Action stations: MP Mike goes into battle on the home front

Two year old twins, Samuel, left, and Loiuie Redican, joined MP Mike Penning for a drink of milk at the Woodhall farm pre-school on Friday
Two year old twins, Samuel, left, and Loiuie Redican, joined MP Mike Penning for a drink of milk at the Woodhall farm pre-school on Friday

Mike Penning is feeling rather pleased with himself – his political career has taken another step forward with what most observers agree is a promotion.

His new role of minister of state for works and pensions means he now has a high profile job that will bring him into even closer contact with his constituents in Hemel Hempstead.

Hemel Hempstead MP Mike Penning greets Obama family as start of G* conference in Northern Ireland June 2013

Hemel Hempstead MP Mike Penning greets Obama family as start of G* conference in Northern Ireland June 2013

For the last year he has been minister of state for Northern Ireland, and even though he was still a familiar face around town many seemed to think he had been posted overseas.

“I never went anywhere but everyone thought I did,” he says.

In fact, the door-to-door trip to Belfast took him just two hours and sometimes less – commuters who head into London every day might even envy him.

And the job wasn’t restricted to Northern Ireland – his role also involved keeping people back home safe from terrorism.

Department of Work & Pensions

Department of Work & Pensions

But unlike his hush hush position dealing with security issues across the water, the new job will thrust him into the media spotlight and will undoubtedly force him to back some rather controversial policy decisions.

“This one is a lot more up front, I can discuss a lot more about the issues,” he said.

And straight talking is something Mr Penning says he does not shy away from and he won’t be holding back when it comes to working with old chum secretary of state for works and pensions Iain Duncan Smith – Mr Penning was deputy head of news and media when the veteran Tory was leader of the party.

“Sometimes it is good for friends to be working with each other but at the same time you need to be able to tell them how it is,” said Mr Penning, who was born in Middlesex but raised in neighbouring Essex.

He knows that he is already out of favour with firefighters – one of the MP’s previous job choices during a working life that has also taken in spells as a soldier and a journalist before turning to politics – after he refused to support their latest strike action.

The 56-year-old said: “I have stood on the picket line for my constituents before, but I have had to say this time that I think they are wrong.

“I think they need to get back around the table and discuss with their employers to move forwards.

“They do a fantastic job, I’m enormously proud that I was a fireman – but I don’t think they’re right on this.”

He described the pension on offer as ‘generous’ and said 60 – the age up to which firefighters will now have to work – can no longer be considered as old.

“People are living much longer and people are much fitter,” he said.

“60 is not old any more. I see lots of guys playing rugby at 60 and a lot of them are firemen.”

He is also against striking teachers and says their recent walkout put struggling families under even more pressure.

“I can’t believe they went on strike,” he said.

“I understand that people are aggrieved that changes are taking place but to actually go on strike...

“I think the days of going on strike to win arguments are long gone. What you have to ask yourself is what you are going to get from it. Are you going to win the argument by turning the public against you?

“The public will be very miffed at teachers and firefighters going on strike and their patience will not be there forever.”

So what about the 2.4million unemployed people in the UK and David Cameron’s proposal to cut automatic benefits to under 25s in a bid to stop the ‘something for nothing’ culture?

Mr Penning echoes the tough love message that is approved by his new department: “What you can’t have is a whole generation of young people that all have dreams but those aspirations, for one reason or another, are not being attained.

“What you can’t let them do is sit at home on benefits and not try and give them as much assistance as possible.

“It is not a case of bullying, it is a case of helping.

“It is giving people that opportunity that everybody can live their dream.”

That’s something that Mr Penning proudly says he is doing himself, despite not having the best of starts in life.

He holds his hands up to be bad at maths and suffers from dyslexia, which wasn’t diagnosed until he joined the Army.

“It hasn’t stopped me being a journalist, an MP and a fireman,” he said. “I was lucky that I was given some opportunities.”

Mr Penning’s brief will focus on disabled people and he has already been championing the benefits of employing such people during a recent Accessible Dacorum event, which aimed to debunk myths about employing disabled people.

“You will not find a more loyal, dedicated workforce than people with disabilities because they are desperate to work,” he said.

“I’m proud of companies like Royal Mail that have an open policy.”