MPs join calls to boost cabinet secretary’s powers in wake of Chilcot Inquiry

PACAC slams the “absence of safeguards” to ensure prime ministers do not bypass proper cabinet procedures,  and urges government to publish the lessons it has learned from Chilcot Inquiry

By Suzannah Brecknell

16 Mar 2017

MPs on the Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee want to give cabinet secretaries the power to formally object if a prime minister is trying to bypass proper cabinet procedures.

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In a report published on Thursday, the committee set out the lessons which it believes have yet to be learnt following the publication of Sir John Chilcot’s Iraq Inquiry in July 2016.

“The Iraq Inquiry report illustrates how a prime minister, if so inclined, is able to override the proper procedures of collective government decision-making without obstacle,” the committee said, adding that this position is “no longer acceptable”

The committee heard that cabinet secretaries – and other very senior officials – have no formal mechanism to object when prime ministers try to bypass proper decision-making systems, apart from resignation.

“We are in no doubt whatsoever that this absence of safeguards cannot persist,” the report said. It called for a new mechanism similar to the system of ministerial directions which allow permanent secretaries to put concerns in writing if they think a policy does not represent value for money.

PACAC also wants to see a similar system which would allow top officials to request a ministerial direction if the prime minister is not following the procedures set out in the Cabinet Manual.

The committee has based its recommendation on a report produced by the Better Government Initiative – whose members include former cabinet and permanent secretaries – after the publication of Chilcot’s findings last year.

Speaking to CSW, committee chair Bernard Jenkin refuted concerns that such a process could damage the relationship between prime ministers and cabinet secretaries

“The principle already exists in respect of expenditure, and is now accepted as part of the architecture,” he said. “This isn’t about the cabinet secretary challenging on the substance of a policy in the same way as a challenge on a spending, it is merely procedural and that should be pretty harmless.”

He also noted that the committee – in contrast to the BGI – does not believe such objections should automatically be made public. Rather this should be a matter for individual cabinet secretaries to judge whether the direction should be made public through Parliament, passed to a privy counsllor, or placed in the archives for delayed release.

The committee also wants to make sure that government completes, and is held to account over, its own ‘lessons learned’ review following the publication of the Chilcot report.

It called on government to set out when this will be completed and its findings reported to parliament so MPs can scrutinise implementation of the findings.

Jenkin told CSW that this was the most urgent recommendation in the report. The investigation, he said, seems to have “disappeared without a trace” since the cabinet secretary told PACAC about it last summer. “No doubt everyone’s very busy, but we can’t afford to lose all the lessons of that inquiry,” said Jenkin.

MPs also criticised the failure to co-operate across departments, noting that although Iraq was the UK’s highest foreign policy priority, it was not top priority within departments.

“As a consequence, Whitehall did not put significant collective weight behind the task,” says the report.

The committee also backed efforts to improve joint working, through the National Security Council and joint units, but concluded more must be done. It called for a senior minister to be given lead responsibility for cross-departmental issues as important as post-conflict work in Iraq.

Jenkin told CSW: “Where you’ve got a cross departmental policy of such huge importance, the idea that it is too important for anybody but the prime minister to lead rather over estimates the capacity of the prime minister to do so many things.”

The committee also want government to set out how it will encourage officials to view joint working more positively and promote behaviours that support cross-departmental coordination.

They called on the National Security Council to be given more capacity for strategic analysis and assessment, and for greater parliamentary involvement before public inquiries are established. 

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