The Philpott case: at last, a reminder of the reality

by Stephen Tall on April 6, 2013

justice thirlwall phlpott caseThe debate over the Philpott case has raged all week, but mostly at a tangent to the reality of the case.

Thanks to Grace Dent’s stellar column in today’s Independent, I’ve finally read through Mrs Justice Thirlwall’s summing up. It’s concise, shrewd, plain spoken, unsparing: no legalese, just clear sense.

It returns this case to where it belongs: an individual story of one man’s obsessive compulsion to dominate and possess all those around him, in particular ‘his’ women. It’s well worth reading the whole judgment in full.

However, there are three sections I wanted to highlight…

Here’s the judge on the lives of Mick Philpott, his wife Mairead (with whom he had the six children who died in the fire), and the mother of five of his other children, Lisa Willis:

You controlled and manipulated those women as you had controlled and manipulated their predecessors. They ran the household and looked after all the children. They went out to work. Their wages and their benefits went into your account, you controlled how money was spent. Your suggestion that this was a joint account and this was a normal family arrangement was frankly ridiculous. These two young women were not even permitted to have a front door key. You checked on Lisa Willis’s relationships at work. Exactly as you had done in your earlier relationships. I accept that the level of physical violence had reduced in recent years, but the level of control, aggression and fear most certainly did not. Women were your chattels, there to look after you and your children (for that is how you describe them all). You bark orders and they obey. Witness after witness described the dynamics in your household. You were king pin, no one else mattered.

What was plain from the earliest stage of the evidence was the importance to you of your children. In addition to the 11 who formed the household in early 2012 you have another 7. Having heard the evidence and having observed you carefully throughout your trial I am quite satisfied that for you the principal purpose of your many children is to reflect on you. Their needs desires and aspirations were very low on your list of priorities, if indeed they featured at all. You craved attention, you enjoyed the limelight. You courted publicity. You were and remain the centre of your world and it is plain that you require everyone in your life, but particularly the women to make sure that you remain at the centre of their world. Your needs and desires took precedence over everything, everyone else, including your children. You so arranged your life and theirs so that everything was done for the pleasure of Michael Philpott.

Lisa Willis eventually left Mick Philpott, taking their children with her. Here’s how the judge describes his motive for the tragedy which followed:

I turn back then to the events of the spring of 2012. You wanted to achieve the return of Lisa Willis. The way of achieving that, you decided, was to engineer the return of the children to you. She would then surely follow. In March on a pretext you engineered a confrontation with Lisa Willis and her family which ended with threats from her sister. Within a very short time you had formulated the plan which would lead to the death of those 6 children. You began to plant the idea that Lisa Willis and her family were threatening to set fire to your home. You mentioned it to acquaintances and friends. In April you persuaded Lisa Willis to meet you but she did not repeat the exercise. In May you posted an entry on Facebook identifying her brother in law as the father of her eldest child. This was another of your obsessions.

Early in your relationship you had beaten her with a weapon to try and force her to agree with your suspicions. She never did. In early May in response to the Facebook posting she telephoned you. You say she threatened you. You were delighted with that. You called the police immediately and demanded that she be arrested. You were furious that the police refused to do that. You demanded that there be a change of supervising officer, just as (I note in passing) you had done in late 2011 in respect of an assault where the police would not dance to your tune. From the time she came back for clothing in February to the time of the fire you repeatedly sought to use the police to strengthen your position against Lisa Willis. They were not drawn in.

A court hearing was set for the 11th May in respect of the arrangements for the children. You told people that you had a plan, something up your sleeve. At trial you preposterously said that the plan was to ask for residence at the hearing on the 11th May. It was obvious nonsense. You knew perfectly well that there was no reason to remove those children from the care of their mother. You had to do something extreme to get your own way. And you did.

