The jobs and welfare section of the coalition agreement is one of the least important – not because the policy area doesn’t matter (it certainly does) but because it says very little beyond, “we want to make the welfare system better”. Quite what better means and whether it can really be done is all down to how Iain Duncan Smith in particular does his job, the choices he makes and the degree to which pensions minister Steve Webb influences matters. The benefits area is one where there is little disagreement on principle but there is plenty of disagreement over the right approach to meeting those principles and the practical details to follow.
Thus, few will disagree with the promise that “we will investigate how to simplify the benefit system in order to improve incentives to work”. However, when previous governments have made similar moves in the past they have often been controversial – and often been opposed by the party. Probably starkest in its Conservative overtones is the commitment that “we will ensure that receipt of benefits for those able to work is conditional on their willingness to work”. But all will really depend on how Iain Duncan Smith’s reviews play out – and whether he wins the battle with the Treasury for up front investment in order to make long-term saving in welfare rather than seeing the review as cover for an immediate round of cost cutting.
If Iain Duncan Smith is one of the leading Conservatives viewed most warily by many Liberal Democrats, Ken Clarke is one whose views are often seen as most amenable (at least for those who can’t or don’t remember his controversial public sector reforms before he became Chancellor). Matching that, the contents of the short justice section are largely a natural fit with Liberal Democrat proposals. Points here include “historical convictions for consensual gay sex with over-16s will be treated as spent”, “we will carry out a fundamental review of Legal Aid”, “we will explore alternative forms of secure, treatment-based accommodations for mentally ill and drugs offenders” and “we will consider how to use proceeds from the Victim Surcharge to deliver up to 15 new rape crisis centres, and give existing rape crisis centres stable, long-term funding”.
With Ken Clarke in post the promise of a “full review of sentencing policy to ensure that it is effective in deterring crime, protecting the public, punishing offenders and cutting reoffending” sounds more likely to be amenable than if those were the marching orders for, say, Michael Howard.
The most controversy in this section has come from the pledge to “extend anonymity in rape cases to defendants”, a policy that was passed by Liberal Democrat conference a couple of years ago but also a policy that had gone unnoticed by large parts of the party.