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Cabinet Manual

Volume 832: debated on Monday 24 July 2023


Asked by

To ask His Majesty’s Government when they plan to submit a draft revised Cabinet Manual to the appropriate committees of both Houses for their comments.

My Lords, the Government’s current intention is to share draft material for review in the autumn. The Cabinet Secretary wrote to the House of Lords Constitution Committee and the House of Commons Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee in June to set out this plan. Since then, officials have been engaging with the clerks of the committees, and they will continue to do so over the summer to provide the latest information.

My Lords, I thank the Minister for that welcome confirmation of news that progress is at last being made. It is now 18 months since the noble Lord, Lord True, in answering the debate on the Constitution Committee’s report, said he regretted that there had not yet been a revision. There have been five revisions of the Ministerial Code since 2015 and four of the special advisers’ code, but none of this code. Does the Minister agree that it is extremely important to have these consultations completed and the draft published in final form before the likely date of the next election, to ensure that the constitutional transfer of authority after the next election—to whichever Government are then formed—is conducted according to the rules laid out in the Cabinet Manual as revised?

I thank the noble Lord. The Cabinet Secretary made it clear in his letter to the committees that the plan was to complete the work so that the new and revised Cabinet Manual could be published in good time for the next general election.

Will the Minister confirm that the Opposition should be consulted on this, just in case the next incumbent should be Keir Starmer? Could it perhaps start with an undertaking that—in the absence today of the noble Lord, Lord Hennessy—we revert to the “good chaps” theory of government whereby the Prime Minister and all Ministers keep to not just the law but the spirit of the law?

The procedure we are going to follow is to engage the committees, as I explained, because they can do a good job in bringing together the views of parliamentarians on the Cabinet Manual. Obviously, in due course the revised manual will become available, but the first step will be to consult the committees. The noble Baroness, Lady Drake —I am not sure whether she is in her place—led a very good debate in the autumn on this matter. We will also consult key academics. As the noble Baroness said, it is a great pity that the noble Lord, Lord Hennessy, is not in his place. However, I make the point that the Cabinet Manual records rules and practices; it is not intended to be the source of new rules.

My Lords, will the noble Baroness confirm that the duty on Ministers to adhere to the constitutional principles of the Cabinet Manual will be included in its foreword when it is next produced?

I will check to see whether that is intended, but I will certainly look very positively at the point the noble Lord has made, and, indeed, at the Seven Principles of Public Life. Having now had to study the Cabinet Manual, I think it provides a very important landscape that references various bits of guidance such as the Ministerial Code and the Civil Service Code, which are also important in their own right. As the noble Lord, Lord Wallace, explained, these tend to be amended a little more frequently.

My Lords, will the Cabinet Manual ensure that Parliamentary Answers are full and accurate and that, regarding ministerial correspondence, people can expect replies within a matter of days, if not weeks? That used to be the position but, since I was a boy, things seem to have deteriorated.

I thank my noble friend. As I explained, it is to some extent an outline document. There is guidance on ministerial correspondence, which he may not be aware of; I will certainly send him a link to it.

My Lords, when the last Cabinet Manual was considered and the Scotland Act was passed through both Houses of this Parliament, it was never envisaged that a Scottish Government would stray into reserved areas, as they are now doing. Therefore, there are no sanctions that the UK Government can impose on that kind of action. Could this be considered when the Cabinet Manual is revised?

I will certainly take that point away. It is obviously a UK Government document; it is signed off by UK Ministers, who are accountable to the UK Parliament. However, one of the revisions that will be needed relates to the changes in the devolution settlements. I think there have been two Wales Acts and two Scotland Acts since the manual was last revised.

My Lords, following on from the question from the noble Lord, Lord Forsyth, will this work also look at Written Questions that remain unanswered after 10 working days? I refer to page 10 of today’s Order Paper, which lists more than 11 questions, one of which, from the noble Lord, Lord Jackson, goes back to 19 June. That simply is not acceptable.

I share the noble Lord’s concerns about delays to answering Parliamentary Questions, which we all try to do our best to answer in time. When departments get behind, we are rightly chided, and I will certainly look at the point. The Cabinet Manual is perhaps a little broader and more strategic, but that is not a reason not to make sure that we are respecting Parliament through the speed with which we answer Questions, which we all find so useful in keeping us up to date on many matters.

My Lords, that is a very interesting point. I have tabled Written Questions, asked Oral Questions and received Answers which I am sure were given in good faith, only for someone else then to make an FoI request and for different information to come back, which was then sent to me. The Minister acted perfectly properly, but it cannot be right for an FoI request to give different information from that in the response to a Written Question or Oral Question. Can the Minister look at that?

If the noble Lord would be kind enough to share the example with me, as I look after FoI requests and many Parliamentary Questions, I will see what happened.

My Lords, further to the answer my noble friend gave me, in which she said that guidance was provided on this, it is absolutely apparent that that guidance is not being followed. Could the code be strengthened so that we get proper Answers, and so that Ministers, particularly in this place, are given proper briefing by officials?

That probably goes beyond the Cabinet Manual point and may be more urgent. I will see what I can do for my noble friend.

My Lords, did I hear from the Minister that she finds Questions very useful so far as the Government are concerned? Would she therefore welcome an extension of Question Time, to make us even more useful?

That matter would be beyond my responsibility. As I was speaking, I was thinking of the Written Questions I get and how they are often seen as a poor relation. However, in them I am asked about things I do not necessarily know about, and as a Minister I—perhaps curiously—find that useful. When at the Dispatch Box during Question Time, one often looks at the Clock, so one would have to look at it for longer.

My Lords, to return to the general point, the Minister may have considered that we might be changing from one Government to another after the election, which will overlap with the United States doing the same. We have seen, painfully, from the last transfer of power in the United States that one should never take the constitutional transfer of power for granted. The Cabinet Manual is most useful during a change of government, as many of those who have commented on it have said. Is the Minister conscious that one needs to push to ensure that it is therefore available for all those who might be Ministers after the next election, well before the campaign starts?

The noble Lord makes a good point. I said that we are looking ahead to timing, bearing in mind the general election, and I repeat that undertaking. I am glad that he mentioned the United States, where there is a very different system, involving a written constitution. One of the strengths of our constitution, and indeed of our history, is its flexibility and ability to evolve according to changing circumstances. Since the last Cabinet Manual, we have had a lot of changes in circumstances—Covid, Ukraine, Brexit and so on.