Page last updated at 11:54 GMT, Friday, 25 January 2008

Profile: James Purnell

James Purnell
Mr Purnell held several political positions before becoming an MP

One of the fastest-rising stars in the Labour firmament, James Purnell has been handed one of the biggest jobs in government - with the biggest budget in Whitehall - at the age of just 37.

He takes over the work and pensions brief from Peter Hain, who has quit to clear his name after police launched an investigation into donations to his failed Labour deputy leadership bid.

Mr Purnell is one of a close-knit group of young ministers promoted into cabinet by Gordon Brown - including his former flatmate Andy Burnham, who takes over his old job as culture secretary.

He already has a solid track-record of policy-making both in and outside Parliament.

As a junior culture minister he steered through 24-hour pub licensing and is thought to have resisted plans to reverse the policy.

Fake picture row

He also modernised tax breaks for the film industry and was involved in the relaxation of gambling laws.

The doctored photo into which James Purnell (right) was added
Mr Purnell (right) was superimposed on a picture of a hospital photocall

But his first big statement on being promoted to culture secretary was to announce Mr Brown's decision to halt plans for a super casino - a U-turn Downing Street insisted was made in consultation with Mr Purnell.

In September he warned the TV industry to "get their house in order" after a series of "fake" scandals.

But shortly afterwards, he found himself in embroiled in a fakery row of his own after it emerged his image had been electronically inserted into a group photograph of dignitaries celebrating a hospital project.

His department admitted later it had received an email telling it about the superimposed image before it was sent to the press but that the message had not been shown to the secretary of state. Mr Purnell denied all knowledge.

More recently, Mr Purnell made headlines with plans for a shake-up of arts funding, with more emphasis on innovation rather than audience size.

He also floated the idea of ending the BBC's monopoly on the licence fee, by handing some of the cash to other public service broadcasters.

Blair adviser

The unmarried son of an accountant and a teacher, Mr Purnell was born in Guildford, Surrey, and partly educated in France, at the prestigious Lycee International School, at St Gerrain en Laye.

He studied philosophy, politics and economics at Balliol College, Oxford, while working as a researcher for a pre-Labour leadership Tony Blair.

His first job was as a consultant at Hydra Associates, followed by a research fellow position at the Institute for Public Policy Research think-tank.

He went to work for the then BBC director-general - and later Downing Street adviser - John Birt, rising to be head of corporate planning.

This was followed by four years as Tony Blair's special adviser on the media.

A former Islington councillor, he became one of Labour's youngest MPs at 2001 general election when, at the age of 31, he won the safe seat of Stalybridge and Hyde.

He served his apprenticeship in the Treasury, as an aide to minister Ruth Kelly, at the Cabinet Office and as a junior whip.

In 2006, he switched to the pension reform brief, where his energy and commitment won plaudits from industry - a reputation he will hope to build on as the head of the DWP.

He was named Which? Consumer Champion of the Year for developing the national pensions saving scheme.

A keen footballer and Arsenal fan, he played in the same team as Mr Burnham: Red Menace and its successor Demon Eyes.

He also lists cinema, theatre and golf among his leisure interests - he was among backbench MPs who lobbied the EU over the Premiership's TV deal.

Mr Purnell also chaired the Labour Friends of Israel group in 2002/03.


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