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

CHAPTER 2: Supporting the Prime Minister

11.  A core responsibility of the Cabinet Office is "Supporting the Prime Minister—to define and deliver the Government's objectives".[2]

The Cabinet Office and the Prime Minister's Office

12.  In the opinion of several witnesses, a key issue was the relationship between the Cabinet Office and the Prime Minister's Office. The Cabinet Secretary, Sir Gus O'Donnell, said that prior to 1997, the Prime Minister's Office "comprised of four main areas: a private office, a political office, a press office and policy unit. Between 1997 and 2001 changes made included the appointment of a Chief of Staff, the creation of a Strategic Communications Unit and the Social Exclusion and Performance and Innovation Units (reporting to the Prime Minister although they were based in the Cabinet Office). Following the General Election in 2001 the policy unit was merged to form a policy directorate. In addition three new units were set up, the Prime Minister's Delivery Unit, the Office of Public Sector Reform and the Prime Minister's Forward Strategy Unit again all based in the Cabinet Office." (p 170) According to figures provided by the Cabinet Office, the Prime Minister's Office currently has 200 members of staff on its payroll, an increase of 79 since 1998, but lower than the high of 226 in 2005. (p 166)

13.  Evidence conflicted about the relationship between the Cabinet Office and the Prime Minister's Office. In the view of some witnesses, the boundary between the two was blurred. Sir Richard Mottram, a former departmental Permanent Secretary and senior official at the Cabinet Office, asserted that "it is difficult to disentangle the roles and responsibilities of 'Number 10' and 'the Cabinet Office'", although "Number 10 is part of the Cabinet Office for public expenditure planning purposes". (p 34)

14.  Professor Peter Hennessy, Attlee Professor of Contemporary British History, Queen Mary University of London, argued that since May 1997 a Prime Minister's Department had existed, "in all but name pretty well a fusing of the Cabinet Office and Number 10" (Q 2), while Dr Richard Heffernan, Reader in Government, Open University, claimed that "we do not know where the Prime Minister's Department begins and where the Cabinet Office ends". (Q 40)

15.  The joint submission of three former Cabinet Secretaries, Lords Armstrong of Ilminster, Butler of Brockwell and Wilson of Dinton stressed that the two offices were functionally distinct: "The function of the Prime Minister's Office is to serve the Prime Minister exclusively, whereas the function of the Cabinet Office is to serve the Cabinet (including the Prime Minister as chairman of the Cabinet) collectively … In our view this functional distinction remains real, valid and important." (p 54)

16.  In the light of this evidence, we asked Sir Gus O'Donnell and the Permanent Secretary to the Prime Minister's Office, Jeremy Heywood, to explain their respective roles, and the nature of the relationship between the two offices.

17.  Sir Gus O'Donnell told us "there are not two departments. I stress there is one department. There is one Cabinet Office of which Number 10 is a subset … a business unit." (Q 377, p 161) He also stated that "they are functionally distinct within the Cabinet Office and Number 10 has been for decades part of the Cabinet Office. That works well. Number 10's particular function is supporting the Prime Minister but … when there comes a policy issue, they call upon the resources of the Cabinet Office." (Q 376)

18.  Jeremy Heywood told us that although "Number 10 has a discrete role and a discrete identity within the Cabinet Office, the border between the two is very porous. Many of the Prime Minister's top advisers are located in the Cabinet Office … the apparently clear distinction between the Prime Minister supported by Number 10 staff and the Cabinet Office supporting the Cabinet … just does not capture the reality of the situation." (Q 376)

19.  Jeremy Heywood is the first Permanent Secretary to the Prime Minister's Office, having been appointed by the Prime Minister in 2008. (p 170) He explained how his post had been created:

"Probably the biggest difference in some ways between the Blair Downing Street and the Brown Downing Street is that Tony Blair specifically had a chief of staff who was a special adviser, Jonathan Powell. Gordon Brown did not want to replicate that model … he decided about six months in that he needed a more senior figure to run Number 10 in the absence of a Jonathan Powell type figure … I was brought in not as a Chief of Staff, but as technically a second Permanent Secretary as the most senior person running Number 10 in the absence of the sort of special adviser model that we had under Tony Blair … From my perspective, I think it is a good idea to reassert the Civil Service being in the lead in Number 10 overall. I think that is a better model than the model from 1997 onwards." (Q 343)

20.  He also told us what his role entailed:

"I oversee the whole of Number 10 from the Civil Service perspective. I act as a sort of senior adviser to the Prime Minister day-to-day … I oversee Number 10—200 people. I make sure the Prime Minister has the advice and support he needs to carry out his multiple functions as head of government, Chairman of the Cabinet, Chairman of about 12 Cabinet committees". (QQ 343-4)

21.  Mr Heywood also sought to explain the nature of his relationship with the Cabinet Secretary, and with the Cabinet Office more widely:

"[I work] very closely with Gus … This is not some completely separate organisation. I get a lot of support from the rest of the Cabinet Office. Gus remains the Prime Minister's principal adviser on significant issues … I think there is a clear demarcation between really important issues of propriety or security or immensely difficult issues relating to individual personalities or whatever, where we keep Gus's powder dry for those. The day-to-day does require a certain gravitas and experience … Gus is the boss." (QQ 343-5, 378)

