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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.

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.

Committee membership is limited to ministers, but non-ministers may attend in some cases. 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. The Prime Minister's attendance does not mean that they will chair the committee, despite being the most senior Cabinet member present, though he may choose to do so.

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; Winston Churchill had previously announced a Standing Committee on National Expenditure in his 1925 Budget statement. 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. 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. 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. Whether decisions were made by the entire Cabinet, or by a committee, is not revealed at present.

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. 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.

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. Between 1945 and 1964, Gen (for general) committees were sequentially numbered from 1 to 881 in order of formation.