Show Hide image

Tale of a city: Sunday, bloody Sunday

Maurice Glasman recalls gloomy weekends in Palmers Green.

To understand the grief that hit our family on Sundays in 1970s suburbia requires a leap of imagination. First of all, the shops were closed. Everything was closed. And somewhere in our family was a despairing soul, which came out to play on a Sunday. I still approach Sundays as a stranger in a strange land. “What do you mean you haven’t done your homework? It’s 9pm at night. Why didn’t you tell me?” Those words were said to me as a child and I have said them to my children, always at the end of a miserable Sunday. I realised later that there was something especially grim about London on a Sunday, though I didn’t know that then. I took it all personally.

Thomas De Quincey, in his account of opium addiction, writes: “It was a Sunday afternoon, wet and cheerless: and a duller spectacle this earth of ours has not to show than a rainy Sunday in London.” At least he was old enough to be on his own and to get hold of some mindaltering drugs. As a nine-year-old boy in Palm - ers Green, the best I could hope for was getting high on the quarter of Maynards wine gums my dad would get for me if he went to pay the paper bill in the morning.

London is a terrible place to be unhappy. Love is out there, friendship is out there, but you are nowhere. And that was my mum’s story on a Sunday. Despite being surrounded by her husband and children, she felt abandoned on a Sunday – restless, disappointed and unloved. That kind of feeling is contagious.

She was the eldest of five daughters born to Jewish immigrants from Poland and Russia. Her dad was an occasionally employed presser in a laundry. She had to leave school at 13 and go to work in a factory to feed the family. I sometimes have to remind myself that this was my mother and not my grandmother.

She loved her sisters, with whom she grew up in the same bedroom in a basement on Bethune Road in Stamford Hill. She did all the right things. She married my dad, who ran a toy business. They bought a semi-detached house in Walthamstow, where I was born, and then one in Palmers Green next to the North Circular. There were four of us and we had a bedroom each, a garage, a car, a back garden and a front garden. My dad loved her with all his heart but on a Sunday all that counted for nothing. The pattern was fixed. My elder sister would be doing her homework, my brother would be playing the piano and I would be sitting in the lounge with my dad, who would be doing the Observer magazine crossword. It was just nice to be with him but the storm clouds were gathering. We had London weather in our living room. My mother would come in and say, “I haven’t spoken to anyone all day,” and thus would begin the Sunday outing.

Sometimes, when things were really bad, Mum would decide that she wanted to go to Hampton Court but we would get lost before we got to the maze, or the engine would overheat, or my sister would be sick in the car. Another very bad idea was a “walk on Hampstead Heath” or a “visit to Kenwood”, where there was nowhere to park. It also involved driving down Bishops Avenue, which used to make all of us feel sick.

Family fortunes

Usually, though, it meant going back to Stamford Hill, back to her sisters and her mum in the council flat on Queen Elizabeth Walk. My grandmother lived there with my Auntie Sheila. My Auntie Betty was on the same road, my Auntie Jeanette was round the corner and my Auntie Marion would be there, too. My mum would start to talk, to “feel like my normal self again”, and for me it was all magic.

Stamford Hill was different. A Mr Pound lived in the flat below and he hated noise. Our visits were a nightmare for him and he used to bang on his ceiling with a broom handle to register his disapproval of the sound of our feet on the floor. We all used to freeze like it was the first herald of a pogrom but it wasn’t. We were in London, a city where they didn’t kill the Jews.

There was my Uncle Lawrence, who was a jazz drummer. He used to play records on the gramophone he’d bring round. I remember listening to “Topsy” by Warne Marsh and Lee Konitz and thinking it was the most beautiful thing I’d ever heard. American popular music was as alive as a visiting relative, part of the family. And there was my Uncle Shmuel, married to Betty, who had arrived as a child in London from Vienna. My mother told me his story while I was in the bath on a Sunday. I couldn’t have been more than seven.

“He kissed his parents in Vienna and they said they would see him soon but he never saw them again.” “What happened?” “The Nazis killed them.”

All the men smoked and all the children played and all the women talked. It was a dif - ferent world from the one we left behind in Palmers Green. When we drove home, the atmosphere would begin to thin. And when we passed through the North Circular barrier at Brownlow Road, it became difficult to breathe. The next day was almost upon us and I hadn’t done my homework.

That scene ended when my grandmother died, Margaret Thatcher was elected and I went off to university. But there was never any doubt where home was for me. As soon as I could, I moved “back” to Stamford Hill. My mum thought that I only did it to hurt her. Stamford Hill is now the home of the biggest Hasidic community in Europe. Those my mother called “normal Jewish people” continued their trek north and north-west, beyond the North Circular.

When I entered the House of Lords, I chose to become Baron Glasman of Stoke Newington and Stamford Hill to bring both sides of the story together. I think of how my mother would have taken the news that I was lord of the place where she grew up. I know it would be no substitute for getting in a car and going to see her sisters and their families in that room in Stamford Hill.

Maurice Glasman is a Labour peer

Maurice Glasman is a Labour peer and director of the faith and citizenship programme at London Metropolitan University

This article first appeared in the 30 July 2012 issue of the New Statesman, The London Issue

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.