A Minster is an individual who holds office in Her Majesty’s Government. A Minister is formally titled a ‘Minister of the Crown’, and referred to as such in legislation.
Ministers must be members of either the House of Lords or the House of Commons, though a Minister may be appointed prior to being formally sworn into the House of Lords.
The authority to appointment Ministers is a Royal Prerogative, performed by the Sovereign on the advice of the Prime Minister. Queen Victoria was the last monarch to exercise the power to appoint her own Ministers. There is no requirement for Ministers to be approved by Parliament.
In real terms, Ministers serve entirely at the pleasure of the Prime Minister, and may be summarily appointed or dismissed as the Prime Minister sees fit. This is usually performed during periodic ‘reshuffles’, but may occur at any time.
Ministers receive additional salary for holding office, and this job being separate from being an MP, they continue to hold office even after the dissolution of Parliament. For Members of Parliament this Ministerial supplement ranges from £75,000 for the Prime Minister, to £17,000 for junior Whips, paid on top of the £77,000 salary of a Member of Parliament. A number of Lords are typically appointed as junior Ministers to represent Government Departments in the House of Lords, and receive more substantial salaries as Lords do not otherwise receive an income.
Under the House of Commons Disqualification Act 1975, the total number of salaried Ministers may not exceed 109, of which no more than 95 may sit in the House of Commons.
Ministers can be divided into four categories. Those in italics attend Cabinet:
Most Ministers perform roles with direct Departmental responsibility, however there are a number of Minsters without Portfolio, to perform any duties required by the Prime Minister. The Government’s Party Chairman is customarily appointed as a Minister without Portfolio, with the right to attend Cabinet, though does not receive a Government salary.
Ministers are bound by the Ministerial Code, which requires:
The principle of collective responsibility requires that Ministers should be able to express their views frankly in the expectation that they can argue freely in private while maintaining a united front when decisions have been reached…
The internal process through which a decision has been made, or the level of Committee by which it was taken should not be disclosed. Neither should the individual views of Ministers or advice provided by civil servants as part of that internal process be disclosed. Decisions reached by the Cabinet or Ministerial Committees are binding on all members of the Government.
Ministers who wish to publicly contradict the position of Government are expected to resign. As Leader of the House of Commons, Robin Cook chose resign his position in 2003, stating:
‘I can't accept collective responsibility for the decision to commit Britain now to military action in Iraq without international agreement or domestic support.”
It is of paramount importance that Ministers give accurate and truthful information to Parliament, correcting any inadvertent error at the earliest opportunity. Ministers who knowingly mislead Parliament will be expected to offer their resignation to the Prime Minister;
For minor and inadvertent errors, Ministers are expected to issue a Ministerial Correction to Parliament as soon as the error has been identified.
In addition to the executive responsibilities outlined in the Code, Ministers provide the main component of the ‘payroll vote’ within Parliament and are required to vote in support of all Government business.
It is important that the powers of Ministers are clearly defined, to ensure their actions are within legal bounds. The powers Ministers can draw upon are:
Prerogative Powers originated from the powers of Sovereign, but are now exercised on the Sovereign’s behalf by Ministers.
Perogative Powers include the deployment of military forces and to enter into treaties with foreign Governments. Parliament may scrutinise and debate decisions made under Royal Perogative, but has no power to compel the Government to exercise them in the way Parliament desires.
If Parliament tables Bills that affect Royal Perogative powers, the Sovereign (acting on the advice of Ministers) must consent to the legislation progressing. This consent was withheld for the Military Action Against Iraq (Parliamentary Approval) Bill 1998-1999, which would have required Parliamentary approval for military action against Iraq. As the Bill would have infringed on the Prerogative Power for military action, Ministers advised against granting Queen's Consent, and the Bill could not proceed further.
In order to implement legislation, an Act of Parliament will grant powers to the Secretary of State, or more generally to Ministers of the Crown. These powers will be defined in the text of the legislation.
For example, the Civil Contingencies Act 2004 grants extremely broad powers to Ministers, should a state of emergency be declared
A Minister’s common law powers are not clearly defined, but have been broadly summarised as the power to do things which are ancillary or incidental to the ordinary business of central government, such as entering into contracts, paying rents or salaries and conveying property.
As being a Minister is an ‘office of profit under the Crown’. The Succession to the Crown Act 1707, disqualified Ministers from being a member of Parliament, unless they resigned and stood for re-election.
However, over time, Parliamentary accountability made Ministers increasingly likely to be appointed from the House of Commons, making the by-election process a tedious formality, with Ministers typically running unopposed.
The Great Reform Act 1832 made Ministers to stand for by election only on their initial appointment to the Government rather than on each and every appointment. In 1919 by-elections were only required once nine months had passed since a General Election, and in 1926 the requirement was abolished entirely.
Ministers will also receive a Government ‘Red Box’ for transportation of documents, and after an unfortunate tendency for such iconic objects to be ‘lost’ prior to elections, Ministers may now purchase their own as souvenirs of office.
1: Senior Ministers defined by Section 20 of the Civil Contingencies Act 2004 include the Lord Commissioners of the Treasury, the most junior of Government Whips and not particularly senior at all.