Government rejects call to boost cabinet secretary powers in wake of Iraq

MPs ‘disappointed’ with government rejection of recommendations for extra safeguards to prevent sidelining of ministers in key decisions 

The Chilcot Inquiry found that former prime minister Tony Blair had excluded colleagues from key decisions ahead of the Iraq war. Credit: Stefan Rousseau/PA

The government has rejected the case for extra governance safeguards to prevent another prime minister taking the country to war the way Tony Blair did in Iraq.

It dismissed calls to boost civil service powers by allowing the cabinet secretary to go public if they believe a prime minister is sidelining ministers.

This proposal – effectively an extension of written ministerial directions by which top civil servants can raise concerns about minsters’ spending decisions – was put forward by the former top officials who created the Better Government Initiative, and was seconded by the Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs committee.

In response to a PACAC report on the Chilcot Inquiry into Britain’s involvement in the Iraq war, the government also dismissed calls for MPs to get a binding vote on the remit and length of future public inquiries.

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It took seven years to publish Sir John Chilcot's report, which found that the prime minister had excluded top colleagues from key decisions in the run up to the war in 2003.

It also said senior officials were not consulted before Blair told then-US president George Bush: “I will be with you whatever.”.

Following the report, PACAC, which is chaired by Conservative MP Bernard Jenkin, looked at the role of the cabinet secretary and senior officials in ensuring ministers took “proper advice on the provision of evidence”.

It concluded that there should be collective discussion by the Cabinet on future decisions of national importance, and said it was “no longer acceptable” for present arrangements dictating the role of top civil servants in such decisions to continue in the absence of safeguards.

The committee report said: “Beyond making representations to ministers and to the prime minister, short of resignation, the cabinet secretary does not have any formal recourse to object to a prime minister’s chosen course of action in the event that he or she wishes to disregard the procedures for decision-making set out in the Cabinet Manual.”

But the government has rejected PACAC’s recommendation to allow the cabinet secretary to request a ministerial direction if proper procedure is not followed by a prime minister.

In response to the committee’s report, Downing Street said it did not agree that there was an absence of safeguards on decision-making within government. 

“It is very clear in the Cabinet Manual that the cabinet secretary’s role is to ensure that Cabinet committees provide effective collective government and are not bypassed, and that sub-committees are set up to deal with issues that require a more intensive focus,” said the response. 

It added that further safeguards such as new checks and balances risked causing "a degree of unnecessary antagonism between officials and the prime minister". This was the phrase used by cabinet secretary Jeremy Heywood when he appeared before a PACAC hearing in 2016 and dismissed calls for greater civil service powers.

The government response also said the system in place since 2010 – in which the prime minister chairs a National Security Council of ministers and defence chiefs – was working well.

"It is inconceivable today that we could take a premeditated decision to commit combat troops without a full and challenging discussion in the National Security Council on the basis of full papers, including written legal advice, prepared and stress-tested by all relevant departments, with decisions formally minuted," it said.

PACAC said it was “disappointed with the government’s response given the clear evidence of the need for improvements to public inquiries and government decision-making that the committee received”.

It added that it was “particularly concerned about the government’s failure to accept the case for stronger safeguards to ensure proper collective consideration by the Cabinet on decisions of national importance.”

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