Peter Hoskin

The strange conversion (and eventual downfall) of a cabinet minister

The strange conversion (and eventual downfall) of a cabinet minister
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Call it incompetence, if you like – it may turn out to be criminality – but Peter Hain’s clearly underperformed as a Cabinet minister.  After his resignation today, blogs, newspapers and politicians are quite rightly sticking their collective boots in.  Just to strike a different tone, I thought I’d give Hain a bit of credit where it’s due – if only for a mid-office conversion on the topic of welfare reform.

By now, the facts are well-stated: Wisconsin-inspired welfare reform– which places extra stress on claimants finding work and uses private companies to help them do so – gets more people off benefits and lowers the burden on the taxpayer.  Yet when Hain became Secretary of State for Work and Pensions it looked as though he’d turn his back on these truths.  In an early interview with the FT he claimed that involving the private sector in welfare provision was not his “preferred option”.   

It was surprising, then, that Hain’s first Green Paper actually proposed an increased role for the private sector.  The extension of the Pathways to Work scheme; placing greater responsibility to find work on the heads of lone parents; and referring “difficult case” New Dealers to the private sector – all of these are strong reforming efforts.  Further policy documents continued the reforms with redoubled pace.  And even Hain’s rhetoric became that of a born-again reformer, as he claimed that the private and voluntary sectors have a “vital role to play” in welfare provision.

This is not to say that Hain’s record on welfare reform has been perfect – there are still areas where the Government could go much, much further.  Nonetheless, the DWP has been the only department developing a non-centralising agenda during the Brown regime.  In fact, Hain has achieved more tangible results than his Blairite predecessor, John Hutton, ever did.

With James Purnell replacing Hain, the question now is of whether extensive welfare reform will continue.  Given the popularity of the Tories’ welfare proposals, surely it would be political suicide for Brown to reverse things now.  But welfare reform is not the only area where Purnell’s got to deliver – the pensions system needs fixing just as much as his new department’s battered reputation.  If he fails in these regards, then the Curse of the DWP might strike again…