An Unenforceable System

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?



asquith said...

You've correctly identified a fact which I never tire of pointing out, that most single parents are excellent people with a shite lot in life, which they cope with remarkably well.

But why is it that some very poor people on estates like this (a real hardcore Stoke council estate) live in dignity & some don't?

The difference is that people like Karen Matthews, Baby P's "parents", & the perpetrator of the Sheffield atrocties are people of very low intelligence. They are never likely to achieve much in life. You couldn't give them "help" or "training" as it would be futile.

I used to volunteer at a Citizens Advice Bureau, & there were a lot of single parents there, enjoying the social aspect & the mutual support from their friends, & contributing a lot. Likewise, many blameless unemployed people (I was one of them, going through the nightmare of JSA).

But if you'd put Karen Matthews there, she'd have been tragically & pitifully out of her depth. These aren't the days when you could go & work in an unskilled job without being able to read or write, so what will people without brains do when they aren't able to take advantage of such opportunities as there are?

Clairwil said...

'These aren't the days when you could go & work in an unskilled job without being able to read or write, so what will people without brains do when they aren't able to take advantage of such opportunities as there are?,

Indeed they are not. Tesco of all companies had a wonderful scheme in Glasgow a while back which employed long term benefit claimants on a trial basis without asking them complete a written application or undergo and interview, judging them purely by their performance in the job.

I'm not suggesting companies be forced to do likewise and it wouldn't be appropriate for more than menial work but it would help a substantial percentage of long-term claimants into work.

asquith said...

I heard about that scheme. Apparently it is typical for the company, not just a Glasgow-based scheme.

Apparently, they performed as well as those who were not long-term unemployed.

It is a good idea, & there should also be voluntary work & far more cooperatives than there currently are. I'd like to see the end of the situation whereby people either are employed or are on benefits. Perhaps a Citizens Basic Income would help with this, as would voluntary work, self-employment, cooperatives, etc.

The only problem I can see with a CBI is political: it wouldn't be likely to get enough support to ever become policy, even though it would probably be a great success.

eeore said...

I notice that the current issue of Private Eye has a story about Karen Matthews and the McCanns.

This is in response to the screaming headlines about how she pestered the McCanns for money. Apparently the matter was investigated by the police and they found that there was only one approach, and that was from a journalist from the Sun who asked if they would in theory be willing to donate money to the hunt for Shannon.

The whole benefits debate is totally screwed.

For one thing if you go and ask for advice, or help, the people running the system never know the answer, or give you a straight answer - for the very simple reason they don't have a clue what the rules are - or the rules are so perverse that they are unworkable.

Clairwil said...

I am drawn to the idea of a citizens income, my only reservation is the loss of income for the severely disabled. Though it may be possible to retain disbility living allowance for them to supplement their CBI. This would still be a massive saving in terms of administration as the vast majority of benefits would still be replaced by the CBI.

I haven't read the Private Eye article but it sounds like it makes for interesting reading.

Most DWP staff lack anything but the most basic knowledge of the benefits system. Add to that the bullying tendencies and personal prejudices of some and it's virtually impossible to get a straight answer. God knows how much money is wasted on appeals against their bad decision making

eeore said...

I can't see what is wrong with the current system - other than political embarrassment.

The key factor that is overlooked in the current debate is that Freud's report worked from the assumed the figure for disability in the 1980's of around 300,000 indicates the true level of people who should be entitled to incapacity - and from there false logic was used to imply that everyone else was a fraud.

What was overlooked was that in the early 1990's care in the community was implemented and the asylums closed.

Thus this whole current debate is totally skewed and bathed in ignorance.

As for the decision making process, it is deliberately constructed to prevent people from accessing money and services to which they are entitled. At each stage of the process there is a percentage of people wo are rejected, in full knowledge that the majority of those people will not pursue the case any further.

It is a vast con.

Anonymous said...

I think this is a really well argued piece. The press have a lot to answer for.

Clairwil said...


I'm going to come on to what I think is wrong with the current system in another post.

I agree with your comments particularly around the effect of 'care' in the community. In fact the mentally ill are going to be the biggest losers under Employment and Support Allowance. In other words the government are picking on the most vulnerable and least able to defend themselves.

Clairwil said...


I'm going to come on to what I think is wrong with the current system in another post.

I agree with your comments particularly around the effect of 'care' in the community. In fact the mentally ill are going to be the biggest losers under Employment and Support Allowance. In other words the government are picking on the most vulnerable and least able to defend themselves.

Phil said...

A rare voice of reason cutting through all the crap about the Karen Matthews case. Don't be too surprised if more of her ilk are "outed" by the scum press over this next year to soften up the populace for further attacks on welfare.

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