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Ministerial accountability

Ministerial accountability is a constitutional convention that ministers are accountable to Parliament for the actions of government. 

What is ministerial accountability?

Ministerial accountability is a constitutional convention that ministers are accountable to Parliament for the actions of government. 

Being accountable to Parliament means that ministers have to explain and provide information on what is happening in their area of responsibility. It can also mean a duty to take remedial action or apologise for failures. Ultimately it also means an expectation that they should resign if something has gone seriously wrong.

Secretaries of state are accountable for the whole of their department. Junior ministers will generally answer questions in Parliament for their area of responsibility. But the secretary of state is ultimately accountable for failures and mistakes.

Individual ministerial accountability is a separate principle from collective cabinet responsibility, which is that ‘decisions reached by the Cabinet or Ministerial Committees are binding on all members of the Government’.

What is ministerial accountability based on?

The principle of individual ministerial accountability – that ministers are democratically elected and drawn from Parliament, and they are the ones who take decisions in government, so should primarily be answerable to Parliament – is based on convention and precedent. It is not set out in law.

It developed during the 19th and early 20th centuries as government departments and the role of ministers, separate from civil servants, became more distinct.

Since 1997 the convention of ministerial accountability has also been set out in the Ministerial Code which states that ‘Ministers have a duty to Parliament to account, and be held to account, for the policies, decisions and actions of their departments and agencies’.

Does ministerial accountability mean that ministers are held responsible for everything that happens in their department?

No. It means that they are expected to answer to Parliament and provide information. But whether Parliament feels that a minister is responsible depends on what has gone wrong. The nature and scale of what has gone wrong, which civil servants and ministers knew what and when, how a minister explains a problem and what remedial action they offer can all affect how parliament views the problem and what might follow.

How does Parliament hold ministers to account?

There are many procedures that allow Parliament to scrutinise and hold ministers to account.

The main ones include:

  • Oral Questions submitted by other MPs or Lords to be answered in the chambers
  • Written questions also submitted by MPs or Lords to which ministers respond in writing without the opportunity for follow up
  • Urgent Questions and emergency, opposition day and backbench debates – these usually allow for debate on an issue. Urgent questions, and Private Notice Questions in the Lords can summon a minister to the chamber to respond.
  • Select committees – ministers (and some officials) will appear before select committees to answer questions
  • Correspondence – MPs and Lords, including committees, will write to ministers to raise issues. Publishing these letters increases pressure on ministers to respond


What happens if ministers are found to be at fault?

A minister can be called back to the chamber to apologise for their actions. The House can use its mechanisms for scrutiny, such as select committee hearings, questions or debates, to increase pressure on them to apologise for a government failure or take remedial action. It can also increase calls  for their resignation.

Parliament only has limited sanctions it can apply. It can pass a vote of censure or no confidence in a given minister (though it would also need to be able to timetable such a vote, which is in the hands of government or – on certain days – the opposition). However, even if this passes, though it might be politically damaging, it does not have any formal effect.

When do ministers resign because of ministerial accountability?

Historically, there has been a strong expectation that a minister ought to resign if they have been found to have misled the House. This was the reason why former Amber Rudd resigned as home secretary in 2018 after she ‘inadvertently misled’ the Home Affairs Select Committee over whether the department had issued targets for the removal of illegal immigrants. In 2005 transport secretary Stephen Byers had to apologise when he admitted giving inaccurate information to a select committee, but he insisted he did not ‘deliberately mislead’ the House.

Ministerial resignations often depend on a judgement about how severe the problem is and how far resignation calls in Parliament and the media can be rebuffed. Though the principle of accountability is set out in the ministerial code, ultimately the prime minister is the judge of any breach and decides what should happen. Political pressure tends to be a key factor.

Some ministers have resigned on principle. In 1982, Lord Carrington accepted full responsibility for the failure of the Foreign Office to foresee the invasion of the Falkland Islands by Argentina and resigned as foreign secretary even though he had not been asked to resign by the prime minister. In 2002, after problems with A-level marking and other failures in her department, Estelle Morris resigned as education secretary because she ‘had been honest with herself’ about being up to the job. Though there had been some calls for her to resign, the prime minister had not asked her to do so.

Are civil servants held accountable?

