Labour planning 'very, very few' changes to Whitehall structure - Lord Falconer

Exclusive: Labour peer in charge of preparing party for government says he wants to avoid "civil service wars" associated with creating, scrapping and merging departments, but eyes greater role for Number 10

By matt.foster

21 Apr 2015

Labour is not planning a major shake-up of the structure of Whitehall if it wins power in May, the man in charge of preparing the party for government has said.

Former justice secretary Lord Falconer was appointed by Labour leader Ed Miliband in 2012 to try and ready the party for the transition from opposition to government. Since October, he has been involved in talks with the civil service about Labour’s plans, including its desire for a stronger Downing Street operation to boost oversight of the departments.

In an interview with Civil Service World – to be published in full later this month – Falconer said Labour would make “very, very few” machinery of government changes if it wins power, with only limited moves to introduce new departments or merge existing ones.

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“The attitude I take to machinery of government changes is that they, of themselves, tend to lead to internal discussions about departmental boundaries,” he said. “They can lead to internal civil service wars, ministerial wars. By and large they are to be avoided unless there is an absolutely clear and identifiable improvement in delivery for the citizen, that they actually promote a particular, identifiable policy.

“Only if they satisfy that delivery test are they worth doing. So in my view there will be very, very few machinery of government changes because it will be too much of a distraction from the need to hit the ground running when we arrive. But there may be some.”

Whitehall experts have already warned the next administration against carrying out a disruptive overhaul of the structure of government. In a recent column for CSW, the Institute for Government’s Peter Riddell said there were “too many horror stories” of administrations foisting machinery of government changes on civil servants “with little notice or prior preparation”.

“Not only are there often larger than expected administrative costs, but shifting departmental boundaries can replace problems in one area with problems in another,” he wrote.

Since 2010, the coalition government has made only limited changes to the number and remit of Whitehall departments, although it did return the Department of Children, Schools and Families to its more traditional name of the Department for Education.

It also moved responsibility for constitutional affairs from the Ministry of Justice to the Deputy Prime Minister’s Office, and has shifted oversight of equalities policy from the Department for Communities and Local Government to the Home Office, and then to the Department for Culture, Media and Sport.

'Challenge function'

Elsewhere in Falconer’s interview, the Labour peer attacked the coalition’s decision to scrap the Downing Street Strategy Unit, which was brought in by Tony Blair in 1997 to monitor the progress of major government policies and to support departments with areas that cut across Whitehall boundaries. After initially abolishing the team, David Cameron later introduced his own Policy and Implementation Unit​ to provide a similar form of oversight.

Falconer said: “The existing, current government in effect, abolished the centre’s ability properly to evaluate policy. They got rid of the ability to discover how individual policies were being implemented.

“They then changed that after a year or two and have sought to reintroduce delivery capacity and policy capacity. We will obviously take advantage of the bits of machinery that are there in the centre to do effective policy-making, albeit primarily as a challenge function to the departments... but it will, I think, have to be more driving than it is at the moment.”

You can now read CSW’s full interview with Lord Falconer here. Look out for our major interview with minister for the Cabinet Office Francis Maude. Photo courtesy Louise Heywood-Schieffer. To subscribe to CSW click here

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