A stethoscope. Photo: Carl Court/Getty Images
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My keyboard is held together by Sellotape. And what’s that strange buzzing in my groin?

Failing hardware and Withnail occupy Nicholas Lezard.

It’s a weird period, the week between Boxing Day and New Year. It’s as if the whole country is wandering around in its pyjamas, muttering to itself. I hunker down in the Hovel behind a barricade of wine bottles; it seems like the wisest course of action.

Company eventually comes in the form of the daughter, who likes to use the Hovel as a launchpad for her return to university. She finds it a convivial place and seems to enjoy my ideas of how to entertain ourselves in the evening. (Though she loves her brothers, they are not given to conversation once settled in front of their screens.) So the first part of Monday evening is spent eating pizza and watching Withnail and I. Normally I am strict about the matter of talking when a film is on but we’ve seen Withnail so many times between us that occasionally we feel moved to comment when we have something we think is interesting to say about it.

There are, I gather, people who not only do not like this film particularly but think that it is a bit odd to have watched it around 50 times. (This is a conservative estimate.) To which I can only reply: would you put a limit on the number of times you would listen to a favourite piece of music? Moreover, although the film may have, to us, reached the condition of music, there are plenty of times in life when it seems directly relevant.

One of them, which I keep quiet about, occurs early when Marwood (this is the name of the “I” character), after a 60-hour speed binge, says: “My thumbs have gone weird.” I have not been on such a binge myself and neither have my thumbs gone weird; but my groin has. The only way I can describe it is that it’s as if someone has left a very tiny mobile phone in the front of my undercrackers and left it on “vibrate” mode, set to go off every three seconds or so.

It is the kind of thing one hesitates to go to the doctor about. Not only is it painless, it’s not entirely unpleasant. But it is not normal; I certainly haven’t read about this in the user’s manual. I am, at the moment, due to illness in the family (and terminal illness at that), becoming rather sensitised to the shocks that flesh is heir to and I wonder if this is the start of something nasty. Then again, the toes on my left foot have been ever so slightly numb for about ten years now. That hasn’t got any better but it hasn’t got any worse.

I suppose I am at the age when the downhill progress starts accelerating. I can see this happening right now on the machine I am using to write this piece. A Lenovo PC of some venerability, it is sort of held together by Sellotape and the keyboard makes a funny, squeaking noise as I type. The built-in mouse has ceased to function, as has the fingerprint reader (a rather snazzy feature that impressed my children when this computer was a new arrival). Somehow I managed to dig out an external mouse from the crap on my desk; only now the cursor seems to skip about after a few hours of use and I will suddenly look to the screen – I’ve never learned to touch-type – and see that I’ve inserted several sentences into the first paragraph, where they do not belong.

Which is all rather tiresome but not unliveable with. After all, the alternative – to get something done about these things, rather than simply to put up with them – does not appeal. One would involve a doctor either putting his or her hand down my pants or telling me to stop wasting his or her time; and the other would involve either buying a new laptop, which is financially beyond me, or replacing the keyboard again. Having had both a new keyboard and a new screen, my laptop now resembles grandfather’s axe, or Theseus’s ship, thus raising the philosophical problem of whether something whose component parts have all been replaced can still be said to be the same thing.

Meanwhile, buzz, buzz goes the groin again, as if a miniaturised submarine full of tiny doctors (including, wondrously, a microscopic Raquel Welch) had got jammed somewhere below the pubic bone. Everything else down there, I hasten to add, is in fine working order. Certainly finer than I might expect of someone of my age and lifestyle. So one does not want to go to the doctor in case one is told that one of the body’s key components needs replacing. Or that one needs an external mouse. Actually, that’s a line of speculation I’m going to close off right now. 

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 08 January 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The Churchill Myth

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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.