- Constitution Committee Contents

Examination of Witnesses (Question Numbers 34-39)

Professor Martin Smith, Dr Richard Heffernan and Professor Dennis Kavanagh

Dr Heffernan: I am Richard Heffernan. I teach at the Open University and I am a professor at the University of Notre Dame.

10 JUNE 2009

Q34 Chairman: Professor Smith, Dr Heffernan and Professor Kavanagh, can I welcome you to the Committee and thank you very much indeed for braving the difficulties of transport this morning. You are very welcome. We are being recorded; so could I ask you formally to identify yourselves for the record?

Professor Smith: I am Martin Smith. I am Professor of Politics at the University of Sheffield.

Professor Kavanagh: Dennis Kavanagh, Emeritus Professor at the University of Liverpool.

Q35 Chairman: Can I kick off by asking which key constitutional issues you think that we should have in our minds in connection with our inquiry into the role of the Cabinet Office and the centre of government?

Professor Kavanagh: Can I make two suggestions? First, I think there is the question of the accountability of the informal office of the Prime Minister to the House of Commons and the relationship between that office and the Cabinet Office. The other thing particularly emerging from last week, I thought, is that the centre—which is a relatively new term in British politics and British Government—needs to be aware of the constitutional responsibilities of permanent secretaries both to Parliament and their duties of care towards their ministers, rather than towards the Prime Minister or the Cabinet Secretary.

Professor Smith: I would agree. I think that accountability is the key issue. One of the problems about accountability is that it is not clear who is making decisions in the centre and who is responsible for decisions. I think that if you do not know who is responsible then you cannot hold people to account. The second issue, which I think is a broader issue in terms of British Government, is in the sense of what are the rules. What are the rules for who should do what? Who has responsibility for what? Who has what powers? I think that there is a broader issue about do we actually need to define what the rules of different aspects of central government are.

Dr Heffernan: The three stated functions of the Cabinet Office that are referred to in all of its documentation—about supporting the Prime Minister, supporting the Cabinet and strengthening the Civil Service—I think are three functions that are essentially incompatible. The reality on the ground is that the Cabinet Office is expected to do too much. I think that there is a strong case for regularising what is in a sense the reality, which is creating a Prime Minister's Department, however it is titled, which essentially, with a Permanent Secretary in Number 10 now, one could argue exists in all but name. As to the old argument about the Prime Minister's Department and whether that would over-strengthen the centre, I think that scholars and practitioners might well recognise that formalising what has become an informal arrangement would actually strengthen the role of the centre and may well be able to enhance the role that the Cabinet Office plays in terms of supporting the Civil Service and supporting the Government beyond the Prime Minister.

Q36 Lord Peston: I would ask Professor Smith if he could enlarge on something. I think that you started off with the sentence, "What are the rules?" and you half-backtracked because you took it that—the standard bill of politics in this country—probably there are no rules. However, I was not clear whether your final conclusion was going to be, "... but there should be rules", explicit rules.

Professor Smith: I think that there should be explicit rules. If you were really going to go a long way, you would have a written constitution which said, "These are the powers and functions of the Cabinet Office. These are the powers and functions of the Prime Minister's Office. These are the powers and functions of the Treasury". I am not a lawyer but in a sense, of course, most of these things in Britain are almost common law. Lord Norton knows much more about this than I do. It is an issue that it is custom and practice, and the problem is that those customs and practices are not consistent; they change according to ministers; they change according to Prime Ministers; they change across government. If we at least knew clearly and the rules were clearly stated, we could then, when someone had gone beyond their powers, say who should be accountable for decisions and we could say who should be doing what.

Q37 Lord Morris of Aberavon: Professor Smith, you singled out the Permanent Secretary's accountability and role. What do you mean by that? The Permanent Secretary is the accounting officer and that is a financial role—or does it mean something more than that?

Professor Smith: I think it was Professor Kavanagh who singled that out.

Professor Kavanagh: The minister is accountable to Parliament and the officials and the politicians answer before select committees. Ministerial responsibility is a key concept of the British constitution and civil servants do have a duty to take their direction from the Secretary of State that they are working for.

Q38 Lord Morris of Aberavon: There is nothing distinct, other than that they have a duty? The point I singled out was that there was a duty of a Permanent Secretary to Parliament. Is there such a thing or was that a mishearing on my part?

Professor Kavanagh: Yes, there is, as an accounting officer.

Professor Smith: I think that this is a bigger issue, which is the way in which ministers dominate political government institutions in the British political system, which blurs the lines in terms of who is accountable for decisions between civil servants and ministers. Again, it comes back to the rules being written and distinguishing who should be accountable for what, in a very clear way.

Q39 Lord Rowlands: You have said that we need rules. Can you write a couple for us now?

Professor Smith: It is very difficult to write particular rules, but I would have a set of rules that said, "The Cabinet is responsible for these functions". As we already accept, the Cabinet is responsible for writing the minutes for Cabinet and ensuring that the departments are then informed of those minutes, and the departments then have the responsibility for implementing them. I think that we need a similar set of rules in terms of what should the Prime Minister's Office be responsible for. We know, at least in principle, what the relationship is between the Cabinet Office and the departments. We actually do not know in a clear way what are the lines of accountability, responsibility and authority between a Prime Minister's Office and departments.

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