Editorial: Philpott is guilty of his crimes. Benefits are not

To see this crime as an inevitable consequence of the welfare state is to oversimplify


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.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Sheridan Maine: Accounts Assistant

£25,000 - £30,000: Sheridan Maine: Are you looking for a fantastic opportunity...

Neil Pavier: Commercial Analyst

£50,000 - £55,000: Neil Pavier: Are you a professionally qualified commercial ...

Loren Hughes: Financial Accountant

£45,000 - £55,000: Loren Hughes: Are you looking for a new opportunity that wi...

Ashdown Group: IT Support Engineer - Professional Services Firm - Oxford

£21000 - £24000 per annum + 21 days holidays: Ashdown Group: Technical Support...

Day In a Page

Read Next

I might be an MP, but that doesn't stop me fighting sexism with my breasts

Björt Ólafsdóttir

Daily catch-up: opening round in the election contest of the YouTube videos

John Rentoul
No postcode? No vote

Floating voters

How living on a houseboat meant I didn't officially 'exist'
Louis Theroux's affable Englishman routine begins to wear thin

By Reason of Insanity

Louis Theroux's affable Englishman routine begins to wear thin
Power dressing is back – but no shoulderpads!

Power dressing is back

But banish all thoughts of Eighties shoulderpads
Spanish stone-age cave paintings 'under threat' after being re-opened to the public

Spanish stone-age cave paintings in Altamira 'under threat'

Caves were re-opened to the public
'I was the bookies’ favourite to be first to leave the Cabinet'

Vince Cable interview

'I was the bookies’ favourite to be first to leave the Cabinet'
Election 2015: How many of the Government's coalition agreement promises have been kept?

Promises, promises

But how many coalition agreement pledges have been kept?
The Gaza fisherman who built his own reef - and was shot dead there by an Israeli gunboat

The death of a Gaza fisherman

He built his own reef, and was fatally shot there by an Israeli gunboat
Saudi Arabia's airstrikes in Yemen are fuelling the Gulf's fire

Saudi airstrikes are fuelling the Gulf's fire

Arab intervention in Yemen risks entrenching Sunni-Shia divide and handing a victory to Isis, says Patrick Cockburn
Zayn Malik's departure from One Direction shows the perils of fame in the age of social media

The only direction Zayn could go

We wince at the anguish of One Direction's fans, but Malik's departure shows the perils of fame in the age of social media
Young Magician of the Year 2015: Meet the schoolgirl from Newcastle who has her heart set on being the competition's first female winner

Spells like teen spirit

A 16-year-old from Newcastle has set her heart on being the first female to win Young Magician of the Year. Jonathan Owen meets her
Jonathan Anderson: If fashion is a cycle, this young man knows just how to ride it

If fashion is a cycle, this young man knows just how to ride it

British designer Jonathan Anderson is putting his stamp on venerable house Loewe
Number plates scheme could provide a licence to offend in the land of the free

Licence to offend in the land of the free

Cash-strapped states have hit on a way of making money out of drivers that may be in collision with the First Amendment, says Rupert Cornwell
From farm to fork: Meet the Cornish fishermen, vegetable-growers and butchers causing a stir in London's top restaurants

From farm to fork in Cornwall

One man is bringing together Cornwall's most accomplished growers, fishermen and butchers with London's best chefs to put the finest, freshest produce on the plates of some of the country’s best restaurants
Robert Parker interview: The world's top wine critic on tasting 10,000 bottles a year, absurd drinking notes and New World wannabes

Robert Parker interview

The world's top wine critic on tasting 10,000 bottles a year, absurd drinking notes and New World wannabes
Don't believe the stereotype - or should you?

Don't believe the stereotype - or should you?

We exaggerate regional traits and turn them into jokes - and those on the receiving end are in on it too, says DJ Taylor