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A child washing up is a beautiful thing, even if he breaks the last glass

Sober, blameless, virtuous even - for I am doing the washing-up - and another glass breaks. Down to four now, which is still acceptable, just. I don't really like having more than two guests in the Hovel at a time, and not only for reasons of space, although that is an important consideration. (I took the Guardian's "are you an introvert?" quiz the other day and discovered that I am apparently about as sociable as a paranoid dormouse, which is odd, as I consider myself the life and soul. Yet when was a quiz in a newspaper ever wrong?)

But the main thing is the glasses. By "glasses" I mean, of course, wine glasses. What else are glasses for? Whisky, I suppose; and a wine glass, once rinsed clean, works perfectly well for a fine malt, on the two or three occasions a year I have enough cash to buy a bottle.

Duke of hazard

There are now few other glasses in the Hovel. There are a couple of pint glasses; you just need these. There are some ancient glasses that are good for holding shots of frozen vodka and not much else; some disgusting artisanish blue wine glasses, which I just don't use, on principle; and one remaining highball glass, either the last of a set that Razors bought a couple of years ago, or one I nicked off the Duke, I can't remember, which is pretty useful for highballs. Also, it just occurs to me, for the kids.

I think they have given up on the idea of my going down the road to John Lewis and getting some more of these. For a few months they nagged me about this. It would be tedious to repeat the dialogue. I just ignored them, which I have always considered a perfectly good technique, applicable to an enormous number of situations, for making a problem go away. So now they have their lemonade from an assortment of mugs, the solitary highball glass, a Bonne Maman jam jar that has since been pressed into service as a glass - and, of course, wine glasses. How better to teach them familiarity with the shape and heft of a laden glass, so that by the time they're old enough to drink wine, they can do so without making fools of themselves?

But there is still the matter of their breaking. Once or twice it's been the kids' fault - but breakages committed by children who are, for instance, doing the washing-up are counted as natural wear and tear, and you don't shout at a child who is doing the washing-up even if he or she breaks every damn glass in the sink, because a child doing the washing-up is a beautiful thing to behold, like a butterfly landing on your arm, and just as easily spooked.

I have also learned that shouting at children for breaking things through mere clumsiness doesn't really get anyone anywhere; the thing broken is not restored, the child's co-ordination is not improved, neither is his or her opinion of you as a just and reasonable father, and it doesn't stop them from doing it again. Could even be said to increase the chances.

It wouldn't be so bad if you could expect some kind of order or pattern in their breaking - say, one every three weeks or so. No, you can go for ages, sloshing the wine around in gay abandon, with impunity. And then, tinkle tinkle tinkle, three go in a week. Four glasses, as I say, is borderline acceptable. What's not so acceptable is that this is down from an all-time high of seven, achieved a couple of months ago when I bought six from the local Majestic to keep my last, lonely, shivering wine glass company. Seven glasses! I felt like I'd joined the 1 per cent.

Bad omens

That was then. The good people at the Sediment wine blog (motto: "I've Bought It So I'll Drink It") recommend Duralex glasses but for me they are too redolent of schooldays and people look at you funny when you give them wine in such glasses.

Ah, vanity, saith the preacher, all is vanity; and every breakage is another erosion of our foothold in the universe. You tend to take these things personally, like bad omens. I know that things fall apart and the centre cannot hold, I'm not thick, but still, this is getting ridiculous.

I know, I know. Delta is greater than zero, or Δ > 0, an equation even more beautiful to my mind than the majestic e Jπ -1 = 0, because it actually tells us something useful: the second law of thermodynamics, which from its innocuous-sounding proposition - that heat cannot pass from a colder to a warmer body - we get entropy, or the idea that everything eventually falls apart in your hands. And not just wine glasses.

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 26 March 2012 issue of the New Statesman, Mission impossible

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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.