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Tuesday 17 September 2019
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Commentary

Taking individual responsibility

John Profumo resigned from the British government in 1963 after revelations about his sexual affair with Christine Keeler, an alleged prostitute.
John Profumo resigned from the British government in 1963 after revelations about his sexual affair with Christine Keeler, an alleged prostitute.

PHILBERT GERVAIS

THE DOCTRINE of individual ministerial responsibility must not be forgotten as we look at what has happened recently and over the past three decades on the political landscape in TT. While this may be a moot point and debatable to infinity, as a pragmatist we cannot expect the head of the executive (a sitting prime minister) to check and know every piece of minutiae in a ministry given the mandate.

The doctrine of individual ministerial responsibility is a convention practised in governments using the Westminster system that a minister bears the ultimate responsibility for the actions of his ministry and department. It is held that the accountable minister must take blame and ultimately resign and the rest of the executive is not held to be answerable for that minister’s failure.

Failure is defined as any of the following while in office: if there are instances of corruption, acts of misbehaviour or any other sort of impropriety found to have occurred under the minister’s watch or by the minister.

It has been an essential convention and principle that elected and non-elected officials who serve in government are answerable for government decision and it also forces and motivates ministers to closely scrutinise all activities coming from their ministries and to closely monitor their own conduct for morality and ethical standing.

The doctrine of individual ministerial responsibility entails four precepts: inform and explain, apologise, take action, and resign.

While the doctrine is not regulated by statue and done mostly out of convention and developed as such by precedent, we really need to look at the fact that the title given to those in the executive, legislative, and judicial arms of the State is “honourable” and as such when one has behaved less than such they should do the noble thing.

There are many examples to cite where the doctrine of individual ministerial responsibility has been observed and the ministers at the time did the honourable thing and followed all the tenets of the doctrine – they informed and explained, apologised, took action and resigned:

* Peter Mandelson (2001): Following Mandelson’s return to the Cabinet as Northern Ireland secretary on October 11, 1999, the Observer newspaper in England alleged on January 24, 2001, that he had called the immigration minister Mike O’Brien to pass on an enquiry about the possibility of an Indian businessman, Srichand Hinduja, obtaining British citizenship.

Concerns arose about whether undue influence had been exerted on behalf of Hinduja and his brother, particularly as they had donated £1 million to sponsor the Faith Zone in the Millennium Dome when Mandelson was the minister in charge of the project in 1998.

Following discussions between prime minister Tony Blair and Mandelson, it was decided that he should resign, particularly in light of vociferous calls for this in the press, and he announced his resignation outside No 10 on January 24, 2001.

* Estelle Morris (2002): The British Labour Party politician, who was the MP for Birmingham Yardley from 1992 to 2005, served briefly in the Cabinet as education secretary.

His resignation had been seen as an unusual expression of ministerial responsibility as it did not arise from a personal scandal or policy disagreement. Ostensibly Morris resigned because she had pledged to do so if the government failed to meet its literacy and numeracy targets.

* Peter Mandelson and Geoffrey Robinson (1998): On December 23, 1998, Robinson, the paymaster general at the Treasury and Peter Mandelson, secretary of state for trade and industry, resigned following Robinson’s £373,000 loan to Mandelson to support his purchase of a house in Notting Hill.

The media interest in the revelation of the loan was exacerbated by a number of stories concerning the financial conduct of Robinson and oversight of this by Mandelson when secretary of state at the Department of Trade and Industry.

In his letter of resignation, Mandelson accepted that it was necessary for ministers not only to uphold high standards in public life but also to be seen to do so.

* Thomas Lionel Dugdale, first Baron Crathorne, known as Sir Thomas Dugdale, first baronet, from 1945 to 1959, was a British Conservative Party politician. A government minister, he resigned over the Crichel Down Affair, often quoted as a classic example of the convention of individual ministerial responsibility.

In the history of the modern parliament, the Crichel Down Affair takes on momentous significance and has been described as a political bombshell. The public inquiry into the Crichel Down events revealed a catalogue of ineptitude and maladministration and resulted directly in the resignation of the secretary of state for agriculture (Dugdale), then a senior cabinet position, and was the first case of ministerial resignation since 1917.

While the underlying case was, in the scale of things, trivial, involving the transfer of some 700 acres of mediocre agricultural land in Dorset, the ramifications for subsequent government procedure have been enormous, and it is regarded as one of the key events leading to the creation of the post of ombudsman. Crichel Down was probably the first instance of close and very public scrutiny being directed at a minister of the crown in the execution of his duties.

* Secretary of state for war/member of the Privy Council/member of government John Profumo (under prime minister Harold Macmillan) tendered his resignation to Macmillan following the scandalous affair that became known over the years as the Profumo Affair. He had served his party for 25 years.

* Reginald Maulding resigned as home secretary in 1972 because of the revelations of the business practices and acquaintances of the architect John Poulson. He stated that he had no other option but to resign and wrote his letter of resignation to the prime minister and asked that it be read out in the Lower House of Parliament – the House of Commons.

It seems that renowned fantasy fiction authors like JK Rowlings, Patrick Rothfuss and George Raymond Richard Martin may have to watch out. Very soon, joining the line of New York bestsellers will be A Game of Trini Thrones authored and narrated by TT politicians – unabridged, uncensored, and written in the first person narrative style.

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John Profumo resigned from the British government in 1963 after revelations about his sexual affair with Christine Keeler, an alleged prostitute.

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