Ministerial responsibility, a fundamental constitutional principle in the British Westminster parliamentary system according to which ministers are responsible to the parliament for the conduct of their ministry and government as a whole. Ministerial responsibility is central to the parliamentary system, because it ensures the accountability of the government to the legislature and thus, ultimately, to the population. This principle is mainly based on a body of constitutional conventions, established by precedents, rather than on positive statutes. In some countries such as the United Kingdom and Canada, the legal standing of ministerial responsibility is also based on the oath taken by each minister upon becoming a member of the Privy Council. Ministers—known as ministers of the crown in Commonwealth countries—have both a collective and an individual responsibility to the parliament.
The collective responsibility of ministers to the parliament takes different forms. First and foremost, it signifies that the government remains in office only so long as it retains the confidence of the parliament and that all ministers stand or fall together with that government. Ministers must support government policies, but they must also resign or seek the dissolution of the government if defeated in the parliament on a matter of confidence (for instance, a vote on the budget). Collective responsibility implies that ministers are bound by the decisions of the cabinet, even when they had no part in their discussion or decision. Second, all members of the government speak in concert in the parliament, unless the prime minister relieves them of that duty. This can happen when the government has no stated policy on an issue and allows a free vote to take place in the parliament or when the prime minister allows a member of his or her government to differ publicly from a policy. Members of government are also allowed to engage in frank debates and disagreements in private, prior to the cabinet’s decision. This freedom, however, entails another form of collective responsibility, since ministers are bound to respect the confidentiality of these discussions and to present a united front after a decision has been reached. The principle of ministerial responsibility ensures that the government acts as one entity and that this entity is answerable and accountable to the parliament.
Individually, ministers are also personally responsible to the parliament. This responsibility includes the minister’s own conduct, but it also extends to the agencies and departments under his or her purview and all actions taken by their civil servants. In case of any wrongdoing or mistake, the minister can be called on to take action to correct the situation, to apologize, and even in some cases to resign from a cabinet position. It is important to note that while this convention makes ministers politically responsible for their civil servants, it does not relieve the latter from their obligation to obey the law. Similarly, while ministers must take responsibility for the errors of their subordinates, it does not follow that they must accept personal blame for these errors.
The historical struggle for ministerial responsibility was long and difficult, both in the United Kingdom and in Commonwealth countries. In the United Kingdom, the origin of this convention reaches back to the end of the 17th century, during the late Stuart monarchy, when Parliament made ministers responsible for any mismanagement as a way to assert their power without attacking the king. Members of Parliament used the established maxim that “the king can do no wrong” to preclude the monarch from shielding his ministers from parliamentary criticism. The prerogative of Parliament to reject the nomination of ministers was not fully established in the United Kingdom until 1714. The necessity for a standing government to maintain the confidence of Parliament (i.e., the collective responsibility of ministers) became a reality in 1841 when Prime Minister Sir Robert Peel formed a government without the support of Queen Victoria. The recognition of this principle in the United Kingdom did not, however, signify its extension to other countries of the British Empire. In Canada, for instance, the governor-general directly appointed colonial administrators without consulting the House of Commons up to the 1840s, when a parliamentary majority led by Robert Baldwin and Sir Louis-Hippolyte Lafontaine succeeded in establishing a constitutionally responsible government in the country.
2. To what extent is it possible or desirable to define clearly the conventions of individual and collective ministerial responsibility?
This essay will first of all attempt to define individual and collective ministerial responsibility within reasonable clear yet not excessively rigid parameters. Second of all this essay will try to assess to what extent it is desirable to have strictly defined conventions of individual and ministerial responsibility.
Individual ministerial responsibility is a doctrine that emerged gradually over the centuries but came into sharp focus in the late nineteenth century when British high politics came to be understood as involving disinterested public service. A minister ( from the Latin word for ‘servant’) was an official appointed by the king to administer certain affairs of state. From the English Civil War 1642-49 onwards there was a growing sense that ministers were responsible to parliament and not to the king. Indeed one of the causes of the English Civil War was the appointment of unpopular ministers – William Laud (Archbishop of Canterbury) and the Earl of Strafford (Lord Deputy of Ireland). The king at first refused to dismiss them but eventually bowed to parliamentary pressure. Certainly from the Glorious Revolution (1688) onwards it was recognised that ministers were answerable to Parliament.
