In defence of James Purnell

July 31, 2011 3:00 pm

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James PurnellBy Tom Harris MP / @TomHarrisMP

It’s a sign of a good politician that he can still provoke debate – even harsh criticism – more than a year after stepping down from the Commons.

But that’s what my friend and former colleague James Purnell has done, with his latest pronouncements on how we can encourage people to love the welfare state. Inevitably, as happens whenever someone on the Left says anything remotely sensible on the subject of welfare reform, he has ruffled a few feathers, specifically the feathers of Darrell Goodliffe.

Darrell wrote on LabourList that James’s suggestion that future reforms might include scrapping pensioners’ Winter Fuel Allowances, free bus passes and TV licenses weren’t just unwise or ill-considered; no, no – they were “an abomination”.

Well, good to see we’re managing to tone down the hyperbole, eh? Darrell goes on:

“No doubt he will make noises about ‘targeting’ but we all know that means testing – which is what ‘targeting’ is another word for – hits the poorest the hardest. Elderly people, children, these are our most vulnerable groups and Purnell wants to squeeze them until the pips squeak.”

You hear that, James? You want to hit old people and children. And squeeze their pips, apparently…

Darrell is missing the point, I think. Yes, means testing has a certain stigma attached to it and therefore many of those at whom a particular benefit is aimed very often don’t apply for it. But its intention is the opposite of what Darrell seems to think it is. Means testing (or “targeting”) is about making sure that those who need a benefit most – the poorest, in other words – don’t miss out on it because it makes sure that others who don’t need it – the richest – don’t get it.

A good example of this was the Pension Credit. After years of seeing British pensioners fall further into poverty under Tory governments, Labour decided that the available funds would be better spent targeting the very poorest, particularly those whose modest savings or private pensions had hitherto prevented them from receiving state assistance.

No-one thinks means testing is ideal; we all want to avoid it where possible. But the Labour government did it and it was right to do it.

Darrell’s main objection to James and everyone else who thinks we need to reform welfare is that it’s really not necessary in the grand scale of things:

“It’s demonstrably the case that the cost of benefit fraud is nothing compared to the cost of tax avoidance and tax evasion.”

Which is probably true, but completely misses the point. Even if the cost of benefit “fraud” were zero, it would still be incumbent on any government to reduce significantly the number of individuals and families dependent on benefits.

When second or third generations of families, and even whole communities, are relying on benefits rather than employment, the immediate direct cost to the Treasury is as nothing compared with the cost to those families, those communities and to wider society. The cost is not measured in pounds and pence but in aspiration, inter-generational poverty, poor performance at school, self-esteem and social breakdown.

With more than 100,000 adults of working age “economically inactive”, my own city of Glasgow is fighting to improve its prosperity with one hand tied behind its back. That is an unacceptable situation, irrespective of the cost of the benefit cheques.

That’s what James Purnell and many others in the Labour Party understand. It’s a pity Darrell Goodliffe does not.

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