Editorial: No taboos about welfare, no easy answers either

Philpott’s crime is his responsibility alone, but his lifestyle is a concern for all of us

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The Independent Online

It is not Mick Philpott’s conviction for the manslaughter of six children that has wider implications. Contrary to some of Britain’s shriller commentators’ rather gleeful conclusions, no line can be drawn from a feckless life of excessive procreation, abusive relationships and state handouts to a plot to set fire to a house full of sleeping offspring. The responsibility is Philpott’s, and his alone.

What his trial revealed about the kind of life that can be led courtesy of the taxpayer is a different question, however. A ménage à trois that saw the welfare payments due to both women and their 11 children channelled into a single bank account gave unemployed Philpott – a father of 17 – an income of nearly £60,000 per year from the state.

It is immaterial whether or not the financial impact of his mistress Lisa Willis’s departure was a factor in Philpott’s plan to frame her for the fire. The point is that it was possible to live in such a way in the first place. That such egregious exploitation of the system has been thrust into the public eye just as the Government’s wide-ranging – and highly controversial – welfare reforms are starting to come into force only makes such questions more pertinent.

So far, however, the political response has been wearyingly predictable – mere sound and fury, threatening to drown out any sensible debate. The Chancellor’s suggestion that there is a question about whether taxpayers should subsidise lifestyles such as Philpott’s is not an unreasonable one. Coming amid the furore over changes to the benefits system – just after he delivered a speech on welfare, no less – George Osborne left himself open to charges of political opportunism. Sure enough, the Opposition responded with outrage at a cynicism so flagrant as to “demean his office”.

Such mud-slinging is hardly helpful. If the portrayal of Philpott as sadly representative of “Welfare Britain” is arrant nonsense, so too is the suggestion that, because of his ghastly crime, there can be no discussion at all.

To acknowledge that there is an issue here is neither an offence to the children who died so tragically in Derby, nor does it imply that all who claim benefits are one step away from killing their families. With money tight, the welfare bill exorbitant and an ageing population ensuring the problem will not solve itself, a debate about how far the state should pick up the tab for individuals’ choices has never been more pressing.

What is striking is that the new welfare reforms take little account of the size of the recipient’s family. Nor would the benefits cap now being phased in – under which no household can receive more than £26,000 per year in total – have any impact on a set-up like Philpott’s. With the women working, the household would have been exempt. That their earnings and welfare payments went straight into a shared bank account controlled by Philpott is of no consequence.

What then? One idea gaining currency this week is that child benefit should be restricted to, say, four children. Superficially at least, the proposal is an appealing one. It shifts the onus of responsibility on to prospective parents, and it removes the perverse incentive for the unscrupulous to have more and more children.

Scratch the surface, though, and matters are less straightforward. What of those who do not take the hint? There are already 3.6 million British children living in poverty. A limit on child benefit not only threatens to make such problems immeasurably worse, but it also leaves children paying the price for the decisions of their parents.

There are no easy answers. But neither can the issue simply be ducked. It is not only that taxpayers can no longer afford to pay for lifestyles like Philpott’s; we should not have to.