The work and pensions secretary said the coalition’s decision to limit increases in working tax credits and some benefit payments to 1% until 2016 had not been taken lightly and was being carried out on behalf of low-paid workers who would otherwise pick up the bill for higher government debt.
Although the government will win Tuesday’s vote, Labour says it will oppose the three-year squeeze. The Liberal Democrat former children’s minister, Sarah Teather, said she would vote against the coalition and government sources were said to be anticipating a rebellion by about five Lib Dem MPs.
Speaking on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme, Duncan Smith said:
We don’t take this decision lightly. Nick Clegg myself, the prime minister, the chancellor accepted that when we discussed this we’re doing this because we have to get the deficit down.
We’ve seen a gap growing between those in work with their [wage] rises and those in welfare. The reality is we’re trying to bring that back into a balance.
Public sector workers have had salary rises pegged at 1%, while the CPI rate of inflation in September – the measure used to calculate benefit upratings – was 2.2%.
Duncan Smith described the tax credit system as “outrageously messy”, saying that 70% of the tax credits bill was down to child tax credits, which did not have a work condition applied to them.
Labour will vote against the below-inflation rise, which was first outlined in the chancellor’s autumn statement in December. Ed Miliband, the Labour leader, said it was a “tax on strivers”.
A day after the coalition’s much-hyped relaunch, Duncan Smith sided with the Lib Dem leader, Clegg, in stepping away from characterising those on benefits as either shirkers or strivers.
He said that through his universal credit reform, his department would ensure that “money would go to the lowest paid”.
He also gave one of the strongest hints yet that pensioner benefits – which make up more than half of the total welfare spend – could be cut in the future.
Pensions and universal old age benefits such as winter fuel payments, free TV licences and free bus passes, have been left untouched during several heavy rounds of spending cuts.
Duncan Smith argued that if cuts were to be made to this age group, they needed to be given time to adapt to reductions in income.