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5 June 2009

James Purnell, undoubtedly the worst secretary of state for work and pensions ever, has resigned in an attempt to bring down Gordon Brown.  He leaves behind a department in crisis as it struggles to cope with the introduction of employment and support allowance and the huge rise in jobseekers allowance claims.

Purnell resigned last night, just as polling stations for local and EU elections closed.  He claimed in his resignation letter that he was resigning through love of party and country and his belief that having Gordon Brown as leader meant that a conservative government was more likely to be elected.  He made no mention of personal ambition.

However, Purnell was one of the youngest ever Labour MPs when he was elected at the age of 31 in 2001.  He had already worked as an adviser for Tony Blair whilst studying philosophy and politics at Oxford University and before working for various political think-tanks and the BBC.  He had also developed a reputation as a man who cared a great deal about being snappily turned out, although some saw in him an unfortunate resemblance to a second-hand sports car salesman.

His first ministerial position was at the Department of Culture, Media and Sport before he was given the DWP post in 2006.

In his resignation letter, Purnell claims that there is a need for a ‘government that measures itself by how it treats the poorest in society.’

Looking at Purnell’s record it is hard to see how this could mean anything other than an ambition to treat the poor as a means for multinationals to increase their profits and to punish those claimants who fail to help create corporate wealth.

One of Purnell’s first acts as minister was to appoint as his special adviser City banker David Freud, whose report into reforming the welfare benefits system had not found favour with Purnell’s predecessor, Peter Hain. Freud, a hugely privileged individual, is enormously keen to help the private sector make billions in bonuses out of getting the sick and disabled into work. 

In spite of Purnell’s eager patronage, however, Freud, quickly deserted Labour and switched allegiance to the Tories after being offered a peerage by David Cameron.

Purnell has, from the outset, been a great advocate of using compulsion against claimants who fail to move back into work.  The welfare reform bill he was supposed to be piloting through the commons features provisions to force sick and disabled claimants to undertake work-related activities chosen by private sector staff or lose benefits.

However, there are signs that Purnell’s welfare reforms are already in deep trouble.

There appear to be huge delays developing in getting claimants to medicals for ESA.  These are supposed to take place at around week 6 of a 13 week assessment period.  In reality, claimants seem to be waiting up to 24 weeks before having their work capability assessment.  In addition, it appears that work-focused health related assessments are now not always being carried out at the same time, but are being put off until later in an attempt to cope with the backlog.  These assessments are a key feature of the drive to push disabled claimants into work.

Purnell, is the sixth secretary of state for work and pensions since the post was created in 2001.  Until then, it would have been a toss-up whether David Blunkett, who had to resign following issues of financial propriety – or Peter Hain – who had to resign following issues of financial propriety – had been the least claimant friendly minister.

However, Purnell, whose financial propriety has been questioned by the Daily Telegraph in relation to avoiding capital gains tax, clearly takes the crown. His ideological driven eagerness to make life increasingly hard for people whose annual income is lower than his expenses claims sets him apart from the inept, but relatively benign Peter Hain.

Sadly, we are unlikely to have seen the last of this ultra-ambitious MP, who may well be aiming to be the next but one leader of the Labour party.  We can only hope that, in the meantime, whoever replaces him in office will be more interested in their brief than they are in choosing their ties.