Seven months of savage cuts leave coalition’s green hue fading

With the final nails hammered into the coffin of the Green Investment Bank, it’s time for a look bac

14 May: "This will be the greenest government ever", pledges David Cameron, three days after the formation of the coalition government. He announces his commitment to the 10:10 campaign, saying that all government departments will cut their greenhouse-gas emissions by 10 per cent before the end of 2010.

29 June: The government's Green Investment Bank Commission predicts that £550bn of investment will be needed to meet Britain's renewable energy targets under the Climate Change Act, and recommends the establishment of a Green Investment Bank to meet the challenge by providing finance for clean-power stations, windfarms and smart grids. Experts agree on a fundamental principle: to be capable of kick-starting private-sector investment in potentially risky renewable projects, the GIB must have the ability to issue government-backed "green bonds" to raise money. This kicks off a feud between the bank's backers – led by Chris Huhne – and the Treasury, in which there could only ever be one winner.

16 July: The Department of Energy and Climate Change (DECC) announces a £34m cut to its low-carbon technology programme, including a £12m cut to the Carbon Trust, which provides funding to sustainable technology and businesses.

22 July: The Sustainable Development Commission is axed on the day of the first great quango cull. Environmentalists question the value of the move: the £3m per year it cost to run the SDC was a negligible saving, far outweighed by the estimated £70m the SDC saved the taxpayer annually by recommending green efficiency savings. Caroline Spelman, Secretary of State at the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra), says the decision was an easy one: because she is "personally dedicated to driving the sustainability agenda across government", there is no longer any need for external agencies.

8 August: More good news! All new homes will run on green power by 2016. That, at least, is the improbable but cheery-sounding claim of the housing minister Grant Shapps. Developers that fail to meet the target must pay a levy to fund local renewable energy projects. As Shapps pointed out, being so very green, the coalition government hardly had a choice in the matter. "We are committed to being the greenest government ever," said Shapps, "and an essential part of that is to ensure that all homes in the future will be built without emitting any carbon."

20 September: Two election pledges are struck from the list of things that the coalition might bring itself to do something about. The government will not carry out its proposal to make it an offence to possess illegally felled timber or to bring it into the country; nor will it extend the subsidy for small-scale solar production under the Feed-In Tariff.

20 October (the Spending Review): This is the point where it really starts to look bad for the greenest government ever, as George Osborne's axe falls hard on environmental spending.

  • The review includes proposals to sell off national nature reserves, privatise parts of the Forestry Commission and sell off the Met Office (which has contributed as much as any organisation to the public understanding of climate change).
  • The review cuts Defra's budget by 30 per cent, compared to a government average of 19 per cent, equating to efficiency savings of £700m by end of the four-year review period. Chris Huhne's tiny DECC gets away with an 18 per cent cut.
  • The Environment Agency will shed 5,000-8,000 out of 30,000 jobs, while Natural England's budget is cut by 30 per cent – about 800 full-time jobs. Flood defence spending will be cut by 27 per cent (though citizens of the "big society" are pleased to learn that they will be allowed to pitch in themselves).
  • Confusion about the GIB: Clegg writes to his party members telling them that £2bn has been set aside, but Osborne says £1bn.

21 October: Huhne tells the Guardian that the government may sell off one-third of Urenco, a company that makes enriched uranium for nuclear power – and that the money raised may fund the GIB. £1bn probably isn't enough for a proper bank, but still – better than nothing.

25 October: Caroline Spelman announces that 150,000 hectares of forest may be sold off by the government.

18 November: Chris Huhne signals his frustration with the Treasury, which is continuing to oppose the Green Investment Bank, preferring to repackage some existing green pledges in a sparkly new fund. An anonymous member of the GIB commission says: "Frankly, if it doesn't [have the ability to raise money by issuing government-backed bonds] there's no point in it existing. If we were only ever going to do one thing, the green bond is the thing we need to do . . ."

18 November (continued): Later that day, Cameron puts these fears to rest in a rare speech on the environment. The GIB will be a proper bank, he promises. The Labour MP Joan Walley asks whether it would really be a bank with the ability to issue money, whether a dispute was likely between the Department for Business and the Treasury, and whether he would take a personal interest. Cameron replies: "Yes, yes and yes, to all of those questions."

25 November: Oops! Grant Shapps messed up back in August when he said that all homes must be zero-carbon by 2016. What he meant to say was, "Some homes, but not all, will probably be zero-carbon by 2016."

19 November: Chris Huhne's frustrations in pursuit of his bank spill over into an open attack on the Treasury. He compares its obdurate opposition to the bank with the mistakes that led to the Great Depression.

15 December: The Treasury gets its wish: there will be no GIB. Huhne acknowledges that the "bank" will in fact be merely a green fund, and is also forced humiliatingly into repudiating his principles, saying that sustainability must not take precedence over cutting the deficit. The £550bn Britain needs to meet its emissions targets will have to come from somewhere else.

The greenest government ever – the seven-month summary: Forests for sale, a slashed green-tech budget, no green bank, flood defence budget hammered, no independent sustainability watchdog. But, looking on the bright side, developers will be allowed to build energy-inefficient houses for a few more years at least, and you can still import illegally logged timber if you like.

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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.