Why Ministers are less practically accountable than Judges – and how the accountability gap is the most fundamental problem in United Kingdom government and politics

29th March 2021

Many will have Very Strong Opinions about the basic ills in the United Kingdom political system.

Some will point to individual politicians (Thatcher, Blair, Johnson, Corbyn, Farage etc) or political parties (Tories!).

Others will point to political ideas (Brexit, Remain, Centrism, neo-liberalism, ‘woke’-ism).

A minority will aver that there are structural failures – unelected head of state or upper chamber, the lack of proportional representation, and so on.

Perhaps these views are correct, but the more I write about the law and policy of the United Kingdom, the more there seems one particular fault in the conduct of public public affairs.


It is almost impossible – in practical terms – to hold many with executive power to account.

Of course, there is constitutional theory – such as the supposition that ministers are accountable to parliament.

But even typing or saying that  feels artificial if not ridiculous.

Ministers routinely avoid saying things to parliament and, if they do, they are adept at saying untrue, or misleading, or incomplete things.

And there is no real sanction if a minister does mislead or disregard parliament.

That ministers are accountable to parliament is not so much a constitutional principle, but a lack of a principle.

It is a rhetorical cloak that hides the lack of any real accountability.

Contrast with, say, judges.

A judge has to give reasons for their decision – and those decisions must explain why they took that decision and not any other decision; the decisions of judges can be appealed or reviewed by other courts; and the law applied by a judge can be changed.

You may sneer at judges in their (daft) robes and wigs, but they are practically day-to-day accountable in at least three ways.

Ministers, in contrast, do not need to have reasons that add up for most of their decisions; they are free from having those decisions properly scrutinised by their political peers; and there is no real limit to what they can legislate if they are so minded.

And apart from the remote possibility of a legal challenge, or an eventual general election, they are safe from actual accountability.

There are various causes of this:

– the elective dictatorship of parliament, where the government also has control of the elected part of the legislature, is a primary cause;

– the lack (with a few notable exceptions) of a press that is geared to holding ministers to account rather than being a means of transmission of information from/about the government to the public;

– the hold that political parties continue to have in the recruitment and promotion of candidates;

– our tribal and increasingly hyper-partisan political culture;

– the increasing lack of care of voters about being lied to by ministers – for, as this blog has previously averred, there is no practical point exposing the lies of ministers if people do not mind being lied to; and

– the absence – despite the Very Strong Opinions of constitutional hobbyists – of a consensus for what alternative constitutional arrangements would be an improvement.

(‘We demand a written constitution’ say those who rarely then explain how a written constitution would not just be an opportunity by the executive to entrench its own power.)

An index of how weak our constitution is in respect of accountability is how, when things go wrong, it is customary to demand a public inquiry.

For if our constitutional worked well in respect of accountability then there would be proper scrutiny at the time – and public inquiries would be an exceptional event.

Mere exposure of problems is not enough – indeed, few of those who think anything about our public affairs will be unaware of many of the problems.

It is instead an everyday failure to get ministers to engage with those problems, to explain what went wrong and to say how the problems can be addressed – the very stuff of accountability.

So many things in our political system now point away from this lack of accountability being fixed quickly.

And so the accountability gap widens and widens.

Brace, brace.


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33 thoughts on “Why Ministers are less practically accountable than Judges – and how the accountability gap is the most fundamental problem in United Kingdom government and politics”

  1. Thank you – This blog is about the United Kingdom, and is providing invaluable insight to a French National who has lived here for 12 years. I have seen the trend of what is often referred to in this blog.

    My question is: is it only the United Kingdom? I see the same lack of accountability in France, and that annoys me greatly. Lies are frowned upon but there is not accountability inherent to telling them. The politics is handled by the ” Communication consultants”, and since Head of state and Parliament have the same election schedule – the parliament looks like a mere puppet of the executive function.
    I am, I think, fine with an unelected head of state in many respect – they are the long term and represent the country for the long term, the essence of it.
    I do not see value in the role of both a president and prime minster in France the way it’s used today ( especially as the system to elect MPs is similar to the one in the UK, favouring big parties for stability – a party getting 25/30% of the votes can end up with no MP at all which means the Parliament does not represent the country and the people are defiant of it)
    Talking about France because I know it well, but is it just the UK, or this lack of accountability is present in most parliamentary democracies?

