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

CHAPTER 6: Summary of Recommendations


251.  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. (Para 8)

Supporting the Prime Minister

252.  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. (Para 25)

253.  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. (Para 26)

254.  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. (Para 43)

255.  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. (Para 52)

256.  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. (Para 66)

257.  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. (Para 67)

258.  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. (Para 84)

259.  We reaffirm that structures of accountability should mirror structures of power. We reaffirm that the structure of accountability should mirror the structure 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. (Para 97)

260.  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. (Para 110)

Supporting the Cabinet

261.  We reaffirm our belief in the importance of Cabinet government, which plays an essential role in upholding the principle of collective ministerial responsibility. (Para 128)

262.  We believe that the Cabinet committee system remains an essential part of the UK's government structure, as part of the system of collective ministerial responsibility. In order for Cabinet committees to function effectively, we believe that they should be mirrored by committees of officials. We ask the Government to clarify the extent to which Cabinet committees continue to be supported in this way. (Para 137)

263.  We reaffirm the constitutional importance of the principle of collective ministerial responsibility. Executive responsibility should not lie solely with the Prime Minister, not least because accountability mechanisms are not designed to reflect such responsibility. In the light of the trends and changes described above, it is important that the principle of collective responsibility is maintained. (Para 153)

264.  The increasing recognition of issues involving more than one department has placed pressure on the traditional departmental delivery model. In order to ensure that structures of accountability mirror structures of power, Parliament should ensure that its accountability mechanisms adapt to the changing nature of policy formation and delivery. Government should ensure that the mechanism of the policy formation and delivery process remains transparent. (Para 154)

265.  We believe that the post of Minister for the Cabinet Office should be maintained in order to ensure that the work of the Cabinet Office is transparent, and to ensure that Parliament is able to hold the Department to account in an effective way, but are concerned that the responsibilities of the Minister in relation to the Cabinet Office are at present ill-defined. We recommend that the Government reassess the current function of the Minister for the Cabinet Office to ensure that the postholder's responsibilities accurately reflect and account for the strategic role that the Cabinet Office plays. (Para 163)

266.  In the case of the proposal to abolish the Office of Lord Chancellor in June 2003, the Cabinet Office was unable to ensure compliance with proper constitutional norms in the adoption of a change of such constitutional significance. It is particularly disturbing that these failures occurred without there being any external crisis which might explain, far less justify, such failures. Consideration should be given by the Cabinet Office to means of ensuring that such failures do not recur. (Para 214)

267.  Whilst we accept the general proposition that the ability to undertake machinery of government changes should remain as a prerogative power of the Prime Minister on behalf of the Crown, this should be subject to a number of provisos. In the case of the proposal to abolish the Office of Lord Chancellor, the fact that it marked a constitutional change of great significance, with implications for both Parliament and the judiciary and that the post could only be removed by statute, meant that it required totally different handling. (Para 215)

268.  We recommend that the Cabinet Office should play a formal role in investigating the likely consequences of any machinery of government changes, particularly those with constitutional implications. (Para 216)

269.  We further recommend that parliamentary scrutiny of machinery of government changes should be enhanced, and that, as a minimum requirement, the Government, advised by the Cabinet Office, should be required to set before Parliament a written analysis of the relevant issues and consequences relating to a proposed machinery of government change with constitutional implications, and that an oral ministerial statement be made in Parliament. We affirm the value of the scrutiny work of parliamentary committees in this context, and recommend that relevant committees of both Houses be given the opportunity to scrutinise proposed changes, both before and after they take place. (Para 217)

Strengthening the Civil Service

270.  We find persuasive the arguments which we have heard that the current arrangement where the Cabinet Secretary acts as Head of the Civil Service has worked well. We therefore recommend that the Cabinet Secretary should continue to fulfil the function of Head of the Civil Service, and that the Cabinet Office should retain responsibility for managing the Civil Service. (Para 231)

271.  We note the work undertaken by the Cabinet Office in delivering Capability Reviews of departmental activity. We believe that the Cabinet Office is the most appropriate department to undertake this work. (Para 242)

272.  We note the work undertaken by the Cabinet Office in delivering Capability Reviews of departmental activity. We believe that the Cabinet Office is the most appropriate department to undertake this work. (Para 249)


273.  In undertaking this inquiry we have considered a complicated and at times confusing web of offices, structures, jobs and personalities. This complicated picture should not obscure the fact that the operation of the centre of government is of unique and vital importance to the effectiveness of the UK's system of government. We repeat our view that structures of accountability should mirror structures of power. Our recommendations have sought to ensure that where structures of power have shifted, structures of accountability are adjusted accordingly. As the General Election approaches, we call on all political parties to bear this principle in mind. (Para 250)

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