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Tea with Queen Judi, bicycling in Amsterdam and hunting for WMDs with Hans Blix

Jon Snow's diary.

Conduct becoming

Monday, and I find Eriks Ešenvalds’s Passion and Resurrection still ringing in my ears from a phenomenal performance the night before. In the Georgian splendour of the Grosvenor Chapel, the Voce chamber choir had lifted the roof with this spectacular choral piece of 21st-century sorrow and joy, conducted by Suzi Digby, the Cambridge-based conductor and pianist.

Female conductors are rare; she is the match for any man I’ve ever seen on the conductor’s rostrum. Concise, certain, emotional and yet not extravagant, she has the capacity to get to the top, taking her choir with her. To be honest, when I discovered that the centrepiece of the concert was to be a major choral work by a 36-year-old Latvian composer resident at Trinity College, Cambridge, I feared the worst – something atonal, dark and brooding. Not a bit of it. The music was dramatic, melodic and exceptionally moving.

Gangland style

Midday on Tuesday. To the New Horizon Youth Centre near King’s Cross for our monthly meeting of the management council, which I chair. It’s a day centre for vulne - rable and homeless young people. We talk of finance and gangs – the former remains tough but survivable. As to the latter, “Not many gangs round here,” I venture. I come and go from the centre by bike, oblivious to the tensions in the streets around me.

The youth centre workers correct me. “We have one gang to the north, one to the south, and then there’s the Kilburn Crew out to the west.” Gangs are about identity, family even, for often deeply insecure, isolated youngsters who yearn for community and get it at the blade of a knife or worse.

That afternoon, I cycle over to the Noël Coward Theatre to interview Judi Dench, who is starring in her first post-Skyfall West End play – Peter and Alice. We squash our camera kit into the little rococo withdrawing room at the back of the theatre, all gold, blue and mirrored. Tricky to film without spotting one of the cameras in one of the mirrors. Dame Judi is an extraordinarily jolly yet formidable presence. At once apparently stern and then breaking out into a completely infectious laugh.

We get on like a house on fire as we discuss this real-life fantasy in which the “Alice” of Alice in Wonderland, at 80, meets the man who inspired Peter Pan, who is 30. Dame Judi is the most versatile and eclectic actress, game for any challenge. I suggest that if Danny Boyle were to make a film of his stunning opening of the Olympic Games, and should they need an old queen to chuck out of a helicopter, she’d be up for it. “Oh yes,” she chimes, “you bet!”

Hans’s solo mission

Wednesday. To the Frontline Club straight after the news, to chair a debate about lessons learned ten years after the invasion of Iraq.

I first visited the country in 1980 during the harrowing trench warfare that characterised the Iran/Iraq war in which a million people died. Twenty years later, we transmitted Channel 4 News from Baghdad for a week before the invasion. Even so late in the day, I could not believe anyone could be so stupid as to attempt to destabilise this incredibly complex entity. Yes, Saddam Hussein was a menace but he was an extremely contained one. A decade of RAF-led and UN-authorised no-fly surveillance had kept his regime in check.

No one who visited in those days could have been unaware of the secular fear with which he kept the competing religious factions at bay. My conviction to this day is that almost no one in the US/UK cabal that did this thing knew anything much about the dangerous differences between Sunnis and Shias. I remember, too, the pathetic experience of chasing around after the UN’s chief weapons inspector Hans Blix. MI6 and the CIA kept calling up with new locations for Saddam’s “WMDs”. We would rush to a farm or a factory and find nothing – only to hear Blix’s large mobile wailing again with another location.

Two wheels better

Friday, and I’m on the 6.35am KLM flight to Amsterdam for a conference, staged by the Dutch state-owned broadcaster NTR, about the future of journalism. I speak optimistically – perceiving the digital multi-platform age as heralding a golden age of journalism. But perhaps I am boosted by Amsterdam itself.

We are located beside one of the city’s great canals, just 200 metres from the house in which Anne Frank hid with her family during the war before she was transported to Auschwitz, to die just a month before liberation. I see that the queue of visitors winds round the back of her house and I am sure the wait will be too long.

But in the break before our conference supper, when the bitter wind-chill factor has peaked at -15°C, I sneak out to the queue, still 80 people deep. Finally, after only 20 minutes, I am in the downstairs warmth of the Anne Frank Museum, neatly structured beneath the attic rooms she and her family hid in. The narrow wooden steps lead up to the very bookcase that disguised the entrance to their bolt-hole.

As I wander through the stark, dark, unfurnished rooms, I think how Anne’s diary moved my daughters as deeply as it had moved me. It is perhaps the strongest literary narrative between us.

Outside, I am overwhelmed by the Dutch brilliance that has conjured Amsterdam’s urban transit system. Tram, car, bike, foot, all wending their separated ways. We in Britain are nowhere, yet bikes are everywhere in ever greater numbers.

As we pine for infrastructure, for jobs and for the groundwork that will provide the foundations for our new tomorrow – why can’t we get to it? Get the private car out of town, let the buses roll, and get the people on to their bikes and on to their feet. We shall live longer, happier, less overweight lives, respecting each other, instead of trying to carve each other up.

Jon Snow is the lead presenter of “Channel 4 News” For details on the New Horizon centre, visit:

This article first appeared in the 01 April 2013 issue of the New Statesman, Easter Special Issue

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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.