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Last Updated: Thursday, 1 April, 2004, 15:11 GMT 16:11 UK
What is a resigning issue?
By Ollie Stone-Lee
BBC News Online political staff

Lord Carrington did it on the Falklands, Edwina Currie did it over eggs and now Beverley Hughes has quit over immigration checks.

But just what is a resigning issue in British politics - and what is not?

Beverley Hughes
Beverley Hughes is the latest ministerial casualty

The problem centres around how much individual ministers can be blamed for things going wrong further down the chain.

Political theorists have agonised over that question for decades but the "guidelines" for resignation remain distinctly blurred.

Professor SE Finer in the 1950s said the doctrine of ministerial responsibility had led to few resignations.

"Whether a minister is forced to resign depends on three factors, on himself, his prime minister, and his party."

And Sidney Low, a political theorist in the late 19th and early 20th century, highlighted how the size of the problem often bore relation to whether a minister walked the plank.

What is clear to me is that I have become a distraction from what the government is achieving... that by remaining in office I damage the government.
Stephen Byers
On his resignation as minister

He said a minister "may have cost the country thousands of lives and millions of pounds, by launching an ill-arranged expedition into the heart of a distant continent, too late for it to be of any use.

"And his defeat may eventually be brought about because his colleagues have decided, perhaps in opposition to his own wishes - to put an unpopular tax on bread or beer."


Ex-Labour cabinet minister Tony Benn would not comment on any specific ministerial cases.

But he told BBC News Online: "The principle of ministerial responsibility means that a minister is accountable in the House of Commons for everything done under his authority.

"But of course that does not mean that he is personally responsible for every failure of administration.

"All that can be expected of him is that he describes what has happened and if it has gone wrong is seen to be arranging that it will not happen again."

Tony Benn
Benn says ministers have to be accountable to Parliament

Throughout the latest immigration row, Ms Hughes' supporters said it was just unfair to blame her for changes to policies taken without ministers' approval or knowledge.

That is what an internal inquiry said happened on the first batch of allegations about some migrant checks being waived to clear backlogs.

Ms Hughes herself told a Commons committee: "When a group of officials have changed a procedure and insisted that that is kept secret, not only from ministers but senior officials, it is absolutely absurd to imply that affects my responsibilities and that is something I am responsible for as opposed to accountable for putting right."

Critics said that even if Ms Hughes did not know what was going on, she had presided over a "shambles".

In the end her fate was sealed by the revelation that she had misled people, albeit "unwittingly", by saying she did not know about claims of a scam on some eastern European visa applications. Ironically that revelation came not from the Tories but from a Labour MP who had raised the issue with her a year ago.


In post-war politics, the Crichel Down case is often cited as a key precedent for the doctrine of ministerial responsibility, although academics argue about what it means.

In 1954, an inquiry criticised the way the Ministry of Agriculture and the Crown Lands Commissioners treated a man forced to sell land to the government in 1937.

Edwina Currie
Currie had to go after her salmonella remarks

Agriculture Minister Sir Thomas Dugdale quit, saying he took full responsibility for his officials despite not agreeing with the inquiry's verdict on their actions.

Then Home Secretary Sir David Maxwell-Fyfe made what is seen as the "classic statement" on ministerial responsibility about the case.

He said: "The minister is not bound to defend action of which he did not know, or of which he disapproves.

"But... he remains constitutionally responsible to Parliament for the fact that something has done wrong, and he alone can tell Parliament what has occurred and render an account of his stewardship."

Falklands departure

The Commons Treasury and civil service committee in 1986 underlined that doctrine in the wake of the Westland Affair, which saw Michael Heseltine and Leon Brittan resign.

But the MPs asked who should have to resign if mistakes were made.

"If it is not ministers, it can only be officials," they said.

Stephen Byers
Byers said his continued presence damaged the government

One of the most high-profile modern resignations was when Foreign Secretary Lord Carrington quit over the invasion of the Falkland Islands in 1982.

In his resignation letter, Lord Carrington said much of the criticisms had been unfounded.

"But I have been responsible for the conduct of that policy and I think it right that I should resign...

"The fact remains that the invasion of the Falkland Islands has been a humiliating affront to this country."


Another high-profile resignation was Edwina Currie in December 1988, following mounting criticism of her comments on salmonella, which prompted a collapse in egg consumption.

But in recent years, it has often not been specific incidents which have forced ministerial resignations over departmental mistakes.

Lord Carrington
Carrington said the Falklands invasion was an affront

Transport Secretary Stephen Byers, for example, denied accusations that he had lied but endured a slow build-up of press attacks.

Instead, he said: "What is clear to me is that I have become a distraction from what the government is achieving... that by remaining in office I damage the government."

After weeks of pressure, Ms Hughes has taken the ministerial exit door but guidelines on resignation apparently remain as ill-defined as ever.

Immigration minister blames staff
25 Mar 04  |  Politics
Stephen Byers quits government
28 May 02  |  Politics

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