Ministerial responsibility is associated with Parliamentary systems of government. There is a longstanding convention in British politics that elected politicians rather than unelected officials make decisions and are accountable for their department’s failings. The idea is enshrined in a section of the ministerial code, the handbook for government, that says: “Ministers have a duty to parliament to account and be held to account for the policies, decisions and actions of their departments.” Ministerial responsibility is the convention that a minister is answerable to Parliament for the conduct and actions of his or her ministry's personnel.
Originally, the ministerial responsibility was quite strictly imposed on a minister and resignation might be demanded even where the minister did not have, and could not reasonably have been expected to have, knowledge of improper or negligent acts or omissions by officials. In recent times, this idea of ministerial responsibility has been abandoned and it is rare for a minister to accept ministerial responsibility and resign. Individual ministerial responsibility is a constitutional convention in governments using the Westminster System that a cabinet minister bears the ultimate responsibility.
Dave Penman, the general secretary of the FDA, the senior civil servants’ union, said Slater’s abrupt departure was proof that “ministerial accountability is dead and the message to civil servants is that they are expendable the moment life gets tough for a minister. This administration will throw civil service leaders under bus without a moment’s hesitation.”
Responsible Government and Ministerial Responsibility: Every Reform Is Its Own Problem - The article defends the classical version of ministerial responsibility against recent initiatives to implement a form of direct accountability for administrators. The pattern of resignations indicates the importance of collective responsibility, as well as the relative unimportance of ministerial misbehaviour. The conclusion sets out the negative implications for democratic government of substituting a kind of direct "accountability" of officials, extracted in political forums, for the responsibility of ministers. - S. L. Sutherland.
A Critical evaluation of Ministerial Responsibility in supervising Administrative decisions, M Kats.
With the proliferation of the bureaucracy, and the emerging importance of new administrative review procedures, ministerial responsibility has been accused of being left behind, as a monolithic incomprehensible convention.
However the paper reports on the findings of several Senate Select Committees and Commissions, secondary material in which ministerial responsibility is relevant today, and criticisms of its strict hierarchy are no longer valid.
Research has shown that ministerial responsibility is able to incorporate other bodies of review, and thus allow greater accountability to the public.
From Administrative State to Ministerial System: The Quest for Accountability in Hong Kong - Author: Kwok R.
Abstract: In an attempt to enhance the public accountability of principal officials, Hong Kong has replaced civil servants with politically appointed 'ministers' to be in charge of policy portfolios. This paper argues that in the deliberations on ministerialisation, the local discourse has not sufficiently appreciated the complexities and uncertainties in both the theory and practice of ministerial responsibility.
It highlights the mistake of concentrating almost exclusively on ministerial resignation as a mechanism for enforcing government accountability, and of overlooking explanatory accountability as a core tenet of the doctrine of ministerial responsibility. It points to the impotence of pursuing government accountability in the absence of transparent government, and argues for access to information legislation as a prerequisite for the meaningful discharge of ministerial responsibility.
UK Ministerial Responsibility in 2002: The Tale of Two Resignations - Diana Woodhouse.
The resignations in 2002 of Stephen Byers and Estelle Morris (UK Secretaries of State for Transport and Education respectively) suggest the need to review the constitutional and political aspects of resignation. In both cases, ministers recognized that they had failed in the oversight or supervision of their departments and thus in the fulfilment of their ministerial role. Their resignations therefore provide evidence of a move away from 'causal responsibility', with its complication of the policy/operations and accountability/responsibility distinctions, towards 'role responsibility'. In so doing, they raise the possibility that what are commonly understood as 'departmental fault' resignations may be more appropriately subsumed within an expanded category of personal fault. The resignations also challenge Finer's thesis on the conditions that need to be meet for a resignation to be forthcoming. In neither instance was the political party out for blood or the prime minister unbending.
Mechanisms of judicial accountability in British central government
M Flinders, University of Sheffield, Sheffield, UK
The effectiveness of ministerial responsibility to Parliament as a sufficient check on the actions of ministers and officials is widely doubted. This article considers the utility of judicial forms of accountability and whether these mechanisms, to a greater or lesser extent, off-set the deficiencies commonly associated with the convention of ministerial responsibility. Exploring three distinct processes (judicial review, European Convention on Human Rights cases and judicial inquiries), it draws upon the wider literature and available research to evaluate the positive and negative aspects of each mechanism. The final section concludes that judicial forms of accountability have not evolved to remedy the shortcomings commonly identified with ministerial responsibility to Parliament.