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Our opposition to torture must be non-negotiable

A series of disturbing revelations suggests that collusion and complicity in torture may be the dark

That the United States government, under George W Bush and Dick Cheney, sanctioned the use of torture against suspected terrorists in the wake of the 11 September 2001 attacks is no longer in doubt. Even President Barack Obama and his attorney general, Eric Holder, have conceded as much. But what role, if any, did the UK government play?

A series of disturbing revelations over the past month suggests that collusion and complicity in the torture of detainees held overseas may be the darkest legacy of Britain's involvement in the "war on terror".

On 7 July, speaking in the House of Commons, the Conservative MP David Davis claimed that the security services were guilty of "the outsourcing of torture". Speaking under the protection of parliamentary privilege, the former shadow home secretary outlined how MI5 and Greater Manchester Police had colluded in the interrogation and torture of the British terror suspect Rangzieb Ahmed by Pakistani intelligence agents.

On 28 July, a former Guantanamo Bay detainee launched a legal action against the British government for its alleged role in his "extraordinary rendition" to Egypt, where he was tortured. Mohammed Saad Iqbal Madni, a Pakistani citizen held by the United States for six years before being freed, said a CIA flight carrying him to Egypt refuelled on the British Indian Ocean island territory of Diego Garcia.

On 31 July, two high court judges ruled that it was clear that MI5 "must have appreciated" the circumstances of the British resident and former Guantanamo Bay detainee Binyam Mohamed's secret detention at a "covert location", now known to be in Morocco. In their statement, Lord Justice Thomas and Mr Justice Lloyd Jones also revealed that MI5 sent the "US authorities" - or the CIA - questions to ask Mohamed, who says he was tortured.

On 4 August, the joint parliamentary committee on human rights published a scathing report into "allegations of UK complicity in torture", in which it urged ministers to publish the instructions on the detention and interrogation of detainees abroad given to security service officers. "There is now no other way," the report concluded, "to restore public confidence in the intelligence services than by setting up an independent inquiry."

In the US, President Obama has released four secret memos which show that the CIA under President Bush was authorised to torture terror suspects held at Guantanamo and other secret detention sites around the world. There have been no similar disclosures in this country, despite Gordon Brown's promises of a new era of openness and accountability when he took office in 2007. His continued refusal to hold an inquiry into allegations of British complicity in torture is shameful.

So was his earlier insistence that the Iraq inquiry be held in secret. Instructing the Commons intelligence and security committee to investigate the issue, as Mr Brown has done, will not do. In the words of the legal charity Reprieve, this is "a textbook case of the fox guarding the henhouse". The ISC, which failed so miserably to hold MI6 to account over its flawed intelligence on Iraq, and MI5 for its failure to prevent the London terrorist attacks of 7 July 2005, is neither impartial nor independent - it is appointed by, and answerable to, the Prime Minister, and its present chair, Kim Howells, was the Foreign Office minister with responsibility for counterterrorism during much of the time that torture is alleged to have occurred. Why should we trust its conclusions?

The shadow foreign secretary William Hague this past week suggested that even a Conservative government would consider holding an independent inquiry into these allegations. Will Mr Brown allow himself to be outflanked on torture by the Tories?

As the eighth anniversary of the 11 September attacks approaches, it is time for Mr Brown to ensure that the British security services never again turn a blind eye to the abuse of fellow human beings - suspected terrorists or otherwise. Torture is morally unacceptable; it also fails to make us safer and acts as a recruiting sergeant for our enemies. Our opposition to the practice must be non-negotiable. As a senior human rights lawyer remarked in November 2005: "It can never be justified for the government to torture a person or to have a person tortured . . . [That principle] is an absolute." Her name? Cherie Blair. She is one Blair with whom, on this matter, we wholeheartedly agree.

This article first appeared in the 10 August 2009 issue of the New Statesman, Red Reads

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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.