Back-pedalling Duncan Smith tries to head off Lords revolt

Benefit cap will not harm those who want to work - 'I am not here to punish them,' says IDS

Column LAST UPDATED AT 10:15 ON Mon 23 Jan 2012

THERE were distinct signs of a Government wobble this morning in advance of today's crunch vote in the House of Lords where the Bishops are lining up to give Iain Duncan Smith, the Work and Pensions Secretary, a kicking over the £26,000 welfare cap on welfare benefits.

IDS went on the BBC Radio Today programme to emphasise that the Government is holding firm over the issue, but he ended up highlighting the concessions which the coalition is offering to benefit claimants to avoid the horror headlines the Bishops have raised about children being penalised and thousands of jobless families being thrown onto the streets.

IDS said the welfare cap would hit the workshy who claim vast amounts of benefits - higher than the average wage - but show no sign of seeking work.

But for those who are seeking jobs, or have been made unemployed, there will be more time and discretion over the cap, effectively lifting it for deserving cases while they get themselves back into jobs. Working tax credit - paid to those in work but on low earnings - was exempt from the cap to encourage people to take jobs, he said.

"The vast majority of people we are talking about are lone parents or couples who do not work," said IDS who has been portrayed as the coalition's Mr Gradgrind.

He said the "transitional arrangements" would allow officials discretion to carry on paying families above the cap to ease the difficulties for people who are seeking work, and it will give them more time to find work or cheaper homes. He stressed that "the vast majority who fall out of work are back in work within six months and all but ten per cent are back in work in a year".
 
He said he had "not come into this job" to punish people. The discretionary arrangements would make sure people were "not punished but assisted and supported".

IDS's words are unlikely to stop the bishops or Paddy Ashdown, the former Lib Dem leader who now has a seat in the Lords and has threatened to join the churchmen in putting the boot in. But they might be enough to head off a full-scale defeat which will have to be reversed in the Commons.  

In fact, the key to defeating the Government is held by Ed Miliband, the Labour leader. If he ordered Labour peers to vote against the Government, it would be defeated.

However, because Miliband wants to win back the votes of the "squeezed middle" - who do have jobs, but poorly paid ones - he has become strangely tongue-tied over the issue. Officially, Labour are saying they don't object to a cap. So Ed Miliband risks being criticised by his own side for being a Labour leader who won't support the poor. ·