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UK Politics

George Osborne sparks benefits storm over Mick Philpott Derby house fire

Chancellor accused of exploitation after saying tragedy supports case for welfare reform

George Osborne provoked a backlash today by suggesting that the horrific case of child killer Mick Philpott strengthened the case for further reforms of the welfare system.

Labour, pressure groups and charities accused the Chancellor of demonising claimants and trying to exploit an exceptional case after Philpott was given a minimum 15-year jail sentence for killing six of his children in a fire.

During a visit to Derby, where Philpott lived on benefits with 11 of his 17 children , Mr Osborne told the BBC: “Philpott is responsible for these absolutely horrendous crimes and these are crimes that have shocked the nation. The courts are responsible for sentencing, but I think there is a question for government and for society about the welfare state and the taxpayers who pay for the welfare state, subsidising lifestyles like that. I think that debate needs to be had.”

Mr Osborne’s remarks suggests he has some sympathy for a controversial proposal by Iain Duncan Smith, the Work and Pensions Secretary, to limit state handouts such as child benefit to the first two children. The move has been blocked by the Liberal Democrats but could resurface in the Conservative manifesto for the 2015 election.

High-profile cases can prove a minefield for politicians. Tony Blair, then shadow Home Secretary, caught the national mood after the murder of two-year-old Jamie Bulger in 1993. But David Cameron, then Opposition Leader, was accused of “playing politics” in 2010 for describing the torture of a nine and 11-year-old boy by two brothers in Edlington, South Yorkshire, as a sign of Britain’s “broken society.”

Ed Balls, the shadow Chancellor, described Mr Osborne’s remarks as “ the cynical act of a desperate Chancellor.”  He added: “Millions of people, including pensioners and the disabled, people in work and out of work, receive benefits and tax credits. They will be as shocked and disgusted by the callous killing of these children as anyone else in Britain. But for the Chancellor to link this wider debate to this shocking crime is nasty and divisive and demeans his office.”

Dame Anne Begg, Labour chairman of the Commons Work and Pensions Select Committee, said: “It was an evil act and I don't think we should be making policy on the back of a very exceptional case.”

Andy McDonald, Labour MP for  Middlesbrough, said the Chancellor's comments were a “total disgrace”, adding: “It just shows the depths to which they are prepared to stoop in demonising people who find themselves in difficult circumstances."

Graeme Cooke, research director at the Institute for Public Policy Research think tank, said: “The idea that if only the rules of child benefit had been different these poor children might have been spared would be laughable if it wasn't offensive.” He said: “It is certainly not advisable to make national policy decisions about something like child benefit, which affects millions of families, on the basis of one extreme and shocking case.”

Tim Nichols, spokesman for the Child Poverty Action Group, said: “Nobody in politics, or the media, should be seeking to exploit this tragedy and the isolated actions of an evil man to serve other agendas.”

He condemned “on-going myth-making about jobseekers, disabled people and carers who face ever greater hardship from cuts to safety-net support and who are not being given the jobs, living wages and affordable housing they need”.

Len McCluskey,  general secretary of the Unite union, said: “It is sickening to see George Osborne exploiting the evil of one man and the death of six children to try and demonise ordinary law-abiding people who are struggling to get by.”