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How the BNP came in from the cold

Question Time's grotesque stunt has allowed the BNP to enter the political mainstream. There is now

This past week marked a great turning point for the British National Party. It officially arrived in the political and media mainstream, aided and abetted by the BBC. There is now no going back.

But was it right for the corporation to host Nick Griffin as a panellist on BBC1's Question Time? The issue has been extensively debated in the media and behind the scenes at the top of the Labour and Conservative parties. At a meeting of the cabinet on 15 September, the Welsh Secretary, Peter Hain, and Home Secretary, Alan Johnson, found themselves in a minority, arguing that the government should not be "bullied" by the BBC into appearing. The Communities Secretary, John Denham, volunteered to go on, and cabinet agreed that someone should indeed appear. Twelve days later, the Justice Secretary, Jack Straw, was selected.

The decision signalled the culmination of a wider discussion within Labour about how to tackle the far right. Protagonists of engagement point to the failure of the French left to combat the emergence of the Front National leader Jean-Marie Le Pen, who shocked Europe by coming second in the 2002 presidential elections. But others, including Hain and Johnson, argue that Labour had "nothing to lose" from its "no-platform" policy. "We could have badly embarrassed the BBC by showing it would rather host a fascist than a member of the government," a minister told me.

Over at the Conservative party headquarters, a meeting of the shadow cabinet was convened to discuss whether to "empty chair" the BBC programme. The shadow schools secretary, Michael Gove, who was initially scheduled to appear, but then was replaced by Baroness Warsi, the deputy chair of the party and a Muslim, was among those who felt that a non-appearance would empower Nick Griffin. So, with Labour and the Tories on board, Question Time's grotesque stunt ensued.

Yet such was the controversy into which the BBC had plunged itself that the corporation's bosses found themselves spinning lines on behalf of the BNP. After Hain wrote to the BBC's director general, Mark Thompson, to point out that the BNP was an "unlawful" entity with a whites-only membership policy, Thompson seemed to leap to Griffin's defence. Following legal advice sought by the BBC, he said, "the [BNP] is not prevented from continuing to operate on a day-to-day basis". Ric Bailey, the BBC's omnipresent chief political adviser, went further in claiming, without evidence, that the corporation could have been challenged in the courts had it not hosted Griffin on Question Time, since it had, in Thompson's words, an "obligation to scrutinise and hold to account all elected representatives". Bailey also resorted to the electoral argument: the BNP had to be represented on Question Time, he said, because it "won more than 6 per cent of the vote across Britain - approaching a million people".

None of these positions bears scrutiny. First, as I revealed last month, Question Time wanted to host Griffin as early as 2007. At the time, I was working as a producer on the show, and this was long before the BNP's electoral "breakthrough". Much has been made of the BNP's "million votes" in June's European elections but, nationally, its vote share was a tiny 6.2 per cent - up 1.3 per cent on 2004. The BNP benefited from a collapse in the Labour vote. And, as Hain told me: "The BBC's argument is threadbare. The logic of saying that a million votes gets you a place on Question Time is that if, say, [the Islamist cleric] Abu Hamza formed a party and attracted that support, he would go on."

Second, there was never any "obligation", legal or otherwise, to invite Griffin on to the BBC's most popular current-affairs show, any more than there is an "obligation" for Griffin to appear on Ready Steady Cook. The BBC's current-affairs output has to be impartial and balanced but, as I argued at internal meetings in 2007, the main problem is the format: it is difficult not to have a "good" Question Time. It was far better having the BNP on Newsnight and Radio 4's Today programme. Labour's Jon Cruddas, who confronts the BNP threat daily in his Dagenham constituency, has pointed out that the BBC could have given Griffin "45 minutes with John Humphrys or Andrew Neil".

This was not about denying free speech, but about limiting the opportunity for the incitement of racial and religious hatred in front of a live studio audience and millions of viewers - incitement that began, incidentally, before the show aired. The anti-fascist group Searchlight highlighted pre-emptive smears, on the BNP website, against two other panellists, Baroness Warsi and the playwright Bonnie Greer, who was described as a "black history fabricator".

So what is the fallout from all of this? "The BBC has voluntarily brought the BNP right into centre stage, as if it is just another party," Hain told me. "Yet what normal party has a convicted criminal as its leader? What the BBC has done is totally obnoxious."

It has been left to wiser institutions to challenge the BNP. The Archbishops of Canterbury and York said, in a joint statement, that "Christians have been . . . disturbed by the conscious adoption by the BNP of the language of our faith . . . to foster fear and division within communities". Retired generals such as Sir Michael Jackson and Sir Richard Dannatt have accused far-right parties of seeking to "hijack the good name of Britain's military for their own advantage" and called on them to "cease and desist".

But cease they will not. That was made certain by the irresponsible behaviour of the BBC. Griffin will almost certainly be back again on Question Time. And so, we will have to rely on Britain's other great institutions - and, ultimately, on the public - to keep this party of hate in its place.

Follow our live blog on Question Time on 22 October, BBC1, 10.30pm

James Macintyre is political correspondent for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 26 October 2009 issue of the New Statesman, New York / London

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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.