Some telegraphery from Iain Duncan Smith here. In short, IDS thinks we need to physically move people of working age on benefits to where employers want them; to make space, we need to relocate pensioners in council houses to smaller homes.
It looks as though the guy has swallowed his own rhetoric about the state sector constituting some sort of ‘command economy’: we need to shrink it, all right – he seems to be saying – but as long as it exists there’s going to be some god damn commanding going on. Is it that he was in the army once? It used to be that ‘the command economy’ meant putting vital-to-the-nation industries into the regions (like building submarines in Barrow); now we look to be working up a policy of putting the regions into the industry; specifically, that of west London and Bristol, the two places IDS seems to have on his radar.
Whatever. I think he’s basically incoherent on this one. To put things in the simplest terms, either recipients of benefits have agency – which implies that while some will ‘get on their bikes and look for work’ (or relocate, or whatever), some won’t – or they don’t have agency, in which case you can’t expect them to exercise it. If it’s the former, then benefits should come with few strings attached, should not be excessively and repeatedly assessed, conditions of receipt should not be changed at short notice, etc. In essence, benefits – within the obvious and accepted-by-everyone constraint of affordability – should be a matter of entitlement rather than grant. And it might be that one of the things IDS is missing here is a recognition that it’s not only the current recipients of benefits who take notice of what the benefit terms and conditions are, it’s just about everybody; that is, the whole of the private sector as well. We – the everybody – make our life plans accordingly. If we think that the safety net is going to be a certain way rather than another way, we plan for that. And if you – Iain Duncan Smith – relocate pensioners without warning, you’re in effect sticking two fingers up at whatever choices they’ve made in the past. How do you know they haven’t planned responsibly? Perhaps they chose to do a lower paid but socially useful job, trusting that there’d be a certain minimal support in retirement. Perhaps, if they’d thought they might risk getting booted out of their home in retirement, they might instead have chosen a less socially useful but better paid line of work. These are the sorts of counterfactuals relevant to this sort of policy-making. (You may want to question ‘socially useful’, but I’d bet that IDS himself recognises at least some occupations as socially useful. What’s more, the comparable ‘key worker’ category is one recognised in current housing policy.)
Bear in mind that IDS is no longer just some harmless former Tory leader: he’s Work And Pensions Secretary. It’s only been what – a month – but he looks to have had a full on Blunkett-style ‘machine gun the bastards’ moment.