Yes. Civil servants are accountable to their minister within the department and are line managed by other civil servants and have to abide by the requirements set out in their contracts and in the civil service code. Ministers do not directly manage civil servants and therefore have limited ability to directly fire or move civil servants who they feel they are performing poorly or have made mistakes.

Permanent secretaries and other heads of agencies are accounting officers for their departments. This means that they have to report to Parliament, usually to the Public Accounts Committee (PAC), for the spending and efficiency of their department or organisation. This responsibility developed separately from the conventions around ministerial accountability. It is more specific than the overall accountability of ministers, but in practice it overlaps in terms of the questions they can be asked by the PAC about the operation of their department and what may have gone wrong in terms of specific policies or major projects.

Officials can also appear in front of select committees if a minister chooses to ask them to appear in their place. Some officials may appear alongside ministers. 

What are the ‘Osmotherly rules’?

The convention for how officials appear before select committees is based on government guidance known as the ‘Osmotherly Rules’ – named after the civil servant who first drew them up, under the orders of then cabinet secretary Robert Armstrong in 1980. 

The guidance stipulates that when officials are giving evidence they are not doing so in a personal capacity but ‘as representatives of their ministers’. They should not be asked to offer personal judgements on government policy. This is to protect their impartiality and the principle of ministerial accountability.

However, this guidance and the rules they provide for officials have never been formally accepted by Parliament. Many parliamentarians and select committees have been critical about how candid officials are when giving evidence and have called for greater powers for select committees to force officials to appear before their inquiries. 

In 2014 the coalition government changed the Osmotherly rules to ensure that officials who were Senior Responsible Owners (SROs) of major projects could be directly accountable to Parliament for implementation of projects they oversee. The changes also confirmed that accounting officers could be called to give evidence about previous responsibilities. This was to make sure that officials did not cease to be held responsible after they left a job.

Are ministers unfairly held responsible for the action of officials?

One of the critiques of the convention on ministerial accountability is that ministers should not be held responsible for all that happens in their department, since they cannot possibly oversee and supervise it all. Alongside this is the difficulty in identifying when something has gone wrong, where the line lies between ministerial decision or oversight and the action of officials.

The principle has, historically, meant that ministers have resigned even when the fault was clearly the action of officials, but the minister still took constitutional responsibility for their department. The classic case referred to is the Crichel Down affair, when a claim of unfair treatment of a landowner by the Ministry of Agriculture and the Crown Lands Commissioner led to a public inquiry. Though he had no knowledge of the action taken by his officials, the minister of agriculture Thomas Dugdale resigned after telling the House of Commons that ‘I, as Minister, must accept full responsibility to Parliament for any mistakes and inefficiency of officials in my Department, just as, when my officials bring off any successes on my behalf, I take full credit for them.’ He also argued that ‘any departure from this long-established rule is bound to bring the Civil Service right into the political arena’.

More recently cases have arisen when officials have been held directly responsible and removed from their posts. In 1995, as home secretary, Michael Howard fired the director general of the Prisons Service Derek Lewis following a series of prisoner escapes. This led to criticisms of Howard over his treatment of Lewis.

In summer 2020, after a furore over A-level results, the chief executive of Ofqual and permanent secretary of the Department for Education resigned from their posts, under pressure from the government, even though no clear account had been given to Parliament of what had occurred and who was ultimately responsible. The education secretary Gavin Williamson remained in post.

What are the dangers in officials, rather than ministers, being held publicly accountable?

Though officials are more visible in their work and regularly appear in front of select committees, under the current system they still cannot publicly answer back and account for what they did, and what ministers did or asked to be done. They have to represent the department when they are giving evidence and cannot give a personal opinion. Holding them to account in Parliament or through the media provides them with little chance to defend themselves.

Should the principle be made clearer?

There have been calls by select committees for accountability of ministers and officials to be codified in clearer terms, though not for it to be put on the statute books.

Permanent secretaries now have objectives for their performance and fixed term contracts. Though they are still managed by other permanent secretaries or the cabinet secretary, they can be forced to resign by pressure from the prime minister. 

Institute for Government

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27 AUG 2020 Comment

Gavin Williamson should go too

For the long series of serious misjudgements about schools during the pandemic, the buck should stop with the secretary of state