United Kingdom cabinet committee

The British government is directed by the Cabinet, a group of senior government ministers led by the Prime Minister. Most of the day-to-day work of the Cabinet is carried out by Cabinet committees, rather than by the full Cabinet. Each committee has its own area of responsibility, and their decisions are binding on the entire Cabinet.[1]

The details of the committee structure and membership are at the discretion of the Prime Minister.[1] The Prime Minister is free to reorganize committees and their responsibilities however he or she wishes, and can appoint or dismiss members freely. The sole limitation is the requirement that Cabinet ministers must be sworn members of the Privy Council, since the Cabinet itself is a committee of the Privy Council.

Although there have been many changes since the Cabinet committee system was first developed in the early twentieth century, the committees for foreign and military policy, domestic policy, economic policy, and the government's legislative agenda have been more or less permanent fixtures. These and many other committees are standing committees, which have a broad remit; others are ad hoc committees, which are established to deal with specific matters. Ad hoc committees are rarer now than throughout most of the twentieth century. Many matters are now expected to be resolved bilaterally between departments, or through more informal discussion, rather than requiring the formation of a committee.

The 2015 government introduced "Implementation Taskforces" to address specific cross-cutting priorities. These are to report to the Prime Minister and Cabinet, and Cabinet approval is still required if collective agreement is needed.

When the Prime Minister is unable to attend Cabinet or the chair and any deputy chair of a Cabinet committee are absent, the next most senior minister in the ministerial ranking should take the chair.[2]

Committee procedure

Committee membership is limited to ministers, but non-ministers may attend in some cases.[3] In particular, the National Security Council is routinely attended by senior military, intelligence and security officials. Members of the Prime Minister's office - including the Prime Minister themselves - may attend any committee.[1] The Prime Minister's attendance does not mean that they will chair the committee, despite being the most senior Cabinet member present, though they may choose to do so.[1]

In the 2010 coalition government, each Cabinet committee included members of both the Conservative Party and the Liberal Democrats. Furthermore, the general pattern was for committees to have a Chair and a Deputy Chair, one from each party. There was a Coalition Committee, and an operational working group, to handle appeals over coalition disputes and to plan future policy.[4]

Former committees with non-ministers as full members include the Economic Advisory Council, whose membership was made up of a combination of ministers and experts in economics. The Committee of Imperial Defence, a parallel Cabinet for military policy which existed from 1904 until 1939, included ministers, heads of the armed services, and civil servants.[5] Between 1997 and 2001, there was a Ministerial Consultative Committee with the Liberal Democratic Party which included senior Liberal Democrats as well as Labour ministers.

Until 1992, the list of cabinet committees, their membership, and their terms of reference were secret, with rare exceptions. During the Second World War, details of the War Cabinet structure were communicated to Parliament;[6] Winston Churchill had previously announced a Standing Committee on National Expenditure in his 1925 Budget statement.[7] The existence and membership of the Defence and Overseas Policy Committee was announced in 1963, coinciding with the amalgamation of the service ministries into a single Ministry of Defence.[8] Margaret Thatcher confirmed the continuing existence of this committee in the House of Commons in 1979, along with standing committees for Economic Strategy, Home and Social Affairs, and Legislation.[9] The secrecy was due to the concern that public knowledge of Cabinet procedure would lead to a loss of faith in collective responsibility (if it became known that only a subset of the Cabinet had been involved in making a given decision) and undue pressure being put on committee chairs once their specific policy responsibilities became known.[10] Whether decisions were made by the entire Cabinet, or by a committee, is not revealed at present.[1]

Cabinet committees are shadowed by "official committees" made up of civil servants from the relevant departments. Official committees follow a thirty-year secrecy rule with respect to their existence and membership.[11]

Committees with special functions

Most committees exist for the coordination of policy in some specific area. Some committees, however, have a special role in managing government business, and accordingly have different procedures.

