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On Radio 4's Today programme this morning, Iain Duncan Smith was asked if he could live on £53 a week. His response perfectly illustrated the moral vacuum which is at the heart of our politics.
The challenge presented to the Work and Pensions Secretary came from David Bennett, a market trader struggling to live on his market stall earnings as the welfare cuts bite into his income.
Mr Bennett's £57 a week housing benefit, recently cut by £18 a week, covers just over half his £400 monthly rent. He pays for the rest, including utility bills of £174 a month - with a £50 a week working tax credit and earnings from his market stall – which despite his working up to 70 hours per week – brought him only £2700 last year.
The 'bedroom tax' means that he cannot keep his current home with the two 'spare' rooms which enable the divorced father of two boys to have his children stay with him for half the week. Until the council can find him a smaller home, he will lose £14 a week from his housing benefit. And as council tax benefit has also been cut, he will now have to find a further £6 a week.
Duncan Smith dismissed the challenge to live on Bennett's income in a tone dripping with contempt: “If I had to, I would.” A meaningless claim, as he will never be in such a situation.The Minister is a millionaire, has just benefited from a five per cent tax cut, receives a parliamentary salary which gives him £1,581 a week after tax and lives rent-free in a four-bedroomed 16th century country house owned by his father-in-law.
This level of detachment from the increasingly desperate lives of people like David Bennett can never be a qualification for public service. Iain Duncan Smith has no concept of the gut-twisting fear induced by the loss of a few pounds for people who are right on the edge of survival. His economic theory and unexamined mantra that he is “setting people free” from welfare dependency may comfort him, but it will crush David Bennett and thousands like him.
This is only part of the story. Duncan Smith's airy brushing aside of David Bennett's anguish was in part due to knowing that he could only be the loser in permitting that line of interrogation to continue. But in his determination to force the conversation back onto ground where he felt secure, the Minister also revealed the impoverishment of a politics which demands that its spokespeople are always right, always on message and never open to the life-giving possibilities of reflection, learning, humility and metanoia.
* 100,000 people call for Duncan Smith to live on £53 a week: http://www.ekklesia.co.uk/node/18271
* War on Welfare petition to trigger a parliamentary debate: http://epetitions.direct.gov.uk/petitions/43154
© Jill Segger is an Associate Director of Ekklesia with particular involvement in editorial issues. She is a freelance writer who contributes to the Church Times, Catholic Herald, Tribune, Reform and The Friend, among other publications. Jill is an active Quaker. See: http://www.journalistdirectory.com/journalist/TQig/Jill-Segger You can follow Jill on Twitter at: http://www.twitter.com/quakerpenTweet