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Tribute to Frank Field – by Bernard Jenkin

Frank Field: 16 July 1942 – 23 April 2024 | Image by: PA Images / Alamy Stock Photo

4 min read

A man of integrity and independence of mind, the former MP for Birkenhead changed the way we think about welfare. With over 40 years of fearless service in Parliament, we have lost one of the greatest in Frank Field

For someone who only ever was a minister of state for little more than a year, it is extraordinary how much influence Frank Field had. He changed the way we think about welfare. He became one of the MPs most recognised by the public in the street, because of the way he brought his integrity and independence of mind to bear on everything he did, along with a sharp and amused sense of life’s ironies. He always laughed a lot and was fun to be with.

It was a joy to serve under him as chair of the Social Security Select Committee in my first parliament 30 years-ago, and we quickly became firm friends. He was one of the first fearlessly to tackle the dependency culture that much of welfare had created, but not with any blame for those trapped on benefits. When a single mother came to his surgery to complain she could not afford to take employment without hiding her extra income, to avoid being worse off, he responded, “You must do what is best for your children.” Iain Duncan Smith, also a member of the committee, co-wrote a No Turning Back Group Paper, Who Benefits? with me and others, which laid the foundation thinking for Universal Credit (UC). Frank did not like UC because of his belief in more universality and less means testing, but he welcomed that UC makes work more attractive than benefits.

His committee tackled the Maxwell pensions scandal, exposed the huge unfunded state pension liabilities, and majored on pensions reform. He was eager to learn from other countries, like radicalised New Zealand, or General Pinochet’s pension reforms, which had helped to transform the Chilean economy. The BBC tried to caricature the committee’s visit to South America as some kind of freebie jaunt for MPs. They picked on the wrong guy. Frank was not keen on travelling, but he could hardly be more scrupulous with public money. They had to apologise.

Frank had many, diverse friends, but politically he was a loner. Though respected by many Labour MPs, he was a fish out of water in the Labour Party and too principled to make the compromises demanded by the Whitehall machine. He fell out with Tony Blair, who knew Frank should have been secretary of state and would not back his vision. On the day he resigned, I called him from the House of Commons to warn that No 10 was briefing he would be sacked, so he got his resignation in first. The final bust up with Gordon Brown was about stopping the abolition of the 10p tax rate.

Those who worked closely with him will miss him the most

He published his political memoirs, Politics, Poverty and Belief, in 2023. It's possibly true he should have been a Conservative MP, but I doubt he would have been any less of a loner on our side of the House. I took him to dinner in a Tory club in St James’. Someone exclaimed “My God! There’s a Labour MP in here!” and he retorted, “I was a Conservative but you threw me out for opposing South African apartheid.”

The Conservative he most admired was Mrs T (as he always called her). They had so much in common: a religious upbringing (though it is a myth they prayed together), ingrained with the work ethic, grammar school education, and a fierce appreciation of moral values. They were both unionists and euro-sceptics. He had no fear of her, but they got on so well because he knew how to handle her. Lobbying for his local shipyard, he wanted the prime minister to make a visit. A meeting arranged after a vote, he waited outside the government lobby. She looked at him, and then walked on. He said he asked, “Shall I just follow you?” and she had replied, “People do, you know.” He then told her “they won’t let you come because of the security problems on Merseyside”. She retorted that nothing would stop her.

Those who worked closely with him will miss him the most. Always supportive and concerned about the wellbeing of others, he took an interest in everyone – becoming a favourite for Sunday kitchen suppers with our two boys. When returning the hospitality, we found him cooking an elaborate dinner himself. He explained, “There is nothing more precious you can give to others than your time.”

Sir Bernard Jenkin is Conservative MP for Harwich and North Essex

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