Welfare Green Paper: Dogged crusader against poverty

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THE sincerity of Frank Field's views on welfare reform is searingly obvious to anyone who has ever heard him describe the conditions of his Birkenhead constituency, where a culture of dependency is as endemic as its partner in crime; drugs culture.

It is not unusual to find obsessives in politics, but the minister for welfare reform yesterday reached a staging post on his crusade to offer radical solutions to his constituents' plight.

Mr Field has in the past spoken of boys in his constituency whose only ambition in life is to qualify for their own Giro cheques. Yesterday's paper leaves no doubt that those days are fast coming to a close.

The man and the crusade are indistinguishable, but the tenacity of Frank Field was superbly illustrated by his battles with the Mersey Militants, after they had infiltrated his constituency party in the 1980s and tried to dump him. He remains the Birkenhead MP to this day.

Born in 1942, Mr Field is a grammar school boy from a working-class background. His father was a labourer, and a Tory, which could explain why Frank became a Young Conservative before he went to Hull University. He was elected a Labour councillor in Hounslow, west London, in 1964, when he taught at Southwark College for Further Education.

With all the honesty of a low-church Catholic, he said yesterday: "For me, today's statement marks a milestone in a journey that has so far lasted thirty years.

"This Green Paper draws on my experience at the Low Pay Unit, the Child Poverty Action Group, on the Social Security Select Committee.

"But above all it draws on what I have learned from listening to my constituents in Birkenhead, about the need for welfare reform. Those who rely on benefits for their everyday existence are the real experts here."

That genuine humility grew from his experiences on Merseyside and while working for the poverty lobby between 1969-79, when he first entered Parliament at the time of Margaret Thatcher's accession to No 10.

It is a rare event in politics for a prime minister, Chancellor and a packed Commons to listen in rapt attention to a statement being made by a non-Cabinet minister.

But yesterday was a rare moment of social history. Mr Blair is determined that it will generate phenomenal change. And when Mr Field said he recognised the "particular honour", he meant it.

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