Bill payers are being fracked over by misleading claims from Cameron

Even if shale gas does bring down bills, we may need to wait 15 years for it to do so. The government's narrow focus is selling the public short.

Fracking made the headlines yesterday as Caroline Lucas was among protestors apparently outnumbered by police in Balcombe. As Lucas was being dragged off to sit in the back of a police van and reflect on her part in the "mass civil disobedience", protestors elsewhere were superglueing themselves to the London offices of PR agency Bell Pottinger, representatives of energy company Cuadrilla.

The protestors have focused largely on the environmental consequences of fracking but many others will be interested in the potential for fracking to bring down their bills, as David Cameron has claimed it will. But this claim is misleading: even if shale does bring down bills, which is highly uncertain, we may need to wait 15 years for it to do so. With the right conditions in place, fracking has a place in the UK but it offers no protection to bill payers from the high and rising cost of energy.

It makes no sense to import gas we can produce at home, especially if the process creates thousands of jobs and billions of pounds in tax revenues. For this reason we should back fracking as a way to develop the UK’s vast shale gas reserves. According to a recent study, there are shale beds containing 40 trillion cubic metres of natural gas in the north of England.

Support for fracking should not, however, be accompanied by a weakening of the UK’s commitment to reduce its carbon emissions. Gas has a vital role to play for years ahead as a bridging fuel on our way to a near-zero carbon energy system and as a back-up to renewable forms of generation. As long as our legislated decarbonisation targets stay in place and are adhered to, fracking can have a part to play.

While fracking could bring benefits, it will not help households who are feeling the pinch from high energy bills, at least not any time soon. There are two main reasons for this. First, it is not clear how much it will cost to develop shale gas in the UK. The peculiarity of UK shale reserves is a key factor here. Also important is how communities respond to the prospect of fracking in their area: if developers face protests nationwide as they have in Balcombe then clearly costs could be high. Second, and crucially, the price of gas in the UK is set by the price of imports through international markets. One analysis suggests we may need to drill 10,000 wells to offset the need for imports, which, if achievable, could take 15 years.

So, what about householders, who have their seen their energy bills rise by £360 or 60% from 2004 to 2011 and face yet another round of bill increases before the year is out? The government’s preoccupation with all things shale is selling them short.

To be protected from bill increases, householders need to improve the energy efficiency of their properties. The main policy that should support households in doing so, the Green Deal, is not delivering: 130,000 households were expected to sign up to the scheme this year but so far only 306 have. The government should be doing everything it can to get this scheme moving, which means introducing more incentives to simulate demand, looking at ways to reduce the cost of loans that are available and supporting area-based schemes as much as possible.

Some households, the 'fuel poor', struggle with high energy bills more than most. Locating these households is hard and to do so the government should adopt an area-based strategy, centred on local authorities. Local health bodies could also play a key role in these schemes.

Debate on the role for shale gas will not die down any time soon but the government’s argument that it will help bill payers won’t ring true for many years to come.

Protesters form a blocade outside a drill site operated by Cuadrilla on August 19, 2013 in Balcombe, West Sussex. Photograph: Getty Images.

Reg Platt is a Research Fellow at IPPR. He tweets as @regplatt.

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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.