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Mother of all Christmases

Why are so many adverts dishing up stale Seventies sexism this festive season?

Festive adverts
Various channels

It’s probably not terribly radical of me to write, in the pages of this magazine, that I hate Christmas commercials. But still, I do. For one thing, I wonder about all the people who are broke, for whom this nightly parade of stuff they can’t afford must be torture. For another, there’s the knowledge – prissy this, but what the hell; everyone knows that my knickers are made of worsted and come right up to my disapproving armpits – that Sylvanian Families, Lego Friends and the electronic dance version of Twister are not necessary to human happiness, and that even those of us who aren’t broke could spend our money more wisely. And then there’s the special loathing I feel for Iceland, whose ads – drum roll please, as we open the chest freezer – seem mostly to feature canapés as created by Aubrey from Mike Leigh’s Life Is Sweet. Lasagne bites, oriental duck pyramids and, to follow, mini pink custard slices. Given the choice, I prefer a generous slice of Aubrey’s pork cyst.

The John Lewis advert is supposed to be the big one, or so the Daily Mail keeps telling us (lately, the Mail seems to love John Lewis almost as much as it hates Marks & Spencer, a state of affairs that should last at least until Liz Jones is despatched to its womenswear department in search of “disappointing” shoes and “frumpy” underwear). This year’s ad is called The Journey, as if the director thinks he’s Fassbinder, and features a snowman who heads off to a well-known department store to buy his snowgirlfriend a pair of gloves. It’s a struggle for him to get there because snowmen don’t have legs – at one point, he can be seen standing mournfully on the hard shoulder of a motorway – but he makes the effort because, well, that’s what you do at Christmas, isn’t it? You are Mallory, the shops are Everest, and you stop at nothing in your effort to comb their furthest reaches.

Personally, I’m baffled by it. Given that most five-year-olds don’t own a Mastercard, who’s it aimed at? That’s the thing about ads (this one is reputed to have cost £6m to make; it was filmed in New Zealand, just like the bloody Hobbit): do they return the investment? Or is the idea merely to induce fondness? The Waitrose ad is a non-ad, apparently for this very reason. They’ve spent no money, or so they say, in order that they might give the cash to charity. So instead of dressing up as elves, Delia and Heston are in a warehouse trying to look kind. Alas, it was perhaps a mistake for Waitrose to scrimp on stylist as well as set. Heston is wearing a V-neck knitted sweater sans T-shirt, which is very Michael Douglas in Basic Instinct, and could well backfire. Charity or no charity, all that chest hair is going to put people right off his mince pies, even if they do come with icing sugar that tastes of pine cones (or Toilet Duck, these things are highly subjective).

Oh, well. Better springy chest hair than stale Seventies sexism, which is what Asda and Morrisons have dished up. Their ads both feature a woman, pale with fatigue, battling to complete her Christmas tasks on time and with zero help from any known male. This would be fine if the worm got to turn at the end. She could, for instance, ram the husband’s head up the turkey’s backside, or put something nasty – divorce papers? – in his cracker.

But, no. The message is: women love to be martyrs. We huff and we puff, and we stay up late wrapping brandy snaps round rolling pins. We wouldn’t have it any other way, and even if our menfolk offered to come to Asda or Morrison’s with us, we’d say no, dear, you sit there and watch Goldfinger for the 24th time, and while you’re at it, do help yourself to a Bailey’s and as many Matchmakers as you can eat without being sick. I bet a man wrote these ads. Show me a woman who says she likes scoring mountains of sprouts with a cross and I’ll show you a man who grew deaf to sarcasm long, long ago.

Rachel Cooke trained as a reporter on The Sunday Times. She is now a writer at The Observer. In the 2006 British Press Awards, she was named Interviewer of the Year.

This article first appeared in the 10 December 2012 issue of the New Statesman, Greece: a warning for Britain?

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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.