Domesticity doesn’t suit me, and nor does wearing trousers

I am wandering around the Hovel, looking for a book. This would be fine if it were a simple matter of finding any old book, just some reading matter in the form of a book to pass the time; but it is not any old book I want, it is a very specific book: the one I agreed to review last week, which I have not yet picked up, and which - because I am old-fashioned like this - I think it would be a good idea to read
before passing judgement on it.

Where does one hide a leaf? In a forest. (Although why anyone would want to hide a leaf in the first place is beyond me. They are of scant value.) And where does one hide a book? In the Hovel.

Despite increasingly frequent clear-outs, the books continue to multiply; indeed, rather as shaving more often is said to increase the vigour and purpose of one's stubble, so hauling off boxes to Oxfam seems to make more of them come through the letter box.

About twice a week, the postman, whose sad eyes carry a message of eloquent rebuke about them, rings the bell and hands over a heaving sack of the things.

Literary salon

So the one I want nestles under any one of about two dozen tottering Matterhorns of books and what I will have to do is ring either the publisher or the newspaper to send me a replacement and then, shortly after it arrives, I will find the original, usually in plain view, in a place I could have sworn I'd searched several times already. This is the kind of thing that makes me suspect that books have finally achieved sentience and can actually hide themselves, snickering quietly like kids playing hide-and-seek, while I thrash around the place in my underpants, going progressively crazy
until I find myself actually calling out for them by name. A Kindle, someone suggests. No: the books would gang up and eat it.

This is what happens when one is left to one's own devices, though. There has been an interregnum since Laurie's departure for New York and during the day I am the Hovel's sole occupant. I am accountable to no one but myself. The key word in the last paragraph, you will have noticed, is "underpants". What is the point, I ask myself, of wear­-ing out a perfectly good pair of trousers when one can saunter freely about the place in one's gunties?

(I could, I suppose, take this to its logical conclusion and go around completely in the nip but I don't put the heating on during the day and there are, after all, neighbours to consider, and one can still get a rather stiff sentence for indecent exposure, even these days.)

I suppose I am, more than four and a half years on from my ejection from the family home, quietly proud that I have not got much worse, in terms of orderliness and hygiene.

There's a minor but interesting character in Antál Szerb's wonderful novel Journey by Moonlight whose study gets so unusably messy that it becomes impossible to tidy, so he simply rents out another room and repeats the process; what happened to me was more or less the same.

My old study became a nightmare of books and papers. I used to have to walk on books to get to my desk. This is not an exaggeration: I used to dream about it being cleared out by the wife and, although in the dream I was alarmed at all sorts of guilty secrets being unearthed, I was in the end relieved that something had been done.

All washed up

Well, that problem has long since resolved itself and things have never got as bad; but there is still the matter of my innate reluctance to tidy things up. I am not made for domestic matters. The washing in the machine, if it is of the boring, non-essential sort such as sheets and tea towels, can sit there for almost a week; I just put it through a quick rinse cycle every day so it doesn't get smelly. (How long, I asked on Facebook the other day, can one go on doing this before it becomes clear that one is insane? About three days, was the general consensus.)

Anyway, in a few days' time, there will be another inhabitant of the Hovel, keeping Laurie's room warm until she returns. An old friend, as it happens. The only problem is that, by virtue of this, she will not put up with any nonsense. I suppose I am going to have to clean up my act and start at least pretending to act like a responsible adult.

The washing will come out of the machine today, I promise. In the meantime, though, where the hell has that sodding book got to? Come to think of it, what on earth has happened to my trousers?

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 19 March 2012 issue of the New Statesman, The end of socialism

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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.