Stop the press! – life’s certainties have been updated: they now include death, taxes, and the Daily Mail trotting out a dollop of poorly-written hate speech directed against the most vulnerable group imaginable.
Each time the Daily Mail does this, we think they’ve surpassed themselves, yet each time they do it, they do it harder, and to a more vulnerable group. The surviving children of Michael and Mairead Philpott are the first and most tender victims of today’s Daily Mail headlines.
We should not lose sight of how devastated those children must be, coping with the loss of six of their siblings and the incarceration of their dad who – however dreadful we know he is – is still, to them, their dad. On top of this burden, today those children have had to look at a front page that proclaims that they were “bred … to milk the benefits system”. We can only guess what must they think about their place in society and their worth to anyone. Eleven children will have to live with the repercussions of that headline for a very, very long time.
They are not alone in suffering as a consequence of these headlines, though. The Daily Mail’s focus is as much on the notion that people on benefits are “evil,” as on the crimes of the Philpotts and their friend Paul Mosley.
With the Mail insisting that Philpott’s 17 children existed to “net him £60,000 a year in benefits” (that figure is the Mail’s), it is easy to lose sight of the fact that whatever benefits were paid out to Philpott and to the women he had children with, a large part of those benefits were for the care, the feeding, the housing, the clothing, of children. It is easy to imagine Philpott with his fists crammed with money and to gloss over the reality of both the dead and living children’s lives. Much has been made of Michael Philpott’s rather convoluted sex life. Yet behind the salacious fanfare of outrage, the Philpotts’ living arrangements and that of their children, rather than a life of tax-payer-funded sextastic Riley, look more like crushing poverty.
The Philpotts lived in a three bed semi with a third adult – Lisa Willis – and her children. Before Willis left that house (taking her children with her), there were three adults and eleven children living together. Even if we assume that the arrangement was cosy enough that all three adults shared a bed, that leaves two bedrooms split between eleven children. I am not sure under what circumstances this setup would be regarded as adequate housing. I am certain that it would not be regarded by any sane person as an incentive to stop working.
When Lisa Willis left the Philpotts’ house, the Daily Mail informs us that she took with her “more than £1,000 a month in benefit payments”. We are supposed to think this is an enormous amount of money. It’s worthwhile doing the maths here: between Willis and her five children that £1000 is £166 per month, per person.
Each of those human beings was living on about £37 a week.
Yet the Daily Mail’s headlines on this case suggest that murdering six of your children is almost the logical outcome of receiving benefits. As if people who are unemployed or poor for other reasons (disability, illness, being a carer for a sick relative), are an evil-eyed bunch, dodging their responsibilities, churning out children as fast as possible and, behind dirty net curtains, plotting their deaths for fun and profit while raking in great drifts of creased notes.
These headlines are perverse primarily for the ugly words they use to describe Philpott’s surviving children, but secondly, for the fact that they paint Philpott’s unique wickedness as an inevitable result of the system designed to pick us all up when we fall. And most of us fall, at some point.
Even as I type this with the BBC News channel on in the background, the presenter has just asked Ann Widdecombe: “to what extent is [Philpott] representative of people on benefits?”
I am fed up to the back teeth with this rhetoric.
Anyone can lose their job. In fact, with the goverment eroding employee rights it becomes more likely every year. The job market is small and ferocious, even if you are willing to take a zero-hour contract or part time work that may not pay your rent. There are stories in all the broadsheets hinting that minimum wage may soon pass into history. 1,700 people famously applied for eight jobs at Costa, recently. There are 2.5m unemployed, and the government is cheerfully trumpeting about having created a million jobs, many of which are part time and of little help to people with children to feed (and 140,000 of which are people on unpaid internships, training schemes, apprenticeships and workfare schemes – and therefore still receiving benefit), while demonising the 1.5m people for whom there simply is no job.
The Daily Mail is singing backing vocals against the main melody coming out of the Palace of Westminster, from both leading parties. We hear of “workers and shirkers”, “strivers and skivers”.
What we don’t hear about is the people who are too ill or too disabled to work, or who are trapped in a jobless state by having to care for others who are. We hear about people dropping off the disability benefits list – always couched in terms that suggest that they were there fraudulently – but we don’t hear about the fact that they got better. We don’t hear about people’s already difficult lives being made impossible by the “bedroom tax” and by ATOS assessments. Westminster and press rhetoric are complicit in the steep rise in the number of hate crimes and attacks against the disabled. We don’t hear about that from the Daily Mail.
We don’t hear about the people who are on benefits because they work, but are simply not earning enough to survive. Nearly a million households are in this position, and this group forms the majority of housing benefit claimants.
We don’t hear about the people desperately searching for work, and failing to find it.
What we do hear about is the 120,000 “troubled families” the government is investing money in. We hear about the 190 families (out of a population of 56 million) with more than 10 kids, who are on benefits.
And we hear about Philpott. Not in the context of his being a violent human being who knowingly ended the lives of six of his children in order to “get back at” a woman; but instead we hear him described in terms of how much he took in benefits, and how we can extrapolate his example to draw conclusions about anyone else who claims benefits.
It is worth pointing out that the DWP’s own figures place benefit fraud at 0.7%. There is little doubt that Philpott himself was in that 0.7%. He was a healthy man who simply did not wish to work. But to hold him up as an example of a whole class of people, a great chunk of which are on benefits AND working, is a vile trick to play on society. Its effects – not just on the poorest in society, but on us all – are profound. We are sold the same story again and again: that poverty is a choice and it is an immoral choice. That the poor are therefore immoral. That we should require them to suffer for having made this choice, that poverty is not sufficient punishment, they should also, as a class, be loathed.
This attitude fractures our society at its most fundamental level: the assumption that everyone else in it is a human being, that a stranger who falls in front of you on the street should be helped up, not kicked as you pass by.
Finally, I would urge you to read this excellent piece by Ricky Tomlinson. If only there were more like it.