Ministerial responsibility

Ministerial responsibility takes two forms — collective cabinet responsibility (or ‘cabinet solidarity’) and individual ministerial responsibility. Both concepts are governed by conventions inherited from Westminster and both are central to the working of responsible government.

Cabinet is collectively responsible to the people, through the Parliament, for determining and implementing policies for national government. Broadly, it is required by convention that all Ministers must be prepared to accept collective responsibility for, and defend publicly, the policies and actions of the Government. Part of this, of course, requires that the loss of a vote on a no-confidence motion or on a major issue is expected to lead to the resignation of the whole Government. You may want to have a look at this post on collective ministerial responsibility and coalition government.

What I want to look at in this post, however, is the matter of individual responsibility.

As explained in House of Commons Procedure and Practice (2nd ed., p. 32):

The individual or personal responsibility of the Minister derives from a time when in practice and not just in theory the Crown governed; Ministers merely advised the Sovereign and were responsible to the Sovereign for their advice. The principle of individual ministerial responsibility holds that Ministers are accountable not only for their own actions as department heads, but also for the actions of their subordinates; individual ministerial responsibility provides the basis for accountability throughout the system. Virtually all departmental activity is carried out in the name of a Minister who, in turn, is responsible to Parliament for those acts. Ministers exercise power and are constitutionally responsible for the provision and conduct of government; Parliament holds them personally responsible for it.

We’ve seen some good examples of this with the Coalition government in the United Kingdom. By my count, there have been at least four such instances during the Coalition’s first year in power. It isn’t that surprising that the Coalition has had a bit of a rocky start – few in cabinet have had previous government experience, and the merging of two very different parties was bound to create a few headaches along the way. What is interesting to me, however, is that the apologies have occurred promptly after the incident that triggered them.

The first minister to issue a full apology was Secretary of State for Education, Michael Gove, on 7 July 2010. On 5 July, Gove had made a ministerial statement to the House announcing the cancellation of a Schools Rebuilding Fund, which meant that many schools would see planned renovations cancelled. Accompanying his statement, Gove tabled a list of the affected schools. It turned out that many schools had been miscategorized, which caused great confusion and consternation among local councils across the country. In his 7 July statement before the House, Gove apologised for the way information accompanying his earlier statement was provided to Members, for the inaccurate information provided, and for the confusion caused by the inaccurate information and  media speculation over the nature of his apology.

On 17 February 2011, Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, Caroline Spelman, apologised for the Government’s plan to sell off public forests. According to many accounts I’d read, the policy in itself was a good one; the initial problem was how the government presented it and its failure to communicate it effectively, allowing environmental activists to mount strong opposition. Spelman took full responsibility “for the situation” and ended her statement with “I am sorry we got this one wrong, but we have listened to people’s concerns.”

A couple of weeks later, Prime Minister David Cameron apologised for botched attempts to rescue UK citizens from Libya. The House was not sitting at the time, so his apologies were made to the press. Cameron stated:

Of course I am incredibly sorry. They have had a difficult time. The conditions at the airport have been extremely poor.

There are going to be lessons to be learned from this and we will make absolutely sure that we learn them for the future but, right now, the priority has got to be getting those British nationals home. (…)

This is not an easy situation to deal with. It is immensely frustrating for the people on the ground and we will do everything we can to get those people home.

Cameron also delivered a full statement to the House of Commons when it met again on 28 February 2011. He didn’t apologise, but updated Members on the situation in Libya and the Government’s response.

This contrasts sharply with Canada’s own problems rescuing Canadians from Libya. Neither the Prime Minister, Minister of Defense nor the Minister of External Affairs apologised for the problems, and in some interviews, the Minister of Defense seemed to be laying the blame on External Affairs (which violates the convention of collective responsibility) and denied planes had left Tripoli empty. The Prime Minister also announced sanctions and other measures, not in the House of Commons, but in a televised address.

Meanwhile, back in the UK, on 7 March 2011, Foreign Secretary William Hague took full responsibility for what had gone wrong with a special forces’ mission to Libya. Hague didn’t apologise, but he did assume full responsibility for the botched mission.

In Canada, on 25 May, 2010, following requests that ministers’ staff members appear before committees to testify, the Government House Leader stated in the Canadian House of Commons that:

In our system of government, the powers of the Crown are exercised by ministers who are, in turn, answerable to Parliament. Ministers are individually and collectively responsible to the House of Commons for the policies, programs and activities of the government. They are supported in the exercise of their responsibilities by the public servants and by members of their office staffs.

It is the responsibility of individual public servants and office staff members to provide advice and information to ministers, to carry out faithfully the directions given by ministers, and in so doing, to serve the people of Canada. These employees are accountable to their superiors, and ultimately to their minister, for the proper and competent execution of their duties.

Ours is a system of responsible government because the government must retain the confidence of the House of Commons and because ministers are responsible to the House for everything that is done under their authority. We ministers are answerable to Parliament and to its committees. It is ministers who decide policy and ministers who must defend it before the House and ultimately before the people of Canada.

Accordingly, responsibility for providing information to Parliament and its committees rests with ministers. Officials have no constitutional responsibility to Parliament, nor do they share in that of ministers. They do, however, support ministers in their relationship with Parliament, and to this extent, they may be said to assist in the answerability of ministers to Parliament.


There is a clear case to be made that the accountability of political staff ought to be satisfied through ministers. Ministers ran for office and accepted the role and responsibility of being a minister. Staff did not.

Interestingly, the new version of the “Guide for Ministers and Ministers of State” published in May 2011, contains the following passage:

Ministerial accountability to Parliament does not mean that a Minister is presumed to have knowledge of every matter that occurs within his or her department or portfolio, nor that the Minister is necessarily required to accept blame for every matter. (p. 3)

When a minster does take responsibility and apologises to the House, there are frequently calls for the minister to resign. Many are quick to assume that if a minister apologises, then there was some error or wrongdoing that occurred, otherwise, the minister wouldn’t apologise. And if some wrongdoing occurred, then the minister is ultimately responsible, and should therefore resign. However, ministerial responsibility is not that black and white. Taking responsibility for mistakes made by staff does not mean the minister is directly responsible for those mistakes occurring. It simply means the minister acknowledges that mistakes were made in his or her deparment, the department regrets that fact, and the matter will be corrected.

Unless there is very clear evidence linking the minister directly to whatever departmental wrongdoing has come to light, ministers can accept responsibility, but lay the blame on department staff. What is far more likely to bring down a minister is a matter of personal misconduct. Sexual or financial scandals, rather than administrative failure, have been far more likely to destroy a ministerial career.

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