22.  We consider the role of the Cabinet Secretary in more detail in Chapter 4 below.

23.  The Minister for the Cabinet Office, Rt Hon Tessa Jowell MP, told us that "there are six senior officials of permanent secretary rank within the Cabinet Office". (Q 268) As well as Sir Gus O'Donnell and Jeremy Heywood, the six include Jon Cunliffe, the Prime Minister's adviser on international economic affairs and Europe, Matt Tee, Permanent Secretary for Government Communication, Alex Allan, Chairman of the Joint Intelligence Committee and Stephen Laws, Permanent Secretary at the Office of Parliamentary Counsel. (p 170) When we asked Sir Gus O'Donnell why this was so, he told us that "what you have in Number 10 and what Prime Ministers want is very senior people because what you have to do is talk to other governments … When you are talking to your opposite numbers at head of government level, you do need to have some very senior people. We will always be a very top-heavy department." (Q 428) However, Rachel Lomax told us that "part of this is because people want the recognition and they want the salary that goes with being a Permanent Secretary. But they do not have the accountability that goes with being a departmental Permanent Secretary. They are not doing a managerial job on the same scale. I would not attach too much importance to the titles. I think titles are there as a device for motivating people." (Q 199)

24.  Formally defining the administrative relationship between the Cabinet Office and the Prime Minister's Office is not simple, as there are no official documents codifying it. Some experts on Britain's machinery of government argue that they are two distinct, but closely-related entities operating at the centre of British Government.[3] The annual Civil Service Year Book presents the Cabinet Office and Prime Minister's Office as two distinct entities, with separate entries for each.[4]

25.  Sir Gus O'Donnell asserted that "there is one Cabinet Office of which Number 10 is a subset". This description of the relationship between the Cabinet Office and Prime Minister's Office was not reflected in other evidence that we received. It conflicts, for instance, with the statement of Lords Armstrong, Butler and Wilson, that the two offices are "functionally distinct". It is open to doubt whether Sir Gus O'Donnell's description of the Prime Minister's Office as a "subset" and a "business unit" goes beyond what Sir Richard Mottram told us, that "Number 10 is part of the Cabinet Office for public expenditure planning purposes", and whether it accurately describes how the centre operates in practice. We believe that the nature of this relationship should be clarified by the Cabinet Office, and should be reflected in government publications, which appear to suggest that the two offices are independent institutions.

26.  The role of the Prime Minister's Office is central to the role and structure of the centre of government. The establishment by the current Prime Minister of the post of Permanent Secretary to the Prime Minister's Office is an important step in the evolution of the structure of the centre. We recognise the arguments set out by Sir Gus O'Donnell and Jeremy Heywood in favour of the current arrangements, and Sir Gus O'Donnell's explanation of the role of the six permanent secretaries located in the Cabinet Office. We recommend that the Prime Minister's Office, and the Permanent Secretaries that operate within it, are subject to appropriate parliamentary accountability mechanisms.

The role of the Prime Minister

27.  Our evidence suggested that the role of the Prime Minister has changed, which has affected the structure and function of the centre. There was evidence that the Prime Minister's role depended on a combination of factors.


28.  Witnesses opined that each Prime Minister had a personal style which was often influenced by their personality or by their experience. Sir Gus O'Donnell told us that "the style of the Prime Minister is very important. I worked with John Major who had a very collegiate style. He used the Cabinet committees in that way. Tony Blair, when he came in in 1997 … had a strong emphasis on stock takes and delivery … There is a personality element." (QQ 383, 387) He also said that recent Prime Ministers had had varying levels of prior ministerial experience. (Q 387)

29.  Jeremy Heywood told us that Tony Blair and Gordon Brown "had different styles in many respects and some similarities. We found it important to be responsive to their changing styles, the way they wanted to work and of course the evolving priorities of the day." (Q 342) Professor Hennessy contrasted "destiny" Prime Ministers such as Margaret Thatcher and Tony Blair with those "more attuned to a collective style", such as James Callaghan and John Major. (Q 5)


30.  Witnesses also recognised that the power of any Prime Minister was highly dependent upon the political context of the time. Sir Gus O'Donnell told us that Gordon Brown's time as Prime Minister had been dominated by global events and the economic agenda. (Q 383)

31.  Lord Wilson told us that "Prime Ministers are only as powerful as their colleagues allow them to be. You may have times, we have had times, when Prime Ministers have been so strong that their colleagues accepted anything that they wanted to do … but that does not alter the fundamental fact that if circumstances are different and a Prime Minister is in a weak position … it is not possible for the Prime Minister to have his way". (Q 110)

32.  Sir Michael Barber, former Head of the Delivery Unit, referred to one specific example which illustrated that "the power of a given Prime Minister is very contingent on the moment … I remember in 2003 that one of the things Tony Blair was considering was ring-fencing funding for schools … but he chose not to take it to the Cabinet because he was exhausted. It was immediately after the Iraq War and he did not think he had the political capital to take it through … A year later there was exactly the same issue, exactly the same principles; he felt powerful enough to take it through, so you get an ebb and flow in prime ministerial power." (Q 220)


33.  We considered what Sir Robin Mountfield, former Permanent Secretary, Cabinet Office, referred to as a "secular trend" (Q 139) towards a more dominant Prime Minister. Dr Heffernan said that "there is a reality that the Prime Minister is much more now than primus inter pares [first among equals] … The old days of Baldwin and Attlee as chairmen of the Cabinet have gone … The Prime Minister will be much more significant than other ministers". (Q 53)

