Nick Clegg continues to oppose the Snooper's Charter. Photo: Getty
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Nick Clegg clashes with David Cameron over privacy laws post-Charlie Hebdo terrorist attack

The Deputy Prime Minister warns against the so-called Snooper's Charter returning to the political agenda.

Nick Clegg is clashing with the Prime Minister over reviewing privacy laws in Britain, in light of the terrorist attack on the French magazine Charlie Hebdo last week.

Both David Cameron and Andrew Parker, the head of MI5, have called for Britain's intelligence services to be given new powers to read the contents of citizens' communications, in order to avoid similar "mass casualty attacks" here.

This signals the return of the so-called Snooper's Charter to the political agenda. The Communications Data Bill, which would give the government new powers to see the contents of any of our messages, phonecalls and other communications without a warrant, will go in the Conservative manifesto for the election this year. Parker referred specifically to the supposed danger of our privacy being "so absolute and sacrosanct", and supports more powers against privacy for the security service.

However, Nick Clegg is reaffirming the Lib Dems' opposition to this legislation this week. One of his party's often-trumpeted triumphs in office is having blocked the Tories' Bill, and it appears Clegg is as determined as ever to oppose what he sees as a threat to our civil liberties.

He told the BBC's Today programme this morning that while he supports plans to, "strengthen our defences to make ourselves physically safe", he sees a law closing in on our privacy as a "slippery slope . . . if we start to censor or self-censor ourselves as a society."

His argument is that the Bill is an "unworkable proposition", because much of our communication, and industries that we rely on, are based outside of the UK's jurisdiction anyway. He also questions the efficiency and necessity of monitoring everyone's messages: "Scooping up vast amounts of information on everyone, children, grandmas, who go on garden centre websites . . . Every single individual in this country, people who would never dream of doing us harm."

Clegg also put himself on the side of civil liberties by defending our right to be, "free to offend each other in an open society", when asked about the illustrations of Charlie Hebdo cartoonists. "We have laws which do inhibit people from inciting violence and hatred, but we protect the right for people to say things which other people might not like."

In a speech later today, the Deputy Prime Minister is expected to say:

The irony appears to be lost on some politicians who say in one breath that they will defend freedom of expression and then, in the next, advocate a huge encroachment on the freedom of all British citizens.

Let me be really clear, we have every right to invade the privacy of terrorists and those we think want to do us harm – but we should not equate that with invading the privacy of every single person in the UK. They are not the same thing.

The Snoopers' Charter is not targeted. It's not proportionate. It's not harmless. It would be a new and dramatic shift in the relationship between the state and the individual.

The Snooper's Charter became a symbol of the "red lines" that the Lib Dems have been able to draw in office, and therefore their ability to temper the Tories' worst excesses by being in coalition. This is how the Lib Dems are attempting to appeal to the electorate ahead of May – a heart for the Tories, and a spine for Labour. Perhaps this fresh privacy debate will do Clegg a favour in reminding the public of his ability to counter the ruling party.

Anoosh Chakelian is deputy web editor at the New Statesman.

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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.