Sunday, 13 September 2009

Brown's ghosts come back to haunt him

The papers recount today how the story about the way in which Alan Johnson won his spurs came out at Frank Field's party to celebrate thirty years in the Commons. When Field started making his resignation speech in 1998, Brown stormed out of the chamber, and whips were instructed to get other Labour members to leave as disruptively as possible whilst Field was speaking. Many did. Johnson didn't. He contemptuously tore up the whips' note and stayed put.

Brown's absolute stupidity and incompetence in rejecting Field's welfare reforms in 1998 have lumbered us with eleven years of gargantuan waste, both fiscal and human; few on Labour's benches would cavil at Field's measures now. If Brown had been a bigger man, if he had supported Field's elevation to Secretary of State and a place in the Cabinet rather than squealing like a petulant child about someone playing with his toys, neither Labour nor the country would be in the mess we're in today.

Field's statement is worth repeating in full:
Hon. Members Order! (As Blair and Brown storm out)

Madam Speaker Order. This House must come to order. That is disgraceful behaviour from Members on the Front Bench.

Mr. Frank Field (Birkenhead) Madam Speaker, as I was saying, before I was interrupted by the privileges of office.

For a decade before entering Parliament, I worked on behalf of poor people, attempting to make their needs and views better known to the nation. In Parliament, to which I was elected in the political watershed election of 1979, I argued for welfare reform, and helped campaign to make Labour acceptable again, while representing the interests of my constituents in Birkenhead. In so many respects, all three battles overlapped.

My past 30 years have been characterised by helping to get changes made—calling for the sale of council houses, and for the money to be used to build new homes and repair old ones; initiating the one member, one vote, campaign; and spearheading the political drive for the introduction of child benefit. On those and other issues, the stress was on seeing reforms through.

Before my right hon. Friend the Member for Sedgefield (Mr. Blair) became the leader of the Labour party, I put it on the record that I did not believe that Labour would ever win an election again. My right hon. Friend transformed that position. The 1997 election result indicated the electorate's wish to embrace political change on a scale equal to, but radically different from, that made by Mrs. Thatcher.

On the Saturday after my right hon. Friend's election triumph, I was offered the post of Minister for Welfare Reform. I sensed then, only tentatively, that to reform welfare required a position of executive authority. I was to learn the full importance of that only later. In the end, I settled for a non-executive position, wishing as I did, and still do, for the welfare reform programme to be the big success for which the country longs, and wishing to play some part in that revolution.

I also knew that not to have taken that opportunity could have led to accusations that I had never been a team player, for that was a charge to which I was particularly open. I had spent most of my political life here in Parliament, where there was no Labour team worth playing for, and in trying to maintain some political sanity when others had lost their heads. I am pleased to see that so many are back in order.

On the Monday after the election, I talked to the Prime Minister about the welfare reform strategy. He gave me his immediate agreement to the production of a Green Paper. The idea was to produce a route map guiding the way in which reform should be conducted. Then the difficulties began. However, it is not true that the Prime Minister ever vetoed earlier versions of the Green Paper as being too radical. Nothing could be further from the truth.

Over many years, the Prime Minister has commented on my publications. There was much about the way in which welfare was impacting on people's lives on which we agreed—how it affected behaviour, and how individuals saw or did not see their personal responsibilities and their duty to self-improvement. Here, then, was the central theme of the welfare reform strategy. People's natural wish to improve their lot and that of their families had to become once again the great engine force of social advance in Britain.

Much of current welfare expenditure counters that objective. Although the level of expenditure is an issue, the main concern is the cancerous impact that much of welfare has on people's motivations, their actions and thus their character. Those are the beliefs underpinning the Green Paper. There, the objectives of welfare reform are spelled out, together with 32 success measurements. No democratically elected Government have ever before stated so clearly at the start of their stewardship the measures by which they wish to be judged.

The process of reform was put out to consultation, which ends on Friday, although not before I had travelled more than 9,000 miles and listened and talked to more than 2,000 people.

The Green Paper lays down the framework within which welfare reform is to be conducted. Other Green Papers on specific topics are to follow. One on the Child Support Agency is already out for consultation. Again on the Prime Minister's authority, I and the DSS team produced within eight weeks a Green Paper on countering fraud.

Bigger decisions are now awaited. The reform of disability benefits is urgent. Housing benefit cannot be left providing millions of tenants with a free good for life, at the cost of giving landlords open access to taxpayers' money.

The biggest of all reforms should be heralded in the pensions Green Paper, where the battle is joined by those who see a limited operation as desirable, with a major role for means-tested provision not only for now but for many generations to come.

The alternative centres on proposals that I have made for a universal stakeholder pension. That would guarantee a pension from national insurance and from funded sources which links the interests of rich and poor into a single scheme. It involves some redistribution from richer people to their poorer neighbours, in return for guaranteeing a pension level that only the community can offer. I wish my right hon. Friend the new Secretary of State for Social Security every success in that debate.

If the past 15 months have taught me anything, it is not only that the biggest of all reforms requires an executive position for a person with convictions about welfare reform, but that the entire Cabinet, especially the Chancellor, shares beliefs about that common endeavour.

I went into Government to see the welfare reform programme through. When my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister offered me other tasks on Monday, I resigned. It was from the other side of the House that I put together the philosophy underpinning our welfare reform programme. It is from this side that I shall attempt once again to help to build a consensus for radical change which, while accepting the pivotal role of self-interest and its crucial link to self-improvement, does not collapse into a selfishness which excludes the poor.

May I thank you, Madam Speaker, for allowing me to make this statement? Through you, may I thank the House for listening to me?


Dr Emil Schuffhauser of Vienna said...

Beware of upsetting schizoid Herren mit blau augen, Raedwald.

N.B. Party invitations extended to 15 different pseudonyms may result in a singular appearance.

Anonymous said...

"... how individuals saw or did not see ... their duty to self-improvement."

This tiny sliver gives the game away. No human being has any such thing as a duty to self-improvement. The concept of 'self-improvement' is so vague and subjective that it could only haved meaning if it (a) meant what any individual wanted it to mean, or (b) meant what the Government decided it should mean.

I'm guessing that, as a good Socialist, Frank had in mind the latter.

Not to be trusted.

Blue Eyes said...

Edgar, interesting thought - in a free society it is no-one's "duty" to maximise their income or tax-paying or consumption. But although you are right to be wary of Field's socialism he at least could see what problems the current system was causing.

We saw from Brown from day one that he had no interest in "helping people" other than cementing his own ascent to the highest office.

Cameron could do worse than to announce a cross-party commission to discuss welfare reform, including Field, Harris and others.