The cabinet manual – at last, a rough guide for ministers

As a New Zealander I’m fascinated by all the assurances that the long awaited Cabinet Manual isn’t the UK Coalition government’s attempt to foist the first draft of a written constitution on an unwilling British public.  Or even more conspiratorially, that it was a manual for dictatorship. But it really isn’t. In many ways this is quite a conservative (small “c”) effort.

The Manual aims to provide an executive lens on the workings of the UK’s constitutional arrangements. To proffer an interpretation is not to suggest it is an authoritative interpretation, of course. And to suggest that the executive cannot put forward an interpretation is to ignore the very important (but often ignored) role that the executive has always played in interpreting the UK’s constitutional arrangements.

Primarily, the Manual is meant to assist Ministers; secondly, the civil service; and finally, the public. Much of the Manual is actually a rehash of old material. Take, for instance, the devolution chapter. A fair bit of this has long been on the Cabinet Office website (note that these webpages are currently being updated, so here I’ve used an archived webpage). The section on the royal prerogative (e.g., para 110 and onwards) looks suspiciously like the Governance of Britain final report on the prerogative. Various sections simply repeat the Ministerial Code. The Manual attempts to bring together all this disparate information into a single document. Put simply, the Manual is meant to make life within the executive easier: it is to provide Ministers and civil servants with a ‘rough guide’ on common issues, a compilation of ‘best practices’ on rather technical matters.

In the UK, the Manual is probably best known for the elections chapter, a draft of which came out prior to the May 2010 general election.  But now the full draft has been published. Perhaps of immediate interest is the introduction to the UK’s constitutional arrangements (paras 1-18). This follows the example of the NZ Cabinet Manual, but the UK version is far, far more conservative. It’s too short; there is no mention of political parties; lawyers will wonder about the very obvious exclusion of the Human Rights Act from the discussion of constitutional statutes (e.g., para 5).  Hardly ‘the first step to a written constitution’.

There are some uniquely British features in the UK draft. There is a chapter on devolution, for instance; and also one on relations with the European Union and international institutions, reflecting the now deep connections between British government and the outside world. Curiously, there is little mention of international law generally, which is reduced to treaties. There is also a government finance and expenditure chapter, reflecting, perhaps, current concerns.

The election chapter is full of oddities. For instance, the paragraphs on ministerial directions during election time (paras 72-73). An ‘accounting officer’ may insist on ministerial direction where they object to a particular course of action on the basis of propriety, regularity or value for money. This is unusual by Commonwealth standards, to say the least.

More on all this later. There is now a three month period in which Parliament—and all those interested in the constitutional arrangements of the UK—may examine this document and make submissions on its form and content. There are no doubt a number of select committees who will very interested in it, but ‘we’ the public should also take the draft Manual seriously.

Ben Yong

The Constitution Unit advocated the adoption of a Cabinet Manual as early as December 2009. For our work on this, see our report:

Two select committee submissions also discuss the Cabinet Manual:

For some media comment, see here:

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