Individual and Collective Ministerial Responsibility

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  • Created on: 11-04-19 11:50

Individual Ministerial Responsibility

Individual ministerial responsibility is the principle that government ministers are singularly responsible for their own conduct and for the work of their departments. 

By convention, a minister should resign following an error or a failure to meet personal or departmental expectations. 

In a parliamentary system, ministers are accountable to Parliament for the performance of their departments. 

However, the growing complexity of government and the rise of semi-autonomous agencies within most governmenr departments means that ministers are no longer expected to be held personally responsible for operational matters handled by department officials, or decisions of which they had no knowledge.

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Individual Ministerial Responsibility

There are a variety of reasons for ministerial resignations on the grounds of individual responsibility:

1. Mistakes made by departmental officials.

Sir Thomas Dugdale resigned in 1954 after errors made by officials within his department. His resignation is renowned as it led to the refining of expectations of individual ministers, meaning that they now cannot be responsible for operational matters, or decisions of which they had no knowledge. 

2. Policy failure.

Britain's failure to acknowledge the threat posed by Argentina prior to its invasion of the Falkland Islands led to the resignation of Foreign Secretary Lord Carrington in 1982 and two junior ministers. 

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Individual Ministerial Responsibility

3. Personal misconduct.

A range of ministers have resigned after abusing the principles set out in the Ministerial Code. 

David Laws resigned as Chief Secretary to the Treasury in 2010 after filing an incorrect expenses claim  

Brooks Newmark resigned as Minister for Civil Society in 2014 after a newspaper alleged that he had sent explicit images.

4. Political pressure.

Some ministers have resigned following sustained pressure over their competence to continue. Estelle Morris resigned as Education Secretary in 2001, explaining that she felt she 'was not up to the job'.

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Collective Ministerial Responsibility

Collective responsibility is a principle that underpins the effective functioning of the British government. 

It requires that: 

  • Cabinet ministers are collectively bound by government decisions. 
  • All members of the cabinet must support government policy.
  • If a minister disagrees privately, they must defend the policy publicly. 
  • If a minister cannot maintain collective responsibility, they must resign theircabinet post. 
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Collective Ministerial Responsibility

The principle of collective responsibility rests on the notion that the cabinet is a united body - at least publicly - and that decisions reached around the cabinet table are binding on all of its members. 

In reality, the disagreements within a government mean that when ministers cannot uphold the principle, high-profile resignations are inevitable. 

Examples of resignations on the ground of collective ministerial responsibility include: 

  • Robin Cook resigned as Leader of the Commons in 2003 in opposition to the Iraq War. 
  • Clare Short resigned as Secretary of State for International Development in 2003 over the UK's policy in post-war Iraq. 
  • Iain Duncan-Smith resigned as Secretary of State for Work and Pensions in 2016 in opposition to the government's budget cuts to disability benefits. 
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Margaret Thatcher's personal convictions for a deregulated market economy, a reduction in trade union power and the privatisation of state-run industries were instrumental in overturning the post-war consensus and reshaping Britain.

Executive decision making was largely replaced by personal rule, and at cabinet meetings, senior colleagues found themselves being breifed on decisions that had already been made.

Thatcher's style was to marginalise the 'cumbersome cabinet machinery' in favour of policy making with trusted key advisers, such as Keith Joseph and Alan Walters.

This approach saw her determine policy in several prominent areas:

  • Privatisation
  • Reduction of trade union power
  • Introduction of the poll tax
  • Falklands War 
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1. Privatisation

Privatisation was a process that began with the successful sale of British Telecom and continued through most public utilities and industries, from British Steel to British Airways.

It was driven by Thatcher's personal ideological commitments to a smaller state and greater competition, as well as revenue-raising priorities.

2. Reduction of Trade Union Power

Thatcher's convictions saw the replacement of Employment Secretary James Prior with key ally Norman Tebbit in 1981 and the introduction of legislation to curb the power of the unions, culminating in an acrimonious victory over the mining unions in the mid-1980s.

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3. Introduction of the Poll Tax

This has become a significant example of how strong prime ministers are able to dominate the decision-making and legislative process with disastrous results.

