Under Boris and the Tories, London is becoming a divided city

Falling real wages and inflation-busting price rises mean that having a job is no longer a secure route to escaping poverty in the capital.

A new report released today shows that the government and Mayor are turning London into a divided and segregated city. The London Poverty Profile shows that a third of Londoners now live in poverty and, even more staggeringly, an increasing majority of those in poverty are actually in work. Having a job no longer guarantees that you can afford to live in the capital. As London’s business and cultural spheres successfully compete around the world, ordinary Londoners have been left behind. Ever fewer are able to enjoy the benefits that living in a global city provides – having to walk past galleries, theatres, stadiums and restaurants that are completely out of their reach. It is up to the government and Mayor of London to reverse this. No one should be left behind as London grows and prospers in the decades ahead. We simply cannot win the global race unless we compete as one united city, with everyone enjoying the benefits of London’s success.

The London Poverty Profile makes truly worrying reading. Of the one in three Londoners who now live in poverty, two out of three are in work. The number of people in 'in-work poverty' has risen by almost half a million since 2001. The numbers of those working part-time because they can’t find full-time work has doubled in just five years. Falling real wages and inflation-busting price rises under this government mean that having a job is no longer a secure route to escaping poverty in London. The report exposes the scam behind the government’s claim to be 'making work pay' – work pays less in London today than at any time for generations. It also shows that the government’s divisive attempt to pit those in work against those looking for work is completely baseless – quite simply, more people in poverty have a job than don’t.

Why is this happening? Wages have completely failed to keep pace with the cost-of living in London. The cost of rent rose by 9% last year alone and house prices by 8%. Energy bills are on average £300 a year higher than in 2010. The cost of single bus journey has increased by 56% under Boris Johnson and a zone 1-6 travel card in £440 a year more than when he became Mayor. Water bills rose by 3% above inflation since 2010 and are set to increase by another 8% by 2015. At the same time, real wages are falling. Wages rose by the smallest level since records began in the first quarter of this year and one in five Londoners are paid below the Living Wage. As essential bills take up an ever higher percentage of Londoner’s salaries, tens of thousands of hard working families have been pushed into poverty.

The government and Mayor have done nothing but make the situation worse. My friends and neighbours know that living standards have fallen for 38 consecutive months since David Cameron’s government got into power: they see it when their wages run out earlier each month, when they can no longer afford to keep their homes warm and when they are having to walk to work because they can’t afford the tube or bus. There has been no action to tackle the increasing cost of housing in London. In fact, the Mayor recently increased the cost of affordable housing to 80% of market rate which is simply out of reach for most Londoners. Poverty in outer London is growing fast as central London rents have become unaffordable, and the number of people in poverty living in the private rented sector has doubled since 2003. The Mayor has also increased the cost of commuter travel which is now the most expensive in the world. There has been no action to tackle rising gas and electricity bills and the government have clearly taken the side of the 'big six' providers over ordinary Londoners. And when Thames Water recently asked for permission to increase their bills by 8% over two years - the Mayor of London didn’t say a word about it.

Londoners need action now. On housing, the government need to match Labour’s commitment to build 200,000 new homes a year by the end of the next Parliament, with the majority in and around London. Action must be taken to tackle rip-off letting agent fees, and to look at what can be done to bring rents under control. On travel, the Mayor must commit to freezing fares at least at the rate of inflation for 2014. He can afford to do so; all that is missing is the political will. On the Living Wage, it is time the Tories began matching words with action. Ten Labour councils are now Living Wage employers, while not a single Conservative council is accredited. Living Wage Councils are working to persuade local employers to pay the living wage– crucial to raising wages. The government needs to look properly at Rachel Reeves’s suggestion of Living Wage Zones and whether we can offer incentives for businesses in London to pay the Living Wage. And on water bills, the Mayor needs to do his job and stand up for ordinary Londoners by saying publicly and unequivocally that it is simply not acceptable for Thames Water to raise their bills above inflation yet again in the middle of a cost-of-living crisis.

It is not just those left impoverished by this government and Mayor that are paying the price. The creation of a divided city is damaging London’s ability to compete with other global cities. Last year, for the first time ever, the CBI cited the cost of housing as the biggest barrier to growth in London. Four out of five London employers say the lack of affordable housing is stalling growth in the capital and Vodafone recently reported it was struggling to attract middle-managers to their London office because of the high cost of living. The Mayor is off on his travels again this week - he is in China on a business delegation. However, his attempts to attract foreign investment, business and jobs to London cannot be successful unless he fixes the cost-of-living crisis closer to home that he and his government are presiding over.

This report should act as a wake-up call to Boris Johnson and David Cameron. Their cost-of-living crisis is having a catastrophic effect on our city. It is causing untold misery to millions of Londoners and damaging our ability to compete on the global stage. They must now act to ensure no more Londoners get left behind.

Sadiq Khan is Shadow London Minister and MP for Tooting

Boris Johnson speaks to members of the press during a media conference in London on July 25, 2013. Photograph: Getty Images.
Sadiq Khan is MP for Tooting, shadow justice secretary and shadow minister for London.
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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.