Mick Philpott was a shameless scrounger and idler who played the system for all he could extract from it, which was considerable. Claims that the welfare system bred the mentality which killed six children are, however, irrational. Yet equally irrational is the ludicrous claim that those who believe that the welfare system had a deleterious effect on Philpott’s moral discernment are somehow seeking to exploit the deaths of six innocents for political ends. It is as if we are expected to analyse what happened in a vacuum from which all sense and, indeed, sensitivity has fled.
Philpott saw his children as meal tickets and his women as possessions, and it is daft to suggest that those who observe this are branding the entire body of unemployed persons as child killers. The State allowed him to live the life of Riley on the taxpayer and is responsible for the continuation of his fecklessness and cynical manipulation, which it was powerless to stop under the law. It is not responsible for the reckless, senseless deed in which he, his wife and accomplice Paul Mosley engaged of their free will.
The blame culture, an unintelligent but prevalent feature of modern Britain, tries to point the finger at social workers, but nobody can say what it is that might have given rise to intervention. The children were healthy, clean and attended school with the required regularity and punctuality, bearing no signs of physical abuse. What alarm bells could have been ringing that went unheeded? If the social workers had been in the house every five minutes of every day, they would have seen nothing to justify removing the children and any attempt to have done so would almost certainly have foundered at law. Hindsight is a wonderful thing.
There was however one aspect of the Philpotts’ lives which might have justified action if only we did not live in an age where moral relativism has itself been accorded the status of doctrine. The children might not have been perceived to be in mortal danger but they were certainly in moral danger, being brought up in a ménage à trois where the adults’ entertainment appeared to be based on sexual depravity. In this so-called liberal age, we betray children by a refusal to pass the judgement which would allow us to protect them.
Philpott’s fecklessness, the production of children for the production of income, the effective if not technical bigamy and the sordid sexual activities in which they and their friends indulged would once have guaranteed removal to a place of moral safety but today the only danger recognised is the physical kind. Example and general milieu, once considered so important in the nurture of children, are sacrificed on the altars of the false god we call free choice but which imprisons us all in a collective moral paralysis and delivers an anarchy that the State itself shrinks from challenging.
Mairead Philpott is so completely sunk in the hideous morass of self-indulgence, irresponsibility and immorality to which Philpott has led her that not even the deaths of all her children can lead her to re-appraise her relationship, nor has the enforced separation resulting from a remand in custody led her to a more detached view of the man. Time may alter that as it eventually did for the mistress who found the courage and sense of self-worth to walk away, but that the wife’s devotion to her controller – for he can be described in no other terms – has remained proof against the shock of the tragedy indicates emotional and moral destitution.
Yes, the apparatus of State must take some share of the blame because it never said no to Mick Philpott. It allowed him to idle, unchallenged. It forebore to pass judgement on his lifestyle. It acknowledged his right to order his household as he wished without limit. Had there been no infanticides there would have been no intervention even now, however scandalised the public became.
Individuals were outraged but had no remedy. Sections of the press admonished him but he had not the shame to find that uncomfortable let alone an incentive to a different way of living. The State alone could have demanded work in return for benefit and alone could have removed the children but the law allowed neither action because that same State, which now polices expression of opinion on a scale hitherto unthinkable, intrudes into everything from our dustbin contents to our light bulbs, amasses vast databases of personal information and traces our lawful movements on cameras, has renounced any role in judging individual mores.
When Philpott was talking about his arrangements with the two women in his house on The Jeremy Kyle Show, the audience laughed. Nobody laughs now. Moral discernment has suddenly been rediscovered but true moral discernment depends not on the outcome but upon the intrinsic worth and nature of any deed in its own right. The degradation of women in pornography, for example, is wrong regardless of whether or not a real rape follows.
The cruel deaths of six children can be held to nobody’s account but the Philpotts’ and their accomplice’s. Every few years such monstrous cases happen, sometimes as a result of wickedness, sometimes of madness and sometimes of a combination of the two. In the aftermath, we look for answers: gun law following Dunblane, increased child protection measures following Soham. Perhaps in this case we should consider the role of a healthy dose of prudery.
It is an unlikely outcome when our society measures its claim to civilisation by the extent of its tolerance of the debased and the tawdry, and shies away in embarrassment at the promotion of virtue and self-restraint, the bloodiest corpses on the battlefield where the me-society emerged victorious under its banners of instant gratification and untrammelled licence. The harm to the Philpott children began well before the fire but, like the Priest and the Levite, those who knew passed by on the other side and the Good Samaritan never came.
Ann Widdecombe is a former Conservative MP and former Shadow Home Secretary