Looking the other way

Observations on Afghanistan

Every two or three days we get the doleful news of a young soldier killed in Helmand, but other than that, Afghanistan is pretty much out of the news. Even the foreign pages have replaced accounts of the Taliban and the poppy harvest with more dramatic reportage from neighbouring Pakistan and the Swat valley conflict.

So is no news good news? Sadly not. Security is still extremely fragile: outside of Kabul and a few key roads, Hamid Karzai’s government can hardly pretend to provide even basic security for the Afghan population. Taliban-affiliated groups, tribal militias and armed criminal gangs all prey on local people, often buying off police officers or members of the Afghan army. Seven and a half years on from the fall of the Taliban government, public opinion polls show chronic insecurity and, as a result, major dissatisfaction with Karzai’s government.

Large parts of the country also face crushing poverty and hunger. Thanks to insecurity (around a quarter of a million people have fled their homes in total), corruption and inefficiency, only about 10 to 15 per cent of international assistance actually makes it to the people who really need it in the towns and villages.

Meanwhile, 30 years of virtually incessant conflict have left their mark. Warlords and suspected war criminals still hold sway in many regions. They also have a significant foothold in the Afghan parliament itself – parliamentary malfeasance makes Westminster’s expenses pale into insignificance. Since the inauguration of the Afghan National Assembly in 2004, there have been thousands of complaints about human rights abuses perpetrated by Afghan members of parliament. In that time, precisely one member, Malalai Joya, has been suspended – not for anything she had done, but for speaking out about other alleged offenders in parliament.

Meanwhile, the rest of Afghanistan’s female population faces appalling discrimination. The recent issue of the Shia Personal Status Law underlined how much remains to be done on women’s rights. Before backtracking amid a storm of international criticism, President Karzai reportedly approved a law this March that would have legalised a feudal relationship within Shia households (some 15 per cent of Afghanistan’s population). Women were to be forbidden from leaving their homes without permission, and would have been obliged to have sex with their husbands as and when required (widely seen as an endorsement of rape).

Aside from the sad body count of armed forces fatalities, the other steady drip-drip of Afghan news across the past few years has been occasioned by US “drone” missile attacks, accompanied by reports of civilian casualties. More than 100 civilians were reportedly killed in US missile strikes last month; the new commander of US and Nato operations in Afghanistan, Stanley McChrystal, promised that civilian protection would now be the number one priority.

But even if death doesn’t come suddenly from the sky, it frequently overtakes members of this beleaguered population: the average life expectancy is 42.9 years, one of the world’s lowest. The judicial and political systems remain moribund, the country is staggering along like a drunken man. I wish it were otherwise, but the news from Afghanistan is still very, very bad.

Kate Allen is director of Amnesty International UK

This article first appeared in the 22 June 2009 issue of the New Statesman, Iran

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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.