1.Consider the theory and practice of Cabinet government in the United kingdom, making reference to the constitutional convention governing the accountability of the Prime Minister and government ministers collectively to Parliament. ( Zone B, 2003 )

2.         To what extent is it possible or desirable to define clearly the conventions of individual and collective ministerial responsibility? (Zone A, 2002 )

3. Critically’ assess the theory and practice of individual and collective ministerial responsibility?. ( Zone A and B, 2001 )

4.         To what extent to the conventions of collective and individual responsibility ensure the accountability of government ministers to Parliament. ( Zone B, 2000 )


Democracy requires that those who govern should be responsible to those whom they govern. The convention of ministerial responsibility seeks to achieve this aim. It is the central to the constitution, and plays a fundamental role in the relationship between the executive and parliament. For the doctrine of government under the law to be observed, it is essential that government be accountable to both parliament and the electorate and that government be conducted in a manner sufficiently open, subject to the requirements of the national interest, to inspire public confidence. Marsha and Moodie describe ministerial responsibility as follows

Ministers are responsible for the general conduct of government, including the exercise of many powers legally vested in the Monarch; and ultimately, through Parliament and parties, to the electorate.

The doctrine thus has two limbs – individual and collective responsibility. In order to facilitate analysis, the topic may be broken down into three aspects:

(a) the collective responsibility of the Cabinet to parliament, and ultimately the electorate, for policy and administration;

(b) the individual responsibility of ministers for the policy and administration of his or her Department;

(c) the individual responsibility of ministers for their personal conduct.


Theoretically, a check is kept on the executive through the operation of the convention of CMR. Collective responsibility requires that all Ministers must accept cabinet decisions and action consequent thereon, or dissent privately, or speak out and resign; unless the doctrine is waived on any given occasion. CMR increases party discipline and unity within the government and also serves to strengthen the authority of the PM in relation to his colleagues.

The doctrine of collective responsibility involves two rules:

1. The rule that the government would resign for failing to gain `Vote of No Confidence’. It means that a failure to convince Parliament that the government is strong and united may well lead to a ‘Vote of No Confidence’, which, if lost by the government, requires its resignation. In fact, the PM and his ministers are collectively responsible to Parliament for the conduct of national affairs. If the PM loses support in Parliament he must resign or seek dissolution of Parliament. However, only two governments, both in a minority in the Commons, have lost the confidence of the House; first one is in 1924 and the second one in 1979.

2. The rule that the government must express their views in one voice:

The first rule is that, once an agreement is reached in Cabinet, all members of Cabinet and many outside Cabinet – are bound to speak in support of the decision. There should be no criticism or dissent from the decision in public – irrespective of whether or not the particular member of Cabinet was party to the discussion. Equally, if a decision is reached by the Prime Minister in Cabinet Committee or the Inner Cabinet when only a small handful of members are present, the decision binds all.

The rationale for the convention lies in the need for government to present  united front to parliament and the public in order to maintain confidence. A government, which exhibits public disagreements over policy matters, is one, which will be regarded as weak, and will be subject to challenge to its authority to continue in office.

Agreement to differ

It is possible for the convention of collective responsibility to be waived when the circumstances are such that the political disagreements within Cabinet are of such magnitude that the Prime Minister finds it more convenient to set aside the convention than to have the convention broken by members of Cabinet. Two illustrations of waiver can be given. In 1931-32, the National (coalition) government contained bitterly opposing views over economic policy; in particular, over the levy of tariff duties. Four members of Cabinet handed in their resignations, and withdrew them only after the Prime Minister, Mr. Ramsey MacDonald, decided to waive the convention and allow the dissident members to express their views publicly.

The second supporting rule is that records of Cabinet discussions are absolutely secret. The knowledge that Cabinet records are protected by confidentiality enhances the opportunity for members of Cabinet to discuss matters freely, secure in the knowledge that their personal point of view, whatever the decision, will be protected from the public gaze.

