By Matthew Barrett
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At the last reshuffle, David Cameron did something quite unusual: he didn't change the name or purpose of any of his government's departments. During the Blair and Brown years, changes like these were rather common. People may remember the poor Department for Constitutional Affairs, or the old Department of Trade and Industry, or its successor, the Department for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform, which lasted for only two years.
At Mr Cameron's next reshuffle, he could consider changing tactic, and start reducing the number of government departments by merging those which have similar purposes. There are obvious spending benefits to be considered – by keeping some staff from one department, but not retaining those whose function is already performed at the newly merged department – and there are also good reasons for Parliament to want to reduce the number of departments. Many backbenchers complain about the over-mighty executive, and the ability it has to undermine backbenchers by appointing minor payroll jobs like Parliamentary Private Secretaries, as well as the obviously necessary Secretaries and Ministers of State. Reducing the number of these jobs would hand more power to Parliament.
At the very least, there are some anomalous ministerial postings which could easily be dealt with. Why should the Minister with responsibility for Universities, for example, work at the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, and not Education?
There are seven departments which are ripe for major changes. They are:
- Culture, Media and Sport
- Energy and Climate Change
- Government Equalities Office
- International Development
- Northern Ireland
The first and most dramatic change that could be made is the consolidation of the Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland Offices into one department – perhaps the Office for Devolved Administrations, or similar. For as long as devolution exists (there seems a perverse inability for the Westminster class to challenge it), we don't need for there to be different Offices for different devolved parts of this country – their devolved administrations deal with those issues the old Offices used to deal with. For example, the Northern Ireland Office's website says the department now has responsibility for:
"overseeing the Northern Ireland devolution settlement and representing Northern Ireland interests at UK Government level and UK Government interests in Northern Ireland. The department also has responsibility for national security in respect of Northern Ireland as well as Human Rights, elections, legacy issues (including current ongoing public inquiries)."
The role described doesn't need a Secretary of State, nor does it deserve a distinct place around the Cabinet table. It would be far better to have one department and one Secretary of State for all three devolved administrations, and a Minister of State for Wales, a Minister of State for Scotland, etc. Those Ministers of State could then attend Cabinet if and when their responsibilities were being discussed.
The Department for International Development is one which many readers would like to see cut entirely. The Government will not do that, but it could certainly streamline its administrative costs (which Andrew Mitchell has reduced pretty effectively already) and reconsider its budget by placing it in the Foreign and Commonwealth Office. A Minister with responsibility for aid spending has existed in government since 1961, but his or her importance has varied depending on the colour of the government in power.
The original Ministry of Overseas Development existed as a department from 1964 until the first few months of the Heath administration, after which it became the Overseas Development Administration and a part of the Foreign Office. In 1974, when Labour re-entered office, the Ministry of Overseas Development was once again separate. During the Thatcher and Major years, it was part of the Foreign Office again, and then DfId was created in 1997. This Conservative-led administration should learn from its predecessors, and abolish DfID, if not aid spending. Making DfID merely a part of the FCO should be attractive for some supporters of aid spending: perhaps making it a less visible part of the Government's programme would stop giving ammunition to critics of aid spending.
The Government Equalities Office is a simple case: it should be abolished. Its purpose is to "support the government’s commitment to 'tear down barriers to social mobility and equal opportunities and help to build a fairer society'". The Cabinet Office, whose role is to "ensure effective development, coordination and implementation of policy and operations across all government departments" could easily fit the "equality" function into its brief, if the Government insists on perpetuating Harman-esque notions of fairness.
The Department for Energy and Climate Change clearly does important work (the Energy bit), but will also clearly overlap with both Business, Innovation and Skills, and Environment, Food and Rural Affairs. The Minister of State for Energy could be reshuffled to BIS, and the rest of the department could be moved to Defra, and have any duplications of responsibilities removed.
Finally, Culture, Media and Sport. DCMS cannot be cut entirely – abolishing the Sport part would be terribly unpopular, and rightly so. Instead, it could be moved to either Communities and Local Government, or perhaps Education. The Culture (ie tourism) and Media parts could easily be moved to BIS. Indeed, the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Culture, Communications and Creative Industries, Ed Vaizey, already works jointly with BIS.
You may well think BIS is becoming rather large with so many new responsibilities. The solution to that is to remove its higher education functions. The Universities and Science function, currently filled by David Willetts, should be moved to Education, and the Minister of State for Further Education, Skills and Lifelong Learning, currently Matthew Hancock, should be a Minister in the Education department only, and not share roles with BIS. That removes the "Skills" bit from BIS, which could be re-named, ooh… Trade and Industry?
A merger which could be made after the next reshuffle could be the Ministry of Justice with the Home Office. My feeling is that the Home Office is and should remain a job for a big hitter. People like Ken Clarke and Michael Howard, as well as experienced Cabinet members like Kenneth Baker and Willie Whitelaw occupied the position under the last Conservative government. Since 1997, the position has been cheapened by people like Jacqui Smith, and others like Charles Clarke, John Reid and David Blunkett have struggled with scandal. Theresa May has steadied the ship, and in time, the position of Home Secretary should be given back its prison and judicial functions and be occupied by a serious and authoritative legal figure.
Last week Dominic Raab MP called for the Coalition to "address which… government departments we really need, rather than salami-slicing budgets across the board". He noted that "Liberal Democrats have previously toyed with cutting the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills. The coalition is reported to be looking at the case for abolishing the Department for Culture, Media and Sport." If the Coalition parties are indeed considering the abolition of two departments, this is promising news. However, there exists the scope for the Government to cut seven departments at the next reshuffle. A reshaping of Whitehall would bring government up to date with Britain's needs, empower Parliament over the executive, and most importantly, save money.