In defence of James Purnell

31st July, 2011 3:00 pm

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.


  • News Labour: ‘Rattled’ Cameron can’t claim centre ground

    Labour: ‘Rattled’ Cameron can’t claim centre ground

    David Cameron cannot claim to be in the centre ground of British politics after today’s speech – and his attacks on Jeremy Corbyn show he is “rattled” by the election of the new Labour leader. That is the message from the Labour Party today. While Cameron hoped that his speech to Tory conference would be seen as a claim to the political centre – with focus on poverty, social mobility and housing – Shadow minister Jon Ashworth has hit back, […]

    Read more →
  • Comment A credibility deficit: why Labour’s former winners deserved to lose

    A credibility deficit: why Labour’s former winners deserved to lose

    The recent report from Jon Cruddas confirmed that Labour lost the election because it appeared too anti-austerity, too anti-aspiration and too far in favour of wealth redistribution. The selection of Jeremy Corbyn therefore came as a shock to so many of the political elite, particularly those connected to Tony Blair’s three consecutive election victories. But with conference season drawing to a close, and Corbyn’s shadow cabinet settling into their new roles, for Labour’s modernisers the time begins for self-reflection and […]

    Read more →
  • Comment Featured What we learned from the Tory Conference

    What we learned from the Tory Conference

    David Cameron’s speech finishes up the Conservative Party’s conference in Manchester – so what did we learn this week? 1. The leadership contest is well underway The jostling to replace David Cameron has begun in earnest, with George Osborne, Theresa May and Boris Johnson retaining their places as the frontrunners. Osborne is laying down his marker as a safe pair of hands – only an economic crisis over the coming years is likely to take that away from him. May was […]

    Read more →
  • Featured News Labour hit back at Cameron’s “record of failure” on housing

    Labour hit back at Cameron’s “record of failure” on housing

    Labour’s Shadow Housing minister John Healey has this morning hit out at the Tories’ record on housing and home ownership, as David Cameron prepares to make the topic the centrepiece of his Tory conference speech today. Cameron will pledge to build 200,000 ‘starter homes’ over the course of this parliament, encouraging people into home ownership rather than renting. However, Cameron’s definition of ‘starter homes’ was criticised by housing charity Shelter in August, when they published research showing that an income […]

    Read more →
  • Comment Featured 5 reasons Theresa May is wrong about “mass migration”

    5 reasons Theresa May is wrong about “mass migration”

    Theresa May yesterday took to the podium at Tory party conference and channelled her inner Enoch Powell. In a bid to prove her leadership credentials she made a virulently anti-immigration speech, but it was riddled with inaccuracies. She somewhat confusingly tore apart her own record on immigration as Home Secretary and warned that “mass migration” makes social cohesion impossible. The subtext of this: if you’ve got problems, blame migrants. Here’s why she is so sorely wrong. 1. Migrants aren’t responsible […]

    Read more →
Share with your friends