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Thursday, April 04, 2013 

Apathetic about tabloid predictability.

I think I've all but reached the point where I no longer care what the tabloids think about a whole range of issues.  I say this as I'm struggling to raise any emotion other than "meh" at the Daily Mail and Sun's blaming of the welfare state for the deaths of six of the children of Mick Philpott.  It's one thing to get upset when Jan Moir declares "there was nothing natural" about the death of Stephen Gately, or Richard Littlejohn says the murder of five sex workers was "no great loss" in the grand scheme of things, or when the same man makes a vindictive attack on Lucy Meadows, who later decides to end her life having complained about being harassed by the media, to pick on just three of a whole host of thoroughly despicable pieces that have appeared in the Mail.  When it comes to attacking the welfare system, it's just expected.  I knew full well when the verdicts came through on Tuesday that regardless of what the judge said when sentencing Philpott, his wife Mairead and their friend Paul Mosley, the state would in one way or another feel the full force of Paul Dacre's ire.  It was as predictable as yesterday's front page was dull

Mrs Justice Thirlwall's sentencing remarks, which are well worth reading in full, make no concessions to the Mail's view. She only mentions benefits once, to make clear that any payments to Mairead or Lisa Willis, Philpott's live-in mistress, were paid into his bank account as a measure of his control over them. Despite the prosecution's suggestions that a side motive to the setting of the fire was an attempt to get a larger council house, or that his determination to get Willis back was to keep the child benefit payments he received for her 5 children, Justice Thirlwall makes no allusions to either.  She puts the onus entirely on Philpott's twin obsessions with Willis and his local image as the head of a large family, a man who brooked no dissent. The loss of Willis and her children was a slight too far, and he was prepared to concoct the most ridiculous, dangerous and imbecilec plan imaginable in an attempt to get them back.

This isn't to say that there isn't room for debate on whether families should continue to receive extra benefit for every child they have, although the idea this should be restricted to just two certainly is ridiculous. The media seem to fluctuate between damning immigration and then wanting to punish larger families, as though the problem we will be facing shortly of an ageing population with fewer workers will just go away.

It's extremely dubious as to whether this would have had any major impact on Philpott's lifestyle in any case. They were apparently receiving £8,000 in child benefit a year, yet the total with other benefits is being quoted as being £60,000. Whether this is accurate or not seems dubious: both Mairead and Willis were working, but apparently also claiming income support (which is still going through the process of abolition, even before the introduction of universal credit). Whether Philpott himself was claiming anything is also unclear: he claimed to be a house husband, suggesting he was living off his wife and mistress, but it wouldn't be a surprise if he was also on income support or JSA. Whatever the merits or otherwise of the benefit cap, clearly if they were getting £60,000 a year this would shortly be about to cease, which drastically diminishes the chances of anyone deciding Philpott's was a model worth emulating.

But honestly, who would?  Philpott only succeeded in living as he did through taking advantage of vulnerable women, then controlling them through threats and violence.  He used his children not just as a status symbol but as another way to ensure their mothers would think twice before leaving.  How would they cope on their own with so many children when they had nowhere to go, especially if their past life had been just as grim as their current one?

Hopi Sen writes that somewhere along the line we failed the women he treated as chattel, and arguable as this is, it will be interesting to see what the serious case review into social service dealings with the family finds.  If it does turn out that regardless of how their parents lived, the children were being adequately cared for as it seems they were, although whether by Philpott himself is questionable, then it raises the question of just what the state was supposed to do.  It can't tell people how to live their lives if they aren't actively harming anyone else, nor intervene simply on the number of children being born if the parents were capable of looking after them.

Should Philpott himself have been monitored more closely after his release from jail, especially if the relationship with Mairead while she was underage was sexual?  Perhaps, but this would have required resources beyond what are currently available, especially if no complaints or concerns were passed on.  As so often, some seem to want it both ways: that the state stays out of the lives of "decent" people while interfering ever more with those deemed to be feckless or shameless, or as it seems will soon be the case, not earning enough.  The reality is that the state has to be blind, and any further powers handed to social workers will have to apply across the board. 

Despite what a local Tory councillor said, the Philpotts clearly are the exception to end all exceptions.  As the statistics compiled by the Guardian datablog show, there are only around 2,000 families in the country where there are 8 or more children living under one roof, and only a fraction of those are on one form or another of out of work benefits.  The current trend is in fact towards smaller families, as alluded to above.  It's also hardly just the supposed shameless that have unusual sexual relationships, or as damaging ones as in this case: there might not be that many examples of a controlling man "persuading" his wife to actually let his mistress move in with them, but there are numerous where wives put up with their husband's philandering, or indeed where husbands bear being cuckolded, to not even concern ourselves with swinging couples.

The fact is that people aren't stupid.  They might regard the welfare state as not helping in this instance, but it clearly wasn't to blame for the deaths of those 6 children.   That was the responsibility purely of Mick Philpott, aided and abetted by his wife and their friend Paul Mosley, as even Anne Widdecombe has acknowledged.  Who knows whether or not AN Wilson genuinely believes that it's the fault of benefits, just as you don't really know whether or not he supports sterilisation, but Paul Dacre isn't that obtuse.  As he said in his speech to the Society of Editors some years back, his main aim as much as anything is to "tweak the noses of the liberalocracy which effectively run Britain".  He and the Mail want the Guardianistas and everyone else to react in the way they have.  The best way to respond is to just let him get on with it.  This isn't to say there aren't lessons to be learned from the Philpott case, but the Mail most certainly isn't providing the answers.

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