Zoe Williams on Philpott - that didn't take long

Sure enough, the Philpott verdict is barely out the door when Zoe Williams is wailing about the implications in Comment Is Free:

But the [Daily Mail] paragraph that had me churning with impotent rage was this one: "Michael Philpott is a perfect parable for our age: his story shows the pervasiveness of evil born of welfare dependency.
All is proceeding as I have foreseen. Zoe is terrified, and apparently impotent. Gosh, Zoe. If only you were a major columnist in a leading UK newspaper, eh? Then you might be able to shape opinions in the same way that the Daily Mail does.

Anyway, let's leave Zoe's puissance aside and address the substance of her complaint:

It is vitriolic, illogical depersonalisation to ascribe the grotesqueness of one wild, unique crime to tens of thousands of people on benefits. When any section of society is demonised on irrational grounds we have to take that seriously
Indeed we should. But the Daily Mail is not (at least explicitly) saying that all welfare dependents are Philpott; rather, that Philpott is a phenomenon who required the welfare dependency culture to exist. After all, he burned down his house in the intention of obtaining a better one - and who gave him that house, and who would have given him a replacement? Why, the welfare state. Without the welfare state, Philpott's horrific crime would have had no purpose. Now we shouldn't therefore condemn the welfare state out of hand - the highest purpose can be turned to evil by a suitable twisted mind - but let's not fool ourselves that the current benefits system was anything but necessary to Philpott's plan.

So what of the tens of thousands whom the DM tars with the brush of welfare dependency?

At the weekend the Baptists, Methodists, the United Reform church and the Church of Scotland came out against the six myths routinely spread, by politicians, about the poor: that they are lazy, addicted to drink or drugs, not really poor, cheat the system, have an easy life, and that they caused the deficit. Set down on paper, they are astonishing, laughable. And yet these ideas are pervasive, written across the landscape of this miserable Tory Narnia.
The UK unemployment rate is 2.5M. That is, 2.5M people are looking for work but cannot find it (and hence, must exist on benefits). It seems reasonable to assume that unemployed people and poor people have a substantial intersection - let's say that 2M unemployed people are poor. "Tens of thousands" is on the order of 1%-2% of this number. The DM claims that 1%-2% of unemployed people are taking the piss. Does this seem unreasonable? Heck, of the tens of unemployed people whom I've know reasonably well over the past few years, several (~ 10%) have been taking the piss. This is not a reason to demonise the remaining 98%, but Zoe fails to refute the numbers presented by the DM.

What about "troubled" families?

We're told there are 120,000 "troubled families", costing £9bn – the troubles relating to crime, drink, drugs and antisocial behaviour – when, on closer inspection, it turns out there are 120,000 poor families
Guess what, Zoe? The Philpotts were not poor by any reasonable description. There was a poverty of aspiration, and certainly a moral poverty, but they had taxpayer-funded accommodation and plenty of welfare payments. That Philpott chose to spend the money on himself rather than his children was not anything that the State could affect. Again, assuming 15M families in the UK, you're talking about 1% of the population causing significant trouble to its neighbours. Every village of 100 families knows one or two families who take the piss, cause trouble, reap benefits and do nothing - or worse than nothing - in return. £9bn is £75K per problem family. Assume that every problem family occupies most of a community police constable's time, and you're more than half way towards that cost before any property damage or theft is taken into account. Does this £9bn now sound such an unbelievable number?

Zoe also misses a trick in her conclusion:

So much current political rhetoric relies on accepting the idea that the poor differ in fundamental ways, that they care less for their children, that they are less honest, that they are more stupid.
Perhaps it does. But no such rhetoric is necessary in the UK. All that a politician need do is point to the examples of Mick Philpott, Heather Frost and similar fecund work-shy beneficiaries of the benefit system and ask "is that what you want your taxes to support?" If Zoe Williams wants to protect the poor, and she should, she should come up with proposals that will channel taxpayer funds away from these unsympathetic examples of welfare dependency. Your move, Zoe.


  1. I am certainly no fellow traveller of the left and am a great believer in personal responsibility. However in this she may have a point without really knowing it and instead of a frothy lefty rant all she needed to say was "just remember that hard cases make bad law".

    And just to be clear although not a Conservative I support their welfare and NHS reforms and would like to see them go further.

  2. Agreed that hard cases make bad law (Dangerous Dogs Act, anyone?): remember though that Zoe is paid by the word...


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