An updated Cabinet Manual is needed to maintain public trust, ethical standards and our constitution

By: Ann Taylor

Baroness Taylor of Bolton, Chair of the House of Lords Constitution Committee

Documents such as the Cabinet Manual, the Ministerial Code and the Civil Service Code are an important part of the United Kingdom’s constitutional framework and, together with the Nolan Principles of Public Life, respect for the Manual and Codes is essential for upholding principles of good governance, including adherence to constitutional conventions and the proper conduct of public and political life. However, for these documents to retain both vitality and usefulness they must be kept up to date. While the Codes have been updated regularly, the government has neglected the Cabinet Manual since it was first published a decade ago.

Following the significant developments since the publication of the first Manual in 2011, particularly in relation to Brexit and devolution, as well as the anticipated repeal of the Fixed-term Parliaments Act, the House of Lords Constitution Committee, which I chair, decided to conduct an inquiry into whether the Manual needs to be updated and what role it should play as a public facing document.

The Committee has today published a short report, emphasising that the Cabinet Manual must be regularly updated so it does not lack authority, cause confusion about what constitutional arrangements apply and risk becoming moribund.

In an earlier report on the original draft Manual, the Committee recommended that it should be regularly updated, with any revisions reflected immediately in the online version. Today’s report reiterates this recommendation, but as a more general update is now well overdue, it also calls on the Cabinet Office to issue a revised draft within the next 12 months, in advance of the next general election. Thereafter, the Manual should be reviewed and updated as a matter of course at the beginning of each Parliament, echoing the approach to the Ministerial Code.

As a public-facing document, an updated Manual would allow the public to better educate themselves about our uncodified constitution and thus increase their confidence in it. To avoid any confusion an out-of-date Manual may cause and to maintain the public’s trust in public affairs, the executive must consider it paramount to not only keep the Manual relevant, but for it to be drafted in an accessible and clear style which does not presume detailed knowledge of the constitution and the operation of government. Only then can such documents be widely accepted and considered legitimate.

Upholding faith in documents such as the Manual is also particularly important in the current context, amidst various allegations that standards in public life are slipping or being ignored.

The Manual is intended to provide authoritative guidance to ministers and officials by recording rules and practice on the operation of government. Again, if we allow such documents to become irrelevant, we risk losing sight of the important constitutional standards we rightly expect our public servants to adhere to. We have therefore recommended the Prime Minister makes clear, in the foreword to the next edition, the duty on all ministers to respect the constitutional principles in the Cabinet Manual.

We are also encouraging the government to engage openly and constructively with Parliament, academics, and the public, on future editions, as it did with the first edition. Sharing future drafts with my committee, and the relevant committees in the House of Commons and devolved legislatures, will also help to achieve consensus on the text and allow valuable changes to be made. Ultimately such an approach will allow us to uphold our constitution and serve the public to the highest standard.

Ann Taylor was elected as MP for Bolton West at the October 1974 general election and went on to serve as an assistant government whip in James Callaghan’s government from 1977 to 1979. She did not serve as an MP during the 1983-87 Parliament but was elected as the MP for Dewsbury in 1987, after which she served in various shadow ministerial roles under Neil Kinnock, John Smith, and Tony Blair.

In Tony Blair’s first government, Ann Taylor became the first woman to serve as Leader of the House of Commons and then Government Chief Whip. As a backbencher, she served as chair of the Intelligence and Security Committee from 2001 to 2005 and sponsored a Private Member’s Bill which sought to eliminate gender and religious discrimination in the royal succession.

Ann Taylor stepped down from the Commons at the 2005 general election and joined the Lords as Baroness Taylor of Bolton. She served as a minister of state in Gordon Brown’s government from 2007 to 2010. In 2014 she joined the House of Lords Constitution Committee, becoming its chair in June 2017.

The Constitution Society is committed to the promotion of informed debate and is politically impartial. Any views expressed in this article are the personal views of the author and not those of The Constitution Society.