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James Purnell interview transcript

On the Politics Show, Sunday 15 March 2009, Jon Sopel interviewed James Purnell, Work and Pensions Secretary.

Video: The James Purnell interview

Interview transcript...

JON SOPEL: I'm joined now by the Work & Pensions Secretary, James Purnell. Mr Purnell, thanks very much for being with us on the Politics Show. It is fair to say that this, we're going to go past the two million mark?

JAMES PURNELL: I can't comment at all on the unemployment figures but clearly, for the last few months, they have been going up and that's why the government has been bringing in extra help for people but I just comment…

JON SOPEL: And we all know that unemployment is a lagging indicator, we're in a recession, therefore it's pretty fair to assume that unemployment will continue to rise for a few months yet.

JAMES PURNELL: The thing I… my job is not to predict unemployment increases. You know, my job is to make sure that the help is there for people. So, for example in January we announced we would be giving extra help for people to train, to set up their companies, we'll subsidize employers to take on the long, the long-term unemployed and that's precisely to make sure we learn the lessons of past recessions and we don't have short term unemployment becoming long-term unemployment. Instead, we can do everything that we can to get people back in to work as soon as possible and that's the right thing to do.

JON SOPEL: As part of that, is it right that you're sort of having to, kind of, draft people in almost to deal with the rising numbers of unemployed, so that people that will be moving from what was the old Child Support Agency to, to help out with the problems of growing unemployment?

JAMES PURNELL: Yeah, but we were planning for those jobs to be reduced anyhow, so instead of them going, we're now re-deploying them in, within DWP, my Department. The fundamental thing however is we're spending an extra two billion pounds to have more people working for us to be able to help people have their claims processed quickly, help people get back in to work quickly. That extra two billion pounds is money which the Conservative opposition would be cutting; they're opposing all of that money and the extraordinary thing is they've not learnt the mistakes of previous recessions when they didn't spend enough money and that meant long-term unemployment rose higher and lasted for longer than it need have done.

JON SOPEL: Just on the question of sort of, you know, the number of jobs that are out there. I mean we did some research on this programme a little while ago, it looks as though there are something like sort of ten applications for every single vacancy. It's pretty tough.

JAMES PURNELL: It is tough you know and I would quibble with some of the ways those figures are put together. So, for example they don't include vacancies which aren't advertised in JobCentres. The fundamental thing is that it is harder for people to find work at the moment, it's very worrying for people around the country and you know we are dedicated to making sure we get people the help to get back in to work as quickly as possible as well as sorting out the banks, investing in the economy, getting this solved at a global level, so we keep as many people in work as we possibly can.

JON SOPEL: And on Monday, the Welfare Reform Bill goes through its final stages and I think I'm right in saying something like the 16th piece of legislation since Labour came in to power in 1997, dealing with some aspects of welfare reform. Why should we have faith that this one is going to work, where the others patently haven't achieved those objectives?

JAMES PURNELL: Because we have reduced worklessness. I mean actually we've got the number of people claiming sickness or unemployment benefits, the proportion down to below most industrialised countries. Below America, below most European countries, so we'd already got to a point where it was lower than most other countries, but we want to go further…

JON SOPEL: … but the problem of people staying on benefits and not going back to work is a problem that is still there.

JAMES PURNELL: That's why we want to do more. So we'd already gone further than most countries. We now want to completely change the culture so that people know if they're on benefits, they're nearly always going to have to be doing something to get themselves back in to work and that's what fundamentally the Bill is about on Tuesday and again, the Tories are opposing that. They opposed the extra support, but they also opposed having an active Welfare State.

JON SOPEL: Well Mr Purnell not just the Tories, I mean the leader of the biggest Civil Service Union, who we spoke to, clearly not convinced by why what you're doing. I think we can listen to what he's got to say now.


JON SOPEL: So not just bad: the worst ever.

JAMES PURNELL: That's quite a claim. Obviously I didn't convince him in my one hour chat with him this week. I've obviously not changed his view but the fundamental thing, I just disagree with Mark Serwotka. You know, I think there's nothing left wing about leaving people on benefits without the help or the support to get back in to work. That's the mistake the Tories made and if I may say so, it's the mistake some people on the extreme left make as well. Actually, the fundamental thing is you have to give people the support to get back in to work so - for example, we give loan parents thousands of pounds for their first year back in work, as an incentive to get back in to work. We give people help with skills, we give people help with their … (interjection) … let me finish this point. The fundamental point is, we can't say to people, you cannot… people can't refuse to take up that help. You know, they have to help themselves. They have to, you have to have a system which gives people the support, but also expects them to take up the support.

JON SOPEL: But why not leave it to the Job Centres, why bring in private companies where you're going to spend billions on, for they can make profits of getting people back and maybe not doing it that efficiently, according to figures that we saw last week.

JAMES PURNELL: The fundamental thing is do they help, do they provide the service well? Are they efficient, you know, we should use whoever is best at helping the most people back in to work. We shouldn't be ideological about who provides the service. Actually, I think the JobCentre staff are absolutely fantastic. They are coping with a much higher…

JON SOPEL: …then why bring in the private sector involvement?

JAMES PURNELL: Because when the private sector or the voluntary sector can help us get people back in to work, as they have over the last few years, helping thousands and thousands of people back in to work, then we should do that as well as using Job Centre plus. And going in to a recession, surely it should be all hands to the pump, rather than saying ideologically, the only people who can provide are people in the public sector.

