As civil servants in the DWP enter their building in Westminster this morning , they’ll be walking into an atmosphere that makes the Thick of It look like Play School.
A new Secretary of State, Stephen Crabb is in place. The knives are already out for him on social media though his CV shows he has a back history of compassion. He inherits a horrible mess.
Ros Altmann is still in place though her controversial personal statement has not been owned by Downing Street. She faces a tough week with Brexit blogger Mark Wallace calling for her to be sacked.
DWP ministers Shailesh Vara (who is Ros Altmann’s spokesperson in the Commons) has dug the knife into the Pension Minister.
“I have to say I am surprised by Ros’s comments. The fact is that I recall Ros attending all the meetings at which we discussed government policy and then we both went out to defend the policy in the Commons and the Lords, which as you know wasn’t always easy to do. Ros’s recollection does not accord with mine and I’m sorry that this all happened.”
As did Priti Patel:
“All meetings with our Ministerial team have been constructive and every Minister has had the freedom to take forward policy ideas in their brief, to lead media campaigns and engage freely with parliamentary colleagues. Iain has been a remarkable SofS [Secretary of State] to work with. He has run the largest delivery Dept in Govt with great determination and it has been a real privilege to work with him as one of his Ministers.”
And Justin Tomlinson has joined in to defend Iain Duncan Smith
“Iain always conducted himself in a professional, dedicated and determined manner. He actively encouraged ministers and teams to engage, challenge and develop ideas. We were to be ourselves, our judgement backed as we worked as a team both for DWP and the Gov.”
This is what is called a circular firing squad.
So what of pensions?
If we cast our mind back a few weeks, it was not the disabled who were supposed to be easing the black hole in George Osborne’s economy. It was pensions.
This thought crossed my mind when Duncan Smith was extolling his compassion on the Andrew Marr show.
“They are losing sight of the direction of travel they should be in. It is in danger of drifting in a direction that divides society rather than unites it, and that I think is unfair.”
“That is deeply unfair, and that unfairness is damaging to the government, it’s damaging to the party and it’s damaging to the public.”
“It looks like we see benefits as a pot of money to cut because they don’t vote for us.”
“There needs to be a greater, collegiate sense on how decisions are made. This is not the way to do government.”
“This is not some secondary attempt to attack the prime minister or about Europe. It is nothing to do with that at all – if I wanted to do that I would have been clear. I have never, ever hidden my views about something and I’m not doing it now. I am genuinely, genuinely concerned.”
So what exactly was Iain Duncan Smith’s part in the debate over pension tax reform? Did he just smile stoically when Osborne and Cameron pulled the proposals to radically reform our pension taxation system? Did he not guess that whatever wasn’t saved on pensions would have to be made up elsewhere?
Quiet man – or asleep at the wheel?
Faced with the choice between angry back-benchers losing their tax-perks or the current mess, the Secretary of State seems to have reverted to “quiet man” mode.
Of all the in-work benefits that Britain offers, higher rate tax relief and NIC free pension contributions are the hardest to justify. What is more, the mechanism for painlessly exiting from this unsuitable and ineffective incentives had (by all accounts) been agreed.
Duncan Smith is reported to have told Steve Webb on the latter’s arrival at the DWP that
“you can do whatever you like as long as it doesn’t cost any money”
Duncan Smith was known as a reformer of everything within his department but he never spoke on pensions. He was a hands off Pensions Secretary of State.
But he was not hands off with Ros Altmann
In her personal statement delivered over this weekend , Ros Altmann had this to say
“I am extremely shocked by the news of Iain Duncan Smith’s resignation and the way he has behaved…I have found him exceptionally difficult to work for. It has been a hugely challenging time for me as he was preventing me from speaking to the public and has often been obstructive to my efforts to resolve important pension policy issues such as on women’s pensions”.
What went wrong?
Was she excluded as Osborne’s stooge?
Was she talking rubbish?
Or was she the Pensions peg in the Universal Credit hole?
I think she was the square peg in the round hole
When I listen to Duncan Smith whether in 2010 or 2016 (or any time between) , he appears a man who was and is obsessed with one project only- the Universal Credit.
For Iain Duncan Smith, Webb had to be tolerated, Altmann could be ignored. She was bullied in her Department in a deplorable way and both she and pensions have suffered for it.
This is so “not about pensions”.
It’s impossible to avoid the conclusion that Ros Altmann was muzzled because she did not speak Iain Duncan Smith’s language. And by extension she did not speak the language of Duncan Smith’s ministerial team -Vara, Patel and Tomlinson.
Altmann does not speak for Osborne. Her opposition to the Lifetime ISA as an alternative to pensions (published in the Sunday Times this weekend) does not mark her down as “his woman”. Altmann is her own woman and she speaks her own mind.
Many people I know in pension circles do not like Ros Altmann because she does not tow their party line. She is not necessarily on the side of the pensions industry, she is on the side of good pensions.
Which is why she has my support. She is trying to restore confidence in pensions.
And Duncan Smith, Patel, Tomlinson and Vara are not about pensions.
The circular firing squad
Ros Altmann has always enjoyed the support of ordinary people who see her as a champion. Her wings have been clipped since she has been in Government and she has been vilified by the WASPI campaigners and their male acolytes with no means to respond.
She has been unable to campaign from within for necessary changes to workplace pensions such as the sorting out of the RAS/Net Pay problem. She has no powers to give the Pension Regulator as she has been starved of power within her own department.
Being held accountable for so much and being powerless to do anything about it is horrendous position and I have every sympathy for Ros Altmann.
Can we please get on with our jobs?
I hope that she now move quickly out of the firing line and gets back to the day job. As I hope the civil servants returning to work this morning can do.
We are engaged in a serious business, introducing a new state pension and rolling out auto-enrolment to millions. We have spent the last two months preparing for changes that haven’t arrived. Instead we have seen party politics put before the national good.
Between now and the referendum we are going to have yet more of this, only a year after a general election. The politicians – if they are seriously concerned about our lack of productivity, have got to return to doing what we pay them for- making better policy.