His house, his booze, his drugs, his women and his 17 children were paid for by a benefits system meant to be a safety net for the truly needy. The trial of Michael Philpott and his wife Mairead is over, and they have been convicted of multiple manslaughter. This was one of the most horrible crimes committed against children in Britain in recent years. It was cynical. It was calculating. And it was done out of malice in a ham-fisted plot which went wrong.
The trial spoke volumes about the sheer nastiness of the individuals involved. But it also lifted the lid on the bleak and often grotesque world of the welfare benefit scroungers — of whom there are not dozens, not hundreds, but tens of thousands in our country.
There is a reason why Philpott, 56, lived with both his wife Mairead, 31, and his mistress Lisa Willis, 28. As the prosecutor at his trial explained: ‘Michael Philpott did not want to work. He just wanted a house full of kids and the benefit money that brings.’
That is why a total of 11 children lived in the house before Lisa Willis moved out, taking five of them with her.
Six were the offspring of Philpott and his wife. Four were his children with Lisa Willis, and another child was Willis’s by another man.
Philpott had also fathered another six children by three other women. As far as can be known, he never contributed so much as a penny towards the upkeep of any of these 17 children, all of whom were born into dependency on state benefits.
His story throws into surreal relief the row between the Tories and Labour this week about Iain Duncan Smith’s much-needed benefit reforms. While the Left and the Church cry that they are unfair and immoral, the Government argues calmly that what is immoral is leaving families such as
Michael Philpott’s to languish on benefits for generations.
Indeed, Philpott never even attempted to find a job. The children owed their existence to his desire to milk the welfare system.
Of course this is a story of tragedy — six children have been killed in horrible circumstances. It is also a story of great human wickedness for, even if the plot had gone according to plan and the children had been rescued, Philpott and his wife were conspiring to make it look as if another person had murdered them.
But where did all this evil come from? Evil no doubt comes from the heart of human beings and we are all capable, in one way or another, of wrongdoing.
And yet, and yet… throughout this painful trial, as the evidence was so slowly and painstakingly heard, it was impossible not to think of it as a hateful parable of our times.
Those six children, burnt to a cinder for nothing, were, in a way, the children of those benevolent human beings who, all those years ago, created our state benefits system.
But when, in 1942, Sir William Beveridge laid the foundation of our welfare state with his report on how to slay the ‘five giants’ of Want, Disease, Ignorance, Squalor and Idleness once victory was won in the war, he could never have foreseen how it would be so criminally abused.
Two years ago, the BBC showed a six-part documentary called The Scheme (which is the Scottish word for a housing estate). It was about benefit junkies living on a ‘scheme’ in North Kilmarnock and was deplored by some as ‘poverty porn’, satisfying viewers’ vicarious interest in the lives of the poor.
But the people living on the scheme are not poor by the standards of those living in the slums of Mumbai, let alone struggling for survival in famine-stricken north-east Africa.
The houses on the scheme are heated, they have bathrooms and lavatories and kitchens and television sets — as did the Philpott house in Derby.
The respectable people on the scheme were passionate gardeners — old people who led a perfectly decent existence there.
It was the next generation down, the ones who had been corrupted by the benefits system, who were trapped in a cycle of drug abuse, criminality, prison and a pathetic inability to see that they had done anything wrong.
Like Michael Philpott, they were moral degenerates.
I have a vision in my head still, two years after the programmes were aired, of one woman lying in bed with a fag in her hand, yelling at her truanting children to get up and go to school.
She had not got up herself. She would not be able to stir herself to look for a job. Her children were doomed to be as feckless as she was.
She had been dismissed from her job in a meat-packing factory. Like all the other people on the programme (except the old gardening enthusiasts) she exuded self-pity. Her neighbour, who was ‘done for a racial’ — ie, arrested for appalling, abusive behaviour towards the hard-working local Asian shopkeeper — spoke of this as if it was very bad luck rather than bad behaviour.
Likewise, when the others on the scheme were found drug dealing, pilfering, scrounging, lying or indulging in acts of violence, it was never their fault. Always someone else’s fault, or a bit of bad luck.
Michael Philpott sobbed after he had killed six children — but they were not tears of penitence, they were of simple self-pity and horror at having being found out.
Whatever welfare system we were to devise, there would always be nasty individuals; and few are so nasty as Michael Philpott.
Yet the particular manner in which his nastiness was exercised, and the way in which he lived, was the direct consequence of his being able to live scot-free at the expense of the taxpayer. Philpott was a domestic tyrant who controlled all the money coming into the house. When Willis, his mistress, moved out, the court was told, she did not realise that he had been receiving more than £1,000 a month for her children.
This was a family, and a collection of human beings, who were on benefits the way other people are on drugs. Many, of course, are on both, for idleness breeds depression, and if you are depressed, unemployed and unemployable, then taking drugs numbs the pain.
