Ministerial Responsibility Under The Westminster System

First Published: 2007-03-09

As a General Election approaches, it is important for the voting public to be informed about the Westminster System of government which applies in the Bahamas. For it is against these rules that the electorate should judge the conduct of government ministers during nearly 5 years in power.

Westminster System

This is so called because it describes the democratic parliamentary system used in the Palace of Westminster in London which is the location of the United Kingdom parliament. It is also used in many Commonwealth countries.

Its main characteristic is that Her Majesty The Queen as head of state is the nominal or de jure source of executive power while the de facto head of the executive is the prime minister. Historically, the prime minister was seen as primus inter pares (first among equals) but in modern times leads a cabinet of ministers which exercises executive authority on behalf of the head of state. Thus, the sovereign, who reigns but does not rule, is the focal point for the nation while the prime minister and his colleagues undertake executive decisions.

In the UK, this system of government originated with parliamentary conventions, practices and precedents but has never been formally laid out in a written constitution; though it is also contended that some of the British unwritten constitution is in fact in written form in the shape of, for example, Magna Carta, the Bill of Rights and the Act of Settlement amongst others.

In the Bahamas, the system was codified in the Constitution of 1973 which states that executive authority should be exercised by the Governor General on behalf of The Queen who remains formally head of state. Thus, in common with Jamaica and Barbados, for example, the Bahamas is a realm rather than a republic. While, in theory, the Governor General appoints the prime minister, in practice modern day executive authority lies with the latter.

Tenure of Ministers

There is provision in the Constitution for the prime minister to be removed from office by a vote of no confidence in the House of Assembly by a majority of all its members, while other ministers can only remain in office for as long as they retain the confidence of the prime minister.

Ministerial Responsibility

This is another key characteristic of the Westminster System. It is a constitutional convention in governments using the system that cabinet ministers bear the ultimate responsibility for the actions of their ministries. This is different from cabinet collective responsibility which states that members of the cabinet must approve publicly of its shared decisions – normally reached by consensus following collegiate discussion – or resign. Even if a minister is unaware of misdeeds or misbehaviour, he or she, as the elected official, is responsible and answerable for every action of his or her department. Equally important is the need for ministers to conduct themselves, both officially and privately, in a manner which inspires public trust.

The traditional example in the UK of official ministerial responsibility was the Crichel Down affair in 1954 when the Minister of Agriculture resigned despite the fact that all mistakes were made by civil servants without his knowledge. Later, new guidelines were formulated compelling ministers to defend civil servants who acted properly in accordance with policies set out by the ministers themselves. But it was no longer considered to be an issue of resignation if actions by civil servants over whom a minister had no direct control were not in accordance with policy decisions.

Earlier, on a broader front, Winston Churchill took responsibility as First Lord of the Admiralty for the failed Dardanelles campaign in 1915 and not only resigned but then served in the army on the Western front.

Another example was the dignified resignation of Lord Carrington who was Britain's foreign secretary at the time of Argentina's invasion of the Falkland Islands in 1982. In his memoirs published in 1988, he explained that, even though the subsequent Franks Report laid no blame on him or the two other Foreign Office ministers who resigned with him, he took the painful decision to resign because British territory had, without warning, been invaded and the whole of the country felt angry and humiliated. People accused the government of mismanagement and someone had to be blamed. In the circumstances there had to be a resignation and his departure would put a stop to the search for a scapegoat.

This principle of ministerial responsibility has been progressively eroded over the years, particularly in some Commonwealth countries, and standards have declined; but it remains a cornerstone of the Westminster System.

Prime Minister's Powers

Since ministerial responsibility also applies to individual conduct, financial misbehaviour or personal misdemeanour, ministers are accountable to the prime minister for their personal and private actions that may or may not affect their official responsibilities.

There have been many instances of impropriety in British public life. One of the most notorious was the Profumo scandal in 1963 which nearly precipitated the fall of the government of prime minister Harold Macmillan. John Profumo was a junior defence minister, who had an affair with a call girl who was also seeing a naval attach? from the Soviet embassy, and he was forced to resign for lying about it in a statement to the House of Commons. In his memoirs, Macmillan observed : "That a minister should be found incompetent was pardonable. That he should deceive his leader, his colleagues and his fellow members was a wound to the whole body politic."

Another prime minister, John Major, took a puritanical view of financial misbehaviour but a tolerant view of personal impropriety. Like all British political leaders he was prepared to sack ministers whose conduct in office breached the established rules, but his government was ultimately brought down by "sleaze" which stuck, despite many achievements, because the conduct of a handful of his MPs dismayed a large number of people including many Conservative supporters.

The political realities of ministerial performance mean that it is for a prime minister alone to judge whether their behaviour is fitting or appropriate. The prime minister has the power to set terms and conditions of conduct in order to establish confidence in the operation of government – and, in so doing, he should give due weight to ministers' accountability to parliament and to the people, especially the need to retain public trust.

Conclusion

Convention and tradition demand that ministers who transgress and then resign – both of their own accord or at the request of the prime minister – publicly acknowledge their wrongdoing as a matter of honour and do not place blame on others. In particular, this is considered a prerequisite for those seeking subsequent political rehabilitation.

The powers of a prime minister under the Westminster System are far-reaching through long established convention and practice. As they relate to the control of cabinet ministers, they are especially significant in a small country where government intrudes into every walk of life and the actions of its leaders come under close scrutiny.

Indecisiveness, allied to a reluctance to exercise those powers, leads to disorder, public distrust and a lack of cohesion in the decision-making process. This inhibits good governance and can damage a country in a variety of ways.

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