No, minister: mandarins frustrate Miliband's green revolution
His brief is to lead the fight against climate change. But civil servants have other ideas
It was designed as a symbol of the Government's firm commitment to curbing climate change – a new department, with a bright, ambitious Secretary of State, dedicated to planning Britain's energy production around curbing greenhouse emissions and streamlining the fight to save the planet.
But after taking the plaudits from environmentalists and campaigners, all is not well at Ed Miliband's Department for Energy and Climate Change (DECC). Almost half a year after it was formed, it is beset with organisational problems, a severe backlog of paperwork and vacancies in key posts. Mr Miliband faces a battle of wills with senior civil servants still committed to cheap, fossil-fuel energy production.
Whitehall mandarins now under Mr Miliband's new department, which took over responsibilities held by the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) and the Business Department, are still working in different buildings.
The top team of officials remains incomplete. Despite leading the fight against climate change, DECC has yet to fill the key role of chief scientific adviser. Robert Watson, who holds the position at Defra and who environmentalists see as the Government's leading expert on climate change, has not made the move to Mr Miliband's department.
Mr Miliband has had to order a paperwork "blitz" after MPs complained of not receiving answers to letters and parliamentary questions sent to ministers and civil servants, in violation of Whitehall rules. Its website has also been hit by delays, only becoming fully operational this month. Mr Miliband recently told MPs on the DECC Select Committee that some of his staff in the new department had not been "adequately prepared".
Even Mr Miliband has been affected by the ongoing teething problems. One high-profile political colleague was surprised to find the Climate Change Secretary holding a meeting in a small side room with plastic chairs, rather than in the more suitable surroundings of a ministerial office.
"After holding court in the plush ministerial office of [former Environment secretary] Hilary Benn, it was a bit of a change to find Ed in a small room with plastic chairs, a table and a white board," said an official present at the meeting. "It looked like a classroom."
The problems have undermined the widely praised progress made by Mr Miliband around the cabinet table. He angered members of the environmental lobby over the continued expansion of Heathrow, while at the same time falling out with the Transport Secretary, Geoff Hoon, in winning environmental concessions. He managed to gain government backing for the ambitious (albeit faraway) target of reducing greenhouse gas emissions by 80 per cent by 2050.
But his eagerness to push a green agenda has not only dented his relationship with cabinet colleagues. There are rumours in Whitehall that senior civil servants wedded to coal and nuclear energy – those joining him from Lord Mandelson's Business Department – are stifling Mr Miliband's plans to move energy policy away from a staunchly pro-business agenda. Some figures making the move, such as the department's director general of energy, Willy Rickett, remain committed to fossil fuel energy production and nuclear power.
Mr Miliband is said to have received short shrift from certain civil servants after he suggested they needed to place Lord Turner's report into climate change (which originally proposed the 80 per cent emissions cut) at the centre of their thinking on Britain's energy supply.
Allies of Mr Miliband played down the problems yesterday. One insisted: "Ed has not had any problems with gaining control of the officials working for him and the [restructuring] changes made to the department before Christmas were planned from day one."
A spokesman for the department admitted that it was experiencing integration problems: "Establishing the new department is well advanced but it inevitably takes time to bring people together under one roof in a new location." But he said that the DECC should be judged on policy: "From day one Ed Miliband and his officials have been firmly and effectively focused on pushing forward policy to tackle climate change and secure clean and affordable energy for Britain."
Simon Hughes, the Liberal Democrats' spokesman on climate change, said the problems at DECC were a "classic example of reorganisation on the hoof".
"Not surprisingly, there have been internal problems with staffing from top to bottom. "They have had problems about deciding departmental boundaries – and they're still not entirely clear or logical," he said.
"By definition they have therefore had problems with budgets – because these are set annually at least. And they have had problems sorting out their message with a website that has only just come online. None of this inspires confidence."
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