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Last Updated: Sunday, 4 March 2007, 11:57 GMT
Back to work
On Sunday Sunday 04 March, Andrew Marr interviewed John Hutton MP Work & Pensions Secretary

Please note "BBC Sunday AM" must be credited if any part of this transcript is used.

John Hutton MP
John Hutton MP Work & Pensions Secretary

ANDREW MARR: Now, the government says it has a once in a generation chance to transform the welfare state.

This week sees the publication of a major review which is meant to bring an end to the "can work but won't work" culture. S

ome of the reforms that are predicted may prove to be controversial, not least giving the private sector a much bigger role in getting people back to work.

And if we try to peer ahead at what a Gordon Brown government might do here's a clue, because the Chancellor is tomorrow going to join forces with the man in charge of these reforms who is the Work and Pensions Secretary, John Hutton, who joins me now. Welcome Mr. Hutton.

Thank you for coming on the programme.

JOHN HUTTON: Good morning.

ANDREW MARR: How many people are we talking about, do you think, in terms of people who really in your view should be working, could be working, but currently either because they say they're sick or they've got some kind of problem, aren't working?

JOHN HUTTON: Well we know, for example, there's maybe as many as 200,000 people who are claiming Job Seekers' Allowance, who've been on the benefit for quite some time. And on top of that, you know, we've got two and a half million people on incapacity benefit, we've got nearly 800,000 lone parents.

Now when you ask most of those people they say, yeah, we want to work. And the problem is at the moment, the system as it's currently designed, doesn't really provide them with enough help and support to get back to work.

We've got a very dynamic and effective labour market now but there are millions of people who aren't part of it. So I think what we should be looking at in future is what more help and support we can provide to those who want to work but aren't currently in a position to get work.

ANDREW MARR: You say they say they want to work, but presumably quite a lot of them actually don't want to work or they would be working?

JOHN HUTTON: No I think that is a small minority of claimants. I do believe that. I met a group, for example, of lone parents in Manchester on Friday, and the one thing I took away from that very clearly was their burning ambition to actually get back to work.

They want to look after themselves and their families, and their children. I mean, I think that's a very powerful, natural emotion. And I think what we've got to do now, having made such a success of welfare reform in the last ten years, and we have done - we've got a million fewer people on benefits, we've broken the problems that we inherited about mass unemployment which was disfiguring many communities of Britain. Now I think for the next ten years our focus has got to be on those who are hardest to help, who need more help and support to get back to work.

Because we won't build, Andrew, a strong dynamic effective economy and a decent strong society unless we can find a way of providing a bridge from benefits for these millions of people - ordinary decent people - back in the labour market.

ANDREW MARR: There's clearly a problem. You yourself have said it's particularly difficult in cities like Glasgow and Manchester, the particular places that you've mentioned where there are plenty of job vacancies, and indeed people have been coming in from Eastern Europe to do these jobs. And yet there's large numbers of people who aren't working and taking welfare of some kind. Can I just ask some specifics - up to now, if you're a lone parent, until your child is 16 there's virtually no pressure on you to look for a job. Is that going to change, are you going to bring it back to 11?

JOHN HUTTON: Well I said some time ago that we should certainly have a debate about that. And David Freud, who we commissioned to do a very substantial examination of the next stage of welfare reform, is certainly going to say something about this next week. And I think it's right that we should discuss this openly.

At the moment you're right, you know, if you're a lone parent the system doesn't expect you to take any active steps to get back to work until your youngest child is 16, and we know for example that what happens then is that, having spent years in the benefit system those single parents are usually not in a position, quite literally, to make active steps to get back to work. And so a lot of them just go straight from income support, which is the benefit they're on, directly onto incapacity benefit, and spend significant times on that too. So we've just got to break that log-jam.

ANDREW MARR: There are interesting suggestions in the papers today that, first of all you think that private companies and charities can do far more of this as the government pull out of some of that. Is that true?

JOHN HUTTON: Well I think we want, again David Freud will say next week, is that that it's right that we have another look at all of these things. And really, I think it's not the case that we say job centre plus which is that the public sector here is doing a bad job, it's doing a fantastic job. But I think what we should consider now is whether job centre plus should focus on those who are the easiest to help, if you like. And what we should use is a network of specialist providers.

And they will, I think, in the main, be drawn from the independent sector and not for a profit sector, because we use a very large number of these providers now and they do a brilliant job. To use those providers, to provide the specialist help for people who are furthest away from the labour market and need to get back to work. And why we should do that Andrew, just very briefly, is because I think you know, all the evidence suggests that those types of organisations, you know, it's easier for people who've been on long-term benefit to work with, and to establish the right kind of personal relationship with them, than sometimes it is with an arm of the state bureaucracy.

ANDREW MARR: It's suggested that the kind of things that might be done are literally to buy somebody a new suit, or a suit, help them get a haircut, get some tattoos removed, presumably nose-rings taken off - that kind of thing. So that it's easier for them to get jobs. Is that the kind of stuff that you're talking about?

