The Philpotts case and what it says about our welfare state (hint: it says nothing)

Mike Philpotts is a psychopath. An abusive, violently misogynistic, empathy-free, bullying psychopath. Killing six of his own children may have been an accident, but for a parent to put their children in any increased risk of harm whatsover for any reason, let alone for “revenge” speaks to a total lack of parental feeling. He preyed on vulnerable girls in their early  teens, grooming young women who were estranged from their parents, starting relationships with them, and then forcing them into a cycle of violence whereby he threatened them with violence if they tried to leave, and kept them almost continually pregnant to trap them. Keeping women pregnant so they can’t leave is something a lot of domestic abusers do, and they do it with little regard to whether or not the childrens’ upkeep will be paid for by the state, by themselves or in the case of Philpotts, by a combination of their mothers’ wages, child benefit and working tax credits.

I hate to even engage with the argument about whether the benefits received by the Philpotts family had anything to do with the sexual, physical and emotional abuse suffered by his wife, girlfriend and children over the past two decades, let alone the manslaughter of six children last year by Mike and Mairead Philpotts and Paul Mosley. I have no more desire to engage with the idea that people on benefits are morally deficient than I do to waste my breath and dignity countering the idea that any [insert persecuted minority here] are [insert baseless stereotype here]. But in this case, the political debate (although I hesitate to dignify the Daily Mail’s contribution to the subject with either of those words) has been so poisonous, so baseless and with such little recourse to the facts that I just couldn’t help it.

Firstly, Mike Philpotts was not in receipt of Jobseekers’ Allowance. I was on JSA for four glorious months and the receipt of it requires you to prove you are looking for work. You have to report to the Jobcentre once a fortnight and have an Advisor go through your efforts to look for a job, and if you haven’t done enough, you are “sanctioned”. This doesn’t just mean you lose your benefits for the previous fortnight; it means you lose them for anything up to a year. And this isn’t just if your Advisor suspects you’ve spent the last two weeks sitting at home smoking dope, it’s if you fall short of the stringent conditions in any way. For example, my conditions were that I had to take 10 steps per week to find work, and apply for 3 jobs. Steps include signing up to jobs websites, enquiring about jobs, attending interviews and applying for roles. I would imagine that for some jobseekers they would include more basic things like setting up a bank account or writing a CV. Anyway, to continue on this tangent, I did more than that most weeks, but there was one week where I’d had two interviews in one week, both of which had required a days’ preparation, and so I’d fallen short of the target and only applied to 2 jobs. I was sure they’d understand why, especially as I was quite confident about both interviews, but as it turns out, I was put under review, told that my benefits could be sanctioned for a month, and had to attend an interview with a different Advisor where I explained at length my jobhunting activities of the previous week, until they were finally convinced that I’d been a good enough (although still morally deficient, obviously) jobseeker in the past week, and could be allowed my £8 per day to live on until the next time they scrutinised my activity. This is not directly related to the Philpotts case, but the point is this – conditions for receiving JSA are extremely stringent, and the sum you receive is so small that in my case, I earn as much in one day in a job where I get paid the London Living Wage than I did as a jobseeker, and being a jobseeker was in reality several hours’ work per day. You cannot live a life of luxury on £72 per week, let alone on £52 per week, which is what the under-25s are entitled to. I am living at home rent-free, and managed to spend all of my money most weeks. I topped up an obscenely expensive Oyster card to go into London for interviews. I paid my mobile phone bill. I bought a couple of new jumpers from Primark when the weather got really cold. I got a 75% discounted rate to go to the gym and spent about 7 quid per week on that. I even went to the pub once or twice and had, oh, two glasses of Wetherspoons’ cheapest wine. I know that I was unemployed and therefore should have been prepared not to leave the house for four months, so I could devote all of my time when not jobhunting to self-flagellation because I was being such a burden on society. But then I’d look at the unemployment statistics, and the rejection emails I got which said things like “Unfortunately we had over 200 applicants” and I’d remember that the situation had nothing to do with my talents or my efforts, and everything to do with our completely dysfunctional economy. Then I’d feel less annoyed at myself, and much, much, much more annoyed at the Government. I really think that without the means to a) exercise during an incredibly cold winter b) socialise occasionally and c) do a lot of writing, I would have become seriously depressed, and I could only do the first two because of my relatively privileged situation of not having to buy my own food. Being unemployed is socially isolating enough anyway, without being forced not to see anyone outside of your family for months on end. So, long story short, I was living at home rent-free, I was only unemployed for four months, and with my degree and work experience I knew intellectually that I had more of a chance of finding a job than a lot of people, even if sometimes it didn’t feel that way. I had the easiest experience of being unemployed that it’s possible to have, and I still found JSA sufficient for a very modest lifestyle, and the psychological experience of being unemployed to be the most dispiriting and depressing time of my life. It was a combination of not having any disposable income, not having a reason to leave the house most mornings, going for days without seeing anyone outside my family, the constant cycle of hope and disappointment whenever I had an interview, the mind-numbing tedium of writing endless cover letters and not even getting a response, not knowing when the situation would end and not being able to make any plans for the future while I was unemployed. The poisonous media coverage of “scroungers” didn’t help either. I feel quite uneasy claiming to be affected by the media narrative around benefits cheats and scroungers, because I know it is affecting people far more vulnerable than I, who, unlike me, continue to be in real hardship due to unemployment. At the same time, I was unemployed, I was on benefits, and my blood did boil each time I heard or read anything along the lines of “there are jobs out there if only people would look”, “people spend their benefits money on booze and fags” and particularly in relation to graduate unemployment, “If only they’d studied Engineering instead of an Arts subjects, there’d be no graduate unemployment!” Because being able to do an English and French degree (I did one, because, in case you can’t tell, I really like words) is definitely the same as being able to train as an engineer, and achieving a degree means you could have easily achieved any degree. Oh, and people who decided on their degrees in 2007, when they were 17, should have had the foresight to work out exactly what career they’d have, and also predict there’d be a financial crisis. With a fifth of graduates failing to find work after university, until last week, I was a far more typical recipient of unemployment benefits than was Mike Philpotts. I am sure you will all be relieved to know I have now found a job, and can only hope that ending the £53 per week I was receiving will go some way towards fixing Britain’s structural deficit.

