LONDON (Reuters) - By wading into the shocking case of a jobless man who killed six children in a botched revenge plot, Britain's finance minister upped the stakes in an impassioned row over whether the welfare system was affordable at a time of deep spending cuts.
Thursday's surprise comments by George Osborne came just days after the government started to overhaul a welfare system that costs 200 billion pounds ($300 billion) a year and is deemed by Osborne and his Conservative party as too expensive.
Osborne was asked whether Mick Philpott, a man living on benefits who killed six of his children in a house fire, was the "vile product" of the welfare system, a charge made by right-leaning media including the popular Daily Mail newspaper.
"Philpott is responsible for these absolutely horrendous crimes and these are crimes that have shocked the nation," he replied in televised remarks during a visit to the town of Derby, where the tragedy took place in May last year.
"But I think there is a question for government and for society about the welfare state and the taxpayers who pay for the welfare state subsidizing lifestyles like that, and I think that debate needs to be had," said Osborne, who is leading cuts to government spending.
The comments drew immediate criticism from the opposition Labour Party and anti-poverty charities, who said Osborne was seeking to score political points from a tragic case which had nothing to do with the wider issue of welfare.
The historic system aimed at improving health, education and social security is a source of pride for many Britons, but has polarized the political right and left especially since the government launched its austerity drive to bring down huge debt.
Britain's right-wing press demonized Philpott, 56 and jobless since 1991, with the Mail calling him a "vile product of welfare UK" in a banner headline on its front page.
Philpott was sentenced to life in jail on Thursday for setting fire to his own house in May 2012 when the six children were asleep upstairs.
He started the fire as part of an elaborate plan to rescue the children, emerge as a hero and blame the fire on a mistress who had recently left him. But the blaze raged out of control and the children, aged five to 13, died of smoke inhalation.
Philpott's wife Mairead, 31, and his friend Paul Mosley, 46, were jailed for 17 years each for their role in the arson plot, which was uncovered when police listened in to conversations he had with his wife in a temporary flat after the fire.
The "welfare state" occupies an ambiguous place in the hearts of Britons: supporters fete it as one of Britain's greatest achievements while opponents cast it as a benevolent but bloated system which the lazy milk to stay away from work.
Thrusting the lurid details of Philpott's crime and his bigamous lifestyle into a serious debate was a tasteless move, according to opposition lawmakers and some groups campaigning against poverty.
Child Poverty Action Group, a not-for-profit organization that campaigns on welfare issues, said the reaction to the case was part of "a sustained campaign of demonization of the poorest" in Britain by those interested in cutting benefits.
"Those who have opportunistically thought to exploit this tragedy have no evidence whatsoever to put forward that the welfare state was in any way responsible," said Child Poverty Action Group spokesman Tim Nichols.
"(Osborne) has said we need to have a debate. What we would say is that the debate that's needed is on the truth about benefit claimants because we are relentlessly being sold myths."
Work and Pensions Secretary Iain Duncan Smith was publicly challenged to survive on 53 pounds a week after saying recently that he could manage on the amount while discussing plans for welfare reform.
Duncan Smith and Osborne have defended the proposed cuts, which include increasing benefit payments at below inflation for the next three years, saying they will encourage people who can work to get jobs.
Philpott had at least 15 children by five women and thanks to a type of welfare payment called child benefit, his income rose as he fathered more children. Tabloid newspapers have been enraged at giant TVs and a full-size snooker table in his home.
He lived for years with his wife and mistress and their collective 11 children until his mistress left the household with her five children and the benefits they were entitled to, enraging Philpott and prompting him to hatch the arson plot.
"(Philpott) is the exception to the rule. He is not the norm for people who are living on benefits and any suggestion that that is the case I think is not just in bad taste but is deeply dangerous," Pamela Nash, a Labour lawmaker, said on BBC radio.
Editing by Guy Faulconbridge and Mike Collett-White