The Minister for Pensions who doesn’t know his future

March 01 2015

When Steve Webb won the old Northavon Seat for the Lib Dems in 1997, he probably never expected one day to become part of the Government, let alone a minister.

No limo - Steve Webb walks to the  House from Whitehall

When Steve Webb won the old Northavon Seat for the Lib Dems in 1997, he probably never expected one day to become part of the Government, let alone a minister.  Yet he’s found himself able to tackle one of his passions - pensions, and receiving plaudits for his work.  With the election looming, it could soon be a memory.  Richard Drew went to meet him in Whitehall.

I’d already had the tour of Westminster.  Steve Webb’s parliamentary researcher, Glyn, had met me and shown me all the historic splendour the Houses of Parliament could muster.  
They included the ornate and ancient chapel and the Great Hall - a towering and draughty former royal palace, which in days gone by was a venue for great trials, including that of Guy Fawkes
But to take the short walk up the road to the offices of the Department for Work and Pensions is to be brought back into the 21st Century with a jolt.  The open plan office space could be any company in the country, and Steve Webb’s modest office, sealed off behind frosted glass, could belong to any manager.  The only hint that this is the home for the Minister for Pensions is the red ministerial briefcase.
When I catch up with him, he’s already into a busy afternoon.  First up is a meeting with a businessman and his MP to talk about company pension schemes.  Held on sofas in the corner of his office over cups of tea, it’s not as formal as you might expect, and by the end of it Webb has agreed on a plan of action to try and help.
The main business of the day lies ahead though.  He’s off to the dispatch box to lead a debate that will confirm proposed pension and benefit rate rises for next year.  Before that he has time to sign some ‘Statutory Instruments’ making into law changes to the rules around private pensions.  That done, he has some time to have a chat with me.
From when Webb first arrived in Parliament until 2010, he was a backbench Lib Dem MP with no prospect of getting any grip on the levers of power.  “You learnt the ropes” he told me, “you prodded and probed, you raised issues, you got publicity for things, but you couldn’t deliver stuff.”
That all changed with the coalition agreement.  All of a sudden he was Pensions Minister, a job that up to then was a bit of a poisoned chalice: “When I took over in 2010, I’d had 10 predecessors in the previous 13 years, so the average tenure was 13 months or so.  So when I started in 2010 I had no idea I’d have 5 years of this”.
He would have seemed to have done a half decent job too, earning plaudits for his reforms, including the accolade of ‘Minister of the Year’ in 2014 from the Spectator magazine.  Hanging up in the corner of the office is a West Ham United shirt with ‘3 million’ printed on the back.  It turns out that the groundsman at Upton Park was the 3 millionth person to have been signed up to a pension scheme by their employer.  That figure now stands at 5 million.
You would expect a politician to blow his own trumpet, but Steve Webb seems genuinely delighted by the progress he’s made in this parliament; “If you’d said to me changing state pensions, making them - in my view - fairer for women and so on, stuff I’d talked about in opposition for years, that I’d actually get the chance to do it, so white papers, green papers, bills, take it through Parliament and implement it, I’d have killed for that frankly”.
His elevation to Government has made constituency work more difficult.  Webb has a reputation as a man who works hard for the area, and says he enjoys being back in South Gloucestershire every Friday; “you find yourself sitting face to face with people and if the system isn’t working or the Government has made a decision, you have to eyeball people”.
The problem is that being part of the government can make it harder to represent your voters.  He told me; “2010 was a bit of a shock really.  The great thing for me is that I have to work in a very different way.  People ask me, why don’t you ask a question of the Prime Minister; I can’t, I’m part of the Government.  The House of Commons is there to scrutinise the Government - I’m part of the Government.  I can’t table questions, I can’t do early day motions, all the things that I used to do, I can’t do any of them.  The challenge to me is how to use the new role I have to do it, but do it differently”.
Webb is quietly spoken, engaging and bookish.  His real passion is attention to detail, something that served him well, even before he made it to parliament.  He worked at the Institute of Fiscal Studies before becoming a Professor of Social Policy at Bath University.  In Whitehall, you get the feeling he is a rare breed of minster that understands his brief as well as his civil servants.
It’s soon time to head back over to the House of Commons for his debate.  I was rather hoping to hitch a ride in the back of a ministerial limo, but as Webb tells me whilst waiting for the lift, his wheeled briefcase by his side, that is a thing of the past.  It was decided, given the austerity measures being dished out to everyone else, that the luxury of a limo really couldn’t be justified.
Instead we walk back to the Commons at a brisk pace in the bright winter sunshine, dodging the tourists.  Sometimes this has to become a jog if the division bell has rung and he needs to get back within 8 minutes for a vote.
Although he now has years of experience, he tells me he still gets a bit nervous at the dispatch box; “I do a bit and I think you always should to be to be honest.  It is the House of Commons, and it’s funny really because there will be hardly anyone there; it will be deserted this afternoon.  We will be spending 3 billion quid and if there are ten people there I will be surprised”.  
Sure enough, by the time Webb gets to the dispatch box there are 15 MP’s still there.  During the session it comes close to single figures, but Webb still has to be on his toes as he takes on the opposition spokesman.
Political points traded, proposals passed, we meet up again in the ornate central hall that links the Commons to the Lords.  With the general election just a matter of weeks away, and Parliament about to be dissolved, he will be on the campaign trail.  His young Conservative rival, Luke Hall, will be looking to unseat him at the polls, and given the Lib Dem’s travails in the polls nationally he know he will have to work hard.
I asked him if he enjoyed the uncertainty of his profession. “Well, I’ve got a mortgage to keep”, he tells me laughing, “10 year parliaments would be better from my point of view, but it’s an occupational hazard really.  It will be the fifth time I’ve stood so you kind of get used to it really”.
Earlier I had asked him if he’d be on his ministerial sofa in a few months time.  Another laugh, another sanguine reply; “It would take a particular set of circumstances for that to happen, so the odds must be against, but you never know really.”
It’s a strange irony really, the man who makes sure people are prepared financially for the future doesn’t really know what he’ll be doing in three months time.