29 November 2019

Creating a new government department to deal with a high-priority issue can sound like a decisive move, but Tim Durrant says the main parties’ manifesto pledges risk creating uncertainty and distraction.

Manifestos always set out plans for brand new policies in government, but sometimes they set out plans for brand new government departments. This year’s collection is no exception, with many of the major parties promising to create new government departments to deal with their own particular priorities.

Labour has been the most ambitious, and has pledged to create a new Department for Housing, to expand the Government Equalities Office into a Department for Women and Equalities, to rebrand the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) as the Department for Social Security, and to create a Ministry for Employment Rights.

The Liberal Democrats want to create a Department for Climate Change and Sustainability, split up many of the Home Office’s responsibilities across other departments and appoint a chief sustainability secretary in the Treasury. The Green Party has similar ideas, with a Department for the Green New Deal, led by a carbon chancellor, and the Home Office split into Ministries for Sanctuary and the Interior.

The one exception is the Conservative Party, with no pledges whatsoever regarding new or changed departments.

The manifesto pledges don’t say how planned new departments will actually work

Deciding on a name for a new department is the easy part. Each party needs to think through exactly what their proposed new departments would do.

Where will the communities and local government briefs go if Labour takes housing away from the current Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government (MHCLG)? Presumably there are reasons for them to be grouped in MHCLG now? And how will the housing secretary relate to the local authorities and private-sector firms who build houses?

What about the Liberal Democrats’ plan to make asylum policy a responsibility of the Department for International Development (DFID)? DFID is an international-facing department with expertise in delivering programmes in developing countries, while managing asylum cases requires an understanding of the international and domestic legal framework. Taking immigration policy away from the Home Office may be good politics, given recent controversies, but without a change in policy objectives the only difference would be who manages migration processes.

Setting up a new government department is not straightforward  

As well as working out what the responsibilities of any new department will be, parties need to bear in mind the practicalities of establishing new government bodies. Labour’s pledge to replace DWP “on day one” with DSS will be impossible. DWP is the largest government department, both in terms of staff and budget, and has a presence across the entire country. Rebranding its entire estate would be a big project alone, but Labour also wants to “completely change the culture” of the department, and scrap its flagship policy, Universal Credit. Such a huge amount of change will take time and effort; that, and not changing the department’s name, should be the focus of Labour’s plans.

There are also legal limits to how much governments can redraw the departmental map. The prime minister can only appoint a maximum of 21 secretaries of state. With 21 currently in post, creating any new department (or at least, a department headed by a secretary of state) will require the next prime minister to remove an existing role. As well as causing party political ructions, merging departments to free up a secretary of state slot also causes disruption.

The elephant on Whitehall – what to do about DExEU?

There is one glaring omission from all of the parties’ plans for new departments: the future of the Department for Exiting the EU (DExEU). This “pop-up” department was created by Theresa May to oversee the UK’s Brexit negotiations, although most of the negotiating was actually overseen by Number 10 and the Cabinet Office.

If the Conservatives form the next government, they hope to complete the withdrawal process by the end of January – DExEU may then oversee the talks on the future relationship, but Number 10 may again want greater control of these negotiations. And if Labour leads the next administration, it hopes to negotiate a new deal and hold a referendum within months. DExEU’s knowledge of previous negotiations will be useful, but uncertainty over its long-term future will continue whatever the outcome of any referendum. The parties should plan now what they would do with DExEU – will it be folded into the Foreign Office and Cabinet Office? – rather than make a potentially confusing snap judgement at a later date.

Making any change to departments’ roles and responsibilities is a big decision that deserves proper consideration. Announcing plans to create a new department to deal with a priority issue is a good way to send a political signal but it distracts from actually solving the problem. If the parties are serious about making changes to the structure of government departments, then they should first think through the questions that are raised by their restructuring plans.