» Tuesday, May 24, 2005

Cabinet Committees

The Prime Minister’s Official Spokesman (PMOS) announced the new configuration for Cabinet Committees. The reason for the new structure was to, on one hand, better reflect the Government’s manifesto commitments, and on the other hand, reflect the Prime Minister’s experience in the first two terms, particularly in dealing with cross-cutting, cross-departmental issues. That meant that the system would be giving a more central role to Cabinet Committees in Government. There would be a reduction in the number of committees from 61 to 44. We had 25 new committees. Some of these were merging existing committees, for example an amalgamation of the separate committees on crime reduction, drugs policy and organised crime into the Committee on Serious and Organised Crime and Drugs. That clearly reflected the Prime Minister’s view of the linkages in dealing with these serious issues. Also there was the establishment of new committees, such as the Anti-Social Behaviour Committee which would address, amongst other things, the "Respect" agenda. This would bring together and reflect on the different departmental responsibilities of, for instance, the Home Office using ASBO’s, working with the police and the drinks industry; the ODPM’s responsibility for strengthening communities, dealing with problems such as graffiti and sink estates; education, working with schools and with parents and looking at discipline; health, making sure that staff were treated with respect and not subject to abuse. In the new committee structure, the Prime Minister would chair 15 committees, the DPM would chair 5 and deputise on 7, the Chancellor would chair 2 and deputise on 3 and the Foreign Secretary would chair 4 and deputise on 2.

Put to him that this looked like a significant reduction in the Deputy Prime Minister’s workload, the PMOS said no. The DPM currently chaired 6 committees, he was going to chair 5 and deputise on 7. Furthermore he would be deputising for the Prime Minister on a lot of very significant committees. He remained a very important figure in terms of the committee structure.

Asked if this re-organisation was a recognition that the "sofa-style" of committees hadn’t been effective, the PMOS said that what it was was a recognition of three things. Firstly that Government was a collective exercise, and we needed to harness the collective responsibilities that different ministers had as well as their collective experience and bring them together. Secondly there needed to be a system which allowed cross-departmental issues to be dealt with in a way which drew the strings together. Thirdly we needed to give a more central role to committees, as a more effective way of bringing the machine together. All of those came together under the single aim of reflecting the manifesto commitments of the Government and finding the most effective way of delivering them. Put to him that this was simply going back to system which the Prime Minister had originally dismantled, the PMOS said that he wouldn’t get into the commentary of the issue, but he would say that this reflected the Prime Minister’s experience of Government in terms of what was the most effective way of actually delivering on the domestic agenda. An obvious example was the street crime initiative where the Prime Minister had in effect chaired an ad hoc committee which brought together the ministers and officials and all those responsible for the different aspects of street crime, leading to a real reduction in street crime. That was the template on which a lot of this was modelled.

Asked about why Ruth Kelly was not chair of the Schools Committee the education committee the PMOS said that it was quite often the case with certain committees that you would have a neutral chair. For instance Charlie Falconer did not chair the Constitutional Affairs Committee. That was nothing new. Asked who decided who was on the committees, the PMOS said that ultimately it was the Prime Minister who decided but in consultation with his Cabinet colleagues.

Asked if the Prime Minister’s chairmanship of all the public service reform committees was an indication that the Prime Minister didn’t think reform was moving quickly enough, the PMOS said it resembled the "have you stopped beating your wife" question. Simply because you said you needed to speed up the pace of reform, that did not mean that reform had not already begun or that reform was not underway. What it was was a recognition that the Prime Minister went to the country on a manifesto which promised that the pace of reform would be a) maintained and b) increased. In terms of the subjects the Prime Minister was chairing, that reflected the priority he placed in the Government’s manifesto when it went to the country on those subjects. Whether you took it as anti-social behaviour or indeed on the new committee on asylum, those reflected the Government’s priorities. Asked about the Prime Minister’s chair of the Energy Committee, the PMOS said that energy would be a very important issue.

Asked about Jack Straw’s chairmanship of the Communities Committee, the PMOS said that was another example of having a neutral chair of committees, that remained the position. For instance at the moment the Foreign Secretary chaired the Olympics Committee so again it was down to having the best person who could bring all sides of an issue together.

Put to him that with the Prime Minister’s increasingly busy schedule it would be difficult for him to chair all the committees he was attached to, the PMOS said that was exactly why there were significant deputy chairs on some of the committees. The Prime Minister set the agenda, the Prime Minister would devote the time he was here to driving forward the agenda and the important point was that you had a committee structure which could keep going when he wasn’t there. The Prime Minister would remain firmly focused on the domestic agenda and with modern technology even when he was away he could keep driving the agenda forward.

Briefing took place at 11:00 | Search for related news

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