The Department of Trade and Industry has been attacked by all political sides recently, with the Government, the Opposition and the Lib Dems advocating a culling of jobs at the government department. The level of cutbacks and the motivation for making them vary widely. Blair wants to get rid of 1,500 of the 5,000 civil servants working there. The Tories would axe 4,000 jobs and the Liberals want to scrap the ministry altogether. As with many a government department, the DTI is criticised for being out of touch with business needs and an advocate of unwanted bureaucratic measures. But is it realistic to expect that the DTI could ever win the favour of both government and business?
Patricia Hewitt, Secretary of State for Trade and Industry, told MT last year: 'We'll always have our critics, it's part of the job. But the fact of the matter is that if the DTI didn't exist you would have to invent it.' Fair point - so far, no-one has come up with a viable alternative. Hewitt, a fervent advocate of work/life balance, has persuaded enlightened UK businesses to pursue a more modern approach to workforce welfare, introducing paternity leave, extending maternity leave and encouraging flexible working. But for every supporter, count an opponent bemoaning the nanny state approach, which they believe does nothing to stimulate an underproductive workforce.
THE STRAIGHT TALK
There is no doubt that commerce needs the DTI, but it's a love/hate relationship that has failed to mature into a mutually respectful marriage. Its noble aims of increasing prosperity for all, striving to achieve a fair balance between work and home life, and stimulating innovation and productivity are all well and good - and Britain's best companies heed the advice.
But for many middle-of-the-road companies, it would seem that this government department, which has been around in one form or another since the Board of Trade was created in 1621, is more of a hindrance than a help. For them at least, the DTI's raison d'etre is to bind them in red tape.
The DTI has become a political football. Everyone has an opinion, but no-one has any idea what should be set up in its place. As a government/business go-between, it will always have a tough time. And Hewitt seems unlikely to be there at the next election - after three years in the hot seat, she is said to be ready for the next challenge. We wait and see.