or Freedom of Speech: The UK example?
or Freedom of Press: The UK example?
or Media Censorship: The UK example?
or Speaker's Corner: The UK example?
Political expediency and propaganda never cease to amaze!
FRIDAY MATTERS 25th April 2008 - The Straits Times
Ministerial responsibility: The UK example
By Chua Mui Hoong, Senior Writer
SINGAPOREANS this week are seized over the issue of ministerial responsibility when things go wrong on their watch.
Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong on Tuesday defended Deputy Prime Minister and Home Affairs Minister Wong Kan Seng from calls to resign, saying Mr Wong had done nothing wrong, and retained the full confidence of the PM.
The issue was the Feb 27 escape by terrorist cell leader Mas Selamat Kastari from the Whitley Road Detention Centre, which is under the Internal Security Department, which comes under the Ministry of Home Affairs.
Some Singaporeans, pointing to political examples in Japan and South Korea, wonder if it is a uniquely Singaporean thing that ministers do not resign over mishaps.
Is this a case of the minister not being held accountable?
In fact, the so-called 'doctrine of ministerial responsibility' is well-discussed in British and Canadian literature, among others.
Sometimes...the harder course is to face down the calls to resign, stay put - and win the war.
It's an established, but evolving and always disputed, convention.
The idea originated in the 19th century, when ministries were small and ministers had personal knowledge of most of the decisions. At that time, too, many politicians were landed gentry, men of independent means. Resignation was a form of accountability.
In 1954, British Minister for Agriculture Thomas Dugdale got into trouble over a dispute involving land acquisition at Crichel Down.
The minister himself did not make any mistakes, but took responsibility for the mistakes of his officials and tendered his resignation, saying: 'I, as Minister, must accept full responsibility to Parliament for any mistakes and inefficiency of officials in my department, just as, when my officials bring off any successeson my behalf, I take full credit for them.'
The names of Dugdale and Crichel Down have become synonymous with a particular interpretation of what ministerial responsibility in a Westminster parliamentary system entails.
But in the ensuing 50 years or so, the convention has evolved. Today, Dugdale's position is seen by some as exceptional.
In fact, cases of ministers resigning, over mistakes made by underlings, are very rare, at least in Britain.
Most ministers there resigned over personal wrongdoing, such as John Profumo in 1963 for lying to Parliament that there was 'no impropriety whatsoever' in his relationship with call girl Christine Keeler.
Others resigned over financial impropriety or to avoid a conflict of interest, such as Reginald Maudling in 1972 who quit as Home Secretary because a business associate, John Poulson, was being investigated for widespread corruption and Mr Maudling thought his position as head of the ministry would curtail the investigations.
Others quit or offered to quit over policy disagreements. In 1967, the British government, along with other governments, was forced to devalue its currency. Chancellor James Callaghan, who had repeatedly said the pound would not be devalued, offered to resign for having to go against his promises. The Prime Minister was reluctant to let him go, and made him Home Secretary, a change he accepted.
More recently, in 1983, a massive prison outbreak took place in Maze prison, a maximum-security jail in Northern Ireland that housed provisional Irish Republican Army insurgents convicted of armed militancy.
In all, 38 prisoners escaped from what at that time was touted to be among the most secure prisons in Europe.
There were calls for the ministers involved to resign, in particular the Northern Ireland Secretary James Prior and his deputy Nicholas Scott, who oversaw prisons in Northern Ireland. An inquiry was launched the next day into the causes of the escape, chaired by the Inspector of Prisons Sir James Hennessy.
When the report came out, lapses in security and procedures within the prison were identified.
The report recommended a change in governor of the prison, but specifically exonerated the undersecretary in charge (Scott) from blame.
Minister James Prior faced the House of Commons to say why he did not see the need for his deputy or himself to resign. 'It would be a matter for resignation if the report of the Hennessy inquiry showed that what happened was the result of some act of policy that was my responsibility, or that I failed to implement something that I had been asked to implement, or should have implemented.
'The report shows that no policy decisions contributed to the escape. For that reason, I believe that there are no grounds for ministerial resignation.'
To those still calling for heads to roll, he said: 'I do not accept and I do not think it right for the House to accept that there is any constitutional or other principle that requires ministerial resignations in the face of failure, either by others to carry out orders or procedures, or by their supervisors to ensure that staff carried out those orders.
'Let the House be clear: the Hennessy report finds that the escape would not have succeeded if orders and procedures had been properly carried out that Sunday afternoon.'
Despite intense pressure, the ministers did not resign.
As for the Crichel Down case cited by MPs, Mr Prior said: 'It is the only case of its sort in the past 50 years, and constitutional lawyers have concluded that the resignation was not required by convention and was exceptional.'
In the conventional literature, ministerial responsibility for mistakes within their purview has four components: the responsibility to account to Parliament for mistakes made; to apologise to Parliament; to take remedial action to rectify the mistake; and finally, to resign.
Mr Wong did the first three. Some think he should do the last as well.
In Britain, some ministers resign to mollify factions within the party or to appease the opposition or the public.
When should a minister bow to public pressure to resign?
In 1982, after the Argentinian attack on the Falkland Islands, Foreign Secretary Peter Carrington and his two deputies resigned.
Lord Carrington said he did not think the government or he himself had mishandled the situation, but the attack provoked such outrage in Britain that his presence would be a 'continual poison' that would divide the country at a time when unity was desirable for a war response.
In other words, he quit not because he thought his ministry had done wrong, but to remove a cancer from the body politic at a sensitive time.
Defence Secretary John Nott also offered his resignation at that time, but was told by PM Margaret Thatcher in no uncertain terms that he had 'a bounden duty' to stay to see Britain to victory.
I do not cite the above cases to argue that Singapore follow Britain in any way.
But familiarity with what other jurisdictions have done with the 'convention of ministerial responsibility' provides a useful perspective, especially for Singaporeans inclined to think that a minister must always resign for high-profile mistakes made on his watch.
Sometimes, as in the case of John Nott above, the harder course is to face down the calls to resign, stay put - and win the war.
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