In defence of James Purnell

July 31, 2011 3:00 pm

Author:

Share this Article

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.

Latest

  • News Scotland have voted No to independence, say LabourList readers

    Scotland have voted No to independence, say LabourList readers

    In a few hours time, we will find out that Scotland has voted against independence – according to LabourList readers, anyway. 77% of those who took our survey this week said they thought that the outcome of today’s referendum would be a No vote. Despite polls have closed in over the past fortnight, our readers are confident that Scots will have chosen to preserve the Union. 23% think that the result will be in favour of Yes. Only two polls in […]

    Read more →
  • News Lift cap on borrowing so councils can build – say Labour PPCs, councillors and AMs

    Lift cap on borrowing so councils can build – say Labour PPCs, councillors and AMs

    A group of London-based Prospective Parliamentary Candidates, councillors and London Assembly Members have written an open letter (published in the Guardian), calling on party leadership to go further in their policy commitments when it comes to building houses. Although the letter praises Ed’s pledge that the next Labour government “will build 200,000 homes a year by 2020″, the cohort which include urge leadership to commit to lifting what they deem the “arbitrary cap [placed on councils] on borrowing to build”. […]

    Read more →
  • News Are Labour going to make the NHS the focal point of the 2015 campaign?

    Are Labour going to make the NHS the focal point of the 2015 campaign?

    Earlier this week, a poll found that Labour hold an 18-point lead over the Tories as the most trusted party on the NHS – the only topic voters consider a “major issue” that sees a Labour lead. The NHS being a crucial issue of the Scottish referendum, with both sides accusing the other of lying. Many of today’s votes rest on whether they trust Yes Scotland or Better Together’s claims about the health service. Now reports say that Labour are considering […]

    Read more →
  • Comment We stand up for human value – we proudly defend the Human Rights Act

    We stand up for human value – we proudly defend the Human Rights Act

    If you’re part of the Labour Party, or hold any similar values, you will certainly share the absolute belief in respect and dignity for everyone. I don’t think anyone in our movement, with our principles, would disagree. And so, with those common values, we are entirely right to stand up, loud and proud, for the Human Rights Act. The publication this week of Human Rights: Reflections on the 1998 Act by Jonathan Cooper in Stephen Hockman’s Law Reform 2015 (with […]

    Read more →
  • Comment Scotland Friendship and solidarity must prevail, as the fog clears

    Friendship and solidarity must prevail, as the fog clears

    The air hangs thick this morning with the referendum. Last night a deep fog rolled down across Edinburgh, but in reality it is the campaign which has blotted the vision and stopped even the keenest of observers from seeing what lies just a few footsteps ahead. The final days has provided one crucial clarification though – the No campaign is capable of great passion and powerful rhetoric. Mocked, endlessly criticised, a reputation dragged through the muck. Despite it all – […]

    Read more →