        1. Furthermore, the press, i.e. Telegraph and Mail, determines what that level of accountability is going to be. It’s naive to think otherwise.

      1. There are elections in Iran, Poland and Hungary. There are elections in Russia and Belarus. There is a lot more to accountability and democracy than putting periodic crosses on ballot papers.

      2. I disagree and how can politicians be held accountable when they break election promises in the four or five years after an election and do untold damage as they go along?

  2. There is accountability: money. So long as someone is willing to finance their parties, on they go.

    Also, there is the revolving door, Ministers want consultancy and non-exec board jobs to go to after politics.

  3. Folk take for granted that they have the right to have a decision concerning them, both explained and justified when it is made.

    Equally, people expect some right of appeal against a decision with which they disagree.

    The onus is felt to be on authority to explain a decision, justify it and allow an appeal against it.

    Members of Parliament routinely make the case for their constituents to have decisions explained, justified and reviewed by bodies, public, private and voluntary.

    They even pass legislation on the matter.

    I am, however, reminded of Tony Benn, who waxed lyrical about a mandatory retirement age for judges, but who never once, to my knowledge, spoke of a similar measure for MPs.

  4. This is right, and very well expressed, but it occurs to me that a large part of the reason not enough people care for things to change is exactly because there is no real accountability. “What’s the point?” We all might as well ignore them and get on with our lives as best we can.

    The lack of any real accountability has to be related to poor representation. I live in a very safe Tory seat. The MP won’t even accept emails, though he does reply promptly (usually by disagreeing) to the very few of his constituents who send him an old fashioned letter. He has absolutely nothing to fear from the electorate, even though most voters in the constituency do not vote for him, not even bothering to turn out. Whatever his performance, whatever the government he supports does, he will be there as long as he wishes, unless he falls out of favour with those who run his party. That’s why ministers can simply do as they wish and why, apart from occasional ego-trips and factional campaigns by backbenchers, which rarely advance anyone’s interests but their own, the government with a majority in the House has absolute power.

    PR won’t solve all the problems, nor will any other single constitutional change, but until MPs in Parliament better represent the people, and there is a real chance of the balance shifting in response to what people care about and what they think of the government, things will not change for the better.

    1. I agree up to a point, but how an MP works for their constituents with regards to cases brought to them, does seem to depend in part upon their particular inclinations rather than necessarily how free they feel from risk at election time, if they pay little or no attention to their constituency work.

      I have known of Labour MPs with sizeable majorities who have taken a less than committed approach to casework, but others equally secure who have taken a very serious approach.

      And I have particular experience of a senior Tory MP with a good majority, who was not slow in taking up constituency cases.

      The personal service constituents get from MPs is very variable and they cannot be held accountable for its quality, because there is no OffMP to whom to complain.

      However, I am aware that some individual constituents and groups of constituents are more equal than others. Those with the sharpest elbows, invariably drawn from the middle class, do sometimes manage to make an MP, even in a safe seat, accountable to them.

  5. Agree about accountability being the biggest issue with UK politics and would suggest that the largest factor in this is the fourth estate as it is currently constituted.

    The legacy print media which, it has to be said, has an unjustified amount of leverage with the broadcast media considering its declining readership, is currently very good at holding individual members of the public to account but, for reasons that are obvious to anyone paying attention, seems very reticent in holding a similar lens to members of the Conservative government. Two recent examples (there are many) : –

    The Barnard Castle affair – for a brief few days last summer it looked like the print media were going to force Cummings’ resignation then they simply stopped pressing the issue. It was almost as if his resignation would have had a cascade affect that they decided was not in their interests.

    DePfeffel’s affair with Arcuri – this has simply never had the press scrutiny that it deserves despite the joint improprieties of adultery and financial “irregularities”. As with the quickly and quietly dropped in-car eye testing debacle, it is not in the Press’s interest to put undue pressure on their man.