34.  Sir Gus O'Donnell asserted that the role of Prime Minister had evolved: "The number of overseas visits for the Prime Minister has gone up. That is a trend of globalisation. Prime Ministers inevitably are going to be much more involved in that global role and I think that is important." (Q 342) Sir Michael Barber agreed. (Q 210)

35.  Lord Lipsey, who in the late 1970s was a special adviser to the then Prime Minister James Callaghan, observed that "the media did not, in our day, hold the Prime Minister responsible for every single thing that happened in every single corner of Whitehall … and there was not need for the Prime Minister to react swiftly to everything that happened, as present Prime Ministers have to. I think that is a very strong pressure which tends in the direction of a more prime ministerial system." (Q 101) Lord Armstrong and Sir Robin Mountfield agreed. (QQ 111, 139)

36.  Conversely, Jonathan Hill, Head of the Prime Minister's Political Office under John Major, thought that "the 24/7 thing everyone talks about is a complete red herring … Personally I think that the relationship which has developed over a long period of time between the media and government and politics is too close, is not healthy and it is perfectly possible to have a situation where government is not constantly drip-dripping to the media". (Q 321)

37.  Lord Heseltine had "a very clear view that the Prime Minister is primus inter pares … That is basically why I left government in 1986; there was a discussion as to what extent it was primus inter pares. I thought I had rights as a Cabinet Minister and those rights were effectively denied me". (QQ 229, 233)

38.  A number of witnesses reflected upon the experience of the Blair government. Lord Butler, who was Cabinet Secretary in 1997, told us that "it was part of the explicit purpose of Mr Blair to strengthen the centre, and … to make the Cabinet Office a part of the Prime Minister's Department". (Q 121) Dr Heffernan told us that Tony Blair "thought his problem as Prime Minister was not that he was too powerful: he was not powerful enough … he thought that he did not have enough control over government. That is why he built up, incrementally … [the] central capacity of Downing Street". (Q 53)

39.  Sir Michael Bichard, a former departmental Permanent Secretary, told us that this was part of a process rather than a single event. (Q 198) Sir Robin Mountfield thought that it was an acceleration of a longer-term, if inconsistent, trend. (QQ 161-2) Sir Michael Barber argued that prime ministerial input into policy decisions was nothing new, although he suggested that the scale of what Tony Blair sought to achieve was greater. (Q 219)

40.  Tessa Jowell argued that "the character of the centre is very heavily defined by the phase of the electoral cycle, so the role of the centre in 1997 was much more vigorously interventionist. You had a government of ministers who were in government for the first time, you had departments that were faced with radically new policy priorities and you had a government that was in a hurry to achieve results. Now the Government is much more mature, you have much more self-confident departments and self-confident ministers—that is a good thing. The role of the centre changes in response to that". (Q 284)

Assessing the implications

41.  The evidence which we received suggested a change in the Prime Minister's role.


42.  There was widespread agreement that the Prime Minister's involvement in policy delivery had increased. (QQ 45, 55, 188, p 34) Sir Gus O'Donnell stated that "there has been a greater involvement in the initiation and delivery of policy since 1997. This has resulted from the centre being stronger and more influential since then." (p 162) Witnesses argued that one of the reasons for an enhanced prime ministerial role is the growth of cross-cutting issues. Sir Robin Mountfield said that "many of the great issues that face a modern government are ones that span organisational boundaries … therefore there needs to be a stronger co-ordination". (Q 139) Geoff Mulgan, former Director of the Strategy Unit, argued that this growth had put pressure on the traditional structures of government. (Q 210) Dr Tony Wright MP, Chairman of the House of Commons Public Administration Select Committee, agreed and told us that the centre was seeking to respond appropriately. (Q 13)

43.  We conclude that a greater involvement and influence by the Prime Minister on policy delivery is inevitable in the modern age, that the Prime Minister's role has evolved over a long period under different governments, and that Prime Ministers will wish to use all possible resources in pursuit of the role. We recommend that the Prime Minister's role and the centre's role in policy delivery are transparent and accountable to Parliament.


44.  A consequence of the Prime Minister's increased involvement in policy delivery has been the growth of units at the centre tasked with delivery of policy aims. Witnesses referred to two examples, the Delivery Unit and the Strategy Unit. The Delivery Unit was set up in 2001 "with a remit to strengthen the Government's ability to deliver the Prime Minister's key public service priorities" in four key areas—education, health, crime and transport.[5] The Strategy Unit was established in 2002 to improve the Government's capacity to address long term and/or cross-cutting strategic issues.

45.  Sir Gus O'Donnell told us that the Delivery Unit was set up to allow the Prime Minister "to look at delivery in certain key areas and to say, 'I have four really big priorities and I want to ensure this Government delivers them.' Nowadays, the big things like climate change, obesity … require departments to collaborate across those boundaries, so having a Delivery Unit … that works with departments … can be a very effective way of ensuring that those particular delivery outcomes are achieved." (Q 352) Tessa Jowell asserted that the Delivery Unit "exists to ensure that all departments have access to the best advice on how to continually improve delivery and that Ministers collectively have access to information about the performance of priority areas". (p 131)

46.  Other witnesses commended the role of these two units. Dr Wright thought that the Strategy Unit "was extremely valuable", although he was concerned that much activity went to waste because departments ignored it. (QQ 7, 14) He also thought that the Delivery Unit "did excellent work trying to identify government priorities across the board and then chasing them with departments and having prime ministerial backing". (Q 7) Professor Hennessy and Sir Richard Mottram agreed that the units had been successful. (QQ 7, 85)

