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Still too easy for Prime Minister to disregard Cabinet procedures

16 March 2017

The Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee report concludes there remains an absence of safeguards in place to prevent a Prime Minister from disregarding Cabinet procedures in the conduct of foreign and military policy. This was evident in the lead up to a possible military action in Iraq, and was exposed by the Chilcot inquiry.

Fails to provide closure

For many, the Chilcot Inquiry fails to provide closure on the Iraq issue, and the seven-year inquiry itself was controversial.  PACAC held a short inquiry into lessons both for the conduct of inquiries and for the machinery of government.

PACAC looked at the role of the Cabinet Secretary and senior officials, and their ability to ensure Ministers take proper advice on the provision of evidence and on how decisions should be made. These arrangements were by-passed by Tony Blair, particularly when he wrote directly to the US President, "I will be with you, whatever", against the advice of officials.  The report concludes, "It is no longer acceptable that the present arrangements should continue without stronger means to prevent key ministers, or even the whole Cabinet, from being side-lined."

A lack of collective Cabinet decision-making

Chairman of PACAC, Bernard Jenkin MP, says:

"At present, there is simply nothing even a cabinet secretary can do to stop a prime minister from doing this again at some time in the future, short of resignation.  There was a lack of collective Cabinet decision-making, at a time when clear thinking and a culture of challenge was most needed. The failure to engage Cabinet on such decisions cannot be allowed to happen again, but there is no mechanism to ensure that."

Following a proposal from the Better Government Initiative, PACAC recommends that the Cabinet Secretary and senior officials should be able to require a  formal letter of direction, if they are being instructed to disregard the normal procedures set out in the Cabinet Manual. This would both safeguard the Cabinet Secretary's independence and clarify their responsibility.

Parliament's role in the Iraq Inquiry

PACAC also concludes that Parliament should have been much more actively involved in establishing and setting up the Iraq Inquiry. In future, a special select committee should be established to examine the terms of reference, an estimated time-frame and a proposed budget for the inquiry. 

Their recommendations should be subject a full debate and a vote on an amendable motion, before the inquiry is established.  The Chair of such inquiries should also be subject to a full pre-appointment hearing.

Further information

Image: PA