Andrew Smith: Unflashy workhorse who won respect with his enthusiasm for the mundane

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The Independent Online

Andrew Smith has lived in the same house he moved into 25 years ago - in a cul-de-sac in a notoriously rough council estate in Oxford. His decision not to trade his modest residence in Blackbird Leys for a grander neighbourhood is symptomatic of his understated personality.

Mr Smith, a close ally of Gordon Brown, has never been the most charismatic figure in the Cabinet, but he has earned a reputation for solid and sensible policy making which he honed as Chief Secretary to the Treasury and as minister for Employment.

Mr Smith's department at Work and Pensions was regarded by many in Government as "an extension of the Treasury". He has worked closely with Mr Brown on the introduction of a new generation of tax credits since 2002.

The MP for Oxford East has also worked hard to bring about Mr Brown's vision of getting more benefit claimants back to work. He recently implemented policies to encourage millions of people on disability benefits to go to work.

New claimants of incapacity benefit have found themselves faced with compulsory work-based interviews. In a recent briefing for journalists, Mr Smith looked enthused as he unveiled flow charts and slides showing how claimants of incapacity benefit were projected to fall once new policies to "reskill" and get them back to work were introduced.

It is precisely this enthusiasm about relatively mundane detail that has earned Mr Smith respect in the Commons as an efficient and diligent politician.

His unflashy, unspun style and ability to get to grips with a notoriously complicated brief has won him the admiration of opposition politicians who say his mastery of statistics made him difficult to catch out at the Commons dispatch box. Under his watch, Work and Pensions question time has become a rather dull affair.

But his time in the post has not been without controversy. He has been forced to grapple with critical headlines about errors in the Child Support Agency, lack of take-up of benefits and problems with the roll-out of the JobCentre Plus employment centres. Recently he was ordered by Mr Brown to cut thousands of jobs from his department, which attracted union fury.

Educated at Reading Grammar School and St John's College Oxford, he was recruited to the Labour Party while at university. He stayed in Oxford as a city councillor and became MP for Oxford East in 1987. The young MP for Sedgefield, Tony Blair, became his mentor.

Before Labour came to power Mr Smith served in a number of opposition frontbench jobs including shadow Secretary of State for Transport. While in that position he told delegates at the Labour Party conference that "our air is not for sale" only to eat his words when Labour privatised the air traffic control system.

Presiding over an annual budget of £100bn - the equivalent of 10 per cent of GDP - Mr Smith has taken a hard line on benefit cheats who rip off the system. His "touchstone" is the working-class neighbourhood in which he lives where he says local people resent those who are able to work but take the system for a ride.

Although politically a Brownite, Mr Smith is also an admirer of David Blunkett's philosophy of "eroding the dependency culture" and clamping down on benefit cheats.In a recent interview he said he shared "a commonality of perspective" with Mr Blunkett whom he has known for 20 years.

He was delighted to find recently that his own neighbourhood in Blackbird Leys was the target of a government anti-fraud campaign. Driving to work one day he spotted a card attached to a lamppost which read: "Cash in hand. Do you want to earn pounds pounds pounds and still sign on?" Mr Smith stopped to examine the sign and smiled as he read the small print. It said: "We're on to you - Department for Work and Pensions."

THE EXCHANGE OF LETTERS

Dear Tony,

Over the summer, I have discussed with my family the contribution I wish to make in public life. I have chosen to leave the Government and to devote more time to the responsibilities I enjoy in my constituency and to my family.

It has been a privilege to serve [in your Government], to have been Work minister when the New Deal was created and to have been able to carry it forward as Secretary of State.

I am grateful for your support and that of colleagues, in the work we have done to cut unemployment, to tackle child and pensioner poverty, to create the Pension Protection Fund and to extend the rights of disabled people. At all times I have tried to ensure the right balance between responsibility and opportunity in the help we give.

From the back benches I will, as always, continue to support you and the Government in carrying forward Labour's programme for social justice, a strong economy and opportunity for all.

I am grateful to you for the opportunity to have served in your Government and for your having asked me to stay on. I have, though, come to this decision after careful thought and my mind is settled.

Best wishes, Andrew.

Dear Andrew,

I am sorry that you have taken the decision to resign from the Government. As you say in your letter, I very much wanted you to stay but I accept that your mind is made up.

You have been an excellent colleague and a first-class minister who will be greatly missed. The Department for Work and Pensions has flourished under your leadership, due, in no small measure, to your commitment to the needs of the millions of people whom the Department has striven to assist.

Thank you for all you have done for the Labour Government and the Labour Party. I wish you and Val the very best for the future.

Yours ever, Tony.

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