Thursday, January 31, 2008

Not a very good start

James Purnell gave his first speech since being put in charge of the Department of Work and Pensions earlier this week. It is about the problems of welfare dependency, the need to create a market in welfare services and the fact that tackling social exclusion 'does not fail for lack of resources'. Since in fact the problems are that people want to work but employers don't want to hire them or pay them enough to live on, welfare services have actually been pretty successful in helping people into work, and there aren't enough resources devoted to reducing social exclusion, this is a rather unpromising start.

It is slightly unfair just to call the ideas in Purnell's speech Thatcherite, because while Maggie Thatcher and her advisers used much of the same rhetoric about welfare dependency, the belief that people weren't poor because of a lack of spending on the part of the government, and the ideological faith in creating markets where they had previously been public services, there is an important difference. Thatcher deliberately decided to leave millions of people on out of work benefits to massage the unemployment statistics as part of the plan of trying to smash the trade unions, whereas Purnell and Gordon Brown want to use a mix of carrot and stick to get people to work. Besides, there are other inspirations as well as Thatcher.

Whichever researcher wrote the speech obviously fancies themselves as a bit of a historian. Hence the passage which goes:

"If you’d ever said to William Beveridge that work could be divorced from welfare he would have been astonished. Yet, until this government put the two back together again, that was exactly the cul-de-sac we were in.

For Beveridge, the very notion of welfare was bound up with the idea of independence."

Indeed. William Beveridge was a proponent of forced labour for those who couldn't find work. For all his expertise in social policy, he maintained to the end of his life a number of prejudiced attitudes about people who were not, as he was, comfortably off. Back in the 1940s, of course, there was a Labour Party which was able to make use of Beveridge's good ideas, while rejecting these sorts of poisonous beliefs.

One of the best things that Peter Hain did as Secretary of State was to draw a clear line between the Tories (who now support forcing people to do unpaid work), and Labour who ruled it out. Let's hope that this section of Purnell's speech is not a sign that a u-turn on this is on the way.

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