The Public Expenditure Committee (PEX) plays a central role in the allocation of government money to departments. It originated in 1981 under the informal title of "Star Chamber" as an ad hoc committee (MISC 62) which could handle appeals over spending disputes, rather than having these be dealt with by the full Cabinet.[12] An appeal to Cabinet was still possible, but this right was rarely exercised. The original name refers to the Star Chamber court noted for its secret, arbitrary and brutal decisions.[12] The committee was made permanent under John Major, under the name "EDX", and placed under the chairmanship of the Chancellor of the Exchequer. From 1998 to 2010 the same committee (by then called "PX", and later "PSX") also monitored departments' fulfillment of Public Service Agreements.[11] While such agreements are no longer used, the committee retains its role in examining departmental expenditure, and will advise Cabinet on the allocation each department is to receive.

The Legislation committee allocates time for government bills to be considered in Parliament, coordinates the writing and handling of these bills in general, and is responsible for the Queen's Speech. Previously, there had been two committees, one for considering future legislation and another to deal with bills during their passage through Parliament.[13] Departments who wish to make new primary legislation must apply to the committee for a slot in the legislative programme, as well as obtaining clearance from the relevant policy committee.[1][14]

In an emergency, the National Security Council (Threats, Hazards, Resilience and Contingencies) subcommittee can meet in an operational configuration. This arrangement was previously named as the Civil Contingencies Committee. In this case, the chair is taken by the minister for whichever government department is the "lead" for the emergency in question.

Ad hoc committees

During the post-Second World War period, in addition to standing committees, there were ad hoc committees that were convened to handle a single issue. These were normally short-lived. Each was given a prefix of Gen or Misc and a number. Gen 183, for example, was the Committee on Subversive Activities.[15] Between 1945 and 1964, Gen (for general) committees were sequentially numbered from 1 to 881 in order of formation.[16]

Cabinet papers

Committee minutes and papers follow the same secrecy rules as for the full Cabinet.[10] Documents are generally handled on a need-to-know basis, and so may not be available to ministers who do not serve on the relevant committee. Some materials may be classified as being available exclusively to the named members of the committee, and particularly sensitive papers may be kept in a secure room and read only under supervision. Papers may be distributed physically or electronically (via the Government Secure Intranet).[17] Notes taken at meetings for the purpose of preparing the official minutes are destroyed once the minutes have been written.[18] The minutes do not generally link points made in discussion to the specific people who made them.[1]

Future governments may not be permitted to see the cabinet papers of their predecessors, if there has been a change of party. Access in this case requires the approval of the former Prime Minister, or of the Leader of the Opposition. The few exceptions relate to papers of an expressly non-political nature, such as legal advice or international agreements. Retired ministers wishing to write their memoirs are given access to papers from their tenure, but are usually not allowed to borrow them from the Cabinet Office archive.

Current committees

Name Chair Deputy Chair Scope
EU Exit Strategy Boris Johnson To consider matters relating to the UK’s trade priorities, including Free Trade Agreements, the multilateral trade system, and interlinkages with the domestic economy.
EU Exit Operations Michael Gove To implement the Withdrawal Agreement, and deliver the policy and operational transition to new international relationships.
Parliamentary Business and Legislation Jacob Rees-Mogg To consider matters relating to the Government’s parliamentary business and implementation of its legislative programme.
National Security Council Boris Johnson To consider matters relating to national security, foreign policy, defence, international relations and development, resilience, energy and resource security.
COVID-19 Strategy Boris Johnson To drive the Government’s strategic response to COVID-19, considering the impact of both the virus and the response to it, and setting the direction for the recovery strategy.
Domestic and Economic Strategy Boris Johnson To consider matters relating to the Government’s domestic and economic strategy and strengthening the union of the United Kingdom.
Climate Action Strategy Boris Johnson To consider matters relating to the delivery of the UK’s domestic and international climate strategy.
Crime and Justice Task Force Boris Johnson Priti Patel To consider matters relating to the prevention of crime and the effectiveness of the Criminal Justice System.
COVID-19 Operations Michael Gove To deliver the policy and operational response to COVID-19.
Economic Operations Rishi Sunak To deliver the Government’s economic priorities across the whole of the United Kingdom.
Domestic and Economy Implementation Rishi Sunak To support collective agreement of matters relating to the implementation and delivery of domestic and economic policy.
Union Policy Implementation Michael Gove To support the delivery of the Government’s priorities in relation to the Union of the United Kingdom.
National Space Council Boris Johnson Dominic Raab To consider issues concerning prosperity, diplomacy and national security in, through and from Space, as part of coordinating overall Government policy.
Climate Action Implementation Committee Alok Sharma To consider matters relating to the delivery of COP26, net zero and building the UK’s resilience to climate impacts.

