Sunday, 13 April 2008

A Drain on Society

The UK press is today rife with vitriol aimed at the mother of Shannon Matthews, in custody and under suspicion of complicity in the kidnapping of her daughter. Allegations abound, including questions about family attempts to obtain access to community funds given to help in Shannon's recovery. It is even reported that the trustees of the Find Madeleine (McCann) fund were approached for cash. However this case, absorbing though it is from a criminal law point of view, is raising at least as many questions concerning the lifestyle supposedly led by Karen Matthews and her partner.

Of course facts are difficult to come by, and as a NoBollocksPolitician I am loath to speculate where facts are lacking. But there are important questions to be answered and facts to be sought - not particularly about this family but in more general terms about how public money is used in the support of low income households.

Looking across the news stories today at the comments left on the newspapers' sites by readers, there is little doubt that there is a broad swathe of disgust felt at the level of allowances and credits claimed by certain members of society. In this instance it is reported (unverified) that upwards of £400 per week was being paid to this parent to support herself and the 7 children she conceived with five fathers. Her current partner (also in custody on suspicion of downloading child pornography) worked as a fishmonger in a supermarket.

There seem to be two principles in conflict, once again. First is the 'inalienable' right of people to have as many children as they wish. If you've read my earlier posts you'll know of my concerns about burgeoning population growth, so will be unsurprised to hear that I have issues with this 'right'. Nevertheless, there are no laws, customs, conventions nor restrictions on anyone wishing to raise large families regardless of any ethical considerations that can be brought to bear.

The second principle concerns the rights of parents with large families to claim money from the state for their upbringing, most critically when the parents do not work or have low incomes. Put another way, does the state (that is, you and me) have any right to deny such parents a slice of the national tax-take?

Clearly, when children have arrived no matter what the ethical leaning of the parents, they have a right to at least a fundamental level of welfare. There are few among us who would wish to see children out on the street, homeless and unfed, for want of basic financial support from the taxpayer. No-one wants a return of the workhouse. What is really at question is whether the state should encourage - deliberately or indirectly - citizens to conceive children that without taxpayer support they could not look after. Such seems to be the case here, but the Matthews family is far from being unique.

Many of the comments posted on the news sites today suggest that child allowances, children's tax credits and other government handouts should be limited to the first 2 or 3 children, so removing any financial incentive for further pregnancies. It might seem absurd that people would tailor their procreation according to its effect on their state benefits, but such people do exist. Frankly, they are not the kind of people I want society to support and indeed, society is made much the poorer both financially and socially by policies which do so, in my opinion.

The government should address this, but it is a very touchy subject. The rights of the individual are almost always put before the rights of society as a whole. Why? Because societies don't raise a stink with the newspapers when they feel hard done by, societies don't declare human rights violations and claim legal aid to fight them, and societies don't track down their MPs and harangue them with unremitting tales of angst and indignation at their hardships. Individuals do though, and collectively individuals who feel slighted and bother to turn out to vote can bring about an end to your being an MP. Wider society on the whole tends to grumble and put up with it, and as a result can often be ignored.

I can't come up with any other rational reason why a government should not move to end this iniquity, at least none that isn't linked to retaining votes from benefit claimants. It's not even a tendency limited to our socialist politicians - there are few opposition MPs who wish to rock the benefits boat. I wouldn't suggest current benefits should cease. But prospective parents should be aware that the child benefit has a limit and that having lots of kids will not bring in extra cash. This requires legislative change, but first it needs political courage and a renewed perspective on what social justice is all about. Fairness in society is not just about leveling the playing field, redistributing wealth. It should also encompass giving to those who truly deserve, and taking only the minimum required from the hard pushed, if silent, taxpayer.

This is an issue on which it is easy to feel moral outrage, but I would wager that there's a few bob to be saved if limitations on claims were introduced - not to mention the more important benefits to kids who are brought into this world to be loved and cared for, rather than as a means to a bigger disposable income for their parents.

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