47.  The former Head of the Delivery Unit, Sir Michael Barber, told us that they "regularly got independent people to ask permanent secretaries and ministers and senior civil servants what they thought about the Delivery Unit, and the thing they constantly came back to was (1) we were very helpful; (2) we kept the priorities of the Prime Minister clear and consistent; and (3) we enabled them, we strengthened their capacity to deliver." (Q 211)

48.  Other witnesses noted the significance of these units in terms of the evolution of the role of the Prime Minister. Professor Martin Smith, Professor of Politics, University of Sheffield, thought that the involvement of the Prime Minister in the implementation of policy through the Delivery Unit "really is a considerable change. Before then, the Prime Minister might become involved but essentially it was the departments that were left to handle it. What has happened … is that departments to some degree have either been bypassed or have been very strongly pushed by the centre." (Q 45)

49.  Lords Armstrong, Butler and Wilson warned that whilst they had no objection in principle to such units being located in the Cabinet Office, it was necessary to establish "that their role is one of co-ordination, that their responsibilities do not overlap and that they do not impinge upon or conflict with the executive responsibilities of Ministers in charge of Departments. We believe that these conditions are not always satisfied at present." (p 55) Simon Jenkins, Columnist, The Guardian, argued that the Delivery Unit was disempowering of departments, Permanent Secretaries and ministers. (Q 21)

50.  The Delivery Unit was originally located in the Cabinet Office, but was moved to the Treasury in 2002, although it continued to report directly to the Prime Minister. After 2007, it was again reformed and in its current guise it now reports "jointly to the Prime Minister and to the Chancellor and … [is] based in the Treasury, working … closely with No 10, Cabinet Office and HM Treasury officials, and Departments, on the critical priorities and actions needed to strengthen delivery across Government, and on the reform of key public services".[6]

51.  Peter Riddell, Chief Political Commentator, The Times, told us that Sir Michael Barber had ensured that the Delivery Unit "actually worked out of the Treasury even though he was technically part of the Cabinet Office at Number 10, because he knew that the only way to get effective was to get alongside the Treasury. And indeed it has now been absorbed effectively by the Treasury in that way." (Q 30) Sir Robin Mountfield told us that although it was "established originally in the Cabinet Office … [it] has moved essentially into the Treasury now". (Q 164) Tessa Jowell told us that the Delivery Unit was currently located in the Treasury "because its focus is very specifically on measuring the impact of public service reform". (Q 262) She seemed uncertain whether the Delivery Unit still retained its original title of "the Prime Minister's Delivery Unit". (QQ 263, 272)

52.  We believe that the Delivery Unit and the Strategy Unit play a useful role in delivering the Government's policy agenda, for instance in co-ordinating work across government departments, and that there should be transparency and accountability for the work of these units.


53.  Evidence was submitted that the Delivery Unit and the Strategy Unit had done a worthwhile job, but there was concern about the formation of new policy units. Sir Robin Mountfield used the term "dustbin function", to mean that the Cabinet Office, under both the current and previous administrations, "has from time to time been seen as a home for special units or other activities for which no other natural home had been established". (p 70) In his memoirs, Lord Heseltine referred to the Cabinet Office as a "bran tub".[7]

54.  Professor Dennis Kavanagh, Emeritus Professor of Politics, University of Liverpool, argued that the Cabinet Office had become a "dumping ground", (Q 45) while Lords Armstrong, Butler and Wilson, opined that "the proliferation of units" had made the centre "an over-large and over-crowded area". (p 55) Dr Anthony Seldon opined that "the new system is bloated" and "a mess". (p 181)

55.  Whilst Sir Michael Bichard argued that compared with other countries the UK has a relatively small centre, he opined that from 1997 to 2002 there has been "a growth of units at the centre but no loss of units at the centre", and that this growth diluted the effectiveness of the centre. (QQ 187, 198)

56.  Rachel Lomax thought that there had been a period from the late nineties when the centre was very incoherent but that things had improved "in the sense that everything is in the Cabinet Office". (Q 186)

57.  Rt Hon David Blunkett MP told us that the Cabinet Office had historically been used as a repository for units and functions which did not obviously fit elsewhere. Lord Heseltine said that the Cabinet Office had become a repository when he arrived there in 1995. (QQ 229, 252) Sir Michael Barber asserted that "both strategy and delivery … are key functions of the centre of government wherever you are in the world". (Q 214) Several witnesses referred to specific functions which they thought were misplaced in the Cabinet Office. Peter Riddell and Sir Richard Mottram questioned why social exclusion and the third sector were located in the centre. (QQ 24, p 35) Sir Robin Mountfield likewise said that it was "wholly inappropriate" for responsibility for the third sector to lie with the Cabinet Office and concluded that "alternative homes should be found for most of these activities". (Q 171)

58.  Jonathan Powell, former Chief of Staff to Tony Blair, suggested that, after each election, most of the units which had "accreted to the Cabinet Office over the previous four or five years" should be assigned "to individual departments so that the Cabinet Office can focus on its core functions". (p 181)

59.  Peter Riddell told us that the Cabinet Office should be slimmed down. (Q 33) Jonathan Hill told us that "having more and more people performing different functions in different silos does not, in my view, make government or the centre more efficient or stronger". (Q 316)

60.  Simon Jenkins said that "you will not slim down the Cabinet Office; you either abolish it or it will muddle through getting bigger every year, I promise you that". (Q 33)

