The next mayor of London?

Sian is the Green Party's candidate to be London's mayor

Voting and democracy are what make the world of politics go around, and there has been a lot of it about this week. Like the proverbial bus, you can wait for ages for a vote that will take you in the right direction, and then three come along at once.

First up, MPs were voting on proposals for reformed House of Lords on Wednesday. We’ve had quite a wait for this one, given that most people agree the system of heriditary and appointed law-makers went out of date on about July 14th 1789. New Labour entered government with a commitment to action. However, they have been dallying over the final steps for nearly a decade.

Last time MPs tried to agree on the shape of reform, they threw out seven different options and didn’t support any. This time, in the wake of the cash for honours scandal, MPs finally backed two radical options for change: an 80% elected Lords with a majority of 38, and then a 100% elected Lords with an even bigger majority of 113.

I have to admit I was hugely pleased and relieved at the result – particularly at the popularity of the 100% elected option. Finally we might see a change to our constitution that means that, for the first time ever, Britain will be able to say it’s a grown-up democracy.

It’s obvious for a Green to say this, but it’s important now that we make sure the new house is elected with a fair voting system, and that a new Lords brings a greater diversity of voices into parliament. With a fair system of proportional representation, we’ll see a serious Green presence in parliament at last, ideally placed to put real teeth into green legislation.

The vote also slightly restores my faith in back-benchers, who I usually look upon as a shower of careerists and timeservers. The vote for 100% was no doubt influenced by the stench of sleaze attached to appointments by party leaders and must have been a shock for Blair and co. This wasn’t as far as they wanted to go at all. Blair voted for a 50% elected house and then cleared off, Brown voted for 80% but abstained on 100%, and Jack Straw, leading the process, voted for 50, 60 and 80% but not 100%.

Any reform won’t be easy for the Labour top brass to swallow – having held absolute power with a minority of votes for a decade. But, especially if elected under PR, a renewed Lords will also have renewed vigour and renewed legitimacy. With a real mandate, even with restricted powers, the new Lords will be more inclined to oppose the government and could pose a real challenge to the government’s hegemony.

The next vote of interest was when results started coming in from Northern Ireland on Thursday and Friday. After a doorstep campaign focused mainly on issues like water rates, sufficient numbers of people cast their votes beyond religious lines for us to see the first Green elected to the Assembly, in North Down. Congratulations go to our candidate Brian Wilson – his election is a definite sign of a shift away from the old politics in Northern Ireland, which depend so much on history, to ideas more concerned with the future. The Green Party can also boast it is now the only one represented in London, Edinburgh, Dublin and Belfast.

The third election this week was slightly less earth-shattering, but very significant for me. Votes were counted on Saturday for the Green Party’s selection of our candidate for Mayor of London. From a shortlist of five, including our brilliant drugs spokesperson and tireless activist, Shane Collins, I managed to secure the nomination with 45% of first preferences.

I’m thrilled to get the chance to take on Ken Livingstone next year. He started out as an independent, ‘man of the people’ character but is increasingly turning into an agent of New Labour’s business agenda.

His fondness for big, shiny projects is well known, frustrating me and the people of Camden over the Kings Cross development, where we desperately need family housing not more office blocks. And his support for similar projects, such as the Thames Gateway motorway bridge (which will do nothing to improve air quality for people in east London) is alienating people in other boroughs too.

With no other party’s candidate yet selected, I’m looking forward to being the only challenger for a while and working hard to highlight what we will do to make London a human-scale city again.

This weekend we also selected our candidates for the London Assembly list (the Assembly is made up of constituency members topped up with list candidates to make it all proportional to the votes cast). The list is where our Assembly Members tend to come from, although we do well in a lot of the constituencies too.

Our top three are, again, our excellent team from 2004 – Jenny Jones and Darren Johnson (current AMs) and former AM Noel Lynch. I’m next on the list, so it’s up to me now to make sure we get enough votes to win four seats this time round. No problem!

Sian Berry lives in Kentish Town and was previously a principal speaker and campaigns co-ordinator for the Green Party. She was also their London mayoral candidate in 2008. She works as a writer and is a founder of the Alliance Against Urban 4x4s
Show Hide image

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.