This has not been the week for calm and rational thought on any side of the welfare debate.
The right – up to and including the Chancellor of the Exchequer and Prime Minister – have gone off the deep end in linking the deaths of six innocent children to the fact that their household received help from the state. That this case reported in the same week as many of the changes brought in through the Welfare Reform Act – including the pernicious Bedroom Tax – was too much to resist. As has so often been the case, cuts to all welfare have been justified by the most extreme of cases highlighted as if it were the norm.
But if we look at the individual facts of the case, and at some of the proposed solutions that have been posited from left and right on the matter of the benefits received by that household, we can see that this case is far more complex. There are some implications for welfare reform, but not necessarily the ones you will have read about so far this week.
So what do we know?
We know that the household received quite a considerable income from a combination of the cleaning wages of the two adult women Maraid Philpott and Lisa Willis, unemployment and housing related benefits recieved by Mick Philpott and Child Benefit and Child Tax Credits received on account of the children who lived in the household.
We also know that before their deaths, the children seemed well turned out and healthy, they had toys and were described by neighbours as happy. As there were eleven children living in the house until 2012 and six after that point, we can assume the cost of caring for these children was not inconsiderable. We can also assume that whatever proportion of the income that was received by Philpott for housing related benefit was paid directly to the landlord. But we also know that Philpott felt a sense of entitlement to a certain level of lifestyle. He built an extension to house a full sized snooker table and the house had two large televisions. Objectively we can ask how there was enough money to own these things, but we must also ask what his priorities would have been had there been less money coming in. Would the children have suffered more or would Philpott’s lifestyle have taken the hit? Given that this was a man willing to put his children at what turned out to be fatal risk, this is not a question that can be easily dismissed.
One suggested policy that has been re-proposed this week on the back of interest in this case is the limiting child benefit to two children (£). It is hard to understand how that would work when children have different parents. Mick Philpott had children with five different women. Even if each of those women had limited the number of children to two there would still have been ten children brought into this dysfunctional family. We rightly mourn the death of these innocent children. We should not use our outrage at the actions of their parents to further harm other children from large families by making their lives harder and more poverty stricken.
As Child Benefit is given to the person designated “responsible” for the child, each women could separately claim they are that responsible adult. Child Benefit will remain a benefit claimed individually rather than as part of the household based Universal Credit. So each of the women in this case could presumably continue to claim for at least two children. With both Lisa Willis and Maraid Philpott bringing a child into the relationship with them, there could – theoretically – have been six children in this household and a further six from former lovers covered by this notion.
I am assuming this is the reason right wingers keep bringing up the prosecution’s case (one which is not reflected in the judge’s summing up) that the reason Philpott wanted Lisa Willis back was financial as opposed to reasons of dominance, control and obsession cited by the judge. Mick Philpott was – from at least the age of 21 – an extremely violent and controlling man. The women in his life were always considerably younger than him and from insecure backgrounds. They were cowed by violence and kept for years in a near permanent state of pregnancy which Chief Executive of Women’s Aid Polly Neate described as a further form of control. Though they were forced to give up all their wages and benefits to Philpott, it is far from clear that the driving motive in this case was financial at all.
This is an extreme case from which the left neither can nor will gain too much from extrapolating. It is a case far more about domestic violence than it is about welfare dependency. But there is one area where these two themes meet that it is worth raising, and that is Universal Credit. One in four women suffer domestic violence. While each abuse situation is different, there are some common factors, one of which is the threat to withhold money. Under Universal Credit, couples will have to nominate one partner to receive payments that comprise any employment related benefits, child tax credits and housing benefit (it will not include child benefit). In a household where one partner is dominating the other, this may lead to a significant transfer of income to the dominant partner, which could make it harder for women to leave abusive partners.
This isn’t the time or the place to go into the problems I believe come with Universal Credit. But I hope that there are people in the DWP who will be considering this. Who – as the pilots are monitored and the scheme rolled out – are looking at these unintended consequences. It is also worth noting that Mick Philpott was able to have complete control of the finances of the two women who lived with him without the roll out of Universal Credit and I’m unconvinced he would have stopped having children by them if child benefit stopped at two children – however that were calculated. Neither my argument nor others is conclusively proven by this single data point. As has been rightly said many times, this is an extreme case and extrapolation from it should be undertaken with extreme caution.
But if we are to take lessons from this case and apply them to the welfare system, let us not make these lessons that could have made the short lives of Duwayne, Jade, John, Jack, Jessie and Jayden harsher. Let us not make it harder for women like Lisa Willis to leave.
Courtesy of Emma Burnell of Scarlet Standard