Writing history: Why are civil servants being accused of 'doctoring' cabinet minutes?
Critiques by politicians of minute-taking by civil servants are nothing new
Prime minister Theresa May speaks to her cabinet at Chequers in July 2018. Photo: PA
Brexit has called into question the way in which the very heart of the British political system works. The nature and scope of prime ministerial, cabinet and parliamentary powers have all been challenged in ways scarcely seen in recent British history. The role of the civil service has also come into question, as criticisms from all sides have been directed not just at individual officials but also the service’s values. The civil service is admired around the world for its core values of integrity, honesty, objectivity and impartiality.
Recent media articles have claimed that some ministers are concerned about cabinet minutes being “doctored” by civil servants. Has the immense pressure of Brexit resulted in one of the discreet instruments of power available to civil servants – the taking of cabinet minutes – being distorted?
What are the cabinet minutes and how are they taken?
Cabinet minutes were first taken in December 1916 by then-secretary to the war cabinet Sir Maurice Hankey, during David Lloyd George’s premiership. The cabinet minutes form a key component in assessing the nature and pace of decision making by a prime minister and cabinet. That they are a true reflection of what was discussed and agreed is pivotal for future generations to understand tumultuous periods of British history.
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There are, however, limitations to the detail and atmosphere that such documents can capture. Cabinet minutes are not verbatim transcripts of cabinet meetings. They are distributed under the cabinet secretary’s name, without prior approval by the prime minister of the day.
According to the Guide to Taking Minutes, authored in 2001 by then-cabinet secretary Sir Richard Wilson, a “good minute” should be:
- "brief but intelligible;
- "in the main, impersonal; and
- "to the full extent that the discussion allows, decisive"
There were, however, some differences in the revised 2016 edition of the guide. This version advised minute takers to:
- “Err on the side of inclusion of detail. Looking back over past minutes, you will see that the current records are fuller and more detailed than in the past. This is a conscious choice.
- “Include the politics. If people disagree, it should be recorded (politely).
- “Do not be afraid of colour, and try to capture people’s original words – within reason. […] Conversation also shouldn’t be watered down through excessive use of civil-servantese.”
The recollections and diaries of cabinet ministers, special advisers and civil servants convey vital context and detail of how cabinet meetings unfold. The published diaries and memoirs of Barbara Castle and Alastair Campbell stand out as elucidating examples, both written each day, which reduced the infiltration of hindsight.
In late March this year, shortly before the UK was due to leave the EU at the original Article 50 deadline, criticism of civil service minute taking emerged. In The Times, Rachel Sylvester shared detailed knowledge of the minutes from a recent meeting of the cabinet. Sylvester’s sources told her that minutes of the meeting contained “at least five references to the Tories’ narrow political concerns”.
According to the official account, Sylvester continued, “ministers discussed how the government is ‘committed to delivering Brexit — not to do so would be damaging to the Conservative Party.’”
Sylvester’s quotes seemed to suggest that normal cabinet meetings were being blurred, with political cabinets under the huge pressure of delivering a Brexit deal that could be passed by the House of Commons.
The Cabinet Manual published in 2010 outlines that at the discretion of the prime minister, members of the cabinet may meet to discuss party political matters in a “political cabinet”. Such meetings may take place in the Cabinet Room as usual, but they are not attended by officials and the conclusions of the discussion are not recorded in minutes.
Around the same time as the Sylvester article, Caroline Wheeler of The Sunday Times claimed that in the context of a potential post-Brexit public inquiry, “some ministers are concerned that cabinet minutes are being doctored by civil servants so that any future inquiry would find that ministers put the interests of the Conservative Party before those of the country.”
The charge of “doctoring” cabinet minutes seems to be hyperbolic. Perhaps the more important issue is that the 20-year rule – formerly 50 and then 30 years after which government documents are published – is being flouted by almost instantaneous leaks. Cabinet minutes are highly sensitive but they are not meant to be accessible until decades after the meetings occurred. Civil service minute takers should not have to be more cautious in recording what actually happens in cabinet for fear of leaks.
In response to wider criticisms of civil service impartiality, the cabinet secretary and head of the civil service, Sir Mark Sedwill, defended the institution. In a letter to officials this month, he said he did not think the civil service was “above criticism” but he “categorically” rejected comments that questioned “the values and integrity” of the civil service in serving the government of the day.
However, critiques by politicians of minute-taking by civil servants are nothing new. Back in the 1960s, upon reading a set of minutes, prime minister Harold Macmillan apparently said to then-first civil service commissioner Sir George Mallaby: “The trouble with you people is that you are falsifying history."
Recounting this anecdote to audience of students and Whitehall watchers in 2011, Lord Armstrong, cabinet secretary under Margaret Thatcher, said Macmillan “was both right and wrong about that”.
“The cabinet minutes do not falsify history and everything that is in them is true,” he said, “but they are not a detailed blow-by-blow account of what takes place in the cabinet discussion. […] In that sense they are historically short of being complete but they are not inaccurate.”
Sir – now Lord – Gus O’Donnell, cabinet secretary under Tony Blair, Gordon Brown and David Cameron, concurred, telling the audience: “We want it to be as accurate as possible.”
Alongside the formal minutes, each cabinet secretary also keeps a handwritten notebook to record their own reflections of cabinet meetings. Perhaps these will prove illuminating for future historians when they are released in years to come.