This House of Commons Library Briefing Paper looks at collective responsibility, a constitutional convention in the UK whereby the Government is collectively accountable to Parliament for its actions, policies and decisions.Jump to full report >>
Collective responsibility is a fundamental convention of the British constitution, whereby the Government is collectively accountable to Parliament for its actions, decisions and policies.
Decisions made by the Cabinet are binding on all members of the Government. This means that if a minister disagrees with a government policy, he or she must still publicly support it. A minister is able to express their views and disagree privately, but once a decision has been made by the Cabinet, it is binding on all members of the Government. According to the Cabinet Manual (2011), a minister who cannot abide by collective responsibility is expected to resign (para 13).
Collective responsibility is a convention, rather than a requirement, of the UK’s constitution. The Cabinet Manual makes it clear that it applies in all instances, “save where it is explicitly set aside” (para 4.2). When questioned about the convention in 1977, Prime Minister James Callaghan famously said “I certainly think that the doctrine should apply, except in cases where I announce that it does not”.
The formal setting aside of collective responsibility does not happen often, but is known as an agreement to differ (see below).
Government accountability in the UK operates through the conventions of both collective and individual ministerial responsibility. Individual ministerial responsibility refers to the convention that a minister is responsible to Parliament for the actions of their department. Collective responsibility requires each minister to support each Government decision.
All members of the Government are bound by the convention of collective responsibility, except “where it is explicitly set aside” (Cabinet Manual, 3.20)
The formal suspension of collective responsibility on a particular issue does not happen often, and is usually referred to as an ‘agreement to differ’. Examples of agreements to differ include:
In October 2016 a "special arrangement" was also put in place to allow certain ministers "some flexibility" to depart from the normal arrangements surrounding collective responsibility, in response to the Government's decision on Heathrow expansion.
This briefing paper focuses primarily on the doctrine of collective responsibility in relation to the United Kingdom’s Government. However, the doctrine of collective responsibility has also been accepted and applied by both the Scottish and the Welsh devolved administrations. Collective responsibility is not, however, a feature of the Northern Ireland Executive.
The idea that all ministers should provide a united front arose in the eighteenth century to protect ministers from the Monarch's attempts to undermine their power by exposing or encouraging public arguments. When meeting with the Monarch, ministers would agree beforehand what to say, and then repeat the same advice when they saw the Monarch individually.
During the nineteenth and twentieth century, this idea endured to ensure ministerial unanimity in Parliament.
A 2004 House of Commons Library Research Paper, Collective Responsibility of Ministers - an outline of the issues, contains further information on the convention.
Commons Briefing papers CBP-7755
Author: Michael Everett