As soon as we heard the Shannon Matthews verdict, the Major was round like a shot. He was worried lest I'd forgotten his long-standing plan for abolishing child poverty.
"It's blindingly obvious - cut the financial incentive for these low-life scum to breed. It's totally insane to pay a bunch of feckless inadequates to have half a dozen illegitimate kids. Children shouldn't be a meal-ticket!
Anyway, these people can't even manage themselves, let alone bring up kids. It's the rest of us who have to bring them up by employing all those thousands of lefty social workers - not that they have a clue what they're doing. And these kids go on to be the spongers and criminals of the future. They breed like rabbits, y'know, and it just goes on and on!"
I sat him down and poured a large one. "Yes, Major, the BBC calls it the cycle of deprivation."
"Cycle of deprivation? CYCLE OF DEPRIVATION!!! I'd give them deprivation all right! Under my plan, anyone who had a child and was unable to support it would be deprived of his wedding tackle PDQ." He took a mighty swig.
"That's no good Major - by the time the child is born the feckless man has long since scarpered."
"Well, I'd cork the woman... believe me, these things can be done. It's time we got tough, not just for ourselves but for the country. The way things are, these crazy child poverty policies are actively undermining our entire society. We are LITERALLY sitting on a powder keg, and it's our responsibility to get things changed. Gah!"
One of the most appalling things about the Shannon Matthews case is the ruthless use of a child as meal ticket: a mother who thought it perfectly OK to hold her own child hostage against £50 grand reward money.
Yet we have established a welfare system that routinely rewards people just like her for having children and holding them hostage in hopeless dysfunctional "families" on sink estates.
When Shannon was found last March, we took a close look at her home in Moorside Road Dewsbury (see blog here). For someone who grew up on a council estate fifty years ago, it was a shock. The area has high crime, low educational achievement (44% of the adult population have no qualifications), high worklessness (about 70% above the national average), and high benefits dependency.
Overall, 27% of the local population live in households in receipt of one or more of the following benefits: Income based Jobseeker's Allowance, Income Support, Working Families' Tax Credit, Disabled Person's Tax Credit, and Asylum Support Service.
There was one particularly stark difference from the national averages: family structure. Lone parent families make up 14% of households, compared to 6% nationally. A further 5% of households are cohabiting - but unmarried - couples with children (ie like Shannon's family); nationally, that's 3%.
In that kind of world, children as a meal ticket must be attractive option.
Brown's government has no answer to this. Indeed, they are making things worse, having just announced a further push in their bonkers campaign to "abolish" child poverty.
That campaign is targeted solely on a statistical measure related to income distribution. And it boils down to paying people like Matthews to have more children.
Yet when we looked at Dewsbury we found that income is not the problem. Average incomes are only 19% below the national average, whereas living costs are much lower - for example a typical house in Moorside Road costs well under half the national average (see this blog for more on regional cost differences).
The real problem was identified by Roger O'Doherty, the manager of Dewsbury's failed £3.5m regeneration scheme. That's one of Brown's much puffed "Pathfinder" projects, setting up youth services, community groups, adult learning etc etc. It's flopped, and O'Doherty now says "Unless there is work in the future the most deprived areas will remain the most deprived areas."
And there he's hit the nail on the head. As the world and his wife now agree, a community dependent on government handouts will never be able to drag itself back up. Real work is the only way forward.
Brown having squandered a golden decade, we now face the problem of switching our welfare fueled underclass from benefits to employment in the teeth of a fierce recession. But what we said in March still holds. We should:
- Freeze welfare benefits, especially the reward for having children: welfare should not be an attractive career choice
- Freeze the minimum wage: Brown likes to brag how the minimum wage has not destroyed jobs, but in areas like the poor end of Dewsbury a national minimum wage almost certainly means unskilled low-end labour cannot find work
None of it will be easy. But it has to be done.
And let's hope that wherever Shannon is now, she's being treated as more than a meal ticket.