Three weeks in: what the new Secretary of State for Work and Pensions should do next

8 April 2016

The Secretary of State for Work and Pensions is not considered one of the great offices of state – but it should be. In 2014-15 the Department for Work and Pensions paid 22 million people £167.6 billion in benefits and pensions. Millions of families are dependent on the payments it processes. But more than that, it is a department that fights poverty, creates opportunity and drives economic growth.

As Stephen Crabb settles in to his new role at its helm, it is the Department’s ability to champion social justice and improve the life chances of the disadvantaged that he should focus on. He should embrace and build on the vision that his predecessor laid out – a welfare state that aspires to help as many people as it can into sustainable employment, regardless of their barriers; that encourages independence and personal responsibility; but that seeks to protect the most vulnerable. Delivering against this vision is also, of course, the best way of ensuring an affordable welfare state.

Just three weeks in, the new Secretary of State is undoubtedly being swamped by advice (and lobbying by the Department’s many stakeholders). He will also be confronted by pages and pages of briefings from the Department itself. As he wades into what has become one of the most controversial areas of government reform, he could be forgiven for feeling slightly overwhelmed.

Here is my contribution to that cacophony of advice.

Firstly, he should rapidly decide his two or three priorities (for example overhauling incapacity-related benefits, rebalancing the welfare state towards working age people and ensuring the successful roll out of Universal Credit). Any organisation needs a clear mission, with specific objectives. Too many objectives can spread people’s focus too thinly – including the leadership’s – and make it more difficult to hold people to account. One of the lessons of welfare reform over the last Parliament is surely that successful change programmes require sufficient delivery capacity and capability. To support this he should make the most of the Extended Ministerial Office model to build a strong and expert team around him.

Secondly, he should be bold in setting those objectives. For example, narrowing the disability employment gap – never mind halving it as the Government has set out to do – cannot be achieved by tinkering. As Reform laid out in Working Welfare the failed experience of Employment and Support Allowance (ESA) shows that radically different outcomes require a radically different approach. In this spirit he should persevere with Universal Credit and make the case for strengthening it – reversing the counterproductive cuts announced in last year’s Summer Budget. Such bold reforms have the potential to transform lives.

Thirdly, he should be determined in his delivery of those objectives. Over the coming months he will be pulled in different directions – and invariably there will be many who vocally disagree with him. He will need a thick skin. In the last six years welfare reform has, at times, been undermined by the competing objective of reducing the social security bill. The chipping away of Universal Credit is testament to that, and the signs are that this may continue. It was telling that within hours of the new Secretary of State’s statement to Parliament that he would not be “seeking further savings from the welfare budget”, the Treasury briefed that this simply meant that there were currently “no plans” to. If – or perhaps when – the Treasury develops those plans, he will need to be strong in making the case for reform rather than cuts. Arbitrary cuts may damage lives and prove counterproductive in the longer-term, effective reform can reduce demand and therefore deliver sustainable savings.

The new Secretary of State for Work and Pensions is in a privileged position – he has the opportunity to improve the lives of the poorest, and on a large scale. Stephen Crabb should use this power to continue the work of turning a passive, paternalistic welfare state into one that breaks the devastating cycle of poverty and supports people to move from dependence to independence.

Charlotte Pickles, Deputy Director and Head of Research, Reform

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