WELFARE Minister Iain Duncan Smith was facing mounting anger last night after a bruising encounter with a North-East market trader who challenged him to live on only £53 a week.
The Work and Pensions Secretary, who earns £1,581 a week after tax, claimed he could get by on £53 during a heated debate with County Durham man David Bennett.
Mr Bennett, a father-of-two, challenged the former Tory Party leader on a BBC Radio discussion about the impact of the Government's new welfare shake-up. He said the reforms, which opponents say will hit the poorest in society, will leave him destitute and disputed the Government's claims that the changes will help people break free of benefits.
Mr Duncan Smith was appearing on BBC Radio 4's Today programme as part of a Government fightback in the face of withering criticism of the welfare changes, including the so-called bedroom tax that will hit 660,000 social housing tenants.
But his plan backfired spectacularly when Mr Bennett, who works between 50 and 70 hours per week, confronted him.
Asked whether he could live on £53 a week, Mr Duncan Smith, a former Army officer who married into a wealthy family, replied: "If I had to, I would."
The claim was immediately latched on to by campaigners who set up an online petition calling on him to "prove" he could survive on £53 a week. By last night more than 100,000 people had signed the petition.
Mr Bennett, who lives in the Wear Valley, said last night: "Mr Duncan Smith claims to support small businesses, self employed people and those prepared to work.
"I work around 60 hours a week for nothing, as I am trying to set a business up. His government's policies have just about wiped me out."
Mr Bennett angrily dismissed Mr Duncan Smith's suggestion he should look for another job: "He has the audacity to suggest I go and look for a job that pays more as if I haven't already thought of that.
"I would like him to come and stand in the market with me in the snow and see what life is really like."
Before setting up as a market trader three years ago, Mr Bennett worked as a credit manager for 30 years but was made redundant.
Last year, he earned £2,700, which took him over the threshold for receiving full housing benefit, meaning his monthly allowance was reduced from £75 to £57.
He also receives £50 a week in working tax credits but his benefits only just cover his monthly rent of £400, leaving him with £53 to pay bills, buy food and make a small contribution to his council tax.
He added: "There are people out there who are getting benefits they don't deserve and should be targeted - people who refuse to work and have no intention of working, alcoholics, drug addicts, wife beaters.
"They should be targeted, not the people trying their best. I have been paying national insurance and tax into the system for more than 30 years and taking nothing out. You expect to get some help when you need it."
Mr Duncan Smith said the housing benefit bill had doubled in ten years under Labour, and a quarter of a million people were living in overcrowded social housing.
"We're in an economic mess," he said. "We inherited a problem where we simply don't 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 dont spend money on things that are unfair.
"What we are trying to do is get control of the welfare bill . . . without actually slashing or attacking people; we are trying to reform and change it."
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