Diary: Andrew Motion

'My room used to be in the basement, down among the id-men, but recently I’ve been given one on the

Once upon a time I thought the end of my ten years as Poet Laureate would be a slow glide back down to earth – my attention fixed on a long summer of uninterrupted writing. Things haven’t turned out like that, and I have only myself to blame. A decade ago I decided to try and create a “doing” side to the job of Laureate (visiting schools, nagging the government about the National Curriculum, setting up the online poetry archive), and this shows no sign of diminishing. Quite the opposite, in fact. I don’t want to get in the way of whoever comes after me, but neither do I want to stop the work I’ve started.

The week just ended was typical of the decade just ending. Early on Monday (I get up early to have writing time that’s uncompromised by emails and telephones) I started a poem that’s been sheltering at the back of my head for several weeks now – a memory of being in an ancient jalopy that caught fire when I was behind the wheel, and burned to a husk within minutes. I got about half of it into shape before the present started to distract me. Which was around ten – when I hopped on the 29 bus (I live in Camden, north London) and went down to my teaching room.

For the past six years I’ve run the creative writing MA programme at Royal Holloway College, and although the college’s mothership is out at Egham, they have a building in Bedford Square. My room used to be in the basement, down among the id-men, but recently I’ve been given one on the top floor and therefore become an ego-ist. The attic feel of the space, the squint-views down through the greening leaves of the square, the bubble and squeak of others working below me . . . I love it there, and use the room more and more as a study-away-from-home.

My fiction class meets for three hours every Monday afternoon in term – a gang of clever, talkative, talented people who leave me feeling at once emptied and replenished. And in the later evening, a treat: friends have invited me to I Capuleti e I Montecchi at the Royal Opera House. I’ve seen a few operas by Bellini over the years, but not this one, and I immediately remember why I like him so much. The lush melodies, the yearning, the heartache – of course that’s all ravishing. But there’s a complexity of feeling, too, and a marrying of musical nuances with shades of human feeling, which make us feel the stubbornness of the star-crossed lovers as well as their muddle and pathos.

The music feels like a big gulp of air before the next three days. On Tuesday I’m at a seminar in Birmingham, at another in London on Wednesday, and at a third in Newcastle on Thursday, each of them organised by the examination board OCR to “inspire and inform” English teachers. The programme consists of OCR administrators explaining the new GCSE requirements, performance poetry laid on by Apples and Snakes, and me recalling the English teacher who first drew me to poems, before reading a few of my own things. It’s hard for anyone to measure their effect on an audience, but the effect of the audience on me is palpable: it feels like a call to arms, seeing so much enthusiasm for writing having to contend with so much in the curriculum that threatens to squeeze the essence of poetry out of poetry, and make do instead with a small catalogue of technical and linguistic observations.

Or rather it feels like another call to arms. This is one of the battles I’ve been trying to fight for ten years now – to make poetry more accessible to children as an expression of the fundamental human relish for words, their play, and their connection with strong feeling – and there’s a lot more to do before anything like a victory can be declared. Before I leave Newcastle, though, and now wearing my hat as chair of the Museums, Libraries and Archives Council, as well as my Laureate cloak, I give a talk on literary manuscripts at Seven Stories, the marvellous national Centre for Children’s Books. Housed in a converted warehouse, the centre tells the story of British children’s books from the 1930s to the present day, stores and displays a rapidly growing collection of manuscripts, puts on displays, and makes manifest the basic pleasures of reading in ways that are in all respects delightful.

Come Friday I wear another hat, as a council member of the Advertising Standards Authority, and meet with my colleagues in Holborn for our monthly session. Much of the weekly work required of council members is done online, and always creates a fascinating tussle with words (and images) and their meaning. So do these more formal gatherings – with the extra pleasure of debate. I leave as I always leave: thinking I know a little more about the world.

And suddenly it’s the weekend. Now, where did I put that poem about the burning car . . . ?

Andrew Motion has been Poet Laureate since 1999. He steps down in May

This article first appeared in the 13 April 2009 issue of the New Statesman, Easter 2009

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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.