Saturday, November 15, 2008

Two cheers for pirouetting Purnell

The government was as all over the place over the post office contract as it was over Baby P - but at least they got there in the end. Here's today's Journal column.

It is easy to become cynical about politicians, especially when you've been following their activities for as long as I have. But just occasionally, they can surprise us all and do something right.

It is true they hardly covered themselves with glory this week over the Baby P tragedy, although I'm not sure which of Gordon Brown or David Cameron was more culpable in that regard.

The Tories have spent most of the week trying to blame Mr Brown for allegedly trying to turn the case into a "party political issue," with the implicit suggestion that he doesn't care about the dead child.

For my part, I think if Mr Cameron was so keen to take a non-partisan approach to the issue, he could have chosen a less highly-charged arena in which to raise it than Prime Minister's Questions.

But to be fair to our Westminster masters, they partially redeemed themselves with the announcement of a lifeline to 3,000 post offices under threat of closure, on top of the 2,500 which are already due to close by the end of the year.

For some years, it has been apparent that wherever this government's priorities lay, they certainly did not lie with preserving essential services to isolated or rural communities.

I could list numerous examples of this from the gradual demise of village schools to the trend towards distant super-hospitals, but its apparent willingness to allow village post offices to go to the wall is perhaps the most emblematic.

Which is why Work and Pensions Secretary James Purnell's decision on Thursday was as unexpected as it was welcome.

Ministers have decided that the £200m-a-year contract to handle benefit and pension payments - known as the Post Office Card Account - will not after all be handed over to a private sector provider.

Instead, the Post Office will continue to run the card account which distributes benefits to 4.3 million claimants.

Mr Purnell told MPs he would do "nothing to put the network at risk" and that the contract was "central to the viability of the network."

It guarantees the contract until at least March 2015 with what Mr Purnell called "the possibility of an extension beyond that".

Perhaps one of the reasons the announcement caught my eye was because, a few months back, I wrote in this column that "real Labour governments don't close local post offices."

In the light of this, it would be nice to view the decision as further evidence that Mr Brown's administration is rediscovering some sense of moral purpose, though the truth may be more prosaic.

Almost certainly, it had more to do with the impact of the financial crisis and the need to ensure that the people's money is handled by a trusted organisation.

Mr Purnell himself hinted at this in his statement, saying: "The circumstances have changed because of the current financial situation. It means that people are even more reliant on the Post Office than before."

The Tories are certainly in no doubt. Shadow Business Secretary Alan Duncan called the contract announcement "a humiliating climbdown for the government, who have done everything they possibly can to find a way of awarding it to somebody else."

There is possibly something in that, given Mr Purnell's own performance in a Lib Dem-inspired Commons debate last Monday.

The Work and Pensions Secretary insisted there would be "due process" in relation to the award of the contract, and Labour MPs duly trooped through the lobbies to defeat a Lib Dem call for the tendering process to be abandoned.

Yet 72 hours later he was back in the Commons announcing that he done precisely that, prompting one commentator to call it the "Purnell Pirouette."

If the truth be told, the government has been a bit all over the place on the issue

It was a not dissimilar story with Baby P, with the initial refusal to hold an inquiry into Haringey Council's handling of the case swiftly reversed by Children's Secretary Ed Balls.

All in all, it is hard to disagree with the verdict of the Lib Dems' work and pensions spokeswoman Jenny Willott.

"This could all have been avoided if, as the Liberal Democrats have long argued, the Post Office Card Account had never been put out to tender in the first place," she said.

But if the U-turn was, in any sense, a nod to traditional Labour values, it was ironic to see former Hartlepool MP Peter Mandelson taking a key hand in it.

He of course is the man who has been most closely associated with trying to get the Labour Party to behave more like the Tories in their general attitude to the private sector.

Yet Mr Mandelson - or someone acting on his behalf - had clearly briefed the Sunday papers last weekend that there might be some good news in the offing for the Post Office this week.

The Prince of Darkness has certainly not lost his eye for a good headline in his time away from UK domestic politics.

But in the final analysis, the point is that no matter how we got here, the right result has, for once, been achieved.

People in rural Northumberland whose post offices may now remain open where once they faced closure will not worry too much about the motives behind the government’s change of heart.

Whether it was a case of principle or pragmatism, what's important is that a vital social service is now set to be preserved, at least in some areas.

Surely our political leaders deserve at least two cheers for that?

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Anonymous said...

Purnell posted his views.

Anonymous said...

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