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Topical Information for Parliamentarians

Ministerial Responsibility

November 29, 2000

The essence of the theory of ministerial responsibility can be simply stated: ministers are responsible for the conduct of their departments. Reality, as C.E.S. Franks comments, "is much more complex and less satisfying than the theory."(1)

The term ministerial responsibility is normally understood in two ways:

  • cabinet solidarity, where Cabinet as a whole is collectively responsible to Parliament; and,

  • ministers are held individually responsible to Parliament for everything that comes under their authority. (It is this second type of ministerial responsibility that will be discussed below.)

Both types of ministerial responsibility are matters of constitutional convention rather than of law.(2) Individual ministerial responsibility "requires that a minister be personally answerable to the House of Commons for the exercise of power."(3) It arises out of the democratic principle that only elected officials, and not the public-service workers who assist them in formulating policy and administering programs, should be held accountable for the functioning of Government. Historically, it originated in Britain as a product of the struggle waged by Parliament to control taxation; its emergence in Canada is also closely linked to the broader struggle for responsible government prior to Confederation.

Ministerial Resignations

The issue of ministerial responsibility generally comes into sharpest relief when the Opposition parties in Parliament actively seek the resignation of a Minister on the grounds of a perceived wrongdoing in the Minister’s department, as during the controversy surrounding alleged mismanagement in Human Resources Development Canada in the 36th Parliament. It is important to note that, because Ministers are held responsible for both the successes and failures of their departments, the doctrine of individual ministerial responsibility is closely connected to a second parliamentary convention, i.e., the respect for the neutrality and the anonymity of the public service.

A compilation has been prepared which lists all Ministers who resigned for reasons other than illness, or to make room for others, or to take other appointments.

However, there never was a "golden age" when the convention of individual ministerial responsibility regularly and rigorously led to the resignation of ministers for the failures of their subordinates, either in Canada or in other countries with a Westminster style of Parliament.(4) The process of holding ministers to account has always been a thoroughly political one that "depends in good measure on the will of the House."(5) Recognizing this political dimension does not diminish the constitutional responsibility of ministers, but it does help explain the differences in the ways in which the doctrine has been given life in Parliament.

In the first place, according to current practice, ministers will not resign for mistakes made in a department under a previous minister. More generally, common sense and fairness dictate that, given the complexity and scope of contemporary government, ministers cannot be expected to resign for every instance of maladministration in their departments. The degree of blame to be levelled at a minister will depend on the circumstances. What is the gravity of the misdemeanour? Should it have been possible for the minister to intervene?

Canadian practice in this regard is entirely consistent with that of other countries with a Westminster style of Parliament. For example, the former Head of the British Civil Service and Secretary to the Cabinet, Sir Robin Butler, stated in the early 1990s: "A Minister should not be held to blame or required to accept personal criticism unless he has some personal accountability for or some personal involvement in what has occurred."(6)

The impact of a given controversy on a minister will also depend on a variety of political factors, including the state of overall popularity of the Government and the stature of the individual minister under attack. Much will depend in this regard on the standard that is set by the Prime Minister, because no hard and fast rules dictate when a minister ought to step down.

Accountability and Answerability

Those who insist that the convention of ministerial responsibility has ceased to be relevant to understanding the functioning of Parliament, tend to downplay the differences between forcing a minister to resign and holding a minister accountable.

Ministers must accept responsibility for the actions of their subordinates without necessarily resigning in the wake of every case in which duties are mishandled. In this sense, accountability and personal blame are not identical: one can recognize one’s share of responsibility, and even initiate appropriate action to remedy a situation, without being individually blamed for the entire course of events.

Even when ministers do not resign, they always remain answerable to Parliament, and must be prepared publicly to explain or defend the actions of their department. Although no one can force a minister to reply to questions, or to respond in a completely transparent fashion, public opinion would look severely askance at ministers who consistently refused to answer questions put to them in the House.

In this respect as well, Canadian parliamentary practice has evolved in a similar fashion to that of other Westminster-style countries. For example, an Australian Royal Commission on Government Administration (1976) stated that,

The evidence tends to suggest rather that while ministers continue to be held accountable to Parliament in the sense of being obliged to answer to it when Parliament so demands, and to indicate corrective action if that is called for, they themselves are not held culpable – and in consequence bound to resign or suffer dismissal – unless the action which stands condemned was theirs, or taken on their direction, or was action with which they ought obviously to have been concerned.

Ministerial Responsibility in the Coming Years

Ministerial responsibility provides an important frame of reference for the allocation of power and responsibility amongst ministers, legislators, public-service workers, and the electorate at large. Although the shape of ministerial responsibility may vary, the principle remains central to the practice of parliamentary democracy.

Its contemporary usage can be summarized by saying that although ministers are not expected to resign for all the administrative errors committed under their watch, they must be prepared to explain and defend the actions of their department.(7) In this sense, it is the loss of political reputation, rather than the loss of a job, that puts the bite into the doctrine of ministerial responsibility.

Still, numerous issues surrounding the practice of ministerial responsibility deserve to be debated, such as:

  • Can there ever be a workable method for definitively demarcating the bureaucratic and administrative spheres from the political one?

  • To what extent should public-service workers be held publicly accountable for administrative errors?

  • Is it possible to alter only a part of the interconnected set of conventions surrounding the practice of ministerial responsibility? Or, is an entirely new approach needed, and if so, could one be designed that would be consistent with Canada’s parliamentary traditions?

(1) C.E.S. Franks, The Parliament of Canada, Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1987, p. 227.

(2) See, for example, "Responsibility in the Constitution," Privy Council Office (PCO), 1993, p. 55.

(3) Ibid., p. 5.

(4) For Canada, see Franks (1987), p. 256; for Britain, see David Butler, "Ministerial Accountability: Lessons of the Scott Report," lecture to the Australian Senate, 9 August 1996.

(5) Privy Council Office (1993), p. 72.

(6) Cited in Butler (1996).

(7) Kenneth Kernaghan and David Siegel, Public Administration in Canada, Toronto: ITP Nelson, 1999, pp. 431-432.

Prepared by
Howard Chodos, Analyst
Karla Tate
Parliamentary Information and Research Service

References and Additional Sources

Butler, David. "Ministerial Accountability: Lessons of the Scott Report." Lecture to the Australian Senate. 9 August 1996.

Canada. Privy Council Office. "Responsibility in the Constitution." Ottawa. 1993.

Canadian Study of Parliament Group. Responsible Government. October 1989.

Franks, C.E.S. The Parliament of Canada. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1987. See especially Chapter 11 on "Accountability."

Kernaghan, Kenneth and David Siegel. Public Administration in Canada. Toronto: ITP Nelson, 1999.

Polidano, Charles. "The Bureaucrats Who Almost Fell Under a Bus: A Reassertion of Ministerial Responsibility?" The Political Quarterly. April-June 2000, pp. 177-183. This article discusses the future of ministerial responsibility using some recent British examples.

Tait, John C. A Strong Foundation. Report of the Task Force on Public Service Values and Ethics. Ottawa: Canadian Centre for Management Development. January 2000.

Woodhouse, Diana. "Ministerial Responsibility in the 1990s: when do ministers resign?" Parliamentary Affairs. July 1993, pp. 277-292. This article looks at several cases of ministerial responsibility and resignation in the British Parliament.

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