Peter Cuthbertson: Make Frank Field Work and Pensions Secretary
Peter Cuthbertson argues that Frank Field was so quick on the uptake with analysing the true root causes of poverty and dependency, that David Cameron should bring him into the next Conservative Cabinet to implement the solutions himself.
Even if it comes to office with a healthy majority, when the next Conservative government is formed, serious consideration should be given to offering Labour MP Frank Field the position of Secretary of State for Work and Pensions. It is easy, once one starts, to come up with clever reasons for thinking this might be a good idea. Field is decent, intellectually honest, likeable and almost universally admired. Putting a Labour MP in the cabinet would be the ultimate proof of Cameroon claims to reject yah-boo politics in favour of supporting sensible policies whatever their source. When the time came to implement controversial but necessary policies, Field could in the best case scenario bring with him some of his parliamentary colleagues. At worst, he could give to these policies the impression of cross-party support: “It is a Labour MP pushing these measures through, you know!”.
But more important than any of these reasons is the straightforward fact that of all available candidates Frank Field is almost certainly the best man for the job. For more than twenty years, he has been a subtle and imaginative observer of noxious social trends and the way our benefits system so often works to exacerbate them. In conversations with Margaret Thatcher, he inspired the Prime Minister to work to move family breakdown up the agenda with the illuminating story she was soon to repeat in speeches, of a Birkenhead constituent of his who was asked by his daughter not to attend her school Christmas play - because she would be embarrassed to be the only pupil to have both a mum and a dad present.
As Labour returned to power, he was chosen to be the Minister for Welfare Reform – unfortunately a very short-lived appointment, as he was blocked from implementing his bold proposals and forced to return to the backbenches within eighteen months. Since 1998, his focus on these issues has been powerful and uninterrupted, making him probably the most authoritative critic of New Labour’s welfare policies. In his newspaper columns, his books and pamphlets and most recently his work with the group Reform, Field has catalogued the extent of Labour’s failure to tackle the problems of dependency.
The New Deal, he has demonstrated, is less an efficient means of moving the unemployed into unsubsidised employment than an expensive and ineffective training scheme for the same retreads. Even after ten years of growth in GDP and overall employment, youth unemployment is now higher than in 1997. In the whole economy, the number of Britons of working age who live on benefits is an astonishing 5.4 million – only vanishingly smaller than the 5.65 million figure Labour inherited. This paying of people to be unproductive on such a mass scale – with the percentage of Britons on incapacity benefit many times that of neighbouring countries - is a sickening waste of taxpayers’ money and benefit claimants’ lives.
Field’s proposals for escaping this situation manage to be both radical and common sense: a testament to how far from good sense current policies have strayed. They include allowing people on incapacity benefit who find themselves a job to keep claiming benefits for a year. He suggests freeing voluntary groups to expand their care and services by scrapping all red tape for charitable enterprises except a simple criminal background check. Based on the success of very local efforts in his own constituency, Field advocates devolving the contracting of all welfare services from central bureaucracies to the local level.
In the mid-1990s, time-limiting benefits reduced the American welfare rolls by 60% – and contrary to claims that it would bring misery for the poor and for single parent families, this happened because the reforms incentivised a “mass migration from benefit to work”, turning around millions of lives. Field wants to do the same here. In discussing family breakdown, the ultimate cause of so much poverty and dependency, Field has bravely aligned himself with (and anticipated) David Cameron’s strong emphasis on the family in decent and compassionate terms:
“Surely we can say that the traditional family unit is the best way to nurture children without making it a campaign to beat up single mums.”
These policy solutions are sure to meet with resistance. But at the same time they have the potential to win support from Conservatives of all stripes, and from thoughtful liberals and left-wingers (like Field himself) willing to look at the evidence with an open mind. Political calculations aside, they are also based in the research, thought and experience of one of parliament’s most impressive, long-standing welfare experts. If the next Conservative government makes a serious effort to reform welfare - and it must strive to - the proposals of Frank Field are sure to be a major part of the framework for doing so. Which leaves only the question: Who better to implement them than he?