Time to take this season by the throat in the neck

It's half way through the season, time to take socks. I'm sitting here, with the Christmas games over, and it's no clearer who will win the Premiership. Awfully crowded, innit, though those wiser than me are naming four teams. I think only one will win it, personally, and I'll give you that name in a wee minute. First, let's look back over the half-season.

Best news Graham Kelly going. Very like Mandelson going. Both guilty of dodgy judgements involving money and another person, which they hoped to keep secret. Then the so-called honourable and sudden resignation. Strange how football is so often like politics. And they each have a Big Bad Murdoch hovering off-stage.

The difference in their goings is that I have now almost forgotten what Graham Kelly looked like. He was a charisma-free zone and now he's gone. It's hard to believe he was ever here. Mandelson is still with us, still talked about, still being tipped for positions. Yet no one has mentioned the obvious. Chief executive of the FA. Get that application in, Pete.

Best players Who have done jolly well, so far. Zola, with all that talent, was bound to find form again, hence Chelsea's good run. Dion Dublin perhaps did best of all, but I sense his second half to the season might not be as good. Yorke and Cole together have done better than most predicted. Ditto Ginola, who was not expected to flourish under George Graham. Garry Barry, best newcomer, so far. And best name. OK, it's Gareth Barry, but I get a lot of simple pleasure out of saying to myself, now, is it Garry Barry or Barry Garry . . . ?

Most disappointing players Most is expected of strikers. They get the most praise when they perform, and the most stick when they don't. Shearer and Ferguson have done little, Michael Owen only a little more. Robbie Fowler is but a shadow, but the saddest has been Kevin Davies at Blackburn. What ails him? Is it lack of confidence? That's what they always say in football, even managers, and naturally that makes the poor buggers worse. If modern medicine can invent Viagra to boost the penis, why can't they find something to boost the ego?

Leonhardsen, a midfielder, is a more curious but equally sad case. He was so vital, so creative at Wimbledon, yet the moment he arrived at Liverpool he seemed to shrink. It doesn't appear to be just a matter of confidence. More of environment. People can be with the wrong team, at the wrong time, in the wrong surroundings. It happens in politics, and in journalism. I remember Jill Tweedie coming to the Independent from the Guardian, writing the same sort of stuff, yet she wasn't as good. Somehow the setting, the ambience, the surroundings, didn't suit. As for Suzanne Moore leaving the Indy for the Mail on Sunday, how long before she decides she's joined the wrong team?

Puzzles of the season so far How do you pronounce AXA, that new lot sponsoring the FA Cup? Gawd knows. And those funny symbols that look like Oxo and stand for a PlayStation, whatever that is. A simpler puzzle is why only Premiership players have their names on the backs of their shirts. Is it because players and supporters in the First, Second and Third Divisions can't read?

Best quotes of the season I write them down, all the pearls, as they trickle from the mouths of the babes, the suckling pigs and the Big Rons, he's my favourite. He was perceptive on David Beckham: "He hasn't got a great technique, technically." Barry Venison also scored high points with: "They must concentrate on the way they've concentrated." But my best so far has been Trevor Steven doing an expert commentary: "They've got the game by the throat in the neck."

Worst football TV programme Mentioning Barry Venison has reminded me. When I was trying to forget. Have you seen On the Ball, ITV's Saturday lunchtime programme? It's a must, if only to try and work out the rationale. His partner is Gabby Yorath, who has a degree in law, so she should be able to talk some sense, oh yeah. She also comes from a football family, so must have picked up something, yet she is there as the token airhead. Barry wears his intellectual specs and his job is to talk sense. But they are defeated by the length of every item, every thought, which lasts about three seconds, presumably because the attention span of all viewers is assumed to be four seconds. It makes Gary Lineker look like a fellow of All Souls.

Most worrying news The report that Ashley Ward of Barnsley, in the First Division, has turned down Blackburn of the Premiership as they have been really, really mean and won't pay him £1 million a year. Has the world gone mad? Not at all. That's clearly normal pay for a run-of-the-mill, pretty average, only half-decent striker who's 28 and never played for a top club. Where will it end? And how do economists explain it? I meant to ask my neighbour Sir Alan Budd when I met him yesterday but he was too busy telling me about his new and wonderful pension scheme, sorry, new position as Provost of Queen's. Lucky beggar. I'm the same age. Yet no one has offered me such a nice job. Oh well. Might as well send that application off to the FA, before Pete gets ahead of me . . .

Predictions I don't see Aston Villa lasting the pace. Yes, all season that's been predicted, and they've still done brilliantly. Arsenal won't keep up the pace, either. Chelsea will, till almost the very end, then be tipped at the post by Man Utd. Right, now eat this prediction after burning it, so in May I can deny all knowledge . . .

Hunter Davies is a journalist, broadcaster and profilic author perhaps best known for writing about the Beatles. He is an ardent Tottenham fan and writes a regular column on football for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 01 January 1999 issue of the New Statesman, An earthquake strikes new Labour

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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.