Chilcot lessons: MPs reiterate call to allow cab secs to ask for prime ministerial directions

PACAC expresses confidence in Sir Jeremy Heywood’s commitment to effective decision-making, but says now is the time to introduce safeguards

Former PM Tony Blair, responding to the Chilcot Report in 2016. Credit: Stefan Rousseau/PA

By Mark Smulian

31 May 2018

MPs have complained that the government has ignored crucial recommendations for better governance from the Chilcot Inquiry into the Iraq war, including to introduce a formal mechanism for cabinet secretaries to raise concerns about decision-making.

The Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee said Sir John Chilcot found in his report that then prime minister Tony Blair disregarded established decision-making processes, “when, for example, he wrote to President Bush with the words, ‘We will be with you whatever’”.

In a PACAC follow-up report on the lessons still to be learned from Chilcot, the committee said safeguards were still needed to prevent any repetition as little action had been taken by the government since PACAC made recommendations in 2016.


It noted the Chilcot report found lost opportunities for proper cabinet discussion on policy towards the Iraq war and its aftermath “resulted in poor planning and decision making that contributed to the many failures of British policy in Iraq and the deaths that resulted”.

The committee reiterated its call for cabinet secretaries to be able to ask a prime minister for a written ministerial direction to ignore the normal decision-making process, in a similar way to that used by accounting officers when they think ministers wish to ignore civil servants' advice on public money.

Currently, although the cabinet secretary is responsible for ensuring scrutiny of important decisions follows rules outlined in the Cabinet Manual, their only resort is to resign if a prime minister decides to ignore their advice, the committee stated.

Bernard Jenkin, the committee’s Conservative chair, said: “In 2002 Tony Blair [committed] the UK to war in Iraq without consulting the foreign and defence secretaries, let alone the rest of the cabinet.

“Fifteen years later there are still no safeguards in place within the government to prevent a prime minister acting so recklessly again.”

Jenkin said his committee had confidence in prime minister Theresa May and cabinet secretary Sir Jeremy Heywood, but “this is no guarantee for the future. It’s therefore a perfect time to introduce such a safeguard, when the system is working well, not to wait for another catastrophic failure”.

A government spokesperson said: “The government will consider the report and respond in the normal manner.

“Ministers are accountable to Parliament and civil servants accountable to ministers. Blurring these lines would risk undermining existing lines of accountability.

“The cabinet secretary supports the prime minister and the cabinet, helping to ensure there is a robust system so the most important decisions are taken on a collective basis, ensuring that key interests across government are taken into account.”

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