April 25, 2024 - 7:40am

Frank Field, who has died aged 81, had an ascetic, almost monastic aura. Beneath that, the man himself was quite different. I came to see this when I had the privilege of working with him during my time as Harriet Harman’s special adviser in the Department of Work and Pensions.

Frank, who had been a lifelong backbencher and rose to be the Chair of the Social Security Select Committee, revelled in ministerial office when he was brought into government in 1997 by Tony Blair. He loved his grand office — a large room in Richmond House with wood panelling and Grinling Gibbons carvings — and plundered the Government Art Collection for the painters he loved.

He also particularly enjoyed the fact that his predecessor as minister of state had built up rather a fine wine cellar, telling me that “it would be a shame to waste it, wouldn’t it, John?” There was one occasion when David Miliband came over to a meeting in the department. “It’s six o’clock”, Frank opened, “Shall we have a glass of wine?” I will treasure forever the puritanical look that then came across David’s face.

Famously, Frank’s task was to “think the unthinkable” on welfare. In the end, he “thought the undoable” — with the Treasury vetoing the scale of spending his plans required. Meanwhile, Harriet “did the unthinkable” by being forced to cut lone parent benefits. This crass saving of £55 million to fit within the Tory spending plans that New Labour inherited caused one of the largest Parliamentary revolts in Labour history, damaged Harriet politically, and was soon bought out by nearly £1.5 billion of extra spending as Gordon Brown sought to rebuild the government’s reputation.

This was the problem of New Labour welfare reform in a nutshell: Frank was commissioned to write a Green Paper by Tony but his Chancellor had already decided that tax credits were going to be the programme. Frank’s ideas were always going to need extra spending during the transition to a new system, but the finances had already been earmarked by Gordon.

What was lost in that process was the distinctive moral tone of his language. He pithily stated that welfare should reward work, incentivise savings, and discourage dishonesty. These were refreshing views, but hard to enact when reforming an existing system rather than starting a new one from scratch.

Perhaps Frank was better employed as a critic of the existing system, as he was from 1987 to 1997 in his role on the Social Security Select Committee and again from 2015 to 2019 as Chair of the Work and Pensions Select Committee.

He loved his constituency of Birkenhead, where he was elected in 1979, and with the support of Neil Kinnock he survived an attempt by the Militant tendency to deselect him early in the next decade. When he left the Labour Party it was by his own volition, resigning the whip in 2018 by stating that Labour was “increasingly seen as a racist party”. Frank sat as an independent and then stood for the Birkenhead Social Justice Party, losing in the 2019 general election. He drifted further from Labour over the issue of Brexit and sat in the House of Lords as a crossbencher until his death.

Journalists said of Frank that he was “good copy”, and as a minister he could be good fun in the Commons. Asked a multi-part question by a foolish Tory MP, Frank leapt to the dispatch box and rapidly replied, “Yes, no, and maybe. But not necessarily in that order.”

Those of us who knew him encountered a good man who was always entertaining company, but his impact stretches much wider. One of his lasting legacies is the Child Poverty Action Group (CPAG), of which he was the first director from 1969 to 1979. The organisation remains the most powerful and influential voice on poverty in the UK to this day.

It is increasingly rare for a politician to be so independent-minded and so loved by his opponents. British politics will be poorer without him.

John McTernan is a British political strategist and former advisor to Tony Blair.