The Iain Duncan Smith petition shows how social media can lead political debate

By seizing upon a moment of perceived hypocrisy, the petition made the welfare debate accessible to the public, says the UK director of

Two days after calling on Iain Duncan Smith to prove that he could live on £53 per week, Dominic Aversano’s petition on has secured the support of well over 350,000 people. It has been a huge news story for two days, inspired radio phone ins, online polls and newspaper features. It’s by far the fastest growing and largest petition ever on in the UK and continues to grow.

The petition has been described as a "stunt" by Duncan Smith and as a distraction by some on the left. For the 350,000 people who have signed it, it’s become a people powered moment which, quite unexpectedly, has cut to the heart of the debate about whether politicians really understand the lives of people for whom they make policy.

In many ways, Dominic has run the perfect social media campaign. We’ve seen scores of petitions on about benefit changes and the welfare system but they haven’t, as yet, caught peoples’ imaginations. What Dominic did was seize upon a moment of perceived hypocrisy and give people a chance to have their say. In doing so, he’s shifted the media debate onto what it’s actually like to live on such a tiny amount of money. It may be unlikely that the Work and Pensions Secretary will decide to live on £53 per week but Dominic’s petition has made a huge and powerful point.

Some have, quite understandably, complained that campaigns focused on the impacts of the actual policies haven’t taken off as fast as Dom's petition. The problem with that is that it’s rarely the public’s fault if they don’t sign up to your campaign. Any issues can be made interesting and accessible, and campaigners should start with the audience they’re trying to get to. When the parents of one of the No Dash For Gas activists used to call on EDF to drop their civil suit against their daughter, the story struck a chord with people who hadn’t even heard of the original protest. No one, really, thought the petition would have any real impact but two weeks later after 65,000 people signed EDF dropped the suit. Victories like this don’t happen in a vacuum and can’t be attributed solely to a petition on, but the galvanising effect of a petition in its tens of thousands gives the media something to write about and shows the campaign target that they have a mandate to act.

The other thing we’ve heard a lot is "why didn’t Dominic post it on the government’s petition site". The Direct Gov site is predicated on a single, tempting, offer. The received wisdom is that if you get 100,000 people to sign a petition then it 'triggers' a debate in parliament. In campaign terms, there are a number of things wrong with this. First, it’s not true - as the people who signed this NHS petition will tell you. Second, it suggests that you need a magic number of signers to get access to your own democracy which, as the 20 ex-Conservative association chairmen who got to take their anti-equal marriage call to Downing Street will tell you, isn't true either. Third, and most importantly to me, it reduces genuine people powered campaigns into a fruitless chase for the 'golden 100,000'.

Campaigning is about changing things, it certainly isn’t a numbers game. In the case of the IDS petition, Dominic and his 350,000 supporters have changed the focus of the debate. In Lucy Homles's case, she's inspired a huge public debate about Page 3 in the Sun. It happens on a smaller scale too. Johnny Walker is a busker from Liverpool. Last year he took on Liverpool City Council over plans to restrict live street performance. He won his campaign and now works with other street performers fighting new restrictions in their areas. He told us that winning his campaign has changed his life. All in all, more than 50 campaigns have been won using since last September, powered by ideas, energy and social media.

Dominic Aversano was driven to start this petition because he thought what Iain Duncan Smith had said deserved to be challenged. It turns out hundreds of thousands agree with him. It won’t have a direct impact on the policy changes that underpin the story, but it’s an incredibly instructive case about how social media can enable the electorate to drive political debate.

Protestors hold signs as they demonstrate against the proposed 'bedroom tax' in Trafalgar Square. Photograph: Getty Images.

Brie Rogers Lowery is the UK director of

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Q&A: What are tax credits and how do they work?

All you need to know about the government's plan to cut tax credits.

What are tax credits?

Tax credits are payments made regularly by the state into bank accounts to support families with children, or those who are in low-paid jobs. There are two types of tax credit: the working tax credit and the child tax credit.

What are they for?

To redistribute income to those less able to get by, or to provide for their children, on what they earn.

Are they similar to tax relief?

No. They don’t have much to do with tax. They’re more of a welfare thing. You don’t need to be a taxpayer to receive tax credits. It’s just that, unlike other benefits, they are based on the tax year and paid via the tax office.

Who is eligible?

Anyone aged over 16 (for child tax credits) and over 25 (for working tax credits) who normally lives in the UK can apply for them, depending on their income, the hours they work, whether they have a disability, and whether they pay for childcare.

What are their circumstances?

