IDS and the "Lower Deciles": Iain Duncan Smith Has Done the Poor a Disservice
Wilby, Peter, New Statesman (1996)
Single mothers (or lone parents, as they are now called) and old-age pensioners are traditional Labour territory. In Tony Blair's first term, a proposed benefit cut for the first group and a miserly rise for the second led to Labour's biggest internal party rows. Equally, marriage and the family belong to the Tories. That was why the "back to basics" fiasco of John Major's government--when several ministers were revealed to prefer dalliances with actresses and secretaries to the comforts of the family fireside--proved so damaging to Tory morale. (Note to feminist readers: I refer to actresses and secretaries because that's what the Tories call them.)
These political demarcation lines tend to muddy the waters. Most Labour MPs know the majority of pensioners now live more comfortably than the average working parent. But in the party's collective mind, all pensioners still shiver in front of one-bar electric fires, subsisting on soup, weak tea and digestive biscuits. Likewise, to the Tory mind, a family comprises two or three polite, God-fearing children, and a couple whose union was blessed at the local parish church. This now unusual domestic arrangement, the Tories think, is to be encouraged. In response, Labour denounces potential "discrimination" against lone parents.
The result is a kind of culture war, which has little to do with tackling poverty and social breakdown, supposedly the subjects of Iain Duncan Smith's social justice policy group, which has just published its report, Breakthrough Britain. The report rightly highlights what it calls "the couple penalty" in the benefits system. It is generally accepted that two can live more cheaply than one, but how much more cheaply, particularly if children are involved, is disputed.
A jobless couple on income support get a weekly allowance of [pounds sterling]92.80; if they live apart, as single people, they get [pounds sterling]59.15 each, a gain of 28 per cent. IDS's policy group regards that as an acceptable penalty, though I am not so sure. The penalty is more dramatic when the working tax credit system comes into play. This is because the system looks at total household income and numbers of children and allows, for a lone parent, the same [pounds sterling]1,700 that would be allowed for a second adult in the household. According to the Labour MP Frank Field (in his report Welfare Isn't Working: Child Poverty, published by Reform), a lone parent with two children under 11, working 16 hours weekly on the minimum wage, had a net income of [pounds sterling]487 a week in 2006. …