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Thérèse Coffey runs a major front-line department yet is hardly ever seen on our television screens. As Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, she has administered one of the great successes in the official response to the pandemic, the extension of Universal Credit, coping at one point with an extra 100,000 claimants in a single day:

“I always think of that train scene in Wallace and Gromit, the one with the penguin, and Gromit’s on the front of the train laying down the track in front of it, and that’s how it felt like for a little while.”

In this interview she refuses to say there will be any further extension of the £20 a week uplift in Universal Credit, and instead indicates that she wishes to concentrate on promoting the DWP’s various schemes to help people get back into work:

“Big thanks to the Jabs Army, we are the Jobs Army, and I’m keen that you will see more of me, also more of my colleagues like Kwasi Kwarteng and Oliver Dowden.”

Coffey says there hasn’t been “as much interest as I would expect from local government” in the “flagship” Kickstart Scheme for placing young people in jobs.

She also discusses what it is like being a Catholic in politics, says one of her “proudest days” was when she voted against the Assisted Dying Bill, recalls seeing Tony Blair at Mass in Westminster Cathedral, and calls for an end to calling opponents “bigots”:

“People do talk about having a kinder politics. An element of a kinder politics is not calling other people with different views bigots because you don’t agree with them.

“People are bigots for calling other people bigots in a way, if that makes sense.

“It genuinely is about just accepting that other people may have different views to you. We seem to be candidly better at doing that in the Conservative Party than perhaps some of the other political parties.

“Being respectful to each other even if you completely disagree with their perspective or their viewpoints, and just accepting that people can have different views. I think politics could be a lot gentler.”

Coffey, MP since 2010 for Suffolk Coastal, is originally from Liverpool, and explains why the Conservatives have declined in that city. She remains an ardent supporter of Liverpool Football Club and ends by comparing Boris Johnson to Jurgen Klopp: “I’m a great fan of very visible leadership.”

ConHome: “What difference does your background as a scientist, your doctorate in chemistry, make to the way you operate as a politician, indeed as a senior minister? Most of your colleagues have a background in politics, economics, history, law, or, in one prominent case, the classics.”

Coffey: “I think just generally the approach of being pretty data-driven, evidence-based, analytical, good use of statistics, challenging sometimes things which people aren’t familiar with – perhaps I’m more confident, even though I don’t pretend to be a medical scientist or anything like that.

“But the ability to ask good questions is very helpful.”

ConHome: “Do you think there should be more people in the Cabinet who are scientifically literate?”

Coffey: “Well I think everybody has different strengths. You don’t need to be a scientist to be able to have that analytical ability. I’m just conscious that that’s led to a particular way of how sometimes I approach matters.

“I think it also helped, I really value my industrial experience and learning at one of the best companies in the world [Coffey worked for Mars].

“All that sort of experience we each bring as members of the Cabinet, and other people will have other life and work experiences too. So it’s the combination of strengths that help us.”

ConHome: “The uplift in Universal Credit is going to be extended for six months. Isn’t it absolutely inevitable that after that six months is over it’s going to be extended again?

“And if that’s so, why not cut out all the bother and just announce that now?”

Coffey: “I don’t think it is the case that we wanted to make sure, close discussions with the Chancellor and the Prime Minister, undoubtedly the response at the time, like a lot of the responses, what could be done quickly and effectively to support people, particularly those who we think were very much impacted by the effects of the pandemic.

“And I do think that we are in a good place, that the economy will be opening up, we have to get confidence back into the economy, back into employers to create jobs, and the investment that’s already gone into DWP and across government more broadly for the Plan for Jobs means that we’re well-placed to encourage and get people taking up those vacancies as quickly as possible.

“This has been a long time now for quite a lot of people being out of work. The furlough has kept that link, and we need to encourage employers to make sure that those people still on furlough are now being prepared to be trained, to be refreshed to get back into their workplace as soon as possible, when conditions allow them to resume their normal activities.”

ConHome: “Do you think there will be a case for an extension at the end of six months? Given the fact that unemployment will be rising.”

Coffey: “Yes I’m conscious about that. And I think that we’ve been clear about the value of this extension. I think that the Chancellor’s always said that we’ll wrap our arms around, but we do believe genuinely in economic terms the large effects of the pandemic will be over, and the investment of people into skills, to get people working again, and that training I think will be important in order to take full advantage of the vacancies that arise.

“So the decision’s been made about the up to six months extension of a variety of schemes, and we’ve got the full six-month extension for people on Universal Credit.”

ConHome: “Can you say more about what your department’s broad plans are for dealing with the unemployment challenge as it will be when lockdown is lifted, particularly for younger people coming into the labour market as they hope, people who lost their jobs immediately before the first lockdown happened.”

Coffey: “Yes, well, already across the country we’ve nearly 27,000 work coaches, we’re not far off now, we’ll have recruited our extra 13,500 by the end of the month.

