"No vases?" Sam shrieked. "You've got to get out of here. No TV. No privacy. This is a hospital, isn't it?"

Drugs and vases. For these two things, I have seriously considered abandoning a lifelong principle. I have actually considered private health insurance because, having been in hospital for the past week, you get neither enough drugs nor enough vases. Up until now I have never really understood the benefits of private medicine. What do you get apart from a swanky room? Maybe a dodgy surgeon who isn't used to performing the operation you are having? You get to pretend you are in a hotel instead of a hospital, and you get carpets. Maybe you even get clean bathrooms. But the NHS, even with the blood showing through the bandages, is not too bad, is it?

No, it is not too bad. I'm not here to tell you that it is. In many ways the care I have received has been exemplary. An emergency operation led to a full-scale ER scene, with me being wheeled through crashing doors and people being screamed at to clear the lifts while some poor bloke was given the job of trying to squash yellow jelly "blood products" into my arm. This was followed by the hi-tech violence of surgery and the low-tech business of recovery.

But it's the extras that get to you, isn't it? For me it was little things, such as waking up in a mixed ward while I was in a state that women are wont to be in after "women's troubles" - bleeding, weeping, unable to move.

The nurse was very kind. "What's the matter, luv?" he asked. "Them," I sobbed pointing out a few cardiac failures in the beds opposite. "Men."

"Oh, I know, love," he sympathised. "By the way, do you know Julie Burchill?" I did, I said, and she was lovely, for I was blissfully unaware that she was spending the week being branded by her ex-husband in the newspapers as the "world's worst mother". When the world's worst mother phoned to see if I was OK she offered to wheel me around Brighton in a bath chair - which I suppose is almost worth being ill for. By now, though, I wanted someone else, anyone at all, to feel my pain.

I know we all like nurses and think they are dreadfully underpaid, but I think that there may be something wrong with them. They have this incredibly puritanical attitude to pain relief. I don't know if it's their training. I don't know if they are told to save money by not giving out expensive drugs, but I saw the same attitude when my mother was dying of cancer and living on over-the-counter codeine tablets. Eventually we persuaded them to give her morphine and, although she had only two weeks to live, the medical people were still worried that she might be having too much of it.

For all the advances of the past 100 years, no one has come up with anything better than morphine. It doesn't relieve the pain, it just relieves the anxiety about pain, makes the pain something to think about, rather than just feel. I did finally manage to get some, you may be glad to know, after making a fuss. After you have been slit open and had bits removed - well, let me put it this way, two paracetamols just don't do it for you. They managed to call a civilised anaesthetist, who politely asked me what every girl needs to be asked now and again: "Would you consider opiates?"

So you get the drip in and it is under lock and key, so valuable it must be, but they're already concerned that you like it too much - they are keen to get you back on the old two-paracetamols regime.

Then Sam appeared with some flowers. "We don't have any vases," said Sister.

"No vases?" shrieked Sam. "No vases?" Then, "This is a hospital, isn't it?" he whispered to me. "You've got to get out of here. No vases. No TV. No privacy. What is going on?"

It was all so distressing. A nurse asked me if I wanted counselling. I said that I wanted it immediately, which seemed to shock them. They must be so used to patients refusing counselling that when you ask for it they get all flummoxed. A phone number was brought to me but, as I couldn't walk to a phone at the time, it only made me feel worse.

Lorraine dashed in: "'Oh my God! What have they done to you? You must go and see Nigel." Nigel, apparently, is a gay gynaecologist who sorts you out. But you don't get Nigel on the NHS, I'm afraid. I lay in bed and listened to doctors arguing about how their patients were going to be moved from one hospital to another: "No, I'm not going to dial 999. I'm a doctor. No, I'm not going to pay for a mini-cab out of my own money. No, I want an ambulance now."

I got moved to a ward full of other shuffling women, which was a relief; and, yes, I suppose I'm on the mend. I am not whingeing, because I don't want this to be another scare story about the NHS. For where else could you walk in off the street and receive the kind of care that our great health service routinely gives each and every one of us? Whoever we are. Whatever bloody mess we've got ourselves into. Yes, it is indeed a glorious thing, something that even the unpatriotic can feel patriotic about.

For all the scaremongering ads, the gap between private and public health care isn't perhaps as large as it seems. What induces people to buy private health insurance is exactly the kind of thing I've been talking about: privacy, TVs, painkillers, semi-edible food. These are not big things, but they are big when you don't have them. For, in some way, they are about dignity. I will stick with the NHS, for it has stuck by me. But instead of continuing to demand less and less from it and pushing patients into the hands of private insurers, we should be doing the opposite. Until we expect more of it, more of us will leave it. So, yes, I want vases to put my flowers in. Call me a dreamer, but I want vases for everyone.

Suzanne Moore is a writer for the Guardian and the New Statesman. She writes the weekly “Telling Tales” column in the NS.

This article first appeared in the 19 July 1999 issue of the New Statesman, The transport row: who is to blame?

Show Hide image

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.