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Privy Council

The Privy Council is the mechanism through which interdepartmental agreement is reached on those items of Government business which, for historical or other reasons, fall to Ministers as Privy Counsellors rather than as Departmental Ministers. Privy councillors include religious leaders, and gatherings are held around once a month.

Privy Counsellors are members of the Queen's own Council, the 'Privy Council'. There are about 500 members who have reached high public office. Membership includes all members of the Cabinet, past and present, the Speaker, the leaders of all major political parties, Archbishops and various senior judges as well as other senior public figures. Their role is to advise the Queen in carrying out her duties as Monarch. In the past Privy Counsellors were the chief governing body and fulfilled the role that the Cabinet performs today. During debates in the Commons, MPs who are Privy Counsellors are referred to by their colleagues as`The Right Honourable Member'.

The Lord President:

  • Presides at Privy Council meetings, including any Emergency Privy Councils.
  • Considers for approval a number of Statutory Orders concerning Health Care, Veterinary, and Scottish Higher Education matters.
  • As a member of the Privy Council Committee for the Affairs of Jersey and Guernsey, reviews Laws and Orders relating to the Islands, and makes recommendations to Her Majesty concerning their approval.
  • Deals with Ministerial correspondence and Parliamentary Questions relating to Privy Council Business, such as the appointment of High Sheriffs.
  • Determines cases, where the Lord President acts as University Visitor, in a private capacity.

The Queen is Head of the Privy Council. This is the oldest form of legislative assembly still functioning in the UK, responsible for a number of executive responsibilities. Its origins date from the court of the Norman kings, which met in private - hence the description 'privy'. The Council was nothing more than an assembly of royal officials. It made no claim to independent authority. Its very existence was derived from the King's pleasure, and hence it was dissolved', ipso facto by his demise. The Counsellors at all times acted in the King's name.

The ruler of a feudal Monarchy was the first of a large body of nobles. In some countries, such as France or Scotland, his power scarcely exceeded that of individual barons, while it was greatly outweighed by the collective might of the nobility. In England, from the circumstances of the Norman conquest, the Crown had much higher authority than in other countries; yet even in England, the early Norman kings may be considered as the greatest family among the nobility, rather than as raised high above all their barons. For once let the barons attend their lord, and his authority was secure, since attendance was an acknowledgement of his sovereign rights.

The chief advisers of the Crown, who were permanently about the King, constituted the "Permanent" or "Continual" Council, whence, in later times, rose the Privy Council. The three centuries intervening between the Norman Conquest and the reign of Richard II (1066-1376), are the period during which English institutions assumed a form from which they have never essentially varied. In the reign of Richard II. the privy council dissolved its judicial connexion with the peers and assumed an independent jurisdiction of its own. At the end of this period, there is found in existence a Parliament of two Houses, distinct Law Courts, and a Council, with peculiar powers, and distinguishable both from the Law Courts and from the Parliament.

While the source of the Council's influence over the King is found to be in the independent position of its membera, it remains a curious enquiry, What were the means through which this influence made itself felt? The first and most effectual instrument for achieving this object (that indeed into which all subordinate means may be resolved), was the delivery of admonitions and recommendations. The rebukes might be spurned, and the advice neglected; but still the effect produced by counsel, even when unbacked by power, is greater than some modern modes of thought seem to imply.

In looking at the extraordinary exertions of authority, which alone were disputed, the historian ought not to forget the daily exercise of its authority, which, because it was usual, was therefore unnoticed. This error is the more likely to be committed, as no records of the Council's proceedings exist of an earlier date than 1386. It may, indeed, be confidently pronounced, that, before this period, the Council exerted a great influence over all the affairs of State; but the exact nature of this influence, and the manner in which it was employed, must remain a matter of conjecture.

From 1386, for a period of about 70 years, it is possible, owing to the existence of published documents, to gain precise information on these and similar points. Printed records make it apparent that what the Council was under Richard II, such it was, in all essential respects, under Henry VI, and, as may be with confidence asserted, (though after 1452 the minutes fall short), such it remained till the accession of Henry VII in 1485. Its influence, indeed, greatly varied during the period covered by the printed records, but not its character; and these minutes possess a peculiar value, from the fact that they exhibit the same institution under most diverse circumstances.