“And they’re already making interactions with people who’ve been looking for work. We reintroduced Claimant Commitments last year, which is our contract on behalf of the taxpayer with the people receiving benefits.

“People are already taking advantage of more tailored support through a variety of schemes under the Plan for Jobs. So for example probably our flagship scheme is the Kickstart Scheme focussed on young people, and the intention is to have a quarter of a million Kickstart placements by the end of this year.

“And we’ve already approved over 150,000. I don’t know when we’re publishing this information, just over 6,000 young people have now started that role, since November, and we have vacancies, I think there’s over 40,000 vacancies at the moment, which we’re now starting to process with employers and the young people, to get the start.

“I think it’s fair to say that some of the sectors and some of the areas it’s been challenging for them to get the start dates agreed, because they just want to make sure it’s in line with when their sectors can open up.

“But I’m also looking into the fact, I had hoped that more councils would take up the offer of programmes like that. We haven’t had as much interest as I would expect from local government and very few people have started in local government, so that’ll be an area of emphasis.

“But it’s not just about the young people. We’ve got schemes called SWAPs, sector work-based academy programmes, where there are vacancies, employers set these schemes up with us, they get some training, they get some work experience, and they get a guaranteed job interview.

“And that’s often important for people whose sectors aren’t particularly recovering in the way we would like, and we are focussing on some of the growth sectors, or sectors where there are well-known vacancies.

“So that can be a mixture of different levels, including health and social care. We’ve got some other opportunities. There’s something called JETs. This is where people have been unemployed for a while and they get more specialist support.

And indeed something called JFS, Job Finding Support, it’s very light touch, because quite a lot of the people who’ve turned to us for help are people who haven’t had to look for a job for the last 20, 25 years, may not have a LinkedIn profile, may not have their CV quite up to date, and some of that probably just needs some finessing, and an element of confidence and interview practice.

“So we’re trying a whole series of ways in order to get people back into the habit of this, getting them ready, and then steering them, as part of their Claimant Commitment, towards jobs that are available. And we need people to keep going for those vacancies.”

ConHome: “Were you as baffled as we were that you weren’t tasked with fronting any of the daily Government press conferences over the last year?”

Coffey: “Well it’s kind of you to say that. I think the way the process worked was largely if there were announcements to be made in particular areas, and then you had some of my other colleagues, like the First Secretary of State, or the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, running the Cabinet Office, who would actually have a broader remit I suppose to make announcements on behalf of the Government.

“So I think that, I’ll be open with you, I’m quite happy to, we’ve got this enormous jobs army, as I call us now, at DWP, we’re growing to nearly 100,000 people, and you know we have the most connections with communities right around the country.

“We’re increasing the number of Job Centres by 200, so we’ll have well over 800 Job Centres. So we have enough to do, to actually deliver the day to day services that we need.

“And who knows in the future. We’ve got the press briefing starting, but the shift of the Government away hopefully from Covid and actually onto the jobs recovery.

“So big thanks to the Jabs Army, we are the Jobs Army, and I’m keen that you will see more of me, also more of my colleagues like Kwasi Kwarteng and Oliver Dowden, as we really push and bang the drum alongside the Chancellor and the Prime Minister for job creation.”

ConHome: “Last year has been full of Government successes, and frankly some Government failures. But one of the big successes has been Universal Credit.

“It’s stood up. It didn’t fall over. If it hadn’t been there, goodness knows what would have been done in terms of support. Why was it you weren’t allowed out at a press conference to talk about this?”

Coffey: “Well I think quite a lot of Government, quite rightly, citizens expect it to work. And I’m conscious that perhaps colleagues and dare I say it the commentariat might have been surprised that UC didn’t fall over.

“It took a lot of effort. I’m really proud of what our civil servants did. I have to say there was a particular day when over 100,000 claims were made and we had some really intensive work undertaken to increase the capacity of our IT, our servers.

“I always think of that train scene in Wallace and Gromit, the one with the penguin, and Gromit’s on the front of the train laying down the track in front of it, and that’s how it felt like for a little while.

“But we did cope, we did manage, we made some effective decisions, and we worked together very well, and how can I put it, it was a great success story in a way, that DWP was not in the news for it falling over.

“We’re happy to be the unsung heroes, but it’s nice to get some praise as well, and we’ve certainly been given that by the Chancellor and the Prime Minister in the last year.”

ConHome: “The manifesto commitment on the Winter Fuel Payment and the older person’s bus pass, that’s all very clear, but those payments have aroused controversy recently. Can you rule out the possibility of the age at which they’re received being raised?”

Coffey: “I haven’t been involved in any policy discussion about that. It’s not on the agenda, as far as I know.”

ConHome: “Do you think you were right, in retrospect, to vote both in 2013 and in 2019 against same-sex marriage?”

