By Jean Calder
Mick Philpott’s relationships with women were marked by “control, aggression and fear”, according to the judge who jailed him for life for killing his children. So it’s deeply disappointing that this vicious bully, so in love with attention that he hoped to appear on television as a ‘hero-dad’ who saved his children from a fire he had started, has become a focus of public debate not about abuse, but about welfare.
The Chancellor, George Osborne was wrong to link Philpott with welfare dependency, not because a link does not exist, but because the primary focus of politicians of right and left ought to have been upon the mothers he enslaved and the children he terrorised. Philpott could never have achieved the income he did, had he not had absolute control of the lives, labour and fertility of the two women he lived with, along with their children.
Philpott may have been the ultimate ‘skiver’, to use Osborne’s term, but the other adults present in the household, Mairead Philpott and Lisa Willis, were not. Both women worked hard as cleaners and all household and child care duties were carried out by them. Their wages, tax credits and child benefits were paid directly to Philpott. They were viewed as chattels and held in a state of slavery, as the judge in the case acknowledged. They did not have keys to their own front door, had no control of household finances and could not leave their home without Philpott’s permission. It was an utter corruption of family life.
Politicians who condemned George Osborne’s remarks about Philpott’s welfare dependency have repeatedly described Philpott’s behaviour as ‘unique’. This is untrue. One in 4 women experience domestic violence and two women die each week as a result of violence by partners or former partners. Of recent years, several estranged husbands with a history of violence have killed children.
Police observed that Philpott had a pattern of grooming vulnerable young women. He was 43 and Mairead a single mother of 19 when they met. Pregnant at 16, she had been abused as a child and raped in her teens. Prior to meeting Philpott, she lived with a violent boyfriend. Philpott seemed to offer care and protection, but then became violent. Lisa Willis was a single mother of 17 when Philpott offered her a home. She too was subjected to domestic violence by him, as was Pamela Lomax, his first wife and Heather Kehoe, another young victim who gave evidence in court. Heather Kehoe was 14 when they met and at 16 became pregnant with the first of their two children. Philpott was in his forties. Heather Kehoe told police Philpott held a knife to her throat when she tried to leave him. Eventually, she escaped.
It must have taken extraordinary courage for Lisa Willis to leave Philpott, after years of grooming, manipulation and abuse, especially with five children. As anyone who has worked with victims of domestic violence knows, the more children women have the easier it is for abusers to control them. Leaving with several children is a logistical nightmare, particularly if women have no money, nowhere to live and no transport. Domestic abusers habitually control not just their victims’ fertility, but also their benefits, personal papers and identity documents.
Lisa Willis and Mairead Philpott must have lived in terror. They knew Philpott was violent and unpredictable. He was much older than both and had controlled them since they were young. Trial records show that he used both as sex slaves. He pimped Mairead Philpott to his friend Paul Moseley and forced her into sexual threesomes that he later acknowledged she did not want. Above all, he made sure that all the women he abused were aware he had been convicted of attempted murder for the multiple stabbing in 1978 of Kim Hill, a previous partner who had left him. Philpott broke into her house, stabbed her 27 times, then repeatedly stabbed her mother. Philpott served less than half of a 7 year sentence.
When Lisa Willis finally escaped in February 2012, she did it secretly as so many victims of domestic violence do. She and the children left taking only the clothes they stood up in. Philpott disputed her custody of the children, apparently in the hope that they – and the benefits that attached to them – would be returned to him, and that she would follow. He set the fire in order to frame Lisa Willis, the day before a custody meeting.
Philpott was arrogant and criminally stupid, but the truth is he had some reason to believe his plan might work. His previous experience was that none of the agencies surrounding him had curtailed his activities. He had served a derisory prison sentence after leaving one woman for dead and badly injuring another. The police had failed to protect the women he subsequently abused and social services had done nothing to protect his children. Since 2006, journalists had recognised him to be a source of good copy, treating his domestic regime as an eccentric lifestyle choice, remaining chillingly indifferent to the needs of the women and children. Philpott did not hide his controlling behaviour. Even on the 2007 Jeremy Kyle show, he seemed to revel in his control of Mairead, telling her what to say and speaking for her.
Ann Widdecombe and a television crew later visited his household and failed to see the horror under their noses. As with politicians now, the focus of Widdecombe’s attention was Mick Philpott, rather than the women and children he controlled. Widdecombe was so bamboozled by Philpott (despite the fact that he had called her a bitch and a battleaxe), that even after the children’s deaths and Philpott’s tearless histrionics on television, she said “Nobody would ever call him a bad father.” Even now, the worst she can seem to say of him is that he used the children as a “meal ticket”.
Philpott was maintained in welfare dependency by a benefit system which encouraged him to use women and children as income generators. However, it is unlikely the government’s new benefit ‘cap’ would have safeguarded his victims. If income is reduced, abusive men like Philpott will simply force their partners to work longer hours or pimp them to other men for money. The cap may make it more difficult to maintain a ‘harem’ under one roof, but there will be nothing to stop abusive men controlling women, possibly in several different establishments. There seems little appetite amongst politicians to address the human rights implications of domestic enslavement, still less the political will to challenge polygamy – or even to protect enslaved women and discourage harems by preventing the benefits of several women being paid into a single man’s bank account.
Men like Philpott are protected by two deep-rooted and apparently opposing orthodoxies, both of which discourage intervention. The first is the traditional notion that a man’s home is his castle, where he should be free from interference. The second is the modern ‘liberal’ view that alternative lifestyles and cultures must be equally respected and maintained. The result is that under the guise of protecting family life, freedom of choice or cultural diversity, professionals fail to intervene when powerless people – often women and children – are stripped of their rights.
Politicians do not appear well in any of this. Successive governments have failed to properly challenge the sexism and attitudes of contempt for women that give rise to grooming, sexual exploitation, rape and domestic violence. Recent cuts in legal aid and housing benefits will make it more difficult for women to leave violent partners. Despite the government’s undoubted commitment to assist victims of domestic violence, it has failed to ring-fence funding for local domestic violence services and even child protection services are under threat. It is true that since the death of Baby P the government has placed a greater emphasis on swift resolution of child protection matters and speedier adoption – and that following the Rochdale scandal there is now greater awareness of the systematic abuse of adolescent girls. However, previous Conservative and Labour governments fostered a culture of non-intervention and a policy of keeping families together almost at all costs – and the effects of this remain. For decades, police and social services failed to protect teenage girls, treating 13 as the de facto age of consent, putting neglected girls at risk of sexual exploitation by adult males and vulnerable teenage mothers at the mercy of men such as Philpott. Politicians stigmatised these mothers, blaming them for raising ‘feral children’ while the media obsessed about the need for male role models and increased contact with estranged fathers – not realising that these children often already had deeply damaging male role models, many of whom were their own violent fathers and step fathers. As a consequence men such as Philpott were not challenged, but reinforced in their position.
Philpott was protected by the indifference of professionals, the prurience of the media and the narrow gaze of politicians, who could see only fecklessness when they should have cried out against sexism, exploitation and abuse. It is probable that had key agencies acted as they should to assist and empower the women, restrain their abusers and protect the young, all the children might well be alive today.
16th April 2013