CHAPTER 4: OPERATION OF GOVERNMENT AND
PARLIAMENT UNDER COALITION |
61. In this chapter we examine how
coalition government operates in practice. We consider in particular
the convention of collective ministerial responsibility, the process
for reaching collective agreement, the process for appointing
ministers and how having a coalition government affects the House
of Lords. Although many of the examples cited in this chapter
occurred in the current coalition, our conclusions and recommendations
also apply to any future coalition government.
Collective ministerial responsibility
62. At the core of the convention
of collective ministerial responsibility is that the government
collectively accounts to Parliament for its policies, decisions
and actions. The convention developed in the 18th century as a
means of preventing royal interference with the business of government;
by presenting a united face the government prevented the monarch
from reacting to unfavourable policies by singling out ministers
for condemnation. Since then collective responsibility has developed
and is viewed by many as in practice requiring the government
to present a collective front to the public and the media.
63. There are two sides to how the
convention operates. First, it involves government policy being
developed collectivelythat is, in cabinet committees and,
for important decisions, in the Cabinet itselfusing established
processes. The convention traditionally is thought to require
discussions on policy formulation to be confidential, such that
ministers can express their views frankly and test the robustness
of a policy proposal. The second side to the convention is that,
once a decision is reached, it is binding on and supported by
all ministers. This
means that ministers must speak and vote in favour of the policy
in Parliament, and must not dissent from it publicly. A minister
who feels unable to support government in a policy or decision
is normally expected to resign. This convention has been under
strain in the recent past.
64. Collective responsibility features
in the Ministerial Code
and the Cabinet Manual.
The Coalition agreement for stability and reform, drawn
up in May 2010, sets out how collective responsibility applies
"2.1 The principle of collective
responsibility, save where it is explicitly set aside, continues
to apply to all Government Ministers. This requires:
(a) an appropriate degree of consultation
and discussion among Ministers to provide the opportunity for
them to express their views frankly as decisions are reached,
and to ensure the support of all Ministers;
(b) the opinions expressed and advice
offered within Government to remain private;
(c) decisions of the Cabinet to
be binding on and supported by all Ministers;
(d) full use being made of the Cabinet
Committee system and application of the mechanisms for sharing
information and resolving disputes set out in this document.
There are certain standard exceptions
to the principle of consultationthe Chancellor's Budget
judgements, quasi-judicial decisions and opinions of the Law Officers
in particular. Budget judgements will require consultation with
the Chief Secretary; when the Prime Minister is consulted the
Deputy Prime Minister should also be consulted."
65. It is notable that the principle
of collective responsibility has been considered sufficiently
important and conducive to good government that it has been followed
scrupulously by the devolved administrations in Scotland and Walesin
both single-party and coalition governments.
In Scotland, the relationship between Cabinet collective responsibility
and access to information is explicitly recognised in the Scottish
Ministerial Code and in its own guide to collective decision-making:
"The Scottish Government operates
on the basis of collective responsibility. This means that all
decisions reached by the Scottish Ministers, individually or collectively,
are binding on all members of the Government. It follows from
this that every effort must normally be made to ensure that every
Minister with an interest in an issue has a chance to have his
or her sayin an appropriate forum or mannerbefore
a decision is taken. It also means that the Scottish Ministers
should have access to all the information held by the Government
which they require in connection with their duties either as a
Minister with specific functional responsibilities or as a member
of a Government which accepts collective responsibility for the
actions of all its members".
66. The convention of collective
responsibility is constitutionally important for two main reasons.
First, the process of collective decision-making within government
makes it more likely that better decisions are reached. The need
to consult and compromise means that policy can be more nuanced
or better crafted. The second reason is that it enables Parliament
to hold the government as a whole responsible for its policies,
decisions and actions. Ministers cannot absolve themselves of
responsibility for a policy by claiming other ministers decided
it. So when, for example, a minister is being questioned in Parliament,
Parliament can expect to be informed of the agreed government
position. Collective responsibility also imbues a government (and,
indeed, Parliament) with authority; when the discipline it imposes
is departed from, that authority is undermined.
67. The operation of collective
responsibility has ancillary benefits. It means, at least in theory,
that the government speaks with one voice to the public and the
media, thus preventing accusations of being divided. It requires
governments to act as a team. It means that, when a decision has
been reached, the civil service (and others affected) can go about
implementing it safe in the knowledge that the decision will not
be reversed unless there is a collective decision to do so.
