James Purnell

The Right Honourable
James Purnell
Secretary of State for Work and Pensions
In office
24 January 2008  4 June 2009
Prime Minister Gordon Brown
Preceded by Peter Hain
Succeeded by Yvette Cooper
Secretary of State for Culture,
Media and Sport
In office
28 June 2007  24 January 2008
Prime Minister Gordon Brown
Preceded by Tessa Jowell
Succeeded by Andy Burnham
Minister of State for Pensions
In office
5 May 2006  28 June 2007
Prime Minister Tony Blair
Preceded by Stephen Timms
Succeeded by Mike O'Brien
Member of Parliament
for Stalybridge and Hyde
In office
8 June 2001  12 April 2010
Preceded by Tom Pendry
Succeeded by Jonathan Reynolds
Islington Borough Councillor
for Canonbury East Ward
In office
5 May 1994  12 October 1995
Succeeded by Terence Herbert
Personal details
Born (1970-03-02) 2 March 1970
London, United Kingdom
Nationality British
Political party None
Other political
Labour (until 2013)
Alma mater Balliol College, Oxford

James Mark Dakin Purnell (born 2 March 1970) is a British broadcasting executive and a former politician. In late September 2016, he was appointed as the BBC's Director of Radio, and will take up his position at the end of October in addition to his other role as the BBC's Director of Strategy and Digital, a job he has held since March 2013.[1][2]

Purnell was previously a British Labour Party politician, being the Member of Parliament (MP) for Stalybridge and Hyde from the 2001 general election until the 2010 general election. He served as Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport from 2007 to 2008 and Secretary of State for Work and Pensions from 2008 until 2009. He resigned from the Government on 4 June 2009, criticising the leadership of Gordon Brown.

He became the director of the Open Left project for Demos in 2009, and Purnell chaired of the Institute for Public Policy Research[3] until 2010 and a Senior Advisor in the Public Sector practice of the Boston Consulting Group.[4] He is also a film producer, and a former Senior Producer at Rare Day,[5] who produced the film One Mile Away.

Early life

Purnell was born in the City of London; he received most of his education in France before returning to study for his A Levels at the Royal Grammar School, Guildford, and then read Philosophy, Politics and Economics at Balliol College, Oxford. While a student, he worked during summer vacations as a researcher for Tony Blair between 1989 and 1992. After graduating from Oxford University with a first class degree, he worked as a research fellow at the Institute for Public Policy Research before moving to the BBC to become its Head of Corporate Planning.

Between May 1994 and October 1995, he was a Labour councillor in Islington, representing Canonbury East ward. In 1997, Purnell returned to work as a special adviser[6] at Number 10, remaining in the post until 2001. He has also served as a consultant at Hydra Associates, a board member of the Young Vic theatre as well as of the Royal National Theatre and the British Film Institute, and as a senior advisor to Boston Consulting Group.

Member of Parliament

Purnell was selected as the Labour candidate for the seat of Stalybridge and Hyde in 2001, and won the seat in that year's general election with a majority of 8,859. While a Labour MP, he was a member of the Work and Pensions Select Committee in the House of Commons from 2001 to 2003, the Chair of the All-Party Group on Private Equity and Venture Capital between 2002 and 2003, and the Chair of Labour Friends of Israel from 2002 to 2004.[7]

In government

Purnell at the Policy Network Progressive Governance Conference 2009

In 2003, Purnell became Parliamentary Private Secretary (PPS) to Ruth Kelly in the Cabinet Office, and in December 2004 he joined the Government as a Whip in the government reshuffle following the resignation of David Blunkett.

After Labour was returned to power in the 2005 general election, he was appointed to the position of Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Creative Industries and Tourism in the Department for Culture, Media and Sport, where he was in charge of preparing the legislation that liberalised the alcohol licensing laws of England and Wales and created tax breaks for the film industry. In May 2006, he was promoted to be Minister of State for Pensions in the Department for Work and Pensions, replacing Stephen Timms.

In 2007, he was named Consumer Champion Of The Year by Which? magazine for his work on pensions. Which? cited his "commitment to consumers in the development of the national pensions saving scheme", particularly for listening to stakeholders and for his contributions to the personal accounts for low and middle earners.[8]

In June 2007, Purnell entered the Cabinet as the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport; he was its youngest member. He was promoted to Work and Pensions Secretary after the resignation of Peter Hain on 24 January 2008.

