David Blunkett’s belated decision to try to enjoy a private life has been of endless fascination to the tabloids, at the expense of what is a far more intriguing question. He now has the opportunity, given to very few politicians, to right a wrong, which, had he been any less determined, could have ruined his life.
Over 40 years ago he arrived at his sixteenth birthday with no formal educational qualifications, because his school at the time didn’t think it was worth putting him in for them, thus potentially consigning him to the extremely limited range of careers open to under-qualified blind people at the time.
He could then have been part of the statistic which saw then, and still sees, about three out of every four blind people failing to get a job at all. But as his story comes full circle, he now has the opportunity to do something radical about this. As secretary of state at the Department of Pensions, he has inherited the extremely tricky juggling act of encouraging disabled people into work, thus at the same time bringing down the cost of the government’s benefits bill, while not appearing to use coercion, or expecting people to settle for absolutely anything as long as it keeps them off the unemployment register and paying some level of tax.
On the face of it, it should be a marriage made in heaven. Although three secretaries of states have now come and gone in the past three years, Blunkett knows the territory from personal experience, and has a reputation for not flinching from grasping nettles; yet here could lie the problem. How will his personal experience play? Will he say: “I know what it’s like, to be expected to take a job below my abilities just because I can’t see”, or will he be inclined to say, as some disabled people are apt to do, “I’ve been through it; I’ve overcome the problems; we can offer some help, but it’s up to disabled people to help themselves”.
In a documentary I made on Blunkett 18 months ago, his fellow Sheffield MP Roy Hattersley claimed to detect in him an “I’ve done it, and so can you” attitude in his role as home secretary, and it’s not an unknown phenomenon in public life.
Ask the chairs of benefits tribunals who take the toughest line in appeals proceedings, and they will tell you without hesitation: other tribunal members who themselves have a disability. They often feel that their disability gives them an inherent understanding of other people “in the same boat”, however different their circumstances and temperament might be.
And there’s another reason why David Blunkett can be expected to take a tough line. The prime minister’s obsession with getting the number of people on incapacity benefit down has been obvious since he came into power. Now he has a secretary of state in place who has always been loyal to him, and who now owes him a debt of gratitude for rescuing him from the political wilderness.
I have absolutely no doubt about Blunkett’s sincere desire to help as many disabled people back to work as possible; nor do I doubt his sincere belief that they will thank him for it in the end. I just hope that the new green paper on welfare reform does not mean too many bootstraps are pulled up in the attempt; not everyone is as tough as David Blunkett, nor can they all be made so.
Peter White is disability correspondent for the BBC