Prescott's ministries seek common ground

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Civil servants at the Department of Transport are becoming concerned that their ministry will be engulfed by the larger and more powerful Environment Department under the new arrangements created by the Labour Government.

In the first attempt to work out priorities and ways of working together, ministers and senior officials from both depart- ments are meeting all day today at Chevening, the weekend residence now used jointly by John Prescott, the Deputy Prime Minister, and Robin Cook, the foreign secretary.

The meeting will be the first chance for the two departments to define common areas of working which Mr Prescott is very keen to encourage.

However, sources in the two departments suggest there is more support within the Environment Department for strong links, which might lead to an eventual merger. A senior source said: "The problem is getting both to sing from the same hymn sheet. Transport has bruised egos at the moment as they are worried they may be engulfed by Environment, which is a larger department."

Indeed, while Transport employs 1,800 civil servants centrally, the Department of the Environment has about 50 per cent more staff and a much wider range of responsibilities. Moreover, the Department of Transport has no legislative programme set out in the Queen's Speech, while there are three environment Bills concerned with council housing sales receipts, a mayor for London and regional development agencies.

The only hope of transport legislation was a short Bill to strengthen regulatory powers and to create a strategic rail authority, but this was rejected in favour of producing a White Paper on the issue. A Transport source said: "One problem was that Environment had the job of putting up bids for the Bills for both departments and obviously ours got a lower priority."

The one remaining hope of transport legislation is the privatisation of the National Air Traffic Services, which became an election issue and remains very much on the agenda, provided that ministers can be assured there is no safety risk.

Civil servants are also worried about the strange ministerial structure created by the Government which leaves both departments unhappy.

While Mr Prescott is the Secretary of State for both departments, in the Department of Transport he has Gavin Strang, who is also a Cabinet minister. However, while Environment has no other Cabinet minister, it has Michael Meacher and four other junior department ministers, compared with only Glenda Jackson and Lady Hayman in Transport.

An Environment source said: "We don't really understand why they have done this. We need someone in the Cabinet, while Transport needs more bodies to help Glenda with the workload."