Clarify "rules of the game" set out in Cabinet Manual

02 February 2015

There is very low public awareness of the Cabinet Manual say Political and Constitutional Reform Committee in a report published Monday 2 February 2015.


The Cabinet Manual sets out some important “rules of the game” on constitutional issues that are of public interest, such as when the sitting Prime Minister at a general election who is unlikely to command a majority in the Parliament just elected should tender his resignation. 

Cabinet Manual provides a source of information on the laws, conventions and procedures that affect the operation and procedures of the Government. The first draft of the Manual was commissioned by the then Prime Minister, Gordon Brown, in February 2010, and the first edition was published by the Cabinet Office in October 2011.

Improve public awareness

The Committee says that well before the forthcoming election, the Cabinet Secretary should set out the Government’s view of the constitutional principles that will underpin the continuance in office or otherwise of an administration following a general election. The Cabinet Office should plan for creating greater public awareness of the Manual after the 2015 election.

Conflict decisions

The Committee says any revision to the Manual must set out the present scope of uncertainty over Parliament’s role in conflict decisions, and take into account the issues about the use of the convention of Parliamentary approval for commitment of armed forces overseas raised by the Committee in its previous reports.

The Committee says

  • The Government should be alert to the risk, seen in New Zealand, that the courts might seek to give the Manual constitutional status, with no public deliberation or debate. The Government should intervene in any relevant proceedings to make the status of the document clear, and to ensure that it doesn’t become a ‘constitution by the back door’
  • The Manual should be kept up to date, with a published list of issues to be incorporated in to its next revision
  • The relevant select committees of each House should be consulted on all proposed revisions to the manual which relate to Parliament and its relationship with the Executive: at present there is no mechanism to consult either House on these matters
  • Pre-election contacts with opposition parties should be routinely authorised to take place 12 months before the end of a fixed-term parliament

Chair's comments

Graham Allen MP, Chair of the Committee, said:

"We are aware that there is very little understanding of what the Cabinet Manual is or does, but it actually performs a central constitutional function in our democracy. As such, the public should be better informed about it and it should be improved to fulfil this role better.

For example, in the aftermath of the 2010 election, as the makeup of the new coalition Government was being negotiated, the conventions governing when the sitting Prime Minister should resign were not clear and poorly communicated.

In the absence of a written constitution these things are governed by convention, so you can see how in some circumstances an impasse or power vacuum could arise. It would be much better to have clarity, and to have the rules of the game clearly set out in the Cabinet Manual.

The same applies to important national decisions such as when to send our armed forces into conflicts abroad: the public and Parliament should have certainty over how these decisions will be made between Government and Parliament."

Further information

Image: iStockphoto

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