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David_Blunkett

David Blunkett

David Blunkett (born 6 June 1947) is a British Labour Party politician and has been Member of Parliament for Sheffield Brightside since 1987. Blind since birth and from a poor family in one of Sheffield's most deprived districts, he rose to become Education Secretary from 1997 to 2001, and then Home Secretary from 2001 to 2004, when he resigned after a scandal. Following the 2005 General Election he was appointed Secretary of State for Work and Pensions but was again forced to resign on 2 November 2005 after a series of reports about his external business interests during his brief time outside the cabinet.

Early life

Born in Sheffield, South Yorkshire, England, Blunkett grew up in an underprivileged family and in 1959, he endured a family tragedy when his father was killed in an industrial accident in which he fell into a vat of boiling water while at work as a foreman for the East Midlands Gas Board and died a month later. This left the surviving family in poverty, especially since the board refused to pay compensation for two years because he was working past retirement age (67).

Blind since birth, and educated at schools for the blind in Sheffield and Shrewsbury, Blunkett's chances in life seemed limited. Following his father's death, he was sent on assessment to the School for the Blind in Worcester (New College Worcester), where he failed to gain entry. His failed assessment is said to be partly deliberate, due to his rebellious nature and dislike of public schools. However, he later attended the Royal National College for the Blind in Hereford. Indeed, he was apparently told at school that one of his few options in life was to become a lathe operator. Nevertheless, he won a place at the University of Sheffield, where he gained a BA honours degree in Political Theory and Institutions; one of his lecturers was Bernard Crick. He entered local politics on graduation. He worked as a clerk typist between 1967 and 1969 and as a lecturer in industrial relations and politics between 1973 and 1981.

Local council

Blunkett became the youngest-ever councillor on Sheffield City Council, being elected in 1970 at the age of 22 whilst a teacher. He served on Sheffield City Council from 1970 to 1988, becoming Leader from 1980 to 1987 and on South Yorkshire County Council from 1973 to 1977. This was a time of decline for Sheffield's steel industry. Conservative MP Irvine Patnick coined the phrase "People's Republic of South Yorkshire" to describe the left-wing politics of its local government; Sheffield was designated as a nuclear-free zone. Blunkett became known as the leader of one of the furthest left of the Labour councils, which was regularly denounced as "loony left" by the newspapers of the right. He built up support within the Labour Party during his time as the council's leader during the 1980s and was elected to the Labour Party's National Executive Committee.

Member of Parliament

At the 1987 general election he was elected Member of Parliament (MP) for Sheffield Brightside with a large majority in a safe Labour seat. He became a party spokesman on local government, joined the shadow cabinet in 1992 as Shadow Health Secretary and became Shadow Education Secretary in 1994. Combining reforming zeal with social conservatism, he became a favourite of new party leader Tony Blair.

Education secretary

After Labour's landslide victory in the 1997 general election, he became the UK's first blind cabinet minister as Secretary of State for Education and Employment. The role of education secretary was a vital one in a government whose prime minister had in 1996 described his priority as "education, education, education" and which had made reductions in school class sizes a pledge. In the event it was higher education that proved to be the most controversial issue for Blunkett as he moved towards the imposition of tuition fees at public universities which had previously been free.

Home secretary

At the start of the Labour government's second term in 2001, Blunkett was promoted to Home Secretary, fulfilling an ambition of his. Observers saw him as a rival to Chancellor of the Exchequer Gordon Brown's hopes to succeed Blair as the next Labour Party leader and potential Prime Minister.

Being tough on immigration and asylum was important for Blunkett during his time at the Home Office. In December 2001, he controversially called for immigrants to develop a greater "sense of belonging" to Britain. In April 2002, he proposed new powers which he claimed would curb illegal immigration and unfounded claims for political asylum.

Meanwhile, his department in Sheffield was accepting immigration applications with only cursory security checks. When a whistle-blower made this public, both the whistle blower and one of Blunkett's subordinates lost their posts, but Blunkett survived.

Another controversial area for Blunkett was civil liberties, which he famously described as "airy fairy".. As Education Secretary, he had repeatedly expressed the intention that, were he to become Home Secretary, he would make the then-incumbent Jack Straw, who had been criticised for being hard-line, seem overly liberal.

