Extraordinary tales of English folk

Late Junction has the power to move (and snooze) in its trip through Albion

The vital noises of the week came courtesy of BBC Radio 3's idiosyncratic world-music broadcast Late Junction. In a St George's Day special on English folk (23 April, 11.15pm-1am), Verity Sharp presented the show with her trademark genius weariness.

As usual, she gave the uniquely complicated impression of a nice, civilised woman calmly husbanding the energy to play you her beloved recording of a Finnish guy smashing up a car.

There was enough of a mix of the obvious in the programme (Anne Briggs singing "She Moved Through the Fair") with the avant-garde - in this case a recording of sheep in a field. Verity explained that the sheep were actually German, but frankly could be from just about anywhere, and as usual she was right. The Germans slowly gave way to the sound of running water, by which point I was asleep, this being Late Junction, with its blessed absence of jarring interruptions and irritating fade-outs.

"Music rooted in England" is a big subject, but Verity wasn't rattled. She kicked off with Ron Copper singing the traditional "The Hard Times of Old England", in which he complained about being press-ganged into war and then coming home to starve. That was followed by Billy Bragg's 2007 reworking of the song, which stuck it to Tesco and people with holiday cottages, neither of which had quite the sting of Ron's verses about not having any shoes.

Just as you began to weary of Bragg's peevishness, he stormed in with a couplet about missing "the lapwing and the corncrake's sad song" in our decimated hedgerows, which kicked righteous ass all over the land.

But all of this served as mere vegetable batons to the Junction's main course, a trippy half-hour-long, as-yet-unreleased montage by the Kent musician Chris Wood, in which local people talked about the River Medway while Wilson noodled in the background on his violin.

The whole thing was a genuine Experience. As one old man reeled off lists of his favourite spots for swimming ("Teat's Mouth, the Cockiewall, Doctors Hole"), another added: "I'm telling you, we had the time of our lives then" - a phrase which Wilson looped over and over, flooding the present with lunatic levels of longing.

At the very point at which you began to feel that it was all being narrated by Sam Gamgee, another interviewee piped up about the river coming through her cat flap after a cloudburst, bringing wheelie bins and a dog kennel straight through the kitchen. "I love the river," she said, politely.

Wilson found the music inherent in each speaking voice, tuning and syncopating his instruments to them, sucking you down into the current, rhythmic and super-lulling, like the recording of Tennyson incanting "The Charge of the Light Brigade" on a wax cylinder.

After several months I came to, just in time to hear Verity introduce something about "droving free in this little isle of freedom", and thought that her voice was the very definition of handsome, and wondered what foolish suit it was that replaced her last year with the drippy Lauren Laverne on The Culture Show - "here in England, old England,/ Oh in England very hard times".

Pick of the week

How Crime Took on the World
Starts 8 April, 10.05am, World Service
A new series asking how international mafias have come to pose a threat to global stability.

Afternoon on 3
28 April, 2pm-5pm, Radio 3
An afternoon devoted to Rachmaninov and Tchaikovsky. Hankies ready.

don’t miss . . .

Toumani Diabaté

A magical evening is on the cards as Diabaté, the Malian kora virtuoso, performs music from his acclaimed album The Mandé Variations in the intimate surroundings of St Luke’s. The album is a shimmering blend of traditional Malian songs, flamenco, and even the theme tune from The Good, the Bad and the Ugly.
Diabaté is descended from 71 generations of kora players, and has done much to introduce his ancient instrument to new audiences – collaborating with Björk, with whom he performed at last year’s Glastonbury Festival, as well as Ali Farka Touré and the jazz trombonist Roswell Rudd.
2 May, LSO St Luke’s, London EC1.

Antonia Quirke is an author and journalist. She is a presenter on The Film Programme and Pick of the Week (Radio 4) and Film 2015 and The One Show (BBC 1). She writes a column on radio for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 28 April 2008 issue of the New Statesman, Everybody out!

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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.