Ministerial responsibility: should we distinguish between policy failure and administrative failure?

The Rt Hon John Redwood MP considers the recent controversy surrounding the Home Secretary and asks how we should judge Ministers under certain circumstances

Theresa May talks with UK Border Agency staff
Sir John Redwood MP
On 14 November 2011 13:21

There is a debate about what responsibility Mrs May and Mr Green should take for the borders troubles that have recently come to light.

Mrs May herself says that she did not want some of the controls lifted at our borders. She says one of her senior officials went against Ministerial orders. He was suspended from work by another official who also thought he had acted out of turn.

The doctrine of Ministerial accountability is not straight forward. In 1954 the Crichel Down case led to the resignation of Sir Thomas Dugdale, Agriculture Minister. He did not himself handle the land at Crichel Down in the way which offended, but he took the blame for his officials approach.

Since then, many think that a Minister has to resign as he did if something goes wrong, even if he knew nothing about it.

This doctrine has been modified by subsequent governments and cases. When there was a bad break out from the Maze Prison in 1983 the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland did not resign. He argued that it was not his policy to allow or encourage prison break-outs, so he had no need to go.

Mr Howard, and subsequent Labour Ministers in the 1997-2010 government, sought to argue for a distinction between policy failure and administrative failure.

They said that if the Minister’s policy or instructions had led to the problem, the Minister was to blame and should go. If the failure was at executive level, where civil servants had failed to implement the policy efficiently and effectively, the senior official should go.

This approach has been buttressed by the establishment of Executive Agencies. The officials who lead these agencies have more right to speak in public and to lead their section of government than officials within departments.

They are usually paid better and may have a bonus based on executing the policy well. Ministers often feel if the mistakes occur as a result of poor Agency implementation, it should be the Head of the Agency rather than the Minister who resigns.

Mr Dancona, arguing in yesterday’s Sunday Telegraph, suggested that the hard and pure doctrine of Crichel Down should be modified at least to ensure one thing. Surely, he says, if an official deliberately flouts a Ministerial instruction or policy in the anticipation that this will force the Minister to resign, there should be a relaxation to prevent that happening.

It would seem tough indeed if a Minister has to go when a critic within the department seeks to undermine them whilst observing secrecy in undertaking the violation.

In practice each case is different and is judged on its merits against the mood of the time. Mrs May has on her side the fact that she was trying to tighten controls on illegal entrants whilst easing the queues for the law abiding at the borders. She also has the clear support of the Prime Minister.

The case has served to highlight the dilemma of the Coalition government. How can it implement its stated aims, when there are habits of working and assumptions amongst some officials based on the previous thirteen years which point in the opposite direction to the Minister’s policy?

Will Ministers now devote more time and energy to supervising and following up once they have set out their general policy aims?

As a rule of thumb, there needs to be three times as much follow up, analysis and chasing after the policy launch and press release, than before when constructing it. If there is insufficient interest in the execution of policy more Ministers are going to be wasting time defending their actions and claiming that the policy was fine, it was just a pity about the implementation.

The public wants the right press release or policy, but it then wants it to be enacted, administered and enforced.

The Rt Hon John Redwood MP is the Member of UK Parliament for Wokingham and the Chairman of the Conservative Economic Affairs Committee. His articles are cross-posted on his blog by agreement. 

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