Our right to communicate without surveillance could be swept out the back door. Photo: Flickr/Yuri Samoilov
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Has terrorism already claimed its next victim in Britain: our right to privacy?

An uncivil liberty.

Following last week’s tragic events in France, the world has spoken out in solidarity against religious extremism, and in support of the freedom of expression. But alongside this, another narrative has emerged. In the name of safety, British officials have begun arguing in favour of stronger powers for the security services to intercept personal data.

Back in 2012, the Conservative government initiated the Communications Data Bill, legislation that quickly became known as the Snooper’s Charter. The proposed bill would allow security services the same surveillance access to people’s email, internet and social media use as it currently enjoys over traditional communication methods such as letters and landline calls.

David Cameron has said that he will reintroduce the Snooper’s Charter if May’s general election is won by the Conservatives, while both Nick Clegg and Ed Miliband have stressed the need for caution in legislating on areas with the potential to infringe upon civil liberties. The Liberal Democrats have already blocked attempts to pass the Snooper’s Charter under the coalition government.

Andrew Parker, director general of MI5, said soon after the Paris attacks that a similar event on British soil is “highly likely”. He also suggested that his agency’s inability to monitor digital communications is problematic in terms of preventing such an attack: “Whenever we lose visibility of what they are saying to each other, so our ability to understand and mitigate the threat they pose is reduced.”

But the Snooper’s Charter is unlikely to be the right move to support security services in their mission to defend the public against terrorism. The Intelligence and Security Committee report into the murder of Lee Rigby found that the soldier’s killers were known to the security services but deemed low risk. Ongoing surveillance was stopped due to a lack of funding for action on suspects classified at this level. In the case of Paris, too, the attackers were known to French intelligence, but limited resources were diverted away from continued monitoring.

Rather than an increase in surveillance powers, a more reasonable request would be for an increase in resources for the monitoring of low-risk suspects, including the recruitment of a new group of skilled intelligence analysts to do so. A more effective approach, as opposed to a wider-reaching net, would surely be more beneficial all round.

GCHQ already holds unprecedented abilities to intercept the online communications of citizens through its Tempora programme, as revealed in last year’s leaks by NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden. The difficulty for security services at the moment is that their technological capacities far outweigh the scope of the legislation that currently exists. To some extent, the introduction of the Snooper’s Charter would be retrospective, looking to legally justify the abilities that GCHQ already have and implement.

The Lord Ashcroft poll released yesterday gives the Tories a six-point lead over Labour. If this is to be seen as a public reaction to Cameron’s position on how best to defend Britain against terrorism, we find ourselves in worrying times. As people take to the streets to celebrate and defend free speech in light of the Paris attacks, our right to communicate without surveillance could be swept out the back door.

Does Britain now stand as a nation prepared to hand over its civil liberties in the name of "safety"? If so, terrorism has already claimed its next victim: our right to privacy.

Lauren Razavi is a freelance columnist and features writer. Follow her on Twitter @LaurenRazavi.

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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.