What are Ministerial and Collective Responsibility?

Individual responsibility is the convention that defines the relationship between ministers and their departments. 

The cabinet is theoretically a united body. Ministers are usually members of the same party who stood on an agreed manifesto at the general election. However, unity is undermined by departmental and personal rivalries. As well as being members of the government, ministers are also heads of government departments, whose interests they fight for in cabinet. Money and influence are scarce resources for which ministers must bargain. Departments provide ministers with authority, policy advice and technical information, so they may be tempted to act as departmental chiefs rather than members of a collegiate body.

The concept of individual ministerial responsibility

 Individual responsibility is the convention that defines the relationship between ministers and their departments. It has two main features: 

• It implies that ministers are responsible to Parliament for the policies and actions of their departments. This is reflected in an obligation to inform and explain (via Question Time or select committees), but it may extend to resignation in the event of blunders or policy failures. In theory, individual responsibility implies that ministers take responsibility for the mistakes of their civil servants, but in practice they now only resign as a result of blunders that they have made personally (The conduct expected of ministers is set out in more detail in Questions on Procedure for Ministers (1992), The Ministerial Code (1999) and the Cabinet Manual (2011).)

 • It implies that civil servants are responsible to their ministers. This suggests that civil servants should be loyal and supportive of whatever minister or government is in office, although if they have ethical concerns about a minister’s conduct they should refer these to the cabinet secretary. 

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 latters described as 'the ultimate judge of the standards of behaviour expected of a minister and the appropriate consequences of a breach of those standards'.

The resignation of Sir Thomas Dugdale

In 1954, Sir Thomas Dugdale, minister of agriculture, resigned after an independent inquiry was critical of the government’s role in the Crichel Down affair. It concerned the compulsory purchase by the government of 700 acres of privately-owned farmland in Crichel Down, Dorset, for use as a bombing range shortly before the Second World War. The government promised to return the land to its owners after the war, but when the previous owner then sought to repurchase it, the Ministry of Agriculture took it over and let it out to another tenant. When the inquiry reported, Dudgale accepted responsibility for the mistakes and inefficiency of officials in his department and resigned.

Dugdale’s resignation was thereafter treated as the classic example of a minister resigning because of errors made by civil servants. However, the release of official documents decades later prompted a reassessment. It emerged that Dugdale bore some responsibility as he knew of the civil servants’ actions and had not sought to stop them. Nonetheless, his resignation immediately led to a clearer exposition by the government of individual ministerial responsibility which states that ministers should rectify minor mistakes made by officials and should not resign if they did not know of or approve mistakes made within their departments.

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.

Sacking of Gavin Williamson as Defense Secretary

Gavin Williamson and the exam results fiasco 2020 Laughing Stock

Case Study: Williamson seeks to blame Ofqual

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.

The erosion of ministerial responsibility

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.

The first principle — that ministers must offer themselves to be accountable to Parliament — certainly operates successfully and is a key principle of UK government.

However, there is no specific way in which Parliament can remove an individual minister. Parliament and its select committees can criticise a minister and call for their resignation, but whether or not they go is entirely in the hands of the prime minister. There was a time, long ago, when ministers did resign as a matter of principle when a serious mistake was made, but those days have largely passed. The last time a minister resigned as a result of errors made was when the education secretary, Estelle Morris, left her post voluntarily. In her resignation letter to Prime Minister Blair she said, ‘with some of the recent situations I have been involved in, I have not felt I have been as effective as I should be, or as effective as you need me to be’. This was a rare event indeed. Before and since, many ministers have experienced widespread criticism and have apologised for errors made, but have not resigned or been dismissed.

This erosion of the principle does not, however, extend to  that which concerns personal conduct. Here, when ministers have fallen short of public standards, they have been quick to resign or been required to resign by the prime minister.

Case Study : Suella Braverman 

In  September2022 Braverman had to resign when serving under Liz Truss  for breaking the  the ministerial code  on individual responsibility, she was then reinstated a few days later after the new PM Rishi Sunak  made a deal to forgive her error in return for supporting his leadership. 

In November 2023 she was sacked by Sunak for breaking individual and collective responsibility.

The rapid forgiveness of her transgression in 2022 and the tolerance she was shown before her second sacking are evidence of the erosion of IMR and the limits of CMR.

