‘I had a cunning plan’

By skepticlawyer

I have written about cunning plans gone terribly, terribly awry before. That post concerned Karen Matthews. I have also written about the welfare state gone terribly, terribly wrong, too: this time, the post concerned Australian subject matter: Snowtown. Both topics intersect and reinforce each other today, in a story so ghastly it is difficult to describe. I wish I had the cool, plain language of the court, but Michael Philpott has not yet been sentenced. So (amidst all the hysteria), The Independent (the least emotive of the news outlets) will have to do:

For the past 11 months Mick and Mairead Philpott had lied, play-acted and sought to connive their way out of responsibility for their six children’s death.  Yesterday however a jury found that the married couple had started the blaze which killed their young family.

Returning six unanimous verdicts against the unemployed father of 17 and a similar number of majority decisions against his wife, the Philpotts and their friend Paul Mosley, 46, who was also convicted, now face life in jail when they are sentenced for manslaughter today.

There were angry scenes at Nottingham Crown Court at the end of the eight-week trial in which details of sex and drugs from the Philpotts’ unconventional life together were replayed. Philpott, 56, was seen to say “it’s not over yet” as he was led away whilst his 31-year-old wife stared at the floor and wept. Members of the public gallery hugged each other and sobbed as others shouted obscenities at the guilty couple forcing the judge to clear the court room.

The jury was not told that Mr Philpott – who was described as a controlling and manipulating figure – had a history of violence against women dating back to a 1978 attempted murder conviction for a frenzied stabbing attack against his former girlfriend and a serious assault on her mother. In a pre-trial hearing it emerged he had been sentenced to seven years and five years to run concurrently for the assault carried out in a jealous rage after she tried to end their relationship when he was a 21-year-old-soldier.

It can also now be reported that Mr Philpott had sought to bully volunteers and control a £15,000 funeral fund raised by the local community in Allenton, Derby, in the aftermath of the tragedy, demanding money left over from the ceremony be paid out to him in Argos vouchers. Locals said he treated the fund as an opportunity to “get rich quick”.

The jury took less than eight hours to reach their verdicts.

Jade Philpott, 10, and her brothers John, nine, Jack, eight, Jesse, six, Jayden, five, and Duwayne, 13 – all died from smoke inhalation when their parents set fire to the three-bed council house at 18 Victory Road in the early hours of the morning last May.

Derby City Council announced a serious case review into the actions of social services leading up to the tragedy although none of the children were subject to child protection plans or legal orders.

The prosecution argued that the fire was started in a bid to “frame” Mr Philpott’s former lover Lisa Willis, 29, but it had gone “tragically and disastrously wrong” with temperatures in the hosue reaching 500C.

Ms Willis  had lived with the couple along with her five children but walked out three months earlier resulting in a vicious custody battle that had been due to go to court on the morning of the blaze.

Derbyshire Assistant Chief Constable Steve Cotterill said it had been the most upsetting investigation he had even been taken part in.

“This is a shocking case for everyone involved. Six young children lost their lives needlessly in a fire and all our efforts have been focused on getting justice for those children,” he said.

The families of both Mick and Mairead Philpott welcomed the verdicts.

In a statement read on behalf of Mr Philpott’s sister Dawn Bestwick, who attended court every day she said: “Following today’s verdict, we the family of Michael Philpott, believe justice has been served.”

Mrs Philpott’s family said: “We, Mairead’s family, cannot describe the pain we feel … we are happy with the verdict.”

It is what is not said in this piece that is so staggering. For that, a slightly more hysterical BBC is needed:

Until last year, as well as Mick and Mairead and their six children, 18 Victory Road had also been home to Mick’s mistress Lisa Willis and her five children, four of whom were Mick’s.

Yet by February last year she had left – taking her five children with her. She blamed Mick’s controlling and manipulative behaviour for her decision to go.

Mr House said: “There was evidence Mick Philpott was not prepared to accept Lisa Willis was leaving him and taking his children with her.

“He wanted Lisa Willis back and wanted to get the children back. He told a number of witnesses he had a plan.”

That plan was to make it look like Lisa, or someone connected to her, had set fire to his house – just hours before she and Mick were due in court over custody of their kids.

One senior detective expressed it in even stronger terms to the BBC.

