British government is a responsible government. When the British constitutional system is described as one of responsible government, what is meant is that the government is responsible to Parliament, or more precisely to the House of Commons. In other words, Britain has a parliamentary government in which the government’s authority is dependent on the confidence of elected House.

The power of Parliament to remove government is a crucial feature of a parliamentary democracy. In practice, such dismissals have been uncommon in the United Kingdom. Only three times in the twentieth century have governments been defeated on confidence votes – in 1924 (twice) and 1979 – but the requirement that the government retain the confidence of the House of Commons remains a fundamental principle of the constitution.

It is, therefore, a paradoxical characteristic of the British constitution that we rely primarily on an elected House for government control and responsibility, in which a majority sees it as their primary function to keep the government in power. However, the government’s ultimate responsibility to Parliament is not meaningless. Restraints are imposed by the necessity to keep the House’s confidence. Government, or to be more precise ministers, are forced to explain, justify, bargain, and concede as a result of it.

Ministerial Responsibility__ Meaning of

Ministerial responsibility is a basic constitutional principle in the parliamentary system of the United Kingdom, according to which ministers are responsible to parliament for the conduct of their ministries and the entire government.

Rather than positive statutes, the notion of ministerial responsibility is founded on a corpus of constitutional conventions established through precedents. Ministerial responsibility is central to the parliamentary system because it ensures that the government is accountable to the legislature and, consequently, to the people.

Ministers who are responsible to Parliament must explain and give information on what is going on in their areas of responsibility. It can also imply a responsibility to take corrective action or apologise for mistakes. Finally, it implies that they will be expected to quit if something goes terribly wrong.

Ministerial Responsibility__ Historical Background 

In the United Kingdom, the historical struggle for ministerial responsibility was long and difficult. The origins of this convention can be traced back to the late Stuart monarchy at the end of the 17th century, when Parliament made ministers responsible for any mishandling as a way to assert their power without attacking the king. Members of Parliament invoked the old adage that “the king can do no wrong” in order to prevent the monarch from protecting his ministers from parliamentary criticism. Parliament’s prerogative to reject ministerial nominations was not fully established in UK until 1714. When Prime Minister Sir Robert Peel formed a government without Queen Victoria’s support in 1841, the need for a standing government to maintain Parliament’s confidence (i.e., ministers’ collective responsibility) became a reality.

Prime Minister Robert Peel-detail-oil-painting-John-Linnell-1838, (phtoto taken from www.britannica.com)

The idea of Ministerial Responsibility further grew in the 19th and early 20th centuries as government departments and ministerial roles became more distinct from those of civil servants. The rise of the House of Commons, decline of the Crown and strict party discipline in the parliament were other key factors for the development of ministerial responsibility.

Two Aspects or Senses of Ministerial Responsibility

Ministerial responsibility has two aspects; Individual Ministerial Responsibility and Collective Responsibility.

(A). Individual Ministerial Responsibility

Individual ministerial responsibility is founded on precedent and convention. Ministers are democratically elected and chosen from Parliament, and they are the ones who make decisions in their departments, therefore they should be primarily answerable to Parliament for policies and actions of their departments. It isn’t spelled out in the law; it is based on convention.

The convention of ministerial accountability has also been set out in the Ministerial Code of 1997 which states that ‘Ministers have a duty to Parliament to account, and be held to account, for the policies, decisions and actions of their departments and agencies’.

(i) How Parliament holds Ministers Responsible?

There are a number of processes that Parliament can use to examine and hold ministers accountable.

Among the most important are:

  • MPs or Lords may submit oral questions to be answered on the floor of the house.
  • Written questions are also presented by MPs or Lords, to which ministers respond in writing. However, there no opportunity for follow up.
  • Urgent Questions and Emergencies, Opposition Day, and Backbench Debates – these all provide opportunities for debate on a particular topic. In the Lords, urgent questions and Private Notice Questions can summon a minister to the House to answer.
  • Ministers (and some officials) will testify in front of select committees to answer questions.
  • Correspondence_ MPs and Lords, as well as committees, will write to ministers to raise concerns. The fact that these letters are published adds to the pressure on ministers to reply.

(ii) What if a Minister is found at fault?

A minister can be summoned the House to apologise for his actions. The House can use its accountability procedures, such as select committee hearings, questions, and debates, to put more pressure on the government to apologise or take corrective action. It may also raise pressure on them to resign.

Parliament can only impose a limited amount of sanctions. It has the power to pass a vote of censure or no confidence in a minister (though it would need to be able to schedule such a vote, which is in the hands of the government or, on certain days, the opposition). However, even if this passes, it will have no formal effect, despite the fact that it may be politically devastating.

(iii) When Ministerial Responsibility leads to resignation of the Minister?

If a minister is proven to have misled the House, there has traditionally been a high expectation that he will resign. This is why former Home Secretary Amber Rudd resigned in 2018 after she “inadvertently misled” the Home Affairs Select Committee on whether the department had given targets for deporting illegal immigrants. Stephen Byers, the transport secretary, had to apologise in 2005 after admitting to submit incorrect information to a select committee, although he argued he did not “deliberately mislead” the House.

