The Chancellor of the Exchequer, George Osborne, has said it is 'right to question' why the taxpayer was 'subsidising lifestyles' like that of Michael Philpott, the man convicted of manslaughter over the death of six of his children in a fire at his Derby home.
Osborne was immediately criticised for appearing to endorse tabloid coverage linking the crime to Philpott's alleged benefits income of £60,000 a year – the combination making Philpott, according to the Daily Mail, a 'vile product of Welfare UK'.
Liberal Democrat Danny Alexander, Chief Secretary to the Treasury under Osborne, said: 'The Philpott case is an individual tragedy. Children have died in that case. I think that is where we should let that case lie. I would not want to connect that to the much wider need to reform our welfare system'.
Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg added: 'You can't debate the reform that is needed of the welfare system as a whole – and I passionately believe we do need to reform the welfare system – by linking it only to one family, particularly a family which lived in such exceptional and horrific circumstances'.
For the Labour Party, Stephen Timms (Shadow Work and Pensions Minister) commented: 'It is wrong to link those acts with the debate about welfare and George Osborne should not be doing so, even implicitly. Millions of people including pensioners and the disabled, people in work and out of work, receive benefits and tax credits. The Government needs to recognise that they are as shocked and disgusted by the callous killing of these children as anyone else in Britain'.
The Labour leader, Ed Miliband, subsequently went further and accused the government of 'nasty, divisive' politics in linking the Philpott's case to the debate about benefits, saying George Osborne and others were seeking to make partisan capital from the deaths of six children.
But Osborne was backed by Prime Minister David Cameron, who said: 'I think what George Osborne said was absolutely right... We should ask some wider questions about our welfare system, how much it costs and the signals it sends. And we do want to make clear that welfare is there to help people who work hard and should not be there as a sort of life choice. I think that is entirely legitimate'.
Links: Daily Mail report | Guardian report (1) | Guardian report (2) | Guardian report (3) | Guardian report (4) | New Statesman blog post | Telegraph report | Labour Party press release