Prime Minister and DPM must set out new rules for when Ministers disagree
12 Feb 2014 11:44 AM
The House of Lords Constitution Committee has today expressed concern about repeated breaches of collective responsibility under the coalition government and called on the Prime Minister and Deputy Prime Minister to set out rules clarifying when and how ministers can express differing views.
The committee makes the above recommendation in its comprehensive report on the constitutional implications of coalition government.
The report highlights a number of areas where the coalition partners have disagreed publicly which were not identified in 2010 Programme for Government. The committee observes that these disagreements have undermined the constitutional principle that ministers who are not prepared to defend government policy are expected to resign.
The committee sets out apparently unprecedented examples—such as ministers being whipped into different voting lobbies on proposals to amend parliamentary constituencies, and Conservative ministers not being required to vote against an amendment to the address on the Queen’s Speech—which suggest new rules on collective responsibility under coalition governments are now required. This is one of a number of issues which the committee believes should be addressed by political parties and the Government before the next general election.
Other recommendations in the report include:
Negotiations to form a government in the event of a hung parliament should be concluded as quickly as possible, but there should not be a fixed timetable. The incumbent Prime Minister has a right to remain in office until the identity of his or her successor is clear but there is also an expectation, based on precedent, that he or she should do so. The committee thinks it important that these principles are better understood by the public and the media.
A coalition agreement does not have the same constitutional status as the election manifesto of a party winning a majority at a general election and as such is not covered by the Salisbury–Addison convention, which limits the power of the House of Lords. An exception to this is where the same commitment is made in the manifestos of both parties in a coalition.
New guidance should be drawn up for civil servants before the next general election to ensure they are clear on how to support ministers from different parties. In particular junior ministers should be able to request civil service briefings relevant to their department but outside their immediate area of responsibility.
Chairman of the Committee
Commenting, Baroness Jay of Paddington, chairman of the House of Lords Constitution Committee, said:
“In any coalition the parties in government will not agree on everything. When those disagreements can be foreseen and included in a coalition agreement this should not threaten the important principle of collective responsibility. However, when unforeseen disagreements emerge, such as over a possible EU referendum and the proposals to amend House of Commons constituencies, it is important that an agreed process is in place to ensure disagreements are properly managed.
We are calling on the Prime Minister and the Deputy Prime Minister to agree a set of rules for those situations now. That would give clarity on what will happen for the rest of the Parliament and provide a template for future coalition agreements in the event of another hung Parliament.
We also make some important recommendations for the operation of government as this Parliament moves to its conclusion. First, as this is a fixed-term Parliament, the Government should plan to avoid a “wash up”, where legislation is fast-tracked to get it through before Parliament is dissolved.
Secondly we considered the position of junior ministers in departments where the Secretary of State is of a different party. In order to ensure fairness ahead of the general election, junior ministers should be able to commission research by civil servants on policy issues outside their areas of responsibility. Thirdly, we think that the normal constitutional conventions about the business of government should continue to apply during the election campaign, even though the coalition parties will be campaigning against each other.
These and a number of other issues should be addressed by political parties and the Government before the next general election.”