Help Britain's feckless families – invest in Jamie Oliver

How can we save the feckless from themselves and protect the taxpayer from the financial demands of the welfare state? Jamie Oliver could be a good place to start.

There are four million families in the UK in which no one works. In the north east 24.3% of households are workless. This is shocking stuff. Partly because in most cases, worklessness equals a degree of poverty (UK benefits are relatively generous, but their claimants aren't exactly all planning holidays to the Maldives) and of course because poverty brings with it all sorts of consequent problems from bad health to a propensity to crime.

But it is also shocking because it is so expensive for working households: non-working families cost working families a large percentage of the welfare budget of £192bn (note that our defence budget is a mere £37bn) and many billions more in indirect costs. If they aren't working, our taxes are paying for what would have been their share of the upkeep of the roads and so on.

But while all the unemployed and their households cost us, some cost us an awful lot more than others. The papers are fond of pointing at the example of the thoroughly unpleasant-sounding Keith MacDonald, a 25-year-old unemployed man (on incapacity benefit for his "bad back") who has fathered eight children and has two more on the way.

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The total cost of his unemployed households to the state? Probably around £2m, says The Sunday Times. Or, given that the children are likely to have relatively chaotic childhoods, probably a lot more: according to the BMJ, disruptive children are far more likely to go on to commit crimes than others and end up incurring costs to public services of around ten times the average. How's that for a rubbish way to use taxpayers' money?

Politicians like to say that the only way to deal with such "feckless families" and the problems they cause is "early intervention". But saying isn't doing and, being prone to favouring the short term over the long term, they rarely back up their regular statements on this with the money needed to make it work. And they probably never will.

So what's to be done to save the feckless from themselves and to save the taxpayer from the seemingly endless financial demands of the welfare state? It might be the private sector.

Ministers and financiers are apparently looking into a scheme to allow investors to put money into early intervention parenting classes for teenage mothers and so on. If they then succeed in "breaking the cycle of low achievement among families for whom criminality, a life on benefits, and lack of education is the norm" says The Sunday Times, they'll make a return paid out by the government out of expected savings in benefits and crime costs. The idea from the point of view of the state is that over time we spend less on picking up the pieces of the broken society and more on fixing it at source.

Can it work? It is impossible to tell the idea of anything being managed by a combination of men from the big banks and the state gives me the shivers. But there are obvious places to start with this kind of thing. Right now there is a risk that Jamie Oliver's 'learn-to-cook' centre in Rotherham, The Ministry of Food, might be shut down thanks to budget constraints. But it does valuable work in teaching people how food works and that in turn could, if leveraged well, play a role in cutting down on the huge costs to us all of the ongoing obesity epidemic, of the problems that stem from the awful diets of many of our children, and so on.

Jamie reckons he needs £60m to open a Ministry of Food in every local authority area across the UK. If he can work out a deal whereby investors get a return for every person who avoids getting type 2 diabetes as a result of him doing so, I think we should give it to him.

Merryn Somerset Webb

Merryn Somerset Webb started her career in Tokyo at public broadcaster NHK before becoming a Japanese equity broker at what was then Warburgs. She went on to work at SBC and UBS without moving from her desk in Kamiyacho (it was the age of mergers).

After five years in Japan she returned to work in the UK at Paribas. This soon became BNP Paribas. Again, no desk move was required. On leaving the City, Merryn helped The Week magazine with its City pages before becoming the launch editor of MoneyWeek in 2000 and taking on columns first in the Sunday Times and then in 2009 in the Financial Times

Twenty years on, MoneyWeek is the best-selling financial magazine in the UK. Merryn was its Editor in Chief until 2022. She is now a senior columnist at Bloomberg and host of the Merryn Talks Money podcast -  but still writes for Moneyweek monthly. 

Merryn is also is a non executive director of two investment trusts – BlackRock Throgmorton, and the Murray Income Investment Trust.