King Charles III has sent a Message to Parliament requesting an increase in the number of Counsellors of State who can act on his behalf.

This Insight looks at current provision for Counsellors of State under the Regency Acts 1937-53 and the King’s requested change.

Who are the Counsellors of State?

Section 6 of the Regency Act 1937 allows the Monarch to delegate certain royal functions to Counsellors of State if he is absent from the United Kingdom (ie on an overseas visit) or unwell. Letters Patent (a legal document) specifies the duties these Counsellors can carry out, which can include holding Privy Council meetings or granting Royal Assent to legislation.

Under the 1937 Act, the five Counsellors of State are the Sovereign’s spouse and “the four persons who […] are next in the line of succession to the Crown”. They must be aged 21 to serve, except the heir to the throne who has to be 18. This means the current Counsellors are the Queen Consort, Prince William, Prince Harry, Prince Andrew and Princess Beatrice.

Two Counsellors usually act jointly to fulfil certain royal functions. For example, in March 2022 the King (when Prince of Wales) and Prince William opened Parliament on behalf of Queen Elizabeth II, who was unwell.

Academic commentators have suggested the “pool” of Counsellors is too small and ought to be expanded. The Duke of Sussex cannot act as a Counsellor as he does not currently live in the UK. Also, if the King was to leave the UK on a state visit, it is likely that the Queen Consort would accompany him, leaving just three available Counsellors. The Duke of York is also no longer a working member of the Royal Family.

What is the Message from the King?

At 2.47pm on Monday 14 November, the Lord Chamberlain (the senior officer of the Royal Household), Lord Parker of Minsmere, read a Message from the King to the House of Lords. Messages are written communications from the Monarch which usually relate to the exercise of Royal authority or prerogatives. In his Message, the King requested that his sister, Princess Anne, and his brother, Prince Edward, be made Counsellors:

To ensure continued efficiency of public business when I am unavailable, such as while I am undertaking official duties overseas, I confirm that I would be most content should Parliament see fit for the number of people who may be called upon to act as Counsellors of State under the terms of the Regency Acts 1937 to 1953 to be increased to include my sister and brother, the Princess Royal and the Earl of Wessex and Forfar, both of whom have previously undertaken this role.

The Princess Royal (Princess Anne) and the Earl of Wessex (Prince Edward) acted as Counsellors of State until Prince William turned 21 in June 2003 and Prince Harry reached the same age in September 2005.

What legislation needs to be changed?

Increasing the number of Counsellors of State will require legislation.

The Earl of Wessex and Princess Royal are 13th and 16th in the line of succession, so it will not be possible to increase the number currently specified in section 6 of the Regency Act 1937. Instead, it is likely that amending legislation will “bolt on” two additional Counsellors by name.

This has happened before. When King George VI died in February 1952 his wife, Queen Elizabeth The Queen Mother, stopped being a Counsellor of State as she was no longer Consort. To address this, section 3 of the Regency Act 1953 provided that:

Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother shall be added to the persons whom subsection (2) of section six of the Regency Act 1937 […] requires […] to be the Counsellors of State for the purposes of any delegation of royal functions under that section…

This provision became “spent” (or redundant) when Queen Elizabeth The Queen Mother died in 2002.

How will Parliament respond to the King’s Message?

At 4.07pm Jo Churchill MP, the Vice-Chamberlain of the Household, also delivered the King’s Message to the House of Commons. It was read by the Speaker.

Penny Mordaunt, the Leader of the Commons, then informed MPs they would have the opportunity to consider a response to the King’s Message on Tuesday 15 November. She also said there would be legislation relating to the Message “in due course”.

On 15 November, the Leader of the Lords, Lord True, will move that an Humble Address be presented to the King, thanking him for his Message and assuring “His Majesty that this House will, without delay, proceed to discuss this important matter and will provide such measures as may appear necessary or expedient for securing the purpose set out by His Majesty”.

A similar motion appears on the Commons Order Paper, to be moved by the Prime Minister.

Further reading

About the Author: Dr David Torrance is the monarchy specialist at the House of Commons Library

Photo by: ©UK Parliament/ Photography by Roger Harris under CC by 3.0

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