The wrong time to resign

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Public Policy Editor

Ministers should not resign unless they are personally responsible for what went wrong, or should have known about the issue, Michael Heseltine, the Deputy Prime Minister, said yesterday.

He told MPs on the Commons Public Services Committee that he accepted the distinction that Sir Robin Butler, the Cabinet Secretary, has drawn between ministerial "accountability" and "responsibility": that they are accountable for their departments but only responsible for errors and failures where they had been personally involved.

"Where you get culpability for ministers is where they personally did know, or should have known," Mr Heseltine said, "or having known, they took decisions that led to consequences which they would find difficult to defend."

He argued that that applied to Lord Carrington's "very honourable" resignation over the Argentinian invasion of the Falkland Islands, a case where the then Foreign Secretary did not know that was about to happen, but where "he could have known, if he had seen the warning signs". His evidence came as Giles Radice, the committee chairman, said it now plans a series of hearings into ministerial and civil service responsibility and accountability in the wake of the Scott and Nolan reports.

Questioned on his role and whether he had "real power" as Deputy Prime Minister, Mr Heseltine said he had "influence" .