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Government: Collective Responsibility

Volume 695: debated on Thursday 25 October 2007

asked Her Majesty’s Government:

Whether the doctrine of Cabinet collective responsibility applies to Her Majesty’s current Ministers.

My Lords, in that case, may we assume that the former First Sea Lord and Chief of Naval Staff, the noble Lord, Lord West of Spithead, now agrees with the proposed cuts in the Royal Navy, against which he argued so fervently before he took up his present appointment?

My Lords, there is nothing wrong with anyone disagreeing or wishing to discuss issues of concern in the present roles that they occupy. It is perfectly appropriate. As the noble Lord will know well, when one is operating in a particular role, one should argue from that role and perspective. The point about collective responsibility is not that Ministers should not discuss, debate and argue from their perspectives as Ministers, as individuals and as heads of their areas of responsibility. The question is whether the decision has been made and, once made, that Ministers adhere to it.

My Lords, was not David Lloyd George, that great man, correct in 1918 when he observed that a Government were like an Army: that they might have individual detachments, but the important thing was unity of command? Do this Government have such a quality?

My Lords, I can speak only from experience, but my memory is that the idea of being a member of the Cabinet or of the Government is that one is supposed to sing from roughly the same hymn sheet. The noble Baroness talks about disagreement, but that is not usually the right course. Although Ministers can air their views, once they have reached a decision, there should not be any disagreement. We seem to have here instances of Ministers flatly disagreeing with each other. Is that a new exemption? Is there a new rule prevailing?

My Lords, there is no suggestion that the reference made by the noble Lord, Lord Trefgarne, to my noble friend related to when my noble friend was a Minister. The noble Lord referred to the position when my noble friend had a different role. I have said that that is completely reasonable. Noble Lords would expect governments, in reaching decisions, to have debates, disagreements and arguments when considering what is before them. Once having reached agreement, the noble Lord is right: agreements should stand.

My Lords, I hesitate to give all the historical references that the phrase might have, but noble Lords opposite may well be able to enlighten us.