What have we really learnt from the case of "Britain's Biggest Scrounger", Mick Philpott, now jailed for life for killing six of the 17 children he has fathered at the expense of the state? That welfare benefits sap initiative and moral responsibility? George Osborne, and his acolytes in the right-wing newspapers, think so. They see in Philpott the defining proof of why our benefits system is in such dire need of reform. Ed Balls and Labour Party supporters say this is playing nasty politics with a freak tragedy. So what can we sensibly conclude?
It's easy to see why the case, with its tone of social and sexual degeneracy, has aroused such vehement responses. Philpott's children were not just his meal-ticket but the providers of his fags, booze, drugs and the monster plasma television set that Osborne & Co see as symbols of what has gone wrong with our welfare system. When it was set up the British welfare state cost the nation less than 5 per cent of annual national income; today that figure has risen to 13 per cent. One in eight Britons now lives in a house where no one has a job, compared to just one in 30 in Japan.
Last year, Philpott trousered £8,000 in child benefit, another £8,000 in housing benefit, plus £38,000 from the working tax credits paid to his wife and mistress. Added to the £14,000 they earned between them from their cleaning jobs, that is a total of £68,000 a year – the take-home pay of someone earning £100,000.
The semiotics of this are clear. Here is a poster-boy for an underclass that breeds children it doesn't much want, is not interested in caring for, and will not work to support. He is the exemplar of the generation of spongers who are bleeding the taxpayer dry. QED, suggests George Osborne.
But the statistics tell a different story. Around 8 million families in the UK are paid child benefit. Some 1.35 million families with children have a parent claiming out-of-work benefit. Of those around 45,000 have four children or more. Only 190 have more than 10 children. So the truth is that Philpott, far from representing an entire underclass, is typical of only a tiny percentage of the population. And most of those may not share his thuggish, misogynist, manipulative and vile behaviour.
You can do a similar analysis of housing benefit. Iain Duncan Smith is fond of holding up the terrible example of out-of-work families who rake in more than £100,000 a year in housing benefit, because they live in posh parts of the capital. But when The Daily Telegraph sent out reporters to find them, they could find only three, all in the London borough of Westminster. The truth is that of the 3 million people in receipt of housing benefit, only 160 got £50,000 or more in 2010. That's 0.005 per cent.
The semiotics and the statistics tell entirely different stories. But so too do the politics and the morality. "There is nothing moral or fair about a system which traps people in welfare dependency," Duncan Smith countered last month when the new Archbishop of Canterbury complained about the unfairness of the welfare reforms. A stand-off between a politician and a cleric is more enlightening here than the usual polarisation between Conservative and Labour.
Both the archbishop and the minister have professed themselves to be students of something called Catholic Social Teaching, under which heading popes and theologians have, over the past 100 years, struggled to find a third way between unfettered capitalism and state socialism. Tackling social issues requires two key principles, it insists: solidarity, the idea that we all have a moral responsibility to look after one another; and subsidiarity, the idea that the state should not take over what individuals or groups can do.
These two principles apply equally to welfare reform. It too must involve a moral imperative to protect the vulnerable and yet an acknowledgement that individuals have a duty to look after themselves. That means finding reforms that do not disproportionately penalise the poor and disabled (as the current Tory plans do) while finding ways of stopping benefits from creating perverse incentives not to work (which Labour has been historically reluctant to address).
Both are moral issues as well as political ones. The critique of the churches is more potent, because theology has a more profound understanding of the common good than does politics. The default creed of modern politics is utilitarianism. The common good, by contrast requires those social conditions which allow the fulfilment of everyone in society. It understands that the majority is not always right, even if it is usually not popular to say so. Polls show that most voters back the Tory welfare reforms, as The Independent on Sunday reveals today. But it is not always right to allow the majority to tyrannise or scapegoat minorities.
We may need new incentives to spur the feckless in our society to get a job. But that cannot be done by removing benefits to families with children, to force idle parents into work. Other mechanisms must be devised. In any case, there is no proof, despite what dog-whistle politics suggests, that benefits encourage people to have more children. It is a queer view of the world that suggests that anyone would have another child just to secure an extra £13.40 a week in child benefit. Indeed, the figures suggest that most new housing-benefit claimants were until recently in work. Most people do not have more children to get benefits. Most need benefits because they have lost their jobs. Overall official figures suggest that for every £10 paid out in benefits, only 7p is claimed fraudulently.
There are no quick fixes in welfare reform, as Iain Duncan Smith has found out the hard way. But there are easy options in politics, which is why George Osborne has been seeking to make political capital out of the Philpott freak show. It may win him a few votes. But it won't solve the problem.
Join our new commenting forum
Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies