Advice at the centre

This chapter examines the central machinery that has long existed to support the Prime Minister and Cabinet ministers: the Cabinet Secretariat, and the Prime Minister’s Office, including its shifting cast of incidental advisers. It then examines three innovations of recent decades: the Prime Minister’s Policy Unit, special advisers to Cabinet ministers, and the now-defunct Central Policy Review Staff.

The Cabinet Secretariat

Structure and purpose

Since 1945 the only permanent central unit designed to support ministers collectively in policy matters has been the Cabinet Secretariat. Its name causes some confusion. The term ‘Cabinet Office’ is often used, although by it most people actually mean the Cabinet Secretariat, the two dozen officials who service the Cabinet and its committees and manage the channels through which all major decisions are made. The Cabinet Office proper embraces many wider responsibilities including the Civil Service, machinery of government and propriety issues. (In 1998 these various functions were more closely integrated—see Chapter 8.) The coordination of government policy, however, lies with the Cabinet Secretariat.

The basic configuration of the Secretariat changes little from government to government: the core structure is four Secretariats, dealing respectively with defence and overseas questions; economic and domestic issues; European affairs; and—since 1997—constitutional matters. Each is headed by a grade 2 (deputy Permanent Secretary). In addition, the Joint Intelligence Organisation synthesises for senior ministers the data gleaned from intelligence sources and the Ceremonial Branch manages the honours system (Civil Service Yearbook 1997, second edition, Cabinet Office 1997b, Central Intelligence Machinery 1993).


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