So, Iain Duncan Smith thinks he could live on £53 a week

That's just half the cost of his bluetooth headset.

The Telegraph's Rowena Mason reports:

Iain Duncan Smith has claimed he could live on £53 per week - the amount given to some benefit claimants. The Work and Pensions Secretary said he could survive on £7.57 per day if he "had to", as he defended a raft of cuts to welfare payments coming into force today.

He'd have to cut back a bit if he did so. According to his parliamentary expenses, he spent £110 - two week's worth of benefits - on a Bose bluetooth headset for his car, and another £12.42 on a USB cable (I mean, come on, who spends more than a fiver on a USB cable?). His monthly phone bill has been over £53 every month in the latest financial year, so that's another week each month he can't eat, travel, heat his house or, really do anything. And given he can claim for travel, he may have forgotten that that £5.30 he spent on taking one tube trip within his constituency also comes out of the £53. Just ten of them and he'd go hungry.

But the bigger point is that it's easy for someone like Iain Duncan Smith - or me, or, most likely, you, New Statesman reader - to showboat about living on £53 for a week. Just shift some social events around, cut out meat and booze for a while, be more aggressive about using up left-overs, and you've pretty much done it. You can watch TV instead of going out, and lentils get boring after a while, but a little turmeric makes them interesting enough to eat for a bit.

But when the next week comes round; and the next; and the next; and still £53 is all you have to live on, it gets harder. Do you give up social events entirely? What happens when your TV license runs out? You may have some books lying around the house now, but you'll finish them soon enough. And cooking cheap tasty food is easy when you have store-cupboard essentials; it gets harder when you not only have to factor in the cost of them, but also the cost of the electricity you use to cook. That's not even beginning to examine whether Iain Duncan Smith would be eligible for Housing Benefit in his hypothetical example, or if he'd still be able to happily live rent-free in a £2m house. It seems doubtful that he'd move out to fulfil the example.

The fact is, if you've never had to live on that little, it's hard to imagine what it's like. The realities of being poor are vastly different to the cheery version the rich put themselves through for charity, or to prove a point, and it's easy to guess which IDS is imagining.

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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Why Barack Obama was right to release Chelsea Manning

A Presidential act of mercy is good for Manning, but also for the US.

In early 2010, a young US military intelligence analyst on an army base near Baghdad slipped a Lady Gaga CD into a computer and sang along to the music. In fact, the soldier's apparently upbeat mood hid two facts. 

First, the soldier later known as Chelsea Manning was completely alienated from army culture, and the callous way she believed it treated civilians in Iraq. And second, she was quietly erasing the music on her CDs and replacing it with files holding explosive military data, which she would release to the world via Wikileaks. 

To some, Manning is a free speech hero. To others, she is a traitor. President Barack Obama’s decision to commute her 35-year sentence before leaving office has been blasted as “outrageous” by leading Republican Paul Ryan. Other Republican critics argue Obama is rewarding an act that endangered the lives of soldiers and intelligence operatives while giving ammunition to Russia. 

They have a point. Liberals banging the drum against Russia’s leak offensive during the US election cannot simultaneously argue leaks are inherently good. 

But even if you think Manning was deeply misguided in her use of Lady Gaga CDs, there are strong reasons why we should celebrate her release. 

1. She was not judged on the public interest

Manning was motivated by what she believed to be human rights abuses in Iraq, but her public interest defence has never been tested. 

The leaks were undoubtedly of public interest. As Manning said in the podcast she recorded with Amnesty International: “When we made mistakes, planning operations, innocent people died.” 

Thanks to Manning’s leak, we also know about the Vatican hiding sex abuse scandals in Ireland, plus the UK promising to protect US interests during the Chilcot Inquiry. 

In countries such as Germany, Canada and Denmark, whistle blowers in sensitive areas can use a public interest defence. In the US, however, such a defence does not exist – meaning it is impossible for Manning to legally argue her actions were in the public good. 

2. She was deemed worse than rapists and murderers

Her sentence was out of proportion to her crime. Compare her 35-year sentence to that received by William Millay, a young police officer, also in 2013. Caught in the act of trying to sell classified documents to someone he believed was a Russian intelligence officer, he was given 16 years

According to Amnesty International: “Manning’s sentence was much longer than other members of the military convicted of charges such as murder, rape and war crimes, as well as any others who were convicted of leaking classified materials to the public.”

3. Her time in jail was particularly miserable 

Manning’s conditions in jail do nothing to dispel the idea she has been treated extraordinarily harshly. When initially placed in solitary confinement, she needed permission to do anything in her cell, even walking around to exercise. 

When she requested treatment for her gender dysphoria, the military prison’s initial response was a blanket refusal – despite the fact many civilian prisons accept the idea that trans inmates are entitled to hormones. Manning has attempted suicide several times. She finally received permission to receive gender transition surgery in 2016 after a hunger strike

4. Julian Assange can stop acting like a martyr

Internationally, Manning’s continued incarceration was likely to do more harm than good. She has said she is sorry “for hurting the US”. Her worldwide following has turned her into an icon of US hypocrisy on free speech.

Then there's the fact Wikileaks said its founder Julian Assange would agree to be extradited to the US if Manning was released. Now that Manning is months away from freedom, his excuses for staying in the Equadorian London Embassy to avoid Swedish rape allegations are somewhat feebler.  

As for the President - under whose watch Manning was prosecuted - he may be leaving his office with his legacy in peril, but with one stroke of his pen, he has changed a life. Manning, now 29, could have expected to leave prison in her late 50s. Instead, she'll be free before her 30th birthday. And perhaps the Equadorian ambassador will finally get his room back. 

 

Julia Rampen is the editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog. She was previously deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines.