The Cabinet Office and the Centre of Government - Constitution Committee Contents

The Cabinet Office and the Centre of Government

CHAPTER 1: Introduction

1.  In March 2009, the Committee began an inquiry into "the contemporary workings of the Cabinet Office and the centre of government." The origin of the Cabinet Office can be traced back to 1916:

"The Cabinet Secretariat was formed in December 1916 to record the proceedings of the Cabinet; to transmit the decisions to 11 departments concerned in giving effect to them or otherwise interested; to prepare agenda papers, arrange for the attendance of Ministers and other persons concerned, and procure and circulate documents required for discussion; and to attend to correspondence connected with the work of the Cabinet. Until this point no formal record had been made of the proceedings of Cabinet. Primarily this role related to the Cabinet itself but was extended to cover Cabinet committees as they were established." (Cabinet Office memorandum, p 119)

2.  The role of the Cabinet Office has evolved over time. The Cabinet Office states now that its three core functions are supporting the Prime Minister, supporting the Cabinet, and strengthening the Civil Service. (p 117)

3.  The Cabinet Office cannot be viewed in isolation from the other principal elements of the "centre of government"—the Treasury and the Prime Minister's Office. We therefore decided that the inquiry should take account of these three elements, the relationships between them, and the roles of the Cabinet Secretary, the Prime Minister, the Chancellor of the Exchequer and the Minister for the Cabinet Office. We have attempted to ensure that the Cabinet Office remains the focus of this inquiry, but have also sought to reflect upon the role of other participants at the centre of government.[1]

4.  The centre reflects and impacts upon several key features of the UK's structure of government:

  • The role of the Prime Minister;
  • Cabinet government and the principle of collective ministerial responsibility;
  • Departmental responsibility and accountability for policy;
  • The way in which policy originates and is co-ordinated across departments;
  • The accountability of government to Parliament; and
  • The role of the Cabinet Secretary and the Civil Service.

5.  We asked each oral witness what they saw as the main constitutional principles relating to consideration of the Cabinet Office and the centre of government. Five themes emerged:

  • Accountability of the centre;
  • The role of the Prime Minister;
  • The role of Cabinet and the principle of collective responsibility;
  • The constitutional role of the Civil Service and its relationship with other key players; and
  • The changing role and function of the centre.

6.  Rachel Lomax, a former departmental Permanent Secretary, told us that "the big one is accountability. If you have a department at the centre that defines itself as being responsible for making government work better, which is what the Cabinet Office does at the moment, the question of who is it accountable to, and for what, is something which needs to be thought about quite carefully." (Q 184)

7.  This report considers:

  • Whether the function of the Cabinet Office in supporting the Cabinet has changed, and if so, how;
  • The roles of the Prime Minister, the Cabinet Secretary and the Minister for the Cabinet Office;
  • The nature of the Cabinet Office's relationships with the Cabinet, the Prime Minister's Office, HM Treasury, and other government departments;
  • The extent to which the Cabinet Office and the centre are subject to effective parliamentary accountability;
  • Whether the centre provides for effective co-ordination of the Executive's activities.

8.  In our view, structures of accountability should mirror structures of power, and where structures of power have changed, the structures of accountability should be adjusted accordingly. Two considerations flow from this view:

  • Upholding and improving parliamentary accountability;
  • Ensuring that all elements of the centre, and all aspects of the centre's work are transparent.

9.  In the following three chapters we examine the role of the Cabinet Office in relation to each of its three core functions. In Appendix 3 we recite the historical context for the development of the centre, and seek to explain how it operates today.

10.  The Committee took oral evidence from 28 witnesses over ten sessions, and received 15 written submissions. We have been assisted in our work by Professor David Richards, Reader, Department of Politics, University of Sheffield, who has acted as Specialist Adviser for the inquiry.

1   See Appendix 4 for a diagrammatic representation of the centre. Back

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