It became common for MPs and peers to demand that certain ministers resign or be sacked if they are seen to have failed in their duty. This sense that ministers must go if they failed was at is height just after the Second World War. SOme ministers resigned even when they were not personally at fault. They resigned because they took responsibility for what their departments did or did not do. Such a doctrine is defended on the grounds that it forces ministers to keep an eye on their civil servants. A minister knows that if the bureaucrats make a serious mistake that he or she (the minister) may be compelled to tender his or her resignation.
From the Fox-North Coalition onwards the Prime Minister has selected his own ministers. They are all appointed by the Crown on the official advice of the Prime Minister. In practice everyone knows that they are effectively appointed by the Prime Minister since she or her exercises the royal prerogative power’s on behalf of the monarch.
Any financial impropriety was held to be grounds for resignation as were sexual misdemeanours such as the Sir Charles Dilke divorce case.
Ministers have resigned when things have gone wrong or they have been seen to have behaved in a dishonourable fashion. John Profumo – the Minister for War – resigned in 1963 because he lied to Parliament. He denied having a sexual liaison with Christine Keiler when in fact he was committing adultery with her. This was held to be politically relevant since the Soviet Naval Attache Colonel Eugene Ivanov also enjoyed her favours. The idea was that her pillow talk may have been a security risk. This scandal played no small part in the Conservative Party being defeated in the 1964 election by the Labour Party. The Profumo resignation was partly arising from the chance of state secrets being imperilled but also that he mislead the House of Commons.
In 1982 the Falklands Islands were invaded by the Argentine military. The Foreign and Commonwealth Secretary at the time was Lord Carrington. Lord Carrington resigned. The British intelligence services ought to have foreseen the event and warned the government to send more troops to the Falklands. Lord Carrington said he had nothing to feel bitter about – he only lost his job over the affair, many lost their lives.
Lord Carrington was thought to be one of the last principled resignations over a dereliction of duty. Cecil Parkinson resigned over an extra marital affair.
By the 1990s times had changed. The Prime Minister, John Major, said that the days were adultery and homosexuality were grounds for resignation were over. There were a number of ministerial mismanagement scandals that did not result in ministers resigning. This was held to have debased politics. This persisted into the Blair years.
Collective ministerial responsibility is to publicly defend the government’s programme. Even if one does not personally agree with certain policies one must not air this view publicly. If one cannot keep to that pact then one must resign as a minister. This code is especially strictly interpreted for the Cabinet since they form the inner sanctum of the government.
There have been exceptions to this. Lord Liverpool found the issue of Catholic Emancipation to be so divisive that he suspended collective cabinet responsibility on this one issue. Ministers were free to speak their minds pro and contra this proposed reform. Likewise, Harold Wilson went in for a similar forumula around the time of the 1975 referendum on continued membership of the then European Economic Community. Ministers were allowed to campaign for either side in the referendum since it was a cross party questions. Again, it was only on this single question that collective cabinet responsibility was allowed to lapse and only for a limited period of time.
Ministerial responsibility is reasonably clearly defined but not very clearly. How bad does a department have to mess up before a minister resigns? In 1984 38 terrorist escaped from prison in Northern Ireland. The Northern Ireland Secretary refused to resign. Many said that he ought to have done so. No department is perfect – there will be mistakes every day. It would make no sense to change ministers every day. Therefore we need to know how personally responsible a minister should be before he falls on his sword.
Collective ministerial responsibility is more clearly defined. In the early Blair years this was very tightly enforced by a control freak government. There is a distinction between government policy – which ministers must speak up for – and the internal politics of a political party. David Milliband was thought to have been disrespectful to Gordon Brown by not mentioning Brown in a newspaper article when Brown was Prime Minister and Milliband was serving in the cabinet. Brown did not sack him. Some say that Milliband was within his rights to do what he did. Others say that Brown’s position as Prime Minister was so weak that he dared not provoke a further revolt by sacking Milliband.
In conclusion, there is a case for the reform of individual ministerial responsibility but not for collective responsibility. Personal ministerial responsibility ought to be more lucidly defined so we know what is a resigning matter and what is not. This is in relation to departmental debacles. The ministerial code of conduct is clear enough about that in relation to financial matters.
Collective cabinet responsibility is less important. In a sense this is more a matter of party discipline. Cabinets tend to be formed of one party. Now there is a Liberal Democrat- Conservative coalition. There are cross party executives in Wales, Northern Ireland and Scotland. Collective responsibility is a doctrine which may be defined more tightly or laxly according to the political realities of the time. It is not desirable to be too tight on that by law. We do not want to force ministers to be automatons and the government to be incapable of changing course when it has made a mistake.