It also means that the monarch can act on ministerial advice knowing
that the advice represents the collective view of the government.
The convention has been broadly adhered to by single-party governments,
although it is not unknown for policy differences between ministers
to be expressed publicly.
AGREEMENTS TO DIFFER
68. The Ministerial Code, Cabinet
Manual and Coalition agreement for stability and reform
all state that the principle of collective responsibility applies
"save where it is explicitly set aside". Before 2010
there had been three occasions when collective responsibility
was formally set asideknown as agreements to differ. The
first was in 1931 over tariff reform, when there was a coalition
government. The second was in 1975 during the referendum campaign
on membership of the (then) European Economic Community, when
the Labour government agreed that ministers could, outside Parliament,
argue against the government position. The third was in 1977,
when the Labour government agreed that ministers could vote in
Parliament against legislation creating direct elections to the
European Parliament. On all three occasions the Cabinet collectively
agreed that collective responsibility should be set aside in respect
of the particular issue.
69. The current Government's Programme
for government specified five areas where the parties to the
coalition might adopt different positions:
· the AV referendum (both parties
would be whipped to support the bill for a referendum, "without
prejudice to the positions parties will take during such a referendum");
· university funding (arrangements
would be made for Liberal Democrat MPs to abstain, if the Government's
response to Lord Browne of Madingley's report was one the party
could not accept);
· the renewal of Trident ("Liberal
Democrats will continue to make the case for alternatives");
· nuclear power (the Programme
provided for a Liberal Democrat spokesman to speak against the
relevant National Planning Statement, but for Liberal Democrat
MPs to abstain); and
· a tax allowance for married
couples (where provision would be made for Liberal Democrat MPs
to abstain on the relevant budget resolutions).
DEPARTURES FROM COLLECTIVE RESPONSIBILITY
IN THE CURRENT PARLIAMENT
70. Arguably the most contentious
departure from collective responsibility without a formal agreement
to differ in the current Parliament occurred in early 2013, when
Conservative and Liberal Democrat parliamentarians, including
ministers, voted in opposite lobbies on an amendment to the Electoral
Registration and Administration Bill. The amendment delayed the
review of parliamentary constituency boundaries that was due to
occur under the Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies
Act 2011a policy that was in the coalition agreement. The
Deputy Prime Minister had announced in summer 2012 that he would
instruct Liberal Democrats to vote against the boundary review
after the House of Lords Reform Bill was withdrawn due to an apparent
inability to obtain a Commons majority for a programme motion
on it. The decision by the Deputy Prime Minister to support the
amendment was not taken by the Government collectively.
71. This issue arouses strong opinions.
David Laws MP, a Minister of State at the Cabinet Office, explained
to us that where parties make agreements and one side of the coalition
then diverts from those agreements, "that can have consequences
for other areas of agreement. That is what we saw in the Lords
[reform] versus boundaries issue ... I do not think either coalition
party would say that the other can simply walk away from serious
commitments made during the coalition talks without there being
Lord Strathclyde, the Leader of the House of Lords from 2010-13,
described the decision to delay the boundary review as "an
outrage ... extraordinary behaviour."
He thought that the coalition agreement had been that the boundary
review would take place in return for there being a referendum
on introducing the Alternative Vote: "To see this stymied,
pulling the rug away from us at the last moment ... was a terrible
and dirty trick. I am trying to find the right words to describe
it; 'dirty trick' does not quite emphasise it strongly enough."
Lord Falconer of Thoroton said:
"We were delighted that the
Deputy Prime Minister led the Liberal Democrats into the position
he did in relation to the boundary review, but it was wholly undermining
of the process by which you should conduct yourself within government.
It was done unilaterally, it was done having specifically agreed
to the measures, and it was done in a way that refused to accept
the authority of the Prime Minister and the rest of the Government
in flagrant breach of an agreement."
We do not seek to arbitrate between
these views; we merely note that this was a high-profile and significant
departure from the convention of collective responsibility. No
minister resigned over the matter; nor, as we understand it, did
the Prime Minister ask any minister to resign.
