The Philpott case shows us that the welfare state is our better self

We can't simply rely on the kindness of strangers. The welfare state is there to help the people we are too flaky or prudish to reach out to.

 

There are about 2,000 families in the UK with eight or more children. There are more than 20,000 primary schools in England alone. That makes the school my children attend a weird outlier, because at the time my son started there, there were two of these big families connected to the school.

I found this out in pretty embarrassing fashion, at a party I was invited to a few weeks into my residence in the city (it was one of those try-out social occasions, to see if and where I'd fit). The guests were all mothers, and the conversation rotated around the safe, stock maternal subjects: how was the birth, did you go back to work, are you having any more?

I am very happy with my two. I want no more and no fewer. We are perfectly proportioned. But, not wanting to accidentally slight the family size of anyone present, I decided to make a joke: maybe I'd have more, I laughed, just a couple; I mean, I don't want 12 or anything crazy. Everyone laughed – a warm laugh, but a laugh that indicated my joke hadn't quite landed where I expected. "Not like Mrs Parker, then," smiled my closest friend at the table.

Mrs Parker and Mr Parker, it turned out, did have 12 children. 12 beautifully turned out children, the eldest helping to raise the youngest and the youngest playing alongside their nieces and nephews. I see them in the mornings, always on time and always smiling, while I am cursing and late with just two to take care of. At the basest biological level, I confess that I cannot understand this family.

My children are loved and wanted, but I find pregnancy tedious and childbirth appalling, and the replacement of my babies with witty, warm and clever independent beings has been like the lifting of a suffocating curtain on my life. I mean, I like babies all right, but they're bloody demanding, and I do not have the wherewithal to supply those demands again. Yet there the Parkers are, not like me and doing marvellously.

"Oh, but Mrs Parker doesn't think everyone should have lots of children," laughed my friend, and the gathering inched together conspiratorially. "She says she doesn't know why the Clarks can't just stop." And then there was a moment of sad reflection for the ten Clark children, in which I was unable to partake because I had not yet encountered them.

Actually, I ended up being a neighbour of the Clarks. Their home was round the corner from mine. In fact you may have seen it, because they featured in a tabloid a few years ago. This was after they'd been moved out the house near me and into bigger accommodation in a nearby city. I think it was their former landlord who went to the press: he was unhappy about the state of the house, and understandably.

I mean, I'd love to take the side of the poor family against the private property owner, but it was squalid. I once saw a midwife knock on the door and smile as she was admitted, and two thoughts rushed on me: firstly, they're having another one; secondly, how can she smile going into that? The smell of too many humans and too many cats in too small a place drifted into the street. It made me feel dirty just to look at.

And the children, with their grey and dirty faces, their stained and washed-out school uniform. They were scratching all the time, from lice. (But how could you keep down an infestation in a house like that?) I would like to say I was kind to them, but I wasn't, or not nearly so kind as they needed. This is the truth about me: I didn't want to touch them, and I was scared to let them close to me or my children, because I knew that what they wanted was touch. Affection. Intimacy. Care.

I caught one of them anyway. By accident. Actually, it was worse than an accident: it was a horrible, ironical distortion of my intentions. I told him off, because he was throwing gravel. "Don't do that," I said, curtly – more curtly than I would have done to any other child, I think. (But what other child would have been throwing handfuls of gravel, uncurtailed by a parent?) I avoided the dad for a few days after in case he was angry with me for speaking sharply to his child, but I don't think he'd noticed.

That was enough: the boy was mine after that. On the way to school he attached himself to my tiny train of three (me, my son, my daughter in her buggy) – slipping away unmissed from his great mass of siblings. He would talk and I would respond, but beside me my son would be anxious: he wanted my attention, and here was this interloper. One day I heard the Clark boy tell my son: "I want to marry your mum." All this, remember, because I told him off for chucking stones.

I spoke to the dad sometimes. Not the mum, she never left the house – I only saw her on the doorstep, a woman of large and sloping volume in dirty, shapeless clothes. (I read in the paper that she had spinal problems and depression.) Every so often I would think to myself: "You must warn him that the press will come for them. They're a story waiting to happen, and no one has ever told them not to talk to reporters. You ought to say something."

I never did. Even that one small, impersonal favour I could have done, I failed to do. Because I didn't want to get close enough to talk. Because I didn't like them. Because they weren't clean. Because I didn't want them to be my problem, even though they were there on my doorstep and the neglect was so obvious. And then they were in the paper, lined up for the camera, expectantly.

I don't see them since they moved, of course, apart from one time when I bumped into the dad at the bus stop. I asked how he was doing and he said, well. He said, I'm training to be an accountant. I thought, you can't be an accountant, you can't even count your children.

But I think about them this week. That family was not the Philpotts, size aside: what their children suffered was neglect, not abuse. All the same, when the Mail and the Chancellor turn on the Philpotts and say, we gave them too much, I know that's not true. People say, he wouldn't have had those kids if benefits hadn't paid for them, as if parents who set fire to their children care whether they can feed them or not. We didn't give those children too much: we gave them too little. 

I don't feel happy moralising about dead children, but in this case, it's mostly because the moral is a rebuke to my own failings. I should have given more. I may not have been near enough to fail in person, but I know I would have done: they would have disgusted me, and I would have pushed them away, like I did the Clarks.

