Ministerial responsibility
Ministerial responsibility or individual ministerial responsibility is a constitutional convention
Constitutional convention (political custom)
A constitutional convention is an informal and uncodified procedural agreement that is followed by the institutions of a state. In some states, notably those Commonwealth of Nations states that follow the Westminster system and whose political systems derive from British constitutional law, most...

 in governments using the Westminster System
Westminster System
The Westminster system is a democratic parliamentary system of government modelled after the politics of the United Kingdom. This term comes from the Palace of Westminster, the seat of the Parliament of the United Kingdom....

 that a cabinet
Cabinet (government)
A Cabinet is a body of high ranking government officials, typically representing the executive branch. It can also sometimes be referred to as the Council of Ministers, an Executive Council, or an Executive Committee.- Overview :...

Minister (government)
A minister is a politician who holds significant public office in a national or regional government. Senior ministers are members of the cabinet....

 bears the ultimate responsibility for the actions of their ministry
Ministry (government department)
A ministry is a specialised organisation responsible for a sector of government public administration, sometimes led by a minister or a senior public servant, that can have responsibility for one or more departments, agencies, bureaus, commissions or other smaller executive, advisory, managerial or...

 or department. Individual ministerial responsibility is not the same as cabinet collective responsibility
Cabinet collective responsibility
Cabinet collective responsibility is constitutional convention in governments using the Westminster System that members of the Cabinet must publicly support all governmental decisions made in Cabinet, even if they do not privately agree with them. This support includes voting for the government in...

, 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” in a Parliament 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. 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
The expressions misfeasance and nonfeasance, and occasionally malfeasance, are used in English law with reference to the discharge of public obligations existing by common law, custom or statute.-Definition and relevant rules of law:...

 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 Question Time
Question Time
Question time in a parliament occurs when members of the parliament ask questions of government ministers , which they are obliged to answer. It usually occurs daily while parliament is sitting, though it can be cancelled in exceptional circumstances...

/Question Period
Question Period
Question Period, known officially as Oral Questions occurs each sitting day in the Canadian House of Commons. According to the House of Commons Compendium, “The primary purpose of Question Period is to seek information from the Government and to call it to account for its actions.”-History:The...

. The reverse of ministerial responsibility is that civil servants
Civil service
The term civil service has two distinct meanings:* A branch of governmental service in which individuals are employed on the basis of professional merit as proven by competitive examinations....

 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
Commonwealth of Nations
The Commonwealth of Nations, normally referred to as the Commonwealth and formerly known as the British Commonwealth, is an intergovernmental organisation of fifty-four independent member states...

 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
Courts of the United Kingdom
The Courts of the United Kingdom are separated into three separate jurisidictions, the Courts of England and Wales, Courts of Scotland and the Courts of Northern Ireland, as the United Kingdom does not have a single unified judicial system....

 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.


In Canada ministerial responsibility has been reduced as it has become increasingly common for top level civil servants to be called before Parliament
Parliament of Canada
The Parliament of Canada is the federal legislative branch of Canada, seated at Parliament Hill in the national capital, Ottawa. Formally, the body consists of the Canadian monarch—represented by her governor general—the Senate, and the House of Commons, each element having its own officers and...

, 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
Crichel Down affair
The Crichel Down affair was a British political scandal of 1954, with a subsequent effect and notoriety. The Crichel Down Rules are guidelines applying to compulsory purchase drawn up in the light of the affair.-The Crichel Down land:...

 in 1954 in which the Minister of Agriculture, Thomas Dugdale
Thomas Dugdale
Thomas Lionel Dugdale, 1st Baron Crathorne PC , known as Sir Thomas Dugdale, 1st Baronet, from 1945 to 1959, was a British Conservative Party politician...

, resigned, 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; later it appeared that Dugdale in fact supported his civil servants' actions, and disagreed with both the inquiry report and the Government's acceptance of it.

The government announced that ministers must defend civil servants who act properly 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
Secretary of State for Northern Ireland
The Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, informally the Northern Ireland Secretary, is the principal secretary of state in the government of the United Kingdom with responsibilities for Northern Ireland. The Secretary of State is a Minister of the Crown who is accountable to the Parliament of...

, 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 general norm in British politics.

A recent exception might be Estelle Morris, who resigned in 2002 saying she had not done well enough after a scandal over A-level marking. See

Some recent resignations due to personal errors of judgment or impropriety (also under IMR) include the resignation of Ron Davies, the Secretary of State for Wales, for sexual misconduct (in 1998), and the resignation of Peter Mandelson
Peter Mandelson
Peter Benjamin Mandelson, Baron Mandelson, PC is a British Labour Party politician, who was the Member of Parliament for Hartlepool from 1992 to 2004, served in a number of Cabinet positions under both Tony Blair and Gordon Brown, and was a European Commissioner...

, Secretary of State for Trade and Industry, for failing to disclose a substantial loan by a Cabinet colleague (in 1999).


There has been some academic debate about possible erosion of the doctrine of individual responsibility. Scandals during the years John Major
John Major
Sir John Major, is a British Conservative politician, who served as Prime Minister of the United Kingdom and Leader of the Conservative Party from 1990–1997...

 was Prime Minister
Prime minister
A prime minister is the most senior minister of cabinet in the executive branch of government in a parliamentary system. In many systems, the prime minister selects and may dismiss other members of the cabinet, and allocates posts to members within the government. In most systems, the prime...

 intensified this debate.

Arguably the doctrine has become outdated and fails to take into account the growth in the size of government since the formation of the doctrine.

Somewhat fine distinctions have also been argued to evade ministerial responsibility:


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 the standards established by
this circular.
The Premier also has a broad agency to bind the Government in any matter in the
ordinary course of government administration.


Michael Howard
Michael Howard
Michael Howard, Baron Howard of Lympne, CH, QC, PC is a British politician, who served as the Leader of the Conservative Party and Leader of the Opposition from November 2003 to December 2005...

argued during a mid 90s prison scandal that he could be responsible for the political policy but not its operation.


In the aftermath of Arms to Iraq, it was argued that an MP did not knowingly mislead Parliament.

External links

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