Welfare secretary signals no major changes to government policy and says he is ‘absolutely committed’ to universal credit rollout
A belief in the value of work and the family, coupled with a “relentless focus” on improving life chances, will drive social security reform, the welfare secretary,Stephen Crabb, has said.
Although Crabb adopted a more inclusive, less confrontational tone than his predecessor, Iain Duncan Smith, who resigned in March, he signalled no major changes to the government’s welfare programme.
The speech at the Early Intervention Foundation in London was billed as setting out Crabb’s vision for the welfare system and some “early thoughts” about the challenges in social security reform.
He gave wholehearted backing to the government’s much-criticised universal credit (UC) scheme, which he said had the potential to be the most important public sector reform project for decades.
“I am absolutely committed to leading a continued, successful rollout of universal credit. That is a priority for me, as is continuing to embed it as the spine that runs through the welfare system,” he said.
Although UC is running six years behind schedule and has been subject to cuts that critics say undermine its original aim of “making work pay”, Crabb insisted it was working and provided “the right incentives for people to move into work”.
The latest changes to UC, which came into force on Monday, will leave thousands of working families up to £200 a month worse off as a result of cuts to work allowances.
Crabb described the vast social security system – which he said had an annual budget greater than the entire GDP of Portugal – as a “people business” that had to understand the “human impact of the decisions we take”.
Because it was a people business, he said, it had to go further than simply providing financial help to protect people from poverty, and should seek to transform their lives.
“Financial support for people facing poverty is vital – and never, never underestimate the importance of a family in need getting that support in a timely and effective way – but on its own, cash support is rarely enough,” he said.
The state had an important role to help transform lives, Crabb said. “I am determined that a restless, innovating spirit of reform should continue to shape my department as we place people at the very centre of everything we do.”
Invoking William Beveridge, the architect of modern social security, Crabb said the welfare system had to ensure people were not trapped into staying on benefits rather than taking the first steps back to work. “The welfare system I believe in and I want to see is one that transforms lives rather than traps them.”
He said it was a priority for him to narrow the employment gap between disabled and non-disabled people, although he did not mention his predecessor’s target of getting 1 million more disabled and ill people into a job by 2020.
He reiterated his promise made last month to “start a new conversation” with disabled people, charities and employers about how best to close the gap. A white paper is expected in the next few months.
Crabb, who was brought up by a lone parent on a council estate in south Wales, said social mobility was an issue close to his heart. “I believe in a society where it should not matter what street you grow up on, how much your mum or dad earn, or where you go to school … The society I believe in is one where everyone has a decent set of opportunities to lead fruitful lives.”
A stable home and family gave people the best possible life chances, he said. By this he did not have in mind “some idealised model of a self-contained nuclear family”, he said, because society was more complex than that.
“Yet this does not mean we should ignore the evidence that, where children come from a lone parent family or have chaotic upbringings, they are far more likely to fail at school, turn to crime or fall into substance abuse. We do the children of this country a huge disservice if we are neutral on family structure.”
The Child Poverty Action Group charity described the speech as a positive start. “But a government in the business of families must also look carefully at the impact its benefit cuts will have on families’ lives,” it added.
“What we now need is action to match the rhetoric, or else Stephen Crabb will be faced with the very real threat that this government’s main social policy legacy could be the biggest rise in child poverty for a generation.”