Iain Duncan Smith: "Been there, done that" on £53 a week. He hasn't

IDS used the welfare state in his youth, and now he's pulling the ladder up behind him.

Iain Duncan Smith has doubled down on his claim that if he "had to" he could live on £53 a week, telling his local newspaper:

I have been unemployed twice in my life so I have already done this (lived on the equivalent of £53 a week). I know what it is like to live on the breadline.

He told the Daily Mail today about when he lost his job in 1992:

The company literally stopped working and like a number of people I was made redundant. I was shocked, but I had to go home and tell my wife that the wheels had come off the bus.

It took about three months to find a job. I picked up the paper every day, put a ring round all the job ads. I went to the library, looked up the stock market yearbook, wrote blind letters to people, used my Amstrad computer every day to look for work. Every bloody day I had to look for work. One of those blind letters got me in to an interview.

So I don’t need any lessons from people about living on a low income and making ends meet. I have done it twice and I know what it’s like to have to been made unemployed and to struggle. I’ve been there, done it.

He was also unemployed for a short period in 1981, after leaving the military.

Iain Duncan Smith has been unemployed for a short period twice. Both times, he made it through on not very much money, but always had the social safety net behind him if his savings ran out. Now he is safely in a career which will keep him well paid for life, he is claiming that that experience gives him the right to pull the ladder up behind him.

In 1981, unemployment benefit was £20.65 per week. In 1992, it was £43.10 per week. According to the Department for Work and Pensions, at April 2011 prices (deflated by RPI), those equate to £69.67 per week and £72.79 per week. When Iain Duncan Smith was unemployed for the first time, unemployment benefit was 18.7 per cent of average earnings. When he was unemployed for the second time, it was 14.1 per cent of average earnings.

At April 2011 prices, the £53 Iain Duncan Smith's department will be handing over is worth £50.17. That is 8.7 per cent of average earnings.

Iain Duncan Smith has not "been there, done that". When he went through his short periods of unemployment, 20 and 30 years ago, the social safety net was strong. The first time he was unemployed, he could have received almost a fifth of the average weekly earnings. The second time, he could have received a seventh. He's trying to claim that that experience means that he knows what it's like to live on less than a twelfth.

To put it another way, the value of what you can buy with unemployment benefit has remained pretty constant for the last 40 years. Iain Duncan Smith lived through a period when he could have that much – around £70 at 2011 prices – twice. He says that that means he has experience living on almost a quarter less again.

Iain Duncan Smith. Photograph: Getty Images

Alex Hern is a technology reporter for the Guardian. He was formerly staff writer at the New Statesman. You should follow Alex on Twitter.

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A small dose of facts could transform Britain's immigration debate

While "myth-busting" doesn't always work, there is an appetite for a better informed conversation than the one we're having now. 

For some time opinion polls have shown that the public sees immigration as one of the most important issues facing Britain. At the same time, public understanding of the economic and social impacts of immigration is poor and strongly influenced by the media: people consistently over-estimate the proportion of the population born outside the UK and know little about policy measures such as the cap on skilled non-EU migration. The public gets it wrong on other issues too - on teenage pregnancy, the Muslim population of the UK and benefit fraud to name just three. However, in the case of immigration, the strength of public opinion has led governments and political parties to reformulate policies and rules. Theresa May said she was cracking down on “health tourists” not because of any evidence they exist but because of public “feeling”. Immigration was of course a key factor in David Cameron’s decision to call a referendum on the UK’s membership with the EU and has been central to his current renegotiations.  

Do immigration facts always make us more stubborn and confused?

The question of how to both improve public understanding and raise the low quality of the immigration debate has been exercising the minds of those with a policy and research interest in the issue. Could the use of facts address misconceptions, improve the abysmally low quality of the debate and bring evidence to policy making? The respected think tank British Future rightly warns of the dangers associated with excessive reliance on statistical and economic evidence. Their own research finds that it leaves people hardened and confused. Where does that leave those of us who believe in informed debate and evidence based policy? Can a more limited use of facts help improve understandings and raise the quality of the debate?

My colleagues Jonathan Portes and Nathan Hudson-Sharp and I set out to look at whether attitudes towards immigration can be influenced by evidence, presented in a simple and straightforward way. We scripted a short video animation in a cartoon format conveying some statistics and simple messages taken from research findings on the economic and social impacts of immigration.

Targeted at a wide audience, we framed the video within a ‘cost-benefit’ narrative, showing the economic benefits through migrants’ skills and taxes and the (limited) impact on services. A pilot was shown to focus groups attended separately by the general public, school pupils studying ‘A’ level economics and employers.

Some statistics are useful

To some extent our findings confirm that the public is not very interested in big statistics, such as the number of migrants in the UK. But our respondents did find some statistics useful. These included rates of benefit claims among migrants, effects on wages, effects on jobs and the economic contribution of migrants through taxes. They also wanted more information from which to answer their own questions about immigration. These related to a number of current narratives around selective migration versus free movement, ‘welfare tourism’ and the idea that our services are under strain.

Our research suggests that statistics can play a useful role in the immigration debate when linked closely to specific issues that are of direct concern to the public. There is a role for careful and accurate explanation of the evidence, and indeed there is considerable demand for this among people who are interested in immigration but do not have strong preconceptions. At the same time, there was a clear message from the focus groups that statistics should be kept simple. Participants also wanted to be sure that the statistics they were given were from credible and unbiased sources.

The public is ready for a more sophisticated public debate on immigration

The appetite for facts and interest in having an informed debate was clear, but can views be changed through fact-based evidence? We found that when situated within a facts-based discussion, our participants questioned some common misconceptions about the impact of immigration on jobs, pay and services. Participants saw the ‘costs and benefits’ narrative of the video as meaningful, responding particularly to the message that immigrants contribute to their costs through paying taxes. They also talked of a range of other economic, social and cultural contributions. But they also felt that those impacts were not the full story. They were also concerned about the perceived impact of immigration on communities, where issues become more complex, subjective and intangible for statistics to be used in a meaningful way.

Opinion poll findings are often taken as proof that the public cannot have a sensible discussion on immigration and the debate is frequently described as ‘toxic’. But our research suggests that behind headline figures showing concern for its scale there may be both a more nuanced set of views and a real appetite for informed discussion. A small dose of statistics might just help to detoxify the debate. With immigration a deciding factor in how people cast their vote in the forthcoming referendum there can be no better time to try.