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28 July 2011

Purnell offers Labour a way forward on welfare

Purnell's vision of a narrower but deeper welfare state deserves attention from Miliband.

By George Eaton

James Purnell has long been one of Labour’s brightest and best thinkers, so it is right that his intervention on welfare policy has received significant attention. The former work and pensions secretary followed up his Times article (£) with a film for last night’s Newsnight in which he outlined his proposal to recast the welfare state as a “protection state”.

If people are to “fall back in love” with the welfare state, he said, it must offer benefits that they actually value. To this end, Purnell suggested a job guarantee for those unemployed for more than a year (those who refuse to work will lose their benefits), wage protection – the unemployed could receive up to 70 per cent of previous earnings for up to six months – and free childcare. To pay for all it, we should cut back on those benefits – free bus passes, free TV licences, the winter fuel allowance – that many, not least the well off, do not value. Even universal child benefit, Purnell says, should no longer be considered sacred. Alongside this, he argues, we should reassert the contributory principle by, for instance, ensuring that those who pay in receive a higher pension than those who do not.

After all, it was Beveridge who declared in his 1942 report: “The correlative of the state’s undertaking to ensure adequate benefit for unavoidable interruption of earnings is enforcement of the citizen’s obligation to seek and accept all reasonable opportunities of work.”

The real question, as the Spectator’s Peter Hoskin suggested yesterday, is whether any of Purnell’s ideas will be taken up by the Labour leadership. Ed Miliband has long defended “middle class benefits” on the grounds that, as Richard Titmuss put it, “services for the poor will always be poor services”. He opposed the government’s decision to withdraw child benefit from higher-rate taxpayers and warned it not to cut the winter fuel allowance. By contrast, Purnell declares: “I have never bought the argument that universal benefits bind the middle classes in. It feels too much like taxing with one hand to give back with another.”

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It is Miliband who is closest to his party’s centre of gravity. Most Labour activists are dismayed by the thought of cutting back the benefits that Blair and Brown championed for so long. Ken Livingstone, one suspects, spoke for many when he tweeted last night: “James Purnell on Newsnight saying maybe we shld end free bus passes. Must be fought all the way. It is a political dead end for Labour.”

Miliband has, however, shown an interest in reviving the contributory principle. In his speech on responsibility last month, he argued that services such as housing should not only prioritise those in the greatest need but also those who contribute the most to their communities, be it through volunteering or employment. Whether he will consider some of Purnell’s more heretical proposals remains to be seen. But there is no doubt that, as Liam Byrne, the shadow work and pensions secretary, observed, “Labour is behind on welfare reform. It must get back in front”. Purnell’s vision of a narrower but deeper welfare state offers one way to do so.