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 Video Burnham v Wark: who won the battle of Newsnight?

    Burnham v Wark: who won the battle of Newsnight?

    It has been one of the main political stories throughout the day, despite going on telly at about 11 o’clock last night. The clash between Newsnight’s Kirsty Wark and Andy Burnham over the NHS on Newsnight last night was one to remember: the increasing interruptions led to a bit of a barney during the 10 minute interview. But who won? Judge for yourselves…

    Read more →
  • News Scotland Nick Clegg can’t remember name of Lib Dem candidate in seat they’ve held since 1983

    Nick Clegg can’t remember name of Lib Dem candidate in seat they’ve held since 1983

    We knew it would happen eventually, but 99 days before the election? At some point during every election, a party leader forgets the name of one of their candidates when speaking to the local press. Nick Clegg may have set a new record by fumbling up a full 12 weeks before voters go the polls. In an interview with the Aberdeen-based Press and Journal, the Deputy PM referred to the Lib Dem candidate for Gordon as “Justine” Jardine. Her name, […]

    Read more →
  • News Labour could gain more support with anti-austerity message, poll finds

    Labour could gain more support with anti-austerity message, poll finds

    YouGov’s polling for the Times Red Box looks like it could have the keys to Labour’s election success. Or, at the very least, an indicator of what gain us a little more support. They’ve done this by probing three particular areas – austerity big business and international relations – to see what policies would garner Labour the most support. The first and arguably most topical question given anti-austerity party Syriza’s electoral success in Greece on Sunday is what direction those […]

    Read more →
  • News Full text: Labour’s NHS motion in the Commons today

    Full text: Labour’s NHS motion in the Commons today

    Labour are holding an Opposition Day debate on NHS funding today (it’s happening right now in fact: you can watch it here). Shadow Chief Secretary to Treasury Chris Leslie is leading the debate for Labour, who before the debate began said that the health service was “in crisis” and “cannot survive another five years of David Cameron.” The full text of Labour’s motion today is: That this House notes comments from leading doctors and nurses that the NHS is in […]

    Read more →
  • Comment PMQs Verdict: It’s two blokes shouting at each other, what’s that got to do with my life?

    PMQs Verdict: It’s two blokes shouting at each other, what’s that got to do with my life?

    Last week Ed Miliband was quite candid about PMQs, when he said: “Watching me and David Cameron shout at each other once a week on Prime Minister’s Questions isn’t very enlightening for anybody, let’s be frank about it. It probably massively puts people off politics if they’re watching it because they think: ‘It’s two blokes shouting at each other, what’s that got to do with my life?’” This week Miliband and Cameron headed to the chamber to prove how accurate […]

    Read more →