Rewriting history will not atone for the mistreatment of Alan Turing

If we pardon Turing, there are thousands more due the same. Never returning to those times should be

In LGBT History month, denying a persecuted homosexual a pardon seems particularly insensitive. But in the case of Alan Turing, the so-called Father of Computing and Bletchley Park code-breaker, and the subject of a campaign to absolve him posthumously of a "gross indecency" conviction, Lord Justice McNally has made the right decision.

Charged with the offence in 1952, Turing was offered a choice of sentence -- prison or chemical castration. He opted for the second, but was so distressed by the treatment that he committed suicide two years later. In 2009, a petition demanding that Turing be apologised to in light of his contribution to national life, ratcheted up 30,000 signatures on the No 10 website. Gordon Brown made a national apology for Turing's treatment but no pardon was granted. Meanwhile, the current e-petition, started by William Jones and carried forward by Lib Dem MP John Leech -- who tabled an early day motion to secure Turing's pardon -- is backed by the Guardian and has been so far signed by more than 28,000 people.

The motivation for pardoning Turing comes with the best of intentions. But the pardon itself would achieve what, exactly? Help construct the acceptable face of establishment homosexuality in a patriotic form? Assure the LGBTQI community that the government's commitment to equal rights really does have nothing to do with vote-swinging? Make us feel better about a law that we cannot -- and must not -- forget existed in the first place?

Instead, pardoning Turing would actually create a problem -- it would establish a precedent for the "deserving" homosexual. John Graham-Cummingham, the computer scientist who created the first petition said: "You don't have to be gay to think that prosecuting a man for a private consensual sex act who just seven years before had been hailed as a hero of the Second World War was simply wrong." Fair enough. But the implication of pardoning Turing now would be that he is worthy of his pardon only because he was a national hero; a some gays are more equal than others kind of approach. If we pardon Turing, there are thousands more due the same -- every lesbian, bisexual, gay, intersex and trans man and woman persecuted or harassed throughout the nation's history, from Oscar Wilde to Radclyffe Hall, to the everyday citizens whose secret lives were made the stuff of public shame and state prosecution.

While we're at it, if we're cleaning up historical inequalities, why stop there? What of those convicted under or controlled by other laws we now regard as inhumane -- women burned for witchcraft, for example, or the 18th century designation of black slaves as commodities under the Trade and Navigation Act? What's more, if as an act of contrition we are to overturn past criminal convictions, it would surely only be just to issue posthumous prosecutions for those who committed what we now consider to be crimes. But just what exactly would an anachronistic sentencing and pardoning policy achieve for these victims of our history? Defending the decision not to pardon Turing, Lord MacNally stated:

Long-standing policy has been to accept that such convictions took place ... Rather than trying to alter the historical context and to put right what cannot be put right, [we should] ensure instead that we never again return to those times.

Never returning to those times; that should be our aim.

If we are to use e-petitions for social good, how about we use them to challenge the government on practices causing harm to the LGBTQI community right now; the Commonwealth's failure to condemn Jamaica's stringent sodomy laws, for example, particularly considering the fact that the prohibition of homosexuality was a colonial import in the first place. Or the revised laws on giving blood which previously banned gay men from donating because of the HIV risk, and now merely allow those who have been celibate for a decade to donate. This is both unjust and irrational when heterosexual transmissions account for the greater number of overall UK infections, and when all donors are not routinely asked how much unprotected sex they have had. There are two petitions for you; there are hundreds more.

Turing's story is sickening; but rewriting history will not help atone for his treatment. Instead, in his centenary year, let's celebrate his life's work and achievements and ensure he takes the place in British history he so deserves. After all, his sexuality has nothing to do with that.

Nichi Hodgson is a 28-year-old freelance journalist specialising in sexual politics, law and culture.

This article was updated at 9.45am on 10 February 2012.


Nichi Hodgson is a writer and broadcaster specialising in sexual politics, censorship, and  human rights. Her first book, Bound To You, published by Hodder & Stoughton, is out now. She tweets @NichiHodgson.

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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.