I see the conviction of Karen Matthews has given birth to a new panic about benefits. Having just entered my seventh year in the welfare rights racket I have amassed a bit of knowledge about these things. I do support the idea of state provision for those that need as opposed to merely desire it but have a number of concerns about the way the system makes it needlessly hard for people doing their best to support themselves and their families.
For some reason I am currently surrounded by people who think that because I can explain benefit entitlement I have a bit of influence over the system. Sadly I don't and rest assured if I did it would be very different from the one we have at present.
Still for some reason or another I am surrounded by people demanding that benefits to support children are scrapped. When pressed, of course, one discovers that like Karen Matthews used to they receive child benefit, child tax credit and working tax credit, use the health service and send their children to state school. Oh and before someone explodes the working tax credit would have been paid in respect of Ms Matthews partner's earnings. I calculate her weekly entitlement based on what facts are available to be £290.72 rather than the £400 reported in the press -though the actual figure could be nearer £400 if any of the children were disabled or she was on the fiddle.
When I explain all this to people, it emerges that they want to keep their child benefit and tax credits, state health care and education but change the law so bad parents don't get any. Whilst it is in some ways a tempting idea I'm not sure how it would be enforced. Presumably the state would need to define what a good parent is and assess every parent in receipt of child benefit in the country accordingly. In order to be effective such assessment would need to be ongoing. I'm quite sure even the worst parent in the world could run a comb through their hair and act the doting mother or father for a one off inspection. I'm also unclear as to how children unfortunate enough to be born in household deemed bad would benefit from being denied healthcare and education. There are times when muttering vaguely that 'something must be done' and that 'they' should do something is the best course of action.
Wafting about the internet as I do of an evening. I've seen it suggested that all unmarried mothers should be denied benefits and their children taken into care. Unmarried and absent fathers are of course to be exempt from any such penalty. Truly there is no crime like being a woman. It should also be remembered that 'care' cannot boast a particularly impressive track record in producing happy and healthy children. It also occurs to me that in the highly unlikely event such a law were introduced my perfectly well brought up niece would rounded up and taken into care because her parents only co-habit. As indeed would the equally well brought up offspring of my separated and divorced friends and acquaintances.
I have my doubts about the theory that Karen Matthews only had children for benefits in part because it appears to have been put forward by one of her exes. One hates to sound snooty but I question the judgement of any man who thought it was a good idea to start a family with her. I very much doubt she put much thought into having children. If the kidnap plot was any indication of how she thinks then my overwhelming impression is of a childish, emotionally unstable, self-indulgent liar of more than unusually low intelligence. I expect boredom, the attention routinely given to pregnant woman and new mothers would have been a factor as indeed would have been a temporary desire to hang on to the man of the moment. In truth I'd be amazed if she approached family life with much more thought than a five year old playing 'houses'.
Having worked on various schemes for almost the best part of a decade I can't say I've noticed many large families. Most families seemed to stop at one or two children. I did once deal with a woman who had six children but three of them belonged to her deceased sisters. Other than the odd three and very rare four child family I genuinely don't recall any visible evidence of a higher birth rate in less affluent areas. The only noticeable difference was that women tended to start families younger and only a minority of them in their teens with most having their first child in their early twenties. The notion that vast swathes of the country are populated by walking 'baby factories' (unless Glasgow is the exception) strikes me as wide of the mark. Oh and can I also ask those who insist on using the term 'get themselves pregnant' about single mothers please consider taking an evening class in basic biology? I won't spoil the surprise but they usually have a bit of help getting in the family way.
Demanding the scrapping of an entire benefits system because of Karen Matthews gives her way more importance than she warrants. People and cases like hers are mercifully rare and I'd no more base legislation round it than I would ban alcohol because a minority of drinkers develop alcohol problems. I remain unconvinced that benefits are the sole cause of what occurred in the Matthews household. Greed, stupidity, wickedness and an unimaginitive laziness all played a part. In addition it appears social services have some explaining to do. To me the amount of benefits claimed in that household was not the most distressing aspect of the case and I must own up to wondering about the priorities of those who seem to think it is.
I have personally encountered more decent benefit claimants than I have chancers in my life. That is not to deny fraud and laziness aren't a problem but is intended as a reminder that a lot of deserving and decent people will be the victims in any kneejerk bit of reform in response to this case. It is also worth remembering that there are also children involved and we all know what we think of folk neglecting them for a bit of cash don't we?