Every once in a while a crime comes along that not only shocks and appals by its very nature, but somehow catches other strands of the public mood.
The case of Mick and Mairead Philpott, who will be sentenced today for setting a house fire that killed their six children, is one such. The self-promotional antics of Philpott himself, the unconventional character – to put the kindest gloss on it – of his ménage, and the shamelessness with which he parried critics of his life on the state have all contributed to his becoming something of a symbol for what the Work and Pensions Secretary, Iain Duncan Smith, used to call “broken Britain”, and the Daily Mail yesterday described as “welfare UK”.
To designate Mick Philpott Britain’s scrounger-in-chief and his crime as the inevitable consequence of a supposedly over-generous welfare state, however, is a vast and irresponsible overstatement that threatens to do more harm than good. There are conclusions that can legitimately be drawn from this case, but there are others, including this one, that are plain wrong.
There is no inevitable link at all between having a large family, living on state benefits and killing one’s children. The charge of manslaughter, rather than murder, was a recognition that the purpose of the fire was not to kill the children; this was a plot designed by Philpott and his wife to discredit his former mistress before a custody hearing. It was a plot that was criminal in its conception and, in the execution, went catastrophically wrong. It was a one-off, dreamt up by a selfish, warped and calculating mind. It says nothing about any benefits “culture” and still less about the condition of the white working class in Britain today; nothing, in fact, about anything or anyone but Mick Philpott.
Hard on the heels of the contention that circumstances determined this crime came accusations about the actions, or otherwise, of Social Services. The most obvious question is: why were the authorities not able to protect these children? And the obvious answer is: because this was an unforeseen and unforeseeable crime. Yet a second question will still nag. Given the unusual living arrangements at the family home, should the children not have been on an at risk register – and if they were, why was no action taken?
There is a plausible answer here, too, which is that an unconventional lifestyle does not automatically mean that children are neglected or abused. If they appear healthy, properly nourished and go to school – as the Philpotts seem to have done – would they necessarily have featured on the authorities’ radar? And even if they had, at what point can, or should, social services interfere if the children appear well? The line may not be quite as distinct as it seemed after Baby P’s death in Haringey.
There are legitimate criticisms that can be made of this unusual household, starting with the very large amount of taxpayers’ money directed its way. Indeed, the Philpotts might be cited as an example of why the current welfare reforms are so necessary, not least the cap that limits total benefit per household to £500 a week. The drawback here is that the cap affects only non-working households, and Mick Philpott’s wife and mistress both worked – having their credits and child benefit paid to him. The problem is less one of benefits than of the family dynamic that allowed a lazy and misogynistic man to sponge off the two women in his life and their children.
The whole edifice collapsed – socially and financially – when his mistress upped and left with her children. There may be lessons that can be learned in terms of benefits agencies, social services and schools all communicating better. But to cast Mick Philpott as the archetypal product of Benefits Britain is wrong. He is a criminal, with a previous conviction for attempted murder, who reverted to type.