DTI’s role clearly calls for more strength and vision

Civil servants at the Department of Trade and Industry who might have been quaking in anticipation of an overhaul and re-positioning of the department would have breathed a sigh of relief last week.

When trade and industry secretary Stephen Byers delivered his verdict on the way forward for the DTI we found it was pretty much as before. Since it was August, he was able to get a few headlines on things he has said before: subsidies are only for exceptional circumstances; regionally-based initiatives are important to tackle the discrepancies between regions.

Beyond that there was a commitment that the DTI would be more business-like, responding quickly to things such as grant applications.

Those who had expected Mr Byers to shape an industrial policy were disappointed. But he does intend to share further thoughts on UK industry, with a speech in the autumn focusing on manufacturing.

Perhaps there can be no such thing as a clear industrial policy in a globalised economy. The government maintains that a stable economic climate is the biggest thing it can deliver for business. On top of that it can try to limit taxation and regulation and put money into infrastructure.

None of this need involve the DTI. But would industry be any better off without it? In the main, industry leaders believe that Mr Byers listens to, and understands, their problems. The same is not always said of the Treasury, which can seem adept at crafting problems which have their greatest impact on heavy and large business such as the Climate Change Levy and the mixer tax for multinationals.

But whether or not Mr Byers can do much is another matter. Even regional development work to bolster local economic strengths and reduce dependence on particular industries has little firepower in terms of resources, despite the increase in the Comprehensive Spending Review.

But the move to integrate responsibility for the regional development agencies into the DTI rather than the Department for the Environment, Transport and the Regions was important. It underlined the agencies’ economic role as opposed to focusing on the type of regeneration which makes an area look prettier but doesn’t generate jobs.

The Conservatives are considering slimming down the DTI into more of an enterprise ministry. This could send regional work back to the DETR and could leave business lobbying what they may consider a Treasury without good industrial experience or understanding.

There is a need for the DTI to be industry’s first port of call in the government. There is also the need for it to have some strength and a little more vision.

Christine Buckley is industry editor of The Times

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