Now what? - Lauren Booth

I counselled a man to lose weight, and now he's turned into a lecher

January is the month of waist-pinching, ring-twisting (were they this tight before?) guilt. I am avoiding the bathroom because the scales are in there. Soon I will have to step on them and face the fact that I now weigh more than I did in my eighth month of pregnancy. The fridge smells like Scrooge's socks. Opening it first thing in the morning is like burying my face in an athlete's washbasket (I know what that's like, because I once tripped and fell face first into my husband's rugby bag). Cleaning the fridge is out of the question. I can't face the reeking bits of cheese, pulling out strips of animal flesh, once known as "nibbles", or facing the rows of cream, double cream, creme fraIche and yoghurt.

January, fat and broke, is a bleak country. Even innocent pleasures such as looking at pictures of family are risky. I downloaded Christmas photos on to the computer. Grandad and younger, size-eight sister peered over my shoulder.

"Ahh, there's Alex in her Snow White dress, look!"

"Ahh, there's Holly eating Christmas pudding with her hands!"

"Oh, dear God. Delete! That's not funny. Stop laughing." It was too late: there was a slide show of shots where I look like Nicholas Soames after an all-you-can-eat buffet. I have at least two chins, and droopy areas where my cheekbones used to be.

Then a friend, a Hungarian chef, rang me out of the blue. He used to cook cream-laden, pork-fatty dishes in his small restaurant on the outskirts of London. The last time I saw him, he was feeling lonely. Over vodka shots, he told me how cruel women could be.

"I have no love in my life," he said sadly.

"But that's ridiculous," I said. And it was. He would talk with warmth and wit about his country, history, food, great literature. When he laughed, rooms lit up. In the six years I'd known him, I had watched him treat all women with genuine respect and admiration. His eyes twinkle, he is a terrific flirt. Yet last summer was his "half a decade without a single date".

The last time we met, talk turned (as usual) to his loneliness, his desire for a family. "Why can't a woman love me, Lauren? Tell me the truth." His eyes were shiny. Not knowing what to say, I told him the truth by mistake. "You'd have women falling over themselves to get to you if you could lose five or six stone."

He finished his vodka in one gulp, grabbed a handful of loose waist and shook it angrily at me. "This disgusts you?" He was more maudlin than angry. "I even undress in the dark," he said.

Soon after that night, he vanished. His restaurant was put up for sale. No one knew where he was. Then, this week, he called. When we met up, I was gobsmacked. He was tanned, happier than I'd ever known him and three stone lighter. He was sitting in a corner of a restaurant, in between two stunning, very young women. One girl nodded at everything he said. The other girl giggled. Both were having their thighs pawed. They were lap dancers. His eyes flicked this way and that - the eyes of a hunter, watching bottoms, breasts, thighs walk past his table.

"Well, Lauren, what do you think, huh huh? I lost most of the weight and all thanks to you. You said I would never be attractive if I was fat. So I got thinner and now look." He poked one of the girls in the ribs; she giggled. He ran a hand down the other's arm; she nodded mutely.

"Now you probably want me, too. But now you must get in line, huh huh? Now I make up for lost time and I am fitter, too, so can do more than before!" All I could say was that I was happy for him. And wonder if he had always been a lech hidden in a kind, brilliant man's flab? Or perhaps my own concerns about weight have turned a good man into a vain, sex-mad misogynist.

This article first appeared in the 05 January 2004 issue of the New Statesman, Find this man a job!

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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.