JOHN HUTTON: Well I'm not sure about the tattoo removal and the body piercing. I'm really not sure that that is going to be part of what we do.

ANDREW MARR: Politician sees big row ahead!

JOHN HUTTON: Well no, I don't just see it as a row. I'm just not sure that is really where we need to focus our effort. But look, I think for a lot of people it is about confidence-building. And sometimes, yes, if you want to present yourself well at an interview you've got to look the part and, you know, if you've spent a long time on benefit you simply probably won't be in a position to do that. So we should, we shouldn't sort of get snooty about what...

ANDREW MARR: No, no I wasn't being snooty.

JOHN HUTTON: But I think what we've got to do is target our interventions in a successful way, and based on the evidence, you know, we should be prepared to look at, you know, new ways of working with people who are the hardest to help.

ANDREW MARR: It's even been suggested that people could have help paying off big loans?

JOHN HUTTON: Well there's no doubt at all that this is one of the issues that, you know, can be one of the barriers that keep people back from thinking that, yes, you know, they can come off benefit and into work. And the burden of debt for many people on benefit is a big problem.

So again I think David Freud is going to be suggesting one or two ways that we might be able to do more to help people who've built up debt while they've been on benefit. And, you know, in the short term we've certainly got to get the loan sharks off the back of people on benefit because that is a big problem to many communities.

ANDREW MARR: Are you going to cut anyone's benefits?

JOHN HUTTON: No, I think there's a myth around this and I think in a sense it reflects the limited vocabulary actually people have, and certainly the media have, when it comes to a debate about welfare reform. I don't want to cut people's benefit, so we're not reducing anyone's benefit.

But look, I think at the same time, if we are prepared to provide more help and support for people, and I think, you know, part of the research that David Freud has done is look at the international evidence of what works. You take for example lone parents. In most of the Scandanavian countries they do expect more from lone parents to look for work if support is available.

ANDREW MARR: Where does the pressure come from? Where is the element of compulsion? Because there has to be some.

JOHN HUTTON: There has to be some, and that's basically one of the essential foundations which our entire welfare state is being constructed, right back from Beveridge. And I think in the context, for example, of lone parents, I think we should be prepared to say, look, if we are going to provide more help and support to get you back to work which is what the overwhelming majority of lone parents say, then we will expect you to take up that help and support.

Because the long-term consequences for you and your family of being on benefits are not good. It's bad for your health as a single parent to be on benefit for long periods of time. It's bad for your kids as well, and I know that, because I grew up in a single parent family where we were dependent on benefits. And I know just how difficult that is. So the status quo I think is not defensible.

We should be prepared to have an open mind about reform, but it will be based not on the principle that the first thing you do is cut people's benefits. You should never do that. So that's the last resort. What you should do is provide the active help and support to get those people back to the labour market. And I think if you do it that way it's the right sort of values, I think you can win this debate and we've got to win this debate because it's very important for our economy and our country.

ANDREW MARR: And when you get into this debate tomorrow you'll have Gordon Brown sitting beside you. What's your message to people like Alan Millburn and Charles Clarke who are clearly wanting more of a debate, wanting a leadership contest of a proper nature?

JOHN HUTTON: Well I think there should be a debate and I think that's healthy and in fact a normal thing for political parties to engage in. I mean I'm delighted that the Chancellor will be there tomorrow.

I think it's very important that the government signals a very clear direction of travel on welfare reform because it is fundamental to the kind of decent fair society that we believe in, where everyone has the opportunity to share in rising national prosperity. But look, there's going to be debates about policy and I think that's a perfectly healthy thing.

ANDREW MARR: Would you like to see a proper contest? Would you like to see a sort of character like David Milliband or John Reid or whoever, you know, actually take on the Chancellor?

JOHN HUTTON: I think a contest could be a healthy thing in our democracy and certainly it could be a healthy thing for our party. But I think whether there will be a contest or not, I mean that's clearly for others to decide, it's certainly not down to me to decide.

ANDREW MARR: And let me ask you finally, what I asked Jack Straw right at the beginning. Do you at least understand the anxiety of people when they read about this injunction this morning, that the same person who sits in Cabinet alongside the Prime Minister on something so intensely political, is able to act in a legal way against media organisations?

JOHN HUTTON: The Attorney General hasn't acted against the BBC. I mean the Attorney General went to court and the judge decided that there should be an injunction.

That's what I understand the process has been. So this has been a proper due process here, the judge has made the decision not the Attorney General. The Attorney General doesn't make decisions in these cases, he represents arguments.

ANDREW MARR: But he's a powerful man representing an argument in two different ways. You don't understand any of the anxiety about the way this happens?

JOHN HUTTON: Well I think there would be anxiety if the Attorney General had made a decision but he hasn't made a decision, the judge has made a decision in the proper way and I'm sure the BBC were there to argue their case legally as well.

ANDREW MARR: I suspect they were. John Hutton, thank you very much indeed for joining us.


NB: this transcript was typed from a recording and not copied from an original script.

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

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