Work is only a cure-all if there are jobs to do

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The Independent Online
NOT long ago I was in a bar at Paddington station when Mr Frank Field walked in and ordered a pint of beer. There was, of course, no reason why Mr Field should not quench his thirst on what was, as I remember, a sticky afternoon in any way he chose. Nevertheless I was surprised, even a little shocked. It was almost as if I had come across the Bishop of St David 's in the Colony Room club.

We fell into friendly conversation and talked, in a factual rather than a boastful manner - anyway I hope so - about the number of books we had written. He came out top. But I could not bring myself to ask him about a puzzling matter involving himself in what was then my latest production. This concerned the fall of Margaret Thatcher in 1990. Shortly after it had been published, I was approached by what I had better call a leading Conservative who had been with her in the No 10 bunker on that terrible Wednesday night. He said (I quote from memory):

"Ha, ha, old boy, you got most of us right, but you missed somebody."

"Who was that?"

"Frank Field."

I do not know whether Mr Field really was there and, if so, whether he was giving comfort to the departing prime minister (as were her nearest and dearest) or urging her to fight on (the course recommended by various young Tory hotheads). There are some stories better left unverified. But there is persuasive evidence for his presence there in Mr Donald Macintyre's column in the Independent last Friday: "He thought, as a Labour backbencher, that she shouldn't be pushed out by her ministers and told her so."

Six years earlier he had resigned from the front bench to vote against the government's prohibition on trade unionism at GCHQ rather than abstain, which was the opposition's timid policy. He fought and defeated the Militants in his Birkenhead constituency with precious little support from the Labour Party nationally. Indeed, from what I remember, there was an embarrassed silence from Walworth Road for most of the time.

Most eccentrically of all, he is a practising member of the Church of England. He inclines to the High Church, Anglo-Catholic wing. Most Labour people who patronise the church tend to do likewise. One thinks of George Brown, Eric Heffer, not least, Tom Driberg, the Monica Lewinsky of the People's Party. Mr Tony Blair has moved so far and so fast in this direction (I mean Mr Field's rather than Driberg's) that he is almost in Rome.

But Mr Field was not wholly popular with his colleagues on the back benches. Independent characters rarely are. And he is not the universal favourite in government either. The most powerful force in politics is jealousy or, rather - for I think there is a distinction - personal envy. "It's not fair," is the cry; not fair that old so-and-so, a Johnny-come-lately if ever there was one, should have a larger salary, a bigger office or a shinier car; not fair at all, even less fair, that he should have more about him in the papers or that he should be able to telephone the prime minister as the mood takes him.

Mr Field is not placed in the same category as Mr Alastair Campbell, who is not even a minister, Mr Peter Mandelson, who is a minister of a very peculiar kind, and Lord Irvine, who has fingers in a variety of pies, but who all have Mr Blair's ear. He has a special, even a privileged position none the less. He is the Minister for Welfare Reform with the rank of Minister of State in the Department of Social Security.

Nominally his chief is the Secretary of State, Ms Harriet Harman. In reality they are on a virtual equality, as Mr Field demonstrated last Thursday when it was he rather than Ms Harman who introduced the green paper on social security from the front bench.

Not only are they separate and equal powers: they are also under the protection and control of two greater powers, much as in the last century Austria was a creature of Germany, and Turkey of Russia. Today Mr Field is Mr Blair's Austria, while Ms Harman is Mr Gordon Brown's Turkey.

But what are the great powers after, what are they playing at, what's their game? That is altogether more difficult to say. In shorthand, Mr Field is supposed to be in favour of universal benefits supplemented by increasing private (not necessarily commercial, but possibly co-operative) support; Ms Harman, of means-testing, sometimes referred to as "targeting" to make it sound both more accurate in achieving its aims and more palatable to public opinion. But do the great powers, respectively Mr Blair and Mr Brown, follow the views of their protectorates? A perusal of the green paper leaves us little the wiser.

I can remember the time when green papers (an innovation, I think, of Richard Crossman) had green covers; white papers, white; and blue books, blue. They would fit into your bookshelves, their prose was measured and their typography was unexciting.

The latest production measures just over eight inches by nearly a foot. On the cover there is a picture of a fit-looking old lady with specs, a group of young persons photographed from above, a white girl telephoning while seated before a word processor, a black man doing a spot of welding, and a group of black and white children gazing with inexplicable delight at yet another screen. As it costs a hefty pounds 11.50 for 96 pages with wide margins and will be read chiefly by those with a serious interest in the subject, I cannot see why the Government feels it necessary to dress it up like a building society brochure.

But though the cover is a fetching dark red, it is the greenest of green papers I have ever read. It even asks for suggestions (closing date 31 July). In pursuance of this column's policy of public service journalism, here is the address to which they should be sent: Welfare Reform Green Paper Consultation Team, Department of Social Security, 1 John Adam Street, London WC2N 6HT.

Several statements I initially found perplexing, such as: "Unemployed or poor households are increasingly likely to live in communities with high levels of unemployment and benefit dependency." Well, yes: just as rugby players tend to come from parts of the country where rugby is played. Actually I do understand what is meant. It is that poverty is becoming increasingly concentrated in certain areas.

We are also told that over 75 per cent of the working population are already in occupational or private pension schemes. If this is really so, there is not much leeway left for Mr Field's pet scheme to force people into private arrangements. For the people who are now out of these pension plans are too poor to join them. Or else they are too insecure to make long-term commitments because they are employed persons working under short-term contracts but enjoying none of the tax advantages of self-employment. This is a problem nowhere addressed.

And one looks in vain for any statement of principle such as that all benefits should be universal but that all benefits should nevertheless be fully taxed. Mr Blair, Mr Brown, Mr Field and Ms Harman are content emptily to echo Snow White's Seven Dwarfs:

Heigh-ho, heigh-ho,

It's off to work we go.

Which is all very well so long as there is work to go to.