Covering letter from Sir Gus O'Donnell KCB, Cabinet
I would like to thank the Committee for their thoughtful
and helpful report into the lessons from the process of Government
formation after the 2010 General Election.
I am pleased that the Committee concludes that the
process of government formation and transition generally went
well. The Civil Service had made significant preparations to ensure
that it was able to fulfil its obligations in accordance with
the standards set out in the Civil Service Code, in particular:
to continue effectively serving the government of the day; to
support political parties in their negotiations to determine the
shape of the new government and achieve a smooth transition; and
to support the new government immediately from day one.
I am grateful for the Committee's comments on the
process. Please find attached a copy of the Government's response.
I look forward to giving evidence to your Committee
on 10 March.
9 March 2011
1. The Government is grateful for the Political
Reform and Constitution Committee's Report on 'Lessons from the
process of Government formation after the 2010 General Election'.
2. The Committee has made four recommendations in
relation to the text in the Cabinet
Manual. We note that the Committee will also publish
a report on the constitutional implications of the Cabinet Manual.
We will respond to the Committee's points in detail
once we have received comments on the Cabinet Manual,
and it is finalised. We will also
respond to the recommendations in relation to the
role and powers of the Prime Minister following the Committee's
inquiry into it.
3. This Government response addresses each of the
Committee's conclusions and recommendations.
Response to conclusions and recommendations
4. Recommendation One: Our comments on the Cabinet
Manual in this Report relate only to the issue of government formation.
We will return in due course to wider issues raised by the Cabinet
Manual. (Paragraph 5)
5. We look forward to receiving the Committee's further
report on the Cabinet Manual.
The First Opportunity
to Form a Government.
6. Recommendation Two: The December 2010 Cabinet
Manual provided greater clarity on the extent to which an incumbent
government has a right to stay in office to see whether it can
command the confidence of the House of Commons. However, the inclusion
of the comments made in May 2010 by the Leader of the Liberal
Democrat party may suggest that this view will carry weight in
future. (Paragraph 15)
7. We welcome the Committee's views that the draft
Cabinet Manual chapter was "a crucial explanatory document"
(p8) and that it provided greater clarity.
8. The Liberal Democrat Leader's comments (footnote
8 of the Cabinet Manual) set out the negotiating position of the
Liberal Democrats, which was relevant in the specific circumstances
of 2010 election. It was included for information and is not a
constitutional obligation or binding on political parties in the
future. The Government will consider whether the Manual should
be amended once all responses have been received on the draft.
WHEN SHOULD A PRIME MINISTER RESIGN?
9. Recommendation Three: Gordon Brown resigned
at a constitutionally appropriate time. He did not have a constitutional
obligation to remain in office for longer, nor to resign sooner.
10. We note the Committee's views. Gordon Brown
resigned at a constitutionally appropriate time, putting the public
interest above his own personal interest and setting a helpful
precedent should such circumstances ever arise in future.
11. Recommendation Four: There needs to be clear
and well-understood published guidance about when an incumbent
Prime Minister should resign and when he has a duty to remain
in office, in particular whether this extends to a duty to remain
in office until there is clarity as to the form of an alternative
Government, as opposed to simply the name of an alternative Prime
Minister. Reaction to the events of May 2010 suggests that more
detailed guidance was needed then. Reaction to the revised text
in the December 2010 Cabinet Manual suggests that it may not go
far enough. (Paragraph 27)
12. The Government notes the Committee's conclusion
and is aware that it and other committees are currently considering
the Cabinet Manual in more detail. The manual will be finalised
once all comments have been received on the draft.
APPOINTMENT OF THE PRIME MINISTER
13. Recommendation Five: There are arguments both
for and against the idea of an investiture vote after a general
election in which the House of Commons would choose a Prime Minister
before he or she was appointed by the Monarch. It is an idea that
we may wish to consider further in future. (Paragraph 35)
14. We note that the Committee will consider this
issue further as part of their inquiry into the Role and Powers
of the Prime Minister. We will respond once we have considered
the Committee's conclusions.
THE ROLE OF THE CIVIL SERVICE AND THE CABINET SECRETARY
15. Recommendation Six: We welcome the inclusion
in the December 2010 Cabinet Manual of guidance on civil service
support to government formation negotiations. We recommend that
final guidance should take pains to protect civil servants from
accusations of political interference, taking account of the fact
that much of the support on offer in 2010 was not taken up. (Paragraph
16. Civil Service support to the negotiations involved
the provision of factual information, logistical support and advice
on constitutional processes. It was consistent with the Civil
Service values set out in the Civil Service Code. We anticipate
that future offers of Civil Service support would continue to
be made with the Prime Minister's authorisation only and it would
be for individual parties to determine whether to take up that
offer. Any such offers of support in future will continue to be
made on the basis of the requirements of the Civil Service Code.
