. 109
( 155 .)


myself is whether . . . I was to blame for those prisoners escaping. The Hennessy report is
quite explicit in its conclusion that, although there may have been weaknesses in the phys-
ical security of the prison and in the Prisons Department, the escape could not have taken
place if the procedures laid down for the running of the prison had been followed . . .

Mr Peter Archer (Opposition spokesman on Northern Ireland): . . . The purpose of the
debate is not to ask for resignations . . . We must consider whether Northern Ireland would
benefit if a particular Minister resigned. I should not think it right to call for the resigna-
tion of the Secretary of State. First, I do not think that he could reasonably have been
expected, personally, to have read the minutes [relating to the appointment of dangerous
republican prisoners as orderlies]. I believe that he was badly served. Secondly, the right
hon. Gentleman may be embarrassed at this; but I cannot envisage him being replaced
from among members of the present Administration by anyone more compassionate or
more politically sensitive . . .
The hon. Member for Chelsea [Mr Nicholas Scott] . . . had held responsibility for only three
months prior to the breakout. We can see today what a difficult and complicated situation
existed . . . I do not seek to convict him. Lord Gowrie is in a different position. In the absence
of any explanations today, it is difficult to see how he could justify remaining a member of
the Government . . .

Mr J Enoch Powell: The Secretary of State, from the beginning of his speech, recognised the
central issue in this debate, that of ministerial responsibility, without which the House
scarcely has a real function or any real service that it can perform for the people whom it
represents. We are concerned with the nature of the responsibility, the ministerial responsi-
bility, for an event which, even in isolation from its actual context, was a major disaster.
580 British Government and the Constitution

I want to begin by eliminating from this consideration the Under-Secretary of State for
Northern Ireland . . . [Mr Scott], because references to him in this context have shown a gross
misconception . . . The fact is that the entire responsibility, whether or not it is delegated to
a junior Minister, rests with the Secretary of State . . .
As the Secretary of State reminded us this afternoon, even before the publication of the
report he drew a distinction, which I believe to be invalid, between responsibility for policy
and responsibility for administration. I believe that this is a wholly fallacious view of the
nature of ministerial responsibility . . . [E]ven if all considerations of policy could be elimi-
nated, the responsibility for the administration of a Department remains irrevocably with the
Minister in charge. It is impossible for him to say to the House or to the country, ˜The policy
was excellent and that was mine, but the execution was defective or disastrous and that has
nothing to do with me™. If that were to be the accepted position, there would be no politi-
cal source to which the public could complain about administration or from which it could
seek redress for failings of administration.
What happened was an immense administrative disaster. It was . . . a disaster that
occurred in an area which was quite clearly central to the Department™s responsibilities. If
the responsibility for administration so central to a Department can be abjured by a Minister,
a great deal of our proceedings in the House is a beating of the air because we are talking
to people who, in the last resort, disclaim the responsibility for the administration. . . .

The Under-Secretary of State for Northern Ireland (Mr Nicholas Scott): . . . The right hon.
Member for Down, South [Mr Powell] . . . outlined a constitutional convention which he might
wish existed, which perhaps once did exist, but which, frankly, has not existed in politics in
this country for many years . . .

Shifts in the understanding of ministerial responsibility prompted the Treasury
and Civil Service Committee to remark: ˜If Crichel Down is dead and Ministers
are not accountable to Parliament for some actions of their o¬cials, then who
is?™ (Seventh Report, HC 92-I of 1985“86, para 3.17).
Resignations of ministers as a result of sexual escapades, imprudent remarks,
questionable ¬nancial transactions, acceptance of payment for asking parlia-
mentary questions and other instances of personal default or misjudgement
occurred with unwonted frequency in the 1980s and 1990s. Not all such resig-
nations can be seen as arising from the minister™s responsibility to Parliament,
and will often have been precipitated by public opinion, or a press campaign, or
the concerns of ministerial colleagues and government backbenchers for the
political fortunes of the party (or by a combination of these factors). Such
was the resignation in 2001 of Mr Peter Mandelson, Secretary of State for
Northern Ireland, whose position had become untenable following allegations
that he had been less than candid and had misled ministerial colleagues and
the public about his involvement in a passport application by a business-
man with whom he was associated. (The former minister was afterwards
acquitted of any improper conduct in an independent inquiry by Sir Anthony
581 Parliament and the responsibility of government