It also diminishes your capacity to get up in the morning, keep to a timetable or do any of the things that would enable you to get a job.
One of the most gruesome moments of the trial came when Philpott was in the witness box, answering questions from his defence counsel. Asked why he had petrol stains on his trousers, he said he had lent his lawn strimmer to a neighbour several months earlier. In 12 weeks he had not changed his trousers, nor had a bath or a shower.
Even more revolting was the evidence of his wife that, hours before the children died, she had been indulging in a threesome with Philpott and their arson accomplice — fork-lift driver Paul Mosley, also this week found guilty of manslaughter — on the couple’s snooker table.
Philpott was always on the dole, never looking for a job, always on the scrounge. His house was paid for, his utterly feckless way of life was paid for, his children were paid for, by taxpayers.
The cannabis he smoked in front of the telly had been paid for by someone else who went out to work and paid taxes. So had the telly.
Otherwise, this sleazy, awful human being did nothing useful with his life. The court heard how he enjoyed ‘dogging’, where couples watch strangers having sex, or are watched by others having sex in public places, such as car parks. His poor, tragic children came into the world as a result of such sordid pastimes.
Philpott happened to live in Derby, but versions of the Philpott family can be found in any town in Britain.
Whole blocks of flats, whole tenement buildings are filled with drug-taking benefit fraudsters, scroungers and people on the make.
The riots that began in Tottenham, North London, two summers ago, and then spread to other British cities, showed what has happened to Britain as a result of the perversion of our benefits system.
We have turned into a country where ordinary morality — the simple concept that you do not take what is not yours — does not seem to register in whole rafts of society.
Many of the looters were in full employment, many were grown-ups, but they still had the Philpott morality — they had been programmed into believing they were entitled to ‘something for nothing’.
What the Philpott trial showed was the pervasiveness of evil caused by benefit dependency. The welfare state, which was designed to provide a safety net for those in genuine need, worked only in those vanished times, more than half a century ago, when there remained a culture of honesty, respect for the police and the law.
Those of us who grew up in ‘Austerity Britain’ thought of William Beveridge with his compassionate report, which invented the welfare state, and Clement Attlee, the prime minister who put it into account, as heroes, and we thought of ourselves as their children.
They were heroes with the most honourable of intentions, determined that the conditions they had witnessed during the 1930s and the war — hungry children suffering from rickets and tuberculosis, appalling housing conditions, the persecution of the unemployed — would never come to Britain again.
In post-war Britain, where there was high employment and everyone had to accept a low standard of living, it really looked as if a just and decent society was being formed. A society in which benefits helped those who genuinely could not help themselves.
But in time, the welfare state became an exercise in Whitehall empire-building.
Ever more people were entitled to welfare and, understandably, ever more people grabbed it. When Attlee left office in 1951, we spent just £700 million a year on welfare (not including health and pensions), which accounted for 4.7 per cent of Britain’s gross domestic product.
By 2011/12, the benefits system had become an uncontrollable leviathan and we were spending more than £200 billion a year — even allowing for inflation, that’s 13 per cent of GDP.
With such sums being disbursed so readily, little wonder there is so much waste and fraud. Until recently, more than two million people of working age claimed disability benefit.
Are we really so infirm as a nation? Evidently not, given that since the Government brought in tougher tests, 878,000 people have chosen not to be reassessed, while a further 837,000 have been declared fit for work.
Some 13 per cent of the population live in households where absolutely no one works — compared with just three per cent in Japan. The litany of depressing statistics goes on and on.
Now, when I close my eyes and think of the ‘children’ of the founders of the welfare state, I do not see the hard-working people of Austerity Britain.
I see, rather, Duwayne, John, Jack, Jade, Jesse and Jayden — killed not only by their father but also by the system which had been designed with the best intentions to help them but has now been corrupted seemingly beyond repair.
What possible chance did any of them have of growing up as the sort of decent, sensible members of society envisioned by the idealistic social engineers of the 1940s and 1950s who created that system?
If Beveridge and Attlee’s wishes had been fulfilled, there would never have been a family like that of Michael Philpott.
Philpott himself would have been decently employed and his children would all have received an excellent education from the state in selective, well-disciplined, well-funded local schools.
They might have gone on to become teachers, civil servants, engineers, pharmacists, retailers and wealth creators, buoying up the national economy by paying their taxes.
Philpott did not suddenly decide, after a blameless life, to set fire to his house, with six children inside it, and blame it on his ex-mistress.
He did so after years of cynically exploiting the system; years of having children so as to claim yet more benefit; years of rampant dishonesty; years of treating the women in his life as objects of pleasure and the resulting children as a means to an end of more money for beer and cannabis.
Do you think that Philpott would have done this crime if he had worked regularly for the past 20 years and provided for those six children out of his own pocket?
It is a difficult matter to prove, but I know what I think.