Collective responsibility requires that ministers should be able to express their views frankly in the expectation that they can argue freely in private while maintaining a united front when decisions have been reached. This in turn requires that the privacy of opinions expressed in Cabinet and Ministerial Committees should be maintained. Moreover, Cabinet and Committee documents will often contain information, which needs to be protected in the national interest. It is therefore essential that ministers take the necessary steps to ensure that they and their staff preserve the privacy of Cabinet business and protect the security of government documents. (Cabinet Office, 1992, revised 2001, Para 17)


The classic doctrine of this limb of ministerial responsibility states that a minister is responsible for every action of his department.

Lord Morrison viewed the doctrine equally strictly:

… a minister is accountable to Parliament for anything he or his department does or for anything he has powers to do, whether he does it or not. That is to say, if the action or possible action is within the field of ministerial power or competence, the minister is answerable to Parliament. [196-1, p 265)

The convention of IMR requires that ministers are responsible to Parliament for their own actions, omissions, mistakes as well as for those of the officials in their departments. We have seen that this also entails two aspects. First, a Minister is required to conduct him or herself in such a manner (financial or sexual misconduct) as not to cause embarrassment to the government or political party. Second, Ministers are responsible for the conduct of their departments.

a. Resignation for personal misconduct

If a minister is personally blameworthy, he might be expected to resign depending on the nature of the misbehavior. Conduct improper for a minister of the Crown, whether a private or public nature, would probably lead to resignation; for example, the resignation of Ron Davies in October 1998. after an indiscretion of some sort took place on Clapham Common.

The personal relationships of ministers are also matters, which fall under intense public scrutiny In 1983, Cecil Parkinson MP, the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry and Conservative Party Chairman, resigned following revelations about a long standing relationship with his secretary, Sarah Keays, who became pregnant. For some time, the Prime Minister, Mrs. Thatcher, and the Party maintained their support for Mr. Parkinson as did his wife throughout the public attention focused on the affair. When Sarah Keays published a series of articles in the national press about the matter, and alleged that Mr. Parkinson had said that he wanted to marry her, public and political support began to win, and Mr. Parkinson resigned.

Financial probity

The personal financial probity of ministers, their Parliamentary Private Secretaries and other Members of Parliament is regarded with seriousness. Under the law and custom of parliament, Members must declare their financial interests in the Register of Members’ Interests and make public declarations in debate or committee proceedings of any interests they hold which may affect their impartiality. The holding of directorships, ownership of shares, consultancy positions and receipt of gifts all raise issues concerning integrity and fitness for office. Ministers of the Crown must give up any public appointments or directorships on assuming office. Further, they must divest themselves of any financial interests on assuming office where that interest might give rise to conflict with his or her ministerial responsibilities.

In 1949, a Tribunal of Inquiry was established to inquire into allegations of payments and other benefits being made to John Belcher MP, ParliamentarySecretary to the Board of Trade. Mr. Belcher had received gifts offered with a view to securing favourable treatment in relation to licenses granted by the Board of Trade. He resigned office and his parliamentary seat as a result.

Premature disclosure of confidential information

In 1936, the Colonial Secretary, JH Thomas, resigned after revealing information relating to Budget proposals before they had been announced in parliament. As a consequence, two friends, Alfred Bates and Sir Alfred Butt MP, made financial gains. A ‘leak of information was suspected and a Tribunal of Inquiry was established. The Prime Minister described Thomas’s conduct as ‘letting his tongue wag when he was in his cups’. The Attorney General refused to prosecute under the Official Secrets Act, and the minister resigned. In 1947, the Chancellor of the Exchequer, Sir Hugh Dalton, resigned after revealing Budget proposals to a journalist.

b. Resignation for departmental maladministration

When departmental maladministration has occurred, matters are less clear cut. It seems that there is no expectation that a minister will accept responsibility, in the sense of personal blame, for every mistake occurring in his department.

