openDemocracyUK

Time to abolish the "Department of the Prime Minister"

One of the most significant but largely unnoticed changes to the way we are governed in recent years has been the establishment inside the Cabinet Office of a semi-official 'Department of the Prime Minister' which, at its peak under Tony Blair, employed more than 700 staff.
Andrew Blick
29 January 2010

One of the most significant but largely unnoticed changes to the way we are governed in recent years has been the establishment inside the Cabinet Office of a semi-official 'Department of the Prime Minister' which, at its peak under Tony Blair, employed more than 700 staff. This shift - detailed in our forthcoming book 'Premiership: the development, nature and power of the office of the British Prime Minister' - has entailed a more active role for No.10 in policy, with significant constitutional implications.

First, Cabinet, through which ministers can make important decisions collectively, has been compromised, through being stripped of a significant portion of the institutional support it receives from the Cabinet Office.Second, lines of democratic accountability have been blurred. If parliamentarians wish to investigate a certain programme or set of activities, to whom should they turn? The minister with the relevant portfolio and legal responsibility for action in the area concerned? Or the Prime Minister, who may well, using his 'Department', have had substantial influence on a particular course of action? Parliament tends to concentrate on the former, but the recent enhancements to No.10 have rendered this approach increasingly inadequate.

The House of Lords Constitution Committee recently looked at this issue, and has reported today.  In our evidence to the inquiry we argued that in order to rectify these twin problems the Cabinet Office should return to its traditional sole focus upon supporting the Cabinet, and shed its responsibilities for assisting the Prime Minister and managing the Civil Service.

While the Committee broadly acknowledges the existence of the tendencies we identified and our analysis of them, it has decided that the Cabinet Office should continue largely as it is; and that the rest of our constitution should change to keep pace with it.

The Committee 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'. But in this case, if Parliament is to alter in order to reflect the new nature of the Cabinet Office, it may be required to abandon its most fundamental principle of ministerial responsibility. While there is no question that accountability mechanisms should be able to change with the times, it is also the case that changes in structures of power should be enacted with some consideration as to their democratic implications. Some shifts are simply incompatible with existing democratic norms and for this reason should not be enacted.

The establishment of a semi-official 'Department of the Prime Minister', with its impact upon collective government and parliamentary accountability, falls into this category. The supposed - and difficult-to-prove - gains in more effective government cannot justify the constitutional problems it has created. This change should be reversed.

Dr. Andrew Blick, Senior Research Fellow, Democratic Audit; Prof. George Jones, Professor Emeritus of Government, London School of Economics and Political Science, authors of "Premiership: the development, nature and power of the office of the British Prime Minister", to be published by Imprint Academic in April this year.

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