Thursday, 4 December 2008

A Licence to Breed

Whether or not she was "pure evil" - as the police described her this afternoon - Karen Matthews was undoubtedly a very bad mother. With seven children by five different feckless fathers, all reared amidst chaos, neglect and, it would seem, regular brutality and possible abuse, Matthews was manifestly unfit for parenthood.

Yet, were it not for her scheme, as stupid as it was squalid, to arrange her daughter's kidnap, she would still be providing her prolific brood with the worst possible start in life. In retrospect, for nine-year-old Shannon Matthews being kidnapped by her mother's toyboy's uncle may well have been the best thing that ever happened to her. Indeed, reading between the lines, she seems to have enjoyed her captivity rather more than her accustomed life. Which, given that she was drugged and possibly tied up, is really saying something.

But for all her scuzzy ineptitude Karen Matthews was only repeating the pattern of her own childhood. One of seven children herself, she left home at 14 and ended up in care; by the time she was 17 she was shacked up with her first boyfriend and starting out on her career of miscellaneous breeding. Her sister Julie Poskett "said she began to despair of her after the birth of the first child which saw the start of a series of relationships aimed at maximising benefit claims." All the clichés of underclass dysfunctionality were present and correct: she was Vicky Pollard, Waynetta Slob - even the kidnap plot is said to have been inspired by an episode of Shameless.

Attention in recent weeks has been directed at extreme cases of child killing ("Baby P") or sexual abuse (the "British Fritzl") but, as the contested figures published in the Lancet yesterday hint, low-level but damaging forms of child-abuse persist in all developed countries. Different regimes of social services and state intervention face the blame when things go tragically wrong but seem, whatever the dogma or training of separate national systems, unable to provide much more than sticking plaster. Baby P was exceptional, though far from unique - an average of one child every week dies in Britain from abuse or neglect. Karen Matthews, until her stroke of would-be genius, was not. And as Martin Narey, formerly of the prison service and now of Barnardo's, pointed out in a tactless but probably accurate speech the other week, had Baby P lived the chances are he would have ended up an antisocial lout. Be that as it may, it's fair to say his chances of studying at Oxford are likely to have been fairly slim.

No doubt it was ever thus. To blame the decline in marriage and the increase in casual relationships and single parenthood, as some social and religious conservatives do, is to paint a false picture of a golden age of happy families. In reality there has always been neglect, abuse and poor parenting - indeed practices now regarded as abusive were once commonplace. It is not that long ago that "spare the rod, spoil the child" was proverbial wisdom and, unfashionable as it may be now, there are still many who in their hearts believe it.

Hand-wringing in the Guardian yesterday about the failures of child protection, Yvonne Roberts wrote that "It's too draconian to suggest that if every child matters, then every would-be parent should first be passed as reasonably fit for purpose". And that would seem to be an obvious point to make. The right to "found a family" is enshrined in the European Convention; to require state permission to fulfil nature's function would be to extend the nanny state to almost totalitarian proportions, to make real the fantasies of Utopians from Plato to Huxley, to resurrect the buried nightmare of eugenics.

Yet the situation we now find ourselves in with regards to the family and the state is illogical. Why should having a child - one of the most serious and important things anyone ever does - be subject to almost no government regulation and interference while far less complex or momentous activities, like inviting a singer to perform in a bar or selling fruit and veg in pounds and ounces, is the stuff of red tape or bans? Why do health and safety inspectors order the destruction of harmless horse chestnut trees when anyone can squirt out a baby? You require a licence to drive a car, shoot a grouse or leave the country for a short holiday. It will soon be impossible to volunteer to referee a school football match without undergoing extensive police checks - yet statistics consistently prove that the vast majority of abuse occurs in the home, in situations where there is no prior vetting and intervention is patchy at best and could never be failsafe.

Couples who wish to adopt - or even to foster - are subjected to the most intense scrutiny and then face being turned down for reasons that often seem purely arbitrary, those who through no fault of their own have reproductive difficulties are faced with bureaucratic hurdles almost as high before being granted NHS treatment. Yet anyone capable of getting themselves up the duff is legally able to have their baby, however unqualified or unsuitable they are, however inappropriate their circumstances - unless for some reason they have attracted the adverse attentions of the social services. This isn't merely irrational, it's unfair - even, dare I say it, discriminatory. If there are sound reasons for making things so difficult for the childless then they should apply - perhaps more so - to the carelessly and dangerously fertile.

