Home educated children and Child Benefit

Over on the EO list, a poor woman is currently shaking and unable to decide whether to scream or cry. A common enough experience indeed for those of us who have had dealings with Her Majesty's Revenue and Customs! She has been asked to provide evidence that the child for whom she is claiming Child Benefit actually exists and is resident in this country. This is a common enough event for many in the non-home educating community, for reasons which I shall explain. Few of them are traumatised by being asked questions in this way, unless they are in fact fiddling benefits. If only I had not been thrown off the EO list, I would be able to offer a few words of gentle advice and calm encouragement to this sad and vulnerable individual; something perhaps along the lines of shouting in her ear, 'WHAT THE HELL IS WRONG WITH YOU, YOU IDIOT??!!'

As anybody who has not just been revived after a fifty year long coma will be aware, the Coalition are trying to reduce the Child Benefit bill. There are two ways of doing this. One is to ensure that it is only given to people who are not earning so much that the odd £20 a week extra would make little difference to them. The other way is to cut back dramatically on the fiddles associated with this particular benefit. Working as I do with families in London's Inner City, many of whom are refugees and asylum seekers, I am more familiar than most with the scams which go on with Child Benefit. Those from West Africa seem to be among the worst offenders. They lend each other children, have clutches of birth certificates and other documents relating to children in Lagos, have different names according to whom they are dealing with and accuse anybody who asks too many questions of being racist towards them. And of course they forget how to speak English when pressed upon the whereabouts of the kids for whom they are claiming, pretending that they need Yoruba speaking interpreters. The way round some of this is to require not only a birth certificate or passport, but also objective evidence from other agencies that the child actually exists and is in this country. The easiest way is to ask for the name of the school which is being attended, since over 99% of children are at school.

The fear seems to be among some that the local authorities are ganging up with Her majesty's Revenue and Custom in order to track down children who are not at school and are also unknown to their local authority. The woman who posted on the EO list says that the clerical officer from HMRC to whom she spoke cited the Laming Report as the reason for these enquiries, but this sounds a bit odd. This enquiry took place over seven years ago. Even if the local authority were trying to trace children outside the school system, I hardly think that they would have been discussing the Laming Report with a minor clerk in this way.

The worst case scenario as far as I can see is that some parents might have their Child Benefit delayed for a few weeks. It is conceivable that they will also become known to their local authority. Let's keep a sense of perspective here; neither of these things is a disaster. Both have happened to me and I have so far managed not to shake, scream or cry about it! One of the irritating things during the recent talk of cutting Child Benefit to well-off families was that it was being referred to as a benefit 'paid to mothers'. It is not; it is paid to one of a child's parents. In the case of my youngest daughter, I have always been the parent to whom it is paid. Over the years, I have had endless trouble from Her Majesty's Revenue and Customs about this. They seem to find something unnatural and downright fishy about the idea of a father claiming Child Benefit and I have had a good deal more than the two telephone calls which the woman on the EO list complains of!

When we moved to Essex, we never got round to notifying the local authority of the fact that we had a child who was being educated at home and it was not until a couple of years after we moved that a truancy patrol stopped us and we became known. This was not of course a catastrophe; certainly not something to start shaking and crying about. I do wish that people would maintain a level head about these matters. Being asked questions about one's Child Benefit is increasingly likely to happen now as attempts are made to reduce the amount spent on this benefit. Local authorities finding out about more and more home educated children is also likely to happen. Neither of these are anything to get worked up about. At worst they are irritations of the sort that everybody has to put up with these days and I honestly do not see why some home educating parents have to make so much of these minor inconveniences. It does rather give the impression of a community of hysterical people, ready to have a fit of the vapours at the least excuse and always willing to row with anybody who asks any questions about their families or lifestyle.