A convention is essentially a custom or tradition that has become so entrenched that it is obeyed almost as if it was a law.
The convention of individual ministerial responsibility requires that a minister be personally answerable to the Oireachtas for the exercise of power. The convention arises out of the democratic principle that only elected officials, and not the public-service workers (“civil servants”) who assist them in formulating policy and administering programs, should be held accountable for the functioning of Government. In other words, the errant civil servant was not elected into the job, and therefore cannot be voted out. Accordingly, the Minister as elected official must “carry the can” and resign when he no longer deserves the public’s confidence because of maladministration on his watch.
This means that if waste, corruption, or any other misbehaviour is found to have occurred within a ministry, the minister is responsible even if the minister had no knowledge of the actions. A minister is ultimately responsible for all actions by a ministry because, even without knowledge of an infraction by subordinates, the minister approved the hiring and continued employment of those civil servants. If misdeeds are found to have occurred in a ministry, the minister is expected to resign.
In its traditional form, the convention even demands that a minister should face criminal charges for any criminal conduct under his watch.
The principle is considered essential, as it is seen to guarantee that an elected official is answerable for every single government decision. It is also important to motivate ministers to closely scrutinize the activities within their departments. One rule coming from this principle is that each cabinet member answers for their own ministry in the Dail’s question time. The reverse of ministerial responsibility is that civil servants are not supposed to take credit for the successes of their department, allowing the government to claim them. Ministers are always very quick to poach this praise as their own, but this means they should be as quick to accept the axe when somebody in their department messes up.
The issue has arisen with the scandal that has erupted over the handling of Waterford’s University Hospital and the refusal to provide the hospital with a second cardiac unit based upon an amended risk rating where it is apparent to even a non-medical layperson that such a unit is desperately needed.
In case you do not know the story, I quote today’s Independent:
“Gardaí are to be asked to investigate how a critical change in University Hospital Waterford’s (UHW) key risk rating assessment was made.
The alteration, which was made outside Waterford and without the knowledge of UHW clinicians, is feared to have been a critical component in the subsequent decision by an independent expert not to sanction an expansion of strategic cardiac services at Ardkeen.
The Waterford hospital now faces the loss of key cardiac services and potential funding to Dublin and Cork.
Campaigner and European Parliament candidate Kieran Hartley confirmed he is to lodge a formal complaint with Waterford gardaí today once he has obtained legal advice.
“This isn’t just an issue of public safety, though clearly it has huge significance in that regard,” he said.
“This also potentially amounts to deception because a critical public health document was changed without reference to the people responsible for compiling it.
“My understanding is that the person believed to have made the temporary data change did not have the authority to do it.”
Experts stressed that a risk rating is arguably the single most important data assessed for a hospital.
The hospital board said it was “appalled” at the temporary change in critical cardiac risk assessment data.
One medic said such a change was “absolutely unprecedented” and queried its timing.”
It remains to be seen whether the DPP considers that the unauthorised alteration of the Risk Register was a criminal offence. If this is answered in the affirmative, then on a strict reading of the convention the Minister should face criminal charges. This is unlikely to happen, but at the very least the Minister should still bear political responsibility for the actions of senior officials in his Department.
Today ministers frequently use ignorance of misbehaviour as an argument for lack of culpability, but I would argue that in the instance of Minister Simon Harris and the actions of his department, this is not applicable as the Minister acted directly upon the product of the malfeasance, namely the unauthorised tampering of the risk register. Whilst Minister Harris was not aware of this tampering, nonetheless he used the reduced risk setting to justify not providing Waterford with a second cardiac unit. This was not a malfeasance that was distantly removed from the Minister, it directly determined his actions and consequently he was under a higher duty to ensure the accuracy of the information upon which he acted.