When he was appointed as Prime Minister, Tony Blair produced the Ministerial Code “within the letter and spirit of” which all ministers are expected to work. This code outlines amongst other things the principle of Collective Responsibility. This is a theory which stemmed from early Parliament’s need to present a united front to the King so that no one minister could be reprimanded for unpopular suggestions.
Today however, the code has a unifying effect on the party, stating that “decisions reached by the Cabinet or Ministerial Committees are binding on all members of the Government,” it enables the ministers who are involed to discuss their feelings around the issue frankly and honestly without the worry of politics, and show a united front once they have come to a conclusion.
Frequently ministers will disagree with a policy, but, once it has been “formally adopted” they must outwardly support it, both in word and in deed: by voting accordingly.
Failure to do so will lead to their resignation, although resignation due to breakdown of collective responsibility is rare, it was what lead to the demise of the Thatcher government, via the resignations of Nigel Lawson and Geoffrey Howe. Whilst it is said that Collective responsibilty is an “obligation that Ministers owe to Parliament,” it is ultimately the decision of the Prime Minister how much non comliance he will tolerate before forcing resignation or accepting his own.
Is it still true therefore that the duty is owed to Parliament, or is it more likely the party? Failure to adhere to the doctrine would surely be detremental to Government, it would show signs of weakness within, reveal party workings, which ought to be protected by the doctrine, something which surely the rest of Parliament would appreciate!
Collective Responsibility has its benefits to Parliament in that it enables easy identification of Government policy, and helps to prevent buck passing, but on the whole, it has a limiting effect on the ability of Parliament to hold government to account.
The notion ensures privacy, allowing all decision making processes to be kept secret, and ensuring outward displays of unity and political strength. The doctrine does not facilitate accountability to government, but instead requires that ministers be held accountable by their own party.
All Ministers have further responsibilities, known as their Individual Responsibility, which governs three spheres. Following Carltona v Commissioner of Works ministers are “responsible for the conduct of their departments,” they are responsible for their own work, and also have a responsibility in reference to their personal conduct away from Westminster. In theory, this responsibility is owed to Parliament, but in reality any number of other factors intercede, making the true situation far more complex.
Take for example the case of David Mellor, following a sex scandal, he hung precariously to his job for 2 months after the news broke, thanks to his personal relationship with the then Prime Minister John Major. Whilst Edwina Currie, who was not a well liked character was forced to resign more quickly following her remarks about “the extent of salmonella in British-produced eggs” whilst it may be said that a Minister who had more support within the party, particularly that of the Prime Minister would have been able to sit out the debarcle.
The role of the Prime Minister in this is crucial, as it appears that it is ultimately his decision as to whether or not ministers are forced to resign, particularly in matters of personal conduct, which would again suggest that government ministers are not infact accountable to Parliament, who can merely suggest resignation, but instead to their party leader. Responsability for the actions of the department is a more complex area, and there is frequent debate about whether ministers should stand down for the mistakes of officials in their departments, for whom they are theoretically responsible.
The french expression “responsable mais pas culpable” [responsible but not guilty] appreciates the position that Ministers can be put in. Whilst they are obliged to accept responsibilty for the actions of their department, and apoligise to Parliament for any errors or ommissions, it is not always correct for the minister to stand down. Ministers will resign when they feel personally responsible, as did Lord Carrington, but when this is not the case, and they are merely criticised, there is no clear course.
It seems to depend largely on the political climate, for many years Sir Dugdale’s resignation was used as a prime example of acceptance of responsibility for the actions of officials, although it was later revealed that his resignation was in fact on grounds of collective responsibility and not individual. It would appear, that despite the theoretical truth, that Government is accountable to Parliament, this is not the case. I would suggest that indiviually, government ministers are responsible only to their party.
Any deviation from this weakens their party, giving the rest of Parliament an advantage politically, something which all members seek to avoid. It may be true that Government as a whole is accountable to Parliament, but furthermore, Parliament is not capable of fulfilling this role. The very nature of government’s birth out of Parliament, and its majority means that Parliament has no superiority, and is thus unable to act on anything which it may find. The doctrine of Collective responsibilty prevents deep probing into Government proceedure, and the majority prevents action.
There is a balance to be found between effective governance and true democracy, and perhaps we cannot acheive it whilst voting is public, and whips exist.
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