Anyway, tangent aside, to go back to Philpotts, the benefits his family received were firstly working tax credits and secondly child benefit. The first (the clue is in the name) is given to people whose wages are too low to live on. I would be thrilled to see them ended, which will happen when the national minimum wage is enough to live on, and there is enough full-time work for everyone who needs it, which is now clearly not the case. Philpotts did not receive benefits himself, he sent his wives out to work, and pocketed the wages and benefits they received for himself. The only people he was ‘stealing’ money from were his abused, exploited wife and girlfriend, who were perfectly entitled to state help to top-up their low salaries, and his children, who should have had their child benefit spent on the things they needed.

Now for child benefit. Unlike the Daily Mail, who like fascist rags everywhere, described Philpotts as having “bred” his 17 Undesirables, I don’t actually think society would be much improved if children born into deeply dysfunctional, abusive families had the additional burden of total destitution represented by the withdrawal of child benefit.

Philpotts cared so little for his own children, he killed six of them in an attempt to get revenge on his ex-girlfriend. Does anyone think that he gave the smallest shit about how they would be supported once they were born? It’s difficult to put myself in the mind of someone as loathsome as Mike Philpotts, but I’m going to throw out some ideas about what might have happened if, say, child benefit had been withdrawn for the family after the second child. The kids would have gone without food, heating and clothes, not to mention anything approaching cultural or social capital like reading books or school trips (if they were even allowed these now). They would have been even more likely to turn to the crime the minute they were old enough to start selling drugs or mugging people. As he was a woman-hating rapist and murderer, he might have pimped out his daughters. He might have sold drugs, or turned to crime, if he gave enough of a shit about his childrens’ welfare to want to bring in enough income to give them all something to eat in the evenings. What he wasn’t going to do was clean up his act, go and find a full-time job (with dozens of people without a criminal record and with work experience chasing each vacancy, like anywhere would have employed Philpotts) and therefore reduced the amount his family needed in benefits. And so what if he had? He would have still been violently abusing his partners and children, threatening to kill anyone who left, and finally hatching his sick plan to frame his ex-girlfriend for arson which ended up killing six children, but hey, at least the family would have been costing the state a bit less, which appears to be the main concern, by the standards of the Daily Mail, at least.

