Scrutiny and Oversight

Ministerial accountability is a constitutional convention that ministers are accountable to Parliament for the actions of government. 

Being accountable to Parliament means that ministers have to explain and provide information on what is happening in their area of responsibility. It can also mean a duty to take remedial action or apologise for failures. Ultimately it also means an expectation that they should resign if something has gone seriously wrong.

Secretaries of state are accountable for the whole of their department. Junior ministers will generally answer questions in Parliament for their area of responsibility. But the secretary of state is ultimately accountable for failures and mistakes.

Technically, ministers do not need to be members of either house of parliament, although it is convention that they sit in either the Commons or the Lords. This is because it is a core principle of the UK constitutional system that minsters are accountable to parliament.  

It is unusual, in the modern era for a secretary of state to sit in the House of Lords – as David Cameron  does from November 2023  as foreign secretary, following Rishi Sunak’s  reshuffle. The last such instance was Nicky Morgan’s short spell as culture secretary in 2019-20; the last time that a foreign secretary sat in the Lords was Lord Carrington in 1979–82. 

There isn’t a problem with Cameron’s appointment from the perspective of the constitution. It is all above board.

However some people will (legitimately) question whether the British government should be continuing to appoint peers to cabinet level jobs in the 21st century, given that debates around its democratic legitimacy, as an appointed rather than elected chamber, have been going on for decades already.

There are a number of ways in which the function of scrutiny is performed. The most important are:

·    Questions to Ministers, which may call for oral or written answers. Prime Minister's Questions, a weekly question-and-answer session in the chamber of the Commons, has been criticised for being unduly theatrical and largely a point-scoring exercise dominated by the PM and the leader of the opposition.

·    Select committees, which shadow individual government departments in the Commons.

·    Debates, which can be impressive set-piece events, such as the August 2013 House of Commons debate in which the Cameron government was defeated on its proposal to undertake military action in Syria. Since 2010 the creation of the Backbench Business Committee has given MPs more power to shape the agenda by allowing them to choose the topic for debate on one day per week. Debates in the Lords are often given credit for their high quality, with participants commonly including recently retired individuals with expertise in a particular field, but they rarely influence the course of events.