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Waiting for Magwitch

Rather agreeable, the Child Trust Fund. Who could not warm to the idea of pound;250 (pound;500, for the poorest) being popped in a savings account for every British baby?

Who could object to the invitation to parents, godparents, grannies and uncles to salt away up to pound;100 a month , to accumulate tax free during the years of infancy and schooling? What a tantalising portrait it suggests: a decorous and prudent nation of savers, popping the odd few pounds away in the toe of a virtual stocking, to launch the brave young person into adult life as a man or woman of substance!

One could slip away into a lovely daydream of prosperous sunlit uplands, of parents looking on fondly at sober students with shiny hair and gingham shirts, who frown with concentration as they sign their first cheques for university tuition, laptops, chemistry textbooks, a deposit on a modest studio flat close to work or some really high-quality spanners for that thrilling first toolbox. One's eyes mist over. Then they blink, suddenly, and widen in horror.

Deep in my comfy daydream of a Britain where every 18-year-old has an invisible Magwitch to turn to for help in the transition years, I had omitted to read the small print. It is not just the bit about how we'll be encouraged to salt it away in the volatilities of the stock market, to be kicked around by sharky Nick Leesons and creamed off by fund managers with the brains of goldfish and the bonuses of Croesus. That's bad enough, but mercifully one can ignore the suited bastards and invest it as cash.

No, what really made me start hyperventilating was the stark revelation that when the dear baby reaches its 18th birthday, the money becomes fully and immediately available, in toto, to spend as that ex-baby wishes. The fund, if parents and well-wishers have done their thing, could be worth pound;45,000. Even if they haven't, it will be a good lump. And - ohmigawd - owing to the age of majority being 18, it will be entirely under the control of the holder, even if he or she is a complete dingbat still labouring under the influence of raging hormones and violent Teenage Attitude.

Withdrawals will be under no parental, educational, or governmental control whatsoever. The 18-year-old is legally adult. It's his - or her - money. A Chancellor's idealism and eighteen years of benign contributions will be handed over, without check or balance or restriction on what it can be spent on. Aaaaghhhh. Look, do not write to me saying: "In our school, the vast majority of young men and women are responsible and sensible, owing to our matchless standards of pastoral guidance and PSHE " Do not send me aggrieved letters in tidy writing, saying: "I am 18 and have always taken care of my money. How dare you insult my generation?". I know you exist. I know there are lots of you. I take my hat off to every student from families of modest means who saves, scrimps, and works through the summer vacation to keep the debt down. I wish I could give each of you a trust fund of your own, right now. I think you're great. I look forward to you ruling the world.

But glance around you, young paragons, as you slowly sup your half-pint in the college bar. Chuck a beermat, and admit that it will bounce off at least one 18-year-old who should not be trusted with control of twenty quid, let alone twenty thou. In an age when even an Eton-educated royal prince fully 20 years old manages to be a copper-plated twit with all the social judgement of a retarded slug, one must be realistic about the variableness of human maturing. Think of the people you were at school with at 17, and consider what the modern world lays out to tempt them daily: the clothes, the cars, the bling, the Caribbean holidays, the booze, the boats, the wetbikes, the snowboarding, the party drugs, the larks, the get-rich-quick investments, the tantalising notion of flouncing-out-of-home into a flat because your parents are so, like, moody and don't get your cool new boyfriend.

And now imagine those kids turning 18 and receiving a polite Government chit saying: "Hi! - there's pound;45,000 in your account to do as you like with."

And now imagine being their parents, wringing your hands in disbelief as the money melts away, and knowing how sad and stupid they will feel a year later.

Doesn't bear thinking of, does it? But what's the alternative? Some parents, after all, are equally daft about money. And nor can one warm to the thought of having to submit your spending plans to some Child Trust Fund quango composed of failed local politicians, retired headmasters who hate everybody and bossy women in tweed who couldn't pass the exam to be magistrates.

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