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Tories even at war with charities over poverty

The war of words between charities and the government over welfare and poverty shows no sign of abating in 2014.

In fact it is only likely to become more heated, with the halting introduction of Universal credit.

Insisting the new benefit is on track, Iain Duncan Smith increasingly looks like the captain of the Titanic. Despite all evidence to the contrary, the work and pensions secretary says his reforms are unsinkable.

The delays to its introduction are evidence the Government is focused on ensuring this major benefit reform goes smoothly, he says. Welfare reform minister Lord Freud echoes this. "Frankly, why should we hurry with the most vulnerable?" he said recently. "We should take as much time as it takes to get these people safely into the new system."

Frankly, 'these people' would be more reassured if such a benevolent attitude carried through into other areas of policy. But it is far from clear that ministers are driven by getting it right.

Instead reforms are founded on a view that too many people are dependent on benefits and reluctant to move off them into work. Hence the increased imposition of payment penalties on claimants deemed to have failed to live up to job-seeking 'contracts'.

Charities say such sanctions are counter-productive, particularly in a climate of limited job opportunities, where many of the jobs available are poorly paid or part time. Anecdotal and statistical evidence suggest that sanctions have been an ill-directed sledgehammer, aimed at the hard nuts the coalition believes are taking tax payers for a ride, but in the process having a crushing effect on those who are doing their best to meet owners of the sledgehammer half way.

Meanwhile an extraordinary explosion of hostilities between the Trussell Trust and Duncan Smith in December is likely to rage on. The minister says the Christian charity which runs more than 400 food banks is politically partisan.

Bizarrely, in refusing meeting requests from the head of the trust, Duncan Smith complained of "political messaging", because the organisation links the growth in demand for food banks with welfare reforms and delays to benefit payments.

This is scaremongering, the irritated minister added: "I understand that a feature of your business model must require you to continuously achieve publicity, but I'm concerned that you are now seeking to do this by making your political opposition to welfare reform overtly clear."

I've seen no evidence of that: Although the Trust makes points which have a political impact, these seem driven by their mission, not partisanship. If Labour win the next UK election, I'm not sure how many of the benefit reforms they would undo and it is likely the Trussell Trust would continue to make the same points.

Such rifts are becoming more common. Philosophically, many within the Conservative party would naturally favour charity. It isn't the state, after all - hence the initial enthusiasm for the Big Society concept.

But many people in the third sector in Scotland have come to believe that the coalition government has it in for charities. This has been exacerbated by the lobbying bill, which many believe will serve to gag the sector in the run up to elections.

I can't see the government's relationship with charities improving this year. The problem with cosying up to charities is that if they think your policies are contributing to the problem they are likely to tell you.

They may highlight, for instance, that cuts are being made to Universal Credit before it has even truly been introduced. A minor change hidden in the Chancellor's autumn statement lowered the earnings bar before working families have universal credit withdrawn. This will make it harder for the government to make work pay, but will save the treasury £600m.

The delays to universal credit, and its cost mean that it will continue to dominate discussion. The Government described the fact that some people claim £100,000 in housing benefit a year as 'madness for taxpayers', but the DWP itself has said fewer than five families actually do so. As Private Eye points out in its current issue, this 'madness' could be compared with the £34m written off by the DWP on failed computer software for Universal Credit.

The political price could be higher still.

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Local government

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