All change? Eight things that Stephen Crabb may (or may not) say tomorrow

11 April 2016

There was a time when DWP changed its Secretary of State almost as often as the clocks went forward, with eight different Labour Ministers during the Department’s first nine years.  DWP lived its own mantra about job mobility – nobody put down roots for long. 

But now, the Department is settling in to its first change at the top since 2010;  and it won’t have been easy.  DWP has always been a sprawling Department with a wide remit and – rarely for Whitehall – huge operational arms tasked with administering benefits, employment services, pensions, European money, various local authority funds and much else besides.  But it is now a much smaller and even more centralised Department than before, delivering with 40,000 fewer staff than in 2010 and grappling with a huge reform programme that in large part remains off-course.

It will have felt like an odd time to take over – with lots to do, small windows to make decisions and a government working part-time as Ministers gear up for the referendum and, before that, local elections.  Tomorrow, Stephen Crabb will give his maiden speech as Secretary of State.  So, where should he start?  Here’s eight things that he may (or may not) say.

  1. “No turning back on Universal Credit – but…” Iain Duncan Smith probably achieved his main objective as Secretary of State: to make Universal Credit irreversible.  However the ‘real’ Universal Credit (so-called ‘full service’) is virtually non-existent, much of the policy is still unresolved, and the cuts to in-work support mean that for many claimants it will barely pay to work.  Stephen Crabb should signal that he is prepared to change course – in particular to increase work allowances for families (even if this means reducing the ‘taper’), and to revisit decisions on monthly payment and single payment.
  2. “We are still committed to halving the gap in employment for disabled people.”    The Department has done a lot in the last two years to lay the groundwork for this – with a new health and work joint unit, a new innovation fund, more money to support ESA claimants and an increasing recognition of employment outcomes within the NHS.  But set against this, as we set out in 2014, barely one in ten disabled people currently receive employment support and barely one in ten of these find work.  And funding overall for employment support is going to fall by as much as 90%.  As Stephen Evans set out last month, we need a fresh start – which should begin by doing more to bring together the health and employment systems, revisiting decisions on funding and looking again at the role of employers and workplace support.
  3. “It’s full steam ahead on the Work and Health Programme.”  The Department intends to start procurement in the autumn for what will be a far smaller, more focused, replacement for the Work Programme and Work Choice.  To be successful this will need closer integration with local services including skills and health; much better outreach and engagement to the most disadvantaged; more effective assessment of needs; and a focus on doing ‘what works’ for those with health conditions and impairments.  But this will take time to line up, and is a long way from the approach taken with the Work Programme in 2011.
  4. “We believe in devolution”.  This may not make it into the speech, as DWP has never been big on devolution.  But delivering the Work and Health Programme, not to mention Universal Credit, could depend on the engagement and involvement of local areas.  Manchester, London, Cardiff and other cities have gained agreement for a limited role in the commissioning of the new programme.  But us we set out in our devolution paper, there is an opportunity to do much more.  We want to see local deals where areas can commit with government to the outcomes that they will achieve and are then given far more control over the resources, commissioning, management and delivery to make that happen.
  5. “We will tackle in-work poverty and progression”.  As Stephen Evans wrote, this is a key area where there are opportunities to integrate and to innovate locally.  The Department’s trials on in-work support are a good start, and many cities will build on this with their forthcoming Growth Deals.  There is a real opportunity to work with cities to pull together skills, employment and business support to really test what works – the Department should take it.
  6. “It’s time for me to look at the future of Jobcentre Plus”.  JCP was the big winner in the last Spending Review, with much of the Work Programme effectively being renationalised and resources being increased over the next few years.  However it will face significant cuts from 2018, alongside the ending of its estates contract.  Again this may not make the speech, but JCP’s fifteenth anniversary would be a good time to start a conversation about its future.  I believe that there is as strong a case as ever for a true public employment service, but that right now that probably isn’t Jobcentre Plus.
  7. “I will do more than listen on welfare reform”.  It is welcome that Stephen Crabb recognised in his Commons speech that individuals and families are affected   by welfare cuts.  But neither he nor officials knows how they are affected – because despite embarking on the largest cuts to welfare in more than thirty years, they have never commissioned any research into its impacts.  They must do so now.  Because the promise of ‘no new cuts’ will not make the next few years any easier – as benefits continue to be frozen, UC cuts begin to bite, the new lower benefit cap is implemented and the two-children rule is introduced into tax credits.  Also, as I blogged last month, unless the Treasury agrees to abandon its self-inflicted ‘welfare cap’, there’s every risk that more cuts will need to come.
  8. “Lastly, I’ve patched things up with the Treasury.”  Ok, so this won’t be in the speech.  But employment and welfare reform used to be a shared agenda between DWP and the Treasury, but the two have been increasingly at odds over the last six years.  This has led to bad policy and mistakes – like DWP’s mishandling of Universal Credit and the Work Programme, and the Treasury’s imposition of the benefit cap, ‘bedroom tax’ and most other welfare cuts.  The next few years demands greater consensus – around tackling low pay, increasing employment for disabled people, recycling benefit savings and delivering major reforms. 

Tomorrow should give us a clearer idea of what Stephen Crabb and his team want to achieve, and how they will do it, over the coming years.  In truth, though, he will have a small window to make an impact.  How much the government can achieve between now and the referendum, and then between 23 June and summer recess on 21 July may well set the tone for the rest of this Parliament.