At 11pm on Friday, Brexit finally got done. The EU27, originally a colloquial for the EU members who weren’t Britain, are now simply the EU.
Despite the fact that the negotiations over the future UK-EU relationship will come during the year-long transition period, the PM abolished the Department for Exiting the European Union (DExEU) at the point of exit in a piece of political theatre that mirrors the Department’s establishment in 2016. The price of DExEU’s birth was jettisoning another Department, since the Ministerial and Other Salaries Act 1975 sets a statutory limit on the number of Secretaries of State at 21. For Brexit to get a dedicated voice in Cabinet, another Department had to be eliminated. The burden fell on the young Department for Energy and Climate Change (DECC), which found its work folded into the Department of Business, Innovation and Skills to produce the newly strengthened Department of Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS).
The opportunity to re-establish DECC is clear, but the interest that such machinery of government changes commands among the public is limited. However, among those who are either in the know or possess a fascination with the organisational structures of government, the prospect of the resurrection of DECC in a time of intense interest in climate change is a hot topic.
A combination of both types convened at the Institute for Government on Tuesday 28th January to discuss the issue, but gave the impression that no one really agrees on what we should do with climate change. Though everyone agrees that dealing with climate change is a good idea and, more importantly in some quarters, an effective use of government resources, people can’t quite agree if the aim of doing so is best left by leaving the machine as it is or risking the upheaval and accusations of meaningless signalling by spinning DECC back out of BEIS.
It’s important to remember that the Government didn’t forget about climate change when it abolished DECC. A lot of good came from the merger. Angela Hepworth hit the nail on the head when she said that by bringing climate change and industrial strategy into the same department, a new narrative emerged of ‘tackling climate change as an industrial strategy opportunity’, putting the issue at the heart of Government.
Not all of the Government’s work on tackling climate change was left to DECC either. The Energy Act 2008 gave us the Committee on Climate Change, which in turn got Government to commit to a net-zero carbon emissions by 2050 goal in 2019. The CCC was largely unaffected by the elimination of DECC, beyond changing the Minister it reported too.
Some say that with climate change so high on the political agenda and public concern mounting, it’s time it had its own seat at the Cabinet table once again. Ed Davey, Acting Leader of the Lib Dems and former DECC Secretary maintains that the combination of departmental independence and the divided focus of the Treasury across so many briefs allowed him champion the work of DECC. Subsuming DECC into BEIS may have allowed it to feed in to the work on industrial strategy, but it also made it subservient to the topline focus of the Department. It is not unreasonable to ask if now is time to re-politicise the argument.
The troublesome caveat to the issue is the upheaval that establishing a new Department entails. Amber Rudd’s former SpAd, Guy Newey, was there to see DECC closed all the chaos that entailed. In a year when the UK is hosting the UN Climate Change Summit in Glasgow (COP26), is it worth the six months of upheaval that recreating DECC would bring? Newey says no, and Angela Francis is clear that the people who are really working to save the planet rather than run the country are ‘more interested in action then distraction.’ If we do resurrect DECC, it must be for the right reason, which is to beef up the UK’s response to the climate crisis.
The single biggest signal came on Friday when Claire Perry O’Neil, former Minister of State for Energy and Climate Change and current President of COP26 was unceremoniously sacked by the Prime Minister as the organiser of COP26. All that Downing Street would say was that going forward, COP would be a ‘ministerial responsibility.’ Kwasi Kwarteng, her successor at BEIS and natural successor to the COP Presidency doesn’t yet to seem to be in charge of it, and with a reshuffle imminent, it’s not a stretch to say that O’Neill’s removal was pre-empting a power struggle between a new DECC Secretary and the COP unit in the Cabinet Office.
Assuming DECC makes its return, what would it mean for the Government’s attitude to climate change and the future of energy in the UK? The unhelpful answer is, it depends, and that’s the only thing people really agree on.
It depends on how well resourced the Department is in the upcoming Budget, and which civil service teams are transferred over to it. If we were to see a noveau DECC accorded the power to lead on matters of environmental impact across government, with some of the environmental work of DfT, MHCLG and DEFRA transferred over, then we could have some real hope for its viability.
However, if the new DECC is little more than an empty shell forced to go begging to the bigger Departments to get a look in on their own policy area (as DExEU was reduced to) then it’s resurrection would be likely little more than pure political theatre.