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Lapland's Sami people: how do you decide who is indigenous and who isn't?

The Arctic spring.

Far above the Arctic Circle, at the northern limits of Scandinavia, live one of Europe’s last indigenous peoples, the Sami. They are, or for the most part were, a seminomadic group, migrating with their reindeer from the forests to the northern coast for the short Arctic summer. But modern life has encroached on the Sami’s traditional lifestyle: roads and new national borders have sprung up across centuries-old migration routes, and many of the old ways of life have been lost because of government policies that sent generations of Sami children to boarding schools in the south.

In Finland, Sami campaigners are nearing the end of a long battle to have their right to land that they have inhabited for centuries recognised in law. They propose, in line with the International Labour Organisation’s Indigenous and Tribal Peoples Convention, that control of 20,000 square miles of state land should pass to the Sami parliament in Inari, 800 miles north of Helsinki.

Under this move, backed in September by the UN’s committee for the eradication of racial discrimination, 10 per cent of Finland’s land area would be handed over to 21 representatives voted in by the Sami population. With these new powers, the Sami parliament might then seek compensation for use of its resources, now and in the past.

The current Helsinki government has pledged to resolve this issue finally during its term of office. But here in Enontekiö, in the heart of Lapland, the prospect of altering the status quo to favour one ethnic group has reignited friction in the community that has lain dormant for years. Finnish reindeer herders bicker with their Sami counterparts over who was where first – and thus who has best claim over the land. Local entrepreneurs fear ruin if their access to the wilderness and its fishing and forestry is curtailed. Others trawl their family trees for Sami relatives so that they, too, might benefit from the changes.

The mayor of Enontekiö, Mikko Kärnä, has been vocal in opposing the proposal. He told me: “Only 10 per cent of Enontekiö residents are on the Sami [electoral] register: [if land rights are granted] the Sami parliament will have a lot more power than that proportion would suggest.” One point of contention is how to choose who will benefit from the changes. “Almost all northern people have some Sami blood in them somewhere – 95 per cent of all people in Lapland, according to one study. So where can we draw the line?”

The current rules are clear: an applicant to join the register must be a native speaker of a Sami language, or prove that a parent or grandparent was. But many who continue to live a traditional lifestyle have lost their language and are excluded as a result. Erika Sarivaara, a university researcher, had her application for Sami status rejected. In response, she has started a rival register of “non-status Sami” who seek recognition. “My ancestors have lived here for hundreds of years,” she says. “If we say we are indigenous, then that has to be respected.”

The test of the Sami parliament may be over how it wields any powers. Will members choose to oust their Finnish neighbours from the land in revenge for decades of persecution? And how will they treat their own minorities, the groups that feel excluded from their success?

On Sarivaara’s kitchen table is a copy of the local newspaper. Its front page is emblazoned with the garish Sami flag. “Kuka on Saamelainen?” asks the headline: “Who is Sami?” It seems that no one here knows – but they had better find out, and soon.

Cal Flyn is a freelance journalist, who writes for the Sunday Times, New Statesman and others. Find more of her work at and her Twitter handle is @calflyn.

This article first appeared in the 01 April 2013 issue of the New Statesman, Easter Special Issue

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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.