Bonnie Greer versus the BNP

Has the BBC made a(nother) mistake?

The BBC has confirmed that the black playwright Bonnie Greer will be a panellist on its Question Time programme this month featuring the BNP leader Nick Griffin. She joins a middle-aged, middle-class, white, male trio from the three main parties: Jack Straw (Labour), Chris Huhne (Liberal Democrat) and a Conservative politician whose name has not yet been confirmed, though rumour has it that this will be Michael Gove.

But is Greer -- feisty, articulate and intelligent as she may be -- the right "person of colour" to take on Griffin? Remember, she is an American who migrated to this country in 1986 and only became a British citizen in 1997. In the eyes of the BNP leader and his odious ilk, she is a foreigner, an immigrant, alien to "indigenous" British culture, tradition and values. Griffin will probably try to dismiss her views on race as those formed from a particular American experience (slavery, civil rights, melting pot, Obama, etc). Much better, I believe, to have had Liberty's doughty director, the British-born Asian lawyer and QT regular Shami Chakrabarti, who was, I believe, also in the running. Or any of the various ethnic-minority politicians I suggested in an earlier post -- David Lammy, Sadiq Khan, Sayeeda Warsi, or even Respect's Muslim vice-chair, Salma Yaqoob. (I note that the principal victims of Griffin's hatred and ire -- Muslims -- will be left unrepresented on the QT panel. One can only hope and pray that the audience will compensate.)

So will Greer's Chicago background count against her? It's important to remember that the Radio 1/BNP story -- given legs again over the weekend by the Mail on Sunday (which hilariously referred to a "Mail on Sunday investigation" that supposedly uncovered the identities of the two BNP activists, Mark Collett and Joey Smith, even though they had been unmasked by anti-fascist campaigners several days earlier) -- revolved around the ridiculously inaccurate comments made about the footballer Ashley Cole "coming to this country" from abroad. Cole, of course, was born in London. Greer will have no such defence against the BNP's crude but superficially effective attacks.

Has the BBC not thought this through?

Writing in yesterday's Guardian, Peter Hain condemned the "corporation's shaky handling of reporting the BNP". The Welsh Secretary, who refuses to share a platform with the BNP, including Question Time, described the BBC as "clueless" and homed in on another big problem with the Radio 1 interview:

If the content were not distasteful enough -- descriptions of the London-born England footballer Ashley Cole as "not ethnically British" and "coming to this country" passed without proper challenge -- even more worrying is the revelation that these members, still introduced simply as Joey and Mark on the BBC website, are key members of the BNP hierarchy. One, Mark Collett, is the BNP's director of publicity. Would the BBC allow any other party's spin doctors to appear anonymously? The interview was in clear breach of basic journalistic practice, and of official BBC and National Union of Journalist guidelines.

The corporation has yet to explain the reason for granting the duo anonymity. Ric Bailey, the BBC's chief political adviser, failed to offer an adequate defence in his debate with me on Radio 4's Media Show last week -- perhaps because it is indeed indefensible. As Anindya Bhattachayya, a spokesman for Unite Against Fascism, has pointed out:

Not only did the BBC not challenge him on that, they colluded in covering up who he was. They said "Mark, 28", when they knew full well who he was. It's like doing an interview with Labour supporters "Gordon and Harriet".

Mehdi Hasan is a contributing writer for the New Statesman and the co-author of Ed: The Milibands and the Making of a Labour Leader. He was the New Statesman's senior editor (politics) from 2009-12.

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Q&A: What are tax credits and how do they work?

All you need to know about the government's plan to cut tax credits.

What are tax credits?

Tax credits are payments made regularly by the state into bank accounts to support families with children, or those who are in low-paid jobs. There are two types of tax credit: the working tax credit and the child tax credit.

What are they for?

To redistribute income to those less able to get by, or to provide for their children, on what they earn.

Are they similar to tax relief?

No. They don’t have much to do with tax. They’re more of a welfare thing. You don’t need to be a taxpayer to receive tax credits. It’s just that, unlike other benefits, they are based on the tax year and paid via the tax office.

Who is eligible?

Anyone aged over 16 (for child tax credits) and over 25 (for working tax credits) who normally lives in the UK can apply for them, depending on their income, the hours they work, whether they have a disability, and whether they pay for childcare.

What are their circumstances?

