Duncan Smith's welfare reforms give flavour of election

Image copyright PA
Image caption Iain Duncan Smith is one of the main architects of the current welfare reforms

It's difficult to think of a more divisive subject than welfare reform - and today I caught up with one of the main architects of the current changes, the Work and Pensions Secretary Iain Duncan Smith.

We met at the Canolfan Y Bont skills and learning centre in Pontarddulais, a town where 11% of those of working age have never had a job and 23% have no qualifications.

Iain Duncan Smith was actually campaigning with the Conservative parliamentary candidate Byron Davies in a Tory target seat of Gower.

Gower has only ever elected Labour MPs, the longest run of any British constituency.

The question is whether the welfare reforms being introduced by the coalition government are going to make it more or less likely Byron Davies will make election history in this corner of Wales.

There's no doubt the welfare reforms will be a huge issue at the General Election. Mr Duncan Smith said he felt the impact of the changes would be greater in Wales than anywhere else in the UK.

We'd usually associate impact as negative in this context but for him it is, as you'd expect, seen as being positive.

On the abolition of the spare room subsidy, or the so-called bedroom tax, he insists the policy is needed to free up larger properties for those families living in overcrowded conditions.

Of course it will also save money from the UK's £23bn housing benefit bill.

And if people want to remain in larger council houses or housing association properties with spare bedrooms, he said they should be prepared to pay for it.

He said: "It's about restoring the sense that if you want to stay in places like that you need to take on a bit more work, you need to work a bit longer, so there's a real chance you get a work incentive in some of those groups and families living in that housing. It's about getting fairness in the system."

The latest figures from the Department for Work and Pensions show nearly 34,000 people are affected by the spare room subsidy.

Labour, together with housing charities, say the main problem is that there is not enough smaller houses and flats for people to move into. So, in effect, they are being hit in the pocket when they have nowhere else to move to.

And there is the broader criticism that all of the welfare reform changes are taking millions of pounds out of communities that need it most and are unlikely to share in the economic recovery currently under way in London and south-east of England.

Iain Duncan Smith generated plenty of headlines on a previous foray into Wales when he said people in Merthyr should be prepared to get on a bus to get a job.

In Pontarddulais today he didn't repeat the message quite as starkly but he said people should be prepared to travel if need be.

Unlike in 2010 when he made the Merthyr bus comments, he can now seize on a healthier economy, and said even in places like Pontarddulais you'd be surprised how many local jobs were being created.

I think this was the architect of welfare reform in Wales giving us an early flavour of the general election. Let the battle begin.