The fact that their parents were shitty doesn't make these children less our problem: it means they should have been in our care, in all our care, government and society acting together to discharge our communal duty to the unhappiest of all. That's what the welfare state is there to do, so no child has to rely on the flaky charity of neighbours like me. The welfare state is our better self, and if we turn against it because of the Philpott case, we let one man's murderous cruelty infect all of us.

Two young boys climb on a fence in a street in the Govan neighborhood of Glasgow. Photograph: Getty Images

Sarah Ditum is a journalist who writes regularly for the Guardian, New Statesman and others. Her website is here.

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Find the EU renegotiation demands dull? Me too – but they are important

It's an old trick: smother anything in enough jargon and you can avoid being held accountable for it.

I don’t know about you, but I found the details of Britain’s European Union renegotiation demands quite hard to read. Literally. My eye kept gliding past them, in an endless quest for something more interesting in the paragraph ahead. It was as if the word “subsidiarity” had been smeared in grease. I haven’t felt tedium quite like this since I read The Lord of the Rings and found I slid straight past anything written in italics, reasoning that it was probably another interminable Elvish poem. (“The wind was in his flowing hair/The foam about him shone;/Afar they saw him strong and fair/Go riding like a swan.”)

Anyone who writes about politics encounters this; I call it Subclause Syndrome. Smother anything in enough jargon, whirr enough footnotes into the air, and you have a very effective shield for protecting yourself from accountability – better even than gutting the Freedom of Information laws, although the government seems quite keen on that, too. No wonder so much of our political conversation ends up being about personality: if we can’t hope to master all the technicalities, the next best thing is to trust the person to whom we have delegated that job.

Anyway, after 15 cups of coffee, three ice-bucket challenges and a bottle of poppers I borrowed from a Tory MP, I finally made it through. I didn’t feel much more enlightened, though, because there were notable omissions – no mention, thankfully, of rolling back employment protections – and elsewhere there was a touching faith in the power of adding “language” to official documents.

One thing did stand out, however. For months, we have been told that it is a terrible problem that migrants from Europe are sending child benefit to their families back home. In future, the amount that can be claimed will start at zero and it will reach full whack only after four years of working in Britain. Even better, to reduce the alleged “pull factor” of our generous in-work benefits regime, the child benefit rate will be paid on a ratio calculated according to average wages in the home country.

What a waste of time. At the moment, only £30m in child benefit is sent out of the country each year: quite a large sum if you’re doing a whip round for a retirement gift for a colleague, but basically a rounding error in the Department for Work and Pensions budget.

Only 20,000 workers, and 34,000 children, are involved. And yet, apparently, this makes it worth introducing 28 different rates of child benefit to be administered by the DWP. We are given to understand that Iain Duncan Smith thinks this is barmy – and this is a man optimistic enough about his department’s computer systems to predict in 2013 that 4.46 million people would be claiming Universal Credit by now*.

David Cameron’s renegotiation package was comprised exclusively of what Doctor Who fans call handwavium – a magic substance with no obvious physical attributes, which nonetheless helpfully advances the plot. In this case, the renegotiation covers up the fact that the Prime Minister always wanted to argue to stay in Europe, but needed a handy fig leaf to do so.

Brace yourself for a sentence you might not read again in the New Statesman, but this makes me feel sorry for Chris Grayling. He and other Outers in the cabinet have to wait at least two weeks for Cameron to get the demands signed off; all the while, Cameron can subtly make the case for staying in Europe, while they are bound to keep quiet because of collective responsibility.

When that stricture lifts, the high-ranking Eurosceptics will at last be free to make the case they have been sitting on for years. I have three strong beliefs about what will happen next. First, that everyone confidently predicting a paralysing civil war in the Tory ranks is doing so more in hope than expectation. Some on the left feel that if Labour is going to be divided over Trident, it is only fair that the Tories be split down the middle, too. They forget that power, and patronage, are strong solvents: there has already been much muttering about low-level blackmail from the high command, with MPs warned about the dire influence of disloyalty on their career prospects.

Second, the Europe campaign will feature large doses of both sides solemnly advising the other that they need to make “a positive case”. This will be roundly ignored. The Remain team will run a fear campaign based on job losses, access to the single market and “losing our seat at the table”; Leave will run a fear campaign based on the steady advance of whatever collective noun for migrants sounds just the right side of racist. (Current favourite: “hordes”.)

Third, the number of Britons making a decision based on a complete understanding of the renegotiation, and the future terms of our membership, will be vanishingly small. It is simply impossible to read about subsidiarity for more than an hour without lapsing into a coma.

Yet, funnily enough, this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Just as the absurd complexity of policy frees us to talk instead about character, so the onset of Subclause Syndrome in the EU debate will allow us to ask ourselves a more profound, defining question: what kind of country do we want Britain to be? Polling suggests that very few of us see ourselves as “European” rather than Scottish, or British, but are we a country that feels open and looks outwards, or one that thinks this is the best it’s going to get, and we need to protect what we have? That’s more vital than any subclause. l

* For those of you keeping score at home, Universal Credit is now allegedly going to be implemented by 2021. Incidentally, George Osborne has recently discovered that it’s a great source of handwavium; tax credit cuts have been postponed because UC will render such huge savings that they aren’t needed.

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

This article first appeared in the 11 February 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The legacy of Europe's worst battle