Individual Ministerial Responsibility (IMR) is an important constitutional convention in the UK which helps to regulate how government operates. However, there is a clear debate over how significant IMR is.
What are IMR and CMR and what are the differences?
There are two conventions specifically named in the Edexcel Politics Specification, IMR and CMR (Collective Ministerial Responsibility). Whilst there are some similarities, CMR and IMR are different but remain something that many students mix up in their examinations. So what is the difference between them?
IMR – Individual Ministerial Responsibility is a convention under which a Government Minister is expected to take responsibility for not just their own actions, but for all decisions made within their department.
CMR – Collective Ministerial Responsibility is the convention under which Government Ministers agree that Government decisions are taken collectively and should therefore be supported in public by all Ministers. This is an important part of Cabinet Government.
A breach, or planned breach, of either convention should lead to the resignation of any Minister.
Is IMR codified?
Traditionally both IMR and CMR were purely conventions. However, this began to develop from the 1980s onwards. They began to be codified in a Cabinet Office Document called the Questions of Procedure for Ministers. Subsequently, since 1997, what is now known as the Ministerial Code has been published. Its standards are largely based on a report by the Committee of Standards in Public Life (often called the Nolan Report). This report highlighted seven values that public servants should uphold: Selflessness, Integrity, Objectivity, Accountability, Openness, Honesty and Leadership.
By convention each Prime Minister updates and publishes their own version of the Ministerial Code when they take up the office. The latest version was therefore published in 2022.
On the subject of the IMR the Ministerial Code says that:
- Ministers have a duty to account, and be held to account, for all decisions and policies within their department.
- Ministers must not knowingly mislead Parliament and must correct the record immediately if they inadvertently mislead Parliament.
- Ministers should ensure there is no conflict between their public duties and private interests.
What are famous examples of IMR being enforced or respected?
Lord Carrington – 1982
In April 1982 the Argentinian Armed Forces invaded the British Falkland Islands in the South Atlantic. This had been an ongoing dispute and the Argentine Government had claimed sovereignty over the islands. However, despite the ongoing political dispute, the invasion of the islands took the British Government almost entirely by surprise. However, there had been warnings from a naval commander called Captain Nicholas Barker that an invasion was likely. Subsequently, Carrington resigned as Foreign Secretary.
Amber Rudd – 2018
In 2018 Amber Rudd was the Home Secretary when reports emerged that the children of the Windrush Generation were being threatened with deportation by the UK Government if they could not explicitly prove their right to stay in the UK. Further to this, it was reported that the Home Office had targets for the number of immigrants they would aim to remove from the UK. Amber Rudd claimed that there were not targets for deportations, but during scrutiny by the Home Affairs Select Committee other parties suggested that there were:
Following this, the Guardian Newspaper was given emails that suggested that Rudd had known about the targets for removal. Rudd denied this, saying that whilst the memo was copied to her, she had not read it. Regardless, Rudd admitted to having ‘inadvertently misled the House of Commons’ and therefore resigned as Home Secretary.
Peter Mandelson – 1998 and 2001
Peter Mandelson was one of the triumvirate of individuals alongside Tony Blair and Gordon Brown responsible for the formation of New Labour. In 1998 he became Secretary of State for Trade. However, five months later he was forced to resign after it emerged that he had taken a loan from a fellow MP that he had not declared. Nonetheless, he returned to the Cabinet in 1999 as Secretary of State for Northern Ireland. In 2001, for the second time he was forced to resign a second time following accusations that he fast-tracked the passport application of an associate. Whilst both these cases involved personal failings, Mandelson was still obliged to resign under the Ministerial Code.
Estelle Morris – 2002
In 2002 Estelle Morris was the Education Secretary. She had made a commitment to oversee a rise in literacy levels but was not able to achieve this. Subsequently, she suddenly resigned following issues around A-Level marking by refreshingly admitting that she was just not up to the job.
Matt Hancock – 2021
During the COVID-19 pandemic Matt Hancock served as Health Secretary. As such, he as a key figure in drafting the lockdown rules and guidance that placed limits on the civil liberties of citizens. However, in June 2021 an image emerged of him in an embrace with a colleague, in clear violation of the guidance that his Department had established. His continuing in Government quickly became untenable and he resigned saying “those of us who make these rules have got to stick by them”.
What are some famous examples of IMR seemingly being set aside?
Ministerial Code – “Harassing, bullying or other inappropriate or discriminating behaviour wherever it takes place is not consistent with the Ministerial Code and will not be tolerated.”
The Home Secretary Priti Patel was accused in 2020 of bullying civil servants, including by swearing at them and belittling them. The Permanent Secretary of the Home Office even resigned citing her behaviour. In November 2020 a Cabinet Office enquiry found that Patel “had not met the requirements of the ministerial code to treat civil servants with consideration and respect”. Boris Johnson, however, refused to ask for Patel’s resignation and she continues in position to this day. It is quite clear that the Cabinet Office report found clear evidence that Patel had been a bully. However, she is consistently found to be a popular member of the Conservative Party with its members. It would not have been in Boris Johnson’s political interest to remove her. Therefore, he ignored the requirements of his own ministerial code and did not remove her from office. Following this decision, the author of the report Sir Alex Allen even resigned in protest at the Prime Minister’s decision.
