Winner of the New Statesman SPERI Prize in Political Economy 2016

Monday 8 April 2013

Nasty politics in hard times

This is a post about morality rather than economics, and as a result I am rather unsure about whether I should be writing it at all. Yet it is something that I have kept thinking about over the last few days, even though I would rather put it out of my mind. So perhaps this is blogging as therapy.

When jobs are scarce, people become understandably more exercised about the idea that some people are getting an income from the state without trying to find a job, just as they imagine that immigrants are ‘stealing‘ what jobs there are. Such views are encouraged by the tabloid press, as I noted here - the tabloids are our equivalent of Fox News.
There has recently been a particularly egregious example of this in the UK. For those UK readers I just have to say the Philpott case and the Daily Mail, and they can skip the rest of the paragraph. For those outside of the UK, a criminal case recently came to an end where someone called Mick Philpott and two others were jailed for killing their six children by burning down their house. It was not murder: the individuals intended to rescue their children and frame someone else as part of a custody battle, but the ‘plan’ did not work out. A tragic case, and as the architect of the plan, Philpott received a very heavy sentence for manslaughter. Philpott had 17 children by five different women, and received large amounts of money in benefit payments. Which allowed the Daily Mail newspaper to print the headline “Vile Product Of Welfare UK”. Not to be outdone, the Sun said “Let's hope this is the last time the state unwittingly subsidises the manslaughter of children.”

This all takes place at the same time as the government’s welfare reforms are starting to be implemented. I am far from an expert in this area, so I have not talked about these reforms in this blog, although I did recently note how they are expected to reverse recent declines in child poverty. That aside, whether these reforms make sense or not is beside the point here. What is important is that one of the government’s stated aims is to make the system more efficient, because in times of austerity money needs to be saved.

It is clear that the problem of the welfare state allowing, let alone encouraging, certain people to remain unemployed and have large families is not the main issue in trying to make the welfare system more efficient. To quote the Economist: “Though most of them seem to end up in newspapers, in 2011 there were just 130 families in the country with ten children claiming at least one out-of-work benefit. Only 8% of benefit claimants have three or more children. What evidence there is suggests that on average, unemployed people have similar numbers of children to employed people.”

What we do know is that the vast majority of welfare payments go to people who are trying to find a job but cannot because jobs are scarce, or who are disabled, or who do have a job which is very poorly paid. These are people that most citizens in the UK would never want to exchange places with, and they deserve our sympathy and support. So what do you do if you are a public figure who knows these facts, and a national newspaper like the Daily Mail not only distorts the truth with its headlines, but by implication paints all those receiving welfare in such horrible colours?

I would suggest any decent person would try to bring the debate back to reality. At the very least you might say the following: "The Philpott case is an individual tragedy. Children have died in that case. I think that is where we should let that case lie. I would not want to connect that to the much wider need to reform our welfare system." That is what Danny Alexander, the (LibDem) Chief Secretary to the Treasury said. But this is what his boss, the Chancellor George Osborne, said. "Philpott is responsible for these absolutely horrendous crimes and these are crimes that have shocked the nation. The courts are responsible for sentencing him, 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."

So he sees no problem with the Daily Mail’s headline. Regular readers will know that I think George Osborne has been a hopeless Chancellor, and in addition that he has subordinated his economic task to the urge to make political capital. Yet even I was surprised by this attempt to use the tragic deaths of six children in a bizarre and unique case to try and score political points. 

People can make up their own minds about the morality of this. Or you might take a cynical view, that all politicians will take any opportunity they can to make populist points, and that there is no morality left in politics. In which case the last thing any politician should do is say this “... do you exploit tragedy, like the Philpott tragedy? The right place for Mr Philpott is behind bars, but do you exploit the deaths of six children to try and make a political point about the welfare system, and at the same time say to people that this is somehow a common truth about people on benefits?" Perhaps there is just a little morality left in politics, whichever side you are on.


  1. I don't really have a point to make about morality, but I think a lot of the commentary, pro and con, has missed a wider point.

    Harold Shipman told us nothing about doctors, but quite a lot about how GPs are supervised. As long as GPs are honest and hard-working, the system works, but Shipman got away with a lot of evil before he was apprehended.

    In the same way, Philpott tells us nothing about welfare recipients in general, but he must have had dozens - hundreds? - of interactions with the welfare system, with case officers and so on.

    Did none of them ever raise a red flag? Did no Manager in the Welfare System ever read his file and ask what was going on?

    Certainly there is political grand-standing here - in both directions; I had never realised what a shifty little weasel Owen Jones is - but if the result of this case is a tightening up of Welfare System management, then it's not a total loss.

  2. Re Jon Livesey's comment: I'm not sure I see the parallel between Shipman and Philpott when it comes to governance and oversight. GPs and doctors are regulated in their professional life, i.e. their practise, and this is where the governance failed in the case of Shipman. Are you suggesting that welfare claimants should be similarly "regulated" in their private lives? Perhaps some other agency of the state - for example a school or social services - could have been expected to be more involved but I'm not sure it's the role of the welfare system to get involved in that sort of thing. I don't know the details of the case particularly well so I'm also not sure what the "red flags" you're referring to are either.

  3. Mmm - monitoring and regulating welfare claimants: what an innovative idea. Why didn't we think of that before?

  4. No, I am not suggesting that every welfare recipient should be regulated, but this case is a pretty obvious outlier.

    17 children by five partners, attempted murder of a girlfriend in 1978, whom he shot with a crossbow and attacked with a hammer, then he attacked the girl's mother with a knife, causing a punctured bladder, kidney and liver. Then a seven year prison sentence later reduced to three and a half.

    A suspended sentence for attacking a colleague, and then another attack on a girlfriend using a plank of wood. Then a road rage incident in which he physically attacked another motorist.

    This guy is not the kind of person where you can really say "Oops, we missed the subtle signs".

    And can we please remember that six children died, and that children have rights, too.

    Yes, everyone is having a lot of fun being sarcastic about "exploiting" Philpott, but there have been some pretty serious failures here.

    And not for the first time, either. Right?

    1. I am not familiar with the exact details of Philpott's background but I fail to see where the benefit's system failed. Surely your argument should be placed at the justice system? Perhaps the mental health services but I cannot understand how this is failing of the welfare system. The only way this argument could be made is if the welfare system failed to do it's job i.e. if it was paying too much or too little or didn't detect fraud, it's not their job to police, treat or rehabilitate.

      As pointed out before, Shipman was a doctor who was subject to professional standards and "took an oath" to help people, it's a completely different scenario in terms of oversight. Your argument is flawed and the logic is completely muddled, you're coming across as having an axe to grind or believing the media/government messasges that benefits are bad and the welfare system is connected to murder/manslaughter. That's a separate debate that requires looking at with factual analysis and has nothing to do with a man setting fire to children.

  5. The best commentary that I have read is Grace Dent's feminist perspective in the Independent, which focusses on the judge's very pertinent remarks, which have rather been lost in the sea of pernicious right wing nonsense that followed

    Long story short - Philpott tells us as much about the welfare system as Fred West tells us about the tax rules for self employed builders.

  6. In terms of how the D/Mail is used as a propaganda sheet - this was a new low for even this tabloid. I wonder if there was some collusion with the D/Mail and the now in place Tory strategist Lynton Crosby. Whatever- if this is the new attack approach I am rather fearful for our society. Yet another Aussie dragging the UK political debates into the gutter.


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