The concept of collective ministerial responsibility

Collective ministerial responsibility is the convention that ministers must support all decisions of the government in public. It means that they are responsible as a group to Parliament and thus to the people, and that discussions in Cabinet should be confidential. If defeated in a vote of no confidence in the Commons, the government as a whole resigns. The practice is designed to maintain the unity of the government in face of attacks by the opposition. While ministers are free to argue their case with each other in private, once a decision has been reached it is binding on them all. If a minister cannot accept such a decision, in theory he or she should resign. 

A prime minister’s authority is greatly enhanced by the fact that they will not experience open dissent from within the government. It is also important that the government presents a united front to the outside world, including Parliament and the media. Specifically, the government knows it can rely upon the votes of all ministers in any close division in the Commons. This is known as the payroll vote.

The doctrine of collective ministerial responsibility.

Has five principles:

1 Ministers are collectively responsible for all government policies.

2 All ministers must publicly support all government policies, even if they disagree

privately with them.

3 If a minister wishes to dissent publicly from a government policy, he or she is

expected to resign frst.

4 If a minister dissents without resigning, he or she can expect to be dismissed by

the prime minister.

5 As cabinet meetings are secret, any dissent within government is concealed.

The resignation of Robin Cook 

Robin Cook resigned as Leader of the House of Commons the day before parliament was due to vote on the Blair government’s decision to join the USA in the invasion of Iraq without a second United Nations resolution. He had expressed concerns about military action in cabinet and resigned when he could no longer accept collective responsibility for the decision. Cook, a former foreign secretary, delivered a powerful resignation speech in the House of Commons. Secretary of state for international development Clare Short had publicly threatened to resign from the cabinet over policy on Iraq, but supported the government’s resolution in the Commons. She resigned 2months later.

Clear-cut resignations on grounds of disagreement with government policy are quite rare in practice. To take such a step may well end a political career. It is more common for ministers who are unhappy with government policy to grumble from within, or 'leak' their dissatisfaction to the media, rather than take a public stand. Not all resignations are purely concerned with matters of principle but may be complicated by personality clashes and ambitions.

Exceptions to collective responsibility

On rare occasions, prime ministers have suspended collective responsibility temporarily to prevent ministerial resignations. Harold Wilson allowed ministers to campaign for either a ‘yes’ or a ‘no’ vote during the 1975 referendum on the European Economic Community (EEC), despite the government supporting a ‘yes’ vote. This allowed a government that was divided on Europe to function in a more united fashion on other issues.

Since 1945 it has proved necessary to suspend collective responsibility on two occasions, during both referendum campaigns on the troubled issue of Britain's membership of the European Union. In 1975 Labour Prime Minister Harold Wilson recognised that, in order to prevent resignations by anti-Europeans, he had to allow ministers to campaign on both sides of the argument. The understanding was that, having been allowed to argue their cases in public, they would then unite behind the people's verdict. Labour ministers were allowed to share platforms at public meetings with members of other parties who shared their views. The only condition was that, as the official government position was to remain in Europe, opponents could not speak against membership from the despatch box in the House of Commons. Industry Minister Eric Heffer was sacked for breaking this rule.

In the 2016 EU referendum, Cameron also allowed ministers to take a personal decision to campaign to leave the EU, even though the government’s position was to support EU membership. They were, however, denied access to civil service resources to support their position on the EU and were required to support the government’s position on all other issues. Five cabinet ministers (plus Boris Johnson, who attended cabinet but was not a full member) campaigned to leave the EU.

On 15 January 2019 Theresa May’s government suffered a devastating parliamentary defeat when 118 Eurosceptic Conservative MPs rebelled over her Brexit deal proposals. Her loss by 230 votes (432:202) was the biggest in parliamentary history. Some critics suggested that since the government had been defeated on its leading manifesto commitment it should have resigned. In 1940, for example, although Neville Chamberlain won an adjournment debate on the government’s handling of the Norway expedition, he resigned when 39 government MPs failed to support him.

However, having come close to being defeated by Jeremy Corbyn in the 2017 general election, May was unwilling to risk another general election. Conservative MPs were also determined to avoid this and so when Corbyn called a vote of confidence, they rallied around the prime minister (325/306), giving her a 19-vote majority. The government subsequently lost two more attempts to get the House of Commons to support its EU withdrawal agreement by 149 votes (12 March) and 58 votes (29 March).

The Conservative Party's divisions over the EU and Brexit have put collective individual ministerial responsibility under significant strain in recent years: