Remember the time the great Joe Harriott came to York? Oh, yeah . . .

It was September 1972 when word got around York that the alto saxophonist Joe Harriott was coming to town. We were ecstatic. For years we'd bored our friends with Joe's great records, the ground-breaking Indo-Jazz Fusions, and the sheer virtuosity of Free Form.

But then came the bad news. Joe wasn't coming with his own band, he was relying entirely on local musicians. Even for the best players in town this was a terrifying prospect. Being asked to sit behind Joe as he screamed and soared through some of his wilder pieces of improvisation seemed about as inviting at the time as the offer of ten rounds with Muhammad Ali.

But worse was to come. No venue had been arranged. The country's greatest alto player was about to step off the train and we were running around desperately trying to find a stage on which he could unleash his genius. There was only one option. Joe would have to be asked to come down to jazz night at the Spotted Cow on Wednesday and sit in with the regulars.

It's not easy to describe the Spotted Cow band. Everyone in the bar so much wanted to hear some jazz that they willed the players to perform, making allowances for bum notes with the same degree of charity they extended every other Saturday to the equally uncertain performances of York City at Bootham Crescent. But it was generally agreed that the pianist and tenor player were able, if tentative, and the drummer perfectly adequate as long as he was denied a shed-building solo. The only unfortunate member was the vocalist, who seemed unable to sing any standard without the addition of an "Oh, yeah" after every other line. "Fly me to the moon/And let me walk among the stars. Oh, yeah."

Joe strolled into the crowded bar just after nine o'clock. A striking figure. Tall and elegant in a well-pressed black suit and dazzlingly clean white shirt. He sat by himself at a table and slowly assembled his alto. Was he listening? What was he making of the band's version of "Lullaby of Birdland, Oh, yeah"?

We needn't have worried. He listened to three numbers and then slowly strolled over to the rostrum, whispered to the pianist, and soared straight into "Don't Get Around Much Any More". There was no "Free Form" or "Indo-Jazz Fusions". For an hour and a half he played the classics the band knew and played them with a commitment rarely heard from the other professional jazzers who turned up in the city on Arts Council-sponsored tours.

Joe stayed in town a month, lodging in turn with Terry and myself. During that time we realised just how courageous he'd been at the Spotted Cow and all the other second-rate gigs we set up for him around the city. For £20 a night he'd blow his guts out with a pick-up band, stagger home exhausted, wash out his one white nylon shirt, and then try to find a sleeping position in bed that wouldn't aggravate the large and, as it turned out, cancerous tumour in the middle of his back.

When he died nine months after leaving York, every jazz fan in the city felt they'd been unhappy witnesses to a major tragedy. At least they can now remind themselves of Joe's brilliance. Polygram has brought out CDs of his greatest work and it only takes the thrilling first notes of "Formation" on the Free Form album to bring back the enormous generosity of spirit that allowed their creator to sit down so readily all those years ago and jam along with a pub band. Sad days. But at the Spotted Cow they certainly gave a whole new meaning to "Oh, yeah".

This article first appeared in the 26 February 1999 issue of the New Statesman, The police force we deserve?

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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 a non-compulsory aspiration of campaigners) 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.