The Syria peace talks are doomed before they have even begun

The real reason for the Geneva II talks taking place is so that the international community can pat itself on the back for "doing something".

The discussions focused on finding a peaceful solution to the ongoing civil war in Syria, called the Geneva II talks and due to start in Montreux today (why not in Geneva?), have hit another snag. On Saturday the Syrian National Coalition voted to attend the talks. This was a major breakthrough as the meeting would have been mere farce without their presence. Then on Monday they announced that they were threatening to pull out due to the latest development: the UN had invited Iran to officially attend. Then the US stepped in and said that Iran couldn’t come. So Iran aren’t coming. But the SNC are. These talks are off to a flying start already.

The UN and most of the western powers seem to be acting willfully blind when it comes to Syria. "There is a binary choice here," Hugh Robertson, the Parliamentary Under Secretary for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs said to Al Jazeera. "You either put pressure on them and try to have a peace agreement in Geneva. Or you do not bother and the fighting continues. If Geneva fails, we stop, we understand why, we regroup and we try again." This statement from the Right Honourable Member for Faversham and Mid Kent is fairly typical of what is being pumped out by western governments ahead of Geneva II. The question is this: what do they really expect to get out of these talks? This is not a moot question; even if you take the "it is for the participants to decide" angle, surely you have to have in mind something that would be considered a win?

I would love to see the talks result in any sort of peace, even a temporary ceasefire if nothing else. But the prospects for even this are wholly unrealistic. For a start, the SNC have declared that they would not consider the result of the discussions in any way binding. This is a reasonable position for them to take; the whole reason they were considering not attending the talks was that they felt they were being arranged as a set piece to demonstrate how the Assad regime was "fighting terrorism", a supposition that is at least partly true.

Due to the length of time the civil war had raged on, bringing with it an inevitable flood of jihadists into Syria, the Assad regime’s pronouncements on the subject have finally come to have a ring of truth about them. Assad has also already declared that any solution that would demand the stepping down of himself as President would be dismissed out of hand. William Hague, in a statement welcoming the Geneva discussions said, "As I have said many times, any mutually agreed settlement means that Assad can play no role in Syria's future." This is a lovely thing for the Foreign Secretary to say, but now that the west has on numerous occasions failed to back up its words with actions what would make the Assad regime accept a solution that everyone except President Assad liked? I don’t see it. All this, sadly, makes the talks doomed before they have even begun.

It seems to me like the real reason for the Geneva talks taking place is so that the international community can pat itself on the back for "doing something" about Syria. Unfortunately, Syria needs a lot more than token gestures at the moment. 

Non-profit activist website AVAAZ members take part in a street performance during a protest action calling for an immediate ceasefire in Syria. Photograph: Getty Images.

Nick Tyrone is associate director, external affairs, at Centre Forum.

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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.