The Cabinet Manual - Constitution Committee Contents

The Cabinet Manual

CHAPTER 1: Introduction

1.  The draft Cabinet Manual was published by the Cabinet Office on 14 December 2010. Its development was first announced in February 2010, when, in a speech to the Institute for Public Policy Research, the then Prime Minister, Gordon Brown, stated that he had asked the Cabinet Secretary, Sir Gus O'Donnell, "to lead work to consolidate the existing unwritten, piecemeal conventions that govern much of the way central government operates under our existing constitution into a single written document."[1]

2.  The concept of a Cabinet Manual appears to have drawn extensively upon experience in New Zealand. The Foreword to the draft specifically cites the New Zealand Cabinet Manual and describes it as "an authoritative guide to central decision making for Ministers, their offices, and those working within government."[2] Sir Gus O'Donnell visited New Zealand during the general election campaign, and well-placed commentators such as Professor Robert Hazell[3] and Peter Riddell[4] have suggested that the New Zealand precedent was important.[5]

3.  In February 2010 the Cabinet Office published a draft chapter of the Manual on elections and government formation. The chapter was scrutinised by the House of Commons Justice Committee.[6] The full draft of the Manual (incorporating a revised version of the chapter on elections and government formation) was published with the agreement of the new Prime Minister, David Cameron, and the Deputy Prime Minister, Nick Clegg, and after its text had been approved by the Cabinet following consideration by the relevant Cabinet sub-committee.[7]

4.  The draft Manual has chapters on the Sovereign, elections and government formation, the executive, collective Cabinet decision-making, ministers and Parliament, ministers and the law, ministers and the Civil Service, relations with the devolved administrations and local government, relations with the European Union and other international institutions, government finance and expenditure and official information.

5.  The draft has been made subject to a public consultation. The consultation has two stated aims: first, to ensure that the Manual reflects an agreed position on important constitutional conventions, and to seek to clarify the position where there is doubt or disagreement; and second, to check that the draft covers the issues that need to be covered in a way which is easy for the intended audience to follow. The Cabinet Secretary has stated that he expects to invite Cabinet to endorse a revised version of the Cabinet Manual in the spring of 2011.[8]

6.  The Cabinet Manual[9] refers to many matters of constitutional significance and the Constitution Committee was invited by the Cabinet Secretary to comment on the draft. This report accordingly forms our response to the consultation. It is also intended to inform Members of the House about the issues which arise from the Manual's publication.

7.  In order to assist us in our deliberations on the draft Manual, we heard evidence from former Cabinet ministers Lord Adonis[10] and Lord Wakeham,[11] from the former Cabinet Secretaries, Lord Armstrong of Ilminster,[12] Lord Butler of Brockwell,[13] Lord Wilson of Dinton[14] and Lord Turnbull,[15] and from the constitutional expert, Lord Hennessy of Nympsfield.[16] On 12 January Professor Margaret Wilson, a former New Zealand Attorney-General and subsequently Speaker of the New Zealand Parliament, discussed with us informally her experience of the New Zealand Cabinet Manual. We are grateful for their assistance. Except where expressly attributed to one of our witnesses, the views contained in this report are those of the Committee.

8.  We wish to state that none of the comments in this report should be read as an endorsement by this Committee of the draft Manual or its contents. In particular, although we comment on specific paragraphs within the draft Manual, the fact that we do not comment on a particular paragraph or chapter should not be taken to mean that we regard that paragraph or chapter as an accurate statement of the relevant position, nor that we necessarily agree with its inclusion within the text.

9.  We discuss in Chapter Two of this report the purpose and status of the Manual. The Manual has been produced by the Cabinet Office primarily as a guide for members of Cabinet, ministers and civil servants.[17] We therefore consider that a better title for the Manual would be "The Cabinet Office Manual".

1  Back

2   Foreword to the draft Cabinet Manual. For the full document see Back

3   Professor of British Politics and Government and Director of the Constitution Unit, University College London. Back

4   Chair of the Hansard Society Advisory Council and Senior Fellow of the Institute for Government.  Back

5   Oral evidence taken before the Political and Constitutional Reform Committee on the Constitutional Implications of the Cabinet Manual, 13 January 2011, Q 6 (Professor Hazell); Why fears the Cabinet Manual is a step towards a written constitution are unfounded Essay by Peter Riddell, Institute for Government Back

6   Justice Committee, 5th report (2009-10): Constitutional processes following a general election (HC 396).  Back

7   Foreword to the draft Manual; see also Political and Constitutional Reform Committee, 4th Report (2010-2011): Lessons from the process of Government formation after the 2010 General Election (HC 528) Q 167 (Sir Gus O'Donnell, Cabinet Secretary). Back

8   Foreword to the draft Manual. Back

9   References in this report to "the [draft] Manual" should be read as references to "the [draft] Cabinet Manual". References to "the draft Manual" are to the draft published in December 2010; references to "the Manual" are to the Manual as an ongoing publication.  Back

10   Lord Adonis was Secretary of State for Transport in the House of Lords. He is currently Director of the Institute for Government.  Back

11   Lord Wakeham was Secretary of State for Energy; he has also been Leader of the House of Commons and Leader of the House of Lords and was appointed in 1999 to chair a Royal Commission on reform of the House of Lords.  Back

12   Cabinet Secretary 1979-1988.  Back

13   Cabinet Secretary 1988-1998.  Back

14   Cabinet Secretary 1998-2002.  Back

15   Cabinet Secretary 2002-2005.  Back

16   Attlee Professor of Contemporary British History, Queen Mary, University of London.  Back

17   Paragraph 41.  Back

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