61.  Sir Gus O'Donnell said that the "core functions … lead us to focus on the priorities of the Government of the day. Providing the support necessary to deliver the priorities of the Prime Minister and the Cabinet Office Minister does at times lead to a necessary widening of the strategic objectives, and consequentially, the functions of Cabinet Office. Our aim in such circumstances, however, is to incubate functions in the Cabinet Office which, when ready, can be transferred to a more permanent home." He cited as examples the Better Regulation Executive, now located in the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills; DirectGov, now part of the Department for Work and Pensions, and the Office of Cyber Security, recently established in the Cabinet Office. He also asserted that when he arrived in the Cabinet Office "there were also a number of functions that did not necessarily fit well with our core functions", such as the Government Car and Despatch Agency, the National School of Government and the Office of Public Sector Information, which were transferred to other departments "where the fit was more obvious". (p 161)

62.  Tessa Jowell did not favour the description of the Cabinet Office as a dustbin, but argued that "the role of the centre … is dynamic, and … sometimes functions which do not have a logical home elsewhere may reside for a time in the Cabinet Office … it is to the Government's advantage that resource at 'the centre' instigates and oversees some policy priorities, particularly in the early stages of development … the centre of Government should continue to ensure it is no larger than it needs to be to get the job done and that it has the skills and personnel it needs to respond flexibly as requirements change." (Q 268, pp 131-2) She described the flexibility of the centre's structure as an advantage, so that it could be "responsive to the demands of the day". She cited the way in which the centre had "adapted to some of the more contemporary changes", for instance its response to the economic downturn. (Q 258)

63.  Like Sir Gus O'Donnell, Tessa Jowell told us that "there are areas where the Cabinet Office will intervene and incubate and then the specific policies and the units to support their development and delivery will be repatriated to the relevant department". (Q 265) She cited the Cabinet Office's work on social exclusion as an exemplar of this "incubator" role. (QQ 268, 271)

64.  When it was established in December 1997, the Social Exclusion Unit was situated in the Cabinet Office. It was later transferred to the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister. In 2006 the Unit was abolished and replaced by a smaller Social Exclusion Task Force, yet this was transferred from the Department of Communities and Local Government back to the Cabinet Office.

65.  Dr Wright told us that "if you went through the last ten years and just drew up a list of all these different named units … it is utterly bewildering". (Q 14) The Committee asked the Cabinet Office to provide details of those units that had been established in, entered into or left the Cabinet Office. In addition to four units that were already present in the Cabinet Office in 1996, and three for which no "in" date has been listed, a further 18 units have either been established in or entered the Cabinet Office since 1996. Of this total of 25 units, 18 have been transferred out (some of which have since been disbanded) and seven remain. At least two units were transferred out, only to be subsequently transferred back in, whilst the remnants of other transferred units, subsequently disbanded, have also returned to the Cabinet Office. Other units were transferred in from other departments, only to be transferred out again. (pp 167-9) We agree that this picture is "utterly bewildering".

66.  We agree with the Minister for the Cabinet Office that the flexibility of the structure of the centre of government is an asset. We also recognise the value of an "incubator role", where the Cabinet Office develops units and functions that are consequently transferred to the relevant government departments, but we fear that the Cabinet Office has tended to function less as an incubator and more as a dustbin. The fact that policy units for which no other home can be found have been placed in the Cabinet Office underlines the constitutional importance of ensuring that the Cabinet Office and the units within it are properly held to account.

67.  We recommend that a review of the units that have accrued to the centre be undertaken by the Government, including an examination of the rationale for each unit's continued existence, and for its location at the centre of government rather than in a department. In order to ensure that the Government are properly held to account, we recommend that a copy of this review be sent to this Committee and also, should they wish to receive it, to the House of Commons Public Administration Select Committee. We also recommend that the same review process be repeated regularly. Appropriate mechanisms should be put in place to ensure that those units that remain are held to account in an effective manner.


68.  Special advisers date back to the nineteenth century. The current system of special advisers was formalised by the Wilson Government in 1974, when ministers were permitted to appoint advisers on a permanent and regular basis. In 1974, there were 31 special advisers and by the end of the Major Government the figure had risen to 38 (including eight in Number 10). There was an increase in the number of special advisers after 1997, with 70 being employed during the first year of the Blair Government (including 18 in Number 10), rising to 84 by 2004 (including 28 in Number 10) and declining to 74 in July 2009 (including 25 in Number 10).[8]

69.  The change in numbers since 1997 include two different types of advisers currently working in Whitehall, the political advisers working with ministers in individual departments to offer either political or policy advice, and the media strategist advisers introduced after 1997.

70.  Sir Robin Mountfield argued that although the Civil Service should not be "a monolithic provider of advice", neither should special advisers provide the primary source of advice. He warned that many special advisers acted as "unaccountable junior ministers". (QQ 139, 175) Although he felt that there had been a growth in the influence of special advisers since 1997, he denied that 1997 had constituted a watershed. (Q 181)

71.  Lord McNally, a former special adviser in the Callaghan administration, told us that the balance between civil servants and special advisers has changed for the worse. He also thought that it was now too easy for an individual to cross over from political appointment to civil servant or from civil servant to political appointment. (Q 100)

72.  Jonathan Hill told us that the behaviour of special advisers today was very different from the behaviour of special advisers in the 1980s: "When I first became a special adviser I would describe the role as being that of a political private secretary and it was there to meet the need—which had crept up on Cabinet ministers, they were busy being Cabinet ministers—there was political stuff that they needed to do". (QQ 301, 327)