Despite the misgivings of cabinet colleagues, the tax was pushed through Parliament and civil unrest ensued. Thatcher's high-handed manner frusrated most senior colleagues and she was forced to resign from the office later the same year. 

4. The Falklands War

Within three days of invasion on 2 April 1982, Thatcher had set up a small war cabinet, through which the war was controlled, and despatched a naval taskforce to retake the islands.

By mid-June Argentina had surrendered and Thatcher's decisive personal leadership led her to being hailed as a highly capable and committed war leader. 

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John Major's intentions for executive decision making had been all about collegiality upon his accession to Number 10, but his premiership was overshadowed by a loss of authority and his small government majority had been completely overturned by 1997.

  • Major's engagement in the Northern Ireland peace process began soon after he took office in 1990. Major's personal involvement, together with his Northern Ireland Secretary Patrick Mayhew, led to the Downing Street Declaration of 1993 and an IRA ceasefire. It also paved the way for the Good Friday Agreement, signed soon after Major left office in 1998.
  • Major's committment to 'keep Britain at the heart of Europe' was met by difficulties and opposition from anti-EU senior colleagues. It led to his resignation, then re-election as party leader in 1995.
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The Blair era was characterised by a dominant prime ministerial leadership style backed by the largest post-war Commons majority and largely shaped by bilateral meetings between the prime minister and key ministers of state. 

The result was rapid change in many areas, especially health, welfare, education and major constitutional reforms (CRA 2005/Devolution). 

However, such a style proved less robust when his popularity declined and Blair faced opposition or defeat in several key areas, most notably after the Iraq War in 2003.

Although Tony Blair had inherited the strong commitment to devolve power to the regions from his predecessor as Labour leader John Smith, reversing the centralisation of power which had reached its peak in the 1980s became something of a personal cause for Blair. 

Within two years of Blair becoming prime minister, regional assemblies had been created in Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland and London. 

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David Cameron's prime ministership can be viewed only against a backdrop of coalition government and austerity. 

Coalition government required a much more collegial approach than his predecessors had needed, using bilateral meetings - with Deputy Prime Minister and coalition ally Nick Clegg - or meetings with the 'quad' that included George Osbourne and Danny Alexander. 

While coaltion government undoubtedly curbed Cameron's capacity to determine the policy agenda, when he did secure a single-party majority government in 2015, his commitment to an in-out EU referendum proved to be his undoing.

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The 2015 Conservative manifesto pledge to hold a referendum on Britain's continued membership of the EU was realised in June 2016. 

It was described by the independent as 'incredibly selfish recklessness', since Cameron's personal motive for holding the referendum was to close down an issue that had dogged many previous Conservative leaders.

A further indictment of the prime minister's personal involvement in shaping the events was revealed by the Foreign Affairs Select Committee in July 2016, discovering that Cameron had refused to allow the civil service to make a plan for Brexit, a decision that the committee described as a 'gross act of negligence'.

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Theresa May entered office with extensive frontbenchgovernment experience, setting about strengthening the Prime Minister's Office and reorganising the cabinet system to ensure more direct control of key cabinet committees. 

However, while Brexit negotiations were set to dominate her initial years in office and likely to divide the Conservative Party, 2017 began with a 'humanitarian crisis' in hospital care and a funding crisis in education. 

The calling of the 2017 general election illustrates the power of the prime minister to override constitutional checks (Fixed-term Parliaments Act) and dissolve Parliament with the permission of the monarch. 

However, the unexpected loss of the slim Tory majority demonstrates that the vagaries of events - such as the surge in young voters backing Labour and the terror attacks during the campaign which undermind May's record as Home Secretary can be equally potent. 

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The outcome of the June 2017 general election dealt with Theresa May's power and prestige as prime minister a significant blow. 

May had called the election to 'strengthen her hand' in the forthcoming Brexit negotiations, hoping that the significant Tory poll lead would translate itself into seats, demonstrating that her policies were firmly backed by the people.

However, the Conservative Party ended up losing 13 seats, forming a minority government, which lead to the 'confidence and supply' coalition with the DUP. 

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