The responsibility of ministers

Constitution issues

A modernized Cayman constitution that establishes full ministerial government will require cabinet ministers to be bound in the strictest terms to the constitutional convention principle of ministerial responsibility.

The late professor Dicey stated that ministerial responsibility means basically three things. Firstly those cabinet ministers are collectively responsible to parliament; in the case of the Cayman constitution, to the Legislative Assembly. This means that cabinet ministers are liable to lose their offices as ministers if they are not able to retain the confidence of the Legislative Assembly.

Cabinet ministers are collectively responsible for the general policy of their administration and this responsibly acts as a check and balance because it can be enforced by the legislature by direct vote of censure or want of confidence or by defeating a cabinet measure.

Collective responsibility is an awesome inhibitor of autocratic governance because ministers are obliged to resign when they lose confidence and when they cannot support their cabinet.

This political and moral responsibility mechanism is an integral part of the Westminster system of government to make cabinet ministers responsible to the constituents through their elected representatives in the Legislative Assembly.

Secondly, each cabinet minister is individually responsible to the law for every act of the government in which he takes part. This legal responsibility follows from the constitutional principle stated by Hood Phillips and Wade and Phillips on constitutional law that a cabinet minister is legally responsible for policy of which he is a part of and any tortuous act done in pursuance of such policy.

Thus a cabinet minister cannot get rid of his liability for waste, corruption, or any other wrong doing that has happened within his ministry. He cannot hide behind the shield that he acted in obedience to government orders. It follows from this principle that a cabinet minister is liable to account to his chief minister or premier for the performance of his assigned subjects. He is also responsible to the legislature for the policies and work of his departments.

Sir Ivor Jennings stated that, ‘a minister cannot hide behind the error of a subordinate within a department…..there must be substantive delegation of power but the most essential characteristic of the civil service is the responsibility of the minister for every act done in his department. In practice the minister can hardly avoid saying that the mistake was that of a subordinate but parliament censures the minister and not the subordinate.’ It follows that where the minister’s policy and not his subordinate is the problem, he cannot save himself by pointing his finger at and blaming and naming the subordinate.

Thirdly, an arrogant minister who fails to observe these constitutional conventions of responsibility because he feels secure and protected by his parleys loyalty will have to face judgment day -ultimately, the electorate day, where the results usually send a clear message about his performance.

Misguided policies, the exercise of executive power for personal gain and failure to come clean will surely result in defeat at the polls.

As one prominent cabinet minister in another jurisdiction put it ‘the ministers are the ones who have to go to the House and answer questions, not a board chairman. The ministers are responsible for those board things. Board chairmen do not answer questions in the house.’

In 1997 the former prime minister of the UK, Mr. Tony Blair presented a ministerial code to his cabinet ministers and stated: ‘I will expect all ministers to work within the letter and spirit of the code.’

Do we have a ministerial code in our country?

Mr. McField

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