May day is a constitutional marker
2 May 2012
May day has a number of associations – with the start of the northern summer, fertility and workers’ rights – among others. Perhaps it marks constitutional change also. 1 May 1707 was the commencement date of the Act of Union – the amalgamation of the Scottish and English Crowns and the “takeover” of the English government by Lowland Scots. A much less significant constitutional development occurred with the publication yesterday of Cabinet Circular CO (12) 3 – National-led Administration: Constitution and Operating Arrangements. Replacing CO (09) 7 with the same title (which is now on the cancelled circulars list) this new Circular confirms arrangements between the National Party and its three support parties.
The relationship of support party Ministers to Cabinet is set out, including their right to receive Cabinet Papers relevant to their portfolios. They may opt out of receiving such papers if they wish.
Incorporating Cabinet Manual practices, the Circular confirms that support parties are to be consulted about the legislative programme, major policy, budget parameters, and government appointments. It also confirms the meaning of Ministerial Responsibility regarding support party Ministers – that these Ministers are only bound by collective responsibility relating to their own portfolios. When they speak about matters outside their portfolio, they speak as political party leaders or MPs, and do not necessarily support the government position.
There is no reference in the Circular to an individual minister’s responsibility, or the consequences of the behaviour of a ministerial adviser to a support party Minister embarrassing the government. Neither is there clarification how chapter 3.21 of the Cabinet Manual about ministerial responsibility may be affected, nor mention of the injunction in chapter 3.17 that “… staff in Ministers’ offices must take care to ensure that they do not improperly influence matters that are the responsibility of others….” whatever that may mean.
Perhaps once underway, the review of ministerial responsibility and special advisors by the House of Lords Constitutional Committee will help our understanding. That Committee begins gathering oral evidence from expert witnesses later this month.