The more you earn, the less you are likely to receive. Single claimants must work at least 16 hours a week. Let’s take a full-time worker: if you work at least 30 hours a week, you are generally eligible for working tax credits if you earn less than £13,253 a year (if you’re single and don’t have children), or less than £18,023 (jointly as part of a couple without children but working at least 30 hours a week).

And for families?

A family with children and an income below about £32,200 can claim child tax credit. It used to be that the more children you have, the more you are eligible to receive – but George Osborne in his most recent Budget has limited child tax credit to two children.

How much money do you receive?

Again, this depends on your circumstances. The basic payment for a single claimant, or a joint claim by a couple, of working tax credits is £1,940 for the tax year. You can then receive extra, depending on your circumstances. For example, single parents can receive up to an additional £2,010, on top of the basic £1,940 payment; people who work more than 30 hours a week can receive up to an extra £810; and disabled workers up to £2,970. The average award of tax credit is £6,340 per year. Child tax credit claimants get £545 per year as a flat payment, plus £2,780 per child.

How many people claim tax credits?

About 4.5m people – the vast majority of these people (around 4m) have children.

How much does it cost the taxpayer?

The estimation is that they will cost the government £30bn in April 2015/16. That’s around 14 per cent of the £220bn welfare budget, which the Tories have pledged to cut by £12bn.

Who introduced this system?

New Labour. Gordon Brown, when he was Chancellor, developed tax credits in his first term. The system as we know it was established in April 2003.

Why did they do this?

To lift working people out of poverty, and to remove the disincentives to work believed to have been inculcated by welfare. The tax credit system made it more attractive for people depending on benefits to work, and gave those in low-paid jobs a helping hand.

Did it work?

Yes. Tax credits’ biggest achievement was lifting a record number of children out of poverty since the war. The proportion of children living below the poverty line fell from 35 per cent in 1998/9 to 19 per cent in 2012/13.

So what’s the problem?

Well, it’s a bit of a weird system in that it lets companies pay wages that are too low to live on without the state supplementing them. Many also criticise tax credits for allowing the minimum wage – also brought in by New Labour – to stagnate (ie. not keep up with the rate of inflation). David Cameron has called the system of taxing low earners and then handing them some money back via tax credits a “ridiculous merry-go-round”.

Then it’s a good thing to scrap them?

It would be fine if all those low earners and families struggling to get by would be given support in place of tax credits – a living wage, for example.

And that’s why the Tories are introducing a living wage...

That’s what they call it. But it’s not. The Chancellor announced in his most recent Budget a new minimum wage of £7.20 an hour for over-25s, rising to £9 by 2020. He called this the “national living wage” – it’s not, because the current living wage (which is calculated by the Living Wage Foundation, and currently non-compulsory) is already £9.15 in London and £7.85 in the rest of the country.

Will people be better off?

No. Quite the reverse. The IFS has said this slightly higher national minimum wage will not compensate working families who will be subjected to tax credit cuts; it is arithmetically impossible. The IFS director, Paul Johnson, commented: “Unequivocally, tax credit recipients in work will be made worse off by the measures in the Budget on average.” It has been calculated that 3.2m low-paid workers will have their pay packets cut by an average of £1,350 a year.

Could the government change its policy to avoid this?

The Prime Minister and his frontbenchers have been pretty stubborn about pushing on with the plan. In spite of criticism from all angles – the IFS, campaigners, Labour, The Sun – Cameron has ruled out a review of the policy in the Autumn Statement, which is on 25 November. But there is an alternative. The chair of parliament’s Work & Pensions Select Committee and Labour MP Frank Field has proposed what he calls a “cost neutral” tweak to the tax credit cuts.

How would this alternative work?

Currently, if your income is less than £6,420, you will receive the maximum amount of tax credits. That threshold is called the gross income threshold. Field wants to introduce a second gross income threshold of £13,100 (what you earn if you work 35 hours a week on minimum wage). Those earning a salary between those two thresholds would have their tax credits reduced at a slower rate on whatever they earn above £6,420 up to £13,100. The percentage of what you earn above the basic threshold that is deducted from your tax credits is called the taper rate, and it is currently at 41 per cent. In contrast to this plan, the Tories want to halve the income threshold to £3,850 a year and increase the taper rate to 48 per cent once you hit that threshold, which basically means you lose more tax credits, faster, the more you earn.

When will the tax credit cuts come in?

They will be imposed from April next year, barring a u-turn.

Anoosh Chakelian is deputy web editor at the New Statesman.