Cabinet committees

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What are Cabinet committees?

Cabinet committees are groups of ministers that can “take collective decisions that are binding across government”. 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.

The Government also has Implementation Taskforces, which former Prime Minister David Cameron introduced alongside Cabinet committees in June 2015. These are groups of ministers designed “to monitor and drive delivery of the Government’s most important cross-cutting priorities”, and their details are published alongside Cabinet committees.

There are also a number of inter-ministerial groups. These cannot take binding decisions but can support policy development and decision-making where collective Cabinet agreement is not required. Government does not publish anything on these – we had to use a Freedom of Information request to get details.

Cabinet committees should not be confused with select committees, which are parliamentary bodies that scrutinise what government does.

What subjects do they 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 implementation of its legislative programme”. It is relatively similar to the Legislation Committee which existed under Gordon Brown.

Others reflect prime ministerial priorities or political situations. David Cameron formalised the National Security Council 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.

Similarly, Theresa May’s spate of new Brexit-related committees was a response to the referendum result, although her reasons for abolishing the committee on Health and Social Care in 2016 and of the Cyber-security Sub-committee in 2017 are less understandable given the public attention on and political challenges in those areas. 

Since 2010, the combined number of committees, sub-committees, and implementation taskforces has grown from 11 to 24 (peaking at 31 in April 2016). However, the number of full committees has fallen, with more Cabinet business now taking place in sub-committees and taskforces.

Who sits on Cabinet committees?

Ministers – mainly at Cabinet level – but 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.

David Lidington currently sits on all but three committees, sub-committees and taskforces and chairs - the second highest number, after the Prime Minister.

 See the number of Cabinet committees chaired by government ministers and the change in the number of committees attended by ministers.

The Cabinet Office currently has the highest level of representation on Cabinet committees (David Lidington attends 21, Oliver Dowden attends 10, and Brandon Lewis attends five). See the departmental representation in full.

How do we know about them?

The Government publishes a list after any changes to the number of committees or their membership. But there is often a delay between membership changing and the list being published. For example, Theresa May became Prime Minister in July 2016 but details were not published until October, after a Freedom of Information request from the IfG and long after the committees had started meeting (the October 2018 list was similarly only published after we made an FoI request). Encouragingly, the Cabinet Office published the January 2018 quickly and without prompting, suggesting an increasing commitment to transparency around Cabinet committees.

However, it is difficult to find older lists. Only the current membership is available in a PDF on GOV.UK; even the page history has missed a few updates we know exist. Some are accessible using a search engine like the Internet Archive: Wayback Machine, or (potentially) the UK Government web archive. Some, though not all, have also been presented to Parliament as written ministerial statements and so can be found in the deposited papers library. This all means that the lists are not readily accessible – and some simply don’t exist online.

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. Oliver Letwin said they helped "ensure that the Government as a whole would abide by and enforce those rules” that underpinned the Coalition, like its Programme for Government.

George Osborne, though, “didn’t really believe in Cabinet committees” according to Vince Cable and so the economic ones never met.

When the Conservative Government was elected in 2015, David Cameron introduced Implementation Taskforces alongside Cabinet committees. Oliver 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 what was happening on the ground with particular policies.

Letwin told us at the end of 2016 that Theresa May had been ‘revivifying Cabinet Committees as places for discussion’. By March of 2017 she chaired every committee that she attended, indicating the extent of her control. The 2017 election undermined her power, and resulting political compromise was reflected by delegation to David Lidington, who chaired more committees than the Prime Minister in 2018. In the most recent release, May once again chairs the most committees with ten to Lidington’s nine.

What does the gender balance look like?

As with other areas of government and politics, women tend to be underrepresented in Cabinet committees.

In January 2019, women held 22% of Cabinet committee places, down from a high of 30% in March 2017. The gender balance of each committee differs – see the current balance.

What do ministers think about them?

Our Ministers Reflect project includes several interviews that discuss Cabinet committees, so clearly they play a prominent role in government.

Labour

Conservative

Liberal Democrats

What are inter-ministerial groups?

Inter-ministerial groups (IMGs) are more flexible groups that 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’. Although not binding on Cabinet, their existence is approved by the Prime Minister. The government does not publish details about IMGs – we obtained information via a Freedom of Information request (following an initial refusal and then a delay).

What groups are there and who sits on them?

As of August 2018, there were 15 IMGs. Two of these – on EU Exit and Borders – deal with Brexit-related issues. The EU Exit Inter-Ministerial Group operates ‘like a Dragon’s Den for Brexit no deal’, with ministers from DExEU, the Cabinet Office, and the Treasury grilling ministers from other departments on their 'no deal' planning.

Ministers from the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government are core attendees of more IMGs than any other department (12), followed by Home Office, the Department of Health and Social Care, Treasury (all 11), BEIS and DCMS (both 10). The Home Secretary chairs more groups than any other – six. These are the core set of departments attending each committee – according to the Cabinet Office, ‘it is not uncommon for Ministers from departments not listed to be invited to attend’. John Penrose MP was previously the only non-minister attending an IMG. In November 2016 he was made a Minister of State to Northern Ireland, but he continues to co-chair the Anti-corruption group in his role as Prime Minister’s Anti-Corruption Champion.

Update date: 
Monday, April 8, 2019