On 15 January 2003, he was at the centre of controversy again when at a gathering of Asian and Black Home Office Employees in London he made a joke: "Colin Jackson succeeded, despite being Welsh". The comment caused great controversy amongst senior Welsh Nationalists but the Labour Party rallied around Blunkett and the matter was quietly dropped.

In 2003, he announced an extension of the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act, which critics condemned as a "snoopers' charter". His Criminal Justice Act 2003 reduced legal safeguards such as the right to trial by jury and double jeopardy rules. He also attempted to introduce compulsory national identity cards (initially called "entitlement cards", though this euphemism was later dropped). The aftermath of terrorist attacks in the USA was offered as a justification to pass this controversial legislation, though no compulsion to carry identity cards was planned.

These measures earned him the nickname 'Big Blunkett' from parts of the tabloid press, a reference to the Orwellian concept of Big Brother.

Lord Stevens, the Commissioner of the Metropolitan Police during Blunkett's tenure as Home Secretary, said of him "If you are ever asked to meet with Blunkett, under no circumstances should you go alone...he is a bully and a liar.

He also introduced plans to introduce criminalisation of possession of what the Government has labelled "extreme" adult pornography, in response to a request from Liz Longhurst, a move that has been criticised by anti-censorship and alternative sexuality groups, as the law will criminalise images involving consenting adults.

First resignation

During his time as Home Secretary, Blunkett had a relationship with Kimberly Fortier, the American-born publisher of The Spectator, a conservative magazine. The three-year relationship ended acrimoniously in August 2004, with Fortier choosing to return to her husband, Stephen Quinn. Fortier has since reverted to her married name.

Blair regarded it proper for Blunkett to remain Home Secretary while pursuing his pregnant former lover in the courts to ascertain paternity of her unborn child as it appeared of no relevance to his ministerial position. However, at the end of November 2004, it was alleged that Blunkett abused his position to assist his ex-lover's Filipina nanny, Leoncia "Luz" Casalme, by speeding up her residence visa application and later using his influence to ensure that she successfully obtained an Austrian tourist visa. An investigation into these allegations was launched, led by Sir Alan Budd. Shortly before Sir Alan was due to report his findings, an email emerged headed "no special favours, .. but a bit quicker". Though there was no evidence Blunkett was responsible for the email or its title, he resigned as Home Secretary on 15 December 2004, saying that questions about his honesty were damaging the government. Sir Alan's final verdict, delivered on 21 December 2004, concluded that "I believe I have been able to establish a chain of events linking Blunkett to the change in the decision on Mrs Casalme's application."

Budd admitted that the investigation was "not a straightforward matter", because few involved in it could recall the details. His report says:

I believe there are two broad possibilities: Mr Blunkett was seeking special help for Mrs Quinn's nanny (or) he was raising the case as an example of the poor performance of the Immigration and Nationality Directorate (IND). I do not have direct evidence that allows me to choose between the two possibilities.

A fax from Blunkett's office to the IND had not been found during the inquiry but Sir Alan found no evidence of an attempt to conceal or destroy evidence. Following the report's publication, he told reporters: "I have been unable to link Mr Blunkett to the sending of faxes to the IND. There must have been such a link but I have been unable to discover what its nature was."

Blunkett resigned as Home Secretary after being told in advance of Budd's findings. He said: "I want to make it clear that I fully accept the findings of Sir Alan's report, where his findings differ from my recollections this is simply due to failure on my part to recall details."

On the day that Sir Alan delivered his report, a Parliamentary standards committee led by Sir Philip Mawer also upheld a complaint against Blunkett for giving Quinn a taxpayer-funded railway ticket (reserved for MPs' spouses) to the value of £179. Blunkett had already admitted that he had broken the rules, saying that he had made an honest mistake, and repaid the sum in question.

Blunkett was not helped by a series of stinging criticisms of his Cabinet colleagues, made by Blunkett to his biographer Stephen Pollard, which became public days before he resigned. His increasingly public paternity battle (see Private life) was also believed by many to be harming his position. However, many believed that he would be able to salvage his political career.