Faked photograph

In September 2007, a photograph of Purnell was faked and released by the press office at Tameside General Hospital as part of a press release for the Tameside Hospital Private Finance Initiative (PFI) rebuilding deal.[9] The Tameside Trust claimed that he agreed to the amalgamation of the two photographs[10] because he was late for the original photo call, but Purnell denied this. Tom Levitt, a Labour MP who was present for the photoshoot, stated that he and other Labour MPs deliberately left a gap for Purnell when the original photograph was taken, knowing that Purnell's image would be superimposed onto their photograph.[11]

Interest on crisis loans proposal

In December 2008, Purnell proposed charging interest on crisis loans to the unemployed and pensioners made by the Department for Work and Pensions, which were interest-free, at a rate of up to 26.8% per annum. This was met with great hostility and was blocked by the intervention of the Prime Minister, Gordon Brown.[12]

Expenses scandal

Purnell was one of many MPs involved in political difficulties following the revelations of the 2009 expenses scandal. He told the parliamentary authorities that his main home was in Manchester and claimed the "second home" allowance for his flat in London. In October 2004, he sold his London flat but told HM Revenue and Customs it was his "principal home", not his "second home". A spokesman on behalf of Purnell said that "Any allegation that James avoided capital gains tax is completely untrue. When he bought his constituency home, the sale of his London flat fell through, but it was sold within the period that HMRC continue to treat it as not being liable for CGT ... This would have been true for any taxpayer  there was no special treatment".[13] Also in 2004, Purnell claimed £395 for an accountant's bill which included "tax advice provided in October 2004 regarding sale of flat".[13][14]

Whilst renting a flat between 2004 and 2006, Purnell claimed £100 a month for cleaning expenses and £586 for repairs. At the end of the lease, the landlord kept the £2,520 deposit, claiming the flat to have been in a poor state. A spokesman for Purnell stated: "James felt frustrated that the landlord refused to return the deposit. He initially pursued the matter through legal channels but let it rest as the costs of fighting it further would far outweigh recouping the deposit".[15] Allegation were made by a Sunday newspaper that Purnell claimed more than £1,500 a month rent for the flat although he was half of the £1,820 a month rent and his fiancée was paying the rest. A spokesman for Purnell said "Despite being entitled to claim in full for the whole rental cost incurred by him and his partner, James claimed less than the amount he himself spent. The rules of the House of Commons make it clear that an MP is entitled to be reimbursed for the rent or mortgage paid by the MP and their partner. Nevertheless, James went out of his way to ensure overall he claimed less for accommodation than he himself paid".[16] Purnell also claimed £247 for 3,000 fridge magnets.[17]

Resignation from the Cabinet

On 4 June 2009, Purnell announced his resignation from the Cabinet, and called upon Gordon Brown to resign as Prime Minister.[18] His resignation came only days after the resignations of Home Secretary Jacqui Smith, whose expenses had been the subject of negative comments, and Communities Secretary Hazel Blears, who had also avoided paying capital gains tax on her property.

The news came just minutes after polls closed in the local and European elections, in which Labour performed badly.

His letter to the Prime Minister, which was also sent to The Sun and The Times, read:[19]

Dear Gordon,

We both love the Labour Party. I have worked for it for 20 years and you for far longer. We know we owe it everything and it owes us nothing. I owe it to our party to say what I believe no matter how hard that may be. I now believe your continued leadership makes a Conservative victory more, not less likely.

That would be disastrous for our country. This moment calls for stronger regulation, an active state, better public services, an open democracy.

It calls for a government that measures itself by how it treats the poorest in society. Those are our values, not David Cameron's.

We therefore owe it to our country to give it a real choice. We need to show that we are prepared to fight to be a credible government and have the courage to offer an alternative future.

I am therefore calling on you to stand aside to give our party a fighting chance of winning. As such I am resigning from government. The party was here long before us, and we want it to be here long after we have gone. We must do the right thing by it.

I am not seeking the leadership, nor acting with anyone else. My actions are my own considered view, nothing more.

If the consensus is that you should continue, then I will support the government loyally from the backbenches. But I do believe that this question now needs to be put.

Thank you for giving me the privilege of serving.


Rt Hon James Purnell MP[19]

Post-parliamentary career

On 19 February 2010, Purnell announced he would be standing down as an MP later that year, saying "I have decided that I no longer wish to be an MP. I have spent all my working life in or about Westminster. And while this has been a huge privilege, I've realised I don't want to have spent all my life in frontline politics."[20] He pointed to his work with Demos as occupying him in the immediate future.[20]

After leaving parliament, Purnell became the chair of the Institute for Public Policy Research. It was touted that he would stand for the Labour candidacy to become Mayor of London, but he decided against this option.[21] He supported David Miliband in the 2010 Labour leadership election and worked for his campaign, although he was subsequently offered the job of chief of staff to the new leader of the Labour Party, Ed Miliband, a job he turned down.

Purnell became linked with the Blue Labour movement within the Labour Party[22] and in April 2011 he was appointed by the Boston Consulting Group as a Special Advisor to their Public Sector Group.[23] In July 2011, he appeared on Newsnight with proposals for welfare reforms, as part of his involvement in Blue Labour. He called for a National Salary Insurance, a Job Guarantee and free universal childcare, but also said that "freebies" such as Winter Fuel Allowance and free bus passes should not become sacred. He did not rule out returning to Parliament in 2015, but declared his support for Ed Miliband and his leadership.

Revived BBC career

In February 2013 Purnell left the IPPR in order to rejoin the BBC as its Director of Strategy, on a salary of £295,000;[24] he assumed this position on 20 March.[25] As a senior BBC employee he had to resign his membership of the Labour Party.