He said: “Mick never got over Lisa leaving him. And he’d lost five child benefits [through his children by Lisa] and five people who worshipped him.

“Lisa leaving led to him losing his status, his ego, his money and another route into sex – he’s completely obsessed with sex.”

Within days of the fire the Philpotts had become suspects. Permission was granted for the police to bug their hotel room.

Officers heard Mick and Mairead discussing the fire and the police investigation.

“You make sure you stick to your story,” he said to her, the night before she gave a witness interview to officers.

After their arrest and charge, “sticking to the story” was a phrase heard exchanged again between the pair. This time in the police van that took them to their first court appearance.

They told the trial that was only in reference to not telling the police about details of their sex life – dogging and three-way sex with their friend Paul Mosley.

By last November he too had been charged over the deaths. Forensic scientists found traces of petrol on the Philpotts’ clothing and similar results for Mosley.

He had been at the Philpotts’ house on the night of the fire and had sex with Mairead on a snooker table, with the support and encouragement of her husband.

Mick Philpott had been happy to discuss his domestic arrangements with a national TV audience in the past.

After making press headlines in 2006, when he was calling for a bigger council house, he’d gone onto ITV’s The Jeremy Kyle Show.

He’d told that programme he couldn’t get work because of his criminal record – a conviction that the judge in the Derby fire case ruled that the jury couldn’t be told about.

In July 1978, he was 21 and his former girlfriend, 17. She ended their relationship; He attacked her with a knife as she lay in bed.

Philpott then turned on her mother when she intervened and was later jailed for seven years for attempted murder and grievous bodily harm (GBH) with intent.

“His concern about the impact of his previous conviction on the family hearing led to the plan. Therefore, it was one of the prime reasons behind his plan and the evidence to support it,” Mr House added.

“Mick Philpott is precisely the sort of character who would act in this way.”

Daily Mail PhilpottThe welfare dependency, the greed, the abuse of Britain’s social services: all of this pullulated and blended itself into a toxic stew that seemed tailor made for the Daily Mail. Rather than quoting that august newspaper of record, I instead leave you with its front page, which says far more than I ever could:

Heigh-de-ho.

It does, you’ll admit, take a certain mindset to make the state of Britain’s welfare system the central focus of a story about the accidental deaths of six children. It requires a certain – shall we say – detachment from humanity to describe these innocents as having been “bred”; to place their picture under the headline “Vile Product of Welfare UK” so that they suddenly aren’t so much victims of a tragic accident as victims of left wing political thought.

You might say that this easy conflation of one man’s despicable behaviour with thousands of genuine benefit claimants – many of them in low paid employment, others desperate for any kind of work but struggling to find it – is abhorrent. You might well find this incendiary oversimplification of a complex tragedy revolting; the exploitation of the deaths utterly nauseating. I’d be with you on that.

You might also claim it’s cynical – but I believe you’d be wrong there. As it happens, I have friends who work or have worked at the Daily Mail, and I’m reliably informed that its editor genuinely believes all the stuff he publishes – indeed, gets so worked up about it that as his underlings scurry around the newsroom praying they aren’t the next recipient of one of his famous “vagina monologues”, they rather fear for his health.

But of course, Paul Dacre’s hardly the only one who gets angry about the issues surrounding welfare. On left and right, outrage is the default setting. I’ve previously written about horrific cases of abuse by the state, cases which have moved me to tears in the course of my research. And at the same time, the millions who work hard for low pay have every right to be furious about the notion of the lazy and feckless milking the system and living off their wages.

As readers well know, I think the British welfare state has grievous flaws, and that the prospective provision of welfare support for large families is fraught with danger, as this clear-headed but ultimately grisly BBC graphic makes clear. I wrote about those issues in the Karen Matthews post, linked above. I’ve done the utilitarian calculus on this issue, and as a taxpayer, I’m much happier to pay for abortions than Michael Philpott’s 17 kids, because now – thanks to the perverse incentives in place – he’s managed to burn six of them to death.

However, this case says far more about Michael Philpott than it does about the British welfare state. People like Michael Philpott exist everywhere, at all times, and under all sorts of circumstances. Yes, in a less generous welfare system with more liberal abortion laws, he would probably have reproduced less. Yes, in a jurisdiction fond of handing out stiffer sentences, he’d probably still be in gaol for his first offence (the attempted murder and GBH, assayed above). All of that is true. But it doesn’t get away from this individual and his decision to engage in criminality on a grand scale. That decision was made, first by Michael Philpott acting alone, and in this latest matter, in concert with two others. For what it’s worth, I have difficulty getting my head around someone coming up with this utterly harebrained scheme that seems to have dual origins in a desire to frame his mistress while getting a bigger council house.