Hammond: Review of the Circumstances Surrounding an Application for
Naturalisation by Mr S P Hinduja in 1998, HC 287 of 2000“01).
The Blair Government™s second term of o¬ce (2001“05) yielded a crop of
senior ministerial resignations. First there was the resignation of Stephen Byers
as Secretary of State for Transport, Local Government and the Regions in 2002
after extensive criticism, by opposition MPs and in the media, of certain of his
decisions said to show inept judgement and of his de¬cient management of his
department. In resigning Mr Byers acknowledged errors of judgement and said
that he had become ˜a distraction from what the government is achieving™. Later
in that year Estelle Morris resigned as Secretary of State for Education and Skills,
following criticism of her handling of problems connected with checks on the
background of teachers and procedures for the determination of ˜A™ level grades,
as well as failure to meet literacy and numeracy targets set by her predecessor.
In resigning she admitted to weaknesses in her strategic management of her
department and in her dealings with the media.
Neither of these resignations can be attributed to errors or maladministration
by departmental o¬cials. Both ministers resigned on the ground of de¬ciencies,
admitted by them, in their o¬cial conduct as ministers and in the running of
their departments, not for misconduct in their personal lives. Each resignation
followed sustained criticism of the minister from opposition MPs and in the
media. Diana Woodhouse concludes (˜UK ministerial responsibility in 2002:
the tale of two resignations™ (2004) 82 Pub Adm 1, 6): ˜Whatever the reasons for
the resignations of Morris and Byers, they provide additional precedents for
a resigning convention within the departmental context™. She sees these resigna-
tions as vindicating a ˜role responsibility™ of ministers “ a minister™s obligation
to provide e¬ective leadership and supervision of his or her department and to
account to Parliament for the proper performance of this role, with resignation
as the ultimate sanction for failure. Woodhouse also draws attention to the
signi¬cant part played by media criticism in these resignations, asking whether
˜there has been a shift in the location of accountability, away from politicians,
and particularly Parliament, to the media™.
A third resignation was that of David Blunkett as Home Secretary in
December 2004 after his private o¬ce had intervened with the Immigration and
Nationality Directorate regarding an application by his lover™s nanny for
inde¬nite leave to remain in the United Kingdom. Mr Blunkett at ¬rst publicly
denied any intervention by his o¬ce but when presented with contradictory
evidence he resigned, saying that he would not hide behind or blame his o¬cials
and took responsibility for what had occurred. Nicholas Bamforth has com-
mented that as Blunkett™s initial (inadvertently false) denial was made to the
media and not to Parliament, his resignation evidences a broadening of minis-
terial responsibility to Parliament so as to embrace ministerial statements made
outside the House (˜Political accountability in play™ [2005] PL 229). Mr Blunkett
re-entered the Cabinet as Secretary of State for Work and Pensions after the
general election of May 2005, but his renewed tenure of o¬ce was short-lived.
582 British Government and the Constitution