The Dutch socialist politicain Marja Van Dijken recently suggested that women identified in advance as potentially unfit mothers - or who had shown themselves to be so in the past - could be subjected to forceable contraception or face automatic removal of their children at birth. Actually, that last part is not that dissimilar to what sometimes happens in Britain even now, leading to fears in some quarters that newborn children are being unnecessarily taken into care to meet adoption targets. There was widespread outrage at a proposal that seems so statist and illiberal. But perhaps Van Dijken wasn't going far enough. Instead of waiting for a potentially bad parent to come to the attention of the authorities, shouldn't all parents be screened before they are allowed to breed?

It could be achieved, in the first instance, by putting all girls (boys too, if possible), as they reach puberty, onto some form of contraception, perhaps by way of a course of injections. On deciding to start a family, having reached the age of at least 21, they would be able to apply to the authorities to have the contraceptive treatment withdrawn. This would be done, but only after a number of conditions were satisfied. Among these might be the following:

  • The woman would have to have passed a course of instruction in parenting; so would her partner (which could, of course, be a gay partner). This could be incorporated into the national curriculum; but if more than five years had passed since she left school a brief refresher course might be appropriate. A certificate of parenting competence would include such elements as correct nutrition, providing a stimulating environment, appropriate use of computers, etc.
  • The couple (or single parent, if the woman is alone) would have to demonstrate fitness for parenthood in various practical ways. For example, some degree of financial stability, emotional maturity and an appropriate lifestyle might be insisted upon. Smoking, obesity and chronic health complaints might be seen as grounds for refusing permission to conceive. It might even be reasonable to extend the domain of state intervention into political or even religious beliefs. Thus membership of the BNP might be enough to disqualify people from having children. Members of minority religious communities would be asked to sign declarations that they would not seek to arrange marriages for older children. Richard Dawkins rightly regards strong religious indoctrination as akin to child abuse: frightening children with tales of hellfire and damnation, or belief in the imminent second coming of Christ, is an obvious form of psychological damage, the effects of which can last a lifetime. So why allow people with such dangerous beliefs to pass them on to vulnerable children?
  • In addition to the formal requirements, a government inspector would have to inquire into the state of a couple's relationship (or, in the case of a single parent, the existence of a supportive family or friendship network), and provide counselling to prepare them for the unexpected demands which a first child puts upon them.
  • Once permission to come of contraception had been granted, state supervision would not come to an end. Once the baby is born parents would have to satisfy the authorities that they were behaving properly and that the child was happy and flourishing. There would be annual checks by health visitors or social workers, and children, once they reached school age, would be interviewed annually by a child psychologist. Similar checks would ensure that they were receiving an appropriate regime of diet and exercise.
One advantage of such a scheme would be the virtual elimination of teenage parenthood. Younger parents may have the energy to bring up children, but they have neither the life experience or, frequently, the staying power. It is, apart from anything else, nonsensical that 16 year olds are forbidden from buying a cigarette, a knife or the smallest quantity of alcohol, may not even watch a film which the BBFC in its wisdom has decided is too much for them, yet they are allowed to take on the onerous responsibilities of parenthood. And the bad results, in terms of their own and their children's life chances, are all too apparent. Just ask Karen Matthews.

How would all this be funded? There would, of course, be a huge increase in the social service budget, but this may to some extent be offset by savings in benefits payments and - further down the line - fewer casualties of neglectful parenting would end up in prison. Moreover, parenting licences need not be free - nor, necessarily, would the classes. Driving lessons, after all, are not free. Nor are passports, which have increased severalfold in cost in recent years and are likely to do so even more in future as the expensive formalities necessary to ensure the security of the ID cards register come on stream. A fee - payable by installments - of around £1000 ought to cover most of the cost of the new system.

Given that the Times reported in 2006 that it costs around £180,000 on average to raise a child to adulthood, an extra £1000 should not prove too great a burden on prospective parents, while the expense of the fees would serve the additional purpose of weeding out some "sub-prime" families. Investment in a parenting licence would demonstrate not merely financial stability - essential to the wellbeing of children - but also seriousness of commitment. For those who became pregnant without securing the necessary licence a fine of, say, £500 over and above the cost of enrolment in the scheme might prove an appropriate corrective - or, if the expense were deemed to great for poorer families, it might be possible to achieve a licence by doing voluntary work - for example, hands-on experience at a nursery.

