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Parliament on YouTube

Jo Swinson argues parliamentarians need to do more than just pay lip service to online voter engagem

“MPs are talking, not hearing, online” was the BBC News headline last week about a Hansard Society report into how MPs are using new technology to connect with the public.
In fairness, some MPs have embraced new technology and experimented with different ways to use it to engage with voters. A group of peers got together to create a Lords Blog. Dozens of MPs blog regularly, and Twitter is fast developing a strong following among both members and candidates.  
However, less than a quarter of MPs are embracing social networking and it seems the majority of parliamentarians have not yet recognised that new technologies will change the way we do politics. The power and potential of social networks is huge. 

In January, the government was forced to perform a U-turn on the issue of keeping MPs’ expenses secret, largely as a result of a campaign mobilised through Facebook and Twitter by organisations such as MySociety and Unlock Democracy. The speed and reach of these sites is unrivalled when compared to traditional petitions and letter-writing campaigns. Most importantly, technology can now facilitate genuine two-way communication between voters and MPs, with comment and share functions.
The Hansard report found that nearly one in five MPs don’t even have a website, which is shocking in this day and age. There’s a whole generation of people whose first point of call for information will be to do a search on Google. If their MP doesn’t even have a website, what message does that send about their willingness to engage with their electorate? 
MySociety, the team behind sites such as They Work For You and Fix My Street have been campaigning for months for parliament to produce information about legislation electronically with tags so that the data can be easily used by websites to help the public understand what is happening to each Bill. Despite the support of more than 100 MPs for this campaign, the Houses of Parliament authorities have still not agreed to make these changes.
Astonishingly, there is a ban on placing clips of questions or debates in Parliament on YouTube and other video sharing sites.  I’ve been fighting this for a year now, and while the copyright issue looks like it could be resolved fairly easily, the real barrier is reluctance from MPs who are worried about the “reputation of Parliament” if clips were manipulated or placed alongside inappropriate content. 

There seems to be a total lack of understanding that in the internet age it is impossible to control images of Parliament, and that the reputation of parliament is damaged if it is regarded as an out of touch institution.
New technologies create wonderful potential to engage people in politics. Rather than watching BBC Parliament for hours in the hope something of interest pops up, people could search for clips of questions on topics of interest. Pressure groups could circulate links to relevant clips to their members. The most interesting and popular clips could be promoted virally, through people sharing them with family, friends and colleagues.
Parliament as an institution has made some steps in the right direction, having launched its own Youtube channel (albeit not with videos from the debating chambers), Facebook page and Twitter feed.

However despite the enthusiasm of excellent staff within Parliament’s online team, the lead needs to come from MPs themselves.
Politicians as a class are cautious about engaging with new media. This is partly a lack of familiarity, partly a lack of time and sometimes, sadly, an attitude which treats new technologies with a touch of disdain. 

With low election turnouts and badly shaken levels of trust in politics, it is more important than ever that politicians reconnect with people.  We should embrace the tools the web offers to help us do that.

Elected in 2005, Jo Swinson is Liberal Democrat MP for East Dunbartonshire and foreign affairs spokeswoman. She chairs the party’s Campaign for Gender Balance and is currently running a campaign against wasteful packaging. Jo is the youngest MP in the House of Commons.
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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.