“ It is of paramount importance that Ministers give accurate and truthful information to Parliament, correcting any inadvertent error at the earliest opportunity. Ministers who knowingly mislead Parliament will be expected to offer their resignation to the Prime Minister“
All Ministers are expected to tell the truth to Parliament. If a Minister inadvertently misleads Parliament they are expected to correct the record. However, if a Minister deliberately misleads Parliament they are expected to resign. There is one particularly famous example of a resignation under this doctrine. John Profumo, the Secretary of State for War, was forced to resign in 1963 for misleading Parliament about over the affair he had with a mistress of a Soviet Spy.
Recently, the former Prime Minister, Boris Jonson, was accused of deliberately misleading Parliament. A video produced by Peter Stefanovic went viral with over 42 million views which selected a number of times that Boris Johnson was alleged to have mislead Parliament.
Subsequent to these allegations this, the former Prime Minister also became embroiled with ‘partygate’ and subsequently, was found to have misled Parliament by the House of Commons Privileges Committee. However, whilst Prime Minister, Boris Johnson was immune from any procedures under the Ministerial Code. Of course, a sitting Prime Minister is pretty unlikely to call for his their own resignation under the code. However, critics will argue that this shows a fundamental weakness – that the code is not independently set or monitored. In a petition calling on making lying to Parliament received 133,021 signatures. Unsurprisingly, the Government response was that:
” The Government does not intend to introduce legislation of this nature. MPs must abide by the Code of Conduct and conduct in the Chamber is a matter for the Speaker.”
Chris Grayling has a reputation as being one of the worst Government Ministers in recent years. Despite this, he held numerous positions in Government including Transport Secretary, Leader of the House of Commons, Justice Secretary and Minister for Employment. During his Ministerial Career he made a number of well publicised gaffes:
- In 2010 he was recorded saying that B&Bs should have the right to turn away Gay Couples. He later apologised.
- In 2014 he banned books being sent to Prisoners. The decision was immediately reversed by the next Justice Secretary, Michael Gove.
- Grayling pushed through changes that would cut legal aid for many people, including domestic abuse victims. The Court of Appeal ruled the changed unlawful.
- In 2019 he oversaw a meltdown of railway services which even saw the East Coast Mainline renationalised because it was poorly run and monitored by government.
- He awarded a post-Brexit ferry contract to a company that not only had no ferries, but had never owned a single ferry previously.
- In 2014 he oversaw the privatisation of the probation service which turned out to be a disaster. Five years later the move was entirely reversed.
This many issues led to a number of social media memes and jokes about him, such as:
However, rather than being sacked due to incompetence, Grayling (widely nicknamed failing Grayling) was instead reshuffled. This is a tactic often used by Prime Ministers as sacking a Minister reflects on their performance, not just on the Minister sacked.
As Education Secretary Gavin Williamson made a plethora of mistakes and clearly lost the confidence of the teaching profession. Some of these included:
- The chaos of the August 2020 exam results which saw results changed after huge discrepancies created by the algorithm.
- Repeated U-Turns over issues like Free School Meals, COVID closures and failure to provide equipment for remote learning for students from disadvantaged areas.
There was some suggestion, although unverified, that Williamson was able to stay in his role so long because he ‘had something on’ Boris Johnson. This perception was enhanced by the fact that he had served as the Government Chief Whip. In his autobiography Gavin Barwell, Theresa May’s former Chief of Staff, suggested he threatened not to go quietly if sacked by Theresa May.
What are the merits of IMR as a convention?
- It ensures there is always someone who is meant to be accountable for everything that happens in Government. This theoretically stops the government from just consistently ‘passing the buck’.
- It focuses Ministers on their task. When Ministers know they are going to be held personally responsible for their department, they are likely to work hard to lead it in an effective way.
- It facilitates the work of the opposition – The fact each Government Minister has a direct opponent in the Shadow Cabinet means that they proactively try to justify government policy. This can improve parliamentary scrutiny.
- It can help to limit corruption and mismanagement. When Ministers are personally responsible for their department they are more likely to carefully hold to account those who work below them.
- It keeps the Civil Service focused – Civil Servants know that they will not be named if something goes wrong. However, they are still kept on their toes by knowing that their mistakes could mean their minister gets in trouble. Although Civil Servants are unlikely to be sacked for making mistakes, they chances of future promotion and harmony will be damaged by it.
What are the limits of IMR as a convention?
- Ministers very rarely resign due to Ministerial failures. This is because accepting that resignation would reflect badly on the Prime Minister and Government as a whole. This can lead to poor Ministers staying in Government.
- Government departments are now increasingly complex, sometimes based in various locations across the country. Many Ministers also have extremely complex briefs. As such, making one person accountable for everything that happens in a department is a difficult convention to maintain.
- Ministers under the convention are not treated equally, with some Ministers being politically important enough that they are largely invulnerable from sanction under IMR.