Return to the cabinet

Following the 2005 general election Blunkett was returned to the cabinet as Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, where he faced a growing pensions crisis, although it is known Tony Blair wanted to make him the new minister for Anti-social behaviour within the cabinet at the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister but this was snubbed by John Prescott. Characteristically he was already at work on the morning of Saturday 7 May, a matter of hours after his appointment. He was to be seen the previous day (the day after the election) anxiously awaiting a telephone call from the PM during the centenary celebrations at the University of Sheffield, to which he was invited as a speaker. There he was heard to apologise for the woes of student fees he had imposed on the university. He himself had only wanted to apply them to Oxbridge, but had been overruled.

Further political trouble and second resignation

In late October 2005, David Blunkett began to feel the pressure of the media for a second time. Two weeks before the 2005 general election he took up a directorship in a company called DNA Bioscience and bought £15 000 of shares in the company.

On 31 October 2005 Blunkett was asked to explain why he had not consulted the Advisory Committee on Business Appointments regarding the directorship. Having placed the shares into an independent trust, "Mr Blunkett said he had asked his three grown-up sons from his first marriage to authorise trustees to "dispose of" the shares. They agreed to the request."

Blunkett's political opponents claimed that a conflict of interest was created by him having been director of and holding shares in a company proposing to bid for government contracts to provide paternity tests to the Child Support Agency – part of the Department for Work and Pensions, of which he was Secretary of State.

An investigation by Cabinet secretary Sir Gus O'Donnell – asked for by Prime Minister Tony Blair – found that although Blunkett had not broken the Ministerial Code by becoming a director of the company or buying its shares, he should have consulted the Advisory Committee before doing so.

However, it was revealed on 1 November that Lord Mayhew of Twysden, who chairs the Advisory Committee, had sent three letters to Blunkett reminding him to seek the committee's advice on his involvement with DNA Bioscience, which he ignored. On the same day, Sir Alistair Graham, chairman of the Committee on Standards in Public Life, said Blunkett had breached ministerial rules.

Blunkett declared that he would not be resigning, saying to a newspaper, "I have done nothing wrong." A statement by Downing Street said that the Prime Minister did not believe that Blunkett's mistake should prevent him from carrying out his job.

It also became public that Blunkett had taken two other paid jobs, one with the international Jewish charity World ORT the main focus of which is the development of hi-tech industries in Israel., and the other with Indepen Consulting, again without seeking advice from the Advisory Committee.

On 2 November, Lord Nolan, a former Chairman of the Committee on Standards in Public Life and architect of the code of conduct, was reported as having said in an interview with the Yorkshire Post, "I think he's more or less admitted that he should have followed the rules. But I think it's the fault of the Government that he has been allowed to see if he can get away with it." Lord Nolan was reported to have continued: "Blair should insist on Ministers all round obeying the rules. I think that if anyone breaks the rules they should be disciplined, otherwise there's no point having the rules." Lord Nolan agreed that this meant that Blunkett should have been dismissed or demoted by the Prime Minister.

On the same day, a scheduled appearance before a House of Commons Select Committee was cancelled at the last minute and Blunkett was summoned to a meeting at Number 10. Later that morning, a spokesman for Prime Minister Tony Blair confirmed Blunkett had resigned at the meeting, stating that his position had become untenable. In a statement, Blunkett claimed that the "lies" of those such as Max Clifford would one day be "dealt with".

John Hutton was appointed as David Blunkett's successor that day. Blunkett's children's trustees decided not to sell the shares in DNA Bioscience after all. In December 2005 it was reported that the company faces insolvency, resulting in Blunkett's shares being worth very little.

Despite his resignation from the cabinet in November, Blunkett continued to enjoy rent-free accommodation in Belgravia, London, at tax-payers' expense until he found new accommodation in mid-March 2006. He also rents a cottage on the estate of Chatsworth House. The controversy gained further press coverage later in 2006, when Tory MP Philip Davies asked when Blunkett was due to vacate the residence. Ironically, this was published only the day before the same newspaper broke the story about him vacating the house, which will now stand empty and be maintained by the government at the tax-payer's expense until another cabinet minister requires an official residence.

Backbenches

David Blunkett, who pioneered the UK government's ID cards proposals, has taken a job with Entrust, a security company which works on Spain's ID card and has formally registered an interest in the British project. He does not disclose this interest when he uses his column in the The Sun to promote the concept of ID cards .

