On 16 December 2022, the House of Lords is scheduled to debate the following motion:

Baroness Drake (Labour) to move that this House takes note of the report from the Constitution Committee ‘Revision of the Cabinet Manual’.

1. Background to the report

1.1 What is the Cabinet Manual?

The government released the first edition of the Cabinet Manual in 2011. Published by the Cabinet Office, it was described as “a guide to laws, conventions and rules on the operation of government”. It contained information on various topics, including: the sovereign; elections and government formation; the prime minister; the cabinet; ministers; Parliament; the judiciary; the civil service; devolved administrations; local government; the EU; finances; and public information.

The House of Lords Constitution Committee has said that the manual was intended to provide authoritative guidance to ministers and officials by recording, rather than being the source of, rules and practices on the operation of government. The committee said that while the manual “broke some new ground in terms of content, particularly regarding elections and government formation”, it also drew together existing materials from a variety of sources including relevant codes, statutes, parliamentary materials, and Cabinet Office guidance.

The committee argued that the manual was a “guidance document or work of reference” rather than a code as it did not require ministers or officials to behave in a particular manner beyond what is already required by other codes or law. As a result, it did not contain enforcement mechanisms.

1.2 How was it created?

The manual’s publication followed work by several governments to improve ethical standards in public life. In 1994, the then prime minister, John Major, established the Committee on Standards in Public Life following various allegations of misconduct. The following year, the first chair of this committee, Lord Nolan, outlined ethical standards that those working in the public sector should adhere to. These are known as the ‘seven principles of public life’ or the ‘Nolan principles’.

Since the creation of the Nolan principles, there has been a requirement that certain standards in public life will be adhered to by ministers, parliamentarians, and officials. The principles were incorporated into the ministerial code, the civil service code and the code of conduct for special advisers. These documents set out expected standards of conduct and behaviour as well as enforcement mechanisms if breaches occurred (according to the Constitution Committee, these mechanisms generally rested upon ‘soft’ rather than ‘hard’ law remedies).

Following the publication of these codes, the then prime minister, Gordon Brown, commissioned the creation of the Cabinet Manual. After parliamentary scrutiny and public consultation, the first edition of the manual was published in October 2011 under the coalition government led by Prime Minister David Cameron. It was inspired in part by the New Zealand Cabinet Manual (New Zealand also has an uncodified constitution, where it is not written down in a single document).

1.3 The committee’s inquiry

In March 2021, the House of Lords Constitution Committee launched an inquiry to consider whether the Cabinet Manual required updating. The committee noted that the first edition of the manual was almost 10 years old at the time and that the government had recently said that it had no plans to update it in the short term. The committee therefore said that it had decided to conduct a short inquiry to explore the following questions:

  • What role does, and should, the Cabinet Manual play as a public-facing document?
  • Should the Cabinet Manual be updated and, if so, what changes are required?
  • What approach should the government adopt to ensuring the Cabinet Manual is kept up to date?
  • Recognising that the Cabinet Manual is an executive document, what role, if any, should Parliament have regarding its revision?
  • Can any lessons be learned, or adopted, from other jurisdictions without a codified constitution?

The committee invited individuals and organisations to submit evidence to inform the inquiry. It received a small number of written submissions and heard evidence from some former cabinet secretaries as well as the current cabinet secretary, Simon Case. The written submissions received, and transcripts of the evidence heard, are available on the UK Parliament website.

2. The committee’s report

2.1 Overview of the committee’s recommendations

The committee published its report ‘Revision of the Cabinet Manual’ in July 2021. The report considered various issues relating to the manual and summarised the evidence it had received. It also made a series of recommendations, including that:

  • a draft update of the Cabinet Manual should be produced as soon as possible, and not later than 12 months after the date of the report (July 2022)
  • thereafter any updates to the manual should be considered at the beginning of each Parliament and endorsed by the cabinet
  • future drafts should be shared with the committee and other relevant committees in the House of Commons and devolved legislatures for comment
  • the manual should continue to be drafted in an accessible and clear style which does not presume detailed knowledge of the UK constitution and operation of government

Further information on the committee’s findings and recommendations is set out below.

2.2 Status of the Cabinet Manual

The committee heard evidence that the manual remained a valuable document. It noted that having conventions written down helped Parliament to scrutinise ministerial behaviour against a benchmark. It also said that evidence had shown that a lack of enforcement mechanisms within the manual was not viewed as an issue.

In its summary on the status of the manual, the committee said that ensuring adherence to the manual would “ultimately be a matter for the prime minister”. However, it recommended that in the next edition of the manual, the prime minister should use the foreword to clarify that there is a duty for all ministers to adhere to the constitutional principles within the document.

2.3 Updating the Cabinet Manual and the process for doing so

The committee said that most of its witnesses had agreed that the manual should be updated, and that this was overdue. It argued that since its publication in 2011, there had been “significant developments in relation to Brexit and devolution, including the response to the Covid-19 pandemic”. The committee also noted plans to repeal the Fixed-Term Parliaments Act 2011, which has since occurred.

The committee highlighted that the government had previously said that it would update the manual once the UK left the EU. It referred to an answer given in response to a written question in May 2018 as well as the government’s response to a report by the House of Commons Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee in September 2018.

In addition, the committee noted that since 2011, other codes have been updated to reflect changes in practice and government. In this time, various parliamentary committees have also recommended changes to the manual. Appendix four of the committee’s report contained a summary of these suggestions.

