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What is the Privy Council?

The Privy Council is an advisory body to the Monarch; its members are known as Privy Counsellors. It is one of the oldest parts of the UK’s constitutional arrangements, with its origins dating back to at least the thirteenth century.

The present Privy Council of the United Kingdom dates from 1 January 1801. Before that date there existed a Privy Council for Great Britain and a separate Privy Council for Ireland. Prior to 1708, there existed three distinct privy councils for England, Scotland and Ireland. The Privy Council for Ireland continued to function until 1922, when it became the Privy Council for Northern Ireland (PCNI). No further appointments were made to the PCNI after 1973.

The UK Privy Council advises the Queen on the carrying out of her duties, including the exercise of the Royal Prerogative and other functions assigned to the Sovereign by Acts of Parliament. Although some of the Privy Council’s powers are ceremonial in nature, many relate to matters of constitutional importance. In almost every instance, however, the advisory role of the Privy Council is a fiction, and the body is effectively a vehicle for executive decisions made by the Government which are then formally issued in the Queen’s name.

What does the Privy Council do?

Some of the main functions of the Privy Council include:

  • Extending legislation to British Overseas Territories
  • Ratifying legislation from Crown Dependencies, such as the Channel Islands.
  • Issuing Proclamations – for example, announcing the dates of Bank Holidays
  • Granting Royal Charters
  • Appointing lay members to certain professional bodies and approving the rules of these bodies
  • Acting, in the form of the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council, as the final court of appeal for the UK’s overseas territories and Crown Dependencies, and for any Commonwealth country that has retained an appeal to the Queen in Council.

What powers does the Privy Council have?

Decisions of the Privy Council are recorded and expressed through ‘Orders’ which have the force of law. Most ‘Orders’ are Government decisions, drawn up by Ministers and Civil Servants, which are then approved by the Queen in Her Privy Council as a matter of course.

There are two main types of ‘Orders’. Orders in Council are those that have been approved at a meeting of the Privy Council personally by the Queen. Orders of Council do not require the personal approval of the Queen and can be made by the “Lords of the Privy Council” – that is, by Government Ministers.

The Privy Council can also issue Proclamations. These are formal notices issued to the people. Proclamations are used to cover issues such as the announcement of the dates of bank holidays or to determine the specifications of new coinage.

How do you become a member of the Privy Council?

Members of the Privy Council are appointed by the Queen on the advice of the Prime Minister. Membership of the Privy Council is for life, and members are entitled to be addressed as ‘Right Honourable’. Anyone joining the Privy Council is required to take an oath or a solemn affirmation to “keep secret all matters…treated of in Council”. Members of the Privy Council are known as Privy Counsellors.

There are currently around 650 Privy Counsellors. All Cabinet Ministers are, or must become, members of the Privy Council. The Leader of the Opposition is also appointed to the Privy Council so he or she can receive briefings on matters related to the national interest on privy counsellor terms.

A full list of Privy Council members is available on the Privy Council Office’s website.

When does the Privy Council meet?

The Privy Council meets on average about once a month and these meetings are held in the presence of the Queen. Only current Government Ministers (themselves Privy Counsellors) attend these meetings. The quorom for a meeting is three Privy Counsellors, although four Ministers will usually attend. One of these members will be the Lord President of the Council (the head of the Privy Council Office). He or she is always a Cabinet Minister.

A full meeting of the Privy Council – that is, of all 650 or so Privy Counsellors – only occurs on two occassions. These are on the accession of a new Sovereign, when the Privy Council meets at St James’s Palace, and when an unmarried Sovereign announces His or Her intention to marry.

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