There’s another thing, too, which none of the commentary has mentioned and that makes me shudder, at least a little: it also says something about us, Britons, who turned this man into a weird carnival performance in 2007 and again in 2009. Ann Widdecombe tried to get him a job. Then he appeared on the Jeremy Kyle Show. The pathologies were already plainly in evidence. Jeremy Kyle is, of course, Britain’s Jerry Springer. Below is a YouTube video from that show. There are a few edits, but on the whole, everything is perfectly clear.

Police said Philpott’s desire to control his wife was apparent in their interview on The Jeremy Kyle Show.

Mr Kyle asked Mairead about the “dignity” of her living arrangement and Philpott tried to answer for her.

Mr Kyle said: “No, she’s going to speak.”

Philpott then said to his wife: “Right, you just tell him what we said.”

Mr Kyle said: “So you’ve told her what to say as well?”

Philpott said: “I’ll tell you what, I’ll say it. Right, you lot are criticising us for being as a threesome. We don’t do threesomes, full stop.”

Are there hard questions arising from this case? Of course. One of them concerns not the welfare state but sentencing. Britain’s prisons are overcrowded not with people like Michael Philpott but with drug offenders. If we want to lock up the Mick Philpotts for longer – because, it seems, men who are violent against women are chronically violent, and it is simply pointless to try to rehabilitate them – then we need to let quite a few of the druggies go. Some hard utilitarian calculus needs to be done there, too.

And we really do need to ask ourselves why we kept finding Michael Philpott so vastly entertaining, why we turned him into something performative and not real. The reality, of course, has now been brought home to us in the form of six dead children.

UPDATE: The judge’s extraordinary, clear-headed remarks on sentence. As I commented on Facebook, I am satisfied, having read the judge’s remarks, that the Michael Philpott matter is best viewed as an instance of what I can only describe as ‘patriarchal narcissism’. I recognise that is something of a neologism; I do recommend you read the sentencing remarks, because I think that my use of the phrase is justified.

11 Comments

  1. Mel
    Posted April 3, 2013 at 10:22 pm | Permalink

    “Yes, in a jurisdiction fond of handing out stiffer sentences, he’d probably still be in gaol for his first offence (the attempted murder and GBH, assayed above).”

    Yep, I agree with stiff sentences but I don’t agree with robbing people of their dignity with inhuman jail conditions or not attempting to rehabilitate them. I would also sterilise Philpott and others like him. But I would do it without malice 😉

    ” I think the British welfare state has grievous flaws, and that the prospective provision of welfare support for large families is fraught with danger … ”

    Watched a doco on Africa a couple of years back. Apparently far too many African men have a few children by a wife, then go on to the next one and do the same. Rinse and repeat. No welfare state necessary.

    Also note that non-welfare states are teeming with poor children, many of whom work as near slaves in vile conditions, beg, steal and prostitute themselves for a crust. I think I’d prefer the welfare state.

    I would hang, draw and quarter the scumbag who put the pictures of those kids on the front page of the newspaper under the headline “Vile Product of Welfare UK”. What an ass!

    Finally, the oversized pug Gina Rhinehart has cost Oz taxpayers millions of dollars with her ongoing abuse of the court system. I bet you have similar pugs in the UK. I’d prefer to smash these unproductive and entitled leeches than kick around some poor kids whose life chances are already depressingly bleak.

  2. Posted April 3, 2013 at 11:21 pm | Permalink

    I would hang, draw and quarter the scumbag who put the pictures of those kids on the front page of the newspaper under the headline “Vile Product of Welfare UK”. What an ass!

    Ah, the Daily Mail. A friend on Facebook pointed out that I should have said something more about that front page apart from just pointing it out and being snide.

    To which I could only respond res ipsa loquitur: ‘the thing speaks for itself’.

