If you’re suffering from a post-Carnival hangover, spare a thought for local residents. Photo: Getty
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Carnival clearing, not backing Boris, and Korean comparisons: politics in Kensington

Andrew Lomas is new to the borough of Kensington and Chelsea as a Labour councillor. Here he tells us some truths about the area and its history, as he cleans up after Notting Hill Carnival.

I came, I saw, I carnivalled

August Bank Holiday can only mean one thing in this neck of the woods: C-A-R-N-I-V-A-L! That my ward is home to one of the biggest and best parties in the world (as well as a double Michelin-starred restaurant, the Portobello Road market, some incredible independent bookshops, and, err, endless gaggles of tourists photographing every blue door they see, just in case it's the one from the film) probably makes me the luckiest councillor in Britain. But if you’re suffering from a post-Carnival hangover, spare a thought for local residents: every year, upwards of 1m people descend on Notting Hill in less than 48 hours to variously urinate, defecate and copulate in streets, stairwells and garden squares. Few things in life are as tedious as clearing up after a party when everyone else has gone home...

Boris mania, part 85

Earlier in August, the news that Boris Johnson – zip-wire enthusiast and occasional Mayor of London – will stand for parliament in 2015 excited literally tens of people in the Westminster village. However, initial reports suggesting that the blond bombshell could seek to become the MP for Kensington and Chelsea seemed to neglect several key impediments, not least the fact that the constituency ceased to exist in 2010.

Kensington and Chelsea had a short life, only coming into existence in 1997, but one thing is certain: wherever Boris ends up standing, he would be hard-pressed to do worse than the first Tory candidate for seat. Sir Nicholas Scott – the MP for soon-to-be-abolished Chelsea – was selected despite having recently crashed his car into a pram carrying a three-year-old boy (he heroically left his secretary at the scene but was later arrested, breathalysed and convicted of three drink-driving offences). Not so long after, Scott was found face down in a Bournemouth gutter by police following “two glasses of white wine” at the Conservative party conference. Scott’s resignation opened the door for priapic Tory diarist and cuddly Hitler-fan Alan Clark to return to the Commons. Doubles all round!

I predict a Riot

Boris of course is no stranger to excessive drinking having consorted with like-minded imbibers in the Bullingdon Club at Oxford. Next month will see the big screen premier of the Riot Club, the film adaptation of a play about a group of entitled posh twits who plot to rule Britain while smashing up restaurants (of course nothing that outlandish could happen in real life, surely?). Glass houses and stone-throwing considered, it would be slightly de trop of me to criticise people who spent the better part of their student years pratting about in velvet-collared tailcoats. However, the depressing fact remains that drawing the line between high-jinks and vandalism seems to be largely a question of class.

That said, destroying a restaurant seems surprisingly lacking in ambition when compared to the fate of Kensington’s Italianate old town hall. In the early Eighties, a preservation order was slapped on the building in order to derail attempts by the then council leader Nicholas Freeman to demolish it. However, Freeman was not someone to be constrained by mere technicalities: the wrecking balls were instead called in the night before the preservation order came into effect with the Royal Fine Art Commission describing what happened as "official vandalism... decided upon covertly, implemented without warning and timed deliberately to thwart known opposition". Of course, if you or I decided to take a sledge-hammer to a protected building the police might have something to say about it. Freeman on the other hand got an OBE and a suite of rooms named after him in the new town hall. Nice work if you can get it.

Democracy in action

On the topic of the new town hall, it’s fair to say it has its own distinctive aesthetic: one person I showed around remarked that, “it’s what I imagine the North Korean parliament looks like”. Of course, comparing the Royal Borough to North Korea is entirely unfair: one is a dysfunctional one-party state that tolerates no dissent whilst the other shares a land border with China.

Nowhere was the ruling Conservative group’s contempt for democracy more on show than in a recent emergency debate about transport services for disabled children. In an ingenious money-saving wheeze, someone worked out that it would cost the Royal Borough a lot less money if, rather than treating vulnerable children with care and dignity, we essentially shipped them around like boxes of freight. Instead of minibus drivers with local knowledge and familiar faces to get the kids from A to B quickly (and safely), journey times started to creep over an hour each way as drivers got lost and dropped off disabled children at the wrong addresses. Unfortunately – and entirely predictably – absent the necessary care, one child nearly died. The public gallery was packed with concerned parents eager to see their elected representatives grip some fairly obvious failings, so when conservative councillor after conservative councillor got up to pronounce that the parents were being rather silly and that everything was in fact fine, the parents started heckling. 

At this point, the Tory whip – Cllr Tim Ahern – obviously meant to say, “we understand your concerns and will do everything possible to safeguard your children”. However, for reasons only known to him, he instead bellowed “SHUT UP, YOU’RE NOT ELECTED” at the gathered unwashed masses. Observing this spectacle, a warm fuzzy feeling welled up inside me, probably reflecting a deep pride at seeing democracy in action. Either that or his naked contempt for the public had made be a little bit sick in my mouth. It’s hard to tell which.

Andrew Lomas is a Labour councillor for Kensington and Chelsea (Colville Ward). He tweets @andrewlomas. Read the first instalment of his Notting Hill Notebook here.

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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.