Grown-up stuff

Television - Andrew Billen finds himself clocking in to <em>Clocking Off</em>

Embarrassingly, I seem to remember being unimpressed by Paul Abbott's textile-factory drama Clocking Off when it started last year. The opening episode about an amnesiac lorry driver running two families seemed unlikely in a cliched sort of way, despite John Simm's impressive central performance, and appeared to fight the studied realism of the setting. Given that the series went on to win audiences of nine million and a brace of Royal Television Society awards, I was obviously wrong.

Having seen the first two episodes of the second season (Mondays, 9pm, BBC1), I still think it is over-praised. Scenes are cut short before they can fully develop. There is repetition - lots of driving sequences accompanied by jokey, country and western-style music. Ashley Pearce's direction largely has an unearned jauntiness to it, as if so desperate not to take us toward a Ken Loach movie that we end up in Sunny Delight Land. But looking for what's right with it, rather than what's wrong with it, I am beginning to see the point of Clocking Off, and maybe even the light.

Abbott's main achievement is to have wangled the overdue return of the single play to television. Clocking Off is notionally a serial; however, each 50-minute episode is discrete unto itself and, although characters recur, their presence is to provide context not subplot, until the day when they themselves are propelled into the spotlight and a story is woven around them. That both Simm and the highly rewarded Sarah Lancashire, who played the machinist Yvonne, have left therefore presents no great problem. Viewers were not following their stories; we enjoyed their story, singular, and assumed they had only one. The clutter, noise and scale of the Mackintosh Textiles factory is a peculiarly sympathetic setting for this picking-up and dropping of characters. The lives of our colleagues are, Abbott's structure suggests, a mystery to most of us.

The first episode of the new series dealt with the hidden life of a worker who has moved in across the road from a colleague. Using his binoculars, Kev becomes convinced that Brian views child pornography on the internet. His suspicions are eventually proved to have foundation - but not before we have become aware of the two men's similarities. In fact, Brian is both less violent and more socially adept than Kev, whose own sexual morality is far from spotless. It was ambitious storytelling that demanded careful attention. Indeed, in the early parts, this viewer could have done with Kev (Jack Deam) and Brian (Paul Oldham) looking a bit less alike (although that blurring may have been a deliberate comment, too).

I actually preferred the second concoction, by one of Abbott's sous-chefs, Jan McVerry. The dog that had her day this time was Bev, a blousy 38-year-old divorcee who gets her claws into Mal, a widowed machine-repairer (Paul Copley) bringing up two teenage sons rather well, and in comparative affluence. The script played with our prejudices. It was narrow-minded to judge Bev on her taste in interior decor. Those naff miniature teapots, for example, were actually gifts from her grown-up son who sent them from wherever the army stationed him ("Cyprus, Belize, Blackpool . . ." - Blackpool?). Mal deserved a little happiness in his life. And was it not the first rule of romance that lovers should pay no attention to what others think?

The flaw in all this was that Bev really was awful: a lewd, materialist liar (her son was in Strangeways not Kosovo) who faked a pregnancy and then a miscarriage to get her man. It was transgressive fun to watch a programme dare suggest that there was a relationship between moral slackness and the kind of sensibility my mother would have called "common". But we condemned Bev not because of the china cats she brought to the mantelpiece, the fact that she replaced Mal's Ikea lights with tasselled standard lamps or the way she screamed during sex and screamed with laughter about it afterwards to mates ("I woke up walking like John Wayne, so it must have ended up all right"). Or not just because of all that. Her coarseness also meant that she did not mind hurting Mal's sons by betraying a confidence about Mal's sex life with their dead mother. Lindsey Coulson - previously Bianca's mother in EastEnders - played a blinder as Bev. Her drunken scene in which she invited Mal's Rotary Club friends back to the house, and they came, saw and sneered, was a superb account of someone having no clue how she was going down (the next day, she told her canteen circle it could easily have "gone the other way").

So, as in the previous episode, the baddy got away with it. Kev, not Brian, moved out; Mal and Bev are to marry. Clocking Off is grown-up stuff. In the next episode, we learn all about the machinist Freda. She has had one of the best lines, when a friend gave her a size-16 top and she said thanks but she was actually a 12: "A lot of people make that mistake. I've got a narrow back." My guess is that, when she is left to look after her daughter's children in the next episode, she'll prove to have a rather broad one. I'm looking forward to it.

Andrew Billen is a staff writer on the London Evening Standard

Andrew Billen has worked as a celebrity interviewer for, successively, The Observer, the Evening Standard and, currently The Times. For his columns, he was awarded reviewer of the year in 2006 Press Gazette Magazine Awards.

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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.