A petition calling on Iain Duncan Smith to demonstrate he can live on £53 per week reached almost 300,000 signatures by early on Tuesday evening.
The Work and Pensions Secretary claimed yesterday he could get by on the curtailed budget if he “had to”.
The remark followed a challenge by market trader David Bennett on the BBC Radio 4 Today programme.
The online petition, hosted at www.change.org, said: “This petition calls on Iain Duncan Smith to live on this budget for at least one year. This would help realise the Conservative Party’s current mantra that ‘We are all in this together’.
“This would mean a 97% reduction in his current income, which is £1,581.02 a week or £225 a day after tax.”
The exchange came as 660,000 social housing tenants deemed to have a spare room began to lose an average £14 a week in what critics have dubbed a “bedroom tax”.
Wider welfare and tax changes coming into force this month will also see council tax benefit funding cut, and working-age benefits and tax credit rises pegged at 1% - well below inflation - for three years.
Disability living allowance is being replaced by the personal independence payment, while trials are due to begin in four London boroughs of a £500-a-week cap on household benefits, and of the new Universal Credit system.
Mr Duncan Smith, a former Army officer, said yesterday that the changes were about “fairness”.
He told the programme: “We inherited a problem where we simply do not have the money to spend on all the things people would like us to do.
“What I am trying to do is get this so we don’t spend money on things that are unfair.”
The change is part of a package of significant welfare and tax changes coming into force this month, which opponents say will hit poor families and the disabled particularly hard. Mr Duncan Smith, whose ministerial salary is equivalent to about £1,600 a week after tax, was defending the changes when he was confronted by the case of a market trader whose income had fallen to £53 a week after benefit cuts.
Asked whether he could live on that weekly sum, the former army officer, who married into a wealthy family, replied: “If I had to, I would.”
Poverty campaigners critical
Iain Duncan Smith’s £53 a week claim angered anti-poverty campaigners in Scotland, who said the former Tory leader, who lives rent-free in an aristocratic country house, was out of touch with reality.
The Work and Pensions Secretary was forced to reject claims he was “slashing” benefits for the most needy and said he was making it fairer by giving people the chance to “break free” of welfare.
Ministers launched a fightback yesterday as the changes came into force. They will see more than 100,000 families in Scotland in social housing, deemed to have a spare room, lose an average of £600 a year through housing benefit cuts.
Des Loughney of Edinburgh TUC, part of a coalition of community groups in the capital opposing the bedroom tax, dismissed the claim.
“It was a stupid thing to say and patently not true,” he said.
“It’s difficult to live independently just on your own for less than £100 a week these days. It’s a ridiculous thing to say and you wonder why politicians make such statements.”
Sean Clerkin, of the Citizens United Against Public Sector Cuts campaign group, said: “You cannot live on £53 a week. The bottom line is you would either freeze or starve – it’s one or the other. Who could live off that – it’s impossible.”
Colin Fox, leader of the Scottish Socialist Party, said he thought it had been an “April Fools’ Day joke” when he first heard the Work and Pensions Secretary’s claim.
“Iain Duncan Smith is making himself a laughing stock,” he said.
“There’s nobody in the country who thinks he could live off £53 a day. MPs like him are so far out of touch they’re in the stratosphere.”
On Saturday, working-age benefits and tax credits will be cut in real terms with the first of three years of maximum 1 per cent rises – well below the present rate of inflation.
Two days later, disability living allowance begins to be replaced by the personal independence payment, which charities say will remove support from many people in real need.
Scottish council opposition
In Scotland, SNP councils have pledged not to evict any tenants hit by the bedroom tax if they can show they have made every effort to pay their rents.
The SNP administration at Holyrood believes the unpopular changes will boost support for independence.
Nationalist MSP Jamie Hepburn, who sits on the Scottish Parliament’s welfare reform committee, said: “It is little wonder that people in Scotland simply do not have faith in the current Westminster-operated welfare system.
“We need a system that reflects Scotland’s values – a system that ensures fair and decent support for those that need it most, protecting the vulnerable and supporting households rather than seeing them be subjected to aggressive cuts from Westminster.”
For Labour, shadow chancellor Ed Balls said that, according to the Institute of Fiscal Studies, the poorest 10 per cent of households would lose an average of £127 under this year’s changes, while the richest 10 per cent would gain almost ten times that – £1,265.
Families with children would be hit harder, Mr Balls said, with the poorest 10 per cent losing £236 a year, while the richest 10 per cent gained £3,654 a year.
“It’s appalling, it’s shocking, it’s immoral, it’s shameful, it’s a disgrace, it’s inhumane, it’s just upside down,” he said.
“The bedroom tax is possibly the worst, most cack-handed and massively unfair piece of policy-making I’ve ever seen.”