No one knows whether welfare made the Philpott horror more likely. So stop pretending that you do

Mick Philpott
Mick Philpott

Regarding the horrible Philpott story, there’s been a lot of “it’s welfare’s fault” and “it’s not welfare’s fault” going around. But I haven’t actually seen anyone addressing exactly what they mean by the word “fault” in this situation.

I think we can all agree that had Mick Philpott not been on welfare, things would have happened differently, and since the deaths of the six children were in the end an accident, albeit a criminal and hideous one, it’s very unlikely that he’d have killed them. In fact a plausible case could be made that he’d never have had them in the first place, if it’s true that he was deliberately having them to increase his welfare payments.

But hindsight in these situations is useless. If there was no welfare state, or a reduced or streamlined one that might have stopped Philpott from having so many children, then things would be very different. As my colleague Dan Hannan wisely pointed out the other day, under any welfare system in a country of millions of people, some undeserving people will be rewarded, and some deserving ones will be punished. It’s not fair, but it’s a statistical certainty. Also, you can say with statistical certainty, that in a country of millions there will be horrible people, horrible events, horrible tragedies.

The question that everyone should be, but doesn’t seem to be, asking is: does the welfare state in its current set-up make it more or less likely that horrible people like Philpott will do horrible things? If we changed it to a more stringent one, would there be fewer murders/suicides/manslaughters/robbings, or more?

Of course, that’s only part of the wider question of what level of “safety net” is optimum, and when it starts to become damaging, and so on. But at the moment, the question is whether Philpott was a “product” of the welfare state. As we’ve seen, with hindsight, he was. But without it, we simply don’t know.

This is what annoys me about the debate at the moment. Everyone is very certain, even as they disagree: it’s nothing to do with welfare; it’s the fault of the welfare system. But there is a simple empirical question to be answered: what kind of welfare state best reduces violence and crime? And no one knows. Everyone who points to the chain of events saying that Philpott was a “product” is talking in complete ignorance of the alternative universes in which, perhaps, a Philpott-like figure murdered his children because he couldn’t afford to feed them and didn’t want the responsibility. And everyone who says it’s all down to the personal responsibility of the individual doesn’t know whether the welfare state as it currently is makes individuals more or less likely to make the right choices with their personal responsibility.

So, with the best will in the world, this whole debate is generating an awful lot of heat, precisely no light, and making no one any wiser or any happier. You don’t know whether “Philpott-like events” are statistically more or less likely under this welfare system or another. So perhaps we should all stop pretending that we do.

Read more by Tom Chivers on Telegraph Blogs
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