73.  Baroness Hogg, Head of the Prime Minister's Policy Unit under John Major, agreed that "having civil servants in the mix not only helped to make the bridge secure, it helped us to think carefully about what we were doing because obviously the whole point of it would be to ensure that the civil servants were not drawn into inappropriate activities". (Q 297)

74.  Lord Butler told us that special advisers "have a definite role to play … What is important is that a good minister will bring to bear both the ideas of special advisers and the experience and advice of the Civil Service." (Q 125) Whilst he acknowledged the increase in numbers, he pointed out that "it is not large in relation to the size of the Civil Service". (QQ 128-9)

75.  Lord Wilson, whilst agreeing that a special adviser used well by a Secretary of State is an advantage for the Civil Service as well as for the minister, wanted a clear definition of the powers and duties of special advisers and a limit on their numbers. (Q 129) Lord Armstrong thought that there should be a limit of two per Secretary of State as a maximum. (Q 129) Jonathan Hill suggested a limit of one special adviser per department as had been the case in the 1980s. He also thought that if the government wanted more than this number, the political party in Government should pay for it. (Q 328)

76.  Lord Burns, a former Permanent Secretary to the Treasury, stressed that he was not opposed to special advisers, but was concerned that the increase in their number had created a culture of "informality and of lack of structure … of interference and second-guessing". (Q 87)

77.  The former Cabinet Secretary, Lord Turnbull, suggested that the "balanced triangle of the minister, the special advisers and the civil servants" had been disrupted to the extent that "the authority and closeness of civil servants has diminished". (Q 174)

78.  There was evidence that the role and influence of special advisers in the centre had been particularly subject to change in recent times. Lord Turnbull observed that "the massive increase" in numbers of special advisers "has been in Number 10". (Q 181) Professor Kavanagh told us that the role of a special adviser is now "a much bigger job … When John Major left Number 10, I think he had seven special advisers. That had been pretty well the norm … Under Tony Blair it reached nearly 30. Gordon Brown reduced it but it is going back up again." (Q 55)

79.  Sir Richard Mottram told us that this "led to a Number 10 Downing Street that was more powerful relative to the rest of the system, was less interested in formal processes of decision-making, was more dominated by special advisers and less dominated by officials". (Q 78)

80.  A number of witnesses referred to the Blair Government's decision in 1997 to pass an Order in Council that granted the political advisers Alastair Campbell and Jonathan Powell the power to instruct civil servants. The then Cabinet Secretary, Lord Butler, told us that he was responsible for the Order in Council, which was made in order to place the de facto practice on a legal footing. He said that "it rather shook me to realise how easily the fundamental structure of our Civil Service could be changed, and once that Rubicon was crossed you could never go back". (QQ 130-1) Lord Wilson and Lord Armstrong agreed that advisers should not possess this power. (Q 133) The Order in Council was revoked after Gordon Brown became Prime Minister in 2007.

81.  Other witnesses called for reform of the role of special advisers. Dr Heffernan thought that special advisers were "necessary and inevitable", but argued that their role and the nature of their relationship with civil servants should be regulated in statute. He also thought there should be more "technocratic" special advisers as opposed to those who "simply leak and brief on behalf of their principal". (Q 55)

82.  Lord Heseltine distinguished between advisers with specialist policy knowledge and political advisers: "I would have the lot out if they are political advisers, out with the whole lot. It has done nothing but undermine something of the probity of public life … Special advisers are invaluable, but special advisers are people who have an expertise outside. They act very largely in a non-party political way … I am all for those sorts of special advisers, I am totally opposed to the politicisation of advisers." (Q 249)

83.  Whilst David Blunkett agreed about the usefulness of specialist policy advisers, he argued that "a small number of political advisers who do not actually give advice but are the eyes, ears and arms of the Secretary of State can be invaluable in protecting the Civil Service, particularly those very close to the ministers, from being politicised". (Q 249) Tessa Jowell told us that in her experience, "civil servants and special advisers work very well together recognising that for a policy to work it needs political context as well as a range of public service skills". (p 132)

84.  We believe that special advisers have an important role to play in the work of government, but that it is necessary to ensure that advisers fulfil an appropriate function that complements, rather than diminishes, the role and responsibilities of ministers and civil servants. Transparency should apply to the work of special advisers. We welcome the provision for a Code of Conduct for special advisers included in the Constitutional Reform and Governance Bill. This Code should include a procedure to limit the numbers of special advisers. We recommend that the Government should define the role of special advisers, and prevent a recurrence of the 1997 Order in Council giving advisers the power to instruct civil servants. We will pay particular attention to these issues when we conduct our scrutiny of the Bill.

Constitutional implications

85.  This raises the question of the constitutional implications of the changing role of the Prime Minister. Sir Gus O'Donnell claimed that in 1997, "in formal terms, constitutionally nothing changed. Cabinet carried on and the Cabinet committees. What you saw … was a change in style of the Prime Minister and a change in desire to do different things. The machinery adapted to meet the desires of that Prime Minister, as it will always do." (Q 391) The Committee has identified three relevant constitutional issues.