72. There have been other occasions
where ministers from the two coalition parties have expressed
different views. For example, on the day that the Leveson report
was published in 2012, the Prime Minister and the Deputy Prime
Minister made separate statements in the House of Commons in response
to it. In that case, there was no collective government position
on how to respond to the report, so it may be thought that the
convention of collective responsibility did not apply.
73. In the debate on the Queen's
Speech in 2013, Conservative MPs tabled an amendment regretting
"that an EU referendum Bill was not included in the Gracious
was the first time since 1946 that MPs from a government party
had tabled an amendment to the Address in reply to the Queen's
Speech, expressing their disagreement with the Government's position.
When the amendment was put to a division, the Prime Minister gave
Conservative MPs a free vote on it, effectively allowing members
of the Government to vote against the collective position set
out in the Speech. In the event, 116 Conservative MPs voted for
the amendment and only one voted against it; the amendment was
defeated by 277 votes to 130; no Conservative ministers voted
in the division, but several parliamentary private secretaries
voted for the amendment.
Dr Stephen Barber, Reader in Public Policy at London South Bank
University, said that, "the acquiescence by the Prime Minister
to allow ministers to vote 'against' provisions in the Queen's
Speech ... is constitutionally more serious" than the division
between coalition partners over the boundary review amendment
to the Electoral Registration and Administration Bill.
This is because of the role of the Queen's Speech as a vote of
confidence in the Government (albeit the Fixed-term Parliaments
Act 2011 means it could not now itself prompt an early election);
previously any minister who declined to support the government
on the Queen's Speech would have been expected to resign.
74. In other instances, senior ministers
in both parties have expressed differing views over matters such
as immigration from the European Union, the European Court of
Human Rights, future welfare reform and proposals for a "mansion
tax". In some of those cases ministers were setting out policies
of their parties (as distinct from the Government), with the objective
of indicating the likely programme of that party in future parliaments.
75. Our witnesses were united in
believing that collective responsibility should apply in coalition
was a consensus that departures from collective responsibility
should be rare and should only take place after a process had
been followed. However, almost all witnesses recognised that the
two parties would from time to time seek to distinguish themselves
to the electorate.
76. Lord Falconer of Thoroton thought
that departures from collective responsibility weaken "the
authority of the Prime Minister and the Government. It makes members
of the Government think not 'What is best for the Government?',
but 'What is best for my faction or me in the Government.' That
is hugely damaging."
Dr Felicity Matthews, Lecturer in Governance and Public Policy
at the University of Sheffield, thought that the specific issues
for which collective responsibility would be set aside should
be clearly specified and agreed in advance. She said the "ad
hoc suspension of collective responsibility erodes stability".
Dr Andrew Blick said that the setting aside of collective responsibility
"should not be treated as though [it is] a permanently available
option ... There is a real danger that suspensions of collective
responsibility could come to be regarded as the easier alternative
to difficult policy discussions."
Instead, he argued they should be used only when every other possible
means of reaching collective agreement had been exhausted; at
that point the Cabinet as a whole should agree to differ, with
the setting aside of collective responsibility time-limited and
ministers bound by clear rules as to how they expressed their
77. Collective responsibility
has served our constitution well. It promotes collective decision-making
and ensures Parliament is able to hold the Government effectively
to account for its actions, policies and decisions. It should
continue to apply when there is a coalition government.
78. We recognise that the parties
in a coalition government will not automatically agree on everything;
from time to time they will differ. However, it is incumbent on
ministers to seek to reach a collective view on issues wherever
possible. Having reached a collective view, it is essential that
they can be held to account for it. Given its constitutional importance,
the setting aside of the convention of collective responsibility
should be rare, and only ever a last resort.
79. Where it is clear that no
collective position can be reached on an issue, a proper process
should be in place to govern any setting aside of collective responsibility.
Such setting aside should be agreed by the Cabinet as a whole
and be in respect of a specific issue. Ordinarily it would be
for a specified period of time; rules should be set out by the
Prime Minister governing how ministers may express their differing
views. This process should be drawn up by the Prime Minister and
Deputy Prime Minister for the remainder of this Parliament, and
should be set out in future coalition agreements.
