Iain Duncan Smith's welfare reforms are forcing many Britons into "forced penury" as they mark an increasing return to the principles of the Victorian "Poor Laws", leading academics have warned.
Dr Chris Grover, senior lecturer in social policy at Lancaster University and an expert on the history of national insurance, told the Huffington Post UK: "We are in a situation where for many people we are heading to a situation of forced penury that is some distance from the optimism that helped frame the introduction of National Insurance benefits in 1912."
The warning from Dr Grover, who has advised the NSPCC charity on child poverty, comes on the anniversary of the 1912 introduction of the first sickness benefit, unemployment benefit, and maternity benefits in Britain, which came in under the 1911 National Insurance Act.
Dr Grover said that the current direction of welfare policy marked a steady return to the "principles of the Poor Laws", the social precursor to the welfare state that are popularly linked with the Victorian era of the workhouse.
Grover added: "Now, the political pay off seems to come with being as harsh and restrictive as possible in benefit policy. We see this trend from the days of the Thatcher governments, extended during the New Labour years, and even more acutely in the name of austerity during the coalition years.
Iain Duncan Smith has been accused of driving people into "penury"
"We are heading back to the principles of the poor law. ‘Less eligibility’, discretion and deterrence are all principles of the poor law that are visible in contemporary benefit policy...There have been discussions and some developments in policies that aim to withhold benefits from people for a range of reasons, like for not declaring problem drug use; for being unable and not learning to speak English and not engaging with support to address anti-social behaviour. In these cases, it is the behaviour of the individual that, at least in part, determines their access to benefit, rather than their needs."
Dr Grover's stark warning was echoed by Hartley Dean, social policy professor at the London School of Economics, who told HuffPostUK that successive governments have "retreated from the principles of National Insurance in favour of stigmatising means-testing benefits."
He added: "In some senses, they have been reverting to the principles of the Poor Laws, which National Insurance was supposed to replace!"
Work and pensions secretary Iain Duncan Smith previously explained his vision for the welfare system, speaking of a "commitment to social justice and a welfare system that is fit for the 21st Century".
"My drive is for social justice to run through the fabric of our government, in all that we do," he added.
"We can make social justice a reality for Britain long into the future. The prize is a welfare system that is simple, more efficient and one that helps to restore the social mobility that should be at the heart of British society."