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Bland risotto: it's not a big Ask, is it?

Ask not what your country can do for you – instead, go to yet another chain Italian restaurant and order some farinaceous foodstuff that will make your stomach swell up like that of a cow that’s gorged on clover; not, you understand, that I believe you to be fashionably wheat intolerant – it’s just there’s so much wheat intolerance in the air, it’s difficult not to pick up on it. So, ask rather what you can do for your country and the answer is clear, in order to promote growth-through-increased consumption: go to Ask, which seems to have a preposterous 135 outlets nationally, from Ashby de-la-Zouch to Truro and back again.

How did that happen? How did this Triffid-like horde of identical eateries rustle up on us, all – presumably – with the same green-and-cream colour schemes, all with the same sense of being conservatories writ large and foodie (hence the ducts snaking across the ceilings from their let-it-all-flop-out kitchen areas), all with white laminated-MDF tables, all with varnished wooden floors and wooden chairs, all with bars behind which there’s a map of the Italian boot fetishised out of wine bottles thrust into plaster, and all with plump, slightly buck-toothed waiters, who, as you push through the glass doors ask, “How’re you today?” their intonation rising into that meaningless interrogative swoop so beloved of the Antipodeans.

Quail’s eggs

Yes, how did it happen – because, frankly, until I walked through the doors of Ask, I had never put to myself a single question about the chain, this empire of bruschetta being as alien to me as a walking plant, while also, paradoxically, blindingly obvious?

I mean, were Ask not to exist, it would be necessary to invent it; and if not with this name, then one called “Hint” or “Allude” or “Quail”. I say this, but when I inquired of Andreas, my waiter, why Ask was so called, he explained that it was an acronym of the names of the three founders. “English, were they?” I essayed, and he conceded that they almost certainly were. At that point I realised the futility of naming an Italian restaurant chain Perché, and gave up on the whole business of human interaction.

I was eating alone. At the next table, an older woman in a wool appliqué top discussed something with a younger woman with her hair in an Alice band. The older woman’s info-tool was an iPad, the younger one’s was a spiral-bound notebook. Andreas returned with my San Pellegrino and green olives. I sipped and nibbled moodily while consulting the menu. (Ridiculous expression, really, implying as it does that I paid the menu a fat fee in order to justify my own pathetic act of professional closure . . . except that when I stop to think about it, that’s precisely what I was doing.) I wanted to have the agnello brasato (shoulder of lamb with tomato sauce on risotto), or the pappardelle, which came with chunks of Tuscan sausage, but it wasn’t that sort of a day – it was a ruminant day, a green day, a mean’n’moody methane day, so instead I ordered the risotto verde and a rocket salad.

Oven baked

Waiting for it to arrive, I looked up at the tight formation of unshaded light bulbs dangling from the ceiling high overhead. I looked to the kitchen area and saw a white coat withdraw a pizza from the wood-burning oven. I thought of Sylvia Plath and how back in the days of British Gas, its advertising slogan was “Don’t you just love being in control?”. A reference to the “cookability” of gas stoves, not their suitability for those who become felo de se. My salad and my risotto arrived. The former looked like a half-digested meal, the latter like a fully digested one that had been thrown up. But then that’s risotto for you, isn’t it? I mean, if you order a risotto you cannot complain that it looks like puke, because that’s part of the contract: I want some food that seems to be vomit, actually translates into catering lingua franca as, “Bring me risotto.”

Andreas came back and asked me how my food was, and I told him it was bland and he looked nonplussed, so I expanded: “Y’know tasteless, dull, uninteresting, obvious . . .” but that didn’t seem to help and his face crinkled up with pained incomprehension.

“Listen,” I snapped, “I don’t mind my bland risotto, in fact, I positively wanted such insipid fare.” At last this seemed to satisfy him and he went away. The bill was 20-odd quid, plus service – since you asked.

Will Self is an author and journalist. His books include Umbrella, Shark, The Book of Dave and The Butt. He writes the Madness of Crowds and Real Meals columns for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 21 May 2012 issue of the New Statesman, European crisis

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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.