Monday, August 14, 2006

The Meaning of Collective Responsibility

As you may recall, I have made several mentions in recent months about the issue of collective responsibility and the tendency of many Labour PPSs to ignore it from tme to time. This first manifested itself in the Spring when two PPSs called for John Prescott to resign. The latest example was Ann Keen, Gordon Brown's PPS, signing a letter calling for the recall of Parliament. I believe that these PPSs would have been sacked if they had held the same position in a Conservatuve Government. I thought you would be interested to read the views of Lord (Philip) Norton on this issue. He has kindly allowed me to share these thoughts with you.

"The meaning of collective ministerial responsibility is a complex one in terms of substance and breadth. In terms of substance, it is generally taken to mean that ministers are responsible as a whole for the decisions of government. Once the decision is taken, they are required to support it, both in voice or vote. In terms of breadth, it is generally taken to apply to all ministers.

Let me turn to the qualifications. Although no Cabinet minister has voted against government policy in modern history (except when the convention has been suspended, as it was on three occasions in the twentieth century), some have expressed disagreement with government policy through speeches (in Labour's case) at the party's NEC, through surrogates (such as their PPSs), through leaks or even, on exceptional occasions, absenting themselves from a vote. One Cabinet minister, Reg Prentice, abstained in the second reading vote on the Scotland and Wales Bill in 1976. (He resigned five days later but, under the convention, would have been expected to resign in advance of the vote or, failing that, be dismissed by the Prime Minister following the vote.) During the Thatcher administration, one Cabinet minister, Jim Prior, was believed to have been absent without official leave in at least one vote.

In respect of breadth, there is some uncertainty (as some of the earlier contributions on this topic show) as to how far the convention extends. Does it encompass junior ministers and parliamentary private secretaries (PPSs)? In terms of junior ministers, the position in the 19th Century was rather confused. On a number of occasions, Gladstone had to explain the failure of junior ministers to vote for government proposals. (Queen Victoria had earlier made clear to Palmerston that she was not amused by the prospect of junior ministers voting against a government proposal on the National Gallery.) However, by the 20th Century, the convention extended to all ministers, senior and junior. Thus, the seniority of a minister has no bearing in terms of the convention: all are bound by it. The only distinction sometimes drawn, as by Wade and Phillips, is that 'while (junior ministers) share the consequences of collective responsibility, their role is negative; that of the Cabinet is positive'. (In other words, junior ministers are bound by decisions that they themselves did not help make.) Even this is open to qualification as some junior ministers serve on Cabinet sub-committees and some decisions are taken by a small number of Cabinet ministers rather than the full Cabinet.

As for PPSs, they can be described as having been spasmodically liable to the convention. Though a PPS is restricted in terms of what s/he can say and do in respect of the policy of their minister's area of responsibility, there is less certainty in terms of actions beyond that. It all depends on the Prime Minister. The PM may require a minister to dispense with the services of a PPS who votes against the Government, but practice varies. In 1967 Harold Wilson required the resignation of seven PPSs when they voted with the Opposition, but the ban on their employment was lifted a few months later. In 1977 seven PPSs were among 76 Labour MPs voting for a reduction in arms expenditure: they were rebuked for their action but remained in post. Two of them later voted against provisions of the Scotland and Wales Bill, apparently without invoking any official reaction. In 1986, one PPS was among the 72 Conservative MPs voting against second reading of the Shops Bill; a further four PPSs abstained from voting. The PPS who voted against the Bill was dismissed; the four who abstained offered their resignations as PPSs, but these were declined. There is thus no continuous practice of PMs requiring the dismissal of PPSs who oppose the Government, by vote or abstention, in the division lobbies. Practice, though, has hardened in recent decades. Margaret Thatcher revised the Cabinet Memorandum on Procedure to make it clear that it was deemed inappropriate for a PPS to vote against the government and that stance has been maintained since, encompassing any dissenting voting behaviour. However, PPSs retain greater freedom than ministers to speak on issues and this has been used for PPSs to signal the view of their minister on particular policies; it is frequently assumed that a PPS would not make a critical speech without the concurrence of their minister.

The extent to which the convention should apply, constitutionally, to PPSs is questionable. The doctrine is one of collective ministerial responsibility and PPSs are not ministers. They are not members of the Government and receive no ministerial salary (hence the need for qualification whenever they are included in the 'payroll vote'.) However, the political reality is that if PPSs wish to advance on to the first step of the ministerial ladder (rather than simply help hold it), then they need to be loyal to the Government. Loyalty is perceived - and perception is all - as necessary, albeit it, in practice, not sufficient; there are various MPs whose highest position has been that of a PPS.

Despite the various caveats, the doctrine of collective responsibility is clear in terms of consequences for ministerial action and serves as a general operating framework for ministerial action. As Colin Turpin once succinctly put it, 'the principle does express in a general way the actual practice of governments.' "


Anonymous said...

Whilst i completely agree with Lord Norton's comments I think he is mistaking this bunch of chancers for a team.They aren't, never have been and never will be.From day 1 there has been the odious Mandleson or the malignant Campbell along with countless other little creeps to ensure a lack of unity. The only common purpose this lot share is the absolute need to lie, spin and cheat in order to stay in power and hence keep this snouts in the trough.

Inamicus said...

I think you're overstating this Iain. Supporting a recall of Parliament isn't in and of itself directly opposing Government policy - there is an argument that as MPs it is entirely legitimate for them to seek to uphold the responsibilities of Parliament at a time of international crisis and that their responsibility to Parliament is greater than to the Government.

Anonymous said...

I think I ought to tell the Noble Lord Norton that he should have gone to Specsavers next time I see him...

Anonymous said...

As far as I am aware, the Cabinet has not made a decision not to recall Parliament, and so the actions of PPSs in supporting a recall do not go against collective responsibility, even if it applies to them.

One other question on an historical note - Lord Norton refers to three suspensions of Collective Responsibility in the twentieth century. The examples that spring to my mind are protective tariffs in the 30s, and the EEC referendum. Does anyone know the third? I assume it is not Clare Short, as CR was never formally suspended here - as evidenced by the resignations of Robin Cook et al.

Praguetory said...

Endorse the views of your correspondents. The decision to recall or not recall Parliament is not filed under policy.

I like the depth of Norton's analysis. Do you wind him up and let him go?

Martine Martin said...

Very interesting actually. (Ah I love Lord Norton - he's my lecturer) - he knows so much.)

Although I agree with what Graham E said, the assumption that this bunch of clowns would operate in that sort of fashion is definitly wide of the mark!

Anonymous said...

I have a local Labour MP who is a junior minister who has promised the fight the recommendations of the Government appointed planning Inspector into the draft East of England Plan. How does that fit in this puzzle?