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What is collective responsibility?

Collective responsibility is a fundamental convention of the British constitution, whereby the Government is collectively accountable to Parliament for its actions, decisions and policies.

Decisions made by the Cabinet are binding on all members of the Government. This means that if a minister disagrees with a government policy, he or she must still publicly support it. A minister is able to express their views and disagree privately, but once a decision has been made by the Cabinet, it is binding on all members of the Government. According to the Cabinet Manual (2011), a minister who cannot abide by collective responsibility is expected to resign (para 13).

Collective responsibility is a convention, rather than a requirement, of the UK’s constitution. The Cabinet Manual makes it clear that it applies in all instances, “save where it is explicitly set aside” (para 4.2). When questioned about the convention in 1977, Prime Minister James Callaghan famously said “I certainly think that the doctrine should apply, except in cases where I announce that it does not”.

The formal setting aside of collective responsibility does not happen often, but is known as an agreement to differ (see below).

What is the difference between collective and individual ministerial responsibility?

Government accountability in the UK operates through the conventions of both collective and individual ministerial responsibility. Individual ministerial responsibility refers to the convention that a minister is responsible to Parliament for the actions of their department. Collective responsibility requires each minister to support each Government decision.

Agreements to differ and departures from collective responsibility

All members of the Government are bound by the convention of collective responsibility, except “where it is explicitly set aside” (Cabinet Manual, 3.20)

The formal suspension of collective responsibility on a particular issue does not happen often, and is usually referred to as an ‘agreement to differ’. Examples of agreements to differ include:

  • On the issue of tariff policy in 1932.
  • On the 1975 referendum on the UK’s membership of the European Economic Community.
  • On direct elections to the European Assembly in 1977.
  • On various issues under the 2010–15 Coalition Government, including the 2011 referendum on the alternative voting system for general elections, as agreed in the 2010 Coalition Agreement.
  • On the 2016 referendum on the UK’s membership of the European Union.

In October 2016 a “special arrangement” was also put in place to allow certain ministers “some flexibility” to depart from the normal arrangements surrounding collective responsibility, in response to the Government’s decision on Heathrow expansion.

Collective responsibility and the devolved administrations

This briefing paper focuses primarily on the doctrine of collective responsibility in relation to the United Kingdom’s Government. However, the doctrine of collective responsibility has also been accepted and applied by both the Scottish and the Welsh devolved administrations. Collective responsibility is not, however, a feature of the Northern Ireland Executive.

The origins of collective responsibility

The idea that all ministers should provide a united front arose in the eighteenth century to protect ministers from the Monarch’s attempts to undermine their power by exposing or encouraging public arguments. When meeting with the Monarch, ministers would agree beforehand what to say, and then repeat the same advice when they saw the Monarch individually.

During the nineteenth and twentieth century, this idea endured to ensure ministerial unanimity in Parliament.

Further Information

A 2004 House of Commons Library Research Paper, Collective Responsibility of Ministers – an outline of the issues, contains further information on the convention.

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