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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Brexit is teaching the UK that it needs immigrants

Finally forced to confront the economic consequences of low migration, ministers are abandoning the easy rhetoric of the past.

Why did the UK vote to leave the EU? For conservatives, Brexit was about regaining parliamentary sovereignty. For socialists it was about escaping the single market. For still more it was a chance to punish David Cameron and George Osborne. But supreme among the causes was the desire to reduce immigration.

For years, as the government repeatedly missed its target to limit net migration to "tens of thousands", the EU provided a convenient scapegoat. The free movement of people allegedly made this ambition unachievable (even as non-European migration oustripped that from the continent). When Cameron, the author of the target, was later forced to argue that the price of leaving the EU was nevertheless too great, voters were unsurprisingly unconvinced.

But though the Leave campaign vowed to gain "control" of immigration, it was careful never to set a formal target. As many of its senior figures knew, reducing net migration to "tens of thousands" a year would come at an economic price (immigrants make a net fiscal contribution of £7bn a year). An OBR study found that with zero net migration, public sector debt would rise to 145 per cent of GDP by 2062-63, while with high net migration it would fall to 73 per cent. For the UK, with its poor productivity and sub-par infrastructure, immigration has long been an economic boon. 

When Theresa May became Prime Minister, some cabinet members hoped that she would abolish the net migration target in a "Nixon goes to China" moment. But rather than retreating, the former Home Secretary doubled down. She regards the target as essential on both political and policy grounds (and has rejected pleas to exempt foreign students). But though the same goal endures, Brexit is forcing ministers to reveal a rarely spoken truth: Britain needs immigrants.

Those who boasted during the referendum of their desire to reduce the number of newcomers have been forced to qualify their remarks. On last night's Question Time, Brexit secretary David Davis conceded that immigration woud not invariably fall following Brexit. "I cannot imagine that the policy will be anything other than that which is in the national interest, which means that from time to time we’ll need more, from time to time we’ll need less migrants."

Though Davis insisted that the government would eventually meet its "tens of thousands" target (while sounding rather unconvinced), he added: "The simple truth is that we have to manage this problem. You’ve got industry dependent on migrants. You’ve got social welfare, the national health service. You have to make sure they continue to work."

As my colleague Julia Rampen has charted, Davis's colleagues have inserted similar caveats. Andrea Leadsom, the Environment Secretary, who warned during the referendum that EU immigration could “overwhelm” Britain, has told farmers that she recognises “how important seasonal labour from the EU is to the everyday running of your businesses”. Others, such as the Health Secretary, Jeremy Hunt, the Business Secretary, Greg Clark, and the Communities Secretary, Sajid Javid, have issued similar guarantees to employers. Brexit is fuelling immigration nimbyism: “Fewer migrants, please, but not in my sector.”

The UK’s vote to leave the EU – and May’s decision to pursue a "hard Brexit" – has deprived the government of a convenient alibi for high immigration. Finally forced to confront the economic consequences of low migration, ministers are abandoning the easy rhetoric of the past. Brexit may have been caused by the supposed costs of immigration but it is becoming an education in its benefits.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.