Tom Richmond: Do we really need billion pound super-ministries?

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HERE’S one policy that Vince Cable did not mention when the Mr Pessimistic of British politics joined Nick Clegg in railing against Tory tax cuts and another squeeze on working-age benefits – abolition of the Department of Business, Innovation and Skills.

Yet, at a time when politicians are being expected to come up with ever more creative ways to manage the public purse, why does Britain still need this super-ministry which still costs at least £16bn a year to run?

Even though this headline cost has been reduced from £20bn when the coalition came to power in 2010, every Whitehall ministry, quango and town hall should, in fact, be champions of business, innovation and skills and working morning, noon and night – the phrase famously used by Michael Heseltine when he headed the then Department of Trade and Industry in the early 1990s – to create a new generation of jobs and help David Cameron to advance his forward-looking social mobility agenda.

Take the responsibilities of York-born Mr Cable’s department on its website.

It works with further and higher education providers “to give students the skills they need to compete in a global employment market”. Great – but there is no reason why this should not come under the auspices of the Department for Education and Skills (that word again). After all, education is a lifelong journey that should begin at home before youngsters join their first nursery – and then primary school – and Sheffield’s David Blunkett was on the right lines in 1997 when he tried to bring employment and education policy under one ministry.

It supports innovation by “developing the UK’s science and research industry”. Again why can’t the DfES take on this responsibility, not least so youngsters can see the opportunities that will exist if they choose to specialise in this field.

It talks about “making sure consumer law is fair for both consumers and businesses”. This is important, but can’t it come under the remit of the Treasury with local authorities retaining responsibility for ensuring the necessary rules and regulations are implemented?

The same with the BIS objective that it supports “British businesses to increase productivity and compete anywhere in the world”. There is no reason why this cannot be led by the Treasury – after all this should be the primary objective behind every Budget and Autumn Statement delivered by the Chancellor of the Exchequer.

Finally Mr Cable’s department expresses a desire to champion the issue of “better regulation – by cutting the amount of regulation and making it easy to understand we can help businesses cut time, save money and be more efficient”. Again, this should be a simple addendum to HM Treasury’s remit.

This is not a small department, even though its remit was dramatically reduced in the 1980s when the utility industries were privatised by the Thatcher government. It still employs 2,500 people and its partner organisations, according to its website, include nine executive agencies employing around 14,500 workers.

I’m not saying that they should all be cast aside – many perform important roles which are critical to good governance and need to be trained – but I do question the need for a super-ministry on this scale when there is so much cross-over with other departments.

NICK Clegg says ‘compassionate Conservativism’ is dead in the water because of Tory plans to lower the welfare cap and further restrict the payment of working-age payments.

I’m surprised. I thought the Deputy Prime Minister would be on the side of David Cameron attempt to abolish youth unemployment and create three million more apprenticeships so young people can no longer leave school with inadequate qualifications and begin a lifetime of benefit entitlements.

Perhaps the Sheffield Hallam MP should spend time examining the ambition that is underpinning the Conservative Party’s social mobility reforms – and the timidity of the proposals set out by Ed Miliband at the Labour conference. After all, it is Vince Cable – the Lib Dem Business Secretary – who is proposing a £1 an hour increase in the minimum wage for all first year apprentices because he recognises the priceless value of a four-letter word that Mr Clegg forgot this week: work.

ACTRESS Lynda Bellingham, the one-time star of All Creatures Great and Small, has given a harrowing interview in which she described how a succession of obfuscating doctors chose not to inform that she had cancer. She only found out when a consultant informed her, thinking she already knew the grim prognosis. The interview should be compulsive listening for all NHS practitioners under the title ‘How not to treat a patient’.

NOW that the future role of marketing agency Leeds and Partners is, thankfully, under review following chief executive Lurene Joseph’s upcoming departure – and greater awareness about the need for the whole of Yorkshire and the North to pool initiatives on inward investment – I hope the powers-that-be recognise the need for a plain-speaking jargon-buster.

This is what the L&P home page on the internet says: “Leeds and Partners has adopted a transformational strategic approach to inward investment concentrating on selected priority sectors and target markets where evidence shows potential to maximise benefit for the city.”

I think it means it wants to hear from companies that meet L&P’s own priorities – without saying what they constitute. Shouldn’t it be saying Yorkshire is open for business – and it will do everything possible to help meet the requirements of firms looking to move to the county?

I’m just surprised that Asda boss Andy Clarke, the Leeds and Partners chairman, and Leeds Council chief executive Tom Riordan have tolerated this corporate-speak mumbo-jumbo for so long. Taxpayers had a right to expect better of such senior figures. After all, beggars can’t be choosers when Ms Joseph is earning at least £160,000 a year and Leeds Council is pleading poverty ahead of the next round of spending cuts that are a necessary price to pay if Britain is to balance its books.

tom.richmond@ypn.co.uk

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