By Robert Winnett, Telegraph Political Editor (Black Triangle’s italics)
10:00PM BST 13 May 2012
As Iain Duncan Smith strides into his office, complete with military tie, he is keen to report back from the front line.
There is nothing to worry about, most of “them” are more interested in getting drunk and getting to the shops before they close than mounting any further attacks. The Work and Pensions Secretary has been wandering unrecognised among thousands of civil servants and other public-sector workers on strike in Whitehall, overhearing conversations and generally taking the temperature.
For most Conservative ministers such an exercise would trigger either a security scare or a call to a clinic, but Mr Duncan Smith is not easily stereotyped.
The original Eurosceptic fought John Major from the back benches in the 1990s and was then the darling of the Right wing who led the Conservative Party briefly before reinventing himself as a social justice campaigner.
David Cameron soon handed him the task of overhauling Britain’s benefits system and he is one of the most popular Cabinet ministers.
To the surprise of many colleagues he is working harmoniously with the Liberal Democrats in his department – while still being seen as a key voice in the Cabinet for the Eurosceptic arm of the Tory party.
While plans to help the long-term unemployed back to work and stop the abuse of incapacity benefit are popular politically, this year his task may prove more problematic.
Mr Duncan Smith has decided to take on disability benefits and reform of the state pension – two issues which are potentially so toxic that even Tony Blair, with his huge parliamentary majority, shied away from them.
Millions of stay-at-home mothers and carers will emerge as big winners in the state pension reform, but wealthier workers with their own pensions may lose out.
The Chingford and Woodford Green MP has sympathy for savers who are bearing the brunt of the Bank of England’s attempts to avert another financial crisis, but says the state pension is chaotic and a disincentive to put money aside.
“General saving is really important to us,” he says. “We are a nation that doesn’t save … We drifted into a culture where consumption was all, and you borrowed to spend … So we change the culture so that you save, you invest and you prepare for the worst. Like we insure our cars, this is basically insuring our lives.
“If we get the economy back on an even keel then we create the environment that will reward savers.”
While the rhetoric may be laudable, the reforms are causing anxiety among wealthier pensioners and savers who are suffering from multiple assaults on the value of their nest eggs.
Conservative MPs and ministers may feel this concern on the doorsteps, but the plans for restricting disability benefit, known as disability living allowance, which is to be replaced with a new allowance, are even more contentious.
Disability benefits, which will cost the taxpayer about £13billion annually by next year, are paid to help people with mobility or caring needs.
The Work and Pensions Secretary hopes to cut at least 20 per cent, almost £2.2 billion annually, off the bill. Some believe the figure could be far greater if the experiences of tackling the abuse of incapacity benefit are repeated.
“This is the benefit that is effectively a support mechanism for you, in or out of work, it doesn’t matter,” he says. “Whatever income you have, it doesn’t matter.”
Mr Duncan Smith says the system is riddled with abuse and fraud. From next year more than two million claimants will be reassessed.
The Government is braced for fireworks as, under the plans, even a soldier who has lost limbs but no longer has mobility problems, because of a prosthetic limb, may have the payment cut.
While cuts to incapacity benefit have been popular, as many members of the public see it as a crackdown on those who are unwilling to work, this challenge is of a different order.
“It’s not like incapacity benefit, it’s not a statement of sickness,” Mr Duncan Smith says of the benefit. “It is a gauge of your capability.
“In other words, do you need care, do you need support to get around. Those are the two things that are measured. Not, have you lost a limb?”
Most politicians would sell their own children before seeking to tackle the disabled lobby.
Why is Mr Duncan Smith determined to push ahead?
“We are creating a new benefit, because the last benefit grew by something like 30 per cent in the past few years. It’s been rising well ahead of any other gauge you might make about illness, sickness, disability or, for that matter, general trends in society.
“A lot of that is down to the way the benefit was structured … Second thing was that in the assessment, lots of people weren’t actually seen. They didn’t get a health check or anything like that.
“Third problem was lifetime awards. Something like 70 per cent had lifetime awards, [which] meant that once they got it you never looked at them again.”
Mr Duncan Smith is furious with judges, blaming “judicial activism” for widening the definition of disability.
It is alleged that many people, who the public would not regard as disabled, can claim the allowance.
But, can he guarantee that every person in a wheelchair will still get this benefit?
“Yes,” he says firmly before adding: “But, again I can’t jump the gun and say it, but my assumption is yes.”
The reforms to disability benefits, which will tighten the definitions with a more simplified system assessed by medical experts, will be accompanied with a programme to help disabled people back into work. Many think mistakenly that they cannot return to employment without losing the help.
“One of the things we are trying to do is make sure there are much greater levels of support available,” Mr Duncan Smith says. “So there are positives in all this because we will be bringing forward some major reforms that help people get back to work.”
High profile paralympians such as Baroness Tanni Grey-Thompson have voiced their concern and tried to amend the plans. But Mr Duncan Smith insists that he is “now beginning to settle people down”. He says that the plan is different from those that Mr Blair was forced to dump.
However, with the Conservatives languishing in the polls and Mr Cameron sensitive to accusations that his Government appears shambolic in the wake of the Budget, the will may dwindle in the face of protest.