Enlightenment through play

Last month I joined a delegation of MPs and peers to Israel and the occupied Palestinian territories of the West Bank. The purpose of our visit was to see at first hand the situation of Palestinians and Israelis, and to meet leaders from both sides. But, as a Muslim who has been to Mecca and Medina, I found the chance to visit the third holiest site in Islam made this more than a fact-finding mission.

Entering the old heart of Jerusalem for the first time, through the Damascus Gate, one could almost forget the conflict that surrounds the City of David. The stalls selling figs and pomegranates could have been from any century over the past few millennia. The hustle and bustle and smell of freshly grilled shawarma could have been in any Middle Eastern bazaar or souk and the overenthusiastic salesmen from any city in the world.

But by the time I reached the Temple Mount, it became clear why this has been one of the world's most contested religious sites. It is only when you are there that you realise the proximity of the sites of deep sanctity to the Abrahamic faiths. Al-Aqsa Mosque and the Dome of the Rock sit atop the Western Wall; the Church of the Holy Sepulchre is a stone's throw away.

Walking into al-Aqsa, I was confronted by two men from the Israeli security forces carrying guns, who asked me whether I was a Muslim. Simply saying "yes" was inadequate: I was asked to recite a verse from the Quran.

I duly obliged and passed the test, but this tarnished my experience. Mosques have never been places for "Muslims only". They should act not only as places of worship but also community hubs that members of all faiths and none can visit. Add to this the fact that representatives of a perceived occupying force (and of a different religion) are acting as a filter, and it is easy to understand why tempers can flare up.

I met young Palestinians and explained that mosques in Britain are open to all. But when every other aspect of their lives is segregated from their Israeli neighbours, perhaps it's not surprising that so is religious observance.

In my constituency of Tooting, south London, the local mosques perform a vital role in integrating our community. My daughters can bring their non-Muslim friends; schoolchildren visit to learn about Islam. By contrast, Israeli and Palestinian children don't play together or learn about each other's faith or culture. The only interaction they have, from a young age, is adversarial.

Separation anxiety

It was heartbreaking to meet a Palestinian boy, about my daughter's age, who lived in an area surrounded by the separation wall that cuts through Palestinian towns and cities, overlooked by Israeli settler houses. He told me about the regular incidents of abuse - verbal and physical - that his family suffered and he had nothing but hatred for those he called "the Zionists". I was shocked to hear someone so young use such a politically loaded word.

Whereas most of us have many layers of identity, people of all generations I met in Palestine are shaped by the conflict and defined solely by their faith and culture. I am British, a Londoner, of Muslim faith, a Liverpool FC supporter and Labour. All these things mean I integrate with various people in various contexts - from the football stands to the Commons chamber. If our religious and cultural heritage alone defined where and with whom we mixed, Britain would be a much darker place. Yet we expect two peoples who never mix to live side by side in peace. I fear that, until there is a movement towards integration, we will remain a long way from securing a peaceful, prosperous future for Israel and Palestine.

Sadiq Khan is the MP for Tooting, shadow lord chancellor and shadow secretary of state for justice

Sadiq Khan is MP for Tooting, shadow justice secretary and shadow minister for London.

This article first appeared in the 09 January 2012 issue of the New Statesman, Forget Obama

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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.