Ministerial accountability to Parliament
11.40Following a recommendation of the House of Commons Public Service Committee,1 both Houses came to Resolutions to the following effect:
‘That, in the opinion of this House, the following principles should govern the conduct of ministers of the Crown in relation to Parliament: ministers have a duty to Parliament to account, and be held to account, for the policies, decisions and actions of their departments and Next Steps Agencies; 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; ministers should be as open as possible with Parliament, refusing to provide information only when disclosure would not be in the public interest, which should be decided in accordance with relevant statute, and the government's Code of Practice on Access to Government Information (second edition, January 1997); similarly, ministers should require civil servants who give evidence before parliamentary committees on their behalf and under their directions to be as helpful as possible in providing accurate, truthful and full information, in accordance with the duties and responsibilities of civil servants as set out in the Civil Service Code.’2
The Resolutions were presented as clarifying the roles of Ministers in relation to Parliament.3 They were not intended to affect or derogate from the duties Ministers owe to Parliament in their capacity as Members of either of the Houses.
The Ministerial Code also contains material about Ministers' duty to give information which regulates Ministers' duties in respect of accountability to Parliament. Adherence to the Code is a matter for the Prime Minister, not for the Speaker or the House authorities.4 Nonetheless, actions which may breach the Code may also be contempts and neither the Code nor the additional duty on Ministers to offer their resignation to the Prime Minister provided in the Resolutions above affect the right of either House to proceed against them in a case of alleged contempt, as it might proceed against any other Member. Each House could suspend or otherwise discipline a Minister; power to act against a Minister who was no longer a Member of either House would be more restricted. When the House found unspecified Ministers in contempt of the House for refusal to comply when the House had passed a motion for a return relating to the release of the Attorney General's final and full legal advice to Cabinet, the papers were published the next day.5
- 1. See Second Report, HC 313 (1995–96); First Special Report, HC 67 (1996–97); First Report, HC 234 (1996–97), HC Deb (19 March 1997) 292, cc 1046–47 and HL Deb (1996–97) 579, cc 1055–62. See also a resolution reaffirming the principle that Ministers should be as open as possible with Parliament, CJ (7 July 1998) 667.
- 2. The Code was issued in 1996 under the Civil Service (Amendment) Order in Council 1995 and amended in 1999 to take account of devolution. Section 5 of the Constitutional Reform and Governance Act 2010 now stipulates that the Minister for the Civil Service must publish a Code of Conduct for the Civil Service.
- 3. HC 234 (1996–97) Qq 63–66. For a Speaker's statement on how Ministers' adherence to their obligations under the resolution could be enforced, see HC Deb (2001–02) 375, c 971. While the Speaker has made it clear that Ministers are responsible for the contents of their answers, Members are entitled to a response from a Minister when the accuracy of a ministerial answer has been reasonably challenged (HC Deb (2005–06) 442, c 1283). Ministers are also responsible for everything said by those within their department (HC Deb (17 April 2012) 543, c 192). Points of Order have been used to question Ministers' veracity (HC Deb (6 December 2017) 632, c 1068 ff); the matter was not given the precedence accorded to a matter of privilege (HC Deb (14 December 2017) 633, c 605). Ministers have also used a point of order to correct factually incorrect answers to questions in the House (HC Deb (26 June 2018) 643, c 793).
- 4. HC Deb (8 July 2014) 584, c 2014.
- 5. Votes and Proceedings, 13 November 2018, 3 December 2018, 4 December 2018; HC Deb (4 December 2018) 650, c 667 ff.