As an additional incentive, those who prove particularly effective parents - as judged by educational attainment, participation of the children in voluntary activities, psychological testing, etc - might be refunded part of the cost of the training, or receive grants towards free educational holidays. In time, the savings in the costs of social failure would probably come to outweigh the costs of extra social workers and health inspectors; and since well-brought-up, healthy children usually become effective, well-balanced and productive adults the wider economy would benefit.

My proposed scheme is not, like the ID cards programme, for the benefit of the state or the convenience of bureaucrats. Nor does it resemble the discredited notions of early 20th century eugenicists. The eugenicists feared that the stupid and feckless tended to breed like the proverbial rabbits, while those of higher brainpower and morality had fewer children and sometimes none at all. Their concerns strike us now as offensively elitist: they stressed things like the "quality of the race" and raised spectres of a society sinking back into stupidity and barbarism as the well-bred failed to breed. No-one would speak in such terms now, even though they might think it privately. More importantly, the eugenicists had a simplistic view of heritability. Intelligence is not a simple matter of genetic inheritance; geniuses sometimes emerge from the most unpromising backgrounds.

A system of licensed parenting, by contrast, is not concerned with breeding more intelligent, stronger or more physically attractive children or eliminating unwanted characteristics or disease. It is merely for the sake of the children. For some parents the arrangements would be intrusive, onerous or unnecessary. But that would be a small price to pay to eliminate the misery of so many deprived and abusive childhoods.

Who could possibly object?

16 comments:

Wasp_Box said...

You are Jaqui Smith aicmfp.

Wasp_Box said...

Actually, your point about adoption is well made. We have friends (who have one happy, healthy child) who have been put through the most ridiculous and intrusive two years trying to adopt another child.

The whole thing seems to be run by committees because no individual will ever take any responsibility. The hoops they insist you jump through are quite unbelievable.

Our friends are bright and pragmatic people who have tolerated the rubbish because they wish to have another child but they are reaching an end point because their existing child is getting older and they think it will be more difficult to integrate another child.

The really sad thing is that these are people I (and I'm sure most of you) would describe as ideal parents. I despair.

Olive said...

Fantastic idea! Police and community support officers could be given special powers to detain any pregnant women they see who are unable to prove they are licensed to procreate!

Anonny Mouse said...

Your argument seems thus: the government interferes in lots of stupid trivial ways, when there are big, serious ways in which it does not. Therefore, it should interfere in these serious ways.

My point would be: maybe it should stop interfering in stupid trivial ways and leave me and everyone else alone. And harsh as it sounds, if this means that some kids suffer, then I am afraid that may just be the way it has to be.

I can't help but feel that the entire post was written tongue-in-cheek, but it is late, and I've eaten too much...

Andrew Fish said...

When you talk about the charges in your scheme, I think you've touched on part of the problem but not the right solution. Part of the problem of what you call 'sub-prime parents' is that in its obsession with 'hard-working families', government provides what are essentially economic incentives to breed. Rich people are not persuaded by the relatively small amounts, but some poorer people see them as a revenue stream. Because such people are having children, often in quantity, whilst not being interested in parenting, the risks of child abuse are that much greater than in a small family where the children were actually wanted.

The trouble is how to combat this. One can't simply cap funding after so many children without leaving existing families to suffer; and a policy that applied different rules to new families would, if not threatened by human rights legislation, cause widespread howls from the populace at large.

But what if we look at why children are seen as an economic benefit? Surely, if the benefits given for children were spent on the children they would be of little benefit. The truth, however, is that this isn't what happens: parents with large benefit families spend only a fraction of the benefits on the children, the rest are reserved for their own pleasures. If we could find a mechanism to prevent this - perhaps by applying a card system where the money can only be spent on appropriate goods and services - then we would remove the incentive to raise kids as a cash crop. We'd probably even make it easier for social services to cope.

The Heresiarch said...

I appreciate that this scheme would run into many practical difficulties and - as Anonny Mouse detected - I am not being entirely serious. I offer it more as a thought experiment. My scheme would mean huge state interference in private life, but unlike many manifestations of bureaucracy, it would be interference for an uncomplicated public good.