Cabinet committees and the Quad
80. When the coalition Government
came into office, arrangements were put into place to ensure that
there were formal processes for collectively agreeing policy between
the parties. As regards the establishment of cabinet committees,
their membership and terms of reference were agreed jointly by
the Prime Minister and the Deputy Prime Minister. The chairs and
deputy chairs of cabinet committees would always be from separate
parties. The Prime Minister and the Deputy Prime Minister would
both have a full and contemporaneous overview of the business
of government, with each having the power to commission papers
from the Cabinet Secretariat.
81. A Coalition Committee was also
established. This is a cabinet committee composed of six Conservative
ministers and six Liberal Democrat ministers. Its terms of reference
are to manage the business and priorities of the Government, and
to oversee implementation of the coalition agreement. The chair
or deputy chair of any cabinet committee has a right to refer
an issue to the Coalition Committee. Thus it was envisaged that
the Coalition Committee would be the main forum for resolving
disputes between the parties. To that end Oliver Letwin MP assumed
that it would meet frequently.
82. In fact the Coalition Committee
has reportedly met only twice.
That is largely because its role has been displaced by the Quadthe
informal name for meetings between the Prime Minister, Deputy
Prime Minister, Chancellor of the Exchequer and Chief Secretary
to the Treasury. David Laws described the Quad "almost as
an inner Cabinet ... [sorting] out many of the thorniest issues."
The Quad is, where appropriate, supplemented by other ministers;
and it sits alongside more routine bilateral meetings between
the centre of government and departments. It has, though, been
criticised as the coalition version of "sofa government".
83. Ministers are appointed by the
Queen, acting on the royal prerogative following the advice of
the Prime Minister. Under single-party government the Prime Minister
has complete discretion over which parliamentarians he or she
makes ministers, and when they are dismissed; the constraints
are political considerations within the governing party. Under
a coalition, the Prime Minister's powers in this area are openly
constrained by the "dual" leadership of the Government.
This "dual" leadership is unusual, as deputy prime ministers
(when the position has been filled at all) have tended also to
hold other Cabinet-level portfolios rather than having a cross-government
remit and chairing cabinet committees.
By contrast the Coalition agreement on stability and reform
sets out that "the Prime Minister and Deputy Prime Minister
should have a full and contemporaneous overview of the business
The current Deputy Prime Minister therefore has a formal role
far beyond that held by his predecessors in single-party governments.
It remains to be seen whether this precedent will influence the
position of future deputy prime ministers in other governments.
84. The initial allocation of ministerial
portfolios in 2010 was agreed between the Prime Minister and the
Deputy Prime Minister. This took place after the coalition had
been formed and the initial coalition agreement drawn up. David
Laws MP told us that a lesson of coalition-forming from Scotland
and elsewhere was that policy should be agreed before the apportionment
of jobs, as otherwise negotiators "might be tainted by which
party was offering them the plummiest job."
Ministerial positions were allocated in approximate proportion
to the sizes of the two parliamentary parties in the House of
85. The Coalition agreement for
stability and reform provided that future allocations of ministerial
posts would be based on that proportion, and that the Prime Minister
would nominate Conservative ministers and the Deputy Prime Minister
Liberal Democrat ministers. Any changes to the allocation of portfolios
between the parties must be agreed between the Prime Minister
and the Deputy Prime Minister, and no Liberal Democrat minister
could be removed without "full consultation" with the
Deputy Prime Minister.
86. In most departments there is
a mix of Liberal Democrat and Conservative ministers. When the
coalition was first formed there were five departments with no
Liberal Democrat ministers; now there are three. David Laws MP
told us that the Liberal Democrats had made an active decision
to pursue breadth of ministerial representation across departments
rather than depth: he said that to have focused ministers in a
handful of departments would be "to colonise bits of a government
and ... be very detached from other areas. If we had been detached
from major departments such as the Treasury, there would have
been much more risk of the coalition parties parting company".
87. There have been anecdotal examples
of a secretary of state being unhappy with the appointment of
a junior minister from another party in his or her department.
However, we were told that this has happened in single-party governments,
and usually takes place for political reasons.
Although it may seem courteous and conducive to harmonious working
to consult a secretary of state before moving a junior minister
into his or her department, the constitutional position is that
it is for the Prime Minister to decide which ministers are appointed
in which departments.
88. It is clear that the powers
of a Prime Minister to make and dismiss ministers under a coalition
are significantly constrained. The Coalition agreement for
stability and reform provides that the ultimate advice to
the Queen on who to appoint or dismiss still comes from the Prime
Minister. That is in keeping with constitutional practice. Other
arrangements for appointing ministers are more a matter of politics
than of constitutional principle.