    And that’s the issue, DePfeffel is their man, They managed to get their man into the role of PM and they are going to do their best to keep him their so long as his interests align with theirs. What we need in this country is an actual free press, we haven’t got one now and I can’t really remember a time when we did.

  6. “the hold that political parties continue to have in the recruitment and promotion of candidates”.

    You make it sound more organised and professional than it quite often turns out to be.

    My CLP has been suspended for over twenty years now.

    We reselect our MP as our candidate, he is safe for life, barring accidents, with the police in attendance to avoid any repeat of the behaviour that got us suspended in the first place.

    Despite that, we get him re-elected with a vote that you might as well weigh as count.

    By and large, activists do not talk on the record about selection processes.

    As far as I can work out, legislation designed to create fairness in recruitment to employment does not apply when selecting a candidate.

    I do know one of the weird anomalies of our electoral system is that whilst the moving of a writ for a Parliamentary by election, caused by the death of a sitting MP is down to the party which he represented, if he had been instead a Councillor, a handful of registered voters in his Ward may move the writ, if they complete the right form.

  7. Absolutely right!

    Jonathan Haidt argues (I think correctly) that effective accountability has three vital elements:

    1. Decision makers learn before forming any opinion that they will be accountable to an audience.
    2. The audience’s views are unknown.
    3. The decision maker believes that the audience is well informed, and interested in both fairness and accuracy.

    Ministers’ supposed accountability to Parliament fails the second and third tests. Judges’ and tribunals’ accountability to appeal courts passes all three tests.

  8. I had always undertood that Select Committees hold government departments to account, so (some) matters can at least be ventilated, although the government is free to ignore what they report.
    On the bigger issue, our governments are fixed-term dictatorships held to account by the electorate. But when a tribal two party system gives the electorate a choice between a Corbyn and a Johnson (or, across the pond, a Hillary Clinton and a Trump) then the fault goes deeper than mere UK ministerial accountability.

  9. Good examination of this problem.
    If proportional representation of any kind were to happen, the press and the public would need educating about what it means and how coalitions work for the idea to have any hope. This (sometimes deliberate) misunderstanding contributed to the failed 2010 coalition experiment and a return to two party politics.

    1. A Labour Party with MPs, like Jeremy Corbyn on its backbenches was a coalition.

      PR, if enacted, might well split parties that, courtesy of FPTP, function now as coalitions.

      Senator Vinick in the West Wing, observes that the Republican Party would split into three distinct political parties under a European electoral system.

  10. Two things spring to mind, easy fixes ?

    Get rid of the whip and introduce electronic voting.

    PM questions should be turned into a serious affair, not the current muppet show! New rules about an acceptable answers should be introduced across all parliamentary questions.

    1. A serious question, why do you think removing the whip would make MPs more accountable?

      Whipping came in as party lines solidified during the 19th Century.

      I am not convinced the unreformed 18th Century Parliament with its pocket boroughs and Sir Talbot Buxomlys, loyal to whomever the Monarch deigned to name his First Minister, was especially accountable to anyone.

      The tradition, back then, of a peer having a few MPs, at their beck and call, to look out for their interests in the House of Commons was revived in the 1980s by none other than the Duke of Westminster.

      A serious attempt was made to extend the right to buy to private tenants, but, fortunately for the Duke, it was estimated by the Guardian that some one hundred Tory MPs just happened to be tenants of his in London when Parliament was sitting.

      I am sure the generous terms on which they were believed to be leasing property from the Duke had no bearing on how they voted on the measure causing him such concern.

      Not so much a payroll vote as a rent roll vote.

      1. A serious question, why do you think removing the whip would make MPs more accountable?

        It – along with the aforementioned electronic (and anonymous) voting, would allow MPs to vote as their conscience dictates, rather than by party diktat.

        It might not solve the problem, but it would surely go a way towards helping…

        1. To get elected MPs need a party machine in their constituency, funding and boots on the ground. Folk who will campaign for them all year round, in good weather and bad.

