Thinking the unthinkable

Frank Field’s feckless fathers, by Melissa Benn
Posted in: PF blog

11:09 am, 30 June 2010 | Melissa Benn

For as long as I can remember, Frank Field has been thinking the unthinkable. Now part of David Cameron’s cost-cutting team, some old ideas are being re-cycled in a new supposedly culturally and politically sensitive form. His proposals, however, will face some very familiar problems.

Single mothers have long been in the firing line. Remember Peter Lilley and his 1992 conference speech about having a ‘little list…of benefit offenders I’ll soon be rooting out’? Thatcherite Britain was defined by its class-based distaste for ‘babies on benefit’.

This time, however, the argument is more subtle. Field clearly thinks it is a woman’s job to raise children and the man’s to provide for her. He blames a generation of ‘upwardly mobile very successful women’ for trying to drive young mothers into work.

But Field doesn’t quite grasp the fundamental shift in women’s lives. Yes, many mothers prefer to spend the early years closer to home; some due to lack of educational and work opportunities. But many don’t, including the wives of most of our senior politicians. You can’t design a 21st century benefit system around a 1950s model of motherhood.

Either way, you certainly won’t help poor mothers who want to bring up their own children with proposed reductions in housing benefit or the slicing away of the baby tax credit, the toddler tax credit and the Pregnancy Grant.

As the unexpected star of the recent budget debate, Yvette Cooper, presumably one of the upwardly mobile women Field is referring to, taunted her opposite number Iain Duncan Smith, ‘At least Margaret Thatcher had the grace to wait till the children (were) weaned before she snatched their support‘.

But fathers too are being scrutinised in a new way. Thatcher set up the once ill-starred Child Support Agency to chase feckless fathers for payment. The new plan is far harsher: cut the benefits of those dads who won’t get back into work.

Once again, the coalition will run into trouble. A fresh and surely expensive (not to mention ignominious) layer of government will be needed to prove DNA and the outcome of one-night stands.

The other huge but as yet unspoken part of the jigsaw is unemployment; not just the chronic worklessness in areas decimated by structural and political changes of the Thatcherite 1980s but the hundreds of thousands of job losses coming our way.

What good is it saying to a young man: work for your babies or live in bottom line poverty, if there really is no work on offer?

2 Responses to Thinking the unthinkable

  1. Your post was another reminder of why I have never considered voting Tory at risk of stating the bleeding obvious on my part Melissa. It concerns me greatly that an increasingly mentioned name in this dream team of Cameron’s is Lord Browne.

    This is the very same Browne who according the Private Eye cut costs on health and safety at BP that now (at best indirectly) sees the Gulf of Mexico getting polluted and losing many people their livelihoods, their beaches and their way of life, not to mention the lives that were actually lost in the explosion – not good to talk about people dying in the same paragraph as the new gurus of modernisation and reform I suspect so we’ll pretend that bit didn’t happen. Do you think we’ll ever see that hoped for accountability in UK government? You don’t actually have to answer that.

    So Mr Browne (or Lordy Lord as his cronies prefer to call him) how is this unholy trinity with Cameron and Field going to pan out and where’s the deputy prime minister in all this? Just hugging babies and opening branches of Netto will go out of vogue at some point I think. Is Netto the new Tory M&S? (pile it high, sell it cheap, pay minimum wage) philosophy that Thatch and Portaloo would have been so ecstatic about in their heyday.

    So what’s all this got to do with Frank Field then? I suppose it’s all connected in the greater scheme of things and not just my aversion to most things political in the UK since Thatch took over. The so called modernisers are the wreckers in my book, but how do we know what Field is thinking and if it’s actually ever going to be honest so that the thoughts, words and actions are all joined up – now there’s a novelty. I think it’s one of the definitions of integrity – still not much of that about.

    Those who shout “reform” the loudest often seem not to have got it right the first time and they just look for change as a way of saying we’ve moved on after fucking things up. No way to run a ballroom I think.

    So Frank Field – is he someone worthy of a Big Benn Blog Bulletin? I’m on the fence here. The coalition so far has been a bit irrelevant in our house. Sort of disappointment tinged with shall we get a baby sitter and go for a curry. Apathy is still rife and that’s worrying too. And an inaccessible London Pride after all these years – that’s on another blog though. Look up Ju90. What a star and a great friend of the late David Morris who passed away earlier this year.

    Despite my feeling of malaise and contempt towards the dodgy politicians (the malaise actually makes me unsure whether it is malaise or actually contempt – these things do so confuse me) I am still reminded of the great success stories that come out of ordinary people making things happen.

    This week I went to hear poetry and prose written by students at my daughter’s comprehensive Queens park Community School. The standard of writing from these inspired and motivated young people made me feel very humbled and optimistic that Britain is still sometimes great despite dodgy lawyers and politicians messing things up for us and getting their moats cleaned. Thankfully the parents and other volunteers and enter[rising and inspirational writers got together, largely assisted by Melissa’s efforts and contacts and made something quite spectacular happen.

    This short prose is my thank you for making so many young writers feel so positive about things and hopeful that together we can all do the right thing and make a difference. We just need to realise that the first action every government of every nation needs to adopt is to get on with one another. It can start any time we like, but we have to be serious about it – no messing about. Keep the faith sister Melissa.

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