The Philpotts, ‘lifestyle choices’ and the government’s welfare agenda
A reflection written by a member of Christianity Uncut who wishes to remain anonymous. It does not necessarily represent the views of all members of Christianity Uncut.
The Philpott case has dominated the news over the last week, with George Osborne and then David Cameron muddying the waters between political discourse and the horrific story of a violent man and his partners.
That such senior government figures have used the story to bolster their own welfare cuts agenda is shameless and despicable. Owen Jones has countered the ministers’ suggestions by making some excellent and very valid points. However these have unfortunately but unsurprisingly received far less attention than those of George Osborne and David Cameron.
Owen Jones’ central point is ‘that the Philpotts say nothing about anyone, except for themselves, just as the serial murderer GP Harold Shipman said nothing about middle-class professionals’. Perhaps still more analogously he went on to observe that the case of Stephen Seddon, found guilty of murdering his parents to gain his inheritance the previous week, did not cause politicians to question our system of inheritance or inheritance tax.
It’s hardly surprising that the Conservatives, whose policy shortly before the last general election was to increase the threshold at which inheritance tax was paid to £1m, would not suggest that lowering the level and percentage of inheritance tax might help prevent such murders in future. Not that I’m suggesting such a discussion should be had over the Seddon case: I merely seek to further illustrate that these men with immense power are abusing their positions by opening up or continuing a political debate over an individual, tragic case. Six children have died – using their deaths as an opportunity for furthering political ends is deeply disturbing.
From what I’ve read of the Philpott case it seems just as likely that Mick Philpott sought to father so many children as a means of control over the women he abused, as that his prolific brood was down to a greed for benefit money. His intimate relationships seem to have been characteristically abusive on many levels, which supports this suggestion. After all, he also seems to have had control over all of the money his partners earned too – benefits were not the Philpotts’ only source of income, whatever some media outlets might like us to think. Suggesting that Philpott was motivated by benefits money detracts attention from the horrendous abuse he put several women through: if anything, this case could have been far better used as an attempt to highlight the possible nature of domestic abuse and raise awareness of some of its signs.
Instead Osborne and Cameron have vilified a whole section of our society and seemingly implied that many benefits claimants could be serial killers in the making. Therefore, the rhetoric goes, we need to ‘ask questions’ about ‘welfare’, those it is given to, and their ‘lifestyle choices’. I’m deeply concerned that these politicians have implied that mere ‘lifestyle choices’ can directly lead to someone becoming a killer.
The reality is of course that very few benefit claimants are able to make any kind of lifestyle choice: the vast, vast majority need the financial support they receive, and few have any choice about how to spend their money. Claimants’ needs dictate that they prioritise essentials like food and heating, and there is little room left for choice. This was already the case before some of the ‘reforms’ this government has brought in, but it will be the case to an even greater extent now that the ‘welfare changes’ are coming in to effect.
A glance at the rising cost of food and fuel is all that is needed to demonstrate that the cut made by limiting the rise in benefit payments to lower than inflation (1 per cent) will make life incredibly hard for hundreds of thousands of people.
Even if more benefit claimants could afford to make lifestyle choices, I firmly believe in the freedom of each person to determine their own financial priorities, within reason. Christ frees us and values each of us equally, and yet this government seeks to deny many the freedom to choose their own priorities that financial wealth brings to others because it deems them to be less worthy on some level. Following Christ’s example we should love all people equally, and not seek to distinguish between those who are ‘worthy’ and those who are not, as this government’s rhetoric encourages us to. Personally, I do not watch television and save money in that way, but I prioritise healthy and therefore often more costly food and I believe that everyone should be fully entitled to make such choices.
Birmingham City Council recently announced that it would be giving out Asda vouchers as emergency welfare payments. Restricting people’s spending to goods from one supplier is bad enough, but what’s more, the vouchers could not be used for certain items, including phone-related expenditure. This is absolutely shocking: many isolated people, particularly disabled people, depend on their phones for support that sustains their mental health, or for liaising with key support workers in their life. The impact that this scheme could have on someone might be devastating or even fatal.
All benefits claimants are worthy of our love, just as all wealthy people are. Let’s not be fooled by Osborne and Cameron’s scapegoating of the Philpott case into thinking that there are many benefits claimants making such ‘lifestyle choices’, or that is our place to judge the priorities of those claimants who are able to choose between things like television, healthy food, a mobile phone top up, or an occasional beer.