Balance between openness and government cohesion is just about right: Bell’s statement on collective responsibility

Allan Bell

Allan Bell

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Chief Minister Allan Bell today made a statement to Tynwald about collective responsibility.

Collective responsibility is the way most governments work in the Western world.

A cabinet or, in the Isle of Man’s case the Council of Ministers, thrashes out policies and members then defend that stance and vote accordingly.

If any member disagrees, they are expected to resign.

Without such a mechanism, coherent government would be impossible its proponents argue.

Peter Karran (Liberal Vannin, Onchan) was a member of the Council of Ministers at the start of Mr Bell’s government.

He was sacked when he opposed the CoMin policy, and therefore its collective responsibility, on the Pinewood Studios deal.

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Similarly, Zac Hall MHK and John Houghton MHK, who were political members of Mr Karran’s Department of Education were sacked when they refused to support their boss (and collective responsbility within the department) on privatising pre-schools.

Dudley Butt MLC wouldn’t accept the department position on that issue either but he resigned.

In the UK, although there is currently a coalition government, both Conservative and Liberal Democrat members of the cabinet (and the wider government) are expected to accept and support the agreed policies or leave the government.

Mr Bell’s statement today:

The Council of Ministers has welcomed the opportunity to review the current system of collective responsibility and, in accordance with the resolution passed at the March sitting of this Honourable Court, it gives me pleasure to report on the outcome of Council’s review today.

I think it is important from the outset to be clear about what the Council of Ministers was asked to do. The resolution did not question the importance of collective responsibility as a central principle of good government; rather, it sought to investigate alternative systems for making its enforcement more open, transparent and democratic. It implied, therefore, that more could be done to improve the operation and use of collective responsibility.

Since the March sitting, the Council of Ministers has fully considered this matter in some detail, on two separate occasions, based on a comprehensive report which has been circulated to Honourable Members for information, prepared by the Minister for Home Affairs, who Honourable Members will recall, seconded the original motion. I would like to place on record the Council of Ministers’ appreciation of the work undertaken by the Minister in this regard.

The report considered by Council set out the background to, and evolution of, the doctrine of collective responsibility in the Isle of Man and in other jurisdictions, including Northern Ireland, which was viewed as a potential model to follow in the remarks made by the mover of the motion, the Honourable Member for Douglas South, Mrs Beecroft. The Minister’s report also considered related factors, that are relevant to the Isle of Man, including the absence of party politics and the so called ‘block vote’ in addition to the operation of the doctrine in a Manx context, the decisions that it applies to, its exceptions and how it has been enforced.

Madam President, after detailed consideration of the matter the Council of Ministers has concluded that there were no fundamental issues with the current system of collective responsibility which need to be addressed at the current time.

However, I can confirm that this conclusion, as well as being properly considered, was by no means unqualified. I can advise this Honourable Court that, in Council’s opinion, there are a number of reasons for maintaining the current system of collective responsibility:-

in its simplest form, collective responsibility exists to provide certainty and cohesion to Government so that the public can hold Government to account. The resultant stability has the added benefit of helping to maintain business and investor confidence;

it provides an essential safeguard against the concentration of too much power in the hands of one person;

it helps ensure joined up government and diminishes silo thinking;

it enables policy to be developed in an environment where ideas, options and opinions can be privately considered, assessed and challenged; and

it is not a contentious matter in the vast majority of the decisions that are put before the Council of Ministers and, ultimately, Tynwald.

The comparisons between the Manx model of collective responsibility and those currently operating across the United Kingdom and beyond, which were considered by Council, demonstrate clearly that the Isle of Man is by no means an isolated example; various systems of collective responsibility operate successfully across the various jurisdictions and in many cases have done so for a considerable period of time and this is very much “the norm”. Indeed, the Manx system proved to be about the most flexible of those looked at with the most opportunity for Ministers to express their personal views.

It is interesting to note that the States of Jersey, which has operated a Ministerial system of Government without collective responsibility, has recently voted to introduce such a system following two years of consultation.

In addition, Guernsey has had a Committee system with Ministerial titles since 2004 and collective responsibility has been advocated as part of a wider review of the Ministerial system, which is due to report this summer.

In both cases, those jurisdictions to which we are most closely related to, from a constitutional point of view, are moving towards the Isle of Man model rather than away from it.

Perhaps the key point in Council’s consideration of whether or not there needs to be a change – and a point that was acknowledged by the mover of the motion – is that we are not looking at a static position; the operation of collective responsibility in the Isle of Man continues to evolve. Whilst it may be the perception of some that the doctrine should be more open, transparent and democratic there are various mechanisms which have been put in place which evidence a willingness for, and commitment to, its continuous improvement. For example:-

a smaller Council of Ministers has redressed some of the criticisms of the ‘block vote’, although it is generally recognised that Governments need to have sufficient strength from which to implement their policy priorities;

• An Agenda for Change, debated and supported by this Honourable Court in an open and democratic manner, clearly sets out the Government’s priorities and the issues on which the Council of Ministers has formed a collective view;

• the Policy Review Committees of Tynwald, which ensure that policy changes, particularly in such challenging times, are properly understood and examined are now an embedded part of our system;

• the split between Council of Ministers and Departmental collective responsibility conventions is a natural consequence of the Isle of Man’s consensus government, where most politicians are invited to take a Government role, and it is evident that more open dialogue is taking place between Ministers and Honourable Members on policy issues;

• the size of the political memberships of Departments is such that it is not enough to guarantee the outcome of most Government motions in Tynwald;

• the freedom afforded to Ministers to have a ‘free vote’ over parliamentary and constitutional matters is a strength of the Manx system;

• since 2007 a summary of the proceedings of the Council of Ministers has been published on a quarterly basis;

• the performance management website provides publicly accessible performance information which gives a summary of government’s priorities and a snapshot of how it is performing against them; and

• from time to time requests are received for the release of Council proceedings to scrutiny and select committees and the Council of Ministers takes an open and transparent approach to such requests.

Madam President, a final point to make about the current operation of collective responsibility, particularly in respect of its openness and transparency, is that the Council of Ministers’ approach to it is published in the Government Code; it is in the public domain for all to see. Moreover, the Code clearly sets out the exceptions to the rule when it is acceptable for Ministers to speak publicly against policies and decisions by Council or without reference to it. The published exceptions are matters of conscience, a declared position, constituency matters, inconsequential matters and unresolved issues.

Moreover, these exceptions are equally relevant to Members of Departments and their collective responsibility for Departmental policies. In codifying the exceptions to the rule of collective responsibility, the Isle of Man is more advanced than other jurisdictions in its openness and transparency.

Madam President, the Tynwald resolution at the March sitting provided a timely opportunity to review the scope and operation of collective responsibility in the Isle of Man. I would like to thank the Honourable Member for South Douglas for moving the motion. The Council of Ministers, instead of voting against the motion, has embraced the opportunity provided for it and has conducted a comprehensive audit of the current position. I accept that some Honourable Members might be disappointed by the conclusions which Council has reached, but I hope that this statement has set out the reasons why we have reached the conclusions which we have.

We are not dealing with a static position when considering the doctrine of collective responsibility in the Isle of Man; it has evolved and will continue to evolve over the coming years and the Council of Ministers is of the view that at this moment in time the balance between openness and Government cohesion is just about right.

More on this story in Thursday’s Manx Independent.

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