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Arise, Sir Food Bank

Knighting Iain Duncan Smith - the man responsible for Universal Credit, the bedroom tax and 'fit for work' tests - shows just how much contempt the establishment has for ordinary people.

“Losing a limb shouldn’t guarantee a payout,” Iain Duncan Smith famously said of disability benefits as he helped launch austerity measures at the start of the decade. It appears that pulling support from enough disabled people does, however, guarantee a knighthood.

In the newly announced New Years’ honours list, Duncan Smith – key architect of Universal Credit and ‘welfare reform’ under the Tory-Lib Dem coalition government – has been knighted. 

The honour system is an antiquated relic based on inequality and deference, one built around the premise of heredity privilege gifting approval to subjects, all with a nod to the Empire. We routinely witness it rewarding failure, where mates of prime ministers are given cushy peerages after less than glowing careers. And yet awarding one to Duncan Smith feels particularly shameless – an establishment reward for a legacy of incompetence and cruelty.

This isn’t a partisan point. The government’s own public spending watchdog, the National Audit Office, savaged Duncan Smith’s much delayed flagship welfare programme last year, finding Universal Credit may end up costing more than the benefit system it replaces, cannot prove it helps more claimants into work and is unlikely to ever deliver value for money. The United Nations, meanwhile, described it as “a digital and sanitised version of the 19th Century workhouse, made infamous by Charles Dickens”.

The human impact of this is all too well established, with thousands of families falling into rent arrears and struggling to afford regular meals. The timing of the honour is particularly disgraceful in light of reports families on Universal Credit are turning to food banks over Christmas. There will be people who had to skip dinner on Friday night because their Universal Credit hasn’t come in only to wake up on Saturday to news that its creator has been knighted.

As well as Universal Credit, in his time at the Department of Work and Pensions, Duncan Smith oversaw some of the most barbaric social policy in recent years, from the bedroom tax, the roll out of ‘fit for work’ tests, benefit sanctions, and the abolition of Disability Living Allowance – all policies that have hit disabled and chronically ill people hardest, and pushed many into poverty and mental health crisis.

If you want to see the reality, look at #KnightmareIDS – the hashtag set up by benefit claimants on social media overnight to highlight their experiences. “I cried when I heard [he was being knighted],” one woman wrote.  

To many, Duncan Smith has come to represent their life becoming even harder – why they can’t afford the heating in winter or they can’t leave the house after they’ve had their Mobility car taken away.

To give Duncan Smith a knighthood regardless is not simply a kick in the teeth to them, it is a message. It says: ‘those in power can act with impunity and not only will they avoid accountability for hurting you, they will be actively rewarded for it.’

Predictably, some have already come to Duncan Smith’s defence. When Faiza Shaheen, who unsuccessfully challenged Duncan Smith for his seat in the general election last month, criticised the knighthood honour, LBC journalist Iain Dale essentially accused her of being a sore loser.

That it is seemingly so hard for some to understand why it feels wrong to gift Duncan Smith ‘respect’ after causing suffering to so many suggests plenty of what is wrong not only with the honours system but the current state of politics.

As Duncan Smith is praised in the spotlight, there are other people who should have our focus. Jen Marsden, a grandmother on Universal Credit who was told she had to survive on around £6 per day. She had just been diagnosed with cancer.

Or Phillip Herron, 34, a debt-ridden single dad who struggled for three weeks this summer waiting for his Universal Credit to come in. He took his own life.

Arise Sir Duncan Smith. Dishonour is truly yours.

About the Author

Frances Ryan is a journalist, broadcaster and campaigner. She is the author of 'Crippled,' (Verso, 2019) and was highly commended Specialist Journalist of the Year for her work on disability. She writes the Guardian column 'Hardworking Britain.'