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.

Paul McMillan
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"We're an easy target": how a Tory manifesto pledge will tear families apart

Under current rules, bringing your foreign spouse to the UK is a luxury reserved for those earning £18,600 a year or more. The Tories want to make it even more exclusive. 

Carolyn Matthew met her partner, George, in South Africa sixteen years ago. She settled down with him, had kids, and lived like a normal family until last year, when they made the fateful decision to move to her hometown in Scotland. Matthew, 55, had elderly parents, and after 30 years away from home she wanted to be close to them. 

But Carolyn nor George - despite consulting a South African immigration lawyer – did not anticipate one huge stumbling block. That is the rule, introduced in 2012, that a British citizen must earn £18,600 a year before a foreign spouse may join them in the UK. 

“It is very dispiriting,” Carolyn said to me on the telephone from Bo’ness, a small town on the Firth of Forth, near Falkirk. “In two weeks, George has got to go back to South Africa.” Carolyn, who worked in corporate complaints, has struggled to find the same kind of work in her hometown. Jobs at the biggest local employer tend to be minimum wage. George, on the other hand, is an engineer – yet cannot work because of his holiday visa. 

To its critics, the minimum income threshold seems nonsensical. It splits up families – including children from parents – and discriminates against those likely to earn lower wages, such as women, ethnic minorities and anyone living outside London and the South East. The Migration Observatory has calculated that roughly half Britain’s working population would not meet the requirement. 

Yet the Conservative party not only wishes to maintain the policy, but hike the threshold. The manifesto stated:  “We will increase the earnings thresholds for people wishing to sponsor migrants for family visas.” 

Initially, the threshold was justified as a means of preventing foreign spouses from relying on the state. But tellingly, the Tory manifesto pledge comes under the heading of “Controlling Immigration”. 

Carolyn points out that because George cannot work while he is visiting her, she must support the two of them for months at a time without turning to state aid. “I don’t claim benefits,” she told me. “That is the last thing I want to do.” If both of them could work “life would be easy”. She believes that if the minimum income threshold is raised any further "it is going to make it a nightmare for everyone".

Stuart McDonald, the SNP MP for Cumbernauld, Kilsyth and Kirkintilloch East, co-sponsored a Westminster Hall debate on the subject earlier this year. While the Tory manifesto pledge is vague, McDonald warns that one option is the highest income threshold suggested in 2012 - £25,700, or more than the median yearly wage in the East Midlands. 

He described the current scheme as “just about the most draconian family visa rules in the world”, and believes a hike could affect more than half of British citizens. 

"Theresa May is forcing people to choose between their families and their homes in the UK - a choice which most people will think utterly unfair and unacceptable,” he said.  

For those a pay rise away from the current threshold, a hike will be demoralising. For Paul McMillan, 25, it is a sign that it’s time to emigrate.

McMillan, a graduate, met his American girlfriend Megan while travelling in 2012 (the couple are pictured above). He could find a job that will allow him to meet the minimum income threshold – if he were not now studying for a medical degree.  Like Matthew, McMillan’s partner has no intention of claiming benefits – in fact, he expects her visa would specifically ban her from doing so. 

Fed up with the hostile attitude to immigrants, and confident of his options elsewhere, McMillan is already planning a career abroad. “I am going to take off in four years,” he told me. 

As for why the Tories want to raise the minimum income threshold, he thinks it’s obvious – to force down immigration numbers. “None of this is about the amount of money we need to earn,” he said. “We’re an easy target for the government.”

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

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