Iain Duncan Smith and the Danger of Arbitrary Rules

It’s been a dramatic few days of politics. I found out about Iain Duncan Smith’s resignation as Secretary of State for Work & Pensions over dinner at a friend’s house on Friday evening. It would be fair to say that I almost choked on the lovely meal I was eating.

There have been a couple of days of frantic briefing and counter-briefing (never a pretty sight.) IDS himself gave what I thought was a quite remarkable interview on the BBC’s Andrew Marr Show on Sunday morning. The Twittersphere has been in something of an uproar. And, as always, the press has fed upon the ensuing frenzy.

The episode brings to an end Iain Duncan Smith’s rollercoaster six-year tenure in Caxton House. However, I don’t believe that it brings to an end his campaign for social justice that famously began on the Easterhouse estate in 2002. I very much hope I’m right.

I’m not going to get into the party politics of the whole thing. I’m also not going to cast on opinion on whether resigning now was: 1. Exactly the right thing to do; 2. ‘Too little too late’; 3. ‘The pot calling the kettle black’ or; 4. The brazen hypocrisy that some would have it.

What I will say is this. Before the election last year, I met with a senior Conservative, extremely close to IDS, who made the observation that “the interesting thing about Iain is that he isn’t looking for his next job. He’s got the only job in government he wants. And as long as he feels he can make a change, he’ll keep doing it.”

With all of this in mind, I’ve three reflections in the wake of the IDS resignation – which should bear weight on both sides of the political divide. I’ll share one today.

The Dangers of Arbitrary Rules

I’ve written over and over again about the extreme silliness of arbitrary rules driving perverse behaviours within a system. This is often why we end up with a mess in public service delivery. The same rules apply to the business of making public policy.

Many of the problems that we are having in the welfare and employment space at the moment are the direct result of a number of arbitrary rules that have been enforced with no room for flexibility. For example:

  1. the requirement to run a budget surplus by an arbitrarily defined date
  2. the decision to ring-fence in excess of one-third of total government spending (including Health, Education and International Development)
  3. the welfare cap to limit DWP spending on working age benefits
  4. the decision to lower that welfare cap after the last election

You start to leave the Department for Work & Pensions – un-ringfenced and with the largest day-to-day spend of any department – as the most visible, most lucrative target when you need to make savings. And if you start out with the savings as your first priority – rather than the right reforms that will create a better, fairer system AND save money in the long run – then you run a grave danger of making some really bad decisions.

That’s how you end up with scenarios such as:

  1. The proposed reductions to Working Tax Credits – and subsequent climbdown – in the 2015 Spending Review
  2. The inexplicable 80% reduction of employment support services for long-term unemployed people in the next five years
  3. The continued neutering of the Universal Credit taper, ruining work incentives
  4. The Personal Independence Payments cuts proposed in last week’s Budget, which turned out to be the straw that broke the camel’s back

IDS himself made the point on the Andrew Marr Show that “this is not the way to do government.”

“The problem was the institution of a welfare cap which was lowered after the last election, pretty arbitrarily. And that meant that everything we were doing was above the line essentially… Now, my point really was that we shouldn’t be debating that in the context of being just above a welfare cap, which is an arbitrary position. We should be discussing it in terms of how could we get the best aid to those who most need it, and then work from there as to how those changes came.” Iain Duncan Smith, Andrew Marr Show, BBC 1, Sunday 20th March 2016

I’m not sure I could have put it better.

If the government really wants to be a government of social justice, to dramatically change the life-chances of the most disadvantaged, to reverse inequalities, to reform the social compact around welfare and work so that it is fairer, better and stronger, then it needs to allow those goals to drive their decision making. Everything we know tells us that achieving these goals will also deliver gigantic savings to the Exchequer in the medium and long term.

Stephen Covey, in 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, urges us to “start with the end in mind.” If the end in mind is to balance the books at some arbitrarily determined date, with a load of arbitrary and inflexible rules that limit your room for manoeuvre, you’re going to end up in a pretty stick mess, sooner or later. Right about now, in fact.

It’s no way to run a government. It’s no way to run a business either. There are lessons in here for us all.

I’d love to hear from you. Please let me know what you think on Twitter, LinkedIn or in the comments below.
If you’d like to subscribe to my free weekly blog updates, please sign up in the top right hand corner of the page.