Coffey: “Well I’m a practising Catholic, we have a diversity of people and their views in Parliament, and think it’s fair to say, I’m a great believer in democracy, I’ve not sought to try and block anything further.

“But I will say the thing about the 2019 [vote], which is the Northern Ireland situation, I felt that was a devolved matter, to be dealt with by the Northern Ireland Assembly.

“As did I think you’ll find some other people who voted against that at the time, who actually support same-sex marriage, but respect devolution. I didn’t agree with the situation that forced that through, but again, I’m a democrat. The vote went through and it’s now been delivered.”

ConHome: “You’re part of the quite sizeable tribe of Tory politicians from Liverpool who don’t sit for Liverpool. Why do you think the Conservatives have basically been driven out as an electoral force, not only of Liverpool now, but the whole of Merseyside pretty much, with one exception.”

Coffey: “As you say, Southport was there, and we came close in Wirral West to regaining that in 2019. I wasn’t born there, but I grew up there, I was in a place called Formby from about six months old and then proper Liverpool if you like from the age of six, to the point that I actually had a Conservative Member of Parliament when I lived there, for a while.”

ConHome: “Who was that?”

Coffey: “I’m trying to think. Malcolm Thornton it was at one point. I know he then moved constituency to Crosby, but I don’t have entire recollection of that time.

“I think that what happened, especially when Militant took over, that’s when I got interested in politics, or I realised politics mattered, I think with the rule of Militant about 20 per cent of the population actually just left Liverpool.

“And I’m conscious that some of the economic impact there was pretty tough on the city. The issues that had happened earlier in that decade with the riots and so on.

“Candidly, other bits of the North West, like Manchester, instead of having a row with the Government, just got on with it and did better economically.

“There are several of us, as you say, from Liverpool who’ve ended up in other parts of the country. I didn’t go back after university, I got a job elsewhere in the country.

“But I’m still very fond of what I consider to be my home city, and very keen to try to make sure it does prosper, which is one of the reasons why earlier this week I was doing a fundraiser with Gillian Keegan for Jade Marsden, our candidate for the LIverpool City Region.”

ConHome: “Where are we on the Government review of women’s pensions?”

Coffey: “Well the Government’s policy has been consistent on women’s pensions. We won our latest court session, to keep the fact that we wanted to have the age of pensioners to be the same, whether a man or woman.

“However, we’re awaiting a legal process. A further appeal was made by others and we’re waiting to hear if the Supreme Court is going to take it on.”

ConHome: “Do you feel it’s tougher in any way for Catholics in politics than it was? Some Catholics say so though others disagree.”

Coffey: “I don’t know because I’ve only had ten years of experience. Probably the famous one was Alastair Campbell saying ‘we don’t do God’.

“Before I was an MP I actually remember, I think it’s the only time I’d seen Tony Blair in the flesh, I was at Mass at Westminster Cathedral and all of a sudden he appeared with his daughter, and it was quite amusing, at the shake of the hands of peace there were people clambering over the pews to shake his hand.”

ConHome: “That must have been before the Iraq War.”

Coffey: “I can’t remember when, but it can be a difficult balancing act, I appreciate that. And sometimes people of faith just have different views on certain matters.

“I’m a great believer in live and let live, and not condemning other people for choices they make or for approaches they take. I have very different views to some of my friends say on assisted suicide.

“That day, 11th September 2015, is one of the proudest days in my time as an MP, to stop that Second Reading [of the Assisted Dying Bill].

“And I’ve got friends who completely disagree with me, and that’s OK.

“People do talk about having a kinder politics. An element of a kinder politics is not calling other people with different views bigots because you don’t agree with them.

“People are bigots for calling other people bigots in a way, if that makes sense.

“It genuinely is about just accepting that other people may have different views to you. We seem to be candidly better at doing that in the Conservative Party than perhaps some of the other political parties.

“Being respectful to each other even if you completely disagree with their perspective or their viewpoints, and just accepting that people can have different views. I think politics could be a lot gentler in that way.

“How I explain it sometimes to members of the public or indeed schoolchildren is that in the Chamber, you tend to only discuss largely the things where you disagree.

“Frankly on most things, all the parties probably agree on about 70 per cent of matters.”

ConHome: “Do you have any advice for Jurgen Klopp? You’re a Liverpool supporter we believe.”

Coffey: “I’m a huge supporter of Liverpool Football Club. Clearly the impact of injuries on defenders, particularly Virgil van Diyk, has knocked confidence.

“But it’s about having self-belief, and recognising it’s only one match at a time. That’s all it takes, and I’m a great fan of Jurgen Klopp, and his enthusiasm, his visible leadership, and I’m a great fan of very visible leadership.

“And we’ve got that in bucket loads in Liverpool, and we’ve got it in bucket loads in our Prime Minister Boris Johnson as well.”

ConHome: “The Jurgen Klopp of politics.”

Coffey: “Well, you know, it’s the style that I really like.”