Focusing on the process for updating the manual, the committee set out that several of its witnesses had agreed that the government should update it at the beginning of each new parliament. It also highlighted that in New Zealand, the manual is reviewed and updated periodically.

The committee concluded that the manual remains useful and needs to be regularly updated. It argued that an update is “now well overdue” and that an out-of-date manual lacks authority, causes confusion about what arrangements apply and risks becoming “moribund”. It therefore recommended that:

  • a draft update should be published as soon as possible and within 12 months of the publication of the committee’s report (July 2022)
  • thereafter, it should become routine that updates to the manual are considered at the beginning of each parliament and endorsed by the cabinet following consultation with parliamentary committees, academics and the public
  • between regular updates to the manual, any important revisions should be reflected immediately in the online version
  • the next edition of the manual should set out the process for producing later versions

2.4 Role of Parliament

On the question of Parliament’s involvement in updating the manual, the committee said that its witnesses had mixed views. It said that while some had argued that the manual should be scrutinised and approved by Parliament, others had agreed that Parliament should be consulted but not asked to endorse updates.

The committee therefore recommended that future drafts, including drafts of individual chapters, should be shared with this committee and the relevant committee in the House of Commons “to help to achieve consensus”. It also said that relevant committees in the devolved legislatures should be consulted on any revisions to the manual.

2.5 Public awareness

In its consideration of the public profile and wider role of the manual, the committee heard that although some did not feel that it was well known, it was viewed as useful for helping people to understand constitutional issues.

Arguing that understanding the constitution should not be only for those working in the field, the committee recommended that the Cabinet Manual should continue to be drafted in an accessible and clear style which does not presume detailed knowledge of the UK’s constitution and the operation of government.

2.6 Standards in public life

The committee said that in recent years concerns have been raised about standards in public life. For example, it noted that in its 2020 report on the United Kingdom Internal Market Bill, it had said that some established conventions had come under strain. It also highlighted that its inquiry on the Cabinet Manual had taken place at a time when there were several allegations of breaches of the ministerial code. These included the finding by the then independent advisor of ministerial interests that the then home secretary, Priti Patel, had broken the ministerial code, as well as the investigation into the financing of the refurbishment of the prime minister’s residence in Downing Street.

Although the committee did not make any recommendations on this issue, it concluded that documents such as the Cabinet Manual are an important part of the UK’s constitutional framework. It said that together with the Nolan principles, such documents are essential for upholding principles of good governance, including “adherence to constitutional conventions and the proper conduct of public and political life”. The committee also argued that they are “crucial” to the wider national wellbeing as well as to the public’s trust in government. It therefore said that the government should not treat them as “optional extras” or ignore them to suit their own “convenience”.

3. The government’s response

3.1 Initial response

The government responded to the committee’s report in February 2022. The then minister of state at the Cabinet Office, Lord True, wrote to the committee’s chair, Baroness Drake.

Lord True confirmed that the government would publish an updated version of the Cabinet Manual before the end of the current parliament. He said that the government agreed that if the manual is to continue to play a useful role, it would need to be updated periodically to reflect new developments. Lord True said that he would update the committee on the work as it progresses.

Focusing on some of the committee’s other recommendations, Lord True said that the government would consider whether there was a case for routinely updating the manual, either at the start of each parliament or each new administration. He said that as the government updated the manual it would consider the best process for future updates, including by seeking views from others. However, he said that any decision to update the Cabinet Manual, and the content within, “must ultimately be for the prime minister of the day”.

Lord True also noted the government’s agreement with the committee on the importance of the Cabinet Manual being drafted in an accessible and clear style. In addition, he agreed that the manual, along with other codes and the Nolan principles, is important in setting out “the norms by which governments operate, and the standards expected of ministers and civil servants”. Lord True also noted the comments by Cabinet Secretary Simon Case on the importance of ensuring a culture within government which upholds the fundamental principles set out in documents like the manual. He said that the government is committed to ensuring such a culture.

3.2 Further correspondence

On 16 May 2022, Baroness Drake wrote to the then prime minister, Boris Johnson, to seek clarification on his government’s response to some of the committee’s recommendations. Baroness Drake asked Mr Johnson for his view as prime minister on the recommendation that he should use the foreword of the updated manual to clarify that there is a duty for all ministers to adhere to the constitutional principles within the document.

Baroness Drake also asked Mr Johnson if his government intended to share drafts of any updates with the committee and other relevant committees in the House of Commons. She said this should be done in a timely manner to allow for sufficient scrutiny and feedback. In addition, Baroness Drake reiterated the committee’s recommendation that the government should formally consult with relevant committees in the devolved legislatures and asked for the prime minister to confirm if this was his government’s intention.

Lastly, Baroness Drake noted the government’s commitment to produce a draft update by the end of the parliament and asked for “an indication of the proposed timeline for this”.

Responding on 1 June 2022, Lord True highlighted that unlike in 2011, the government would not be producing a document from scratch but instead updating the current manual. He said that:

Our process for updating the Cabinet Manual, including any engagement, will reflect the extent to which significant changes are required or whether the updates are more limited in nature eg to reflect where legislation has been updated. We will of course keep your committee and others updated as the work progresses.

He offered for government officials to meet with the committee’s officials to provide background on the government’s timetable and approach.

Lord True also said that the expectation set out by the then prime minister in the first edition of the manual was that everyone working in government should be mindful of the guidance. He said that this expectation remained.

Cover image by Rui Chamberlain on Unsplash.