When George Osborne waded into the tragic case of the Derby fire deaths today, all eyes turned to the Chancellor of the Exchequer to identify a gaffe, an insensitivity or a slight. When they didn’t detect one, they decided to make one up. The Chancellor seems to be calling for a further debate around the extremes of ‘benefits culture’ in the UK. He’s right – it needs to happen. For the sake of the preservation of benefits as a stigma-free support for people who need them, we need to be satisfied that the Philpotts are the absolute extreme and not in any way representative or even suggestive of wider trends. The problem for us all is that we worry about abuse of benefits – we need to be reassured.
Jade Philpott, 10, John, nine, Jack, eight, Jesse, six, and Jayden, five, died on the morning of a deliberately set fire in Derby on 11 May 2012. Duwayne, who was 13 years old, died later in hospital. The courts have determined that ‘the Philpotts’ – Mick and Mairead, and Paul Moseley, their friend, were responsible for the action which killed the children. The courts have also sentenced them, in Mick Philpott’s case to the maximum permitted for the crime of which he has been convicted, and in the cases of Mairead Philpott and Paul Mosely, they will serve little more than eight years apiece.
The Chancellor correctly identified the responsibility for the crime and the tragedy lay with Mick Philpott, and that it was the court’s responsibility to sentence them, and went on to observe that the Philpotts’ circumstances were worthy of consideration. Should taxpayers be expected to pay for lifestyles like those of Mick and Mairead Philpott?
It is clear that benefits, and access to them, are not the reason for these crimes. It’s further clear that the benefits system is a positive and important element of our overwhelmingly compassionate and non-judgmental free society. Nobody I’ve heard speak on the issue has suggested any link between availability of benefits and the tragedy – and the Daily Mail’s appalling front page this week was spectacularly wrong-headed.
What we discover very quickly is that Mick Philpott was an extremely vile man. Whilst the women around him had work, which brought in the in-work benefits, Mick Philpott had no inclination to work. He had a history of violence, attempted murder, misogyny and sloth which identifies him far beyond the pale of any reasonable and balanced society. It’s further clear that he was driven by greed and self-regard. His appearances on Jeremy Kyle and with Ann Widdecombe were testament to his need for the limelight. It’s perhaps surprising that social services in Derby didn’t take much notice of him (but I suspect we’ll soon discover something in that area very soon).
Other than that, and that he was extremely selfish, lazy and prepared to burn down his house to get back at his ex-girlfriend, I’m not sure that other lessons can be gained from a forensic investigation of this case for lessons we don’t already know. I’m certain that there is political mood-music to be gained from it, and that it’s worth a roll of the dice for the dog-whistle semiotics of it all – but the obvious lessons lend themselves to wish-thinking:
- Don’t let people convicted of attempted murder have lots of children
- Don’t let people who refuse to work live in council houses
- Keep an eye on every misogynist who goes on Jeremy Kyle
- Keep a further eye on everyone with seventeen children if they refuse to take a job
In short, in retrospect, every sign seems to present itself in the case of Mick Philpott that some agency (or agencies) of the state should have been able to do something about it all – but who, what and when? Between child 12 and 13? When his conviction for attempted murder by stamping was noticed by the registrar of births? Should payments towards his children have been stopped? Should he have been sterilised?
People who seek to use Mick Philpott as an example of something need to be clear what examples they seek to expose, and what answers they have to them. If, as seems likely, there are a very limited number of his ilk about, it seems more than likely we’ll just have to despise them and tolerate their abuses – but whatever we discover, we can’t seek to tar other benefits seekers with his vile brush.