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We need to talk about Trident

If some senior Tories are questioning the point of Trident then surely Gordon Brown should live up t

It's two years since Parliament voted to start the process of replacing Britain's Trident nuclear weapons system. Despite the 'yes' vote, opposition was substantial within Parliament – including a massive backbench Labour rebellion. Outside Parliament, it was clear that 'No' was by far the majority sentiment. 72 per cent of those polled, just days before the vote in March 2007, opposed replacing Trident at that time.

That was the state of play in the last heady days before the credit crunch really kicked in. Even then, the cost of Trident replacement was a major factor in the public mind. The news that the total cost of a new system – when including life-time running costs - was likely to top £76 billion was a killer fact for many. Those faced with government spending cuts and the closure of local services were already counting the opportunity cost of a new generation of British weapons of mass destruction. The TUC Congress in 2006 voted overwhelmingly against Trident replacement, primarily because of the costs involved.

Since then it has become clear – thanks to a Public Accounts Committee investigation – that even the government's cost estimates at the time of the vote were only 'ball park figures'. It seems that cost and time over-runs are almost certain. In any case, the continuing costs of the existing system for the next twenty-odd years should be added to the tally too. In sum, we are talking in excess of £100 billion to fund Britain's nuclear habit.

Ever larger numbers of people are coming to the conclusion that this is not a price worth paying. And they are coming from an ever-wider political spectrum. Hard on the heels of former Labour minister Stephen Byers questioning the justifiability of such spending, leading Conservatives have now also shown that they are open to rethinking Trident and its replacement. A major debate is now reportedly under way in the shadow cabinet.

David Davis has written, in the Financial Times, that it is time for the Tories to look at their own 'sacred cows'. Davis questioned the justification for the 'wholesale upgrade' of a system designed to retaliate after a full-scale Soviet attack when today's likeliest adversary would be a 'much smaller, less sophisticated state. Should not the costs reflect this?'

David Cameron subsequently refused to rule out the possibility of a shift in Tory policy on nuclear weapons, promising a major strategic defence review once in office. He is being encouraged to rethink by senior backbench figures, most notably by James Arbuthnot, who is Chair of the House of Commons Defence Select Committee. Arbuthnot, who led scrutiny of Trident's replacement in the run up to the Parliamentary vote, described weapons system as of 'doubtful usefulness', but at that time opposed unilateral disarmament. Arbuthnot has since said that he thinks the debate on Britain's nuclear weapons should now be reopened.

Of course costs are not the only reasons to oppose the replacement of Trident. The key question has to be, does it actually add to our security and defence?

One strong perspective on this has recently come from retired senior military figures – two generals and a field-marshal. Trident, they observed in a letter to The Times, is militarily useless and should be scrapped. So if it is military useless, does it contribute to our security in other non-military ways? On the contrary. According to Kofi Annan, when Secretary General of the UN, while powerful countries say they need nuclear weapons for their security, other countries will come to the same conclusion. In other words, our continued insistence that the possession of nuclear weapons makes us safe, will encourage other states to proliferate. That would appear to be the view of North Korea: they think nuclear weapons will deter attack on their country and constitute a powerful international bargaining chip. That is an attitude that we reinforce and perpetuate at our peril.

In fact, when Gordon Brown became prime minister, Britain’s nuclear policy changed subtly but significantly for the better. It recognised the reality of the link between the failure of nuclear weapons states to disarm and the increased likelihood of nuclear weapons proliferation. Numerous statements by leading government figures reinforced this shift away from Blair’s erroneous view that we are legally entitled to keep nuclear weapons. Since then, Brown has been big on the idea of ‘leading’ global disarmament initiatives, although his thunder has been somewhat stolen by Obama, who is actually doing something about it.

Brown’s key weakness is that he talks the disarmament talk, but won’t deal with Trident. Sooner or later he will have to realise this is a contradictory position. When the majority of the British people – including Tory politicians and senior military figures - have come to the view that Trident should be reconsidered – or even axed – then Gordon Brown should not be holding back.

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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.