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Individual Ministerial Responsibility

AS, A-Level
AQA, Edexcel, OCR, IB

Last updated 22 Mar 2021

Individual Ministerial Responsibility is a constitutional convention that makes Government Ministers responsible for not only their own actions, but also for those of their department. It is not to be confused with collective cabinet responsibility, which states that cabinet members must approve publicly of its collective decisions or resign.

The doctrine of individual ministerial responsibility is part of the wider concept of responsible government. It seeks to guarantee that an elected official is motivated to closely scrutinize all activities within their department.

A practical implication of this is that each cabinet member answers for their own ministry during Parliament’s question time. It also means if corruption, waste or other misbehaviour is found to have occurred within a ministry, the minister is held responsible even if they had no knowledge of the actions. The convention assumes that the minister approved the hiring and continued employment of civil servants in their department. It goes as far as to say that the minister would be expected to resign in the event of misdeed, and could even face criminal charges for malfeasance during their watch.

In return, the government can claim credit for any of their departments’ successes, even if they had nothing to do with them, and civil servants shouldn’t claim credit for them.

Under this convention, in 2004 The Secretary of State for Defence, Geoff Hoon, had to explain to the House why a soldier had died in Iraq. The soldier died because the MOD hadn’t supplied enough body armour for the number of troops there. Meanwhile, in 2007, The Chancellor of the Exchequer, Alistair Darling, had to explain the loss of computer disks containing the personal details of millions of people receiving Child Benefit in 2007.

Whilst the doctrine of individual ministerial responsibility is a constitutional convention. There is no formal mechanism for enforcing it, meaning that today ministers frequently use ignorance of misbehaviour as an argument for lack of culpability. Opposition parties rarely accept this argument, but it has been found that the electorate can be more accepting. Also, it is extremely rare for such cases ever to be brought to trial

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