Ministerial responsibility is a joke!

Picture this. In late October 1992, a French court convicted three former health officials on charges of distributing tainted blood that resulted in the infection of more than 4,000 people, many of them haemophiliacs. The tainted blood was infected with the virus which causes AIDS. The end result was that by 1992, 273 individuals had died (since then most of the contaminated have died).

Interestingly the transfusions were done prior to the discovery of the link between HIV, AIDS and blood. Yet, persons in authority were held accountable. Among the persons charged were Michel Garretta, former head of the National Blood Transfusion Centre who was given a four-year sentence, while his deputy Jean-Pierre Allain received a two-year sentence. They were also ordered to pay US$1.8 million each in compensation to those who had contracted AIDS and their families.

Not even a former prime minister was immune from the responsibility of the blood contamination and seven years later, former prime minister Laurent Fabius and one of his ex-ministers were charged and tried although subsequently acquitted of manslaughter. Not so lucky was the former health minister Edmond Herve, who was convicted for his role in the contamination of two of seven persons who were given HIV-tainted blood in 1985 when he served as health minister.

Specifically, these three politicians were alleged to have delayed the introduction of a US blood-screening test in France until a rival French product was ready to go on the market. So market expediency and pure economics were elevated above peoples’ lives. Were the judgments just? Perhaps not! But the courts sent a powerful message to public officials that they would be held accountable.

Around the same time period (1974-1991), nearly 3,000 people in Scotland were infected with hepatitis C from infected blood and 60 people with HIV. While no minister of government or senior government official was held accountable like their French counterparts, following the release of the Penrose report in 2015, then prime minister of Britain David Cameron pledged £25 million towards compensation for the victims of the contamination. Indeed, the 1800-page report merely recommended that the Scottish government assisted all who had a blood transfusion prior to September 1991 to get tested.

But Westminster in the United Kingdom (UK) is not always so outrageous, as this fiasco represented a major failing of the state. The UK has a record of holding ministers to account and so we have the case, for instance, of Edwina Currie who in 1988 twice publicly implied that eggs in Britain were contaminated with salmonella. Not surprisingly, the poultry industry took a hit and the minister resigned (though in her letter of resignation, she did not explain her remarks nor did she offer any apology), whilst the government announced a £19 million support to egg producers. That is accountability! And there are other notable examples of ministers accepting personal responsibility.

We can say that Government’s decision to pay CLICO clients for the misdoings of the company is exemplary, notwithstanding the fact that Government is clearly in dire financial straits. After all, we cannot as yet receive our tax refunds (money owed to citizens), due some three years. But that is an example of collective responsibility.

The Currie and salmonella egg affair did not end there, for poultry farmers sued the former junior minister for damages for slander of goods and/or malicious falsehood and/or negligent misstatement. Facing 12 lawsuits from the industry, Currie did not have to assume a legal defence at her own cost. For remember that as a minister of government, Currie was protected by the convention of collective responsibility and this convention continues to provide cover for Ministers after resignation, once actions and comments were not undertaken in a private capacity, or were done on behalf of the party.  So a distinction is made between government and party, the personal and public.

Westminster, and certainly one would expect the same of Westminster in the Caribbean, implies several things. Not only is government accountable for its actions, but individual ministers are accountable for the actions and behaviour of the departments which they head. But how to hold ministers accountable in the context of Westminster, especially in the Caribbean, is problematic, especially given the small size of the parliaments.

The expectation is that resignation is not beyond the pale nor is dismissal by the prime minister as we have sometimes seen. The latter, more often than not, occurring in a context of clear control of parliament by the ruling political party. But in many Caribbean jurisdictions with sometimes very balanced parliaments, such as in the case in Barbados, it is very unlikely that we will see this constitutional and political likelihood.

There are other forms of accountability and responsibility of ministers. Diana Woodhouse suggests that “amendatory responsibility” is a minimum expectation. In other words, not only are ministers expected to provide an explanation for events and actions but it is also anticipated that ministers will accept responsibility for their own shortcomings and that of their department.

In that regard, three levels of such “amendatory responsibility’ have been suggested, depending on the severity of the issue:

1. An apology to the parliament.

2. An announcement that corrective action has been taken. This would ensure that there is unlikely to be a repeat of the situation. It can also extend to the disciplining of the official in charge at the department.

3. Should the action have grave or serious consequences, as in the blood contamination in the UK, then some kind of financial compensation is in order.

But there is something called “sacrificial responsibility”, deemed by Woodhouse as the highest level of responsibility. This ought to be self-explanatory. In contrast to “amendatory responsibility”, the minister will submit his/her resignation.

I do not believe that regionally we have established protocols for resignations, but at a minimum, it is anticipated that under circumstances of a personal indiscretion or error, morally the minister should resign. Unfortunately this is not the case. So, for instance, we witnessed a minister of government (a senator and not an elected official) in St Lucia, exposed (almost naked) in a viral video with a young lady and the shenanigans of an alleged blackmail scheme and still one year later, the minister remains ensconced within the office of the prime minister. Contrastingly, the young lady at the centre of the scandal has been charged with blackmail.

This lack of responsibility can be compared to Cecil Parkinson, secretary for trade and industry in Britain, who in 1993 issued a public statement on his longstanding relationship with a female whom he had impregnated whilst married. At the end of the public furore, Parkinson had resigned. But culture is culture and the Caribbean is certainly fundamentally different to the UK. Were such revelations of a politician made in the Caribbean, there would not have been a whimper far less a brouhaha. Perhaps we would have seen a sneaky backhand comment in a section of the media, but no names would have been called and no one would have been condemned because such behaviour is normalized.

There have been many other notable examples of voluntary resignations in Commonwealth jurisdictions. The problem for many citizens is that there are serious departmental errors and inefficiencies for which no one is held responsible and so we have the national disgrace and travesty of the sewage scandal in this country and what do I mainly see? Government ministers angry at citizens, angry at the Opposition, while businesses suffer, the environment suffers, ordinary citizens suffer and are exposed to health risks that Government seeks to minimize whilst deflecting attention to the Opposition for “playing politics” and constantly playing the game blame. This is deliberate structured deflection.

Better is expected, some humility at a minimum is anticipated even though resignation or dismissal are unlikely. Ultimately, there appears to be something not quite right about the manner in which the principles of collective and individual responsibility are interpreted and practiced regionally. Responsibility and accountability cannot continue to be shirked and better communication from Government is expected.

Source: (Cynthia Barrow Giles is senior lecturer in political science at the University of the West Indies, Cave Hill)

One Response to Ministerial responsibility is a joke!

  1. Samuel Clemens January 4, 2018 at 8:40 pm

    Well Said.

    I would like to add that a fundamental difference between Caribbean institutions and our sisters institutions abroad is the ease of access to government officials that we have here as opposed to say, the UK.

    Because of the small size of our nations, many people know at least one person the works within the government machinery and if acknowledgment and acceptance of responsibility is not forthcoming, I believe that we should start holding these friends accountable outside of the official halls of government.

    After all, you would not greet with pleasure, someone who stole from you nor would you rely on a friend who constantly fails to deliver. It’s time to start distancing ourselves from these failures publicly and then perhaps the isolation will make the take responsibility for their failures.


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