86.  It is sometimes asserted that there is a growing trend towards a "presidential" style prime ministership.[9] Lord Turnbull said that there has been a "growth in profile of the Prime Minister. I would not call it 'presidentialism'; it is a strong Prime Minister. Some of those things are inevitable … a growing international role, a growing media role, the fact that the Prime Minister attends the G8 summit and the European Council. All those things will tend to push the profile of the Prime Minister". (Q 139)

87.  Sir Robin Mountfield argued that "there is probably a secular trend towards a more dominant or presidential style. The constitutional issue is where that balance is most appropriately drawn in modern circumstances." (Q 139)

88.  Prime Ministers have increasingly sought to answer questions which cut across the responsibilities of departmental ministers. Lord Armstrong told us that "whereas Mr Attlee, and … Mr Macmillan and Mr Heath, were quite content to say, 'You must ask that question to the Foreign Secretary or the Chancellor of the Exchequer or whoever', Mrs Thatcher certainly prided herself on being able to field all the questions and know all about them. That, in a sense, has persisted." (Q 111) Lord Butler said that this development was to be welcomed since it overcame the absurdities of the old system whereby MPs tried to entice the Prime Minister into answering a question on a given subject. (Q 111) Lord Wilson argued that "it does not have to go quite as far as it sometimes does go. I think there has been a tendency sometimes, say, for the budget to include statements which could still quite reasonably be referred to a Secretary of State … there are degrees to which it could still be clawed back, even in this age when the media expects so much." (Q 111)

89.  Jonathan Hill expressed concern that "this trap that we have fallen into, where the Prime Minister par excellence but all ministers are supposed to be omniscient, is a huge mistake and leads to poor decision-making. I would love to hear someone say, 'I don't know. I'll think about it.'" (Q 332) On the other hand, Mr Hill recognised the value of Prime Minister's Questions (at least in its former twice-weekly format) in allowing the Prime Minister to get a sense of "what was going on in individual government departments". (Q 308)

90.  Sir Gus O'Donnell argued that "the Prime Minister remains very much that: the Prime Minister who is head of his Cabinet; an elected MP who is responsible to Parliament very directly through PMQs (Prime Minster's Questions) and the announcement of policy through statements to Parliament. Equally we have the Head of State in Her Majesty the Queen. That said, there are global trends in this direction driven partly by world events over recent years, which have resulted in some high profile joint responses by many countries and delivered on a world stage. It would be difficult and the Government would be criticised if the UK Prime Minister were to be absent from the development and delivery of such responses." (p 162)


91.  Any "secular trend towards a more dominant or presidential style" would inevitably have implications for the traditional accountability structure of Cabinet government and collective ministerial responsibility. We address this subject in the next chapter.


92.  Baroness Hogg told us that "it is Parliament that is the check and balance on the Prime Minister and … it is on the strength of Parliament and structural improvements to increase the strength of Parliament that one should focus". (Q 307)

93.  Some witnesses expressed concern that the accountability of the centre had been undermined by the changing role of the Prime Minister. Dr Wright argued that historically "the key bit of the centre, which is Number 10, the Prime Minister, is not directly accountable to Parliament … unlike other ministers there is no Select Committee on the Prime Minister". He did however acknowledge that "Tony Blair finally announced that he was going to appear twice a year before the Liaison Committee and of course that has now … become a constitutional feature and that, in its own small way, is quite a constitutional breakthrough because it will never be altered—it will only be improved upon." (Q 17)

94.  Professor Kavanagh spoke about the importance of "the question of the accountability of the informal office of the Prime Minister to the House of Commons". (Q 35) Professor Smith asserted 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." (Q 35)

95.  Lord Wilson told us that "if the Prime Minister were to be seen to be presidential, it is worth remembering that we have none of the limits on the power of the President which exist, say, in the United States … If, in the end, you did really want to move to what is called colloquially a presidential system, I think you would need to give a great deal more thought to what were the constraints on the power of the Prime Minister … I do not think you can have a system in which the Prime Minister has absolutely no constraints and unlimited power. That is contrary to the very essence of a British constitution and our traditions." (QQ 109, 121)

96.  There has been a trend towards the Prime Minister playing a more dominant role in the UK's political system. We believe that this trend has been brought about by a combination of external pressures and a conscious desire by Prime Ministers, both before and after 1997, to exert greater influence on the policy-making process. We also acknowledge that this has been an uneven trend, and that the role of any given Prime Minister is dependent upon his or her style, and the political circumstances of the time.

97.  We reaffirm that structures of accountability should mirror structures of power. Greater prominence in the role of the Prime Minister should be mirrored by increased transparency and more effective accountability. Whilst we welcome the biannual appearance by the Prime Minister before the House of Commons Liaison Committee, we do not believe that this goes far enough in securing the parliamentary accountability of the Prime Minister's Office.

A case for reforming the structure of the centre?

98.  Some witnesses argued that accountability would be enhanced by reform of the structure of the Cabinet Office, either by the formation of a separate Department of the Prime Minister, or by reshaping the Cabinet Office into a new Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet.


99.  Dr Heffernan told us that whilst "there are lots of checks and balances upon [the Prime Minister's power] … the Cabinet Office does not remotely play that role; and it should play a role in supporting the Cabinet beyond the Prime Minister. At present all it tends to do is support the Prime Minister". (Q 53) He therefore proposed that a Prime Minister's Department should be established which was transparent and accountable to Parliament. (Q 46) He argued that such a model would regularise "what is in a sense the reality", in particular since a Permanent Secretary, Jeremy Heywood, already exists in Number 10. (Q 35) Professor Kavanagh gave a conditional assent to this idea, also noting that it would improve the Prime Minister's accountability to Parliament. (QQ 65, 69)

