Liberal Democrats unveil departmental shake-up plans

Manifesto pledges include resurrecting department for climate change and creating a chief secretary for sustainability role in HM Treasury


Lib Dem leader Jo Swinson Credit: PA

By Jim.Dunton

21 Nov 2019

The Liberal Democrats have set out a swathe of proposals for shaking up the current structure of Whitehall if it gains power after next month's election, with the creation of a new Department for Climate Change and Natural Resources among the plans.

Its manifesto for December 12’s general election is clear that halting the UK’s departure from the European Union is the party’s primary policy objective, however the 100-page document contains a significant level of machinery of government changes and devolution plans.

While a new climate change department would in part resurrect the Department for Energy and Climate Change created in the coalition years but scrapped by Theresa May in 2016, plans to create cabinet-level chief secretary for sustainability role in HM Treasury would be new.


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The manifesto said the Treasury’s sustainability ministerial lead would “co-ordinate government-wide action to make the economy sustainable resource-efficient and zero-carbon, and require every government agency to account for its contribution towards meeting climate targets”.

Big on infrastructure investment, the manifesto pledges to  “take advantage of historically low interest rates” to deliver a £130bn package of additional works, including converting the nation’s rail network to operate on ultra-low emission technology – either electric or hydrogen – by 2035, and pressing ahead with HS2, Crossrail 2 and “other major new strategic rail routes”.

Its infrastructure package also includes finding £5bn in initial capital for a new Green Investment Bank, direct spending on housebuilding to deliver 300,000 new homes a year by 2024 – one-third of which would be for social rent, and a programme to install hyper-fast fibre-optic broadband across the UK.

While transport infrastructure plays a big part in the party’s proposals, the Department for Transport’s role would recede in some areas: notably the operational side of the national rail network.

The Lib Dem manifesto said the party would create a new railways agency to oversee the operations of the network, “removing the Department for Transport from day-to-day decision-making”, which is in line with the emerging recommendations of the Williams review of the rail network currently being undertaken for the DfT.  

It added that the party wanted to open up the bidding process for rail franchises to public sector companies, local or combined authorities, not-for-profits and mutuals –  all of which were said to “have the potential to deliver much better services than private operators”.

The Lib Dems said they would rebrand the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport, adding “Tourism” to its title, and creating a dedicated minister of state responsible for the sector. Its vision also includes empowering councils to bring in tourist levies to fund local tourism infrastructure.

Regulating the sale of cannabis

In tandem with plans to decriminalise the sale cannabis through the introduction of a regulated market for the drug, the Lib Dem manifesto proposes shifting departmental lead on drugs policy to the Department of Health and Social Care and investing more in addiction services and support.

The Home Office would also lose control of policymaking on work permits and student visas, which would shift to the business and education departments respectively, while a new arm’s length non-political agency would take over the processing of visa requests.

Asylum policymaking would also move from the Home Office to the Department for International Development, where a dedicated unit would be established to improve the speed and quality of decision-making.

More devolution

The manifesto also includes a range of devolution commitments designed to keep the UK together, including putting together a written, federal constitution that would include a permanent Scottish Parliament and National Assembly for Wales.

The document said the party was keen for more public services to be accountable to devolved governments, but noted that devolved funding formulas needed to be updated.

“We will retain the Barnett formula to adjust spending allocations across the UK. This will protect the individual nations’ budgets from external shocks,” it said.

“However, we recognise the findings of the Holtham Commission that the current formula underfunds Wales and will commission work to update this analysis.

“We will address the imbalance by immediately ensuring that the Barnett floor is set at a level that reflects the need for Wales to be funded fairly and seek over a parliament to increase the Welsh block grant to an equitable level.”

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