly the expression Iain Duncan Smith used to describe his welfare system, which unfortunately makes the kinds of mistake that kill people on a regular basis. I'm lucky, as many people are, that my mistakes at work can be quite easily rectified with a credit note or a change of formula but even when it all goes wrong, nobody dies. A claim that IDS can't make. Also, I apologise when I make mistakes and again, that is where we differ.
I fear I may have created a "bad day at work" for IDS when I accosted him outside a health clinic to ask him about some of this stuff. I was fairly polite about it and waited for him to finish his sadface photoshoot before I invoked the rights of a constituent to contact their local MP. That's all I wanted to do - it just so happens that my local MP is responsible for horrific human rights violations and it was those things that had prompted me to contact him. But where better to start than with the issue in hand - local authority funding? After all, he was there to protest about a GP's clinic making cuts and didn't it seem ironic to him that those cuts were probably a direct result of his vote to cut local authority funding by 24.6% just a few weeks before?
It didn't seem ironic. He's not cutting local authority funding. "I'm not cutting local authority funding" he said.
That took me aback a bit, I must admit. I knew that local authorities were all being forced to face funding cuts and I was pretty sure IDS had never voted against his party on something like that. So, we tried to unpack this a little. A story had broken that morning about my council, Waltham Forest, raising council tax for the first time in six years in order to offset the government cuts and to "help pay for the growing adults social care bill". When I asked IDS about this, he was again in denial. He said that most local authorities were looking at a "stable budget" this year, that social care was protected and that the government was providing all funding needed. But I was still confused. In one breath, he said that social care was not being cut and there was "an extra pot of money going into social care" but in the next, said that councils were being allowed to raise taxes if they liked, "to bring some money into their social care at a local level... to get a better level of social care". I might be having one of those maths-mistakes days, but if there's extra central funding, why would councils need to generate their own extra funding as well? If the social care bill is rising and the government are not providing enough to cover that rise, surely it's a cut in real terms? Our borough is getting ever more populous and so it's inevitable that all sorts of costs will rise..."allowing" councils to raise council tax hardly seems an acceptable solution from the government, It sounds very much as if they're washing their hands of local authorities.
And, of course, blaming them for their own failings. After all, everyone in business has to make these kinds of cuts all the time. According to IDS, that is. He's a great believer in that Tory watchword, "efficiency". If only people could be more efficient, they'd save money. Oodles of it. "I don't believe services need to be cut" he said, in answer to a question about how a London Borough could save £58million. "There are loads of ways, y'know".
Loads of ways, people! Like efficiency, streamlining, rationalising and all those other words which are actually fairly meaningless when you're staring down a budget that needs £58,000,000 taking out of it in order to provide the same services to a growing number of people. We're used to a lack of maths skills from Gove - all schools are still expected to be above average, by the way - but it's hard to calculate out an eight-figure budget hole. IDS claims that he's successfully taken money out of his own department and it's running more smoothly as a result but certainly, news reports from a year or so ago suggested it wasn't all that smooth. Nevertheless, he thinks that "most businesses and companies have to do it all the time...that and considerably more". So, if you're a small business owner who's saving £58million this year please get it touch and share your tips! There must be thousands of you out there.
We moved on. I took the efficiency topic as a springboard to discuss the Work Capability Assessments, which have been widely reported as costing more than they save. IDS rubbished these claims, saying that they were actually saving money - over a billion pounds. Well, I don't know about you but I'm impressed. A billion pounds is a lot to be saving, even if it's clearly at the expense of the sickest and most disabled of our society. But the report from the Independent gives the same figure as the savings in benefits payouts around - a billion, give or take - but offsets it against the £1.6billion cost of the assessments. Which was kinda my point in the first place - yes, the WCAs may cut your benefits spend by £1billion but your bottom line will still be £600,000,000 short and you've ruined a whole lot of lives along the way.
If, like IDS, you'd like to dispute this, here's the source of that information. And a screen shot for the truly-lazy-but-argumentative:
But it seems I was missing the point - his purpose in the WCAs was not to save money, it was to "ensure people know what condition they're in and what services they have a right to". Fabulous. People who are sick and/or disabled apparently are ignorant of the condition they're in and need IDS' help in figuring it out. So, we're spending billions to essentially replace the holy trinity of diagnosis - Google, intuition and a decent GP. If you lose a leg, don't bother working out for yourself what's wrong just wait for the WCAheroes to swoop in and point at where it used to be.
But unfortunately, things don't always go right. As IDS himself said: "No system is absolutely perfect. Nothing you (emphasised) do in life is absolutely perfect" and he's right there. I have my flaws. As discussed previously, though, my typos in a blog post don't normally kill people. There are thousands of stories coming out about people who have died following benefit cuts and, in some cases, having the grace to die while the decision was being made so therefore saving the DWP an extra bit of admin. Now, that's efficiency.
Even IDS himself admits that aspects of this are "absolutely appalling". When I brought up the story of the woman who was being told her benefits were being cut on the day she died, he agreed that the case was one of those things that "went wrong" and said that he always apologises to people that suffer from those kind of things. Weirdly though, I couldn't pin him down on whether he'd actually apologised to that particular family or not. It's almost like he's a politician.
At that point, I sensed our brief time together was drawing to a close. He suggested I was trying to create a row, which was never my intention. I only meant to fire off a barrage of abuse and it's not my fault he argued back. I only hope that this week, as he went in to vote "aye" for yet more disability benefit cuts, he felt a strange twinge of conscience in his cold, cold heart. But I doubt it.
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