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This House of Lords Library briefing provides background information on collective responsibility in government and recent developments. It also compares the agreements to differ in place for the 2016 EU referendum and during the 1975 referendum on the UK’s membership of the EEC.

Collective Responsibility

The principle of collective responsibility is set out in both the Ministerial Code and the Cabinet Manual and requires ministers to present a unified front in regard to decisions made by government. As part of this convention, ministers are able to express their views confidentially within government while supporting in public and in Parliament the decisions agreed by government. The Cabinet Manual states any minister who cannot accept government decisions “is expected to resign”. However, an exception to this rule can exist “where collective agreement is expressly set aside”.

Agreements to Differ

An exception to the normal rules regarding Cabinet collective agreement has been agreed further to the 23 June 2016 referendum on the UK’s membership of the European Union. The stated intention of this ‘agreement to differ’ was to allow for there to be a clear government position on the UK’s membership of the EU while at the same time allowing individual ministers to take different personal positions.

Previous examples of where exceptions to the principle of collective responsibility have been formally agreed are:

  • On the issue of tariff policy in 1932.
  • On the 1975 referendum on the UK’s membership of the European Economic Community.
  • On direct elections to the European Assembly in 1977.
  • On various issues under the 2010–15 Coalition Government, including the 2011 referendum on the alternative voting system for general elections, as agreed in the 2010 Coalition Agreement.

Civil Service Guidance

In 2016, the Government stated that, while ministers may hold their own views on the referendum, the role of the civil service should be to support the settled government position. The Cabinet Secretary and Head of the Civil Service, Sir Jeremy Heywood, issued guidance to civil servants on 23 February 2016. This guidance has been criticised by ministers opposed to the Government’s position regarding the referendum question, on the basis that it would lead to the withholding of documents by departmental civil servants from their Secretary of State.

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