Ministerial Responsibility

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The Government is constitutionally responsible to parliament

The Government must get support from parliament for its policies

How ministerial responsibility works in practice is harder to determine than theory

If a minister doesn’t want ministerial responsibility to apply in certain situation they can dismiss it as it is just a convention

Individual ministerial responsibility

Ministers are individually responsible for their departments and they are accountable for all things done under their responsibility

  • This means there is a clear link between minister and what happen in their department

If there is a break in the convention (i.e. a minister doesn’t do what they are supposed to or do not take responsibility for their department) then they’re supposed to resign. However, that is NOT the role of the court to enforce!

  • For example, in 1963, John Profumo (the Minister of War) was forced to resign as he lied to the House of Commons (the Profumo Affair) and therefore lost the House of Commons’ confidence
  • In 2010, David Laws resigned after the expenses scandal (he claimed £40,000 of taxpayers money to pay rent for his partner), but was reinstated in 2012 cabinet reshuffle as the Education Minister

Liam Fox broke the ministerial code (a Constitutional Convention)

  • He resigned after allowing his “personal interest and my government activities to become blurred.”
  • The ministerial code says ministers "must ensure that no conflict arises, or appears to arise, between their public duties and their private interests"

The Ministerial Code (a convention) is codified

The Ministerial code lays down the standard of conduct expected from ministers

It is published after a general election

It establishes levels of accountability for ministers

If you have something codified like this you would think it is clear as to what is expected, but the language can be fairly ambiguous in codified conventions, such as in the ministerial code itself

  • The Prime Minister said “it is for the Prime Minister to decide whether someone keeps their job or not” if they break the ministerial code

Codifying Conventions - Joint Committee on Conventions (2006)

Codifying conventions would “raise issues of definition, reduce flexibility, and inhibit the capacity to evolve” and “might create need for adjudication”

Examples of codified conventions:

  • Cabinet Office draft document on Hung Parliament (2010)
  • Cabinet Office: Ministerial Code (2010)
  • Fixed Term Parliament Act 2011 → this says that the next election is in 5 years, parliament can dissolve on a vote of no confidence, and parliament auto dissolves before a general election

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Collective Ministerial Responsibility

The Government works together – they do this mainly through holding cabinet meetings (members of state hold regular meeting to determine government policy)

Ivor Jennings (1936) says cabinet “provides unity to the British system of government” and is the “core of the British constitutional system”

Once a decision is reached by cabinet it is binding by all of them (even if someone disagrees) and they must all agree with it in public

It is possible for the Government to say the convention of collective ministerial responsibility does not apply on a certain matter, allowing the ministers to have any view they like on that matter

  • Thatcher asked the Prime Minister (before being Prime Minister herself) if he stands by collective ministerial responsibility – he replied: yes, “except in cases where I announce it does not”

Robin Cook (2003) said he had to resign because he felt he “can’t accept ministerial responsibility” by agreeing to the Iraq war

Clare Short didn’t resign over the same issue but made a statement saying that what the Prime Minister was doing was reckless for government and world

  • She said “there is no real collective responsibility because there is no collective”

SO, where a minister cannot accept collective ministerial responsibility, the convention states that ministers must resign

Attorney General v Jonathon Cape Ltd [1976] QB 752

A minister wrote memoirs about his time in government which publicised information from cabinet meetings he had attended. His wife published it, as he died, but the government sought an injunction to stop further information being published.

The court said that collective ministerial responsibility meant the memoirs couldn’t be published. However it was argued that collective ministerial responsibility is just a convention so the courts should not enforce this. Nevertheless, the court said there was a common law doctrine of confidentiality which was enforceable on all ministers in cabinet – so they could use this doctrine to enforce the convention

  • This is an e.g. of the court indirectly enforcing the conventions!

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