By a Newsnet reporter
Prime Minister David Cameron has given his full support to controversial comments made by Chancellor George Osborne on Thursday, which linked the conviction of Mick Philpott for the manslaughter of six of his children to the benefits system.
The Chancellor’s comments were roundly condemned by opposition parties and organisations working to combat poverty, who described the Chancellor’s remarks as “despicable”, and accused him of using the deaths of children to score political points.
The Chancellor said that it was now time for government and wider society to “question” whether the benefits system should be used to support “lifestyles” such as that of the Philpotts.
Backing his long-time friend and colleague, Mr Cameron said:
“I think what George Osborne said was absolutely right. He said that Mr Philpott was the one to blame for his crimes and he should be held responsible.
“But what the Chancellor went on to say is that we should ask some wider questions about our welfare system, how much it costs and the signals it sends.”
He added: “We want to make clear welfare is not a lifestyle choice.”
The Chancellor also received the backing of Conservative backbench MPs. Dominic Raab, MP for Esher and Walton, said:
“Nothing can excuse the individual moral and criminal responsibility for this ghastly crime.
“But we would be abdicating our responsibility as a society if we did not look at whether there is some link with the climate of dependency that our bloated welfare system has helped to create.”
Although most Labour politicians severely criticised Mr Osborne for his comments, certain influential sectors of the party have voiced their support and have warned that Labour may lose its appeal to the voters in the south of England where it must gain seats in order to win the next General Election.
Writing in the Times, Tony Blair’s former speech writer, Phil Collins, said that the party risked handing the initiative to the Conservatives. Noting that UK polling showed public support for a hardening of benefit rules, he wrote:
“This week the tanker of politics started to turn. The benefit cap – which limits welfare payments so that no family can receive more than average after-tax household earnings – was introduced. Housing benefit cuts began to bite.
“Then the grotesque Mick Philpott became the stooge embodiment of all that is said to be wrong with a culture in which the idle take the rise out of the working population. We may look back on this as the week in which the coalition began to speak again to the British public while the forgetful Labour party slunk back on to the sofa.”
The Chancellor’s remarks have opened tensions within the Coalition government, with senior Lib Dems condemning Mr Osborne’s comments. Lord Oakeshott, a senior Liberal Democrat peer, said the incident called into questio whether Mr Osborne deserved to be in his job, saying:
“If George Osborne can’t see how wrong it is to play politicse with six children’s deaths he’s not fit to be Chancellor. Immaturity and inexperience in his high office can be overcome, but this callous criticism is unforgiveable.”
Sarah Teather, a senior Lib Dem MP and former children’s minister, branded the Chancellor’s comments as “deeply irresponsible”, and said:
“I am shocked and appalled that George Osborne has stooped so low as to make a crude political point out of the tragic deaths of six young children,” he said.
“It’s one thing for a tabloid newspaper to make unsophisticated, clumsy political arguments, quite another for the Chancellor of the Exchequer to join in.”
However Mr Osborne’s right hand man at the Treasury, Danny Alexander, gave qualified support to his boss’s comments, saying: “George Osborne is right that there needs to be a wide debate about the future of our welfare system, but the Philpott case is an individual tragedy.
“I think that’s where we should let that case lie. I wouldn’t want to connect that to the much wider need to reform our welfare system.”
Commenting on Mr Osborne’s speech on the benefits system earlier this week, SNP MP Ailidh Whiteford said that the Chancellor failed to grasp the realities of benefits reform and the effect on the poorest families. She stated that only a Yes vote in next year’s referendum can protect poor and disadvantaged families in Scotland from the effects of Conservative and Liberal Democrat cuts to the benefits system.
Ms Whiteford said:
“We need a welfare system which reflects Scotland’s values, helps working families and protects our most disadvantaged people. A fairer welfare system for Scotland can only be achieved with a Yes vote in 2014. We need our welfare policies to be decided in the Scottish Parliament rather than Westminster, where our MPs have little ability to prevent such damaging measures.”