No easy road to easy street.jpg

No easy road to easy street

By MIKE JOHNSON

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Mike Johnson is a free-lance journalist who worked in the Algarve for more than 20 years. He now lives in Plymouth in the UK and comments on world topics which fascinate him.

IT WAS a 1917 silent movie, made by Charlie Chaplin, which gave birth to the phrase Easy Street.

It told of a tramp’s journey from rags to riches, but today means something rather different. One dictionary definition calls it ‘a condition of steady good fortune or financial security’, but doesn’t add, as it well might, ‘thanks to the munificence of the State’.

The gaunt, distressed face of Karen Matthews, aged 33, first appeared on British television screens at the end of February 2008. She was appealing for any information on the whereabouts of her nine year old daughter, Shannon, who had failed to return home from school the previous day. Pictured with her 22-year old partner at the time, Craig Meehan, a supermarket fishmonger, she tearfully pleaded for the safe return of her daughter.

It was not, unfortunately, an unfamiliar story in modern-day Britain. The family lived on a run-down housing estate in the Yorkshire town of Dewsbury, in the north of England. Many of the families on the estate were unemployed and living on state benefit, as were Karen and Shannon. A massive police search was launched, and frequent similar TV appeals, by Ms Matthews and her neighbours, were made over the ensuing days.

For 23 long days, there was no sign of the missing little girl, despite a 50,000 pound reward being offered for information, and the police admitted they were beginning to fear the worst. Then came a breakthrough. A telephone call to the police tipped them off that a girl answering Shannon’s description might be held at an address not far from the family home.

Drugged

A police team swooped on the house and discovered Shannon, cowering in a large drawer under a double bed. Turning their attention to the matching drawer on the other side of the bed, they discovered a man hiding there. He turned out to be a distant relative of Karen Matthew’s partner. It transpired that Shannon had been drugged and tethered during her three week ordeal.

The mystery slowly unravelled. Police claimed that Shannon’s mother had colluded with the man in order to claim the 50,000 pound reward, which they would then share. Both were arrested and found guilty at their subsequent trial. It came out during the court hearing that the pair had got the idea for their fraudulent scheme after watching the story of the missing Madeleine McCann in the Algarve, 18 months earlier.

Although there was universal condemnation of the actions by the pair, it is worth looking at the circumstances under which they occurred. Karen Matthews had seven children by five or six different fathers – she could not remember the exact number, and had, herself, been taken into care as a child. Everyday life on her housing estate was not exactly a bundle of fun. Many of her neighbours would have been on permanent welfare benefit, not interested in finding a job, with a life-style of alcohol and drug abuse, casual sex, no parental guidance and no prospect of bettering themselves.

Karen had never worked a day in her life. She lived off the taxpayer and each new child she conceived brought new benefits, currently standing, in her case, at £400 a week – and she is by no means alone.

In Plymouth, where I live, there are many such housing estates. I see mothers with four and five children trailing round the growing number of ‘Pound Shops’. Small cafes, offering breakfasts at giveaway prices, are full of women, their unemployed partners, and their children, all eating at the expense of the state.

Teenage pregnancy

All this demonstrates a fatal flaw in the welfare state, which the present government says it has plans to address. This is by no means a revolutionary initiative. During the early 1990s, the Conservative government of the day tried, unsuccessfully, to tackle the growing problem of the increasing number of single mothers on welfare. Tony Blair’s New Labour countered this by introducing a system which opened the door as a meal ticket for benefit claimants.

Britain currently has the highest rate of teenage pregnancy in Europe and, in 2001, 90 per cent of births to mothers under 20 occurred outside marriage. To accuse these teenagers of irresponsibility is not necessarily the correct response. Many have simply looked at the system as it exists at present, and are milking it for all they are worth.    

Now, James Purnell, the Work and Pensions Secretary, has come up with a new set of proposals. He will try to bring in a commitment to ‘conditionality’, which means that those who receive welfare benefit must do something in return. Single mothers, with children older than seven, would be removed from income support and given a ‘job seeker’s allowance’, under which they would have to look for work.

He also wants mothers with children between the ages of one and six to ‘prepare for work’ by undergoing compulsory job training or work experience. Those who refuse would face a reduction in their benefit. Only a tiny minority – mothers with babies under one year old – would continue to receive benefit with no conditions attached.  

Other would-be reformers go further. They would like to see a limit on the number of children for whom a single mother can claim benefit. This is only a start to solve a problem where, on estates such as where the Matthews family lived, two-thirds of households consist of lone parents with no fathers present.

For Shannon Matthews, though, now placed by the local authority with foster parents, this will hopefully be the best Christmas of her young life.

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