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Just think – parliament could have looked like a giant Essex pub

This absurd building will be there long after the latest bunch of elected tossers has entirely faded

What a reassuring presence it is, parliament: that lump of stately, plump Buck Mulliganism, languidly stretched out along the Westminster riverbank like an immaculately dressed toff.

Parliament looks great. In a world of fakery and rip-off (London), it's a welcome sight for tourists, especially those summoned by the global Harry Potter industry, who must suffer one crushing disappointment after another.

No triple-decker buses on Waterloo Bridge. No steam trains at King's Cross, no owls flying in and out, no platform announcements in Latin. No Londoners in 1950s clothing, apart from that gaggle of punchable Hoxton wankers clogging up the Hayward Gallery.

Parliament's dependable. Its style is "perpendicular", an austere form of Gothic that emerged at the height of the Black Death. There is definitely something impressive about having a 14th-century, Gothic font for your country's architectural narrative. It's enduring, conservative and famously repressed. It says: conquered by the French, untethered from Rome, Merrie England, beat the Nazis, Swinging London, plucky underdogs, keen sense of irony, still timelessly classy.

Public Houses

The perpendicular style also seems to inspire MPs. In the outside world, some of them might be mistaken for nondescript, bumptious pricks. Once inside, however, they, too, become perpendicular, standing tall in the House, solemnly inviting the Prime Minister to list his engagements for the day.

The best view of parliament is from the far bank, its highly formal and slightly camp ele­vation reflected in the river. From Monet's smoggy paintings to today's generic, online photo tagging Commons business, the killer image is of the building doubled in water. It looks like a sonogram - one of those spiky waveforms that appear with audio files. I can't look at that reflected image without hearing its voiceprint. It seems to be saying, "BAH! BAAH! No! Disgrace! ORDER! Furthermore . . . Point of order! Hear, hear! HEAR, HEAR! BONG!"

This ancient complex hasn't actually been there since the 14th century. It was built in the mid-19th, after one of the regular fires at the Palace of Westminster proved particularly tenacious, destroying most of the site. It was pretty loose in those days. They were probably roasting an ox or something in the archbishop of Canterbury's en suite.

A royal commission was appointed to oversee the design competition for our new parliament and it had to make some swift decisions about how British democracy should be expressed in building form.

It was 1835, at the height of the style wars: classical v Gothic. Or rather, neoclassical v Gothic revival. The commission quickly ruled out a neoclassical design - that sort of thing had become associated with volatile revolutionaries in America. Their White House had been built relatively recently, and despite the best efforts of British arsonists in 1814 - what is it with the British and parliamentary buildings and fire? - it was still standing as a symbol of post-colonial independence.

No, the royal commission said, Westminster must not be classical. Still, it's bizarre now to think that parliament could have looked completely different, because the commission ruled that the design could be either Gothic or "Elizabethan".

Those who sneer at the fake-antiquey pastiche of the place should pause for a moment. We could have had a parliament building that looks like one of those massive, half-timbered family pubs you get in rural Essex. Maybe MPs would not now have a perpendicular aspect at all. They'd all be like jolly landlords.

Transient tossers

I like the Houses of Parliament: the architect Charles Barry's elegant design, Augustus Pugin's mad, Gothic interiors. It's all very Gormenghast inside, from the overwrought lobbies, where you half expect to encounter a hobgoblin, to the Press Gallery, where you can. It's amazing to watch the Hansard reporters, scribbling pencilled shorthand on pages of what looks like Bronco toilet paper. When they reach the end of a page, they simply, unglancing, hold it up for a runner.

It was an instinctive love for parliament, with its formal ebb and flow of proceedings and protocols, that allowed me to be so casually cruel in my book to the flickering avatars we see barking and hooting on our screens every week at Prime Minister's Questions. This absurd building, this
national theatre, will be there long after the latest transient bunch of elected tossers has entirely faded from memory.

Ian Martin's "The Coalition Chronicles" is published by Faber & Faber (£12.99)

This article first appeared in the 19 September 2011 issue of the New Statesman, Meet the next Prime Minister

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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.