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The NS interview: Russell Kane, comedian

On the "smashing" of grammar schools.

How did you get into stand-up?
Some of my friends said, “Maybe you should perform some of your stories, because they’re quite funny.” I just googled “stand-up London”, clicked the first link, phoned the first number and went on the first stage. No passion, no inspirations, no history, just an apathetic drifting into something that I turned out to be nauseatingly good at. I couldn’t give a shit and I’m still good at it. Cocky, isn’t it?

What do you care about?
Literature. The novel’s finished. Tiny advance, which means it’s a good novel. Always remember, the smaller the advance, the better the book. I was distraught to get any money for it.

Was writing novels always your dream?
When I was eight I used to decorate my own little books and put bar codes on them. But my mum’s a cleaner; my dad was an asbestos remover. I wasn’t brought up to think that dreams are achievable. The grammar school system was smashed away by well-meaning liberals. So I was fucked, packed off to a comprehensive along with all the other bright working-class kids, to be watered down and then shipped out to Asda. So it was a pie-in-the-sky dream. I just kept it ticking over.

Do you have strong feelings about schools?
What we should’ve done in the Sixties is fixed the secondary moderns; we made an intellectual error. Bright working-class kids now go
to a comprehensive. The value system inverts temporarily: you want to be the most popular, and if the system of value in a secondary school is who is the toughest, that becomes the value system. If you’re born in a council flat now to a single mum, you have less chance of getting to Magdalene College than you did in the Sixties. That’s fucking awful; that’s unacceptable.

Did you have a tough time at school?
No, because I was funny and it was easy to be popular. What I did come out with was five GCSEs grade A to C, which is a lot more than other people came out with. But I could have done more. I turned it round and got a First at uni. But what’s the point in looking at freaks like me, who are the exception? The majority of those kids, you go: “Whatever happened to Terry who was so bright at primary school?”

Does your family mind being in your material?
My mum likes it because she knows it’s true. I al­ways talk about my dad in the present tense on the stage. He’s funnier alive than dead. So that’s upsetting, but in the right way – moving.

Do you think it’s easier to write comedy when you’ve been having a hard time?
Yeah, particularly for British people. We want to hear comedy about pain. We like bathos.

Is there an essence of British humour?
Definitely. We put each other down. If I went on stage in the States and started laying into the front row without establishing myself with a joke, it would be a problem.

You won a comedy prize at Edinburgh in 2010. How did that feel?
Amazing. I don’t have the skill to – I’ll use a For­ster word – “dissimulate” – otherwise. I wanted to win it and I was obsessed with winning it. The Oxbridge I never got to was all bound up in winning.

Do you still get nervous before performing?
Put it this way – Imodium could sponsor my tour.

Do you consider yourself political?
Not really. I’m more sociological than political, more about gender and class and masculinity and femininity and ideas like that.

What do you think of the coalition?
I hate everything David Cameron’s doing with a passion but it’s quite refreshing to see someone actually doing something. It’s like someone punched me in the face after I’ve been sat in a room for 20 years.

Is religion a part of your life?
Not at all. I’m atheist. I don’t think I meditate in a Buddhist way, but I take ten minutes each morning to focus on different areas of my brain and make sure they’re working.

Is there anything you’d rather forget?
I’ve had some horrible things happen but I don’t want to forget them, because I write about them and turn them into comedy.

Was there a plan?
The plan was to do advertising and have an interesting hobby in the evening. Inside all along, I was a narcissistic, self-centred, attention-hungry little gremlin. The moment someone injected the heroin of stand-up, I was hooked.

Do you vote?
Yes, I voted Liberal Democrat. I certainly won’t be [doing that] next time.

Are we all doomed?
I don’t think so. The Arab spring filled me with a new hope.

Defining moments

1980 Born in Enfield, north London
2004 Wins Laughing Horse New Act prize
2006 Takes his debut show, The Theory of Pretension, to the Edinburgh Fringe
April 2010 Causes controversy by joking about autistic children on the Australian Good News Week TV show
August 2010 Wins Edinburgh Comedy Award on third consecutive nomination
April 2012 Publishes his debut novel, The Humorist (Simon & Schuster, £12.99)

Samira Shackle is a freelance journalist, who tweets @samirashackle. She was formerly a staff writer for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 14 May 2012 issue of the New Statesman, Halal: Britain’s most feared food

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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.