What are cabinet committees?
Cabinet committees are groups of ministers that can “take collective decisions that are binding across government”. 17 Cabinet Office, List of Cabinet Committees, GOV.UK, 16 September 2010, retrieved on 18 March 2020, www.gov.uk/government/publications/the-cabinet-committees-system-and-list-of-cabinet-committees They are partly designed to reduce the burden on the full cabinet by allowing smaller groups of ministers to take decisions on specific policy areas. These committees have been around in some form since the early 20th century.
Cabinet committees should not be confused with select committees, which are parliamentary bodies that scrutinise what government does.
What subjects do cabinet committees cover?
Prime ministers can create, abolish or continue cabinet committees as they want. They also choose the remit and membership of the committees.
Some committees have existed in some form for a while: for example, the Parliamentary Business and Legislation Committee has existed since 2010 to “consider issues relating to the government’s parliamentary business and its legislative programme”. It is relatively similar to the Legislation Committee 18 Cabinet Office, Ministerial Committee on Legislation, 3 November 2008, retrieved on 18 March 2020, http://web.archive.org/web/20081120051054/http:/www.cabinetoffice.gov.uk/secretariats/committees/l.aspx which existed under Gordon Brown.
Others reflect prime ministerial priorities or political situations. David Cameron formalised the National Security Council (NSC) as a cabinet committee in 2010, and in 2015 he abolished the Coalition Committee and the Banking Reform Committee, and introduced a new committee on Europe. Theresa May similarly established several Brexit-related cabinet committees, while Boris Johnson established two Covid-19 cabinet committees.
As of March 2023, there are five cabinet committees and six sub-committees:
- National Security Council (NSC)
- National Security Council sub-committee: Nuclear
- National Security Council sub-committee: Europe
- National Security Council sub-committee: Resilience
- National Security Council sub-committee: Economic Security
- National Science and Technology Council
- Domestic and Economic Affairs (DEA)
- Domestic and Economic Affairs sub-committee: Union
- Domestic and Economic Affairs sub-committee: Energy, Climate and Net Zero
- Parliamentary Business and Legislation (PBL)
- Home Affairs Committee (HAC)
How has the number of cabinet committees changed over time?
When Rishi Sunak became prime minister in November 2022, he reintroduced cabinet committees including the NSC and National Science and Technology Council. These had been abolished by Liz Truss, who cut the number of cabinet committees from 20 to six (including one sub-committee) in September 2022.
Sunak also significantly expanded the HAC; replaced the Climate Action Implementation Committee with a sub-committee of the DEA; and introduced sub-committees on areas including the union and Europe – both of which were previously covered by committees abolished by Truss. In March 2023, he created a third sub-committee of the NSC, focusing on resilience, and in May 2023 added a further NSC sub-committee focussing on economic security.
The number of cabinet committees had reached 20 by late 2021 following a significant increase during Boris Johnson’s tenure as prime minister. Like Truss, Johnson cut the number of committees to six when he became prime minister in 2019. However, the creation of committees to confront immediate challenges such as the Covid-19 pandemic and the resettlement of Afghan refugees, as well as the decision to distinguish between ‘strategy’ and ‘operations’ committees, significantly increased the total number.
Who sits on cabinet committees?
Cabinet committees primarily consist of cabinet ministers – though a number of more junior ministers are also committee members. Membership is at the prime minister’s discretion, so it may reflect individual ministers’ relationship with the prime minister as much as the policy areas they are responsible for.
Of the 11 total cabinet committees (including six sub-committees), the deputy prime minister and chancellor of the Dutchy of Lancaster, Oliver Dowden, sits on 10 – the most of any cabinet minister. The chancellor, Jeremy Hunt, sits on nine.
The prime minister, Rishi Sunak, chairs all six committees on which he sits: the National Security Council; the National Science and Technology Council; the Domestic and Economic Affairs committee; the Nuclear sub-committee; the Europe sub-committee; and the Union sub-committee.
One cabinet committee, the Home Affairs Committee, consists of every full member of cabinet except for the prime minister and foreign secretary.
Several ministers who are not full members of the cabinet sit on cabinet committees. These include:
- The attorney general, Victoria Prentis, who sits on four
- The chief whip, Simon Hart, who sits on two
- The lords chief whip, Baroness Williams, who sits on one
- The chief secretary of the Treasury, John Glen, who sits on two
- Security minister, Tom Tugendhat, who sits on one
- Development minister Andrew Mitchell, who sits on one
- Science minister, George Freeman, who sits on one
- Paymaster general, Jeremy Quin, who sits on three
- Net zero minister, Graham Stuart, who sits on one
- Cabinet office parliamentary secretary, Alex Burghart, who sits on one
- Advocate general for Scotland, Keith Stewart, who sits on one.
How do we know about them?
The government typically publishes a list of cabinet committees after any change to the number of committees or to their membership. In November and September 2022, a new list of cabinet committees was published shortly after the composition of the government was finalised. However, there has often been a delay between membership changing and the list being published. For example, between the November 2020 and October 2021 lists, there were reports of new cabinet committees but these were not published at the time. 24 BBC News, ‘Downing Street sets up new unit to focus on keeping the UK together’, 25 February 2021, www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-politics-56193743
Does the government actually use cabinet committees?
It depends on the prime minister – and other ministers. Cabinet committees can be efficient and operative parts of the constitution or merely dignified and decorative.