The House of Lords
89. The existence of a coalition
government affects the way that the House of Lords functions.
In recent years no political party has had a majority of members
of the House as a whole, or of the party-political members. Currently,
Conservative and Liberal Democrat peers combined have a majority
of party-political peers
but not an overall majority in the House when the non-affiliated
members and the Crossbench peers are included.
This is particularly significant due to the influence of Crossbenchers.
Baroness Royall of Blaisdon, the Leader of the Opposition in the
House of Lords, told us of her concern that the existence of a
political majority for the Government in the House of Lords meant
that it potentially "is now a House that simply rubber stamps
the programme of the Government", rather than revising and
This has not always been borne out by recent by recent experience.
90. Lord Strathclyde anticipated
before the 2010 election that he might be the Leader of the House
in a government with a small majority in the Commons, and that
his life "would be extremely difficult." In the event,
he thought that having a coalition made the job in the Lords "marginally
easier, although the House of Lords adjusted in order to take
coalition into account and remained as effective as it always
Professor Hazell observed that the House of Lords was a chamber
in which governments of any party did not have a majority, "so
it is used to the fact that the government has to construct a
coalition of support for each bill."
91. There are currently 26 ministers
and whips in the Lords. Of these, seven are Liberal Democrats.
There is only one member of the Lords in the Cabinet (the Leader
of the House), though another member of the Lords attends Cabinet.
There has been a gradual increase in the number of peers in government
posts over the last 35 years, though this is concomitant with
an increase in the overall number of ministers.
There is a statutory limit on the number of ministerial salaries
and nearly a third of ministers who are peers (eight out of 26)
are unpaid. There are only three ministers of state in the Lordsfewer
than at any time in the last 35 years. Lord Strathclyde said he
had hoped that there would be an adjustment to the lack of senior
ministers in the Lords over the course of the Parliamentin
fact there has been a decline.
92. The relative lack of senior
ministers in the House of Lords has two main consequences. First,
it means that ministers taking business through the Lords often
lack autonomy to take decisions in response to concerns expressed
by the House. Instead they have to go up the ministerial hierarchy
before securing a change of policy. Secondly, it means that the
voice of the House of Lords within departments, the Cabinet and
the government as a whole is lessened. We regret the decline
in the number of senior ministers in the House of Lords under
the coalition Government.
THE HOUSE OF LORDS AND THE COALITION
93. The Salisbury-Addison convention
is the name given to an understanding reached in 1945 between
the then Leader of the House, Viscount Addison, and the then Leader
of the Opposition, Viscount Cranborne (later the fifth Marquess
of Salisbury). It provided that the House of Lords would not block
government bills which implemented a commitment made in the Labour
party's manifesto at the 1945 election. Labour won that election
with a majority of 156; Conservative peers had a significant majority
amongst those members of the Lords who took a party whip.
94. In 2006 the Joint Committee
on Conventions noted that the Salisbury-Addison convention had
been largely observed since 1945 and concluded that it had evolved
in such a way that in the House of Lords a manifesto bill is accorded
a second reading, is not subject to "wrecking amendments"
and is passed and sent (or returned) to the House of Commons in
95. Between 1945, when the convention
was formulated, and 2010 there was no coalition government. Now
that there is, questions arise as to whether the convention applies;
and if so in what form. It cannot be said that any one party's
manifesto has been given a mandate through that party getting
a majority. Nor is it axiomatic that the coalition agreement can
be considered a substitute for a manifesto in considering whether
the convention should apply to any particular measure: in the
words of Viscount Cranborne in 1945, the understanding applied
to those measures which have been "definitely put before
96. Shortly after the general election,
Baroness Royall of Blaisdon expressed her view that the convention
did not apply to the coalition agreement. The then Leader of the
House argued that it did, because the agreement had the support
of a majority in the House of Commons, and most of the measures
in it were in the respective manifestos.
In evidence to us Lady Royall stated that the convention did not
apply to a measure such as the Health and Social Care Bill, because
it was neither in the coalition agreement nor the parties' manifestos.
However, she did not question the existence of the convention
generally, and said that it would be important in future in enabling
governments with a mandate to get their legislation through.