    Two thoughtful responses, one from the Staggers: http://www.newstatesman.com/alan-white/2013/04/was-tragedy-really-vile-product-welfare-uk

    And one from The Telegraph: http://blogs.telegraph.co.uk/news/danhodges/100210263/outrage-over-the-daily-mails-mick-philpott-headline-but-the-papers-critics-can-be-just-as-hysterical-themselves/

  3. Posted April 4, 2013 at 6:12 am | Permalink

    Engrossing post, as always, thanks, and I confess to reading redtops over breakfast, with collusion by laptop.
    A sociopath encounters a dim-witted woman. Happens every day. His fathering was aimed at getting benefits of course, so he would not have allowed any contraception/terminations.

    IF any neighbour or witness had gone to Plod about this man, they would have been told to keep their nose out of it. Those poor children were never going to be saved, not even by ‘pro’-life squawkers.

  4. kvd
    Posted April 4, 2013 at 1:35 pm | Permalink

    we really do need to ask ourselves why we kept finding Michael Philpott so vastly entertaining, why we turned him into something performative and not real.

    We read this post because we always find reading SL posts informative. But we don’t appreciate the we invoked. We aren’t like that and resent being lumped in with the other we’s to whom this might apply – assuming there are actually some such.

    As for the ‘hard utilitarian calculus’, basic math says release one ‘druggie’ equals lock up one Philpott. The ‘calculus’ would maybe come in when comparing the incidence of Philpotts with the incidence of ‘druggies’ and the societal benefit from locking up either, or.

    Tragedy it surely is, but a basis for public policy? Probably not.

  5. RipleyP
    Posted April 4, 2013 at 2:40 pm | Permalink

    This is the first I have heard of this matter and I am staggered by it on many levels. I can only think of sociopath or psychopath as reasoning how a person could even consider treating human beings in such a way. I don’t think Welfare really has anything to do with this as I doubt he would have shied from other methods of obtaining money such as theft or fraud.
    A person who would kill as he has done, welfare was merely convenient, I would suggest it would be doubtful a lack of welfare would have prevented him from criminally acquiring money as a conscience is likely not one of his strong points.

    I would state I am not in the “we” category personally however I agree that the act of ritual humiliation that has become a modern bread a circus does have a lot to answer for.

  6. Posted April 4, 2013 at 7:09 pm | Permalink

    Sentences have just been handed down. The two accomplices’ sentences look longer in this report but aren’t – they’ll both be released after 8.5 years, with the remainder suspended. I’m not sure a guaranteed 15 years inside is long enough for Philpott himself.

    http://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/crime/breaking-mick-philpott-jailed-for-life-over-house-fire-that-killed-six-of-his-children-8559622.html

  7. Posted April 4, 2013 at 7:21 pm | Permalink

    More detail in the local online paper, including on the accomplices: http://m.thisisderbyshire.co.uk/story.html?aid=18609284

  8. Posted April 4, 2013 at 9:56 pm | Permalink

    I’m sure if this guy was born in the US he’d be manipulating people and some (non-welfare) rights to perpetrate his harm, probably being at the centre of some sovereign-citizen harem-cult.

  9. Posted April 5, 2013 at 12:03 am | Permalink

    As I said on Facebook, I am satisfied, having read the judge’s remarks on sentence, that the Michael Philpott matter is best viewed as an instance of what I can only describe as ‘patriarchal narcissism’. I recognise that is something of a neologism; I do recommend you read the sentencing remarks, because I think that my use of the phrase is justified.

    http://www.guardian.co.uk/uk/2013/apr/04/mick-philpott-jailed-judge-remarks

    The remarks are brief but fit all the necessary detail into a short, but telling, compass.

  10. Dave Bath
    Posted April 5, 2013 at 11:31 am | Permalink

    I’m with [email protected] on so many points.

    Would he have reproduced less in a different social system? Maybe, maybe not. He’d have charmed more women into sex without a condom anyway, given a false life story, and leave them in the lurch.

    On the common refrain of “mad, bad and sad” … almost all bad. The ability to master the behaviour of others (even a whole country over TV) shows him what I’d call “twisted gifted” – a genius at manipulating people, and thus patently able to read them. That’s the thing – those who have studied psychopaths in prison remark how intelligent and charming they are … great company. That’s the problem. Hannibal Lecter in the films is more murderous, but probably played less charming than the real thing.

    I’d go with mandatory irreversible vasectomy in these cases, but … how to make the rules to decide when the procedure is required?

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