- Despite being ultimately responsible, Ministers are increasingly able to blame special advisors and civils servants for their mistakes. For example, following the leak of a video of civil servants discussing how to deflect questions about parties during Partygate Allegra Stratton publicly resigned, rather than the Prime Minister.
In 2020, following the examination results fiasco it was Sally Collier, Head of Ofqual, who resigned rather than the Minister responsible – Gavin Williamson. Another famous example of this was when Michael Howard refused to resign from the Home Office following escapes from Parkhurst Prison. Instead, he sacked the Director-General of the Prison Service, Derek Lewis. This led to one of the most famous political interviews in History in which Howard refused 12 times whether he had threatened to overrule Lewis on the issue!
- When Ministers do resign it is often a tactical decision in order to take the pressure off of the government. These Ministers are often found back in Government after a short period. Ministers sacked often re-join the Government. An example to consider here is the case of Gavin Williamson. In May 2019 he was sacked as Defence Secretary for allegedly leaking national security information to a reporter. There are few more egregious examples of misconduct that a Minister can engage in. However, remarkably, just two months later he returned under a new Prime Minister as Secretary of State for Education. This shows that ministerial resignations (or sackings) and not as significant as they arguably should be.
- Often the Government is less concerned with the reality of a situation than with image. For example, in 2021 the Chief Whip, Andrew Mitchell, was alleged to have told a Police Officer to learn his “f**ing place” and that he was a “pleb”. Mitchell denied the language he was alleged to have used, but admitted he had been rude. Whilst it was Mitchell’s word against the officers, the Conservative Leadership was conscious that ‘plebgate’ was reinforcing an image of the Tories as elitist and out of touch. As such, Mitchell was asked to resign.
- Ministers are arguably held to an unfair moral standard. Often Ministers have been forced to resign due to perceived moral failures, even if things that simply would not have the same impact in any other profession. A good example of this might be found in Ron Davies. In 1997 he was sacked as Welsh Secretary after agreeing to go to dinner with a man he met on Clapham Common. He was subsequently mugged at knifepoint. The full details of what happened never emerged, but the notion that he had done something for which the average person might be sacked his hard to maintain.
Is IMR still a significant convention?
Ultimately, whatever its strengths may be, IMR is only strong if the Prime Minister chooses to enforce it. The biggest issue with both conventions is that under the Ministerial Code the Prime Minister is the judge, jury and executioner. The PM decides whether an investigation should take place, they decided whether the convention has been breached and they decide on any punishment. Any finding that a Minister has breached the code reflects on the Prime Minister themselves, they are therefore very reluctant to find against them. They will normally only do so if the media pressure becomes too much of a distraction for the Government.
In addition, sacking someone for breaching the Ministerial Code may create political enemies. Famously, David Cameron said this in his autobiography:
“Friends in business used to say, ‘We all have to take tough decisions to get the right top team – why all the fuss about political reshuffles?’ To which I would reply, ‘Yes, but you don’t have to appoint your entire team on the same day, in full view of the world’s television cameras. And the ones you sack go away. The ones I sack sit behind me and plot my downfall’
The fact that the Ministerial Code has now statutory backing arguably increases its legitimacy. However, Prime Ministers are unlikely to give up their Royal Prerogative right to unilaterally make decisions on the make-up of their cabinet. Until Parliament has some control over the Ministerial Code, things are unlikely to change.
The old adage that ‘Civil Servants advise whilst Ministers decide’ is also now simply not as clear as it once was. With powerful unelected figures like Alistair Campbell and Dominic Cummings dominating government Ministers are often now the subservient characters. If this is the case, expecting Ministers to take ultimate responsible for all decisions is now questionable. In addition, Government departments are much bigger than they were historically.
Ultimately, it is clear that the convention of IMR is not particularly significant and does not provide a significant check on the Government. Arguably, the only way to fix this would be to create an independent body to exercise discretion over whether the Ministerial Code has been breached and to have independent control over the reprimands. Yet, in the ever-present catch-22 that exists in British politics, no Prime Minister is likely to give up a power in a decision that might be popular in the short-term, but may undermine them in the longer term.
Individual Ministerial Responsibility is a convention which, in theory, should produce more accountable government. This is because Ministers are made responsible of everything that happens in their department and are expected to take responsibility for it. However, its use is heavily politicised and this fundamentally limits its significance as a convention.
Ministerial Code – The document which outlines the expectations of behaviour and conduct from Government Ministers.
Nolan Principles – A set of principles established by Lord Nolan in 1994. The principles expected of those in public life are: Selflessness, Integrity, Objectivity, Accountability, Openness, Honesty and Leadership.
Individual Ministerial Responsibility – A convention under which a Government Minister is expected to take responsibility for not just their own actions, but for all decisions made within their department.
Collective Ministerial Responsibility – The convention under which Government Ministers agree that Government decisions are taken collectively and should therefore be supported in public by all Ministers.
Civil Servants – People who work for the government but are not elected and are not affiliated to a political party.
Special Advisors – People who advise Government Ministers and are often paid for by political parties.
Partygate – A political scandal that emerged between 2021 and 2022 over the breach of COVID-19 regulations by Government Ministers and their staff.
Shadow Cabinet – The group of politicians in the Official Opposition who Shadow members of the Government.