100.  Lord McNally thought that "an Office of the Prime Minister with a more specific job description would be more fit for purpose than a Cabinet Office that seems to be trying to spread its talents too thinly". (Q 106) Lord Burns expressed sympathy with the idea, but was wary of the impact that it would have on the objective of supporting the Cabinet. (Q 95)

101.  David Blunkett told us that he would be in favour of the establishment of a Department of the Prime Minister were it not for the fact that "it would enhance the role of the Prime Minister in a way which would be seen as presidential". (Q 229)

102.  Baroness Hogg doubted that the solution to concerns about accountability was to set up a Prime Minister's Department. (Q 337) Lord Donoughue, senior policy adviser to the Prime Minister in the 1974-79 Labour administration, told us that both Harold Wilson and James Callaghan had opposed such a proposal because "they preferred not to have the formal hierarchy of a department". (Q 101)


103.  Sir Michael Barber advocated a "department of the Prime Minister and the Cabinet" on the grounds that this would strengthen the Prime Minister, strengthen the Cabinet and enhance accountability to Parliament. (Q 208)

104.  Geoff Mulgan asserted that such a model would be a "reasonable compromise" between the authority of the Prime Minister and "the need to reflect the power and interests of other Cabinet ministers". (Q 210) He and others referred to the Australian model of such an office as an exemplar. (QQ 210, 165, pp 182-4)

105.  Sir Richard Mottram concluded that a centre supporting the Prime Minister and sustaining collective government was needed, and therefore he favoured a Department for the Prime Minister and Cabinet, "with the Cabinet Secretary clearly the Prime Minister's principal official adviser". (p 36) He explained that such an arrangement "could enhance collective government, as well as the support the Civil Service can give to the Prime Minister in his or her leadership role". (Q 88) He thought that this would improve parliamentary accountability and lead to more structured decision-making. (QQ 90, 95)

106.  There was a difference of opinion amongst the former Cabinet Secretaries about restructuring the centre. Lord Butler told us that the proposal to make the Cabinet Office a part of the Prime Minister's Department would blur responsibilities. He said that he and Lords Armstrong and Wilson "argue for the old system and believe it works better and my own view is that the evidence for that is that the changes have not worked particularly well over the last ten years". (Q 121)

107.  Lord Wilson argued that "if there is an alternative view that we should have an Office for the Prime Minister and that the Prime Minister's role should be in some way presidential … the question is whether that works well … it is also a question of whether future Prime Ministers could actually have the political strength to do that because if they did not, then you would find that the Office was not very strong and they would be driven back to recognising the importance of collective responsibility." (Q 121)

108.  Lord Turnbull said that there was danger in the Office of the Prime Minister and the Cabinet Office being functionally distinct on the grounds that, "if you say to the Prime Minister, 'We in the Cabinet Office basically work for the Cabinet and you, in so far as you are a part of the Cabinet', I think that you will be inviting the Prime Minister to say, 'I will create my own apparatus'. The big danger is that, instead of treating the Cabinet Secretary and his staff as his life support system … he then creates an apparatus of his own of vastly inferior quality ... I think that creating a strong bond between the Cabinet Secretary and the Prime Minister is the way to ensure that the interests of the rest of Cabinet are properly looked after and defended, and a go-it-alone, poorly advised Prime Minister is the biggest danger that we face." (Q 165)

109.  Tessa Jowell thought that it was "more important to get things done rather than having dialogue about what 'the centre' is called. This in my view is more important than whether we have a 'Prime Minister's Department'." (p 132)

110.  We do not support the calls for the creation of a separate Office of the Prime Minister, or an Office of the Prime Minister and the Cabinet, because we do not believe that this would significantly enhance the effective functioning or accountability of government. Instead we recommend that "Supporting the Prime Minister" should remain a core function of the Cabinet Office, so long as there is full transparency in the way in which the Cabinet Office fulfils this role, and so long as accountability mechanisms effectively reflect the importance of this function.

2 Back

3   See for example J.P. Mackintosh (1968) The British Cabinet 2nd edn. London: Methuen, R. Blake (1975) The Office of Prime Minister Oxford: Oxford University Press, D. Kavanagh and A. Seldon (1999) The Powers Behind the Prime Minister London: Harper Collins. Back

4   See for example Cabinet Office (2009) The 47th Civil Service Year Book, London: HMSO. Back

5 cf. Richards and Smith (2006a) 'Central Control and Policy Implementation in the UK: a Case Study of the Prime Minister's Delivery Unit' Journal of Comparative Policy Analysis Special Issue Vol. 8 No.4 Winter 2006 pp 325-346. Back

6   HC Debs 28 June 2007, col 39WS. Back

7   M. Heseltine (2000), Life in the Jungle: My Autobiography London: Hodder and Stoughton, p 489. Back

8   Numbers drawn from Richards, D. (2008) New Labour and the Civil Service: Reconstituting the Westminster Model Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan and HC Debs 16 July 2009, Col 74WS Special Advisers.  Back

9   See for instance M. Foley (2003)The Rise of the British Presidency (Manchester University Press); M. Foley (2000) The British Presidency: Tony Blair and the Politics of Public Leadership (Manchester University Press); M. Foley, 'Presidential Attribution as an Agency of Prime Ministerial Critique in a Parliamentary Democracy: The Case of Tony Blair', The British Journal of Politics and International Relations, Vol. 6 (3), 2004, pp. 292-311; R. Heffernan and P. Webb (2005) 'The British Prime Minister: Much More Than 'First Among Equals', in T. Poguntke and P. Webb eds., The Presidentialization of Politics (Oxford University Press).  Back

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