Accountability and responsibility

A distinction is sometimes made between ministerial accountability (being answerable to Parliament for the government’s actions) and ministerial responsibility (‘taking personal responsibility for what has been done in the minister’s name - even without the minister’s knowledge - and, if necessary resigning’) but, in practice, the second is really an extension of the first.

Arthur Balfour (Prime Minister 1902-05) described democracy as ‘government by explanation’. Even if it is likely that the government will eventually get its way, Parliament is the forum in which it must explain itself and be held to account. Explanation may take various forms: responding to criticisms of proposed legislation at the second reading of a bill, or on detailed amendments put forward at report stage; explaining and defending a broader policy, perhaps on education reform or NHS funding, as part of a full day’s debate initiated by the opposition or backbenchers; or giving a detailed account of its actions to a select committee inquiry. The requirement on governments to explain and justify can, in itself, be a brake on executive power; but it is up to members of Parliament in both Houses to make this process effective.

Ministerial accountability is a concept that it is easier to recognise than to define. There is extensive case law covering a number of years, beginning with the Crichel Down affair in 1954, when the Minister of Agriculture, Sir Thomas Dugdale, resigned apparently because he was taking responsibility for errors made by his civil servants (but more likely because he was left high and dry by a change in government policy); the Westland affair in 1986; and the special adviser Jo Moore ‘burying bad news’ in 2001, which led eventually to the resignation of Stephen Byers as Secretary of State for Transport, Local Government and the Regions. On Westland, Leon Brittan resigned as Secretary of State for Trade and Industry, taking responsibility for errors by officials but refusing to explain exactly what had happened. The Defence Select Committee, which investigated the saga, remarked drily: ‘A Minister does not discharge his accountability to Parliament merely by acknowledging a general responsibility and, if the circumstances warrant it, by resigning. Accountability involves accounting in detail for actions as a Minister’.

The principle of accountability to Parliament is now underpinned by resolutions of both Houses in March 1997 (following the Scott inquiry into the supply of arms to Iraq) on how ministers should behave towards Parliament:

Ministers of the Crown are expected to behave according to the highest standards of constitutional and personal conduct in the performance of their duties. In particular, they must observe the following principles of Ministerial conduct:

i Ministers must uphold the principles of collective responsibility;

ii Ministers have a duty to Parliament to account, and be held to account, for the policies, decisions and actions of their Departments and Next Steps Agencies;

iii It is of paramount importance that Ministers give accurate and truthful information to Parliament, correcting any inadvertent error at the earliest opportunity. Ministers who knowingly mislead Parliament will be expected to offer their resignation to the Prime Minister;

iv Ministers should be as open as possible with Parliament and the public, refusing to provide information only when disclosure would not be in the public interest, which should be decided in accordance with relevant statute and the Government’s Code of Practice on Access to Government Information;

v Similarly, Ministers should require civil servants who give evidence before Parliamentary Committees on their behalf and under their directions to be as helpful as possible in providing accurate, truthful and full information in accordance with the duties and responsibilities of civil servants as set out in the Civil Service Code.

In Chapters 9 and 10, we will look more closely at the ways in which the government is called to account.

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