Ministerial resignations are frequently dependent on an assessment of the severity of the situation and the extent to which resignation demands in Parliament and the media may be rebuffed. Despite the fact that the ministerial code establishes the notion of responsibility, the prime minister is ultimately the judge of any violation and determines what should be done. Political pressure is usually a major factor.

Sometimes ministers resign on principles. For example, even though he had not been asked to resign by the prime minister, Lord Carrington admitted full responsibility for the Foreign Office’s failure to predict Argentina’s invasion of the Falkland Islands in 1982 and resigned as foreign secretary. Similarly, Estelle Morris resigned as education secretary in 2002 after problems with A-level marking and other mistakes in her department, claiming that she had been “honest with herself” about her ability to do the job. The prime minister had not asked her to resign, despite considerable demands for her to do so.

The photo is taken from The Guardian

(B) Collective Responsibility

Under the concept of Collective Responsibility which is regarded as a cornerstone of the Cabinet Government, individual members of the government are held accountable for the actions and decisions of the government as a whole.

Ministers’ collective responsibility to the parliament takes various forms. First and foremost, it means that the government is only in office for as long as the parliament has confidence in it, and that all ministers stand or fall with that government. Ministers must support government policy, but if the government is defeated in parliament on a confidence vote, they must resign or seek the dissolution of the government (for instance, a vote on the budget).

Collective Responsibility also means that Ministers are bound by cabinet decisions even if they did not participate in its discussion or decision.  Members of the government are also free to hold private debates and arguments before the cabinet makes a decision. This flexibility, however, includes another form of collective responsibility, since ministers are required to keep these discussions confidential and show a united face once a decision has been taken.

A minister is free to express his or her opinions and dissent in private, but once the Cabinet makes a decision, it is binding on all members of the Government. A minister who cannot adhere to collective responsibility is expected to retire, according to the Cabinet Manual (2011). For example, Lord Morley and Bums, both cabinet members, resigned in 1914 when they could not approve the decision to go to war. Similarly, Lord Peter Thorneycroft, the Chancellor of Exchequer resigned in 1958 over his differences with other ministers on economic policy. More recently, Baroness Sayeeda Warsi resigned from the government in August 2014, citing concerns that she could no longer support Prime Minister David Cameron’s policy on the escalation of violence in the Israel–Gaza conflict, calling the government’s position as “morally indefensible.”

Secondly, until the prime minister relieves them of this duty, all members of the government speak in unison in parliament. This can happen when the government has no declared policy on an issue and allows a free vote in parliament, or when the prime minister allows a member of his or her government to publicly disagree with a policy. For example, During the Brexit referendum campaign, David Cameron permitted ministers to publicly disagree with the government’s official Remain position. However, he made it clear in a letter to ministers that this exception only related to “the question of whether we should remain in the EU or leave.” Collective responsibility remained applicable to all “other EU or EU-related business,” as well as to the government’s domestic policy. Furthermore, the collective responsibility has also been relaxed during the coalition governments. For example, during the Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition from 2010 to 2015, collective responsibility for some party political issues, such as the 2011 referendum on electoral reform, was set aside.

Prime Minister can take a flexible approach to collective responsibility, such as ignoring media reports that suggest ministerial disagreements or leak of government information. However, in both cases, it is dependent on the intensity of the breach and the circumstances in which it occurred. The prime minister’s capacity to enforce collective responsibility is also influenced by the strength of his or her own position. For example, between 2016 and 2018, Boris Johnson, the then-foreign secretary, penned articles and gave interviews in which he expressed opinions that were contrary to government policy. However, the Prime Minister Theresa May decided not to discipline him for his transgressions.  On the other hand, she ‘sacked’ Gavin Williamson as defence secretary in May 2019 after the prime minister Theresa May suspected him of being the source of a leak from a National Security Council meeting. Williamson disputed the prime minister’s accusation and refused to resign from the ministry voluntarily.

The one area where collective responsibility is firmly enforced is the voting in parliament. The Cabinet Manual lays forth clear guidelines for ministers and parliamentary private secretaries on how to vote in support of the government.

Breach of Collective Responsibility Undermines the Government’s Efficiency

A breakdown in collective responsibility can have serious political consequences: frequent leaks of cabinet meetings undermine ministers’ willingness to participate honestly in policy discussions, and governments that fail to maintain a unified public view are vulnerable to attacks from opposition parties. Theresa May’s government struggled to maintain collective responsibility after the UK chose to leave the European Union in 2016. Ministers had openly voted against the government on several times without repercussions. In March 2019, for example, eight cabinet members voted against a government motion to request an Article 50 extension. 

Nonetheless, the concept of ministerial responsibility ensures that the government functions as a single entity that is accountable to the parliament.

References

www.britannica.com

Institute for Government, The Brexit Effect: How government has changed since the EU referendum

Colin Turpin & Adam Tomkins, British Government and the Constitution

Ros Taylor, Cabinet Collective Responsibility: How it Works and Why it Survives, accessed on www. blogs.lse.ac.uk

guidetoprocedure.parliament.uk

www.instituteforgovernment.org.uk

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