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Ministerial Responsibility to the UK Parliament

The constitutional doctrine, developed by 19th century constitutional experts such as Dicey, was that ministers are responsible to Parliament for everything that happened in their Departments.

In the 19th century the Government minister in charge of Trade had four officials working for him and so it made sense that he knew what was happening, but the doctrine was repeated in the 20th century when ministers now controlled huge empires.

Herbert Morrison said that the minister is responsible for every stamp put on an envelope by the Home Office and Aneurin Bevan that the minister is responsible for every bedpan put in an NHS hospital bed.

Textbooks used to quote the Crichel Down case. Sir Thomas Dugdale was the Minister of Agriculture in the 1951-5 Conservative Government. The Royal Airforce (RAF) had compulsory purchased land in Dorset in 1937 for bombing practice, and, despite a promise by the Prime Minister to return land need for the war effort to the owners after the war, was kept by the Ministry of Agriculture which made considerable profit renting it out.

After a critical inquiry, Sir Thomas resigned even though there was no evidence at the time that he had any personal involvement in the decisions taken by his civil servants.

This was the first instance of a minister resigning because of faults in his department since 1917 and it sent alarm bells ringing through government. Sir David Maxwell Fyfe, the Home Secretary, established in 1954 a doctrine that distinguished ‘accountability’ by which ministers would explain and apologise for what went wrong, from ‘responsibility’ where the minister was heavily involved in the decisions and should consider resignation.

The issue has not been clarified though:-

– A minister might explain what has happened and implicitly blame civil servants but the latter are not answerable to Parliament and are traditionally protected by anonymity rules and so may not be able to defend themselves.

– There has been an attempt to separate policy for which the minister is responsible from operational matters for which officials are responsible but the division is not clear.

– There is uncertainty about how far ministers are responsible for agencies and non-departmental bodies within their ambit

– It is not at all clear when ministers should resign. Most recent resignations have been over personal indiscretions by ministers rather than departmental matters. (such as Liam Fox and his special adviser or Peter Mandelson and his loan for house purchase)

In practice, ministers seem mostly to have resigned when there has been pressure from their backbenchers and the media or because they have lost the support of the Prime Minister rather than because of any clear principle. (House of Commons Library Research paper 04/31 covers the issue well and gives a range of examples)

The Arms to Iraq Affair – A case study

This case study shows the inadequacy of the convention of ministerial responsibility.

In the Iran-Iraq war of the 1980s the British Government’s policy was not to sell arms to either side. Matrix Churchill was a West Midlands firm that produced precision tools that could be used to produce armaments.

On the verge of bankruptcy, it was acquired by Iraqi interests who wanted to ship components made by the firm to Iraq. Meanwhile Government policy had changed and the directors of Matrix Churchill were encouraged to export the components and advised by the Ministry of Defence how to do it without attracting attention. However, Government ministers in answering questions to Parliament said that there was no change in the policy of not selling arms to Iraq.

After the Gulf War of 1990 there was a new interest in where Saddam Hussein’s weapons had come from and Customs and Excise, unaware of the Ministry of Defence’s change of policy, investigated Matrix Churchill and were ready to prosecute the directors, with prison as the possible penalty for breach of the rules.

The lawyers for the directors thought that it would be simple to subpoena ministers to give evidence at the trial about how the policy had changed. At this point, the Attorney General issued a Public Interest Immunity Certificate which protected senior ministers and civil servants from giving evidence and they sent instead a junior minister, Alan Clark. The trial collapsed went Clark admitted, under oath, that answers to parliamentary questions were not correct.

The Prime Minister at the time, John Major, was forced to set up the Scott Inquiry into the affair.

Scott concluded, ‘the enforcement of accountability depends largely on the ability of Parliament to prise information from governments, which are inclined to be defensively secretive when they are most vulnerable to challenge’.

Major made the vote on the report in Parliament a matter of confidence to keep his backbenchers in line.