Monday 13 December 2010

Key "Constitutional" Document to be published?

This story appeared in Today's Daily Telegraph - if accurate, it will be an important source for academics; students - and most importantly - citizens - describing how the British system of Government actually operates.

The Government is set to publish the 150-page ‘Cabinet Manual’ which will detail for the first time in one document where power lies in Britain, The Daily Telegraph can disclose.

It will set out the how relationships work between the Government, the Monarchy, Parliament, councils, and the devolved administrations in Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland and Europe.

Britain does not have a single written document setting out rights, principles and powers but a collection of statutes, court judgments and treaties. This is why the country is said to have an "unwritten constitution".

The manual will be the first time that all existing legal convention and precedent on how the UK is run are codified in a single document.

Its expected publication was described last night by Lord Hennessy, the constitutional expert, as “a very, very significant step”, in effect transferring guidance to how Britain is run from “the back of an envelope to a manual or a code”.
 Sir Gus O’Donnell, the Cabinet secretary, has admitted that the new guide will be seen by some as a starting point towards a written constitution.

He said: “I think those who are in favour of a written constitution will start with it… It has never existed before; we’ve been waiting decades and decades for this.”

Over around a dozen chapters, the manual will set out in writing the roles for the Monarchy, the Government, the Prime Minister and ministers, and ministers and the civil service.

Chapter nine was published February this year ahead of the general election to offer guidance as to how the Queen could stay above the political process in the event of a hung Parliament.

Graham Allen MP, chairman of the Commons’ Political and Constitutional Reform Committee, has described the document as a “blockbuster” and “the closest thing we have to a written constitution”.
 He said: “This is a pretty important document. We don’t have a written constitution and this is as close as we are likely to get.”

A draft copy of the manual has been scrutinised for the past few weeks by the Cabinet Office’s home affairs committee, chaired by Nick Clegg, the deputy Prime Minister.

Then-Prime Minister Gordon Brown asked Sir Gus to start work on the document in February this year. Sir Gus is set to publish it in draft form in the middle of next week and ask for members of the public to comment on it in a consultation.

One of the proposals is likely to be whether the final version of the manual should published in a hard copy form, or on the internet where it can be amended.

Its “ownership” will also be called into question – should Parliament, or the Cabinet Office, be responsible for it?