At the same time, the costs of the underclass will never have been greater. Some are surprised that Karen Mathews bred bastards for welfare money, but this hardly touches the true cost; for every £10 extra that Karen got, it cost us another £5,000 in increased health, education, welfare, criminal justice, housing and social care bills. Each of her children will now cost us about £40,000 a year to look after; that's £280,000 a year for the seven until they reach 16 and can start breeding welfare bastards of their own. And all the indicators are that they will.
The underclass will be hit in hidden ways by the economic crisis. Those working in the black or grey economy can be laid off without any redundancy costs or notifications; traditional black economy occupations such as minicab driving have got harder and the alternatives such as illegal waste transportation and dumping are much riskier. Drug dealers will see their incomes slashed as demand drops, and as increased acquisitive crime floods the stolen goods market prices will drop. Both violent and serious acquisitive crime will increase sharply but as the prisons reach capacity we will see more and more of those convicted of serious offences walk free. The costs of dealing with the underclass will rise astronomically.
It's been estimated that if we follow the US model, which has started to get the size of the underclass under control by both welfare reform and high imprisonment rates, it's been estimated that we'll need over 200,000 prison places. The 7,500 extra places that the 'Titan' prisons will bring will be like spitting into a gale. Is there no alternative?
Well, yes. Let's call them Community Settlements. Take any of the several large crime-ridden council estates in London stuffed with the underclass and flatten it. Construct instead a gated community in which the residents live together in 'wards' - with the sexes segregated except for married couples who would share accommodation. The Community Settlement would have its own health and education provision, the residents would be under supervision, and useful work would be found for all within the gated community, either cooking, cleaning, laundering, growing community food, caring for the elderly or in fabrication or assembly work carried out for external firms. Children would be cared for and protected from abuse. Entry to a Community Settlement would be voluntary, but if their construction was coupled with the abolition of welfare housing and benefits for the feckless underclass, all the Karen Matthews and their male counterparts and their kind, then we know that the underclass will deliver themselves at their doors.
The Victorian Workhouse has had a very bad press. In reality, many of them were complex communities that served their inmates well, kept them in good health, fed them healthy food, educated their bastard children, kept them out of crime, drink and drugs and gave them dignity in labour.
Community Settlements would be much cheaper and much more effective than the alternatives - prisons, combined with the social costs of providing wholly for the underclass in open society. They would not be compulsory - the option of working, earning a wage and renting private accommodation at market rent would be open to all, and entry would be voluntary. However, once in, residents would have to accept the regime and rules.
Even in the 1920s life was often very much better in the workhouse than outside; as this account recalls -
By Christmas Eve, the day rooms and the infirmary wards were gay with paper-chains and holly. On Christmas Morning the staff rose very early, and after the bell was rung at 6.45 they would sing carols beneath the dormitory windows. After breakfast the gifts were distributed, and then it was time for the Service in chapel.
For dinner there were turkey and pork, potatoes, brussel sprouts, Christmas pudding and mince pies, beer and lemonade. There were crackers for everyone. The preparation and serving of Christmas dinner naturally caused much work, and several people living nearby came each year to give voluntary — and very welcome — help. Other people came as visitors, mostly the Guardians or, later on, the members of the House Committee.
On Christmas evening, all who could, gathered in the dining hall for a party. The tables were moved back and the chairs set in a big circle. There were games and an impromptu concert when, year after year, some of the Inmates sang their favourite songs. There was much enjoyment, even if little musical talent. Lucy Webb, I remember, always sang 'The Old Rustic Bridge Beside The Mill', and Alice Kate Smith a fascinating song called 'When I touched my Seaweed I Knew It Was Going To Be Fine'. Winnie Keating danced a hornpipe. Some of the men, too, sang or recited, and the staff provided a few rehearsed items. The Assistant Master regularly sang 'The Mountains of Mourne' in a bass as deep as the sea to which those mountains sweep down.
Refreshments were handed round, and were taken to those who could not join in the party. The evening ended with 'God Save The King' and with 'Three cheers for Master and Matron' — but it was not the end of the Christmas festivities, the men and women having separate little parties in their day-rooms on Boxing Day and New Year's Day.
An idea whose time has come around again?