The means by which you were to achieve the removal of Lisa Willis from the care of her children were outside the comprehension of any right thinking person. The plan, which you had plainly been considering for some time, was to set fire to your home on the night before the court hearing, making it look as though the fire had been set from outside. You would then rescue the children from upstairs via an external ladder. You would be the hero of the hour. Lisa Willis would be arrested and you would have achieved your aim. You had even arranged for the children’s school 3 places to be held open for them for the Monday morning.

It was a wicked and dangerous plan. And you put it into effect with the assistance of your two codefendants. You poured petrol on the floor. Paul Mosley was responsible for removing the containers from your home. You set light to it. After a short while Mairead Philpott spoke to the emergency services. It became clear that there was no chance of a successful rescue and the children perished. The latter half of the 999 call is harrowing evidence of the unravelling of the plan.

The jury were spared some of the most harrowing details of the removal of the children from 18 Victory Road. Mercifully their deaths were swift and, it would seem, without pain. No one could have listened to the evidence of the fire fighters and no be moved by what they had done and what they had seen in their efforts to combat the fire and save the children. You neighbours were traumatised by what they saw; several of them tried to help. They risked their own safety to try and help.

Their bravery was required as a result of your callous stupidity. It is clear that they have been shattered, as has the local community generally by the knowledge that you and your codefendants started this fire deliberately. Within minutes of the fire you were telling people that this was the responsibility of Lisa Willis and her family. You blamed the police for not acting sooner. Lisa Willis was arrested and her children were taken into care. She had nothing to do with this fire, neither did her family. When your friends were gathering around you at the Premier Inn you were eager to hear that Adam Taylor, your neighbour might be responsible, even though you knew perfectly well as the covert tapes show that he had nothing to do with it. You went to the police, reported it and he and his wife were arrested on 6 counts of murder, as you plainly intended.

And finally here’s the judge on Mick Philpott’s character when she comes to sentence him:

… let me be clear; what you did intend, plainly, was to subject your children to a terrifying ordeal. They were to be woken from their beds in the middle of the night with their home on fire so you could rescue them and be the hero. Their terror was the price they were going to pay for your callous selfishness. In fact they paid with their six young lives. They had no chance of survival and I am quite sure that when you set that fire you were not thinking about them because you simply did not care. You were going to get your own way.

It has been said on your behalf that you were a good father. Lisa Willis said so as did others. They said you loved your children. I cannot give that description to a man who acted as you did.

You lied to the police and you lied to the jury. Ever since the fire your life has been a performance for the public and the police, and then in this court. Your conduct has been punctuated by collapses and shows of distress designed to evoke sympathy where none is merited, designed to manipulate emotion. I accept you have lost 6 children. I very much regret that everything about you suggests that your grief has very often been simulated for the public gaze.

You made sure that Mairead “stuck to the story”. Checking with her at every opportunity that she wasn’t going to stray, as you put it. You knew that Mairead Philpott would do almost anything for your approval, to please you, to get your attention, as she put it. Without you she would never have become involved in this plan. Because she failed to put her children before you she has lost all of them. Nothing I have seen in your conduct before and during this trial gives me any reason to believe that you had the slightest concern for Mairead Philpott. She too was expendable.

The maximum sentence for manslaughter is life imprisonment. You are a disturbingly dangerous man. Your guiding principle is what Mick Philpott wants he gets. You have no moral compass. I have no hesitation in concluding that these 6 offences are so serious and the danger you pose is so great that the only proper sentence is one of life imprisonment and that is the sentence I impose upon you.

There’s a debate to be had about welfare: how we pay for it, who should benefit, in what way. For all the hundreds and thousands of words expended by pundits this week on that issue, it’s the judge’s 3,800 words which still deserve to be heard. They wont help us answer any of those questions. But they do get us closer to understanding the true reality of the Philpott case, and that’s something that’s been missing this week.

* Stephen Tall is Co-Editor of Liberal Democrat Voice, a Research Associate for the liberal think-tank CentreForum, and also writes at his own site, The Collected Stephen Tall.