An Employment Tribunal for unfair dismissal was brought by the BBC's former Chief Technology Officer, John Linwood, when he lost his job in 2013 after the Corporation's £100m Digital Media Initiative failed. During the case an email from Purnell was cited in evidence, which read: "We need a clear line on [John Linwood] on whether he is resigning or being fired and why". The tribunal’s response to this was: “It was notable that there was no third option in Purnell’s mind, such as a different disciplinary outcome.” The tribunal found the BBC’s processes to have given an “apparently cavalier disregard for any of the accepted norms of a fair disciplinary process”, and that there was a “deeply ingrained cultural expectation within the organisation of sacrificial accountability”. Linwood was awarded £80,000 in damages, and it was later revealed that the BBC had spent £498,000 defending the claim.[26]

In late September 2016, Purnell was appointed as the BBC's Director of Radio and Education, in succession to Helen Boaden.[27] He will take up his new position in late October.[2]


  1. Conlan, Tara (14 February 2013). "James Purnell to rejoin BBC". The Guardian.
  2. 1 2 Sweney, Mark (30 September 2016). "BBC confirms James Purnell as radio chief". The Guardian. Retrieved 30 September 2016.
  3. "James Purnell takes on ippr chair role". LabourList - Labour's biggest independent grassroots e-network.
  4. http://www.bcglondon.com/about_bcg/graham_rich.aspx
  5. "BBC - James Purnell, Director, Strategy & Digital - Inside the BBC". Retrieved 13 September 2015.
  6. Stevenson, Alexander (2013). The Public Sector: Managing The Unmanageable. ISBN 978-0-7494-6777-7.
  7. Letters, Prospect, February 2005
  8. "Which? awards for the best of the best revealed".
  9. "NHS trust faked MP visit picture". BBC News. 28 September 2007.
  10. John Plunkett. "Culture secretary James Purnell 'optimistic' on TV's future". the Guardian.
  11. Chris Hastings; Laura Donnelly (30 September 2007). "Labour MPs admit plan to fake Purnell photo". The Daily Telegraph. Retrieved 17 November 2014. James Purnell, the Culture Secretary, came under increasing pressure over a fake photo last night, after two Labour MPs revealed they planned in advance for it be altered.
  12. Winnett, Robert (21 Dec 2008). "Ministers abandon punitive interest rates on emergency loans". London: Daily Telegraph. Retrieved 21 Dec 2008. Ministers have been forced to hastily abandon plans to charge punitive rates of interest on emergency loans for the poor.
  13. 1 2 Watt, Holly (21 May 2009). "MPs' expenses: James Purnell and Geoff Hoon avoided tax on home sales". London: Dailly Telegraph. Retrieved 5 June 2009.
  14. Woolf, Marie; Watt, Holly (10 February 2008). "James Purnell's £20,000 tax trick". London: Times Online. Retrieved 5 June 2009.
  15. Gardham, Duncan (26 April 2009). "Minister James Purnell accused of leaving his flat 'like a pigsty'". London: Daily Telegraph. Retrieved 5 June 2009.
  16. Rosa Prince (4 May 2009). "James Purnell 'claimed expenses on flat partly paid for by his girlfriend'". London: Daily Telegraph. Retrieved 2009-06-10.
  17. Addley, Esther (5 June 2009). "James Purnell grasps the moment and strikes at the heart of No 10". London: The Guardian. Retrieved 5 June 2009.
  18. "PM told to go as minister quits". BBC News. 4 June 2009. Retrieved 5 June 2009.
  19. 1 2 "Purnell resignation letter". BBC News. 4 June 2009. Retrieved 4 June 2009.
  20. 1 2 "James Purnell to stand down as MP". BBC News. 19 February 2010. Retrieved 5 May 2010.
  21. "Alan Johnson v Boris Johnson for London Mayor". London Evening Standard. 18 May 2010.
  22. "Blue Labour: Party's radical answer to the Big Society?". BBC News. 21 March 2011.
  23. "The Boston Consulting Group strengthens their Public Sector group by appointing James Purnell, Senior Advisor". Boston Consultancy Group in London. 7 April 2011.
  24. Tara Conlan "James Purnell to rejoin BBC", guardian.co.uk, 14 February 2013
  25. "James Purnell, Director, Strategy & Digital", Inside the BBC
  26. Jo Faragher "BBC spent close to £500,000 fighting unfair dismissal claim", Personnel Today, 5 November 2015
  27. "James Purnell becomes BBC radio chief". BBC News. 30 September 2016. Retrieved 30 September 2016.
Parliament of the United Kingdom
Preceded by
Tom Pendry
Member of Parliament for Stalybridge and Hyde
Succeeded by
Jonathan Reynolds
Political offices
Preceded by
Tessa Jowell
Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport
Succeeded by
Andy Burnham
Preceded by
Peter Hain
Secretary of State for Work and Pensions
Succeeded by
Yvette Cooper

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