What is a Minister's responsibility to Parliament?
Ministerial Responsibility to Parliament is held to be a fundamental part of the British Constitution. It is not to be confused with Collective Responsibility which relates to the Government as a whole. The principle holds that Ministers have to be members of Parliament and answer for their policies, decisions and actions and those of their civil servants in front of other members of Parliament. It also raises the possibility that, if something has gone seriously wrong, then the Minister should resign.
The two aspects of Ministerial Responsibility
Firstly, that Ministers are accountable to Parliament for everything that happens in their Department in the sense that they should be able to answer to Parliament for what has happened and explain policies and apologise if mistakes have occurred.
Secondly, that Ministers may be individually responsible for decisions that they have taken or major policies that are seriously failing. In the period after the Second World War Ministers promoted the idea that they were personally responsible for everything in the Department – Herbert Morrison, the Labour Home Secretary, said that the Minister is responsible for every stamp stuck on every envelope coming out of the Department. It has gradually become accepted though that the complexity and size of modern Government means that Ministers cannot be aware of everything that is happening and that some areas, such as the Government’s purchase of IT which has often gone spectacularly wrong, they cannot have the expertise and have to rely on the advice of civil servants. This does mean, though, that it is not very clear as to when Ministers are personally responsible.
The key Ministers are normally in the House of Commons, though a few, in the more junior positions, are in the Lords. However, Gordon Brown, in an effort to revive his Premiership, brought back Peter Mandelson as Secretary of State for Business, Innovation, Skills in 2008 and appointed him to the House of Lords. He could make statements and be questioned by other peers but some people felt that this made Ministerial Responsibility more difficult.
How are Ministers held to account?
There are a number of ways in which Ministers are held to account:-
a) On a regular basis Ministers in each Department answer questions from their Opposition counterparts and from backbenchers of all parties and the Prime Minster answers questions on a weekly basis. The current Speaker, John Bercow, has been more ready to accept Emergency Questions to Ministers on issues that have just arisen. MPs can also put down written questions.
b) If there has been a change of policy on a topic or a major problem has occurred then the Minister is expected to make a Statement to the House of Commons on which he or she can be questioned. The Prime Minster and Foreign Secretaries will make statements on international summits and international crises and the Home Secretary will do the same on security problems. Written ministerial statements on less important issues were introduced in 2002. The Opposition also has the ability to hold Ministers to account by putting down a Motion of No Confidence which is then debated and, if passed, will lead to the resignation of the whole Government. These are used sparingly for key issues that the Opposition wants to highlight.
c) Ministers and their senior civil servants are questioned by Select Committees of backbench MPs on a topic that the Select Committee has chosen.
Arguments about the continued importance of Ministerial Responsibility
Ministers are constantly answering to MPs for their policies and decisions, and are questioned at depth in Ministerial Statements and Select Committee appearances. Civil servants also appear before Select Committees.
It provides an opportunity for the Opposition to attack the Government and put forward an alternative to the electorate. Prime Minister’s Questions allows the Leader of the Opposition to establish a credibility, although William Hague said that he won PM Questions against Tony Blair it was just that he lost the general election. The media report these battles that have taken place in Parliament.
Minsters do resign. Lord Carrington, the Foreign Secretary resigned after the Argentinian invasion of the Falklands because the Foreign Office had not anticipated this happening and Edwina Curry as Health Minister after her statement on salmonella in eggs had a serious effect on the industry. James Callaghan effectively resigned as Chancellor after Britain had devalued sterling and was moved by the Prime Minister to another Ministerial position.
It could be argued that the media are now the main way in which Ministers are held accountable rather than Parliament. Media reporting of Parliament is now much more limited than it was and probing interviews of Ministers more common. However, much media questioning focusses on whether Ministers are contradicting themselves or on personalities and party divisions and not the more detailed examination of policy decisions that Parliament undertakes.
Ministers have the whole weight of the civil service machine behind them and individual MPs and even Select Committees have much fewer resources and expertise to really question what has happened.
Parliament is not a court of law and most MPs do not have the skills of barristers and it is often easy for Ministers to avoid answering questions, even to Select Committees, Prime Minister’s Questions is mostly a set piece battle between the parties rather than a real questioning of the Prime Minister. Ministers can claim national security or commercial confidentiality or even the cost of collecting information as a reason not to answer questions.
Much of the public sector is now outside the traditional Government Departments and in Government Agencies run by a Chief Executive or in NHS Trusts or Academy Schools or even contracted out to the private sector. Ministers are keen to accept responsibility when things go right but blame these other organisations when things go wrong. For example, when it was obvious that immigration was not being reliably monitored, the Home Secretary was able to blame the Border Agency.
Ministers are more likely to have to resign because of constant media pressure or because they have lost the support of the Prime Minister or their party backbenchers than because of questioning in Parliament. Estelle Morris resigned as Education Secretary because of constant media pressure, not because she or her Department had made any mistakes. During the Iraq-Iran war Government policy was not to sell arms to either side. Ministers changed this policy in the 1990s, without telling Parliament, and even encouraged a British firm, Matrix Churchill, to sell arms to Iraq even though the policy was still officially illegal. When the firm was being prosecuted for the sale it eventually had to be admitted that policy had changed. The Scott Report, commissioned by the Government, condemned what had happened but none of the Ministers involved resigned.