Nolan told of secret Whitehall crisis guide control

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Indy Politics
Sir Robin Butler, the Cabinet Secretary, is coming under pressure to allow outsiders access to a hitherto little-known but potentially explosive document, the "Precedent Book", which acts as a "how to" guide for Cabinet secretaries dealing with government crises.

The book operates like a case-law manual covering procedure at election handovers and dealings with the Queen. More sensitively, it also details the handling of investigations into allegations of ministers accepting gifts and cash, and the management of crises caused by their sexual peccadilloes.

The constitutional historian, Professor Peter Hennessy, told the Nolan committee on standards in public life yesterday of the book's existence, and how Sir Robin had refused to release a copy. Without the book, Professor Hennessy said, it was impossible to judge the extent of decline in standards in government and whether checks were working properly.

Given, said Professor Hennessy, that the 30-year rule meant the only official public records of a Cabinet crisis were for the Profumo affair, the Precedent Book would provide valuable insight into the intervening years. It almost certainly contains accounts of untold government dramas.

In a letter to Professor Hennessy, Sir Robin wrote: "The Precedent Book is a loose-leaf collection of internal guidance notes, documents and precedents gathered together by the Cabinet Secretary's Private Office over the years and essentially for use within that office. It is in no sense a public record."

Sir Robin continued: "Much of the Precedent Book consists of precedents derived from personal information about the affairs of ministers and ex- ministers which I am sure you will appreciate should not be released ... I do not think it is any more the sort of collection which could or should be put in the public domain than my Filofax!"

Professor Hennessy argued that while he had been denied a copy, it was vital that the Nolan committee ask to see it.

On other matters, he said ministers should be subject to the same rules as senior civil servants on taking jobs after leaving office. It was disingenuous for politicians to claim they should be treated differently.

Professor Hennessy said the informal code governing ministers' conduct, Questions of Procedure for Ministers, should be put on a firmer, statutory footing. It was no good pretending Parliament could manage on its own. His solution was a small group, set up along the lines of the Comptroller and Auditor-General, who reports to Parliament on financial matters, but dealing with MPs' conduct.

The new body would report to the MPs' Privileges and Members Interests Committees, thus preserving MPs' right to regulate themselves.