Leader: For the sake of the planet we cannot follow Germany’s lead

Germany's decision to reject nuclear power will lead to an increase in carbon emissions.

In September 2010, Angela Merkel announced plans to extend the operating lives of Germany's 17 nuclear power stations and hailed a "revolution in energy provision". But, just eight months later, the German chancellor has declared that her country will become a nuclear-free state by 2022. The decision, prompted by the Fukushima disaster in Japan, may appear quixotic in a country not known for its high levels of seismic activity.

But Mrs Merkel's retreat has more to do with politics than policy. The German electorate is overwhelmingly opposed to nuclear energy - 88 per cent would like to see all plants closed down - and Mrs Merkel's pro-nuclear stance contri­buted to the disastrous performance of the Christian Democrats in the five regional elections this year. In addition to Germany, Switzerland has announced that it will decommission all of its nuclear power plants by 2034 and Italy has abandoned plans to re-establish a nuclear energy industry.

In Britain, by comparison, the anti-nuclear backlash has been mild. Following the completion of a post-Fukushima safety review, the government has reaffirmed its support for the technology and is committed to building eight new nuclear power stations by 2025. Yet a recent YouGov poll found that more of the public (48 per cent) now oppose nuclear power than support it (40 per cent). In addition, 55 MPs, including Zac Goldsmith, Caroline Lucas and Charles Kennedy, have signed an early-day motion calling on the government to suspend plans for a new nuclear programme. And, in Scotland, the SNP has vowed to use devolved planning laws to block another generation of power stations. The case for nuclear power must be made anew.

The context in which all energy policy is formed is one in which the planet is warming at a potentially catastrophic speed. The latest figures from the International Energy Agency suggest that the world will fail to prevent a disastrous 2°C rise in global temperatures. At a time when we need to combat climate change by all means necessary, it makes no sense for the UK to abandon nuclear power, a low-carbon energy source that accounts for 20 per cent of all electricity production. Renewable technologies such as solar, wind and wave power should complement rather than replace nuclear energy. Germany's rejection of nuclear power, which at present produces 26 per cent of its electricity, will leave it more dependent on coal, the most carbon-dense of fossil fuels, as well as more reliant on oil-rich autocracies. Deutsche Bank analysts predict that the decision will add an extra 370 million tonnes of carbon-dioxide emissions to the atmosphere by 2020. Should other industrial nations follow Germany's lead, the result will be a vast - and entirely avoidable - increase in global emissions.

Against this, policymakers must weigh up the undoubted shortcomings of nuclear power - the safety risks, the waste and the cost. In a post-Fukushima world, it is unlikely that new plants will be built without some form of public subsidy. However, it would be reckless of ministers to deny a place for nuclear as part of a balanced portfolio of energy sources. The twin imperatives of environmental sustainability and energy security make this no time for Britain to turn its back on nuclear power.

This article first appeared in the 06 June 2011 issue of the New Statesman, Are we all doomed?

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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.