Following the government’s refusal to comment on the tragic suicide of Stephanie Bottrill, a number of people have pointed out the rather glaring inconsistency between this case and that of Mick Philpott. George Osborne was notoriously eager to share his wisdom with us in that instance, but when a chronically ill grandmother took her own life in despair at the prospect of losing her home apparently it abruptly became inappropriate to comment on individual cases.
It can be taken as read that the response from Government ministers in the two situations was governed by pure political expediency; it’s pretty obvious they don’t particularly care about the lives of either Stephanie Bottrill or the children who died at Mick Philpott’s hands. That much is relatively trivial. There is a trickier issue here as well though; if it’s inconsistent for the Tories to claim that the case of Mick Philpott serves to undermine the case for the welfare state while they refuse to acknowledge that the death of Stephanie Bottrill undermines their case for attacking it, is it also inconsistent for the left to do the exact opposite? If we say that Philpott’s actions aren’t relevant to arguments about the welfare state but simultaneously arguing that Bottrill’s death is relevant, isn’t this also both hypocritical and exploitative of tragedy for political gain?
The short answer, you probably won’t be surprised to hear, is no. Bottrill isn’t the first person driven to suicide as a result of losing the benefits they depend on – Calum’s List serves as grim testimony to that – but her case is probably the most unambiguous. Stephanie Bottrill isn’t reported to have had any previous history of mental illness, and there are no other obvious reasons why she might have wanted to take her life apart from the fact that thanks to the bedroom tax she had become unable to pay her rent and faced the prospect of losing her flat and being moved miles from her family and loved ones. Her suicide note explicitly cites government welfare reforms as her reason for killing herself.
Conversely, Osborne’s defence for his comments about Philpott was that he – Philpott – was only able to live as he did because of the financial support he received from the benefits system. But this doesn’t stack up. The benefits system might have enabled Philpott to have lots of children and live in a large house – and you could make a case that Philpott’s actions on this score were selfish and irresponsible – but it doesn’t at all follow that it was the benefits system that caused him to murder six of those children in a house fire.
Any benefits system, no matter how carefully formulated, will have loopholes and quirks which can be exploited by a tiny free-riding minority. Equally, in any system with limited resources, there’s always a danger that individuals who are genuinely in need of help won’t get the assistance that they should. The Tories’ zeal to prevent anomalies of the former type – which, in the case of Philpott, led them to unsubtly conflate having an unusually large number of children with actual mass murder – is matched by their utter disregard for errors of the latter sort. Put simply, judging by government pronouncements over the past few months the Conservatives care far more about a few people claiming more than their perceived fair share in benefits than they do about people literally being denied the means to live thanks to Welfare Reform, and killing themselves (or being killed) as a result. What conclusion should be drawn from this about Tory moral sensibilities I leave you to decide for yourself.