Its fascinating to see the ideas from Ian Duncan-Smith about welfare reforms. Generally they're a good idea and its amazing that the shiny new Labour Party of Ed Miliband can't even rouse itself to oppose the changes, having failed so utterly to reform benefits for 13 years, instead presiding over a burgeoning bill throughout that period.
It really is remarkable to consider what Labour didn't do in 13 years: they didn't abolish the hated Council Tax and replace it with fair local taxation; they didn't reform benefits, instead hobbling us with the ridiculously bureaucratic tax credits system; they failed to raise pensions by anything like a reasonable amount; they did nothing to make education affordable, instead introducing and then raising student fees; they didn't change our democracy by abolishing the unelected House of Lords and introducing fair votes, as they promised in 1997, 2001 and 2005; they failed to address our desperate transport system, keeping the Tory joke that is rail and bus privatisation; oh, and they singularly failed to regulate banks, dropping us into the clarts up to our eyeballs in 2008.
But I digress. There can't be many people who disagree with the notion that the benefits system should be based on the presumption that most people can work and should be helped to do so. I had a period of unemployment last year and I found the Jobcentre experience rather helpful. I was demoralised and very worried during that period and having a two weekly appointment at the Jobcentre to keep me on my toes helped me to retain a clear focus. Luckily I found work but it must be difficult for many people who have not yet done so. These welfare reforms will hopefully create a more positive approach to the very difficult task of finding work.
However, I struggle with the need for a 'three strikes and out' system, threatening people with no benefits for three years if they turn down three offers of paid or community work. Sanctions are necessary if people refuse employment but why three years? What are people going to do if they find themselves in this situation, with no right of appeal? It would surely be far more sensible to have a rolling system of stopping benefits for a limited, increasing period of perhaps up to 26 weeks to encourage [and lets be honest, coerce] people to work without the threat of a whole three years without any income whatsoever. I'm not defending someone who won't work but what happens to their family? What happens to their children if they have any? Who will pick up the costs of people losing homes and children potentially ending up in far worse situations. I fear that this specific aspect of Duncan-Smith's intelligent thinking is a rather 'old-Tory' sledgehammer to crack what is admittedly a considerable nut.
Forgive me for waving the party flag but St Paddy of Ashdown in the 1990s espoused the idea of cutting benefits progressively for people who refused to work, without removing them entirely - and Paddy was never a soft touch.
I like benefits reform, I support it but it must be sensible, deliverable and it must face up to the difficult fact that there will always be some people who won't play ball. Minimising their number and the consequences for society must be borne in mind. I look forward to Lib Dems in Parliament pointing this out.
For the moment, two cheers for Duncan-Smith, an intelligent man who suffers from being such a Tory stereotype that his work in this area is often overlooked.