Sunday, 20 May 2012

What exactly do YOU do all day Mr Duncan Smith?

Work and Pensions Secretary Iain Duncan Smith has refused to apologise for saying the 1518 Remploy workers facing the threat of redundancy spend much of their time making cups of coffee.

In an exchange of views with campaigners who handed in a petition against the closure of Remploy factories at his office Mr Duncan Smith reportedly said, ‘is it a kindness to stick people in some factory where they are not doing any work at all? Just making cups of coffee?’

He went on to say that his decision to close the factories was based on striking a ‘balance between how much do I want to spend keeping a number of people in Remploy factories not producing stuff verses getting people into proper jobs.’

When challenged by one of the campaigners over whether or not disabled people had the right to chose between a mainstream workplace or a segregated one that might be better suited to their needs Mr Duncan Smith retorted ‘How far do you want to go with the idea that you can choose to do exactly what you want?’ Honestly the nerve of these people, wanting to make choices about their own lives; they’ll want the vote next the ungrateful blighters!

Responding to the comments shadow Work and Pensions Secretary Liam Byrne said they were ‘appalling’ and that ‘Remploy workers work hard for a living and they deserve to be treated with respect, not contempt particularly by the man who is sacking them.’

To say the comments made by Iain Duncan Smith were similar to those you might expect from a saloon bar bigot is an insult to saloon bar bigots. They at least try to cover their cruelty with humour and cringe with embarrassment when challenged, he though, speaks with the authentic voice of witless prejudice and doesn’t feel obliged to apologise for anything.

His comments prompt one important question; just what is it that Iain Duncan Smith does as a minister that makes him such a paragon of productivity?

As a minister he has a legion of civil servants to keep the wheels of bureaucracy turning and a squad of ambitious special advisors to write his speeches and laugh at his jokes. Needless to say nobody in either of these groups ever tells him he’s wrong, the polite civil service code for ministerial idiocy is call something ‘brave’; even when as in the case of these comments, it is misinformed, unfair and downright offensive.

What about his role as an MP then, aren’t they obliged to work long into the night and to spend three weekends out of four in their constituency? Quite so, however the House of Commons is one of the more convivial places in which to work what with its excellent restaurant and subsidized bars. There is also the small matter of the generous holidays; the commons goes into recess for weeks at a time because it still operates as if members have to journey back to their constituencies on horseback rather than by train.

Then again perhaps the real work of a minister is to produce policies not tangible products. If so then Iain Duncan Smith has been a serious disappointment. His attempts to reform the welfare system on the principle of giving people a hand up instead of a hand out have, so far, been utterly counterproductive.

His comments are made all the more offensive by the fact that Iain Duncan Smith is supposed to be a different sort of Tory. After a disastrous spell as party leader he re-invented himself as a social campaigner doing much to highlight the growing inequalities in British society and persuading his party that it needed to talk to people struggling at the bottom of society as much as its traditional core supporters.

Which is what makes it so disappointing that after two years in government he has gone feral and reverted to Tory type (or stereotype), surely his serious studies of inequality must have taught him that the one thing that does most damage to individuals and communities is a lack of work. Even a short spell of unemployment can cause people to lose their sense of purpose and become prey to serious physical and mental health problems.

In what is a very tough labour market disabled people will struggle more than most to find work, not least because employers are unwilling to hire staff who may need to, quite legitimately, take a considerable amount of time off to manage their ongoing health needs. Remploy, on the other hand, was set up for no other purpose than to provide employment for disabled people and to be responsive to their needs in a way that other employers cannot be, closing it down will create more problems than it solves.

That Iain Duncan Smith cannot see this is a serious failure of political understanding; that he can’t speak to the people fighting to keep their jobs with the respect they deserve shows a lack of basic empathy. Maybe it isn’t just his position on the future of Remploy that he should reconsider.

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