If you haven’t heard of Thérèse Coffey, then this will be — to her — a sign that she has been doing something right.
As Work and Pensions Secretary she has had to sign people on to benefits faster than anyone who has held the position before. If this had gone wrong during lockdown, she would be as infamous as Gavin Williamson. But the system, Universal Credit, managed 1.5 million claims in four weeks. Many things have gone wrong for the government over the past few months, but the welfare system has (so far) held up. Coffey has kept her anonymity.
‘My main task has been making sure that DWP runs effectively. Being in the news would probably be a sign that it wasn’t,’ she says over lunch in The Spectator’s boardroom. ‘I’m a great believer in the DWP being boringly brilliant — or brilliantly boring.’ After just 13 months in the job, she has already lasted longer than her last five predecessors.
Some 5.6 million people now claim the benefit, and her next job is to help them back to work. Coffey believes retraining the workforce could be the solution. She thinks that the aviation industry — from cabin crew and pilots to engineers — is ripe for this given ‘the industry themselves think they are going to struggle for a few years and won’t be back into full normal elements until 23/24 at the earliest’. ‘I want to encourage them to perhaps go into teaching or go to college and to be the people who train the next lot of people who are going to do those jobs,’ she says.
And she thinks the social care industry could benefit from workers experienced in customer care such as air hostesses. ‘How do we help draw out of them the transferable skills that they have and that could be working in social care? It may not be their dream job for the rest of their lives.