Harry Potter and the house of bored kids

The school holidays. Jesus wept. Because booking things months in advance is not exactly my strong suit, this involves schlepping back and forth between the Hovel and the family home in Shepherd's Bush. It's like the opposite of commuting, or a weird variant of it: travelling not from home to office and back, but from home to sort-of home and back.

It is odd spending the week in the home in which my three children were born and raised. I know every inch of it: I sanded half the floorboards, painted half the window frames, and there are still some sections of wall where my initial colour scheme - bold, original, yet tasteful - has not been edited out of history. Three years on, there is still some of my crap waiting to be chucked out: 18 boxes of books and stuff, 20 to 30 per cent of the total, which I would like to keep but don't have space for. (The rest is gathering dust in my parents' loft, and they say they would rather not have any more, as they don't want their house to collapse on top of them. Fair enough.)

The boxes sit behind me, hulking sullenly in the living room, as I type. It is strange leaving the place to go back to the Hovel every day: saying goodbye to the children is far less pleasant than I let on, even if I know I'm going to be seeing them the next day. The melancholy generally lasts, I have discovered, until I get halfway up the escalator at Marble Arch.

Still, it is a delight to see them. By not being exposed to a grumpy father 24 hours a day, they seem to have turned into rather splendid young people, if I may say so myself. Their mother might even have had something to do with it. And as I have never been the kind of father who says anything even remotely like "let's go camping", they do not mind if we basically slob around all day.

But there is still the problem of how to keep them entertained, to get them off the PlayStation. (Have you seen Call of Duty 6? It's a bit disturbing, frankly.) Open to suggestion, I am pleased to receive a text from their mother. "Why don't you take them out on a pedalo on the Serpentine?"

In theory, and with normal children, not to mention a normal father, or the kind of father you get in adverts, this is a perfectly good idea. And I think
it is rather nice that she is giving me ideas about what to do with them - for, like many men, I have little imagination when it comes to entertaining children, and am seized with that brain-freezing mixture of panic and shame that is what we feel when our limitations are made manifest to us.

Butterfly effect

To make matters worse, my children suffer from great inertia. Maybe they're like little balls of lightning when they're with their mother, but when they're with me they have to be scraped off the floor with a shovel.

With negotiation, it's possible to get them to play a bit of cricket in the scary park down the road, and I think I might persuade them to play a bit of poker later on, but trying to get a 15-year-old girl and 13-year-old and ten-year-old boys to agree on a common agenda is a tall order. There's also the problem of getting them to the Serpentine, getting them dressed so they can go on public transport to go to the Serpentine without causing a scandal, and prising them off the sofa so they can get dressed.

Anyway, there is a new development afoot. The youngest boy has come down and asked his sister where the first Harry Potter book is. This is quite astonishing, as he is not really the kind of boy who picks up books unless they are heavily illustrated with pictures of space. Nothing wrong with that, of course, space is cool, but by his age I was halfway through Middlemarch and could address the cats in Latin hexameters. (This is a monstrous fib.) Now, I feel, is not the time for me to start on my critique of J K Rowling's prose style.

So when Eldest Daughter comes down and says that Youngest Son is actually reading, we are both conscious of the scale of the achievement and, at the same time, its precarious nature. It's like when a butterfly lands on your arm, she says. You have to be completely still or it's all over.
This is a tricky business. There are builders noisily converting the attic. An 11-year-old cousin is staying over. There are electronic games and apps and whatnots in three or four different formats, offering the chance to do everything from killing the Taliban to playing for Arsenal. We hold our breath. The butterfly is still there.

But for how long?

Nicholas Lezard is a literary critic for the Guardian and also writes for the Independent. He writes the Down and Out in London column for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 09 August 2010 issue of the New Statesman, The first 100 days

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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.