          If they are not whipped by the party and not all whips are three line, by the way, then they may be expected to be asked to justify how they vote by their constituency officers, if not the wider membership.

          That is how Tony Benn thought it should be done.

          Members of Parliament as delegates of their constituency parties.

          Anonymous voting by MPs is hardly democratic, like justice, voting in Parliament should not only be done, but seen to be done.

          If your MP may vote anonymously then how do you know they are voting with their conscience and not at the behest of another party other than say constituents to whom they have said they will vote in a particular way, on a specific issue?

          Electronic voting is credible, but one would miss the wearing of top hats during a division and an MP sprinting through both the Aye and No lobbies to clearly indicate they are neither for nor against the measure being voted upon.

  11. Exactly this.

    As an employee I am subject to more accountability for my actions than Ministers are for theirs due to the terms of my contract.

    It does make you wonder how far everyone is prepared to let this go, brace brace indeed.

  12. Ministers are accountable to the courts for many of their decisions. Where they are empowered by statute to make decisions, statute usually requires them to do it in a certain way. And then the court enforces that. You reminded us of this by citing The Judge Over Your Shoulder the other day, while also discussing an attempt to weaken this same accountability another day.

    If you don’t have the power to make bad decisions, you don’t have much power at all. This is the conundrum of democracy. It doesn’t amount to much if voting for people doesn’t empower them.

    They also have power to promote and pass bad legislation. The courts have no scrutiny there. But they usually go through consultations and third readings all that, and so we can see them ignoring wise advice.

    But having been held to account for decisions under statute, they are increasingly passing legislation where statute holds them to less account. David Blunkett and Michael Howard lost many court cases as Home Secretary.

    In the specific case of the Shamima Begum removal of nationality decision you recently discussed, statute gave the minister the power to take a view on certain things, and act on those views. The Supreme Court reminded the Appeal Court of this. That is true of many or all judicial review situations. The minister or official has the power to come to a decision based on certain views. The court does not seek to substitute its own view on such things for the minister’s view, it is not the court’s job to have such views. But they do check that they are at least present. Exceptionally if they think the views or conclusions drawn from it are so wrong no reasonable person could have done it, then they send it back to be remade.

    So we were told of the minister’s views that there was a security risk, and that SB had another nationality. We can find those views exceedingly questionable. But at least we got to see them. That provided at least part of the accountability you referred to.

    But we don’t need a minister to decide if someone has a second nationality. That should not be a matter of political discretion, like security has to be. That’s the problem. They surely designed that Act deliberately to ensure that what should have been a legal test became purely a matter of the minister’s discretion.

  13. In UK politics, first past the post really is the root of all evil.

    Maybe it jumps out to me because I am a foreigner, but the dynamics of UK politics is deformed tremendously by FPTP. Brexit? Happened only because in FPTP a minority party getting, say, 15% of the vote can pose an existential threat to a mainstream party. Populism destroying the conservative party and the labour party (nearly) from within? Only because they cannot split. Lack of accountability? Only because there is never a coalition partner more than willing to throw another party’s minister under the bus by withdrawing its support from the government. A public broadcaster pressured by a single party? Same reason. And so on.

    The claim is certainly too bold for this great and measured blog, but before dismissing it completely ask yourself how many populists are in government in the rest of Northwestern Europe? As far as I know the governments in Ireland, Scandinavia, the Benelux, France and Germany are all still relatively… rational.

    1. I agree. Coalition government is probably as close to a representative democracy as we can get. Don’t rely on the results of FPTP elections to produce a balanced outcome. My constituency invariably elects a Lib Dem or Tory. The current Lib Dem incumbent does an excellent job but will not get into government. Her predecessor, now a Lord, is currently in government on the basis of where he went to school.

    2. I tend to agree on balance that PR is better than FPTP. But maybe as an unrepresented centrist I would say that wouldn’t I.

      There is no theoretical “best” voting system when there are more than 2 options to choose between, as Arrow’s theorem proves, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Arrow%27s_impossibility_theorem. Any system can equally lead to a mess. What works best depends on the circumstances, and your own opinion of what is best.

