'I think this will sort out for once and for all the sheep from the goats,' said Michael Peterlillo, as the new joint command for the social security system intends to be known. 'If people have got the guts and the initiative and the personal responsibility to get back to Bethlehem at the very worst time of year, I think that shows they have got what it takes and thoroughly deserve the family benefit we shall be giving them.'
Why, though, has the Government chosen Bethlehem as the place to which all claimaints must return?
'It's in line with our new call for a return to basics,' Michael Peterlillo says. 'Bethlehem is very much the sort of place with traditional values that we seek to encourage - a community with old-fashioned attitudes, and none the worse for that]'
What sort of old-fashioned values is he thinking of?
'Oh, having an old-fashioned hotel in the middle of town with old-fashioned stables behind, where old-fashioned animals can still be found, with lovely old- fashioned straw on the ground. That sort of thing.'
But surely if everyone is required to go back to Bethlehem at the same time of year, there will be a desperate shortage of accommodation for claimants, the poorer of whom will suffer dreadfully?
'Well, one is tempted to say that they should have thought of that before they decided to become claimants and start bleeding the welfare state to death,' says Michael Peterlillo. 'One doesn't say that, of course, because it's a dreadfully uncompassionate thing to say, and doesn't sound too good coming from a cabinet minister, but that is what one is tempted to say.'
And what would you say?
'Oh, what I would say is that if there is no accommodation in the normal places, there is always the traditional, old-style stabling where you can spend a perfectly splendid, traditional-style night.'
Expensive, though, what with the recent imposition of VAT on straw and hay, as used for bedding?
'You're absolutely right. And we have thought long and hard about this one.'
With what result?
'Resulting in a decision to leave the VAT on hay and straw. We shall also be looking long and hard at those householders who have stabling that is registered for the use of animals, but which we find subsequently is also being used for the accommodation of humans.'
So that you can make sure the health conditions are adequate?
'No. So that we can impose business rates on the premises.'
It is, of course, a long and hard journey to Bethlehem, involving the crossing of some dangerous frontiers, is it not?
'If the claimant is adequately insured for all eventualities, I see no problem here, ' the Chancellor, Kenneth Clarke, says. 'Which is, of course, why we have decided to impose taxation on all insurance transactions. Make 'em go to Bethlehem. Make 'em get insured. Make 'em pay tax on the insurance. It's good business for us. It's good busines for everyone. It makes sense.'
But surely there is still no getting round the fact that the average family, single parent or not, is going to come out of this no better off after all the expenses of going to Bethlehem have been paid?
'A lot of nonsense has been talked about single-parent families,' the Home Secretary, Michael Howard, says. 'And I have been proud to be part of that process. But what about the problems of the three-parent family? I wonder sometimes just how seriously people take that problem]'
Could Mr Howard elaborate on how he conceived the three-
'The typical three-parent family has a mother, a father on earth and a father in Heaven. The father on earth might be something humble such as a carpenter, while the child is told that the father in Heaven is an all-powerful deity. Well, you don't have to be a genius to spot that the child is going to have a very confused idea of what a father figure actually is, especially as the all-powerful father in Heaven is likely to be a non-visiting, absentee parent] There will be conflict between the two father figures offered to the offspring, and I fear that such a child will grow up to be a very strange member of society, one perhaps with a most unconventional concept of his role in that society . . .'
A Government warning to claimants intending to come to Bethlehem: if gold is unavailable for your benefit payment, please state on the form whether you would prefer to be paid instead in frankincense or myrrh.Reuse content