The Cabinet Manual: where’s the beef?

After almost two years of drafts, three select committee reports, the UK now has a Cabinet Manual. I received my shiny grey copy of the first edition of the Manual a few days ago, and am only just beginning to read it. The grey cover is completely appropriate of course: it is a civil service document through and through. Truly, it is—as Lord Hennessy suggested memorably—a herbivore’s document. Nothing wrong with that.[1] But this is not a manual that ministers will use. It is far too formal for that. That’s a shame, but early days: this is only the first edition.

As with all good and great things, the Cabinet Manual has begun to develop its own little academic industry—which, of course, one can only applaud. But it’s easy to talk about what could and should have been in the Manual: eg., more about the Human Rights Act, Europe, a better discussion of parliament and its conventions, etc etc…. the list goes on. Instead, I would like to briefly talk about two matters, which are connected.

First point: it’s a surprise that the Manual was published at all. It needs to be recalled that prior to 2010 there were a fair number of executive guidance documents of varying size and accuracy scattered in different locations, and in some areas of executive practice there was no guidance at all. There was little understanding that this might be a problem—not just because of the possibility of a hung parliament, but because the scattered, incomplete nature of these documents might impact upon executive effectiveness. More generally, there was a need for greater transparency or at least openness about government. Robert Hazell and Peter Riddell’s original submission calling for a Cabinet Manual was made with all three considerations in mind. And if you read the submission, you will notice that many of the points are made quite cautiously. That is because there was no guarantee that anything would be done. To put it differently, the Manual’s publication was by no means inevitable.

The second point is from my brief experience in the Executive: the aphorism ‘bills are made to pass like razors are made to sell’ applies equally to executive guidance documents. Just because a need has been identified doesn’t mean it can be answered in an ideal form. There is a process, or processes by which things happen within the executive; and the executive is not a monolith—it consists of different groups with different interests. And sometimes the silences, omissions and ambiguities of the Manual are unintentional, and sometimes they are deliberate. That is the nature of the executive, because it does not necessarily speak with one voice, and because the executive also has to be aware of the other branches of government.

Is this cryptic? I hope not. But my basic point is this. The Manual is an imperfect document. But to me it is still a surprise that we have the document at all. [2]

[1] So perhaps it should have been called ‘the Cabinet Office Manual’, as all three select committees recommended. That would make it clear that it is a manual for officials rather than for ‘Cabinet’.

[2] This is not a veiled way of saying ‘be pleased with what you got’. I only wish to point out that two years ago no such document existed.

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