By Joshua.Chambers

09 May 2011

Labour MP Anne Begg was press-ganged into becoming an expert on benefits, but has since learnt to love the topic. She enthuses to Joshua Chambers about her role as chair of the work and pensions select committee

Dame Anne Begg is in a wheelchair. It is important to get this observation out of the way, because journalists have previously read far too much into it.

On becoming an MP in 1997, Begg explains, she was immediately pestered by members of the press for her opinion on Incapacity Benefit changes. “Why should I know about Incapacity Benefit?” she would respond, and the journalist would inevitably then say: “Because you’re disabled.”

As it happened, Begg “knew nothing about social security”, she recalls, but eventually she “learned about it because the press kept phoning me up about it… I couldn’t get them off my back”. After a while, she started to enjoy studying the area; she explains that “once you learn to get to grips with a very complex policy area, it becomes fascinating.” Begg joined the work and pensions select committee in 2001, and was elected its chairman last June.

A month before she took charge of the committee, the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) had ushered in a new ministerial team with a clear set of plans for major policy reforms. In opposition, new secretary of state Iain Duncan Smith established the Centre for Social Justice (CSJ), which argues for wholesale changes to the welfare system. Meanwhile, pensions minister Steve Webb has “wanted for most of his life to create a simplified state pension system”, Begg explains. Even one of the two special advisers, former CSJ chief Philippa Stroud, has a detailed understanding of the brief – a rarity in government.

DWP’s new team immediately began to implement changes to the welfare system which make the last governments’ efforts look like mere tinkering. “Almost everything within the remit is up for reform; and if it’s not up for reform, things like the Health and Safety Executive are facing major cuts in their spending,” Begg says, reeling off an almost endless number of changes. To start with, income-related benefits are being consolidated into a single ‘Universal Credit’. Meanwhile, Incapacity Benefit is being transformed and the government is increasing the rate of medical assessments, with the intention of shifting hundreds of thousands of people from Incapacity Benefit onto Jobseeker’s Allowance. Many more changes are also afoot – such as reforms to housing and disability allowances – and all must be completed within an “incredibly ambitious” timescale, she explains.

It is difficult for Begg’s committee to keep track of these changes, let alone scrutinise them all. “We can’t cover everything – and I haven’t even mentioned pensions or child support yet – because suddenly there are green papers everywhere,” she chuckles. Who’s scrutinising these plans and making sure they all make sense, then? “That’s part of our job, and we can’t possibly do it all,” she replies.

The quantity of reforms is not the only problem for the committee; it’s hard to assess the the Welfare Reform Bill – which is introducing the Universal Credit and reforming housing and disability benefits – because many of the details are being left to secondary legislation. “Some of it is still being worked through, and from the government’s point of view, a lot of it is a framework, an enabling legislation, and the detail will come through regulation. When is that regulation going to get the parliamentary scrutiny it has to have?” she asks, adding: “That’s the difficulty we have as a committee. How do we analyse something when the government hasn’t made up its mind? And how can we get people’s reaction to what the government’s proposing when the government hasn’t made up its mind?”

Her concerns are shared by others in the field, Begg says: “I know that a number of stakeholder groups are finding it difficult to keep up and respond to everything that’s happening, and we’re worried that things are sneaking through without people realising”.
The changes to the welfare system are not only prompted by an ambitious ministerial team; spending cuts have taken their toll, and are exacerbating the scale and pace of change.

Negotiations between the Treasury and DWP were reportedly heated before the spending review; Begg thinks the Treasury came out on top. “I don’t think you can say it’s a good settlement. There’s £18bn coming out of the benefits system, and that’s out of working-age benefits,” she says. “That’s a lot to strip out of one department in a very short time.”

Cuts are not only occurring within welfare programmes, but in the central department too. DWP has to cut 40 per cent of its central administration budget, and it is axing jobs and reorganising its structure to achieve this. “That’s inevitably a concern. There’s more to be done at the moment, and even with a consolidated Universal Credit – which ultimately may mean fewer people are required – we’re going through a transitional phase. There will need to be [enough] people to make sure that the customer service is retained,” Begg says.

The work and pensions committee has itself experienced job losses in the past year. The committee was elected before the 2010 summer recess; so when the new Labour leader appointed his frontbench team, three Labour MPs left the committee. Then two Tory members became parliamentary private secretaries, and also resigned. They were replaced, but the committee is predominantly made up of new MPs who are “still finding their feet… [and] what their role as an MP is”, Begg says. This is affecting the quality of their scrutiny: “Inevitably, when you come in as a brand new government, you’re going to think that everything your side is doing is wonderful; and when you come in as the opposition, you’re going to think the other side is dreadful,” she explains.

Begg insists this attitude will change. She is “trying very hard to make sure that the committee will hunt as a pack; will act in a non-partisan manner. Our job is to be as honest as we can, to praise where we can, but also to make sure that where we have serious concerns, they’re taken seriously by the government.” As chairman, she tries to be “robust, without being aggressive”.

In the future, Begg wants the committee to do more than just scrutinise government policies. “I’d like to look at things much more in the long term and be more proactive than reactive, but at the moment there’s just so much coming out of the department that we can only be reactive,” she says. However, when there is less to scrutinise, the committee will say: “‘Okay, here’s a policy area that nobody’s done anything on, let’s go and look at it and come up with suggestions’.”

Begg is genuinely enthusiastic about the field – remarkably so, given that she was press-ganged into it. Meandering sentences tumble from her, festooned with statistics and studded with the occasional acronym. Sitting in a slightly shabby armchair, which gives her rather grand office an air of cosy domesticity, Begg happily invites question after question without looking at her watch, expanding on many of her answers in immense detail.

Is she glad she’s ended up in the role, given that she was pushed into it? “I think that’s the story of my life. I didn’t think I would ever become an MP until folks said: ‘Why don’t you put your name forwards?’ I think I’ve always needed that level of encouragement,” she says.

So will she stick around, or could she end up being press-ganged into the shadow cabinet instead? “No, I’ve never been interested in that,” Begg says. “I’ve always thought I could do better.”

CV Highlights

1977    Graduates from the University of Aberdeen with an MA in History and Politics
1977    Begins a career in education by teaching English at Northern College, Aberdeen
1980    Joins Arbroath Academy as an English teacher
1997    Elected Labour MP for Aberdeen South
2001    Joins the work and pensions select committee
2010    Elected chair of the work and pensions select committee

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