A collaborator whose conscience is perfectly clear

Labour MP Frank Field tells Andy McSmith how he incurred the wrath of his own party by becoming the coalition's 'poverty tsar'
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The Independent Online

While dozens of former Labour ministers are still adjusting to life out of office, Frank Field has taken his life for a turn in the opposite direction. He has civil servants working for him, for the first time in 12 years. You could almost say he is living like a minister, except that he is not being paid like a minister, or being chauffeured around in a government car. But he is certainly busy and bustling with a sense of purpose.

One of the many ways in which David Cameron has sought to make the Conservative Party seem friendlier and more inclusive has been to offer to work with selected Labour politicians who are reckoned not to be tainted with the failings of the old regime.

Andrew Adonis, the former transport secretary, could have had a government job, except that he emphatically did not want it. John Hutton, a former work and pensions secretary and now a Labour peer, is reviewing public sector pensions for the government. Yesterday, it emerged that Alan Milburn was poised to return to government as "social mobility tsar', and that David Blunkett could join him to advise Cameron on benefits and pensions. Meanwhile, Kate Hoey, the former sports minister, is working with Boris Johnson on the 2012 Olympics.

But no Labour MP is more involved in the coalition government than Frank Field, the so-called poverty tsar who is heading a government review of poverty and life chances focussing particularly on how to ensure that children do not arrive at school aged five already doomed to a life on society's fringes.

This produced a memorably furious outburst from the former deputy prime minister, John Prescott, who blogged: "I've been in politics for over 50 years but even I can't believe what's happening. Labour ministers have decided to collaborate with the Tories. I would ask if they can live with their conscience but I'd question whether they even had one to begin with."

Mr Field also drew unfriendly looks from some of the people who had worked closely with Gordon Brown – not just for collaborating with the enemy, but also for the occasion in May 2008 when he described the former prime minister as a man prone to "tempers of an indescribable nature".

When he agreed to be Cameron's poverty tsar, he said, the reaction was mixed, though less unfriendly than it might have been. There was no negative reaction from Labour Party members or voters in Birkenhead, his Merseyside constituencywhen he was in Parliament "there were one or two of Gordon Brown's inner core who gave me hate stares – you can guess which – but others of them said 'this is something we should have done'."

What Field and a team of high-ranking civil servants are working on is a report which will be on Cameron's desk before Christmas which will look for effective ways the state can intervene in the first five years of the lives of children born into poverty or social deprivation.

Its central recommendation is expected to be that the UK should be the first nation to have an official index of life opportunities for five-year-olds, which Field believes could have a major impact on social policies for the very young.

One idea he is considering, which would set people talking and cost almost nothing, is to introduce a GCSE exam in how to be a good parent.

"We could teach this not as a separate subject but through other subjects, as part of the national curriculum," he said when we met in a café near the office he now uses in Admiralty Arch, off Trafalgar Square.

"For example, in the science lessons, part of the syllabus would be how crucial the first three years of life are, and particularly the first year, in wiring the brain and its growth – so that parents would think 'what I do in those early stages?'

"There are also a lot of practical things one can teach as well as technical knowledge. For example, when you are trying to talk to a child and the child puts its head away, the child is not rejecting you. They cannot take any more at that moment in time. "The idea would be to see whether we can build up knowledge about parenting, life skills and life chances through science, through maths, through English literature and so on, which you could then take out of those other subjects and award as a separate GCSE.

"There would not be another course in it, and it would not be imposed on the schools, it would be available for them."

Making it voluntary is consciously in the spirit of Cameron's Big Society, in which people are cajoled rather than directed by government into behaving in a way that benefits society. But if the exam is voluntary, would any 16-year-old want to sit it, and would any school put itself to the trouble of offering them the chance? Moreover, would parents of 16-year-olds want to live with smart alec adolescents who claim they know all about parenting because they have passed an exam?

On the last point, Field reluctantly admits that "there would be ragging of parents by daughters and sons", but he is in no doubt at all that teenagers want to know how to be good parents. During a recent visit to a school in Birkenhead, he asked a group of 15-year-olds to list the six things they most want to learn, and was taken aback, he said, when every one included being a good parent. He repeated the experiment at an academy school in Manchester, with the same result. "Schools would have an interest because I think you would find quite an engagement of young people, because that's what young people say they'd like to know about, and as soon as word got around that one school was doing it there would be pressure on others. They would also get a bonus that it is an extra GCSE."

Having been taught the theory of good parenting at school, parents would also feel Field's influence as soon as their first child was born, if another of his ideas is taken up. He thinks that parents should be made to call in at their nearest Sure Start office to register for child benefit, and go through an "initiation ceremony" in which they are shown what the state is prepared to do for them, and told what is expected in return.

"What I want is for all parents, whatever their circumstances, to believe that they can be five-star parents who, by their contribution, are going to change their children's life chances. The challenge is how we equip parents to do that," he said.

These ideas have the merit, from the Treasury's point of view, that they are cheap. Field claims that this is not just necessary, at a time of government cuts, but also overdue. He is critical of Labour thinkers and reformers from Anthony Crosland to Gordon Brown for taking the narrow view that "what the poor need is more money".

He said: "This government is not going to be in the business, as Gordon was, of redistributing through the tax and benefits system, particularly the benefits system. We have never had a government as effective as Gordon was as Chancellor at delivering more money, but if we are honest now, do we really think if we put another £20 on tax credit, it would transform the life chances of young people?

"We have large numbers of young women who get so little out of school that starting a family is a rational career option, and young lads – too many of them – who cannot bring a wage packet to the table because they are unemployable, and unmarriageable."

But other reforms he wants would cost money – particularly reforms of the tax credit and benefits systems which penalise couples for living under the same roof, so contributing to the number of children being brought up in single-parent households. He suggests that George Osborne could start to meet the huge cost of these reforms by freezing all tax credits.

That is not going to be popular with a government that wants to cut public spending and reduce tax, and suggests that Field could be heading for the same car crash that he had when he tried to get Tony Blair's government interested in radical reform 13 years ago.

Concentrating on social reforms as they affect the very young is a new departure for Field, although combating poverty has been his lifelong speciality. He ran the Child Poverty Action Group and the Low Pay Unit before he became an MP in 1979 and in the 1980s he was an effective chairman of the Commons Social Services committee. He did less well under Labour because one thing he never learnt to be was an obedient party man at the call of the whips' office.

His status as a maverick led Neil Kinnock to sack him from Labour's front bench. Tony Blair was impressed, at first, and appointed him minister for social welfare reform in 1997, with instructions to "think the unthinkable", only to sack him after just over a year.

Now Field is embarking an ambitious new project at a time when the Government is looking for huge cuts in public expenditure, with a special emphasis on reducing the bill for welfare. But he refuses to be downcast. He thinks that he can produce a report which could lead to immediate action and have a dramatic impact on the way the Government goes about tackling poverty without being vetoed by the Treasury.

"I was always optimistic then. I remain an optimist," he said. "The aim is to deliver a report by Christmas which all the secretaries of state, their civil service teams, and the stakeholders outside think is workable, and the electorate, when it is presented to them, feel is what we should be doing.

"I'm hoping that this time the Prime Minister is going to be 100 per cent supportive, as he has commissioned the report, and he wants to build a new politics. I hope when he receives it, he is going to press that start button."