JON SOPEL: Let me just put one idea to you that Frank Field came up with. Simple idea, any single person aged between 16 and 25 should have to do some form of voluntary work in return for their benefit. Why not?

JAMES PURNELL: Well we don't entirely disagree with that. We do want people to be doing something in return for their, their benefit. And that can be for example more training, doing some work experience. It can be people setting up their company, but it should be the right thing for each individual, so you do need a system with high support, but also high expectations of people. You know the right won't provide the support, because they won't spend the money. The extreme left say that we shouldn't have any conditions on benefit. I disagree. I think you have an active Welfare State, which both supports people, but expects people to take up that support.

JON SOPEL: Okay well let's just take a look at one particular issue, for those people who lose their job, because it's a hundred years since National Insurance was introduced, but is it still fair.


JON SOPEL: James Purnell is still with us and was watching that. James Purnell, could you live on sixty pounds a week?

JAMES PURNELL: People don't have to live on sixty pounds a week. And it's important to realize we'll also help pay people's mortgage, we'll pay their rent. You know if a family has got children, they can be on two fifty, three hundred, four hundred pounds a week - still not a King's Ransom, but there is, you know, a much wider amount of money that we give to people. It's important for people to understand that. But the fundamental thing for people like Tony and viewers who are out of work is we need to get people help for them to get back in to work and I think that should be the priority, the extra training, the extra support for getting back into work.

JON SOPEL: Is the Jobs Seeker's Allowance enough?

JAMES PURNELL: As I say, it's not the only thing that people get. It will go up for example in April because of inflation.

JON SOPEL: But Brendan Barber from the TUC has said it should rise, do you think he's right?

JAMES PURNELL: But look, actually, it is rising in April. But it's not the only amount of money that people get. People get two hundred and fifty three hundred, something four hundred pounds a week, once you get tax credits in to account and that's very important because the Liberal Democrats and the Tories both opposed those tax credits. So when we're looking at where we're putting more money, we're both giving people more money through extra Child Benefit, extra Child Tax Credits, the Job Seeker's Allowance going up. But also, putting that extra money in to getting people back in to work.

JON SOPEL: What about just the grading of it, so that maybe, if you've paid in for years and years and years you should get more than someone who's never contributed?

JAMES PURNELL: Well you do. If you, if you pay in for years and years, you get contributory JSA whatever you level of income, and then you have the means tested one to fall back on afterwards. So it's very important that we spend money both on that but also getting people back in to work, which is what you know, only we, only the Labour Party will do.

JON SOPEL: Hang on. But surely I'm right in saying that if you've worked for three years and if you've worked for thirty years, you still get the same amount.

JAMES PURNELL: You get. If you haven't contributed at all, you wouldn't get any…

JON SOPEL: No. I'm talking about someone who's worked for three years and someone who's worked for thirty years, they will get the same amount.

JAMES PURNELL: Everybody gets the same amount, but you only get the contributory one if you've put money in to the kitty. But the fundamental …

JON SOPEL: My question is, is that fair?

JAMES PURNELL: people get tax credits, they get help with their mortgage for example. You know, we have increased the help which we are providing to people, precisely because we know that it is a real crisis for people when they're unemployed. It's not just about statistics, it's about people being incredibly worried about their future, and that's why we're investing, putting more money in.

JON SOPEL: Okay, I just want to talk to you about one other issue that's featuring very big in the papers today. This is about the price of alcohol could double, setting a minimum price. Is that going to happen?

JAMES PURNELL: Well we are acting on irresponsible binge drinking. You know we are taking powers to prevent people having irresponsible drinks promotions. We've given the police much tougher powers to close down pubs that sell to people who are drunk or Off Licenses who serve to people who are underage. We don't want, however, to punish the responsible majority for the sins of the irresponsible minority, so we do want to focus on the irresponsible minority rather than I think, punishing everybody equally.

JON SOPEL: So that sounds like it's a no, you're not going to go ahead with this proposal.

JAMES PURNELL: Well clearly, we'll look at Liam Donaldson's proposals, he's a very eminent person in his field, but we're very clear, we don't want to punish the majority for the sins of the minority.

JON SOPEL: That would be the effect of this?

JAMES PURNELL: I think, certainly to - at a time of economic difficulty, that looks like it would be the effect. But you know, we need to look at the proposals, but you know, we're saying we have no intention going ahead with something which would punish the responsible majority.

JON SOPEL: I know you used to be the Licensing Minister. What you seem to be saying is look, this is the wrong time, wrong place, for this particular proposal.

JAMES PURNELL: Well we do want to prevent binge drinking from having terrible effects on our communities and on, on people's lives and actually, that is starting to happen. The level of deaths from alcohol problems, has started to fall. We need to do more to prevent irresponsible drinking but not by punishing everybody else.

JON SOPEL: Okay. James Purnell, we will leave it there. Thanks very much indeed for being with us.


Please note BBC Politics Show must be credited if any part of these transcripts are used.

NB:These transcripts were typed from a recording and not copied from original scripts.

Because of the possibility of mis-hearing and the difficulty, in some cases, of identifying individual speakers, the BBC cannot vouch for their accuracy.

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The Politics Show Sunday 15 March 2009 at 12:00 GMT on BBC One.
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