Cabinet Manual - Public Administration Committee Contents

4  Evolution and revision

New Zealand and evolution

43. In his February speech to the IfG about the draft Manual, Sir Gus, acknowledged that "Although we would like to take the credit, this was not a new idea. A Cabinet Manual has been an important part of government operation in New Zealand for some years."[49] The forward to the draft Manual notes that New Zealand has gradually developed its own Cabinet Manual which is now seen as an "authoritative guide to central government decision making for Ministers, their offices and those working within government."[50] The New Zealand version was first circulated to senior officials in 1979, and first published openly in 1991.[51] There are a number of lessons to be drawn from the New Zealand experience. The first is that their manual was developed in a changing political context with for example, the introduction of the Mixed Member Proportional (MMP) electoral system and the advent of minority or coalition governments which brought into question and tested established, unwritten conventions about the operation of government.[52]

44. Inevitably, transplanting the name and the concept of a cabinet manual to the UK has given rise to the belief that this is a finished product. It is not. The New Zealand manual has developed and adapted over a period of twenty years. It has led to a change in form as well as in content. For example it is now accompanied by an internet based CabGuide containing detailed administrative advice for civil servants, removing "much of the detailed procedural guidance about Cabinet and Cabinet committee processes" from the Manual.[53]

45. We expect the UK version of the Cabinet Manual will evolve in form and content over time. As the New Zealand precedent shows, guidance becomes more useful in times of political uncertainty or controversy. The draft chapter on the formation of government has amply demonstrated that in this country. We would expect that in future other events may call into question different parts of the Cabinet Manual which will need to be tested against the circumstances prevailing at that time and adjusted accordingly.

Revising the manual

46. Ensuring the Manual is up to date will be important if it is to remain relevant. This raises two questions: when should it be revised and how? It is inevitable that the Cabinet Manual will be the subject of regular review in the next few years. As the foreword rightly notes, there is a raft of legislation currently before Parliament which, if enacted, will require changes to the draft Manual. Some, for example the referendum on the additional powers of the Welsh Assembly, have already been decided. We also expect other Government reforms to have consequential impact on current practices and conventions. In particular the Government plans for greater decentralisation and enhanced local accountability may eventually need to be reflected here. This will require frequent updating of the Manual at certain periods. An online version which is regularly updated with hyperlinks to extant statutes, guidance and other relevant documents is the only practicable way of ensuring the Cabinet Manual remains current.

47. The draft Manual also envisages "an updated hard copy publication at the start of each parliament."[54] The House of Lords Constitution Committee has expressed reservations about associating the production of new editions too closely to the political calendar and hence the administration currently in power.[55]

48. In our view a major revision of the Cabinet Manual will inevitably have to follow a general election as a result of re-issue of the Ministerial Code, machinery of government changes and related questions about the organisation of government. A revised hard copy edition at this point is likely to coincide with the most significant period of reform to government practices during the lifetime of a Parliament.



49. The New Zealand Cabinet Manual is endorsed by the Cabinet at the start of each new Parliament. The reason for this is because:

    Successive governments have recognised the need for guidance to provide the basis on which they will conduct themselves while in office. The Cabinet Manual fulfils this need.[56]

50. However, in the UK, it is the Ministerial Code which has developed as the principal means by which Ministers are expected to conduct themselves in office. The Prime Minister can influence the contents of the Manual, particularly at the start of an administration, by re-issuing the Ministerial Code. In addition, a number of commentators have expressed concern that the Cabinet is only empowered to endorse those practices which it has introduced.

51. In our view there should be a strong parallel between the way the Cabinet Manual is produced compared and Erskine May, the guide to Parliamentary practice. The improvements we recommend will focus the Manual on guidance to the Executive and particularly for civil servants. It will distinguish the status of each sort of information contained in the Manual and it will be accurately and comprehensively referenced. The Cabinet Office should also consult widely when it prepares new editions. Taken together it should ensure that the Cabinet Office is not subject to criticism that it is seeking to set its own interpretation on conventions but that it is genuinely producing a document "by the Executive for the Executive".

52. The Cabinet Manual, as a guide to government practice, should be left to officials to update and to review at regular intervals as chroniclers and record keepers—subject to proper and regular consultation. It should not be for the Cabinet to approve or endorse it but it will be for ministers to decide how far they can and should take account of the precedents in the Manual.


53. We heard views that Parliamentary endorsement of the draft Cabinet Manual would serve to endow it with a status which, as a piece of official guidance, it did not warrant. An alternative view was that in a representative democracy an endorsement by Parliament would represent general public acceptability.[57] The current consultation process has provoked a valuable and educative discussion in which Parliament, through its select committees, had taken an active part. This should be the limit of Parliament's involvement.

54. We welcome the dialogue through which the Cabinet Secretary has sought to engage the relevant select committees of Parliament in his consultation over the draft Cabinet Manual. It is a dialogue we wish to see continue as the document evolves. It will also provide Parliament with a useful means by which to scrutinise good practice and the standard of our public administration. However, we do not consider that it is appropriate for Parliament to seek to endorse what is a guidance document for ministers and civil servants.

49   'Cabinet Secretary Speech on the Cabinet Manual' Cabinet Office 24 February 2011 Back

50   Cabinet Office, Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet, Cabinet Manual 2008 (Wellington NZ, 2008) Back

51   "The Cabinet Manual: Evolution with Time" Paper presented by Rebecca Kitteridge, Deputy Secretary of the Cabinet, 8th Annual Public Law Forum 20-21 March 2006, Department for the Prime Minister and Cabinet, March 2006, Back

52   IbidBack

53   Ibid.  Back

54   Cabinet Office, The Cabinet Manual - Draft, December 2010 p 7 Back

55   House of Lords Select Committee on the Constitution, Twelfth Report of Session 2010-2011, The Cabinet Manual, HL 107, p. 23 Back

56   Cabinet Office, Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet, Cabinet Manual 2008 (Wellington NZ, 2008) p xvii Back

57   PASC Seminar, 1 March 2011 Back

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Prepared 1 April 2011