When I was first studying politics in the late 1970s, the very existence of Cabinet Sub Committees was a state secret.
We could only guess at how the ‘executive branch’ of government was being run. We used various leaks and published information about how Cabinets and Cabinet sub-committees in other countries worked.
The UK government eventually published a list of Cabinet sub committees, although the jury is still out on whether it ever has been a complete list, as the old committee numbering system appears to suggest.
The new UK Coalition Government has made major changes to the structure of the system that forms the interface between ‘democracy and bureaucracy’. Given that these changes were in no-one’s manifesto, and absent from any policy statement or Coalition Agreement. Given that there was no public debate about these major changes, one can only deduce the significance of these changes for the governance of the UK from the nature of the changes themselves and committee membership. (see table below).
To simplify some history. Before the Second World War the UK ran a two tier Cabinet system – one Cabinet for domestic policy and one for the colonies, overseas territories and foreign/military policy. The latter was superior to the former. One particular feature was that it did not constitutionally derive its legitimacy from Parliament and the powers of the Prime Minister as head of the government. It derived its legitimacy from the constitutional powers of the Head of State and the so-called ‘Royal Prerogative’ – and the Prime Minister acting on behalf of the Head of State rather than on behalf of elected representatives in the House of Commons. Although there were occasional nods to Parliament Square, this ‘Overseas Cabinet’ did not generally regard itself as reporting to Parliament.
This ‘overseas’ Cabinet was transformed into a Cabinet Committee called OPD. However, this was something of another nod to Parliament Square in that OPD has allegedly always had superior status to the Cabinet itself.
There are two main changes in the structure which stand out. One is streamlining, with fewer Cabinet Committees and hence less involvement by elected Ministers in policy implementation. This increases the powers of civil servants. The second and perhaps more significant change is the final abandonment of the key principle of OPD – that is, that it is solely concerned with overseas policy, (including counter espionage inside the UK).
The new National Security Council (NSC) now includes domestic civil security (police, Special Branch, Border Agency, immigration policy), as represented through the Home Secretary, and a new domestically-focused ‘Minister for Security’.
This is a significant change in how the UK is run, with echoes of ‘enemy within’. Since there has been no public debate on these major changes, it is difficult to conclude whether this change is due to expected civil unrest after the necessary fiscal tightening is in full implementation or whether it is a reflection of (perhaps exaggerated) views of the threat from domestic religious militancy-cum-terrorism (or both).
The current Deputy Prime Minister has a particular policy brief with respect to political and constitutional reforms in pursuit of more democracy.
It would be a sad irony if such potential reforms were more than outweighed by changes in the system by which the Executive is run. These changes may include bringing more domestic policy under the auspices of the powers of the Head of state and Royal Prerogative and away from scrutiny by Parliament, as they are transferred to a renamed OPD, now the NSC.
OLD CABINET SYSTEM
NEW CABINET SYSTEM
Coalition Committee (& Coalition Operation and Strategic Planning Group)
Ministerial Committee on Defence and Overseas Policy (OPD)
National Security Council
Ministerial Committee on Nuclear Defence Policy (OPDN)
NSC (Nuclear Deterrence and Security)
Ministerial Sub-committee on European Questions (OPD(E)
European Affairs Committee
Ministerial Sub-committee on Terrorism (OPD(T))
NSC (Threats, Hazards, Resilience and Contingencies)
Ministerial Committee on Hong Kong and Other Dependent Territories (OPDK)
Ministerial Committee on the Intelligence Services (IS)
Ministerial Committee on Northern Ireland (NI)
Ministerial Committee on Economic and Domestic Policy (EDP)
Economic Affairs Committee
Ministerial Committee on Industrial, Commercial and Consumer Affairs (EDI)
Banking Reform Committee
Ministerial Committee on Science and Technology (EDS)
Reducing Regulation sub-Committee
Ministerial Committee on Regeneration (EDR)
Ministerial Group on Competitiveness (GEN 29)
Ministerial Committee on Public Expenditure (EDX)
Public Expenditure Committee
Ministerial Committee on Home and Social Affairs (EDH)
Home Affairs Committee
Social Justice Committee
Ministerial Sub-committee on Health Strategy (EDH(H))
Public Health sub-Committee
Ministerial Committee on Local Government (EDL)
Ministerial Committee on the Environment (EDE)
Ministerial Sub-committee on Public Sector Pay (EDI (P))
Ministerial Sub-committee on Drug Misuse (EDH(D))
Ministerial Sub-committee on Women's Issues (EDH (W))
Ministerial Sub-committee on London (EDL(L))
Ministerial Committee on Legislation (LG)
Parliamentary Business and Legislation Committee
Ministerial Committee on the Queen's Speeches and Future Legislation (FLG)
Ministerial Group on Card Technology (GEN 34)
The new Cabinet system is described on the Cabinet Office website.
See the Prime Minister's written answer to a question in 1995 for the previous system.
Paul Reynolds is a Professor of Economics and Government and an adviser to the Liberal Democrats.