Win vouchers to spend at any Tesco store

Competition No 3773

Set by John O'Byrne, 17 March

In the spirit of Ambrose Bierce's The Devil's Dictionary, you were asked for definitions of 11 expressions of our choice.

Report by Ms de Meaner

"Such fun!" was the message sent by quite a few of you. A mega postbag. Hon menshes to James Mortelman ("Axis of evil: Any countries that tell the US to 'swivel on it'"), John O'Byrne, Rosemary MacKenzie, Tom Donnelly and Michael Birt. The winners get £20. The overall winner is Jack Walsh, who also gets the Tesco vouchers.

Opposition: An ineffective cough linctus.

Axis of evil: A conglomeration of states, replete with oil and bereft of burgers.

Democracy: Entry deleted (see Focus group).

Public interest: Voyeur's varnish.

Socialism: Baggage discarded by climbers en route to the summit.

Privatisation: A bio-social programme for the generation of obese felines.

Open society: Badgering.

Culture: The penicillin of the masses.

Public service: An open-air mass (free at the point of delivery).

Terrorist: A satisfied arms customer.

Market economy: A social programme designed to ensure the triumph of capital over compassion.

Jack Walsh

Opposition: The bloody French.

Axis of evil: Any attempt by smaller countries to emulate America's arsenal of weapons of mass destruction.

Democracy: An elective dictatorship tempered by apathy.

Public interest: The state's rationale for secrets and lies.

Socialism: A bloodthirsty, savage doctrine of equality, mutual aid and peace.

Privatisation: The magical conversion of tax revenues into executive salaries, share options and dividends.

Open society: One with long drinking hours and the disposable income to support them.

Culture: The daydreams of the educated.

Public service: Unworldly altruism, as in "we're not running a public service here, you know".

Terrorist: Tomorrow's negotiator.

Market economy: One that fell off the back of a lorry.

G M Davis

Opposition: A person or party with views that are wrong.

Axis of evil: Countries that do not allow McDonald's, Starbucks or American military bases.

Democracy: A system whereby the public elects leaders, and the leaders do as they like.

Public interest: A term used to exclude the public from geographical sites or information where it is in the government's interest to keep them out.

Socialism: A system whereby high-earning leaders make hard-working moderate earners give money to the poor.

Privatisation: The sale of publicly owned services to foreigners.

Open society: A society where money can buy anything.

Culture: Traditions used to excuse all kinds of strange behaviour.

Public service: An intention to provide a service to the public, somewhere, some time.

Terrorist: Anyone in possession of castor oil beans.

Market economy: A system whereby the Chancellor's Budget rests on the quantity of baked beans sold.

Katie Mallett

Opposition: Feeling so strongly about an issue that you are even prepared to miss double maths and history in order to go down the park with your mates.

Axis of evil: A few countries that the Americans have heard of.

Democracy: The absolute right of every individual to have his or her views ignored by the government.

Public interest: (1) Issues that the public has a need and a right to know about, such as Ulrika Jonsson's sex life. (2) Anything that sells newspapers. (3) Military secrets broadcast to the world 24 hours a day.

Socialism: Egalitarian world-view held by those who believe it might get them elected.

Privatisation: Transferring inefficient public services into the hands of inefficient private companies in order to identify someone else to blame.

Open society: One in which the government is totally transparent about what it wants you to know.

Culture: A shared heritage or set of values, the rich diversity of which we should celebrate and encourage in all its wonderful variety so that we don't make the mistake of actually believing in anything specific.

Public service: Any service for which you pay taxes in order to wait four hours for a 34-page application form to complete, to see if you are eligible to receive it.

Terrorist: (1) President-elect. (2) A word of Turkish derivation meaning someone who likes to hear the sound of their own language and live in their own country.

Market economy: Saving money by buying rotten fruit or produce.

David Silverman

No 3776 Set by Carl Maxim

We want criticism of famous works of art by obviously ignorant people who understand nothing of their subject.

Max 200 words by 18 April (to appear in issue dated 28 April). E-mail:

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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.