14 October 2016

The membership of the Brexit cabinet committee has been leaked. Oliver Ilott says the public has a right to know the membership of all cabinet committees.

Theresa May announced in July that she would chair a new 'cabinet committee' to manage Brexit. Since then, we’ve heard nothing. This is unusual – cabinet committee membership is normally a fairly run-of-the-mill publication from government, with the most recent list published in April. Today, membership of the Brexit committee has finally leaked, though there is still no official announcement from government. This is not the type of information that should be revealed through a scoop. We should know which ministers form the key decision making body on Brexit.

Membership of other sensitive committees – such as the National Security Committee – has always been public. Theresa May has made much of the importance of maintaining rigorous processes. Knowing who makes the decisions is crucial to the ability of MPs and the public to hold government to account. For that reason, we continue to call for the Government to publish the membership list. The reason for the Government’s silence is not clear. It might be that there’s a dispute about membership which has not been resolved yet. Or it might be incompetence – the Government hasn’t published the usual comprehensive list of committee membership, so maybe it simply hasn’t got round to disclosing the names of those sitting on the Brexit committee.

This interpretation is undermined by the fact that other cabinet committees – including Theresa May’s new committee on 'an economy that works for everyone' – have published their own individual membership lists. If instead the Government has avoided publishing the Brexit committee membership out of a desire to maintain secrecy, it would imply a needlessly clandestine approach to information that must be in the public domain. This is not an issue on which we should need to have a conversation about transparency. Beside the membership, the role of the committee is still unclear. Like many institutions in government, there are cabinet committees and then there are cabinet committees. If the Brexit committee is to be anything other than a talking shop, it will need frequent face-to-face meetings and the support of a group of senior officials.

This is to ensure it receives high-quality papers and its decisions are communicated directly to relevant departments, then followed up. These characteristics have underpinned the success of the National Security Council, introduced by Theresa May’s predecessor. The leaked document also does not list any senior officials as participants in the meeting – the experience of the NSC indicates that this can be useful. If today’s leak is accurate, we now know a little more about who will be making key decisions on Brexit. But all we have is that single leaked document – there is still nothing from government itself. Incompetence or secrecy? It’s probably a bit of both.