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Cabinet Manual

Volume 837: debated on Monday 25 March 2024


Asked by

To ask His Majesty’s Government when the revised version of the Cabinet Manual will be published.

My Lords, in 2022 the Government committed to updating the Cabinet Manual and continue to consider the approach and timescales. We will provide a full update to the Constitution Committee, which recommended that an update should be made, in due course.

My Lords, that is a disappointing reply, because the Government are not living up to their word. The Leader of the House described the Cabinet Manual as

“a document of fundamental importance … that sets out the rules, conventions and practices that affect the operation of government”.—[Official Report, 16/12/22; cols. 935-36.]

Since the last manual was published, major changes have taken place: the referendum in 2016 and our departure from the EU; developments in devolution; and the Prorogation of 2019 that was overturned unanimously by the Supreme Court. Does an updated draft exist? Has the Prime Minister seen and approved it? When will it be made available to not just the Constitution Committee in this House but PACAC in another place? Above all, will the Minister make a solemn promise to the House that the revised edition of the Cabinet Manual will be published before the launch of the coming general election?

My Lords, previous debates in this House on the Cabinet Manual, and indeed on other issues, have demonstrated the importance of the manual, as the noble Viscount suggests, both for those working in government and those outside seeking to get a better understanding. As I said in good faith the last time he asked me this Question, the Government are considering options on timing and content in the light of these debates, but ultimately, this is a matter for the Cabinet Secretary and the Prime Minister of the day.

My Lords, my noble friend will know that key elements of the recent Budget appeared in the press long before the Chancellor addressed the other place. Was this because our journalists are fantastic mind-readers, or should we revisit paragraph 5.15 of the Cabinet Manual, which says:

“When Parliament is in session the most important announcements of government policy should, in the first instance, be made in Parliament”?

There have been different comments made about the Cabinet Manual, and I note the point that he made. We do try, in the main, to make announcements in the House. Indeed, we will be making an announcement on security later today.

My Lords, I thank the noble Viscount for this important Question. I wrote a lot of this, and one of the things I say in the preface is that it needs updating periodically, for things such as Brexit, war powers—I could name a huge number. I urge Ministers, when they think about the new version, to take account of the excellent recommendations of the Constitution Committee of this House. If it does not appear before the next election, I urge whoever is Prime Minister to make it a high priority, because this is crucial. The Minister might want to talk to her colleague the Foreign Secretary, who in the preface actually says how important the Cabinet Manual is.

The Cabinet Manual also says a lot about conventions. We in this House need to think quite carefully about conventions, because sometimes they are discarded rather too freely. We will need to think carefully about Salisbury/Addison and others which affect this House a lot.

There are a lot of good quotations, both from my noble friend the Foreign Secretary and from the noble Lord, Lord O’Donnell, himself. The existing Cabinet Manual, although it needs changes, actually contains a lot of good and enduring material. We need to make sure that the new version is right: it needs to be accurate, up to date and authoritative, and work continues.

My Lords, in due course there will be an election. There are probably only four months more of parliamentary sitting before we reach the general election. In saying that these things will be done in due course, are the Government kicking the can down the road until the election reaches us, or do they actually want to ensure that the Cabinet Office contributes to the principle of good government for whichever Government come in after the coming election?

As far as the manual is concerned, the Government, as I have said, are considering options on timing and content in the light of the debates that have been had. As far as good government is concerned, we try every day to ensure that we are delivering the right things for the people of Britain and that hard work is rewarded.

My Lords, the Government made a specific promise about making sure that this was done by the end of the Parliament. With that in mind, and given the widespread view that this is an important piece of work that must be completed, will there be some chapters perhaps ready for view by our Constitution Committee very soon? We are all aware that the clock is now ticking.

I hear what the noble Baroness says. Indeed, we have made it clear that draft material will be made available to both the Constitution Committee and PACAC in the other place before the second version of the Cabinet Manual is finalised.

Our Constitution Committee, of which I am a member, in the same report in which we recommended the revision of the Cabinet Manual, also welcomed the promise by the Cabinet Secretary to rein in improper expenditure by the Scottish Government. That has still not been done. Will the Minister tell the Cabinet Secretary, Simon Case, that if he does not do it soon, I will find every opportunity to raise the issue again and again?

I will make two points. First, I told the noble Lord that we were looking at this issue and that we might issue guidance on the subject, because the Cabinet Manual is about bringing conventions and rules together, rather than creating them. Secondly, much of the Cabinet Manual is on matters specific to the UK Government and reserved matters. However, my noble friend the Foreign Secretary—to mention him again—has written to the First Minister of Scotland about the importance of a reserved area for foreign affairs and how that should be conducted.

My Lords, I pay tribute to the noble Lord, Lord O’Donnell, who pioneered the publication of the Cabinet Manual—it could never have happened in my day. The Minister will recall that the publication was extremely valuable in the lead-up to the 2010 election and in setting the rules if there was a hung Parliament. Are we to take it that the delay this time means that the Prime Minister does not anticipate a hung Parliament?

It is difficult to draw any conclusions of that kind. However, I share the noble Lord’s tribute to the noble Lord, Lord O’Donnell, in putting this together. There are many well-thumbed copies around the Civil Service.

My Lords, would the Minister care to revisit the answer she gave to her noble friend Lord Young of Cookham? Can she point the House to a single example in the recent past of a major piece of policy or a significant announcement that has not been extensively briefed out to the press before it was given to Parliament?

There is a tradition that some material in upcoming policy announcements is sometimes briefed out to engage the great British public, but the substantive announcements are nearly always made to this House while Parliament is sitting.

My Lords, the Minister has been good enough to tell us three times that the reason for this prolonged delay in publication is that the Government are “considering options”. Apart from the option to publish or not, can she outline what those serious options are that are causing the delay?

The content of the Cabinet Manual is, as I am sure the noble Lord, Lord O’Donnell, would agree, a matter for the Cabinet Secretary and the Prime Minister of the day. The work being done is to look at everything that has been said, including in debates here and by the committees, and to decide on the content of the various chapters. As has already been said, there have been quite a number of changes—we have left the EU, we have got rid of the Fixed-term Parliaments Act and we have even introduced maternity pay for female Ministers, which was a great step forward—and there are various different things that need to be done. A view needs to be taken on what we put in the Cabinet Manual and how we keep it simple and engaging. Indeed, a suggestion was made in the debate led by my noble friend the Leader of the House to do more online in this digital age.