Podgy, breathless and ready for a heart attack

Roger Black's show about children's fitness is shaming

Listeners to Radio 4 live in fear of celebrity presenters and reality-show-style gimmicks. Thus, many of them will have trembled on hearing of Roger Black's Olympic Challenge (11am, 26-28 February), in which the Atlanta 400m silver medallist joined staff at a London comprehensive in an effort to get the students fitter and more active, using 2012 as an incentive.

However, appearances can be deceptive. Thanks to my responsibilities to this column, I stuck with the series and I'm glad I did. Well, sort of. I can't say it was exactly a pleasure. I'm still seething; and when I'm not seething, I'm ashamed; and when I'm not ashamed, I'm depressed. In the days since it finished, I have twice considered sending a CD of it to Richard Caborn, Tessa Jowell and Alan Johnson, all of whom are up to their necks in the disgrace it exposed. But what would be the point? In 1997, Labour came to power pledging that no more school playing fields would be sold off. Since then, another 2,500 have been lost. Promises, promises.

By the end of the term that Black spent at Hurlingham and Chelsea School, his year eight group was more motivated, better able to run around and, thanks to the extra exercise, more attentive in other classes. But it was impossible to take heart from this, because most schools do not have a Roger Black or a BBC production crew on their case, and even this school would reap the benefits for just one term.

Black is a breezy, optimistic kind of a bloke, but he was clearly stunned by what he found at Hurlingham and Chelsea, a fairly typical inner-city school: no grass at all; peeling paint in a sports hall only 20m long with ceilings too low for games such as badminton; and a core curriculum to which PE had only recently been reinstated. He duly tested the students' fitness: some could not (or would not) sprint from one end of the gym to the other. The school has 650 students, yet when he held a meeting at which he hoped to enthuse about his plans, only three turned up.

Oh, it was soul-destroying. I couldn't bear the way Black had no choice but to lower his expectations, moving from being appalled at the children's lack of competitive instinct to being grateful that they even brought their kit. And he was too often faced with the most pathetic kind of bureaucracy.

On finding a local park that would be perfect for races, he was told immediately of the health and safety implications - some child might twist its ankle in a drain! - and informed that a sports day the school had once planned to hold there had been cancelled due to litter and dog mess. Then there were the children. It wasn't just that they wanted to get out of sport that worried me - I used to hate running out on to a freezing hockey pitch myself. But these children had simply given in to a kind of institutional laziness. "I can't be bothered, yeah?" said one. I reserve the greater part of my ire, however, for the government.

The Department for Education says that 100 per cent of schools accede to its recommendation that pupils do two hours of PE a week. This is a lie. At Hurlingham and Chelsea, the children do an hour and 40 minutes. It can't be an isolated example. As Black faced his podgy, breathless, heart-attack-ready 12-year-olds, I thought of Tessa Jowell and her obsession with size zero models. It seemed an even bigger and even dumber red herring than usual.

Pick of the week

Drama on 3 – The Fiery World: a play of William Blake by Peter Ackroyd
4 March, 8pm, Radio 3
Robert Glenister plays the poet, charged with sedition in 1805.

The Jeremy Vine Show
5 March, 12 noon, Radio 2
Vine invites listeners to "Vote a Vehicle Off the Roads". If only.

Don't miss . . .

Lily Allen on tour

Lily Allen was the breakthrough act of 2006 - but how will 2007 treat her? The prospects are looking good, with a Glastonbury appearance rumoured for the summer. She's also spending lots of time in the States, where she is presumably looking to give the remarkably successful British rapper Lady Sovereign a run for her money. On Allen's UK tour this month (besides "Smile", "LDN" and other tunes from Alright, Still, her ska-influenced debut album), concert-goers will have the chance to hear unreleased tracks such as the 50 Cent parody "Nan, You're a Window Shopper".

Touring Cambridge, Glasgow, Manchester and London between 6 and 12 March. More details from:

Rachel Cooke trained as a reporter on The Sunday Times. She is now a writer at The Observer. In the 2006 British Press Awards, she was named Interviewer of the Year.

This article first appeared in the 05 March 2007 issue of the New Statesman, The great generational robbery

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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.