A Sikh's spiritual journey

This week the Faith Column focuses on the Sikh religion with Harwinder Singh describing his religion

“The Lord works in mysterious ways!” declared the preacher at Piccadilly Circus. Many of you may know who I am talking about as he seems to have become a fixture of the hustle and bustle at London’s most famous intersection. Middle-aged, white and somewhat street-wise, he looks a little like Robert Redford… until you hear his voice over the PA.

When I had first started commuting into central London to gain work experience at a myriad of film and production companies, I was cold and oblivious to my surroundings. I marched along in unison with my fellow Englishmen, muttering under my breath at the tourists who slowed our pace down to their own snail-like strolling. I would never have listened, nor tried to listen to the words that were being bellowed across the traffic over a simple wireless microphone.

Five years on and although my pace has not slowed, I have begun to take in the sounds and pictures that bombard me and my fellow Londoners at every turn. This is partly due to a hard-grafted education gained from working within the media industry and in particular an independent record label where I met some amazing individuals. But it is my journey in life as a Sikh that has mostly influenced the change in me to notice the Piccadilly Circus preacher.

A Sikh is described as a student or a disciple. But a student of whom, or what? Most of us can surmise that a Sikh is likely to be a disciple of Guru Nanak, the founder of The Sikh Way of life. But as I have come to find, it is what Guru Nanak represents and embodies that the Sikh is a student of: The Truth. This should not be misunderstood as a single, righteous proclamation of divinity, rather it is a reference to that which we call existence, reality and knowledge.

Everybody and everything is subject to the same principles and is governed by the same laws, it is simply that we have found differing ways over time to interpret these. Since graduating from University I began to spend more of my time reading and understanding the Guru Granth Sahib, the scriptural incarnation of Guru Nanak.

Little by little (sometimes merely a word at a time!) I have begun to recognise and practise Guru Nanak’s philosophy in my everyday life. Heightening my awareness to the beautiful game that is being played out around me is one such tenet that I have managed to harness.

Today, it is amazing to think that I had spent so many teenage years in slumber. My eyes were open and my ears could hear, but I was not listening nor was I able to see.

There is a wondrous thread of Divinity that weaves its way through our lives and our paths if we could just take the time to notice it. In my understanding, noticing precedes appreciation, which itself is a fore-runner for realisation.

If that is the case, then there are many stages of enlightenment that I am yet to achieve. Ten years from now, I will look back at this moment and wonder how I could’ve been so presumptuous to believe and write as I have done! With time comes experience and greater learning. Truly, the Lord does work in mysterious ways, but perhaps one day I will understand what those ways are and they won’t be so mysterious then. But as the Piccadilly Preacher, I along with the rest of the World continue to declare my knowledge and perception of reality as it is today. If I learn from it, then it has been worthwhile.

Harwinder Singh is a 26-year-old Law graduate turned film and TV producer. He is also a record label boss. Born in the UK to Punjabi parents, he been practising and studying the Sikh Way of Life for about 20 years.
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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.