Fresh in from far out - Shetland

<em>New Statesman Scotland</em> - Highland healed and honed

The reformation of The Daintees may not mean much in the great scheme of power-suited politicking, but for many who in the 1980s delighted in the Tyneside band's ramshackle, joyous lyricism and deceptively shambling musicality, it is more important than Broon's Great Purge of Whelk-Gatherers or the state of President Blair's increasingly dodgy Scargellite hairdo. For The Daintees were not just admired; they were loved.

Martin Stephenson and the Daintees, to be precise, proponents of a musical ecleticism that ran from berserk brass band honking via creamy jazz-soul to jagged Celtic blues. All topped with the toothy charm and goofy charisma of Stephenson himself, whose astonishing lyrics ranged from the occupational hazards of working in a slaughterhouse through the late Roy Buchanan's alcoholism to playground bullying and lurv in all its strangeness.

The Daintees, always much more than Martin plus backing band, were perennial contenders for the big time, punted by Newcastle's Kitchenware Records and hailed by all kinds of influential industry figures (including, horrifically, Simon Bates, for the indecently commercial album Salutation Road), until they imploded in the early 1990s. Stephenson disappeared into the Highlands, there to pursue a low-key life of local pub gigs and occasional solo forays into England and Europe. Some of these performances were wilful to the point of solipsism, as the gangling singer-songwriter battled a variety of demons and pushed the envelope of his own personality with little regard for the notion of entertainment.

But those lucky enough to see him in full, sober, communicative flight were blown away by the astonishing range of his abilities: brilliant guitar playing, taking in a range of styles studied in enormous depth; undimmed songwriting insights, a willingness to go way beyond any edge imaginable in performance, matched with a daft sense of humour, and that utterly distinctive voice.

But what the hell was he doing here? He was the superstar-manque who shared a flat with some mates in Nairn, the off-the-wall spiritual experimenter who could never disguise a keen urban intelligence and razor-sharp wit.But surely he was wasting himself in the vastness of the northlands?

I'd toured with him in the immediate aftermath of the Daintees' demise, then lived next door in Nairn. We spent many an evening being propped up by the Star's bar before Shetland eventually drew me back. And then, suddenly, about three years ago, things changed. A new, focused Stephenson emerged, releasing a range of experimental albums, some of them containing work equal to his early best.

The gigs grew less worryingly perverse and, while remaining in the Highlands, touring became more wide-ranging and successful. A solid, reliable infrastructure began to build around him. And now Martin Stephenson is part of the Highlands and Islands' cultural economy, operating worldwide via the Internet from his northern base.

Now news comes of the release of an album that will completely avoid the recording industry which, Stephenson says, has provided him with not a penny of income over the years. From the Highlands to the world, the new CD will be marketed over the net, and so interactive is the process that the first 100 ordered will contain an extra track naming those hundred buyers and paying tribute to them.

Once, Jimmy Page of Led Zeppelin retreated to Aleister Crowley's Boleskine House on the shores of Loch Ness to recuperate from the excesses of the rock'n'roll life. He brought nothing to the Highlands but tales of orgiastic parties and black magic. Ian Anderson of Jethro Tull, in utter contrast, bought a retreat on Skye which he turned into a multimillion-pound salmon farming and processing industry, and an important bulwark of the local economy. But Martin Stephenson, until now a self-inflicted small-time troubadour, shows how new technology can turn remoteness into an advantage. From the Lossiemouth Folk Club to the Hilltop Bar on the Shetland Island of Yell, he has paid his remote and rural dues. Now the new, Highland-healed and honed version is ready to take on the world. Miss those Daintees gigs at your peril.

This article first appeared in the 20 March 2000 issue of the New Statesman, Iraq: yet again, they are lying to us

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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.