Culture ministry may be abolished in war on red tape

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The Independent Online

The Department for Culture, Media and Sport is under threat of abolition after the election under a shake-up of ministries masterminded by Tony Blair's blue-skies-thinking adviser, John Birt.

The Department for Culture, Media and Sport is under threat of abolition after the election under a shake-up of ministries masterminded by Tony Blair's blue-skies-thinking adviser, John Birt.

Sources close to government believe the department could be the sacrificial lamb to counter Tory allegations that the number of civil servants has soared since Labour came to power.

It is being suggested that the idea has taken on extra momentum since Lord Birt, a former BBC director general, was seen to lose out to Tessa Jowell, the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport, over the future of the BBC which was outlined in a Green Paper earlier this year.

He was said to back proposals for a new regulator to govern the BBC and for part of the licence fee to be distributed to rival broadcasters, but Ms Jowell secured the Prime Minister's support for a less radical programme of reform.

Closing the Department for Culture would upset members of the culture, media and sport communities, whose profile is deemed to have been raised by having their own secretary of state.

It would also be resisted by many MPs who have fought hard - and successfully - for extra funds for the arts and sport.

"You can't say 'The Government cares about the arts, but by the way, we're planning to abolish your ministry'," said one source after being told of the plans.

But after the Gershon and Hampton reviews recommended further efficiency measures for government, Conservative criticisms of a burgeoning Whitehall bureaucracy appear to have hit a nerve with Mr Blair's closest advisers.

"One of the areas where they think the Tories have resonance is on bureaucracy and the numbers of civil servants and how public sector jobs have rocketed," one civil servant said. "One easy thing to do is to abolish a government department."

Abolition would be technically feasible. There was no culture department until John Major as Prime Minister created the Department for National Heritage in 1992, which gave the minister responsible for the arts a place in the Cabinet for the first time.

It has already been suggested that if Britain wins the bid to host the 2012 Olympics responsibility for sport would move to the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister, not least because it already deals with the kind of major regeneration that would be required.

At the time of the last election, some at the Department of Trade and Industry were keen to take on responsibility for broadcasting and the creative industries in place of the DCMS. However, it appears that this time round the highly staffed DTI is also under threat from Lord Birt's reorganisation.

Although whispers of the plan have reached some arts organisations, the work of Lord Birt is largely conducted in considerable secrecy as past strategy papers have infuriated those affected by them.

It is understood that only a small group of people in the Prime Minister's office are being consulted on Lord Birt's thinking about the machinery of government - which has been partly interpreted as a stripping away of some of the powers of the Treasury under Gordon Brown.

Details of the proposal appear to have been leaked now because of fears that otherwise the first that would be known about the proposals would be when the Prime Minister announced a new cabinet.

The idea has emerged a week after the Select Committee for Culture, Media and Sport called for greater support for the department and its work.

Gerald Kaufman, chairman of the committee, said last week: "For some reason, secretaries of state, whether under Conservative governments or Labour governments, have not realised the primacy of the department both in terms of the economy of the country, but also in terms of the soul of the country."

Lord Birt was unavailable for comment last night.