      Much of Europe has an issue with populists, often synonymous with the hard right. In Hungary and Poland they are in power. In the Netherlands and Finland they have occasionally held the balance of power, but fell back in the most recent elections there. In France, the National Front has twice been the presidential run-off candidate. They will remain an issue across the region.

      What would it have been like if the 2017 election had been PR? Would Farage have held the balance of power? The consequences of that election were terrible enough, perhaps you don’t think it could be worse.

      Belgium had no national government at all for an extended period recently. In general it is a posterchild for the problems of irreconcilable divisions, not rational government. It has fortunately had the sense to devolve almost everything to the squabbling regions. But they do mostly think of themselves as Belgians, which is perhaps why it hasn’t completely fallen apart, yet. Similar things can be said about federal Germany. That isn’t as true in this country or Spain.

  14. I am riddled and fascinated by the ancient UK Gov structures and learn with every Blog from you Mr Green
    I am in no way really able to contribute to this debate.
    But one thing which I see as the biggest difference to us continental Country is.
    The UK is a parliamentary MONARCHY and not a constitutional Democracy from the people for the people
    in my view

  15. In the medical world whatever is done has to be recorded; there has to be an “audit trail” on the basis that if it isn’t written down, then it didn’t happen. In part, of course, this is part of a defence to a claim of negligence.

    Medics also have to go before an appointments panel, and are expected to remain “up to date” through continuing medical education. They can be sanctioned by the Regulator, the General Medical Council.

    You can see parallels with the legal world; judges have to describe a “trail” of how they come to their sentencing decisions; they are today appointed by a panel, not “on the nod”.

    Look to politicians; they do have to pass selection panels, but this is based on their views, not on their competencies. The prime minister is chosen as the best person to lead the party to election victory, not on their abilities to govern.

    Why are politicians so different from other professions? They don’t have to pass “professional examinations”, they don’t have to “keep up to date”, there isn’t a professional regulator to keep them on their toes. If there is a set of “core competencies” for an MP or a Minister or even a Prime Minister, what then are these competencies?

    How can we even begin to hold MPs accountable unless we know what competencies they are expected to have so that we can compare their actions to those that they are supposed to represent?

  16. This sort of power is not given, it is taken. If you are in the business of taking power then you don’t want some nosey parkers putting constraints on, it you who must be doing the constraining.

    The UK took its power from an incumbent monarch, and not all at once, there were still some awkward outliers to deal with. Gradually they were ‘constrained’. So small monder we have what is in effect a monarchy-lite, a natural result of being an early adopter of ‘parliamentary democracy’.

    The French and the Germans followed a later and by a different path, the Americans were able to attempt the avoidance of everyone elses mistakes – imperfectly it seems.

    Right now the Tories are on a high and there will not be much constraining, but give a fool enough rope… As for how to control those on top – as the Irishman said – I wouldn’t start from here.

  17. Very much agree with all this. And yet so much of the Brexit sovereignty argument was hung on the accountability of ministers to Parliament and the accountability of Parliament to the electorate. Both appear to be comfortable mirages, especially in the substantial absence of an independent media and of a widespread belief that government plays a vital role truly matters. This has been systematically undermined over the last 40 years.

  18. To paraphrase what a senior politician once said to me
    “We need solutions brother, not problems” – see my previous comments on the Nolan Principles http://www.standardsinpubliclifecommission.ky/nolan-principles
    Bit like saying we do have a constitution – we do have solutions re accountability – just not the leadership and processes to implement
    Oh and as long as the system for holding the decisions of judges to account is broken https://www.criminaljusticehub.org.uk/news/report-of-westminster-commission-on-miscarriages-of-justice/- I for one cannot possibly agree they are better than politicians!

  19. “the increasing lack of care of voters about being lied to by ministers – for, as this blog has previously averred, there is no practical point exposing the lies of ministers if people do not mind being lied to”

    What is the point of caring when you can do nothing about it? It’s not so much that people don’t care but that it doesn’t matter if you do.

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