Christina Patterson: Thanks, Nick, but more choice is not what some parents need

The Saturday Column

Saturday 19 June 2010 00:00

Sometimes it's tough being a mother. You wake up knackered, after a bit of a lively night (he's always frisky after a late-night session on!), get the older kids out of the door for the breakfast they'll get at school, and collapse with the fags and the baby in front of Jeremy Kyle.

You don't bother with nappies. A Morrison's bag will do. You don't bother with cooking. You don't bother with anything, really. If the baby screams, you scream back.

This, of course, was the model of contemporary parenting that emerged during Karen Matthews's trial for the fake kidnap of her daughter, Shannon Matthews. It was a model that launched a thousand angst-ridden column inches and had even liberals nurturing secret fantasies of forced sterilisation. The woman who had seven children from at least five fathers, and whose energy was reserved, apart from her sex life, for a single money-making plot apparently nicked from Shameless, became a symbol of the "broken" Britain that a bunch of uxorious public school boys was itching to fix. And, actually, you couldn't help thinking that some cold showers and a few laps round the playing field might be a start. Even better, a spell at Abu Ghraib.

Instead, Karen Matthews is in Peterborough jail, serving an eight-year sentence for a crime she still claims she didn't commit. This week, a report on her case was released.

Charting the involvement of social services from the birth of her first child to the point, 12 years later, when she apparently tried to sell her daughter, the report reveals that there were several points when her children were deemed "at risk". The children, the report said, were subject to "low-level neglect", but they were not removed from Matthews's care because there was evidence of a "bond of affection". "The problem," the report concluded, "was she could not translate her feelings into 'good parenting'."

You can see that the inability to metamorphose the kind of feelings that a toddler has for its pet rabbit into any kind of practical care might well be a bit of a hitch. You can also see that social services couldn't necessarily be expected to anticipate that a mother would drug her daughter, lock her in a mate's bedroom, and go on telly pleading for her return. On this point, they were exonerated. What they were chastised for was "lack of support and advice" on family planning and contraception.

You'd have thought that after seven pregnancies Karen Matthews might just about have worked out the connection between sexual intercourse and the screaming blob in the Morrison's bag, but perhaps someone needed to spell it out. There were, however, 22 agencies involved in supporting Matthews and her extremely complicated family. Short of moving in and wiping the babies' bottoms themselves, it's slightly hard to see what more they could have done to enable her to keep the children she continued, at regular intervals, to spew out.

God only knows what all this cost. The horrible truth, however, is that the cost for the taxpayer would have been a great deal higher if the children had been taken into care earlier. The cost for the children might well have been higher, too. Almost half of children in care end up in prison. Yes, almost half. That's quite a hefty cost for the taxpayer, and not much fun for the children-turned-criminals either. You can see why social services will try pretty much anything to keep children with their parents, even parents like Karen Matthews. Who are, by the way, 10 a penny. "We are," said the report's author, Carole Smith, matter-of-factly, "looking at a pretty common problem".

No wonder one of the young men whose job it now is to fix "broken Britain" (the one, in fact, who won the Mumsnet vote, and who no doubt swathed the buttocks of his own bilingual children in lovely organic cotton) this week announced a Childhood and Families Task Force. "This Government wants to ease the pressure on parents," wrote Nick Clegg in a newspaper article on Thursday. It would do it, he said, "not by meddling in people's private business, but by giving families the freedom to make the right choices for themselves".

It sounds great. Great in Putney, great in Kensington, but perhaps not so great on the sink estates of Dewsbury, where freedom tends to take a different form. This week, the National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence called for primary school children to be taught about relationships and sex. All the evidence suggests that this kind of education equips children with the skills to resist the pressures of early sex, pressures which often contribute to parenthood in the Matthews mould. Plans for these issues to be included in the primary school curriculum were put forward by the last government, but dropped when the election was called. If the Lib-Con Government really is serious about making life better for some of Britain's more miserable children, it should start with this. You can, however, bet your bottom euro that it won't.

How many MEPs does it take to screw up?

Beyond providing employment for a motley selection of Nicks and Nigels (multilingual smoothies à la Clegg, foreigner-bashing fatties à la Griffin, and general all-round nincompoops à la Farage), I have, I have to admit, never been entirely clear what MEPs do to earn their 80-odd-grand salaries. But now we know what they do. They listen to lobbyists.

After two years of debate about a food-labelling system which might just halt the inexorable tendency of Europe's citizens to eat themselves into the grave, MEPs have rejected a traffic light colour-coding system for the Guideline Daily Amount system favoured by food manufacturers. The traffic light system would have been simple: green for "go ahead, it's pretty healthy", orange for "steady on, but maybe for a treat", red for "only if you really want to kill yourself". Funnily enough, the multinational food corporations which produce the cocktails of chemicals that were sure-fire candidates for a red label weren't keen. Instead, in letters, emails and literally hundreds of meetings with MEPs, they lobbied for a system of food labelling which is a little more complicated, a system, in fact, which requires a PhD in chemistry to decode.

And the MEPs caved in. Faced with the opportunity to do something which might have saved quite a lot of lives, not to mention public money, they chose to cosy up to Kellogg's and Coca-Cola. Shame on them.

Memo to BP: I really want my life back

If you thought it was bad enough, during the gripping, but excruciating pantomime of the "British Petroleum" explosion and its aftermath, to be British, just try being half-British and half-Swedish. I winced when Tony Hayward talked about drops in oceans and wanting his life back, while also half-admiring his plucky English unguardedness. When Obama started bullying him, I wanted to give him a hug, and when the members of the Congressional Committee ripped him limb from limb, I was torn between a teacherly desire to order him to take his hands (metaphorically speaking) out of his pockets, and answer the bloody question, and one to whisk him far, far away, to a place where he could "dissolve, and quite forget... the weariness, the fever and the fret".

But when Carl-Henric Svanberg finally broke his vow of silence to claim that the company of which he was chairman would even help "the little people", I wanted to crawl into a hole and die. First (in a horrible echo of Swedish neutrality during the war) the guy abnegates all responsibility to his accident-prone CEO, and then he insults pretty much everyone. A terrible day for Sweden. All I can say is, thank God for Henning Mankell.

Register for free to continue reading

Registration is a free and easy way to support our truly independent journalism

By registering, you will also enjoy limited access to Premium articles, exclusive newsletters, commenting, and virtual events with our leading journalists

Already have an account? sign in

By clicking ‘Register’ you confirm that your data has been entered correctly and you have read and agree to our Terms of use, Cookie policy and Privacy notice.

This site is protected by reCAPTCHA and the Google Privacy policy and Terms of service apply.

Join our new commenting forum

Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies


Thank you for registering

Please refresh the page or navigate to another page on the site to be automatically logged inPlease refresh your browser to be logged in