Law and Government

Why it’s time to drop the old doctrine of ministerial responsibility

The Post Office Horizon scandal shows the practical limitations both of holding ministers to account and of ministers holding their departments to account

January 25, 2024
Ed Davey, Liberal Democrat leader and former Post Office minister. Have we held him to unfair standards?
Ed Davey, Liberal Democrat leader and former Post Office minister, is finding himself at the sharp end of outdated constitutional standards. Credit: PA Images / Alamy Stock Photo

Imagine the following events elsewhere in the political multiverse. It is the early 2010s, and a junior minister from the junior coalition party decides to second-guess what they are told about Post Office prosecutions. In this alternative reality, the minister then actively goes against what they are told by officials and by the senior executives of the Post Office. The minister even attempts to interfere with individual prosecution decisions. What happens?

The news media scream with headlines: a minister is being SOFT ON CRIME with those who are stealing YOUR money that YOU have entrusted to postmasters and mistresses.

The minister is briefed against by those pointing out that many of the defendants are actually pleading guilty. Illiberals would deplore letting the guilty get away with their crimes, while liberals would fret about whether ministers should even get personally involved in deciding who gets prosecuted for dishonesty offences against seemingly plain evidence. This sterling, do-gooder minister would at best have a frustrating time of it. They probably would have to resign.

In our own part of the political multiverse, where the above events certainly did not happen, we had instead a succession of ministers responsible for the Post Office, from 2000 to a few years ago—Labour, Liberal Democrat and Conservative—all of whom accepted what they were told by Post Office executives and by civil servants.

And those ministers had no real alternative. For it is a feature of our constitutional arrangements that there is little or nothing a minister can do if they are given false and misleading advice and information by those on whom they rely. The minister may be deemed responsible for what happens in their departments and with entities, such as the Post Office, which are controlled or owned by their departments. But this is responsibility without power, the predicament of the eunuch throughout the ages. 

Indeed, the constitution of the United Kingdom has never been clear about what is actually meant by “ministerial responsibility” for government departments. As the great scholar S E Finer pithily asked in three questions in 1956:

First, what is this “Department’’ for which the Minister is said to be responsible? 

Next, what precise meaning is to be attached to the word ‘‘responsible’’? 

Thirdly, in what sense is the Minister rather than his civil servants regarded as ‘‘responsible”?

Like many maxims about our constitutional arrangements, the notion of individual ministerial responsibility does not bear much analysis. No minister can realistically expect to know everything that is going on in their departments, and this is yet less likely with agencies and corporations which are at one remove. A minister may answer parliamentary questions (or more usually affect to answer questions) about their departments, not least because officials cannot stand at the despatch box themselves. But no sensible person expects any minister to have an answer for everything that they are, in theory, answerable for.

At this point in a discussion about individual ministerial responsibility, it is common for commentators to refer to words attributed to Aneurin Bevan, the ministerial begetter of the National Health Service: “The sound of a dropped bedpan in Tredegar Hospital will reverberate round the Palace of Westminster.”

In fact there is no evidence Bevan ever said those particular words. But what it seems he did say may be more interesting (quoted here from a 1948 news report):

“Mr. Bevan, Minister of Health, forecast some of the probable consequences of the inception on July 5 of the new health service measures when he spoke in London last evening at the annual meeting of the Institute of Almoners. 

“A situation would arise, he said, in which echoes would reverberate throughout Whitehall every time a maid kicked over a bucket in a hospital ward. (Laughter.) For a while there would be a cacophony of complaints. He continued: 

“‘For a while it may appear that everything is going wrong. As a matter of fact, everything will be going right, because people will be able to complain. They complain now, but no one hears about it. What we will happen after July 5 is that a public megaphone will be put in the mouth of every complainant, so that it can be heard all over the country.’”

Bevan was not proposing that the sound of a bucket (or a bedpan) should—in a normative sense—reverberate throughout Whitehall. Rather, he was stating that the public would now be able to make their grievances known more directly to those in power. It was not that a minister should concern themselves with this level of detail, but that ministers would be expected to do so. In this, Bevan was right.

The expansion of governmental activity over the last 70 or so years has led to a greater expectation that ministers will be able to account for what is done under their nominal control. But this inflation of expectations has not been matched by any real improvements in the ability of ministers to control their departments. There is a fundamental mismatch between what is expected and what is possible.

From time to time there is an example of ministerial responsibility (or irresponsibility) which leads to a resignation. The paradigm case is that of Crichel Down in 1954, where a minister—Sir Thomas Dugdale—told his contemporaries (and hoodwinked posterity) that he was resigning not because of his own failures but to take responsibility for the failures of his civil servants.

Of course, as an acute observer of politics supposedly said a decade later of another hapless parliamentarian, “he would say that, wouldn’t he?” Subsequent releases of papers suggest that it suited Dugdale to claim he was selflessly taking the blame. Crichel Down is an example of how individual ministerial responsibility can be a shield and not a sword.

If we look at other examples of ministerial resignations, one can be similarly critical, if not cynical. Ministers resign for many reasons, often because of politics rather than any respect for constitutional propriety or overpowering sense of responsibility. Some ministers survive horrendous departmental calamites because of their relative political strength, others lose office because of their relative political weakness.

And, to return to Finer’s three questions, what is actually meant by “responsible”? Does it just mean that a resignation is expected when things go wrong? Of course, a resignation is far less onerous than a Bill of Attainder for the failures of public servants: we have come a long way since the likes of Lord Strafford were executed before a crowd of thousands. And resignations are less time-consuming and messy than the formal process of impeachment, which is how parliament has also historically held those in high office to account.

Resignations, however, are a blunt political weapon. What is needed is not the satisfaction of watching a politician lose their job, but for a department to be able to account to parliament (and thereby the public) for what that department is doing. Of course, ministers can be held personally responsible for how they manage (or fail to manage) their departments, for their priorities and policy decisions.

But there should also be the routine accountability of officials directly to parliament. Civil servants may not be able to stand at the despatch box, but they can certainly report to committees as a norm (rather than the current position where it is exceptional), and be directly open to written questions from any parliamentarian, rather than the minister being the nominal recipient.

It may not have been open to a junior minister in the early 2010s to reject what they were told by officials, but it may well have been useful for those officials to have faced direct political scrutiny. And the same can be said of executives of state entities such as the Post Office: their responsibility to parliament can and should be co-equal to their responsibility to ministers.

Our current constitutional arrangements are not really about “ministerial responsibility” but an exercise in a lack of responsibility. We have the theatre of parliamentary questions, but it is neither efficient nor elegant. There is no good reason why servants of the crown, like ministers of the crown, cannot be made more directly accountable to the Crown-in-Parliament.

Elsewhere in the political multiverse such an ideal situation perhaps exists. Maybe parliamentarians were able to directly raise their concerns with relevant officials and Post Office executives at an early stage and thereby prevent a huge miscarriage of justice. Bevan’s “cacophony of complaints” did there register, without being muffled by chains of ministerial-official-executive-manager irresponsibility.