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Frank Field

Lives: Westminster.

Born: July 16, 1942.

Age: 61.

Education and qualifications: St Clement Danes Grammar School, Economics and politics at Hull University.

Career to date: Director of the Child Poverty Action Group 1969-1979, director of Low Pay Unit 1974-1980, MP for Birkenhead since 1979, chairman of social security select committee 1990-1997, minister for welfare reform 1997-1998.

Career ambition: To continue to represent Birkenhead.

Life ambition: To remain happy.

Likes: Reading, ecclesiastical architecture.

Dislikes: Spin – “something the Government is in danger of being engulfed in”.

Fellow MPs say: “Having left ministerial office, it would have been easy to have lost passion but, if anything, he is more determined to see reform. He is not afraid to say what he thinks and is not concerned with how popular it is. We need more like him.”

Car: None.

When it comes to pensions, the Government has few more vociferous critics than the quietly spoken, parson-like figure of Frank Field and the chorus of condemnation of the accelerating trend from final-salary pensions to money-purchase pensions has thrust the Labour MP back into the front line.

Field warns that there are more people in occupational pension schemes than voted for Labour in the last election and believes the current atmosphere of crisis will force a Government rethink. If it does not, he believes most of the final-salary schemes will have disappeared by the end of the year, with massively damaging electoral consequences.

Millions of letters will be going out this year telling people that they are not going to get the pension they thought they would. He says: “What has happened to people&#39s pensions is equivalent to saying to owner/occupiers, why are you whingeing, you have only lost the top floor of your house.”

Field is scathing at the lack of a Government response to the crisis. “Quite extraordinary – you would not know that any ministers have any interest in this topic at all.”

He is clear that what is needed is simple action rather than reviews. “Pickering should be asked to report block by block so the Government can act immediately rather than wait for some mega-report,” he says.

Field is a staunch supporter of occupational pensions, with their pooling of risk between income and age groups and employers. “Any old fool can devise pension schemes for the rich. What is not devised are pension schemes that cover the poor and lower-income groups that are viable long term. That is what is missing and that is what I put before the Prime Minister before resigning.”

Does the transfer of risk on to the individual that accom-panies the move to money-purchase schemes necessitate access to advice? “No,” he says firmly, “they need the restitution of company schemes.”

As for stakeholder, Field thinks its only legacy, although an important one, will be lower charges. “Thank goodness they are not being sold to the target group,” he says.

Despite pioneering many of the ideas of New Labour, his own tenure at the start of Blair&#39s Government as welfare minister was short and unhappy. “Leaving the Government was less bruising than staying there and having no influence,” he says.

Field doggedly adheres to his own proposal, the universal protected pension, launched late last year by the Pensions Reform Group which he chairs, pointedly claiming that the Government would not be in its present mess if it had chosen to take that route.

Field entered a House of Commons dominated by Margaret Thatcher in 1979 and says it was just like being back at economic lectures at Hull University where he studied except that it was all for real.

With wry humour, he attributes his outspokenness to his grammar school education at St Clement Danes, close to his family home in Chiswick, West London. “Grammar schools train you to answer the question.” He chuckles and adds: “This is compared with public school boys, who have a more, erm, rounded approach.”

The incongruous combination of the modest, self-effacing figure he cuts and his outspoken, unorthodox views is not lost on his colleagues. While being photographed in the atrium of the MPs&#39 new building in Westminster, a fellow Labour MP passes and jests: “Careful now, Frank, you might become famous”.

Field is a fan of Economic Secretary Ruth Kelly, describing her as the most talented of junior ministers who understands the issues and does no simply read out what the civil servants give her to recite. He thinks we will learn more about the Government&#39s position on annuities from her presence on the committee scrutinising David Curry&#39s Private Member&#39s Bill than its own paper, Modernising Annuities.

Field says the way the Government has outsourced much of its work to outside authorities is at the root of many problems. He says: “You get the FSA, this mega-powerful body – its word is in fact the power of law.” His typically acid response: “Start the bonfire on regulation.”

He also believes the FSA and other regulators should be supervised by dedicated Parliamentary committees.

His preoccupation with pensions is also informed by his Anglican faith. “The great thing about the Anglican Church is that it knows how much religion the English will take – which is not very much.”

He sees one of the major achievements of the rethinking of the centre left is the reintroduction of the concept of original sin. “For years, the centre left had a perception of people as without blemish so you had a welfare state which probably would have been hard to sustain in the Garden of Eden. You cannot write self-interest out of the equation. The electorate in its wisdom was not going to let us anywhere near the levers of power while we had such an absurd idea of human nature.”

Field is grateful to the archbishops for asking him to chair the Churches&#39 Conservation Trust, which he describes as a wonderful job to look after 350 “mega-buildings”. In a typical yet unlikely fashion, mega is clearly a favourite word.

He approaches his work with almost missionary zeal but what does he do when not working? “Read. Very few novels, though.” You get the impression that there is very little that Field does that does not feed into political life.

Getting pensions right is one of the great prizes of home politics, he says. He adds that if politicians are not careful, the collapse of class-based politics could be replaced by age-based politics and while the chance of reaching that prize died when he left Government, Field is not going to let pensions go.


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