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The value of experienced ministers: Lord Willetts reviews 'Clashing Agendas'

Political longevity: Lord Freud at the Conservative Party Conference, Birmingham, 2010 | Alamy

3 min read

A fascinating account of modern British government, Lord Freud’s book is an important reminder of how much experienced ministers can achieve

There is a small select group of ministers who stay long enough in a department to make a real difference in a key area of policy – Steve Webb in pensions or Nick Gibb in schools for example. David Freud belongs to that select group. Chris Mullin has created an amusing but pessimistic narrative around the frustrations and powerlessness of the junior minister as dogsbody. This book is an important reminder of how much can be achieved, as it tracks his long engagement with universal credit, from its first formulation when he was an adviser to Conservatives in opposition, to its successful operation during the Covid crisis. His extraordinary score when he stood down of 3,331 spoken contributions in the Lords as minister for welfare reform is testament to his political longevity.

His book is a fascinating account of modern British government. His worst moment was when he blundered into then the media spotlight with a misinterpreted remark about the “worth” of disabled people, and he conveys what it was like briefly to be at the eye of the storm. His frustrations with the Government Digital Service will strike a chord with many ministers who had to deal with it. And there are criticisms of counter-productive grandstanding by the PAC and the NAO, which ought to be taken to heart.

I would have welcomed more analysis of what the Treasury was after and why

The civil servants he worked with get proper recognition. Sometimes they fail but there are others who display real competence and energy. The key factor for them as for ministers is having long enough in the job to build up real understanding of the issues. During my four plus years as minister for universities and science I was shocked at how rapidly my special adviser and I became the institutional memory, as everybody moved on. 

The Treasury looms over everything, of course, with continuous negotiations on welfare cuts which only come to an end when Iain Duncan Smith resigns and the government’s position becomes that there will be no further welfare savings. I would have welcomed more analysis of what the Treasury was after and why. Some of it was a particular hostility to working age benefits, which has ended up tilting the welfare state towards pensioners. But there was more to it than that. The designers of universal credit (UC) liked straight lines. They wanted a long straight tapering of benefits at a rate of 55 per cent. That costs money, as benefit spreads higher up the income scale. Squeezing a high rate of withdrawal into a narrow part of the income scale is not as silly as the advocates of UC believed. How important has UC been in our jobs performance?

The final chapter looks forward to the key social policy issues which need to be tackled now UC has bedded in. It is rather similar to the list that existed before UC. We still need to tackle underlying issues which have long dogged the welfare state. With his hard-won wisdom David Freud might be turned to again.

Lord Willetts is a Conservative peer and president of the Resolution Foundation

Clashing Agendas: Inside the Welfare Trap by David Freud, is published by Nine Elms Books

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