Although Tony Blair created large numbers of cabinet committees and sub-committees, one former cabinet secretary said that “Blair’s style of government didn’t fit easily with the cabinet committee system… [his] preference was for ad hoc meetings and other ways of managing the government.”
Cabinet committees took on additional importance under the coalition government. In his Ministers Reflect interview with the Institute for Government, Oliver Letwin said they helped "ensure that the government as a whole would abide by and enforce those rules” that underpinned the coalition, such as its programme for government. Use of cabinet committees continued to depend on the personalities of their chairs, however: George Osborne “didn’t really believe in cabinet committees”, according to Vince Cable, meaning that the economic committees rarely met.
When the Conservative government was elected in 2015, David Cameron introduced ‘implementation taskforces’ alongside cabinet committees. Letwin told us this was because, while cabinet committees could be “great for resolving policy differences”, they were not so great at getting into the “nitty gritty detail” about the implementation of particular policies.
According to Letwin, at the end of 2016 Theresa May set about "revivifying cabinet committees as places for discussion". By March 2017, she chaired every committee that she attended, indicating the extent of her control. Following the 2017 election, however, May’s relative political weakness was demonstrated by her delegation of cabinet committees to David Lidington, who chaired more committees than the prime minister in early 2018. By the end of the year, however, May once again chaired the most committees. This trend was continued by Boris Johnson, who chaired more than half of the cabinet committees which existed during his tenure.
Rishi Sunak does not sit on five of the 11 cabinet committees – a far less hands-on approach than May or Johnson. This may suggest a desire to reduce the emphasis on cabinet committees, or to broaden decision-making among cabinet members.
What does the gender balance in cabinet committees look like?
As with other areas of government and politics, women tend to be underrepresented in cabinet committees.
In July 2023, women held 25% of cabinet committee places, down from a high of 31% in September, but up from November 2020 – when the proportion of women in cabinet committees was the lowest it had been since 2014.
The gender balance of each committee differs: of the committee list published in May 2023, no women sit on either the Domestic and Economic Affairs committee or its union sub-committee. The National Science and Technology Council has the largest proportion of female members – four of 11.
This disparity reflects the relative lack of women in cabinet posts. Currently, seven of the 23 full members of cabinet are women.
What do ministers think about cabinet committees?
Although during interviews for our Ministers Reflect archive, former ministers frequently speak about cabinet committees, they are widely viewed in a negative light. Indeed, Jim Knight, minister for schools and learning under Labour, and Lynne Featherstone, minister of state for crime prevention during the coalition government, refer to them as a “waste of time”.
Across the political spectrum cabinet committees have been labelled as “tick-boxy” (Ed Vaizey – Conservative, former minister of state for culture and the digital economy) and “a box ticking exercise” (Jim Knight – Labour).
Ministers also frequently mention that cabinet committees are not forums for proper decision making. John Healey, previously economic secretary to the Treasury under Tony Blair, claimed that “There were very few cabinet committees where, in my experience… decisions that haven’t essentially been prepared in advance were taken.” David Hanson, a former minister of state for Northern Ireland, added that “really the decisions were being made somewhere else”.
What other ministerial committees are there?
The government can also create other types of ministerial committees. In June 2015, David Cameron introduced implementation taskforces, designed “to monitor and drive delivery of the government’s most important cross-cutting priorities” 25 Cabinet Office, Prime Minister's Office, 10 Downing Street, and The Rt Hon Oliver Letwin, Cabinet Committees and Implementation Taskforces membership list, GOV.UK, 3 June 2015, retrieved on 18 March 2020, www.gov.uk/government/speeches/cabinet-committees-and-implementation-taskforces-membership-list , although these were discontinued when Boris Johnson became prime minister in July 2019.
In March 2020, Boris Johnson announced the creation of four new ‘implementation committees’ 26 Prime Minister's Office, 10 Downing Street, Cabinet Office, Department of Health and Social Care, Foreign and Commonwealth Office, HM Treasury, Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, and The Rt Hon Boris Johnson MP, New government structures to coordinate response to coronavirus, GOV.UK, 17 March 2020, retrieved on 18 March 2020, www.gov.uk/government/news/new-government-structures-to-coordinate-response-to-coronavirus in response to the coronavirus (Covid-19) pandemic. These four committees focused on healthcare, the general public sector, economic and business, and international response. On 13 May 2020, the Cabinet Office also announced the creation of five new ‘roadmap taskforces’ 27 Cabinet Office, Government announces roadmap taskforces, GOV.UK, 13 May 2020, www.gov.uk/government/news/government-announces-roadmap-taskforces – committees intended to guide certain sectors of the UK economy out of the Covid-19 lockdown.
The government can also convene inter-ministerial groups (IMGs). These cannot take binding decisions but can support policy development and decision making where collective cabinet agreement is not required.
They bring together ministers to ‘support the collective policy development process, including feeding into a relevant cabinet committee, and support decision making by ministers within departments where collective agreement is not required’. 28 Cabinet Office, Freedom of Information Response no. FOI326282, 22 August 2018, retrieved on 15 September 2022, www.instituteforgovernment.org.uk/sites/default/files/FOI-response-FOI326282-list-august-2018.pdf Although not binding on cabinet, their existence is approved by the prime minister.
All of the information in this explainer is based on the latest government update on cabinet committees, which was published in May 2023.