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Ministerial responsibility

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Ministerial responsibility

For other types of responsibility, see Responsibility (disambiguation).

Individual ministerial responsibility is a constitutional convention in governments using the Westminster System that a cabinet minister bears the ultimate responsibility for the actions of their ministry or department. Individual ministerial responsibility is not the same as cabinet collective responsibility, which states members of the cabinet must approve publicly of its collective decisions or resign. This means that a motion for a vote of "no confidence" is not in order should the actions of an organ of government fail in the proper discharge of their responsibilities. Where there is ministerial responsibility, the accountable minister is expected to take the blame and ultimately resign, but the majority or coalition within parliament of which the minister is part, is not held to be answerable for that minister's failure.

This means that if waste, corruption, or any other misbehaviour is found to have occurred within a ministry, the minister is responsible even if the minister had no knowledge of the actions. A minister is ultimately responsible for all actions by a ministry because, even without knowledge of an infraction by subordinates, the minister approved the hiring and continued employment of those civil servants. If misdeeds are found to have occurred in a ministry, the minister is expected to resign. It is also possible for a minister to face criminal charges for malfeasance under their watch.

The principle is considered essential, as it is seen to guarantee that an elected official is answerable for every single government decision. It is also important to motivate ministers to closely scrutinize the activities within their departments. One rule coming from this principle is that each cabinet member answers for their own ministry in parliament's question time. The reverse of ministerial responsibility is that civil servants are not supposed to take credit for the successes of their department, allowing the government to claim them.

In recent years some commentators have argued the notion of ministerial responsibility has been eroded in many Commonwealth countries. While the doctrine is a constitutional convention there is no formal mechanism for enforcing the rule. Today ministers frequently use ignorance of misbehaviour as an argument for lack of culpability. While opposition parties rarely accept this argument, the electorate is often more accepting. Courts of the United Kingdom have become less likely to find ministers guilty when their individual knowledge of or involvement in a crime cannot be proved. In most other Commonwealth countries such cases are today hardly ever brought to trial.


For organizational purposes there are Cabinet Ministers who are responsible for all activity within their department. In Canada ministerial responsibility has been reduced as it has become increasingly common for top level civil servants to be called before Parliament, bypassing the minister.

United Kingdom

It is currently unclear what individual action a minister ought to take when a civil servant within his department is guilty of maladministration. The formulation of some guidelines took place during the Crichel Down Affair in 1954 in which the Minister of Agriculture, Thomas Dugdale, tried to resign, despite an inquiry suggesting that all mistakes were made within his department without his knowledge and in some cases due to deliberate deceit by civil servants.

The government announced that ministers must defend civil servants who act properly and in accordance with policies set out by the minister. Furthermore, it was stated that "where an official makes a mistake or causes some delay, but not on an important issue of policy and not where a claim to individual rights is seriously involved, the Minister acknowledges the mistake and he accepts the responsibility although he is not personally involved."

In 1982, Lord Carrington (then Foreign Secretary) and two other Foreign Office ministers resigned shortly after the invasion of the Falkland Islands. Later official reviews stated that, although there had been misjudgments within the Foreign Office, no responsibility attached to any individual within the government. However, in 1983, when 38 IRA prisoners broke out of the Maze prison, the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, James Prior did not resign, explaining that the break-out was not caused by any policy initiative originating from him. This latter position has become the norm in British politics. An exception might be Estelle Morris, who resigned as Secretary of State for Education in 2002, saying she had not done well enough after a scandal over A-level marking.[1]

Some recent resignations due to personal errors of judgment or impropriety include the resignation of Ron Davies, the Secretary of State for Wales, for sexual misconduct in 1998, and the resignation of Peter Mandelson, Secretary of State for Trade and Industry, for failing to disclose a substantial loan by a Cabinet colleague in 1999.


An argument put forward during the Scott Inquiry into the Arms-to-Iraq affair was a distinction between political responsibility and political accountability. The Premier has the same responsibilities as other ministers in being subject to Cabinet collective responsibility. The Premier also has special responsibilities to:

  • advise the Queen on the appointment and dismissal of the Governor
  • advise the Governor on the appointment and dismissal of ministers, either portfolio ministers or delegate ministers
  • advise the Governor on Executive Council meetings
  • control the agenda of Cabinet, require matters to be referred to Cabinet and for the operation of Cabinet.
  • As Chair of Cabinet, the Premier can refer matters back to ministers and request the amendment of submissions which do not comply with standards.
  • The Premier also has a broad agency to bind the Government in any matter in the ordinary course of government administration.

New Zealand

In New Zealand, ministerial responsibility has tended to follow British practice. Ministers have resigned in cases of personal misconduct, but more rarely in cases of maladministration. Ministers have refused to resign in some cases where they have been asked to account for departmental errors. The most famous case was Bob Semple, who refused to resign in 1943 over engineering failures in the construction of a railway tunnel. He was quoted as saying "I am responsible, but not to blame." Subsequent notable incidents have included the refusal of a minister's resignation in the 1980s over compromised security of Budget documents, a minister resigning his portfolio (but not leaving Cabinet) over the 1995 Cave Creek disaster, and the resignation of a minister in 2011 for appearing to interfere in the administration of an ACC case.

See also


External links

  • Ministerial responsibility in Canada
  • What happened to ministerial accountability? by Andy McSmith, (retrieved May 5, 2009)
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