The more you earn, the less you are likely to receive. Single claimants must work at least 16 hours a week. Let’s take a full-time worker: if you work at least 30 hours a week, you are generally eligible for working tax credits if you earn less than £13,253 a year (if you’re single and don’t have children), or less than £18,023 (jointly as part of a couple without children but working at least 30 hours a week).

And for families?

A family with children and an income below about £32,200 can claim child tax credit. It used to be that the more children you have, the more you are eligible to receive – but George Osborne in his most recent Budget has limited child tax credit to two children.

How much money do you receive?

Again, this depends on your circumstances. The basic payment for a single claimant, or a joint claim by a couple, of working tax credits is £1,940 for the tax year. You can then receive extra, depending on your circumstances. For example, single parents can receive up to an additional £2,010, on top of the basic £1,940 payment; people who work more than 30 hours a week can receive up to an extra £810; and disabled workers up to £2,970. The average award of tax credit is £6,340 per year. Child tax credit claimants get £545 per year as a flat payment, plus £2,780 per child.

How many people claim tax credits?

About 4.5m people – the vast majority of these people (around 4m) have children.

How much does it cost the taxpayer?

The estimation is that they will cost the government £30bn in April 2015/16. That’s around 14 per cent of the £220bn welfare budget, which the Tories have pledged to cut by £12bn.

Who introduced this system?

New Labour. Gordon Brown, when he was Chancellor, developed tax credits in his first term. The system as we know it was established in April 2003.

Why did they do this?

To lift working people out of poverty, and to remove the disincentives to work believed to have been inculcated by welfare. The tax credit system made it more attractive for people depending on benefits to work, and gave those in low-paid jobs a helping hand.

Did it work?

Yes. Tax credits’ biggest achievement was lifting a record number of children out of poverty since the war. The proportion of children living below the poverty line fell from 35 per cent in 1998/9 to 19 per cent in 2012/13.

So what’s the problem?

Well, it’s a bit of a weird system in that it lets companies pay wages that are too low to live on without the state supplementing them. Many also criticise tax credits for allowing the minimum wage – also brought in by New Labour – to stagnate (ie. not keep up with the rate of inflation). David Cameron has called the system of taxing low earners and then handing them some money back via tax credits a “ridiculous merry-go-round”.

Then it’s a good thing to scrap them?

It would be fine if all those low earners and families struggling to get by would be given support in place of tax credits – a living wage, for example.

And that’s why the Tories are introducing a living wage...

That’s what they call it. But it’s not. The Chancellor announced in his most recent Budget a new minimum wage of £7.20 an hour for over-25s, rising to £9 by 2020. He called this the “national living wage” – it’s not, because the current living wage (which is calculated by the Living Wage Foundation, and currently non-compulsory) is already £9.15 in London and £7.85 in the rest of the country.

Will people be better off?

No. Quite the reverse. The IFS has said this slightly higher national minimum wage will not compensate working families who will be subjected to tax credit cuts; it is arithmetically impossible. The IFS director, Paul Johnson, commented: “Unequivocally, tax credit recipients in work will be made worse off by the measures in the Budget on average.” It has been calculated that 3.2m low-paid workers will have their pay packets cut by an average of £1,350 a year.

Could the government change its policy to avoid this?

The Prime Minister and his frontbenchers have been pretty stubborn about pushing on with the plan. In spite of criticism from all angles – the IFS, campaigners, Labour, The Sun – Cameron has ruled out a review of the policy in the Autumn Statement, which is on 25 November. But there is an alternative. The chair of parliament’s Work & Pensions Select Committee and Labour MP Frank Field has proposed what he calls a “cost neutral” tweak to the tax credit cuts.

How would this alternative work?

Currently, if your income is less than £6,420, you will receive the maximum amount of tax credits. That threshold is called the gross income threshold. Field wants to introduce a second gross income threshold of £13,100 (what you earn if you work 35 hours a week on minimum wage). Those earning a salary between those two thresholds would have their tax credits reduced at a slower rate on whatever they earn above £6,420 up to £13,100. The percentage of what you earn above the basic threshold that is deducted from your tax credits is called the taper rate, and it is currently at 41 per cent. In contrast to this plan, the Tories want to halve the income threshold to £3,850 a year and increase the taper rate to 48 per cent once you hit that threshold, which basically means you lose more tax credits, faster, the more you earn.

When will the tax credit cuts come in?

They will be imposed from April next year, barring a u-turn.

Anoosh Chakelian is deputy web editor at the New Statesman.