Perhaps one of the clearest examples of a minister resigning because of a mistake, even though he knew nothing of it at the time it occurred, is that of Sir Thomas Dugdale who resigned as Minister of Agriculture as a result of the Crichel Down Affair in 1954. In doing so he took responsibility for alleged maladministration by senior civil servants without his knowledge. Some commentators have sought to explain this resignation on the basis that compulsory purchase was involved, but it certainly stands as a most stringent example of the ‘rule’ in force, particularly since the maladministration affected only one family and was a matter of embarrassment rather than one where severe loss either financial or in terms of physical wellbeing was concerned Crichel Down.

Lord Carrington’s resignation in 1982 asSecretary of State for Foreign Affairs together with those of the other Foreign Office ministers who resigned with him can also be seen as an example of a minister resigning for the mistake of the department.

Although there were a number of major failings in government policy, including arms to Iraq affair, the BSL crisis and the prison breakout only one minister, Lord Carrignton, actually accepted responsibility for error in his department and resigned. Most resignations in fact occur either over sexual or financial misconduct or indiscreet and damaging remarks which embarrass the government such as Edwina Currie’s pronouncement over the infection of British eggs by salmonella. Ron Davie’ resignation first with the mould neatly.

Evaluating the evidence

However, as has been seen above, the existence and acceptance of responsibility does not inevitably lead to the consequence of the resignation of a minister for the failures within his or her department. No hard and fast rules exist which will determine whether and when a minister should resign, and accordingly it cannot clearly be said that resignation forms a part of the convention itself. On the question of the circumstances under which a minister will resign as a result of departmental mismanagement, Professor SE Finer (1956) considered that:

…whether a minister is forced to resign depends on three factors: on himself, his Prime Minister and his party:

For a resignation to occur, all three factors have to be just so: the minister compliant, the Prime Minister firm, the party clamorous. This conjuncture is rare, and is in fact fortuitous. Above all, it is indiscriminate – which ministers escape and which do not is decided neither by the circumstances of the offence not by its gravity. Professor Finer went on to question whether in fact there is a ‘convention’ of resignation at all, and concluded that the convention is so messy in operation that it cannot amount to a rule.

In debate, Mr. Prior distinguished carefully between responsibility for policy – for which he accepted responsibility and the failure of officials to follow the correct orders and procedures for which he denied responsibility:


In recent years a rather different attitude has been taken in relation to mistakes by civil servants. Whereas formerly the minister maintained the anonymity of the civil servant and would take responsibility, in certain recent cases the blame has been laid directly at the feet of civil servants whilst ministers have felt no compunction to resign. An example is the Maze Prison breakout, which was followed by resignation of civil servants but no ministerial departures.

The current trend is therefore that ministers will only resign if it can be clearly shown that the fault for what has gone wrong rests with ministerial policy decisions, rather than the decisions of civil servants in their department.

It should also be noted that whether a minister survives a mistake seems to depend upon factors such as whether he retains the confidence of the PM and the Cabinet, the view of the backbenchers of his own party and the level of public outcry. Ministers will only be forced to resign when, on a hard-headed political calculation, their staying on will cause more damage to the governing party than their resignation.

Suspicion has been voiced by various commentators that the split between is ‘operational matters’ and ‘matters of policy’ is blurred and open to manipulation by the government of the day.

i.          Operational matters are those for which the minister must account to parliament, but need not accept personal responsibility and ii. matters of policy are those for which the individual minister must both give an account and accept responsibility.


In conclusion, it may be argued that the present understanding of ministerial responsibility relies upon a series of distinctions which are open to manipulation and “abuse by government, and that Parliament appears to be currently deprived of the ability to challenge-and to challenge such manipulation and make its own determination as to where responsibility should be located from a position of comprehensive knowledge.’ It may be further contended that the dogmatic application of these rules to ‘ chief executives and the-continued accountability of ministers for the workings of the Next Step Agencies seems illogical and likely to undermine the demarcation of duties between ministers and officials, which the Agencies are supposed to follow and uphold.