It seems hard to believe that someone like Michael Philpott could exist in the 21st century. As a character, he seems to be one of Charles Dickens’ less charming creations. Of course some would argue that he could only be a creation of the 21st century ‘benefits culture’. In good old Victorian England he’d have died of malnutrition or some incurable disease long before he’d reached such a ripe old age. The survival of his young wives and mistresses during so many confinements would also have been extremely doubtful. And many of his children would have failed to reach adulthood without any intervention from him.
Let’s have a word about Benefits Culture. Even in a country with almost full employment, it’s hard to believe Mr Philpott would have been the preferred candidate for any job for which he applied. First of all there is the attempted murder of his ex-girlfriend and her mother in the 1970s. Surely this makes him as close to unemployable as it is possible to be whilst still in possession of a pulse. Yes, he had served his sentence for that crime, but it would make the rest of his CV pale into insignificance. What kind of work would suit such a man? Unskilled labourer perhaps, or a job in a factory or plant where no women were employed. Certainly I would not want to see him behind the wheel of a taxi late at night. So, however hard he tried, Mr Philpott would not be able to find a job.
There are always going to be long-term unemployed; people with criminal records, people without skills or qualifications, people with mental conditions which make it too hard for them to adjust to the stresses of work. And of course let us not forget people with disabilities that could work but only if their employer adapted the workplace enough to enable them to do so. Some people on this list can be helped into work, most of them in fact, but in the UK there are 2.5 million people chasing 400,000 vacancies which means that the Government are going to have to accept that a lot of the people who have been on benefits for the longest time are not going to be the first to get jobs, no matter what kind of cuts to their income are imposed.
The Panorama special about the tragedy and its aftermath was an excellent piece of television. I was greatly struck by the interviews with Mairead’s sisters Bernadette and Jennifer. Both women were bright, feisty, articulate and strong with no illusions about their sister and her choice of man. Mairead herself could not be said to be a stupid woman. So how on earth did she ally herself with a man like Mick?
I feel that there are things that women are left to figure out for themselves (often far too late) which should taught in school. If you are lucky enough to grow up in an environment with good role models and high expectations of yourself and others then it is easier to get advice and help to put you on the right path to your desired career and lifestyle. But it is clear that many people, especially young women from less affluent backgrounds, do not have anyone around them who can take the time to find out what they want from life, and give them the advice they need.
Such advice is at least as important as, and not unrelated to, a pupil’s choice of GCSEs. Every school should be aware which pupils are planning to take A-levels, apply to university, what kind of career they have in mind. But the schools also have a responsibility to help the children who are less focused on their future.
Mick Philpott lived a ‘life of riley’ on the benefits he received on his own behalf, together with the salaries, tax credits and child benefit his wife and mistress received which they dutifully paid over to him. The more children he fathered, the more money he received. His wife and mistress did not possess bank accounts or front door keys to their own home. The eldest child who died in the fire, Dwayne, is known to have gone for periods of several days without being fed.
How can modern young women agree to that? How can their friends and families see them give up their autonomy to anyone? Don’t they know what basic rights they have? When I say basic rights I mean:
• The right to decide how many children to have (if any), and when you want to have them.
• The right to keep your salary, and decide how best to spend it on your family and yourself.
• The right to keep any state welfare benefits to which you are entitled (and the responsibility to use these benefits for their intended purpose).
• The right to come and go as you please.
• The right to a monogamous relationship, if that is what you want.
• The right to leave any relationship that becomes abusive.
• The right to take action to protect yourself and your children.
I do think that all of the above, and other things less directly related to the Philpott case, should be taught in schools, and that such teaching should be aimed at all pupils, but focused on those at greatest risk of falling pregnant young. If the young women who fell under Mr Philpott’s spell refused to fork over their salaries and benefits to him, and refused to have more children than they wanted to have then it would not have solved all of the problems, but would certainly have changed the dynamics of the relationships for the better (or conceivably ended the relationships altogether). It is possible that fewer children would have been born, but it is certain that no children would have died.