Many of the social problems with which we are inflicted, from crime and anti-social behaviour to economic deprivation, could be solved - or at least greatly mitigated - if only we could find a way of ensuring that only responsible, stable people became parents. The incompetence of the social services, revealed by Baby P, would be much lessened if Baby P had never been born. There would be far fewer abortions. Nor would children continue to be punished for the incompetence and fecklessness of their parents. The alternatives - withdrawal of benefits, or forcing mothers prematurely back to work - hit children hardest.

You raise some interesting points, Andrew. But a card system such as the one you propose would serve to increase dependence on the state. The trouble is that any system aimed at punishing the feckless would impact most on the children. The only equitable solution would be to prevent them having children in the first place.

Letters From A Tory said...

Maximising benefit claims by having children - how delightful, and what a pat on the back for this Labour government.

passer by said...

I bet she did not read the Daily Mail! she was apparently more of a Mirror women, at least her pedo livin plant life was.

Sorry but the moral vacuum we have created with our new secular religion of non judgementalism, and moral relativism is at the heart of all this.

This monster of Underclass has been created by the state and is sustained by the state, the state has in effect become a surrogate family, and a surrogate community.

The Heresiarch said...

I'd be surprised if she read any sort of newspaper.

As for the underclass being created and sustained by the state... well yes, but what is to be done about it now? Making people jump through state-approved hoops before they could start a family would bring with it obvious dangers of politicisation, as I hinted in the article. But at least it would produce future generations that were unlikely to fall into a condition of chronic dependence and anti-social attitudes. Moral fortitude would re-assert itself as the underclass disappeared. And whatever you think of my proposal (whatever I think about it) it could hardly be described as "non-judgemental".

passer by said...

Whats to be done?

Push real power down to the bottom, Whitehall might tolerate KM but I bet her local neighborhood given half a chance would not.

elected prosecutors, elected chiefs of police, elected council officials of depts, the lot.

Yes of course plenty of towns will muck up big time, but over time thru the trial and error process they will start to work.

valdemar squelch said...

I agree with your idea, H. I know it was tongue-in-cheek, but that doesn't make it wrong. I'd add an age limit. Don't let anyone be a parent till they're 21. After all, raising a new human being is a damn sight more important than being an MP.

Passer by, I agree. But introduce compulsory voting, too; otherwise - given the low turnouts at local elections - you could end up with an Islamist police chief and a creationist school board.

The Heresiarch said...

Let me tell you, Valdemar. I started writing this as a piss-take of state nannying, but by the time I finished it I thought it was a good idea. Well, sort of. Certainly making sure unsuitable people didn't have children would be a much better use of the state's nannying resources than preventing people rolling cheese down hillsides.

I don't like compulsory voting, though. Low turn-outs in elections "send a message" to politicians that they're not up to the job. And I think the prospect of an Islamist police chief would probably bring out the voters anyway.

passer by said...

Not sure on the compulsory voting bit, but a smart thing to do might be to give a 50 quid discount on your council tax if you turn up to vote?

Anonymous said...

Authoritarian bilge - fuck off.

Edwin said...

Oh dear! Irony is dangerous especially when you start to construct an argument - one can be led into strange places. I think I have come across this plan somewhere before - in an Aldous Huxley novel or story maybe.

As it happens, the most morally reprehensible human being I have ever met was the son of a bishop and a highly educated Oxford man. And curioulsy enough, one of my best friends went to a neighbouring college, got an exceedingly good degree and is now a very rich man indeed and remains a nice guy. His mum only gave up her stall in Glasgow's Barras just a couple of years ago. My own family background, come to think of it, is not brilliant!

You are quite right about the child - she should have a better chance now, poor kid. But the only real difference between her awful mum and some equally awful middle-class mums I know is simply one of money - and brass neck perhaps.

PS - I lie the comment 'Authoritarian Bilge' above. This I suppose is a Turkish lady, perhaps a Bilge cousin of Boris's. . .

therealalekid said...

To be honest I was pretty unsure of your idea in this article, but then I read this article today. Oh, dear.


http://www.timesonline.co.uk/tol/news/uk/article5724616.ece

I'm coming around to the idea of licenses now.