In October 2005 it came to light that, after leaving his previous o¬ce, he had
failed to inform the Advisory Committee on Business Appointments about paid
posts taken up by him, as required of ex-ministers by the Ministerial Code.
Mr Blunkett acknowledged his mistake and resigned. Here we see the conven-
tion of ministerial responsibility extending to a minister™s former actions when
not in o¬ce, although the obligation in which he had defaulted arose from his
tenure of his previous o¬ce, in which he had become bound by the provisions
of the Code.
On the other hand we ¬nd ministers continuing, in cases of departmental
failure, blunders or misconduct, to invoke the distinctions formulated in
the Crichel Down and Maze Prison cases, disclaiming any obligation to resign
for errors of subordinates. On the occasion of another prison escape “ of
IRA prisoners from Brixton in 1991 “ the Home Secretary, Mr Kenneth
Baker, declined to resign for what he described as ˜operational failures™ by
o¬cers of the prison department. Even for action in which he had himself
taken a part and for which he was held to have been guilty, in his o¬cial capac-
ity as Secretary of State for the Home Department, of contempt of court
(see M v Home O¬ce, above, p 89), the same Mr Baker did not contemplate
After further escapes from prison an inquiry into prison security (Learmont
Report, Cm 3020/1995) found serious management failures and ine¬ciency
in the Prison Service (an executive agency of the Home O¬ce): the Director-
General of the Service (Mr Lewis) was dismissed as bearing ˜operational™
responsibility while the Home Secretary, Mr Michael Howard, survived.
(See Barker, ˜Political responsibility for UK prison security: ministers escape
again™ (1998) 76 Pub Adm 1; Polidano, ˜The bureaucrat who fell under a bus:
ministerial responsibility, executive agencies and the Derek Lewis a¬air in
Britain™ (1999) 12 Governance 201.) The tally of non-resignations was added to
when criticism of ministers in the Scott Report on arms to Iraq (HC 115 of
1995“96) were brazened out, the government taking refuge in Sir Richard
Scott™s ¬nding that, although ministers had misled Parliament, they had done
so without ˜duplicitous intention™ (see A Tomkins, The Constitution after Scott
(1998), ch 1).
The case of Charles Clarke, Home Secretary from 2004 to 2006, raises points
of interest. It was disclosed in April 2006 that about 1,000 foreign criminals,
who should have been considered for deportation or removal, had completed
their prison sentences and been released without any consideration by the
Immigration and Nationality Directorate of the Home O¬ce of deportation or
removal action. For this failure in the Home O¬ce, Mr Clarke o¬ered his res-
ignation to the Prime Minister who declined to accept it, and he remained in
o¬ce. In a statement in the House of Commons (HC Deb vol 445, col 573,
26 April 2006), Mr Clarke apologised for what had occurred, saying that he
took responsibility for what he acknowledged to be a systemic failure in the
department and promising to take action to put things right. Some days later
583 Parliament and the responsibility of government

the Prime Minister, in carrying out a Cabinet ˜reshu¬„e™, decided to remove
Mr Clarke from o¬ce as Home Secretary. Dissatis¬ed with this decision
Mr Clarke declined other Cabinet posts which were o¬ered to him and resigned
from the Government. Mr Clarke was an able minister who was well placed to
correct de¬ciencies in the Home O¬ce, but the ¬asco of the foreign criminals
left at large had caused considerable embarrassment to the Government.
What does this episode reveal about the working of the doctrine of ministerial
While not able to supervise in detail all that is done by a department, the
departmental minister has nevertheless a responsibility for ensuring that the
department is e¬ciently organised and has e¬ective systems for delivering its
services, appropriate rules of conduct for its sta¬ and controls in place for pre-
venting error or malpractice. There should be a limit to the ability of ministers
to escape responsibility by attributing blame to their o¬cials.
If resignations in deference to ministerial responsibility are rare “ it would
perhaps re¬‚ect badly on the quality of British government if they were
frequent “ the power of the House of Commons to censure and dismiss indi-
vidual ministers hardly exists except on the plane of theory. Motions of
censure can always be defeated by a majority government. They are in any
event likely to be treated as putting in issue the House™s con¬dence in the
government as a whole, and therefore its survival. (See eg, HC Deb vol 951,
col 1129, 14 June 1978.) A minister threatened with a motion of censure who
believed that he or she had lost the support of party and colleagues would be
unlikely to await the formal vote. Nevertheless the power remains in reserve
and awareness of it underlies much that is said and done in Parliament; it is
one of the conditioning elements in the behaviour of MPs and ministers. This
idea was expressed in elevated terms by an MP and former minister in the
course of committee proceedings on a government bill:

House of Commons Standing Committee F (British Nationality Bill)
vol V of 1980“81, cols 1916“17, 12 May 1981

Mr J Enoch Powell: Where an Act of Parliament gives discretion to a Minister, it gives
him that discretion as a person responsible in all his actions to Parliament. The discretion
of a Minister under this Bill or any similar Act is not arbitrary in the sense that it is an
irresponsible discretion. He exercises all such discretions in the light of his answerability
to Parliament, and any such cases and any such decision can be raised, and theoretically
could be made the subject of a vote of censure upon the Minister, in either House of
Parliament. . . .
We . . . take it for granted that if in the opinion of Parliament, as the supreme protection
of the body of citizens and of every citizen individually, that discretion is exercised unjustly,
improperly or unwisely in any way, Parliament is capable of bringing that Minister to account,
and willing to do so.
584 British Government and the Constitution

The ultimate sanction of ministerial resignation continues to have con-
stitutional validity. As Peter Barberis says, ˜the bottom line of sacri¬ce
must, in principle, remain visible and generally understood in order to give
guts to the other dimensions of accountability™ (The Civil Service in an Era of
Change (1997), p 141). The Public Service Committee of the House of
Commons (Second Report, HC 313-I of 1995“96, para 33) also stands ¬rm on
this point:

[T]he attempt to ensure Ministers are accountable by seeking their resignation may be an
informal and highly political affair. It cannot be reduced to firm rules and conventions.
Nevertheless . . . it remains an essential component of the control of government. It is, in
effect, the final stage in a process of accountability.

Yet there are, as Barberis notes (above), other dimensions of accountability
and the principle of ministerial responsibility is not exhausted by its potential-
ity for inducing resignations. It supports and gives focus to all the available
instruments for the scrutiny of the executive, such as parliamentary questions,
debates and select committee inquiries. Even if, as in the usual case, a minister
is able to disclaim personal responsibility for departmental errors or failures, he
or she is still expected to ˜accept responsibility™ in the sense of having to give an
account to Parliament of the circumstances, take into consideration views
expressed in the House and inform it of disciplinary or remedial action taken.
˜Where things go wrong, the Minister is responsible for putting them right and
for telling Parliament how he has done so™ (Mr Roger Freeman, Chancellor of
the Duchy of Lancaster, Public Service Committee, First Special Report, HC 67
of 1996“97, Annex A, para 11). In July 1998 the Legg inquiry into the ˜Sandline
a¬air™ (breaches of an embargo on the supply of arms to Sierra Leone) revealed
failures of communication in the Foreign O¬ce and errors of judgement by
o¬cials such that (as The Economist commented on 1 August 1998) ˜one part of
the Foreign O¬ce knew about the breach of an arms embargo that another part
of the Foreign O¬ce had gone to some trouble to impose™. (See Report of the
Sierra Leone Arms Investigation, HC 1016 of 1997“98.) The Foreign Secretary
(Mr Robin Cook), in making a statement in the House on the Legg Report, drew
attention to its ¬nding that ˜most of the trouble originated from systemic
and cultural factors™ in the Foreign O¬ce. Acknowledging his responsibility for
the department, he announced ˜a programme of 60 di¬erent measures to
improve the management of the Foreign O¬ce™ (HC Deb vol 317, cols 19 et seq,
27 July 1998).

(b) Responsibility of civil servants
In constitutional theory the responsibility of civil servants is absorbed by the
responsibility of ministers to Parliament, with its corollary of the anonymity
and exclusively internal (departmental) responsibility of o¬cials. In replying to
585 Parliament and the responsibility of government

a report of the Expenditure Committee on the civil service, the Government
declared (Cmnd 7117/1978, para 3):

their belief that the interests of the country will continue to be best served by a non-political,
permanent Civil Service working under the close policy supervision of the Government of the
day. They distinguish between the responsibility of the Civil Service to the Government and
the responsibility of the Government to Parliament. Ministers alone are responsible to


. 109
( 155 .)