Donna Edmunds is the Head of Media for the Bow Group, but she writes here in a personal capacity
The man that the Daily Mail branded the ‘Vile product of Welfare UK’ is behind bars today, serving the first full day of his life sentence for causing the death of six of his children. There can be no doubt in anyone’s mind that Mick Philpott was indeed vile and thoroughly deserves his sentence, but the claim that the welfare system played a role is proving controversial.
Blogging recently, Daniel Hannan MEP warned against using extreme cases such as these in the wider debate around topics such as welfare: “The last thing we should do is to turn such cases, from either end of the scale, into political weapons. The people involved are suffering quite enough, and extreme examples make for bad policy.”
Yet yesterday Osborne did hint towards a link between a benefits lifestyle and Philpott’s despicable act, saying "Philpott is responsible for these absolutely horrendous crimes, 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."
Labour immediately struck back, with Stephen Timms MP, Labour's Shadow Work and Pensions Minister, saying "Mick Philpott's crimes were terrible. Everyone should be clear that responsibility for these evil acts rests with him and the others sentenced today. It is wrong to link those acts with the debate about welfare and George Osborne should not be doing so, even implicitly. Millions of people including pensioners and the disabled, people in work and out of work, receive benefits and tax credits. The Government needs to recognise that they are as shocked and disgusted by the callous killing of these children as anyone else in Britain.”
Sometimes I find the sheer front of Labourites quite breath-taking. Of course it would be absolutely preposterous to suggest that taking state handouts somehow turns you into a heartless child killer, but no-one is suggesting that. Rather, this is a discussion around free will and how much weight we should give to the notion that the choices and actions of recipients should be taken into consideration when setting the parameters of our welfare system.
It was Labour who vastly inflated the welfare state by turning everyone into victims. Suddenly people who committed crimes, were sacked from jobs or who failed to find employment in the first place were not merely irresponsible individuals, but victims – of poor upbringings, of an unfair education system that placed too much emphasis on ‘learning’, and of a divided society that turned its back on the ‘have nots’.
Conservatism, by contrast, holds that individuals themselves are solely responsible for their own actions, no matter what the circumstances. It is fairly uncontroversial to say that welfare payments are necessary for those who through no fault of their own find themselves in hardship. Those who are made redundant, or fall ill, or are vulnerable in some way need and deserve our help as a society, and we should gladly offer it to them. But there is a line to be drawn between, for example, a worker who is out of a job for a short time having been made redundant and one who simply can’t be bothered to get out of bed in the morning, or even between a disabled person who seeks out activities that they can realistically do, and one who dwells only upon their own limitations. Quite apart from the moral aspect of taking responsibility for oneself, there is also a strong case to be made that encouraging people to fulfil their potential as human beings is actually good for peoples’ health and wellbeing in the long run.
From this point of view, Osborne’s statement is surely incontrovertible. Here we have a man whose lifestyle was founded upon the notion that he deserved to be given everything that he demanded from others, no matter how preposterous the demand, or how little he deserved it. As the presiding Judge, Mrs Justice Thirwell said when sentencing Mick Philpott: “Your needs and desires took precedence over everything, everyone else, including your children. You so arranged your life and theirs so that everything was done for the pleasure of Michael Philpott. … Your guiding principle is what Mick Philpott wants he gets.”
By the same token, it is Labour’s assertion that every member of our society has the right to demand of everyone else the lifestyle they wish for themselves. Want a spare bedroom or two? Go right ahead, why shouldn’t you have a bit of extra space in the house? After all, that middle class couple down the road have a spare room, surely it’s discrimination to deny you the same? Never mind that they go out to work all day… Or how about the desire for ten children? The state will put a roof over your head and pay maintenance for your brood, so no problem.
In short, Labour have created a backwards society in which rational self-interest dictates that selfishly taking from others is the most profitable course for the vast majority of people. If the darker consequences of that are occasionally felt as they have been this week, it is poor of Labour to attack Conservatives for wishing to discuss the matter.