Chingford MP Iain Duncan Smith tells James Cracknell about his case for leaving the European Union
When Iain Duncan Smith agreed to an interview with the Echo, the Chingford and Woodford Green MP was working in government as Secretary of State for Work and Pensions. A week later, he had resigned.
When the interview takes place several weeks later, Iain is busy campaigning for ‘Brexit’ – British exit from the European Union (EU) – in the referendum on 23rd June. And this subject is how our conversation begins at Cafe Belgique in Station Road, near the Conservative MP’s constituency office. I ask Iain how life might change for Chingford residents in five years’ time if Brexit occurs. “They we will be better off,” is his confident reply.
“A recent report said the UK economy would improve by six percent. The greatest risk of staying in is to our economy. The rest of the EU is in recession – Italy, Spain, France – they have all got massive unemployment.
“The Euro [single currency] has been a disaster. The EU is a political project, a federal state that clearly wants to override the UK as a state. Every week we send £350million to the EU, which is about the same as building a hospital every week. It works out at about £20billion a year.”
I suggest to Iain that he’s got his figures wrong. The UK enjoys a rebate on its EU membership fee that means we pay £5bn less than other EU states. But Iain counters: “The rebate is not bound by law, it can change. Tony Blair had it cut down.”
I point out the UK also receives a chunk of money back each year in the shape of grants to key industries or projects the EU deems a priority. This is worth nearly another £5bn to the economy each year.
“They set how that money is spent,” says Iain. “We have to bid for it against all the other EU countries, but the parameters are so tight that we are getting fined for not meeting them.”
Iain seems to suggest that every penny of the money saved by the UK exiting the EU would be spent on public services. EU immigration, he also argues, puts a further strain on such services that we would be better off without.
In response I ask Iain whether he thinks the UK in any way benefits from such immigration, particularly in how it can address skills shortages. If free trade is something Iain craves, why not an open jobs market? “I am not arguing against immigration, I am arguing against uncontrolled immigration. I want a balance, so it is the same rule for people coming from anywhere in the world.”
To demonstrate his enthusiasm for free trade, Iain makes a curious argument. He points to the road outside and picks out a BMW and a Mercedes. “Who is benefiting from EU trade? We are the freeist-trading country in the EU.”
My final question to Iain on Europe regards what I suggest are useful regulations on working hours, which protects employees from exploitation, and wildlife, which means migrating birds in the Lea Valley receive special protection.
“We were the ones pushing to get these laws,” claims Iain. “We have the best record on the environment and working time directives. The EU is not a benign place, it is not democratic. It is an overarching authority, to get rid of the concept of the nation state.”
The conversation moves on to local matters. What is the biggest problem currently facing Chingford? “We’ve always had good shopping areas here, but it is becoming difficult. We have lost a lot of trade. Waltham Forest Council is trying to reduce the time people can park for free to just five minutes. This is a big concern. I’d want half-an-hour free parking, but it has to be at least 15 minutes.”
Regarding the controversy over the council’s ‘Mini Holland’ cycling programme, which has seen many roads blocked off to cars, Iain says it’s wrong to try to get rid of the car. “You can’t ‘dis-invent’ it. People still want to drive. It is fine to encourage cycling, but we can’t suddenly become anti-car.”
Unprompted by me, Iain also mentions the housing crisis: “I’d like to see the council be more imaginative about social housing so more people have an opportunity to live here.” But don’t we need new rules that ensure there is a minimum social housing requirement for every large new development? He again blames the council. “They are the ones who set the rules for planning permission.”
Iain clarifies that he “gets on well” with council leader Chris Robbins. But he nonetheless continues to criticise the Labour-run town hall in Waltham Forest. “Chingford gets seen as a place that has enough money. But I feel Chingford gets overlooked when it comes to local projects.”
Next I ask Iain about his six-year tenure in government. When in charge of the Department for Work and Pensions the Chingford MP was responsible for controversial policies including Universal Credit, the all-in-one benefits system that’s been delayed several years; the Work Capability Assessments that saw sick and disabled people, including terminal cancer patients, told they were fit to work; and the so-called ‘bedroom tax’ that the Court of Appeal ruled this year was unlawful because of its impact on vulnerable people.
When I ask Iain what his greatest achievement was in government he neglects to mention these, and instead cites his record on raising employment levels. “Getting people back into work,” he says. “When I walked through the door, 20 percent of all households had no person in work. Because of the work programmes we introduced, there’s been long-term change; we now have the highest number of households in work since records began.” I am unable to immediately counter Iain on this point because only when I Google the statistic later on do I realise the record he mentions was begun only in 1996.
I finish by asking Iain about his sudden departure from government. In a sensational resignation letter two days after the chancellor’s budget announcement, Iain said he couldn’t support planned cuts to disability benefits, known as Personal Independence Payments (PIP). But what about the benefits he was seemingly happy to cut? Iain strongly refutes the accusation. “We didn’t. We ringfenced disability benefits.”
This claim is based on official PIP spending which, without accounting for inflation, has marginally risen. But these figures exclude an upcoming £30 cut to the Employment Support Allowance (ESA) for new claimants who have a sickness or disability.
Nonetheless, Iain is adamant his resignation ensured disabled people were protected from PIP cuts: “I forced the government’s hand, so they had to do a U-turn. Since I resigned I have received a lot of mail thanking me for it.”