Last week Mick Philpott and his wife Mairead were convicted of manslaughter.
They set their house on fire in a warped attempt to regain custody of some of Mick’s children by another woman, but the plot went wrong, and instead, they killed six of their children.
The press love gory stories like this one. After they were sentenced, it didn’t take long for politicians, and newspapers like the Daily Mail, to point to the guilty couple as examples of what happens when people live on benefits instead of finding gainful employment.
“Philpott is responsible for these absolutely horrendous crimes and these are crimes that have shocked the nation; the courts are responsible for sentencing him.” said our Chancellor, George Osborne. “But I think there is a question for government and for society about the welfare state – and the taxpayers who pay for the welfare state – subsidising lifestyles like that, and I think that debate needs to be had.”
Taxpayers shouldn’t subsidise people who plot to burn their own children to death. But of course we end up doing so by paying for their prison terms, and will continue to do so as long as we lock people away to serve time for their crimes.
But Osborne didn’t mean that. He meant we shouldn’t subsidise people not to work, so that they get so bored, or greedily dependent on the State, or fiscally calculating, that they make plans to get more money by regaining custody of children who will add to their benefit payroll. We shouldn’t give money to the ‘precariat’.
Grace Dent wrote an excellent piece in the Independent, which makes it very clear that the judge in this case did not consider a dependence on the welfare state led to a sense of greed which motivated this crime. Instead Justice Thirlwall concludes that Mick Philpott was manipulative and cruel to women, and his motive was to keep his sense of power. Not to gleefully milk taxpayers’ money.
In 2009, millionaire businessman Christopher Foster also burned his house down, killing his wife and daughter. A former business associate told the inquest: “He told me he would not put Jill and Kirstie through a degrading change of lifestyle. They had got used to a certain standard of living and they wouldn’t have been able to cope if they had to take a few backward steps. He said ‘Jesus, they’re not having my stuff. I will top myself. They will carry me out of the house in a box’.”
No one rushed to claim that we need to tackle greed among millionaires in this country in the light of this tragic story. No one used Christopher Foster as an example of Millionaire Britain. No one vilifies the ‘elite’ wholesale, when they murder their children. Osborne, as Shadow Chancellor of the Exchequer, didn’t take to the podium and say if the Conservatives won the next election they would clamp down on the financial systems which allow crimes like this to happen.
No. Instead it was treated as the tragic story it was, without any hastily drawn generalisations or conclusions drawn against a specific set of people as a result.
It worries me that we might live in a society which is hasty to accuse the poor of bad behaviour because they’re poor, and to brush the bad behaviour of those with even some money under the carpet as less of a commentary on our country. People of all classes, all financial situations and all geographical locations are capable of committing terrible crimes as both Philpott and Foster demonstrate. The rich and the poor, those who are employed and those who are jobless – true justice recognises no distinctions between them.