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How central government could slim down – and why it probably won’t

17 June 2013

The Treasury is entering its last minute negotiations with recalcitrant departments ahead of next week’s spending review announcement. But for all the talk of ‘difficult decisions’, the settlement doesn’t look as though it will take some of the more difficult decisions about the shape of government itself. In a Free Enterprise Group paper published today, Tory MP Dominic Raab argues that ministers should be looking for savings by scrapping departments altogether, not coming to settlements which merely maintain the current messy setup.

Raab argues that Britain has many more government departments than other developed countries such as the US, Germany and Sweden. He seems quite keen to rule himself off the Christmas card lists of many Secretaries of State, suggesting that the Culture, Media and Sport; Equalities Office; Business, Innovation and Skills; and International Development should be abolished, while other departments should be merged. Mergers should include the Home Office and Ministry of Justice, Energy and Climate Change with Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, HMRC with the DWP to form an agency under the Treasury, while the Communities and Local Government department should subsume the Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland offices.

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This would cut the number of departments to 11, and Raab believes £8 billion a year could be saved. He’s not the only one who thinks this way: many of his colleagues in the Free Enterprise Group have long wished certain departments – particularly DECC and DEFRA – were merged to reflect their overlapping portfolios and to save money.

There are a couple of reasons why this is unlikely to happen any time soon, though. The first is that it is initially costly to close a department, largely because of the associated redundancies. It is also a dramatic decision – although that in itself can be a good thing – to close a department, as governments traditionally structure Whitehall to send a message about their priorities as much as they pay regard to how efficient that set up might be. It would be easy for the Labour party to claim that the Tories no longer care about being the ‘greenest government ever’, for instance, if DECC and DEFRA merged, even if that made no difference to policies or indeed their delivery. None of these are particularly good excuses, though, for not thinking properly about whether government is working as well as it could.

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  • McClane

    ‘It is also a dramatic decision’

    We need some sort of dramatic decision from this government to show it’s serious about cutting spending.

    Government departments and civil servants are the best place to start. Judging by the state of the country none of them have any idea of their job, what it entails and what it involves.

  • James Strong

    No, it’s not just the need to provide jobs for the LibDems.
    If there was a Conservative majority government there would still be resistance to making the cuts that Raab suggests.
    Most Conservative MPs want ministerial office just as much as any other party’s MPs.
    It’s in the blood of politicians to want red boxes and a job where they can interfere in the lives of ordinary people.
    MPs, of all parties, have more in common with each other than they do with us.
    And all the resistance from MPs is before Sir Humphrey starts his programme of resistance.
    Cutting departments as Raab suggests would be a ‘courageous’ decision. It could be done, but not by any of the people currently at the top of any party.

  • Colin Forbes

    Dominic Raab is right – there are far too many departments providing far too many people with far too much work that doesn’t need doing. The Dept of ‘Justice’ was expensively split from the Home office only five years or so ago, so whoever made that stupid decision should be made to think again. DfID and DCMS should be abolished, end of. I have no idea why we need a scottish, Welsh or n Irish office when all those ‘nations and regions’ have devolved administrations (and, in the case of Scotland, should shortly cease to exercise Westminster at all). Redundancies should not be paid to feather bedded Civil servants who know fine well that they will be drawing gold plated pemnsions at our expense till the end of time. And the revenues to be gained by selling off surplus office buildings in whitehall and eslewhere might go some way to offsetting the expenses of closure.
    Dave won’t do it because he couldn’t knock the skin off a rice pudding (and can’t even sack his useless Chief Whip; and another reason is the coalition job-creation scheme for Lib Dums. But we can’t afford to go on with this bloated, undemocratic (no-one voted for a coalition, did they?) apology for a government; otherwise the dreaded Millipede (wrong one) may well get in next time round.

  • HJ777

    Why are the redundancies so expensive? They’re not in the private sector.

    • HFC

      Statutory minimum in every case. No more & no exceptions.

      • 2trueblue

        You have obviously had sight of their contracts.

  • Austin Barry

    Why not cut foreign aid, ring-fenced at 0.7% of GDP, the second largest overseas aid budget in the world?

    Is it because it’s Cameron’s onanistic, vanity project to which he is about to add aid to the Syrian rebels (aka Al-Qaeda)?

    Cameron remains, as ever, a patrician, bleeding heart, patronising chump who has no understanding of the hard-pressed electorate which didn’t go to Eton, has independent means, and doesn’t live in an agreeable house in the Cotswolds.

  • itdoesntaddup

    The most obvious reason why it won’t happen is the coalition and the need to provide jobs for the Lib Dems.

    Having said that, it would be a good idea if the government ceased being so green – in both naive and expensive energy senses.

  • telemachus

    You are back to leadership and getting a grip as I noted 2 posts back
    We need to see Cameron taking control again
    I guess we need Julia Middleton to have a few one to ones with Cameron

    • McClane


      • telemachus

        Julia is a dynamic force who created Head Start, a program providing high school dropouts with training and advice from prospective employers. She now runs leadership development courses that offer participants the inspiration, knowledge and connections to help them become more active and engaged in society
        Many of our opinion formers have been through her courses and networking. Sadly not David Cameron

        • James Strong

          Why haven’t you told us the name of her organisation?
          Readers could then go and find out more about it.
          You wouldn’t mind them doing that, would you?

          • McClane

            She now runs Common Purpose UK. A fact omitted by telemachus.

            • telemachus


              • McClane

                You knew that already.

                From her Wikipedia entry which you plagiarised ‘created Head Start, a program providing high school dropouts with training and advice from prospective employers. She now runs leadership development courses that offer participants the inspiration, knowledge and connections to help them become more active and engaged in society’,

                Even Wikipedia doubts the neutrality of the entry. ‘This reads more like an advert’.

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