Last month’s Government reshuffle included two significant changes that I have been advocating for a long time. Indeed, coming on top of the Damascene conversion to nuclear power, I am feeling a little bit like the prophet whose hour has come.
First, I warmly welcome the creation of a Department of Energy and Climate Change with Ed Milliband as secretary of state. This should have been done years ago. It is a signal that the Government understood the interconnection of these subjects, and also that they were important enough to give them the status of a separate department.
The old Department of Energy was got rid of in the early 1990s by the Tories in order to send out their own political signal. Everything had to be privatised and the market was going to determine energy policy. Who so needed a government department?
In current circumstances, that doctrine looks particularly threadbare, and the importance of energy to the whole workings of our society is now very firmly in focus once again.
As energy minister, I found it to be hugely problematic that responsibilities were scattered around half-a-dozen departments, none of which was primarily concerned with either energy or the need to cut carbon emissions.
They all paid lip service to good intentions, but actually getting anything done where inter-departmental agreement was required was invariably a nightmare. The real test of the new department is how many of these responsibilities it manages to bring under one roof.
It has been portrayed as a transfer of powers from DBERR, or the DTI as I used to know it. But, on its own, that’s not nearly enough. In particular, it is essential that the considerable influence of Defra over energy and carbon-reduction policies is transferred to Milliband’s new baby.
Both when I was in government and subsequently, I have always found Defra to be a completely useless outfit that moves at the pace of a snail and is far better at stopping things happening than actually enabling them.
Apart from bringing responsibilities together under one roof, the importance of having a separate department lies in the fact that there will be someone at the Cabinet table whose primary responsibility is to bang the drum for the energy sector in all its varied forms.
This is something which, I am sure, the North Sea oil industry will be quick to latch on to. But they, too, will be wondering exactly how many of the powers that have hitherto resided elsewhere in government, beyond the DTI/DBERR, have actually transferred to the new department. That is the crucial test on which its effectiveness will rest.
One obvious question now is why the Scottish Government does not follow suit. It, too, suffers greatly from responsibility for energy and carbon-reduction issues being scattered around too many departments, particularly on renewables. If we are serious about all of these targets that are trumpeted with such unconvincing regularity, then what really matters is delivery. So it makes no sense at all for planning and other show-stoppers to have lives of their own which do not necessarily take account of the stated objectives on energy.
I can offer one current example that demonstrates why joined-up government is required in both Whitehall and Edinburgh. It involves micro-wind power – in other words, the kind of wee windmill that I have had on my own roof for the past five years without it causing the slightest problem to anyone while doing its own small bit for both the environment and my electricity bill.
For this industry to take off in a serious way, as everyone says it should, a small change in planning law is required to put these micro-turbines on the same footing as, say, satellite dishes. In other words, the general rule would be that planning permission is not required.
For the past four years, this has been batting about between departments in both Whitehall and Edinburgh, and the necessary change has not yet been made.
The result is that a small sector of the energy market which could have moved forward on a tide of enthusiasm, creating thousands of jobs and allowing individual householders to play a part in the drive for carbon reduction, has had to stagger along waiting for government to finally get its act together. And I stress that, in this saga – which is a cross between Kafka and Yes, Minister – both Whitehall and Edinburgh are equally culpable and nobody seems remotely interested in sorting it.
That is one micro example of how the stated objectives of government are subordinated to inter-departmental bickering, and sometimes how individual civil servants with bees in their bowlers can be far more powerful than ministers – and particularly ineffectual ministers.
Anyone who has to deal with government – whether they are in the oil sector, renewables or any other – could match that story and then add one of their own. So let’s hope that Miliband’s new department will be the answer to their prayers – and the sooner Holyrood follows suit the better.
The other good news from the reshuffle is that the post of Secretary of State for Scotland has been restored to full-time status and put into the very capable hands of Jim Murphy.
Turning it into a part-time post in 2005 was an act of political madness which played no small part in facilitating the rise of the Scottish Nationalists at Holyrood. Linking the post of Defence Secretary with that of Secretary of State for Scotland, as happened in the case of Des Browne, was insulting to both the armed forces and the Scottish electorate.
As the oil industry knows better than any, it is absolutely essential to have someone round the Cabinet table whose sole job is to represent Scotland’s interests within the UK. That reality has not changed one iota as a result of devolution.
I am sure that all the energy sectors will be anxious to engage with Jim Murphy, and they will find both a good listener and an able politician. The only people who have a vested interest in downplaying the role, or preferably getting rid of it altogether, are those who want to separate us from the rest of the UK. They are entitled to that ambition but, in the meantime, it is essential to have Scotland’s interests properly represented.
However much the Nationalists might wish it was otherwise, the big decisions that affect issues such as taxation and employment are taken on a UK basis and it is essential that the Scottish perspective is represented on a full-time basis.