Individual Ministerial Responsibility

What does it mean to say that ministers are 'responsible' or 'accountable' for what they do? The concept of responsibility is a convention, not a fixed law which can be enforced. This means that political circumstances are important in determining how the concept of responsibility is applied in practice. In particular, there are no hard and fast rules governing the circumstances in which ministers may be obliged to take responsibility for their actions by resigning from the government.

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Individual ministerial responsibility is the idea that ministers are responsible for the running of their department and its policies. They also have responsibility for the standard of their own personal conduct. The official definition of individual responsibility is set out in a document known as the Ministerial Code, issued at the start of a new government by the prime minister. The latest version 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'. They are obliged to give accurate information to Parliament, and if they knowingly mislead Parliament, they are expected to resign. Ministers are responsible for deciding how to conduct themselves but, importantly, they `only remain in office for so long as they retain the confidence of the prime minister'. The latter is described as 'the ultimate judge of the standards of behaviour expected of a minister and the appropriate consequences of a breach of those standards'.

Boris Johnson was accused of changing the ministerial code to help “save his skin” ahead of the Partygate inquiry that could publish more photos and subject him to a public grilling by MPs. He also faces an inquiry by the privileges committee into whether he misled parliament over lockdown parties in Downing Street – which could itself be a breach of the ministerial code.

The new version of the Ministerial Code 2022 was accompanied by a government statement saying it is “disproportionate to expect that any breach, however minor, should lead automatically to resignation or dismissal”. It also rewrote the foreword to the code, removing references to honesty, integrity, transparency and accountability.

June 2022 Lord Geidt The government's ethics adviser resigned. He had faced a tough grilling from a cross-party committee of MPs, during which he conceded it was “reasonable” to suggest Johnson may have broken the ministerial code – which includes an overarching duty to act in accordance with the law.

It is rare for ministers to resign because of mistakes made in their role as head of a government department. The classic case is the resignation of Sir Thomas Dugdale, Minister of Agriculture in Winston Churchill's peacetime government, over the 'Crichel Down' case in 1954. Dugdale took responsibility for mistakes made by civil servants in his department over the compulsory purchase of farm land in Dorset. It is unlikely that a minister would leave office over such a minor issue today. It is now widely accepted that the business of a government department is so large and complex that a minister cannot be expected to know about all of it. It is far from clear how the concept of individual responsibility will work out in a given situation.


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November 2020 The home secretary, Priti Patel, avoided the sack despite a Cabinet Office inquiry reportedly uncovering evidence of bullying within the Home Office. The inquiry concluded that Patel broke the ministerial code of conduct, but the prime minister, Boris Johnson, ignored the findings and ruled that she did not break the code. As a result, she did not lose her position.

October 2022 Suella Braverman resigned as home secretary after sharing secure information from private email. Which was a breach of the Ministerial Code. In her resignation letter she acknowledged she had breached government security rules, stating: "I have made a mistake; I accept responsibility; I resign." However she was reappointed by the new PM Rishi Sunak one week later. Recent precedents would suggest she did not need to resign and the was most likely a political maneuver to undermine Liz Truss.


The fate of an individual minister depends on:

  • · how serious the issue is perceived to be

  • · the level of criticism in Parliament and the media when a mistake is made

  • · the attitude of the prime minister of the day.

Alastair Campbell, who served as Tony Blair's Press Secretary, was believed to have had a 'golden rule' that a minister would have to go if he or she was at the centre of a media storm for a given length of time. However, when later asked to clarify what he had actually said, Campbell was unable to recall having laid down any such rule.

One factor that has eroded the concept of individual responsibility is the way in which, since the late 1980s, many government functions have been delegated to executive agencies under a director general, rather than a minister. This has led to some doubt about who is accountable, with the minister assuming responsibility for making overall policy, while the head of the agency exercises 'operational responsibility'. For example, in 1995 the Home Secretary Michael Howard controversially sacked Derek Lewis, the director general of the Prisons Service, following criticism of the escape of prisoners from Parkhurst Jail.

The blurring of lines of accountability has meant that in some cases, civil servants rather than ministers have been held responsible for departmental errors. Traditionally civil servants were anonymous, taking neither credit nor blame for the actions of governments, but this has been eroded in recent decades. For example, in 2012 Transport Secretary Patrick McLoughlin admitted that mistakes had been made in the awarding of a franchise to companies to run trains on the West Coast Main Line. Three civil servants were suspended as a result, one of whom launched a successful legal action, leading to the officials' reinstatement. Constitutional expert Professor

Vernon Bogdanor made the case for the traditional relationship between ministers and civil servants. He argued that ministers were responsible for ensuring that officials had the necessary skills to carry out the work of the department, and that ministers should be in a position to assure Parliament that all was in order.

Personal misconduct is a more common cause of resignations than failures of policy or administration. In some cases the impression that a minister's behaviour has fallen short of expected standards of integrity has been enough to bring about a departure from office. For example, Peter Mandelson was obliged to resign twice from Tony Blair's first government because of a perception of wrongdoing. In 1998 he left his post as Trade and Industry Secretary after it was revealed that he was buying a house with the help of a loan supplied by a Cabinet colleague, whose business affairs were being investigated by Mandelson's department. Brought back as

Northern Ireland Secretary, he was forced out in 2001 by accusations that he had used his influence to fast-track a passport application by an Indian businessman. Mandelson was exonerated by an independent enquiry but by then he had already gone. In both cases he had to resign simply to clear the air, regardless of the facts.