James Daley: Blunkett must act now on pensions

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The Independent Online

All eyes will be on David Blunkett on Tuesday as he makes his first major speech to the House of Commons since becoming Work and Pensions Secretary last month.

The idea is, that, after just six weeks in the job, he'll lay down his first thoughts as to how he plans to solve Britain's looming pensions crisis - joining Adair Turner, the Government's pensions tsar, later in the day, to thrash out some direction for his department's future.

Blunkett has been busy since his return to the Cabinet, bravely addressing the pension-fund industry at a major conference just a week after taking up his post - and, more recently, "taking the pensions debate to the people" in a whistle-stop tour of the UK.

Even I, as a finance journalist, have met him twice in six weeks - which is two times more than I was allowed near his predecessor, Alan Johnson, during his eight months at the Department for Work and Pensions.

But with his grand entrance now behind him, Tuesday will be Blunkett's most important day yet. Having used his profile, and the odd publicity stunt, to put pensions back on the news pages, the industry is now impatient to see whether he can actually deliver in terms of providing some practical solutions.

The loss of Alan Johnson from the DWP (to the Department of Trade and Industry) was a major blow to the pensions cause.

By the time he left, Johnson was quickly establishing himself as the most progressive secretary of state since Labour came to power, showing that he wasn't scared to take on the mighty Treasury, and indicating a genuine sympathy to calls for a radical reform of the state pension system.

Blunkett, however, has a different style altogether. While Johnson ducked the limelight, his successor has already made it a priority to secure as much media coverage of the pensions debate as possible.

When he asked the locals in east London last week for ideas on how to solve the pensions crisis, he repeated the importance of getting press coverage at national and local level.

Blunkett is also doing everything he can to ensure that whatever decisions the Government takes on pensions, they will be backed up by Adair Turner when he publishes his report in the autumn.

This is another piece of careful manoeuvring to ensure that the Government is not found embarrassingly opposed to the independent report that it commissioned.

All this is well and good - and the public side of pensions was perhaps the part that Johnson managed worst. But unlike his predecessor, Blunkett seems reluctant to rock the boat behind the scenes, already making it clear that he has no intention of taking on Gordon Brown in the same way that Johnson did.

It is far too early to pass any serious judgement on Blunkett's ability to deliver a solution to the pensions crisis, but the worry at this stage is that his priority may be style over substance.

The proactivity he has displayed over the past few weeks is almost certainly, in part at least, a personal crusade to restore his dented image after being ejected from the Cabinet last year. The problem that he faces now is that turning the spin into real, pragmatic solutions to the pensions crisis will demand that he take some tough decisions, and, most importantly, has the courage to stand up to the man holding the Government's purse strings, Gordon Brown.

So, can the ambitious Blunkett bring himself to take on the man who will probably be prime minister, and handing out the top jobs, in three years' time? That's the big question.

j.daley@independent.co.uk

David Prosser is away.

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