Personal life

Blunkett divorced his wife, by whom he had three sons, in 1990. In 2004, with news of his affair with Kimberly Quinn, Blunkett asserted that he was the father of Quinn's two-year-old son, William and also perhaps of her then-unborn child. Quinn denied this, claiming that both children were her husband's. In late 2004, Blunkett began a legal challenge to gain access to William. In late December 2004, as was widely reported in the media, DNA tests confirmed that Quinn's two-year-old son, William, was Blunkett's child. On 5 March 2005 it was confirmed that Blunkett was not the father of Quinn's newborn son, Lorcan.

In 2005 there was more speculation about Blunkett's private life, this time regarding a young woman and for not disclosing free membership to an exclusive London nightclub, Annabel's. The matter with the young woman has been cleared up following a full apology from the newspaper which printed the original story and his membership at the nightclub has been forfeited.

Guide dogs

Blunkett's guide dogs – Ruby, Teddy, Offa, Lucy and most recently Sadie have become familiar characters in the House of Commons, usually sleeping at his feet on the floor of the chamber, inspiring occasional witty comments from Blunkett and his fellow MPs on both sides of the house. In one memorable incident, Lucy (a black Labrador) vomited during a speech by opposition member David Willetts . On occasions when Blunkett was guided by (ex-Prime Minister) Tony Blair the wry comment has been made: "who is guiding whom?" Another time, his (new) guide dog led him to the Conservative Party benches, to the amusement of all. . However, Blunkett's blindness does not generally arouse much comment.

The Blunkett tapes

In October 2006, David Blunkett's audio diaries were published in his book The Blunkett tapes: My life in the bear pit. The tapes detail his time as a cabinet minister until the present date, and provide insights into the workings of the Labour cabinet. They were recorded every week, and contain his view of what was happening in Cabinet at the time, alongside contemporary reflections and more recent thoughts on the events.

David Blunkett in popular culture

As a result of David Blunkett's affair with Kimberly Quinn he has been portrayed three times in dramatic or musical form. Along with the other recent dalliances associated with The Spectator, Blunkett was featured in Who's The Daddy?, a play by Toby Young and Lloyd Evans, the magazine's theatre critics, which ran at The King's Head Theatre in the Summer of 2005. The satirist Alistair Beaton wrote the television film A Very Social Secretary, for Channel 4, which was screened in October 2005. Finally, Blunkett – The Musical toured the UK during the course of Spring 2005. This work featured music by the American composer Mary Jo Paranzino; there is also a book by The Times journalist Ginny Dougary. In 2005 BBC Radio 4 had a series of comic programmes called A 15 Minute Musical, the first of which was based on David Blunkett's affair with Kimberley Quinn.

A character based on Blunkett appeared in the Canadian cartoon series Bromwell High, and a club-night called Electric Blunkett, held at the Sheffield Blind Institute, began in the summer of 2005, although its name was swiftly changed to Electric Blanket. Linda Smith once described Blunkett as "Satan's bearded folk singer". He is the topic of the song Blindness by Manchester group The Fall. He appeared on The F Word with Gordon Ramsey cooking a Shepherd's Pie on 3 June 2008.

David Blunkett in television

David Blunkett was featured on the channel five documentary series 'Banged up' in 2008. The show followed 10 teenagers sent to a fake jail for 10 days to see if it could change their criminal ways. He was involved in various ways, one of which was being on the panel when the teenagers were up for parole.

References

Bibliography

  • David Blunkett by Stephen Pollard (Hodder & Stoughton, 14 December 2004) ISBN 978-0-340-82534-1
  • Civil Society and David Blunkett: Lawyers Vs. Politicians by Kenneth Minogue (Civitas, 2002) ISBN 978-1-903386-22-4
  • Politics and Progress: Renewing Democracy and a Civil Society by David Blunkett (Demos, 2001) ISBN 978-1-84275-024-7
  • On a Clear Day by David Blunkett and Alex MacCormick (Michael O'Mara Books, 1995) ISBN 978-1-85479-741-4
  • Democracy in Crisis: The Town Halls Respond by David Blunkett and Keith Jackson (Hogarth Press, 1987) ISBN 978-0-7012-0777-9
  • The Blunkett Tapes: My life in the bear pit by David Blunkett (Bloomsbury, 16 October 2006) ISBN 978-0-7475-8823-8

External links

Resignation as Home Secretary

Further political trouble

Pay off for leaving the Cabinet – then coming back...

Paternity battle

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