It’s worth considering the headline claims made by Iain Duncan Smith yesterday in a major speech yesterday:

  • “The proportion of workless households is the lowest ever recorded.”
  •  “The number and proportion of children in those households is at a record low.”
  •  “The number of children in households where no one has ever worked is at its lowest level for some 15 years.”
  • “The inactivity rate, at 21.7 per cent, has never been lower, reflected in falling numbers claiming inactive benefits.”
  • “Employment is up in every region…increasing the most in the North East of England over the last year.”
  • “Over the last year, three quarters of the surge in employment has been made up of UK nationals.”
  • “Since the election, three quarters of the rise in employment is people working full time.”
  • “The number of 16-24 year old NEETs is at its lowest level for over eight years.”
  • “And the number of 16 and 17 year old NEETs is the lowest since comparable records began.”

Obviously, these facts need to be put in context: employment often rises fastest where it has been comparatively low, and this was the case in the North-East – the longstanding economic difficulties of which were exacerbated by the recession.

It’s also worth noting that all this has taken place without the full introduction of the Universal Credit (of which Duncan-Smith made a strong defence yesterday).

But it would be perverse to claim that the low proportion of workless households, the low inactivity rate, and the falls in the number of NEETs have nothing at all to do with the reforms which the Work and Pensions Secretary has been putting in place.

What seems gradually to be happening is a culture change in attitudes to work and welfare – particularly among younger voters, as Mark Wallace has pointed out.

The benefits cap and sanctions arguably follow public opinion as much as lead it.  Duncan Smith cited both yesterday – along with the Work Programme, the Innovation Fund, Ministers’ work on apprenticeships and housing benefit reforms.  (Homelessness, he argued, is down.)  Labour will find it very hard to tear up this settlement: indeed, it is responding to the loss of part of its working class electoral base by offering some further reductions in benefits.

“Everything we have done – every programme we have introduced – has been targeted at supporting the hardest to help into work,” Duncan Smith said yesterday.  He has become one of the great reforming Ministers of this Government not by introducing one big plan – such as the delayed Universal Credit – but by making lots of smaller reforms and focusing, as he was always likely to do given his work at the Centre for Social Justice, on those previously parked on benefits.