James Purnell: You Ask The Questions
The Secretary of State for Work and Pensions answers your questions, such as 'Will the attack on benefits continue?' and 'Have you been late for any more photos?'
Monday 28 January 2008
What was it like advising Tony Blair? Did you ever have an argument?
We had one argument: in the 1992 election when I inadvertently made a £1bn spending commitment. He was steely rather than furious, but my life flashed before my eyes. But then Cherie took me off to get a takeaway and said in a few years' time, it would just be an anecdote I would tell...
Should Peter Hain have resigned sooner?
Stoke Newington, London
No I don't think he should. Innocent until proven otherwise is a guiding principle in this country. As soon as Peter found out he was to be investigated by the police he took the decision to resign and devote his time to clearing his name. He was putting in place a radical welfare reform policy, and I'm determined to build on his work.
Why do you think Gordon Brown has been such a disaster as Prime Minister?
He hasn't been a disaster. I don't think anyone should underestimate Gordon Brown – he has the strategy and determination to be a great Prime Minister.
Would you accept campaign money from a South African diamond dealer who had previous given money to the Tories?
Paying for party politics is a real issue for every political party not just the Labour Party; only last week David Cameron was facing tough questions about funding of several members of his front bench. This is an area where cross-government consensus is important and that's why we want to take forward the Hayden Philips recommendations.
Does it feel strange to be a Blairite promoted by Brown?
Why would it? I worked with Tony and Gordon when they were starting their reforms of the Labour Party in the early 90s, and this just feels like a continuation of that work.
How are you going to achieve the target of getting one million people off incapacity benefit?
Elephant and Castle, London
By having a system which for the first time asks people what they can do, not what they can't. We know there are many people on incapacity benefit who can and want to work but have never been given the chance to actually demonstrate their skills. Replacing incapacity benefit with the new employment and support allowance will mean those who can't work won't have to, but those who can will have to look for work.
After being in the Cabinet for just seven months, how does it feel to be in control of a department with a £130bn budget?
St John's Wood, London
I really enjoy running an organisation – so I'm looking forward to it. Though it was definitely arresting when my Permanent Secretary said we spend more money than the GDP of Portugal.
As a disabled person, I'm happy to see Hain go. Will you mount the same attack on our benefits as he was planning?
It's not an attack. We want to provide more support for people who can't work – I'm passionate about making it possible for you to be independent, giving you control over the care and support you receive.
But for people who can't work, I think that independence means getting in to work.
I've met people who have come off incapacity benefit who didn't believe they could, and who are messianic about how it changed their lives. I want more people to have the chance tomake that change.
A think-tank you used to work for said that just by extending some tax benefits to working parents, more children could be pulled out of poverty. Will you listen to them?
I'm looking forward to meeting them to discuss their ideas. I'm not making any rash decisions, but we do need to help families where one person is in work but they still live in poverty. One important way to do that is improving skills so that people can go up the career ladder and get better pay.
Be honest: were you dismayed to have lost the cushiest job in politics and been given the dullest?
I can still go to the theatre and the cinema in my spare time! I did have mixed feelings about not being able to finish the work I'd started at DCMS, but I've also always been passionate about welfare reform. It's one of the most important parts of any Labour government.
Do you agree with Tony Blair's view of the media as a "feral beast" and was he right to single out The Independent?
Even Jeremy Paxman said that he thought Tony Blair had made some important points about the relationship between the media and politics. But I don't think there's much point politicians telling the media how to behave – we're the last people journalists will listen to.
Wouldn't it be better to spend the £9bn Olympics money on something worthwhile such as 25,000 new nurses or helping relieve poverty?
You couldn't employ nurses with this funding – it's capital money. But the Olympics will achieve many of the same goals – it will improve people's health by getting them more active and it will regenerate one of the poorest parts of London. In fact, it's a very good way of dealing with the causes of some of the problems in our society, rather than just alleviating the symptoms.
How can you justify spending £120,000 on expenses?
Because people don't work for free – those figures include the salaries of four people in my constituency office, who do a very important job helping me help my constituents.
Do you think growing up in France has affected your politics?
Did you and David Miliband fall out after you dealt with your Russian stand-off far better than he did his?
Not at all – David was keen for the exhibition of art from Russia to come here too. His whole point was that cultural exchange shouldn't be undermined by political differences. Our determination to support the Royal Academy was in contrast to the Russian government's treatment of the British Council, which we would urge them to reverse.
How long before you are Labour leader?
I've not been in Government very long, but I have been active in politics long enough to learn two things. One – that there's no such thing as a safe seat, and two – that anyone who maps out their political career in advance is guaranteed to be disappointed.
You're a real pro-European now, but will you go all quiet about it when you move up the party like all the others?
Mile End, London
I don't think people do go quiet about Europe when they move up the party. I know I'll certainly remain an advocate for a powerful and active UK in a strong Europe.
What's the last play you went to? Was it any good?
It was Let There Be Love by Kwame Kwei-Armah, at the Tricycle Theatre in Kilburn. And yes – beautifully written and acted, but also dealt with important questions about immigration, life, death, compassion. All that in just over two hours...
Would you rather be prime minister or the centre forward for Arsenal?
Centre forward for Arsenal – but I don't think I'm going to make it through Arsenal's youth policy...
What's the most expensive item in your wardrobe?
Oliver Wilhurst, Southampton
Like most men, probably one of my suits, I tend to buy two good quality suits every year. This is a bit of a New Labour cliché, but I like Paul Smith ... preferably in the sale!
Have you been late for a photo since the Thameside "Photoshop scandal"?
I don't think I've been late for another photo ... but it's the not the last time I've been photoshopped ... since that day I've "won the World Cup, walked on the Moon, joined the A Team" and my office kindly photoshopped me into their Christmas card. I guess the day may come one day in the distant future when I don't get confronted with Photoshop questions and comments, but I fear I've got a few more years of it yet.
What's your favourite quote from Shakespeare?
That's impossible – like being asked your favourite song. But a good motto for any pensions secretary might be:
"O, reason not the need! ... Allow not nature more than nature needs, man's life is cheap as beasts."
King Lear, 2, 2
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