Former UK Trade and Investment chief warns over “complete remodelling” of Whitehall

Sir Andrew Cahn says seismic shifts in departmental structures risk significantly delaying crucial post-EU referendum policy work.

By Jim Dunton

15 Jul 2016

The large-scale reshaping of core Whitehall departments unveiled by new prime minister Theresa May could put a brake on key policy work, the former chief executive of UK Trade and Investment has cautioned.

Sir Andrew Cahn, who led the trade promotion body from 2006-2011, said experience under the last Labour government showed that reorganisations slowed progress on the core issues faced by governments.

He was speaking within hours of the announcement that a new Department of International Trade would be created and just as the Department for Energy and Climate Change was being merged with a stripped-down Department of Business, Innovation and Skills. 

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The new Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, which has Greg Clark as its secretary of state, loses BIS’s skills remit to the Department for Education, as well as its international responsibilities to new Department of International Trade.

Further structural reorganisation in Whitehall comes from the creation of a Department for Exiting the European Union, under the oversight of David Davis. The formation of that department went against the advice of MPs on the Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee issued earlier this week. MPs had called for Brexit negotiations to remain under the oversight of the Cabinet Office.

Speaking to the BBC yesterday, Sir Andrew said: “What’s really important is that the civil servants and politicians decide very quickly who is responsible for what, decide which buildings they go in, who gets the jobs, and within a matter of days/weeks then get on with the policy. 

“The trouble with departmental restructuring is that it can take months and months before anything concrete happens. If you saw what Gordon Brown did, he constantly restructured Whitehall and things didn’t get done.” 

His fears were echoed by Institute for Government deputy director Julian McCrae, who said that while the prime minister had indicated how her government would move its agenda forward, the restructuring would come at a price.

“She has created a series of distractions with other departmental changes, which only add to the burden on Whitehall,” he said. 

“It remains to be seen whether these changes are more successful than previous attempts at shuffling around of departmental boundaries.”

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