December 4, 2022

The Doctrine of ‘Collective Responsibility’

Thus the Cabinet stands or falls together. Where the policy of a particular minister is under attack, it is the government as whole which is being attacked. Thus the defeat of a minister on any major issue represents a defeat for the Government.

Indian Constitution provides for a Parliamentary form of Govt. Article 79 provides that there shall be a Parliament for the Union which shall consist of the President and two Houses known respectively as Council of States and the House of the People.

Article 80 provides for the composition of the Council of States while Article 81 provides for the composition of the House of the People. Article 81 further provides that the House of the People shall consist of not more than 543 members chosen by direct election from territorial constituencies in the States.

Article 83 provides for the duration of Houses of Parliament while Article 85 provides for the Sessions of Parliament, prorogation of the Houses or either House and dissolution of the House of the People.

Once the election to the House of the People is complete, comes the stage for the appointment of Prime Minister and Council of Ministers to aid and advise the President as provided by Article 74. Since the elections are contested principally by the political parties who set up their candidates at the election, there is tacit understanding in keeping with the British convention, that the party which has secured the majority in the House of the People would govern while the parties which are in the minority would sit in the Parliament as members of the “Opposition.”

It is on account of this convention that the President invites the leader of the political party which has obtained majority, to form the Govt. The President appoints the Prime Minister and then the Ministers are appointed on the advice of the Prime Minister, who constitute the Council of Ministers.

Collective Responsibility

Article 75(3) provides that the Council of Ministers shall be collectively responsible to the House of the People.

The concept of “collective responsibility” is essentially a political concept. The country is governed by the party in power on the basis of the policies adopted and laid down by it in the Cabinet Meeting.

Meaning

“Collective Responsibility” has two meanings:

  • The first meaning which can legitimately be ascribed to it is that all members of a Govt. are unanimous in support of its policies and would exhibit that unanimity on public occasions although while formulating the policies, they might have expressed a different view in the meeting of the Cabinet.
  • The other meaning is that Ministers, who had an opportunity to speak for or against the policies in the Cabinet are thereby personally and morally responsible for its success and failure.

In ‘the British Constitution & Politics’ 5th Edition by J. Harvey and L. Bather, it is said as under:

“Except when a minister explains the reasons for his resignation, parliament hears nothing of the Cabinet’s current deliberations. These remain secret, and only decisions as a whole are reported to the House when policy is announced. Any leakage of divergent views held by ministers would, as during Queen Victoria’s reign, seriously weaken the Government. In its decisions, ‘the Cabinet is a unity to the House’. While a minister can speak against any proposal in a Cabinet meeting, he must either support the policy decided upon or resign.

Ministers come from the same party and, at least initially, are fairly homogeneous in their political views. In any case, a former minister is unlikely to cross the floor of the House and join the Opposition. His disagreement with the Government is usually over only one issue, and his basic political outlook remains unchanged.

Thus the Cabinet stands or falls together. Where the policy of a particular minister is under attack, it is the government as whole which is being attacked. Thus the defeat of a minister on any major issue represents a defeat for the Government. However, today, unlike the nineteenth century, such defeats do not occur. The use of rigid party discipline ensures that the Government can always obtain a majority vote.

In practice, therefore, all that collective responsibility means today is that every member of the Government must be prepared to support all Cabinet decisions both inside and outside the House.”

It is further provided as under:

“The doctrine of collective responsibility has practical advantages.

First, it counteracts departmental separation for each minister has to be concerned with policies of other departments.

Second, it prevents the policy of one department being determined unilaterally. Since it is the Cabinet as a whole which decides, ministers are less likely to be over-influenced by their civil servants.

Third, it ensures that Cabinet decisions are based on principles and not on personalities. Collective responsibility does not apply to a minister’s responsibility for his permanent officials or for his personal mistakes.”

An extract from “The British Cabinet” by John P. Mackintosh, 1962 Edn., is also relevant,

“Much has been said and written about the responsibility of ministers. The discussion can easily become confused because of the different meanings that are attached to the word “responsible”. Collective responsibility will be discussed below, and the first task is to consider whether there is any separate element of individual responsibility.

The most common political meaning is that a certain minister will answer parliamentary questions on a given subject. A second sense arises when those in political circles appreciate that a particular policy is largely the idea of the minister, rather than the traditional policy of the party in power, and they may single out the minister for attack. A third sense is simply that a minister is responsible even if a policy is the work of the Cabinet as a whole but his colleagues choose to place the burden upon him.

There is, in addition, the normal moral sense of the word meaning “culpable” and a minister may, like a private individual, feel responsible if he could by greater wisdom or exertion have prevented some unfortunate occurrence. The one aspect that remains is the alleged obligation on a minister to resign when he or one of his subordinates has blundered.

The origin of this notion is fairly clear. It dates from the 1850s and 1860s when it was reasonable to assume that a minister could watch over every significant action of his department. Even then, there would have been no need to acknowledge errors in this way but for the power of the House of Commons to move and carry a motion censuring the individual in question without necessarily dislodging the government.”

Reference

Common Cause, A registered society v. Union of India, (1999)