18 October 2016

On Friday we submitted a Freedom of Information request for the membership of the Government’s cabinet committees. Oliver Ilott hopes this delay isn’t a sign of things to come.

In response to our FOI (see image), the Government today published the full list of cabinet committees and their membership. This is a welcome development.

foi-request

From a first glance, the make-up of the committees reflects Theresa May’s drive for No.10 to exercise greater control over government business. She chairs around half of the committees, sub-committees and taskforces, whereas David Cameron chaired around a third. While she, like Cameron, still chairs the main Europe Committee and the National Security Council, she has taken over control of the Economic Affairs committee, which was previously chaired by the Chancellor, and the renamed Social Reform committee (previously known as 'Home Affairs' and which Cameron delegated to Oliver Letwin).

Since Theresa May was elected, we have heard a lot about her more collective approach to government – and we have seen stories appear repeatedly in the press about cabinet committee discussions on Brexit and industrial strategy. But, despite repeated requests to the Cabinet Office, there was no official list of membership of those committees so that we could see who was involved in those decisions.

Membership of the Brexit committee leaked last Friday, which is what prompted our FOI request for more information.

As we continue to argue, cabinet committee membership is not an issue on which leaks to the press should even be an option. This is information that governments normally publish as a matter of routine, yet it took four months, a media leak, and an FOI request for the Government to publish such basic information.

Some cabinet committees play a key role in government’s decision making process, and we need to know who is making these decisions. Cabinet itself long ago ceased to be the place where the real business of government is done, with much of that work transferring to the smaller committees.

In our Minister’s Reflect interview, David Willetts, the former Universities and Science Minister, spoke about his efforts to 'wangle' his way onto the Home Affairs Cabinet Committee, which he saw as an 'incredibly important' body for setting the direction of domestic policy. On the other hand, some committees are little more than talking shops. But their potential influence means that it is important that the public and MPs know which ministers are members.

Whether the delay in publishing this information was caused by incompetence or unwarranted secrecy, the Government should ensure this experience stands as an aberration, not a precedent.

(We await a response to the other questions in our FOI request.)

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