Down with reshuffles!

Rather a lot has been written about the recent Government reshuffle, most of it of the ‘who’s up/down/in/out’ variety. I don’t want to add to that, but I do want to have a brief last word on the process, and what better Department to focus on for that than the Department for Energy and Climate Change. That Department has suffered quite a grievous loss with the departure of Greg Barker. I have had my disagreements with Greg over the years on a number of his policy directions, and one of his main initiatives, the Green Deal, effectively lies in ruins as he departs. But overall I thought he was a great minister for the Department – he fought the DECC corner assiduously, cared passionately about climate change and its consequences, and was quite fearless in pursuing that agenda in government, often against the rumbling and grumbling about it all from many of his own side. He linked and defended the energy and policy priorities of the department on renewables and low carbon energy at a time when it would have been easier to capitulate to the siren voices (also often from his own side) suggesting that the whole process should be put in a bottle and floated out to sea.

But there are two points in this little paean that stand out. Firstly, that Greg came to his post having had a substantial record of commitment and interest in the subject beforehand, and secondly, he stayed in the same post for almost the whole term of the present government. That’s a two edged sword of course in that you often have to deal with the consequences of your own policy initiatives when they return to bite you and not your successor. But it is quite a simple idea that maybe if you are appointing Ministers to positions it would be good if they knew about or had some interest in what they were being tasked with beforehand. And an equally simple idea is that probably, far better policy outcomes are likely to result from square pegs being able to occupy square holes for an extended period rather than almost continuously being uprooted and jammed into some round hole somewhere else.

Certainly, neither of those two simple plans has been in operation just across the corridor from Greg’s erstwhile office. Since this time two years ago no less than four nameplates have been nailed to the Minister of State’s door: Hendry has given way to Hayes, who has given way to Fallon (with two other jobs to occupy him anyway) who has now given way to Matt Hancock, incidentally, all during a time when the brief to steer Electricity Market Reform through all its stages was of crucial importance. I would have thought that just catching up on the vicissitudes of that particular programme probably occupied the waking hours of both of Charles Hendry’s successors until, still immersed in trying to get to grips with capacity payments and Contracts for Difference, they were set free and packed off to pastures new. I’m sure both the new recruits to the Department will be hard working and attentive, but try as I might, I cannot find much of a trail of interest or knowledge about what DECC is doing, other than, perhaps that neither of them like wind farms very much.

But I also ought to say that this is not particularly their fault; all too often it is just how the system works. Posts are allocated and occupied as if they bear no relation to what they are supposed to be about, but instead simply signify (where I came in) who is up, or down, who is in or out, and who is just visiting on the way to somewhere else better and more ‘in’. That cannot help good governance or policy-making, or the welfare of the important Departments subject to the merry-go round.

So my final word on reshuffles is this: that there ought to be less of them. And that there ought to be more Greg Barkers, enabled to do a job in a Department that they value and allowed to stay there for long enough to make a difference in the way that for all his idiosyncrasies and occasional rushes of blood to the head, Greg undoubtedly did.

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