Friday, 5 April 2013

Can Tragedy be a Catalyst for Meaningful Debate ?

There's little doubt the terrible tragedy of the Philpott case has engendered some raw emotion and some emotive and provocative commentary from the Chancellor of the Exchequer, George Osborne, down. The printed media and the blogsphere have resonated with judged or generally ill-judged analysis. "Welfare UK" screamed a headline in the Daily Mail on Tuesday.

The underlying argument goes something like this - under Labour (we can always blame Labour), an underclass developed. This group of people found that the generous welfare system was sufficient for them to live without having to work. Indeed, as they had more children, they got more benefits - they could be moved to bigger and better properties and would bem provided with what was tantamount to a comfortable lifestyle with flat screen televisions and all the mod cons.

Thus, for some, it paid them not to work since if they found work, they would lose some of their benefits. During the economic good times, no one was too bothered - yes, papers like the Mail would carry regular stories of this kind of lifestyle but they carried little impact until the economic recession.

The changing of the political and economic climate after 2008 threw Government spending and particularly welfare spending into sharp focus. Why, it was argued, should the money of hard-working taxpayers be used to subsidise the lifestyle of those unwilling to work? This argument was initially used against immigrants who came here seeing the British welfare system as a "soft touch" and the press in particular ran gleeful stories showing how large families (often Muslim) were being fed, clothed and housed at the taxpayers' expense.

Since 2010 and the coming of the Coalition Govenrment, Iain Duncan-Smith and Steve Webb have been looking at the cost of welfare and seeking ways not just of reducing the overall cost of welfare but of ensuring that welfare goes to those who are perceived as needing it. It has been a theme of the Coalition since the beginning to be claiming to represent "hard working people" whether under the heading of "alarm clock Britain" or the "aspiration nation". Naturally, the Coalition is seeking to identify itself as a Government supporting decent, hardworking taxpayers and as a by-product, portraying Labour as the Party of the indolent, the "scrounger" and those living on benefits.

This demonisation of those on welfare has been one of the most unpleasant aspects of politics since 2007 and unfortunately some members of the Coalition have been all too keen to jump on this odious bandwagon.

This week, this meme reached a new nadir as the unpleasant Chancellor, George Osborne, waded in on the Philpott issue and implied that the Philpott case was an example of all that was wrong with the welfare system in Britain.

The problem with the debate over welfare is that the propagandas and the posturing bump up against the unpleasant place that is called the facts so let's consider these for a moment. The total amount spent on welfare payments is somewhere between £170 and £210 billion depending on where you look and what you read so it's a big chunk of Government expenditure. However, of that, around 40-45% (let's say £70 - £90 billion) is made up of payments to pensioners. Now, it mustn't ever be forgotten that the Conservative success in 2010 was predicated on pensioners. Had only voters over 65 counted, the Conservatives would have won with a big majority. The truth is that the old are more likely to vote and are more likely to vote Conservative so they are in many respects sacrosanct. There is no talk of reducing State pensions or other payments to pensioners such as winter fuel payments or TV licences. Indeed, it may well be the case that as UKIP is getting support from older white voters that there will be more effort made to placate them before 2015.

Back to benefits and the other side of the coin is that benefits are also claimed by a lot of hardworking people as a supplement to low wages. If you don't earn enough through your work (and in many jobs wages are incredibly low), then this income can be supplemented via Housing Benefit, Council Tax benefit, Child Benefit etc, etc. Many millions of people claim these benefits and are a difference between getting by and not getting by.

Those who castigate the payment of benefits and assume (or have been persuaded) that those in receipt of benefits are not to be considered hardworking productive members of society then consider the Disabled who both work and claim Disability Benefit as a way of helping ameliorate a condition over which they have no control and which blights their existence.

And so back to Mick Philpott - there are apparently just 180 families with more than 10 children claiming benefit in the whole of the UK so if each claims £100,000 per annum, the total spend would be £180 million, a veritable drop in the ocean and hardly enough to warrant the faux outrage of George Osborne.  

But that's not to condone Philpott, a controlling and deeply flawed man. The question is determining his crime - yes, he killed his children though no one suggests he meant to do so. The question is whether his motivation was enforced by the benefit system by which he had lost substantially when his mistress had left taking a number ofr his children and thereby substantially reducing his benefit income. It can hardly be the fault of lawmakers not to conceive that in such a situation a parent would resort to such desperate and ill-considered measures.

The problem seems to be the view that Philpott and those around him had replaced the virtues of hard work and "decent" living for a life built around benefits. Had he been a drug dealer and financed his life through crime would we be having this debate? That Philpott is a clever man with a strong understanding of and ability to work the benefit system to his advantage is undeniable but that's hardly a crime - indeed, Government should be ensuring that everyone receives the benefit to which they are legally entitled.

So, we're back to the nub of the issue - Philpott and his brood were not living the way "decent" people are supposed to, they did not have the values and mores of "decent" people and did not comport themselves as "decent hard-working people" are supposed to. They were different, they behaved differently and therefore deserve our contempt because they are not like us.

In the end, it's all about scapegoating, the need to find someone else to blame. The Welfare System is wrong - to prove it, let's find those who benefit from it and vilify them. Unfortunately, the tragic deaths of six children have become part of this process and part of an argument.

Mick Philpott and those involved in their deaths will spend the rest of their lives paying for the tragedy their actions caused. George Osborne isn't by any degree as guilty but he comes out of this looking like a nasty unsympathetic soul more interested in currying favour with the Daily Mail than with confronting the difficult issues. For Iain Duncan Smith and Steve Webb there is the recognition that the Welfare State was and remains a core part of British life - its destruction serves no one, its preservation is essential but it can't be cast in stone.

Philpott says much but not about how we live - rather, it speaks to how we are told we should live and the values we should live to. As a liberal, I'm opposed fundamentally to being told by George Osborne and the Daily Mail how I should live. I baulk at that as much as I recoil from Philpott and his sordid life.

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