Committee call for greater accountability at centre of Government

29 January 2010

The House of Lords Constitution Committee have today published their report on 'The Cabinet Office and the Centre of Government' in which they suggest that power within the cabinet has become increasingly centralised to the Prime Minister and recommend that structures of accountability should be reformed to mirror that change.

The Committee express support for the principles of collective responsibility but recognise that increasingly the Cabinet Office has become responsible for overseeing the delivery of government policy across departments. They stress that accountability mechanisms within the UK constitution are not set up to reflect this new reality with parliamentary and select committee scrutiny based on individual Ministers reporting to Parliament for activities within their departments. The report states that:

"Structures of accountability should mirror structures of power, and where structures of power have changed, the structures of accountability should be adjusted accordingly … Parliament should ensure that its accountability mechanisms adapt to the changing nature of policy formation and delivery. Government should ensure that the mechanism of the policy formation and delivery process remains transparent."

The Committee also consider the role of the Minister for the Cabinet Office, and state that the responsibilities of the post are currently poorly defined. They heard a range of evidence that suggested the position was not a strong one within government. They recommend that the Government reassess the functions of the Minister for the Cabinet Office to ensure that the postholder’s responsibilities accurately reflect the strategic role the Cabinet Office plays in delivering government policy.

The report goes on to consider the approach taken to changes to the machinery of government and the change in the role and function of the Lord Chancellor which took place during Tony Blair’s time as Prime Minister. The Committee state that the process of change involved ‘wholly inadequate’ consultation both within government and with the senior judiciary, and state that there was "no justification for failure to consult on these important reforms."

The Committee recommend that in future the Cabinet Office should play a formal role in investigating any machinery of government changes, particularly those with constitutional implications.

Commenting, Lord Goodlad, Chairman of the House of Lords Constitution Committee, said:

"The evidence we received clearly suggested that power within the Cabinet has become more centralised with the Prime Minister. The role of the Cabinet Office has increasingly involved ensuring that the PM’s priorities are delivered across government.

"In the light of this, it is important that Parliamentary and other scrutiny adapt to reflect this. It is crucial that structures of accountability mirror structures of power as they are in reality rather than in theory.

"One step towards achieving this would be to make the responsibilities of the Minister for the Cabinet Office clearer. Given the importance of the Cabinet Office in delivering government policy, the post should have the prestige within the cabinet that it deserves."

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