The last argument is that Philpotts fathered so many children because he saw them as ‘cash cows’. The current amount of child benefit is £20.45 per week. Now, these children were at least kept fed, clothed and warm until last year, which I would struggle to do with that sum alone. Let’s say their mothers managed to do so on half that, and think about the kind of quality of life those children (who were ‘born’ and not ‘bred’) had. So Philpotts pocketed £150 per week to spend on whatever the fuck a psychopath uses his disposable income for. Is this an argument for stopping child benefit? A tiny minority of children are born to parents who are irresponsible enough to spend child benefit on themselves – so let’s make those families even poorer! The overwhelming majority of families receiving child benefit are a) in work b) have an average number of children and c) spend the money on essentials for their children. There are fewer than 190 families in Britain on benefits with more than 10 children. Not only is the stereotype of feckless parents having children they can’t afford and then spending their child benefit on booze and fags completely untrue, it’s unclear how reducing the amount of money given to the tiny, tiny minority of irresponsible parents on benefits would help the situation at all, beyond further impoverishing the whole family. For abusive households like the Philpotts, what is needed is greater state intervention to ensure that their children grow up, as much as possible, with the capacity to be happy, productive adults who won’t re-enact the cycle of abuse on their own children. Parental abuse is occurs in all sections of society. It has nothing to do with “welfare dependency”.

The timing of the Daily Mail article was particularly disgusting as it came a day after changes to the welfare system which are taking money out of the pockets of the poorest people in society, which always includes children, even though in this country we’re pretty squeamish about recognising that child poverty is inseparable from general poverty. Even the Government has admitted that 200,000 children will be pushed into poverty due to welfare changes. The bedroom tax will mean a 14% cut in housing benefit to tens of thousands of people who cannot move, because there are no smaller properties available for them, and includes single parents who have a room for the children they look after at weekends, foster parents, Army parents and the disabled, who often need a spare room for a medical equipment, or for their partners and/or carers to sleep in (two thirds of those hit by the bedroom tax are disabled). To make the point other people have making throughout this debate, using Philpotts as an excuse to persecute welfare recipients is like using Harold Shipman as an excuse to persecute male middle-class professionals, except it isn’t, because welfare recipients are some of the poorest and least powerful people in society. They are an already-persecuted minority, which is why the DM stance is in my view hate speech, and I remain extremely apprehensive about the depths to which welfare-claimant bashing might sink, as history provides more than enough examples of what happens when the actions of one disturbed individual are used to tarnish an entire group of people. The welfare state is a lifeline for impoverished single mothers, the disabled, the unemployed, and yes that includes graduates like myself who are unemployed for a while, and of course, the millions of working poor whose wages are too low and whose rents are too high for them to live decently. On Monday the safety net of social security had holes ripped in it by a Cabinet of millionaires who seem to form policy on the basis of projecting their own venality onto the population at large, and one of this country’s biggest-selling newspapers is happy to foster the climate of hatred and misinformation which allows them to get away with it.

If this angers any of you as much as it does me, I’ll be going to the UK Uncut Action on April 13th and you should too. In the words of Elie Wiesel, “there may be times when we are powerless to prevent injustice, but there must never be a time when we fail to protest.”

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One response

  1. […] I read in the superb blog post The Philpotts case and what it says about our welfare state (hint: it says nothing) at Found an Occupation (@Edenkulig on twitter if you’re interested); I can see that the […]

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