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Iain Duncan Smith explains how his department was preparing to implement his welfare agenda before the election by following the work of the Centre for Social Justice

By Jonathan Isaby

Iain Duncan Smith on Breakfast Work and Pensions Secretary Iain Duncan Smith has given an interview to the new issue of Total Politics magazine, which is out tomorrow, and ConHome has been given a sneak preview of what he has to say.

Below are a few highlights:

On his cross-departmental role as chairman of the social justice cabinet commitee: "I don’t just want to succeed in the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP), although the welfare reform stuff is enormous. I also want make sure the government sets itself in the right direction from the word go. I’m engaged in a lot of discussions about other things that impact. I’ve talked to Ken Clarke about his justice reforms, which I initiated via the CSJ. I’m fully behind him and helping him as much as I can. I’m looking at drugs and alcohol policy, across health, home affairs and our area – driving lots of change in the
agenda. Education introduced policies that the CSJ wanted. We’re very keen to support early years – that’s really important to me and a number one priority... If it’s [the social justice cabinet committee] going to be effective, it has to drive new ideas through government. We have to make sure that drugs and alcohol policy doesn’t just become a criminal affair, that actually it’s hugely locked into health and rehab. It’s not going to be easy, because you know what departments are like. They’d love their secretary of state to say: ‘Get away, this is my island and you only come here when I invite your ship in.’ We’re all engaged with trying to sort that culture out."

On how his department has reacted to his agenda: "I thought I’d have a lot of resistance. In fact, I was astonished that I had none from all the key players. The first thing they said was: “We know what you’ve been wanting to do. We’ve been watching it for ages. We agree completely with what you’re trying to do. This benefits system is broken. We’re sick and tired of trying to pick up the pieces every day, trying to make it work.” From the word go I was able to set down the parameters of where we were going to drive. What we needed was universal credit, which of course I hadn’t got agreement for at that stage. We’ve pretty much had our foot to the floor and pressure on everybody to get from A to B. The vast majority of people in the department I only have praise for. This is exactly how it should work. They’ve taken their political direction, they’ve taken – I hope – a sense of urgency and they’ve pretty well stuck to it. I said: “This is where we’re going over the next eight or nine years. Here’s the reform and the time schedules. All I want from you is yes -  this is how we’re going to do it, here are the problems and let’s sort them out.” And every one of them has done just that. We’ve found savings. Strong leadership is right, but it’s not because you’re kicking them. It’s strong leadership because you’ve given them a sense of direction and get them to sign up to that. That’s the key."

On how he avoids being Frank Field Mark II in thinking the unthinkable and not being able to deliver it: "I love Frank to bits. He’s a good friend and a very good politician. The difference between us is that I set up a structure while I was out of power – the CSJ – that worked in detail on programmes, particularly on the universal credit. We built a model that followed the benefits system. The DWP, unbeknownst to me, was paralleling that work – unbeknownst to the government at the time as well. So when I came in, we knew how we’d achieve it. The real difference is that we’ve got a real, genuine structured work programme now. Frank hadn’t quite reached that point because there was no sign-up at the highest level... The problem for Frank was that although the prime minister said he was on-side, the PM never squared Gordon Brown. Frank then proceeded as though the PM would intervene, but he didn’t, and Gordon Brown won the day. To be fair to Frank, the deal was never on. For me, the deal has always been on from the word go and I’ve simply said: “Number one, we’re not going to repeat this. There’s the line. That’s where you sign. Once we’ve all signed on that, the rest is getting it done. I don’t say we won’t get things wrong – these are huge changes we’ve been going through. But as long as we have sign-up to the principles of what we’re doing and, to a greater extent, the overarching detail, then the rest is a case of managing the process.

On the changes to child benefit: "I am desperate that the changes taken from the start of the budget process to the end of the spending review are not seen as regressive, but are instead progressive. What does that mean? We take a share of the burden so that it isn’t all falling on the shoulders of those who are in the lowest economic deciles. For me, it’s an absolute matter of ‘doability’. In other words, if we can’t say that, we’ll have difficulty getting these measures through... It is long overdue that we look at this and ask ourselves the question: what is child benefit really for? It’s for supporting children who come from difficult backgrounds where money is really tight and where that little bit of extra money really makes a disproportionate difference to their lives. To do that sometimes you need to take some tough decisions.

On his wife, Betsy's, cancer: "In July last year, she discovered out of the blue that she had breast cancer. There will be lots of people who read this whose wives, girlfriends or who themselves have had this same problem. It’s shocking. Then you discover that one in eight women in Britain get breast cancer – one of the highest rates in the western world. Betsy went through what lots of women have done. She’s had a huge amount of chemo and a whole shed load of radiotherapy. Three operations. We now think she’s recovering. It’s very slow. The thing is that the treatment takes the stuffing out of you. She’s not a huge person so she doesn’t have huge reserves of energy. She finds she gets tired very easily. But we’re getting there really. It’s a slow process. Maybe another operation to come."

Read the full interview in tomorrow's Total Politics.

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