STATUS OF THE COALITION AGREEMENT
17. Recommendation Seven: By its nature, the policies
of a coalition government have not been endorsed by the people.
This makes full pre-legislative scrutiny and proper consultation
on those policies all the more important. (Paragraph 53)
18. The Government is fully committed to consultation
and pre-legislative scrutiny, where appropriate. It improves the
quality of legislation and provides for public engagement. A number
of bills will be published in draft over the session although
there will be exceptions where Government priorities need to be
presented at an early opportunity. A 'public reading' stage is
being piloted on the Protection of Freedoms Bill with the aim
of making the legislative process more transparent and open to
19. Recommendation Eight: Members of the House
of Lords may not feel bound to apply the Salisbury-Addison convention
to policies contained in a coalition government's programme for
government. (Paragraph 54)
20. The Government continues to agree with the analysis
of the Joint Committee on Conventions in 2006namely, that
the Salisbury-Addison convention is just one manifestation of
the convention that the House of Lords respects the primacy of
the elected House. That Committee's Report was accepted by both
Houses. As the Joint Committee acknowledged, it is very rare for
the House of Lords to oppose any Government Bill at second reading,
manifesto or otherwise, as it is a negation of its accepted role
in the process as primarily a revising chamber.
INTERNAL PARTY PROCESSES
21. Recommendation Nine: It is for the political
parties to decide if they wish to review their internal procedures
in light of the events of May 2010. (Paragraph 60)
22. We agree. This is not a matter for Government.
23. Recommendation Ten: We welcome the clarification
and further detail of restrictions on government activity set
out in the December 2010 Cabinet Manual. (Paragraph 66)
24. We welcome the Committee's comments.
25. Recommendation Eleven: We recommend that the
Cabinet Manual should be amended to:
a) reflect that restrictions on public announcements
apply not only in the weeks before an election but also in situations
where there is doubt as to who can command the confidence of the
House of Commons; and,
b) make clear that the restrictions which apply
to government activity where there is doubt as to who can command
the confidence of the House of Commons are more stringent than
those which apply to government activity before an election. (Paragraph
26. We note the Committee's views on restrictions
that should apply on Government activity and will consider them
alongside other comments we have received on the draft Cabinet
RESTRICTIONS IN PRACTICE
27. Recommendation Twelve: Where an incumbent
Government needs to take a decision on an important matter that
cannot be postponed during a period where restrictions on government
activity apply, the duty to consult Opposition parties is more
than a matter of courtesy. It is a recognition of an uncertain
democratic mandate. We welcome the fact that the draft Cabinet
Manual now makes this clear. (Paragraph 76)
28. We welcome the Committee comments on the revised
wording in the Cabinet Manual. We agree with the principle that
the Opposition should be consulted but note that the Government
retains responsibility for taking decisions.
29. Recommendation Thirteen: We recommend that
civil service guidance should be drawn up and published on facilitating
consultation between political parties during periods in which
restrictions on government activity apply. This guidance should
set out the processes to be followed where differences of opinion
arise between Ministers and civil servants on the application
of the restrictions. With regard to the specific issue of a Minister
making a written direction to an Accounting Officer in the period
before a general election, we recommend that the Government, in
consultation with the Comptroller and Auditor General, should
consider whether it would be better that the Accounting Officer
should copy the relevant papers promptly to the Comptroller, in
the expectation that he will publish them as soon as possible,
rather than expect the Accounting Officer to arrange for their
publication himself. (Paragraph 81)
30. We agree with the Committee and will publish
updated civil service guidance on facilitating consultation between
political parties in advance of the next General Election.
31. We note the Committee's recommendation that the
Accounting Officer copies relevant papers to the Comptroller and
Auditor General in the expectation that they will be published
promptly. We are in the process of consulting the Comptroller
PRE-ELECTION CONTACT BETWEEN THE CIVIL SERVICE AND
32. Recommendation Fourteen: It is for the Prime
Minister to determine when contact between civil servants and
opposition parties can take place. There is no reason, however,
why the authorisation for such contact could not be given in advance,
as a matter of course, soon after a general election, rather than
at a time when speculation about the future of an incumbent government
may inhibit a decision. (Paragraph 85)
33. We note the Committee's recommendation.