A call by a select committee for cabinet secretaries to be given new checks-and-balances powers over prime ministers has been rejected by the government for a second time.
Members of the Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee had called for the cabinet secretary to have the ability to formally object if they were concerned that a prime minister was sidelining ministers in pursuit of a particular goal.
The request stemmed from findings in Sir John Chilcot’s report into Britain’s involvement in the Iraq War, which found that then prime minister Tony Blair had excluded ministers from key decisions in the runup to the conflict and that top officials lacked mechanisms short of resignation to express their concerns.
PACAC members, led by chairman Sir Bernard Jenkin, last year called for the introduction of measures similar to the ministerial direction process, where permanent secretaries are able to put on record their concerns about particular decisions – normally in relation to spending – and receive a formal secretary-of-state level instruction.
In January this year the government rejected the idea, insisting that the Cabinet Manual – which sets out the rules for government – already made the cabinet secretary’s role clear in relation to ensuring the principle of government by collective responsibility. It also argued that new powers could introduce “unnecessary antagonism” between prime ministers and their top officials.
A formal response to PACAC’s renewed call for cabinet secretaries to get the additional powers was published yesterday and clearly states that the government’s stance has not shifted.
“The government has concluded that it is not necessary to complement these robust and effective procedures with a formal direction procedure,” it said.
“Should it be necessary, the cabinet secretary can put advice to the prime minister identifying where there appears to have been a breach of collective responsibility, and it is then for the prime minister to decide the appropriate action as with all matters of ministerial conduct.”
The response said ministers considered there was “an important distinction” between the role of the cabinet secretary and secretariats in advising the prime minister on collective decision-making and in relation to the role of accounting officer in departments, usually held by the permanent secretary.
“The process for an accounting officer to seek a ministerial direction, in a circumstance where ministers are acting in a way that the AO believes would breach their obligation to ensure propriety, regularity or value for money, is necessary given the accounting officer’s direct accountability to parliament,” it said.
“The cabinet secretary’s role in decisions on the conduct of ministers and the operation of collective responsibility is advisory to the prime minister as head of government.”
The response also put PACAC and the Lords Constitution Committee on notice that the Cabinet Manual, which was first published in 2011, would need to be revised after Brexit.
It said the move would be necessary “to reflect any changes in the constitutional settlement” once the UK leaves the European Union. No timeframe was given for the work.