There are two key constitutional conventions regarding the accountability of cabinet ministers to the Parliament of the United Kingdom, cabinet collective responsibility, and individual ministerial responsibility.
These are derived from the fact the members of the cabinet are Members of Parliament, and therefore accountable to the House of which they are a member. The Queen will only appoint a Prime Minister whose Government can command the support of the House of Commons, which alone can grant supply to a Government by authorising taxes; and the House of Commons expects all ministers to be personally accountable to Parliament. In practice, Cabinet ministers will usually have a junior minister to represent their department in the House of Lords.
Cabinet collective responsibility means that members of the cabinet make major decisions collectively, and are therefore collectively responsible for the consequences of these decisions. Therefore, no minister may speak against government decisions, and if a vote of no confidence is passed in Parliament, every minister and government official drawn from Parliament is expected to resign from the executive. So, logically, cabinet ministers who disagree with major decisions are expected to resign as, to take a recent example, Robin Cook did over the decision to attack Iraq in 2003. The principle of collective responsibility is not impaired by the fact that decisions may be made in a cabinet committee rather than by the full cabinet.
Individual ministerial responsibility is the convention that in their capacity as head of department, a minister is personally responsible for the actions and failings of their department. Under circumstances of gross failure in their department, a minister is expected to resign (and may readily be forced to do so by the Prime Minister), while their civil servants remain permanent and anonymous. Perhaps surprisingly, this is relatively rare in practice, perhaps because administrative failure is of less interest to populist elements of the media than personal scandal, and less susceptible to unequivocal proof. The closest example in recent years is perhaps Estelle Morris who resigned as Secretary of State for Education and Skills in 2002, following severe problems and inaccuracies in the marking of A-level exams. The circumstances under which this convention is followed are of course not possible to define strictly, and depend on many other factors. If a minister's reputation is seen to be tarnished by a personal scandal (for example when it was luridly revealed that David Mellor had an extramarital affair) they very often resign. This often follows a short period of intense media and opposition pressure for them to do so. In general, despite numerous scandals, in Britain cases of serious corruption (e.g. acceptance of bribes) are relatively rare in comparison with many other democracies. One reason is the strength of the whip system, political parties and the civil service, in comparison to individual politicians. This means MPs and ministers have little capacity to be influenced by improper pressure.
Parliamentary Questions can be tabled for ministers in either house of Parliament (a process called interpellation in political science, or PQs in practice), either for written or oral reply. These may be "planted" questions for the advantage of the Government, or antagonistic questions from the Opposition, or may genuinely seek information. Cabinet ministers must respond, either themselves or through a deputy, although the answers do not always fully answer the question. Written answers, which are usually more specific and detailed than oral questions are usually written by a civil servant. Answers to written and oral questions are published in Hansard.
Parliament cannot dismiss individual ministers (though members or a House may call for their resignation, or formally resolve to reduce their salary by a nominal amount), but the House of Commons is able to determine the fate of the entire Government. If a vote of no confidence in the Government passes, then the Queen will seek to restore confidence either by a dissolution of Parliament and the election of a new one, or by the acceptance of the resignation of her entire government.
In the United Kingdom's parliamentary system, the executive is not separate from the legislature, since Cabinet members are drawn from Parliament. Moreover the executive tends to dominate the legislature for several reasons:
- the first-past-the-post voting system (which tends to give a large majority to the governing party)
- the power of the Government Whips (whose role is to ensure party members vote in accordance with the party line)
- the "payroll vote" (a term which refers to the fact that members of parliament of the governing majority party will wish to be promoted to an executive position, and then be on the government's payroll).
- Collective ministerial responsibility requires members of the government to vote with the government on whipped votes, or else resign their position.
The combined effect of the Prime Minister's ability to control Cabinet by circumventing effective discussion in Cabinet and the executive's ability to dominate parliamentary proceedings places the British Prime Minister in a position of great power, that has been likened to an elective dictatorship (a phrase coined by Lord Hailsham in 1976). The relative impotence of Parliament to hold the Government of the day to account is often cited by the UK media as a justification for the vigour with which they question and challenge the Government.
In contemporary times, the nature of the cabinet has been criticised by some, largely because recently Prime Ministers are perceived as acting in a "presidential" manner. Such an accusation was made at Tony Blair as he was believed to have refrained from using the Cabinet as a collective decision-making body. These actions caused concern as it contravened the convention of the PM being "first among equals". In this sense, he was acting like a US President, who (unlike the British PM) is not constitutionally bound to make decisions collectively with a cabinet. Margaret Thatcher was also noted as being "presidential", in the capacity that she "forced" her own viewpoints onto her Cabinet. However the power that a Prime Minister has over his or her Cabinet colleagues is directly proportional to the amount of support that they have with their political parties and this is often related to whether the party considers them to be an electoral asset or liability. Further when a party is divided into factions a Prime Minister may be forced to include other powerful party members in the Cabinet for party political cohesion.
The Cabinet's formal relationship with Parliament, or at least the Prime Minister's hopes for it, are set out in the Ministerial Code.
Read more about this topic: History Of The Cabinet Of The United Kingdom