Back in the marital home, I sleep in lonely vigil on the sofa

Coming up to the fifth anniversary of the eviction from the family home and I am beginning to wonder whether it is even a good idea to remember the anniversary, let alone mark it. Not that there aren’t continual reminders of the condition, which start the moment I wake up and go on until I fall asleep (with occasional further reminders, sometimes surreally twisted, popping up from the id from time to time during the night).

And, of course, not being the kind of father who skips the country and/or refuses to do anything to contribute to the upkeep, spiritual and financial, of his offspring, I drop in on them so I can take them to cricket training sessions, deal with the occasional crisis (eg, cat fallen out of window) and generally do those things that a freelancer not shackled to an office can do.

Million-pound question

I remember once, long, long ago, hearing with an appalled thrill the words of the newly separated Bill Drummond relayed to me via a mutual friend: being divorced meant you still had to do the chores, the difference being that this time around you had absolutely no sex as a reward (as opposed, presumably, to the scant and resentful sex that categorises relationships nearing the very end of their tethers).

Wow, I thought, that sounds like the worst of all possible worlds, and resolved, for all the fat lot of good such a resolution eventually made, not to make the same mistake. As it turned out, Mr Drummond’s main mistake, as I interpret the chain of events, was to set up his post-marital home more or less across the road from the family one. This, clearly, was the move of a mug, or at least one more item of evidence that suggests he is a starry-eyed idealist rather than one capable of a clear assessment of where his own best interests might lie.

(He has form on this. My friend and I speculated what our own wives might say if, when we got in the front door and were asked how our day was, we’d replied “brilliant, I took that million pounds I earned from that song and burned it on a Scottish island as a work of conceptual art.” We doubted, somehow, that they would applaud the gesture.) To move across the road is simply to beg for exploitation. For what reasonable father can say no, when duty calls, if only a few feet of tarmac separate him from it?

Anyway, I made sure I did not fall into this trap by relocating about five miles away, or a 40-minute tube journey, door-to-door. Close enough to be able to get there in a real emergency, far enough away to say “not my problem” when something footling turns up, like running out of milk.

But sometimes this distance means that I am asked to stay the night while the children’s mother goes gallivanting off somewhere with whichever moustache-twirling Lothario has her in his clutches this time. (I jest. Her beau is in fact a man of great probity and sincere, if to me puzzling, religious beliefs and is – the important thing – Good With The Kids.)

So last Friday I pocketed the toothbrush and set off for my onetime demesne with instructions to look after the boys while the eldest daughter celebrated one of her best friends’ 17th birthday. This was going to take place in the house over the road, so it was felt that it might be a good idea if I was around should some kind of outrage take place. (Not the most unlikely of events. I am very fond of N–, the friend concerned, but I sleep easier in my bed knowing she is not my responsibility.)

What’s new, pussycat?

Anyway, it’s odd, going back to the former home. The cat, who either has a very bad memory or a very good one, still assumes I have full visiting rights, or at least suspects I know how to open the tin of Whiskas, so I get a proper welcome from her; there might be a new kitchen and a new loft conversion but the basic layout of the place is unchanged and I can stumble in the dark down the corridor for a pee without forgetting where the steps are.

But it is not my Home. There being no spare beds in the house, I sleep on the sofa in the living room: to sleep on either side of the vacant marital bed would make me uneasy. It is not a sofa that induces sleep easily, though, and the bedding is perforce rudimentary.

So I lie in lonely vigil for my daughter’s bacchanalia to end, listening to the whoops and shrieks from over the road. In the end I go over after lunch the next day and find that she and her friend haven’t even been to bed yet. She confesses to being a little spaced out. “Welcome to my world,” I say.

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 02 July 2012 issue of the New Statesman, Clegg the martyr

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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.