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

Share

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.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Bookkeeper / Office Co-ordinator

£9 per hour: Recruitment Genius: This role is based within a small family run ...

Recruitment Genius: Designer - Print & Digital

£28000 - £32000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This Design and marketing agenc...

Recruitment Genius: Quantity Surveyor

£46000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This property investment firm are lookin...

Recruitment Genius: Telesales / Telemarketing Executive - OTE £30k / £35k plus

£18000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This company specialises provid...

Day In a Page

Read Next
 

Leonard Nimroy: Spock made me feel like it was good to be the weird kid

Matthew James
 

Errors & Omissions: When is a baroness not a baroness? Titles still cause confusion

Guy Keleny
War with Isis: Fears that the looming battle for Mosul will unleash 'a million refugees'

The battle for Mosul will unleash 'a million refugees'

Aid agencies prepare for vast exodus following planned Iraqi offensive against the Isis-held city, reports Patrick Cockburn
Yvette Cooper: We can't lose the election. There's too much on the line

Yvette Cooper: We can't lose the election. There's too much on the line

The shadow Home Secretary on fighting radical Islam, protecting children, and why anyone in Labour who's thinking beyond May must 'sort themselves out'
A bad week for the Greens: Leader Natalie Bennett's 'car crash' radio interview is followed by Brighton council's failure to set a budget due to infighting

It's not easy being Green

After a bad week in which its leader had a public meltdown and its only city council couldn't agree on a budget vote, what next for the alternative party? It's over to Caroline Lucas to find out
Gorillas nearly missed: BBC producers didn't want to broadcast Sir David Attenborough's famed Rwandan encounter

Gorillas nearly missed

BBC producers didn't want to broadcast Sir David Attenborough's famed Rwandan encounter
Downton Abbey effect sees impoverished Italian nobles inspired to open their doors to paying guests for up to €650 a night

The Downton Abbey effect

Impoverished Italian nobles are opening their doors to paying guests, inspired by the TV drama
China's wild panda numbers have increased by 17% since 2003, new census reveals

China's wild panda numbers on the up

New census reveals 17% since 2003
Barbara Woodward: Britain's first female ambassador to China intends to forge strong links with the growing economic superpower

Our woman in Beijing builds a new relationship

Britain's first female ambassador to China intends to forge strong links with growing economic power
Courage is rare. True humility is even rarer. But the only British soldier to be awarded the Victoria Cross in Afghanistan has both

Courage is rare. True humility is even rarer

Beware of imitations, but the words of the soldier awarded the Victoria Cross were the real thing, says DJ Taylor
Alexander McQueen: The catwalk was a stage for the designer's astonishing and troubling vision

Alexander McQueen's astonishing vision

Ahead of a major retrospective, Alexander Fury talks to the collaborators who helped create the late designer's notorious spectacle
New BBC series savours half a century of food in Britain, from Vesta curries to nouvelle cuisine

Dinner through the decades

A new BBC series challenged Brandon Robshaw and his family to eat their way from the 1950s to the 1990s
Philippa Perry interview: The psychotherapist on McDonald's, fancy specs and meeting Grayson Perry on an evening course

Philippa Perry interview

The psychotherapist on McDonald's, fancy specs and meeting Grayson Perry on an evening course
Bill Granger recipes: Our chef recreates the exoticism of the Indonesian stir-fry

Bill Granger's Indonesian stir-fry recipes

Our chef was inspired by the south-east Asian cuisine he encountered as a teenager
Chelsea vs Tottenham: Harry Kane was at Wembley to see Spurs beat the Blues and win the Capital One Cup - now he's their great hope

Harry Kane interview

The striker was at Wembley to see Spurs beat the Blues and win the Capital One Cup - now he's their great hope
The Last Word: For the good of the game: why on earth don’t we leave Fifa?

Michael Calvin's Last Word

For the good of the game: why on earth don’t we leave Fifa?
HIV pill: Scientists hail discovery of 'game-changer' that cuts the risk of infection among gay men by 86%

Scientists hail daily pill that protects against HIV infection

Breakthrough in battle against global scourge – but will the NHS pay for it?