Cabinet manual must not be ‘swept aside or ignored’, ministers warned

Peers say decade-old handbook on running government at risk of being left to wither if it is not updated soon
Photo: The Prime Minister’s Office/CC BY 2.0

By Jim Dunton

08 Jul 2021

Ministers are being warned that a key guide on the operation of government is at risk of “becoming moribund” and urgently needs updating in the light of huge changes over the past decade.

The Lords Constitution Committee said the cabinet manual,  introduced in 2011 – but not updated since – is an “essential part” of the system for upholding good governance. But committee members, who include Lord Peter Hennessy, said the document will lack authority and create confusion about constitutional arrangements without regular review.

Major areas of constitutional change since the manual was introduced include the UK’s exit from the European Union, continued devolution within the UK, and the looming repeal of the Fixed Term Parliaments Act – introduced by the coalition government in 2011.

Ultimately, the prime minister and cabinet of the day have ownership of the manual. But peers have now called on the government to produce a draft update as soon as possible – and certainly within the next 12 months – and look to update the document at the beginning of each new parliament. 

The current cabinet manual makes much reference to the work of civil servants and has an entire chapter dedicated to ministers' interaction with officials.

Former cabinet secretary Lord Mark Sedwill told the committee that work on updating the document, which sits alongside the ministerial code and civil service code in setting out rules and procedures for government, had begun when he was in post but had “not been completed”.

Current cab sec Simon Case told parliament’s Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee in March that “no update is currently being planned” to the manual.

Case said little progress has been made on updating the manual because of a lack of “bandwidth” and “capacity” resulting from the coronavirus pandemic.

The Constitution Committee report said the cab sec acknowledges that the manual gets most use at election time and in the formation of a government. “That probably adds to the argument for wanting to update it in the coming period,” Case told peers.

The committee noted that Sedwill and former cab sec Lord Gus O’Donnell both strongly believe the document needs to be updated.

Committee chair Baroness Ann Taylor said peers had previously recommended that the cabinet manual should be regularly updated, with revisions reflected immediately in the online version.

She said that, based on the evidence given to the latest inquiry, committee members feel further measures are necessary.

“The manual and the associated codes are crucial to maintaining the public's trust in government,” she said.

“They must never be treated as optional extras to be swept aside or ignored to suit the convenience of the executive.

“We recommend that any updates to the cabinet manual should as a matter of routine be considered at the beginning of each parliament and endorsed by the cabinet.

“As with the first edition, this process should include consulting parliamentary committees, academics, and the public on a draft version.

“However, as an update to the manual is now well overdue, we recommend a draft update should be issued within the next 12 months, in advance of the next general election.”

Additionally, the committee called for the prime minister to make clear, in the foreword to the next edition of the ministerial code that it is the duty on all ministers to adhere to the constitutional principles in the cabinet manual.

Peers also advised that the cabinet manual should continue to be drafted in an “accessible and clear style” which does not presume detailed knowledge of the UK constitution and the operation of government.

A Cabinet Office spokesperson said: "We thank the committee for their work on this report. We will consider its findings and respond in due course."

The cabinet manual was inspired by a document of the same name in New Zealand. Work on the current document was instigated when Gordon Brown was prime minister.

This story was updated at 15:15pm on 8 July 2021 to include a response from the Cabinet Office

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