97. Several witnesses drew attention
to the practice noted by the Joint Committee on Conventions whereby
the House of Lords will usually give a second reading to any government
Hazell said that "the convention has come to apply to all
bills, and not just to bills mentioned in manifestos ... in allowing
government bills a second reading, the Lords are acknowledging
the democratic legitimacy of the elected chamber."
Lord Norton of Louth also acknowledged the development of the
convention in that way,
as did Lord Falconer of Thoroton.
It follows that this practice applies to governments of whatever
98. We conclude that the Salisbury-Addison
conventionwhereby bills foreshadowed in a government's
manifesto are given a second reading in the Lords, are not subject
to wrecking amendments and are passed in reasonable timedoes
not, strictly speaking, apply to measures in a coalition agreement.
This is because a coalition agreement cannot be said to have a
mandate from the electorate in the way that a manifesto can.
99. However, if all parties in
a coalition made the same or a substantially similar commitment
in their manifestos, then they should be entitled to the benefit
of the Salisbury-Addison convention in respect of that commitment.
100. We recognise that a practice
has evolved that the House of Lords does not normally block government
bills, whether they are in a manifesto or not. There is no reason
why this practice should not apply when there is a coalition government.
64 Q23. Back
The Ministerial Code provides that collective responsibility also
extends to parliamentary private secretaries (PPSs) to the extent
that they are expected to support the government in all important
divisions in Parliament, and that any PPS who votes against the
government cannot retain his or her position (para 3.9). Back
May 2010, paras 1.2.a and 2.3-2.4. Back
1st edition (October 2011), paras 4.1-4.4. Back
The Scottish Executive: a guide to collective decision-making,
June 2002, para 1.2. Back
Q47. There now appears to be a collective government position
on regulation of the press. Back
HC Deb, 15 May 2013, col 699. Back
"If the Queen's Speech is amended, the Prime Minister must
resign", New Statesman, 10 May 2013. Back
PPSs are expected to support the Government's position in Parliament;
see footnote 65. Back
Barber, written evidence, para 3.6. Back
For example, QQ47 and 70; Jones, para 5.1. Back
Matthews, para 11. Back
Blick, para 21. Back
Blick, para 22. Back
The previous coalition Deputy Prime Minister, Clement Attlee,
was Secretary of State for Dominion Affairs after his appointment
as Deputy Prime Minister (1942-43), but thereafter served only
in the latter role and (like Mr Clegg) as Lord President of the
Para 3.3. Back
The Coalition agreement for stability and reform does not
provide guidance on the procedure for the coalition parties to
agree machinery of government changes. There have not been any
substantial changes of this sort since 2010. In 2010 we recommended
that parliamentary scrutiny of machinery of government changes
should be enhanced: see The Cabinet Office and the Centre of
Government (4th Report, Session 2009-10, HL Paper 30), paras
At the time of writing the majority was 85, including peers who
take a party whip other than from the three main parties. Back
At the time of writing those members who do not take the Conservative
or Liberal Democrat whip have a majority of 138 over those who
do. However, differing levels of turnout amongst various groups
means that such statistics do not necessarily reflect the likelihood
of government victories or defeats. Back
At the time of writing the Government had been defeated in the
House of Lords 86 times in this Parliament. (Figure from http://www.parliament.uk/about/faqs/house-of-lords-faqs/lords-govtdefeats/.)
Hazell, para 12. Back
Baroness Warsi, the Senior Minister of State. Back
In 1970 there were 20 peers in government posts; in 2012 there
were 26. Over that period the total number of government posts
increased from 105 to 121. See House of Commons Library Standard
Note, Ministers in the House of Lords (SN/PC/05226, 15
November 2012). Back
Schedule 1 to the Ministerial and other Salaries Act 1975 limits
the number of ministerial salaries to 109. There are currently
121 ministers and whips, meaning 12 are unpaid. Schedule 2 to
the House of Commons Disqualification Act 1975 limits the number
of (paid or unpaid) ministers in the House of Commons to 95. Back
Joint Committee on Conventions, Conventions of the UK Parliament
(Session 2005-06, HL Paper 265, HC 1212), para 99 Back
HL Deb, 8 November 2010, col 8. Back
Op. cit., para 100. Back
Hazell, para 13. Back