This table follows the document issued by the Cabinet Office in November 2020.[19]

Non-Cabinet committees

There are several committees for which the Cabinet Office is administratively responsible, but which are not Cabinet committees. These include the various 'official' committees, which mostly shadow the Cabinet committees but with civil servants rather than ministers as members. Some others are:

  • In the first years of the 2010 coalition government, the Coalition Operation and Strategic Planning Group (described as a "working group", rather than a full committee) was to "consider and resolve issues relating to the operation of the coalition agreement, the longer term strategic planning of Government Business and to report as necessary to the Coalition Committee".[4] Its functions were later taken over by the 'Quad' meetings attended by David Cameron, Nick Clegg, George Osborne, and Danny Alexander, with support from political aides and civil servants.
  • The Joint Intelligence Committee is an official committee that directs and oversees the UK intelligence and security agencies.
  • The Joint Ministerial Committee consists of ministers and officials from the UK and devolved administrations. Its secretariat is provided by the Cabinet Office but it is not a Cabinet committee.
  • The Permanent Secretaries Management Group and Civil Service Steering Board are committees of the senior civil service, housed within the Cabinet Office.

Historical statistics

An approximate count of committees up to and during the Second World War was given by Wilson[5] as follows.

Period Parent body Number of committees Aggregate number of meetings
1917–1922 Cabinet 160 990
Committee of Imperial Defence 11 120
1923-September 1939 Cabinet 379 1,990
Committee of Imperial Defence 275 3,400
Committee on Civil Research and Economic Advisory Council 70 900
September 1939-July 1945 War Cabinet 292 5,440
Chiefs of Staff 45 3,050
Ad hoc committees 90 210

This excludes committees which did not have at least one meeting (several of these existed solely as a means for documents to be circulated among the members). The 1939-45 figures do not include the Joint Intelligence Committee, Joint Planning Staff, or the Combined Chiefs of Staff.

See also


  1. The Cabinet Manual: a guide to laws, conventions and rules on the operation of government Archived 10 May 2012 at the Wayback Machine (Cabinet Office, October 2011)
  2. The Cabinet Manual 2011, p. 35.
  3. Cabinet Committee Membership Lists (6 November 2012)
  4. Cabinet Committee Membership Lists (17 February 2012)
  5. Wilson, Stephen (1975). The Cabinet Office to 1945. HMSO.
  6. HC Deb 04 June 1940 vol 361 cols 768-771 Archived 3 March 2016 at the Wayback Machine
  7. HC Deb 28 April 1925 vol 183 cols 58-60 Archived 3 March 2016 at the Wayback Machine
  8. Command Paper 2097 (1963). Central Organisation for Defence.
  9. HC Deb 24 May 1979 vol 967 c179W Archived 3 March 2016 at the Wayback Machine
  10. Brazier, David (1999). Constitutional Practice: The Foundations of British Government. Oxford University Press. ISBN 978-0-19-829812-0.
  11. James, Simon (1999). British Cabinet Government. Routledge. ISBN 978-0-415-17977-5.
  12. Thain, Colin; Maurice Wright (1995). The Treasury and Whitehall: the planning and control of public expenditure. Oxford University Press. ISBN 978-0-19-827784-2.
  13. Mackintosh, John (1991). The British Cabinet. Taylor & Francis. ISBN 978-0-416-31380-2.
  14. Guide to Making Legislation, Economic and Domestic Affairs Secretariat, Cabinet Office
  15. "Cabinet and its committees". The National Archives. Retrieved 16 September 2017.
  16. "Cabinet: Miscellaneous Committees: Minutes and Papers (GEN, MISC and REF Series)". The National Archives. Retrieved 16 September 2017.
  17. Cabinet Document Officers' Handbook (73kb PDF)
  18. HL Deb 03 February 1994 vol 551 cc103–4 WA Archived 3 March 2016 at the Wayback Machine
  19. "List of Cabinet Committees". GOV.UK. Retrieved 20 November 2020.