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The Cabinet Secretary - A Tale of Three Roles

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At the beginning of 2012 Sir Gus O’Donnell, Cabinet Secretary and Head of the Home Civil Service, retired. Rather than handing over to a single successor his post was divided into three. The role of Cabinet Secretary was filled by Sir Jeremy Heywood; Sir Bob Kerslake became Head of the Home Civil Service, combined with his role as Permanent Secretary at the Department for Communities and Local Government; and Ian Watmore became Permanent Secretary of the Cabinet Office.

The splitting of Sir Gus’s functions was an historic moment in the organisation of the Civil Service in general, and prime-ministerial support structures in particular. There is a long history of reorganisations of this kind at the highest level in Whitehall. They are best understood by exploring the development of three senior Civil Service posts: those of Permanent Secretary to the Treasury, Cabinet Secretary, and Head of the Home Civil Service. In various episodes of administrative fusion and fission since 1919, all three have been combined with and separated from each other at different times. For a short spell immediately after the Second World War they were even combined in the role of one man: Edward Bridges, though this responsibility proved too burdensome to endure over a sustained period. These reforms provide insights into the particular priorities of individual Prime Ministers, the balance of influence of the most senior civil servants, and the wider political concerns of the day.

The oldest of the three posts is that of Permanent Secretary to the Treasury, established in 1867. There was once a legend that at the time it was created, the holder was made ‘Official Head of the Civil Service’, but that the official minute stipulating this arrangement had been lost. The subsequent discovery of a copy of this document suggested this claim was false! Nonetheless Treasury Permanent Secretaries were from the outset the senior players in the domestic part of the emerging institution of the Civil Service. They worked closely with Prime Ministers as well as Chancellors of the Exchequer.

The second of the three posts, that of Cabinet Secretary, emerged from the role of the secretary to the War Cabinet, established by David Lloyd George when he became Prime Minister late in 1916. In the preceding years the only record of Cabinet meetings had been the letter written for the monarch by the Prime Minister, an arrangement that could produce confusion and disagreement within government about what precisely ministers had decided. As Lloyd George focused on winning the First World War, he could not tolerate this informal practice. The introduction of an official into the supreme committee of government was a revolutionary event, accompanied by claims of constitutional impropriety and suspicions that a ‘department of the Prime Minister’ was being established. The first holder of the post, Maurice Hankey, who had performed a similar function in Whitehall for the Committee of Imperial Defence, later noted that during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries cabinets had produced formal minutes, and some may even have used secretaries.

The third of the three offices, the Head of the Home Civil Service, was created in 1919, again by Lloyd George. It was combined with the role of Permanent Secretary to the Treasury. The first holder of this fused position, Warren Fisher, initially attempted to absorb Hankey’s Cabinet Secretariat into the Treasury. Fisher was unsuccessful, and after this tussle the two men were able to collaborate in their separate roles over the next two decades. The Head of the Home Civil Service provided key advice to the Prime Minister on senior Whitehall appointments and on the management of the Civil Service. During his time in this dual post, Fisher’s most significant achievement was to transform a relatively disparate Civil Service into a more unified bureaucratic machine, with the Treasury at its centre.

The history of the relationship between these three posts can be divided into four distinct phases. Phase one ran until 1968, with the Head of the Home Civil Service usually being based in the Treasury. Phase two began in 1968 following a period of intense criticism of Treasury management of the Civil Service. The Prime Minister, Harold Wilson, then transferred the role of Head of the Home Civil Service to a newly-established Civil Service Department. Phase three began in 1981, when Margaret Thatcher, as part of her campaign for greater efficiency in Whitehall, abolished the Civil Service Department. Initially the Head of the Home Civil Service role was shared between the Permanent Secretary to the Treasury and the Cabinet Secretary. Then in 1983 it was attached fully to her trusted Cabinet Secretary, Robert Armstrong. This new, combined post enabled the Cabinet Office, on behalf of the Prime Minister, increasingly to take on an active policy and management role across Whitehall. This extended far beyond its initial stated purpose as recorder of Cabinet decisions and supporter of collective Cabinet decision-making. John Major used the Cabinet Office to promote his Citizen’s Charter programme for improved public services. Under Tony Blair, its remit was expanded further to cover the whole of the wider public sector, including local government.

Now in 2012 a fourth phase has begun, with another change in the division of responsibilities. Future historians will have the opportunity to explain how it fits into this longer story of reconfiguration at the summit of Whitehall.


Copyright  and . This article was produced as part of the No10 Guest Historian series, coordinated by History & Policy.

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