Until the seventeenth century, the king and his Council were the Government, with Parliament's role limited to voting funds. Alterations in the sphere of the Council's authority took place; but their source will be found not in the Council's encroachments, but in the rise of new ideas, such as the conception of fixed laws; or in the growth of new institutions, such as the Parliament or the Law Courts. The rise of the House of Commons marked the transition of the "Common Council" into a Parliament, smaller but as certain signs indicate the Council's altered position.

No conception of the Council is more false than that which paints it as a body perpetually encroaching on the rights of the' Parliament, or of the Law Courts; and perpetually checked in its encroachments. Alterations in the sphere of the Council's authority took place; but their source was be found not in the Council's encroachments, but in the rise of new ideas, such as the conception of fixed laws; or in the growth of new institutions, such as the Parliament or the Law Courts.

The Select Council, ultimately the Cabinet, began to emerge from the larger body about the time of Edward I. It was in the reign of Henry VI that the king's council first assumed the name of privy council, and it was also during the minority of this sovereign that a select council was gradually emerging from out of the larger body of the privy council, which ultimately resulted in the institution of the modern cabinet.

In the time of Edward III the Privy Council was occasionally merged in one assembly with the House of Lords, and in 1640 the Long Parliament reduced the powers of the council. In 1679 Sir William Temple made an unsuccessful attempt to reorganize it, but since then it dwindled into insignificance when compared with its early authoritative position, and its governmental duties have been assumed by the Cabinet.

Since the Revolution of 1688, and the development of the system of parliamentary government, the privy council has dwindled into comparative insignificance when contrasted with its original authoritative position. The power once swayed by the privy council is now exercised by that unrecognized select committee of the council called the cabinet. As the exchange from government by prerogative to government by parliament, consequent upon the Revolution of 1688, developed, and the House of Commons became more and more the center and force of the state, the advantage of having tiiinisters in the legislature to explain and defend the measures and policy of the executive Government began gradually to be appreciated.

Today, in a system of constitutional monarchy, the Privy Council retains some limited, formal functions. For example, the Privy Council is concerned with the affairs of Chartered Bodies, the 400 or so institutions, charities and companies who are incorporated by Royal Charter.

The Privy Council also has an important part to play regarding certain UK statutory regulatory bodies covering a number of professions (mainly in the healthcare field) and in the world of higher education. The Privy Council is involved in the arrangements for the appointment of the High Sheriffs of England and Wales, except for the Duchy of Lancaster and Cornwall, and for many Crown and Privy Council appointments to governing bodies.

The Privy Council also has certain judicial functions. It is the court of final appeal for the UK overseas territories and Crown Dependencies, and for those Commonwealth countries that have retained the appeal to Her Majesty in Council, including Jamaica, Barbados, Antigua and Barbuda, Belize and Tuvalu.

The Privy Council meets on average once a month, at Buckingham Palace, Windsor Castle, or, occasionally, Balmoral. Councils are held by The Queen and are attended by Ministers and the Clerk of the Council. At each meeting the Council will obtain The Queen's formal approval to a number of Orders which have already been discussed and approved by Ministers, much as Acts of Parliament become law through the giving of the Royal Assent after having been debated in Parliament. In addition, The Queen approves Proclamations through the Privy Council. These are formal notices which cover issues such as the summoning of a new Parliament, coinage and the dates of certain Bank Holidays.

Privy Council meetings are reported in the Court Circular, along with the names of Ministers attending (usually four in number). The Orders made at each Council are in the public domain, and each bears the date and place of the Council at which it was made. There is therefore nothing at all 'secret' about Privy Council meetings today.

The number of privy councillors is not limited by law. At the outset of th 20th Century the body contained about 250 members. Privy Counsellors presently consist of all members of the Cabinet, a number of middle-ranking government Ministers, leaders of the opposition parties, senior judges and some appointments from the Commonwealth. Under the vigorous administration of Henry IV, many commoners were called to the Council-board; under the feeble rule of his grandson, when factions of the nobility had usurped nearly the whole government, the constantly recurring lists of Counsellors contain few untitled names.

Under Richard II and his successor, Counsellors were appointed for a year only; later and in this change is seen at once a sign and a cause of their increasing influence their tenure of office (though terminable at the King's pleasure, and at their individual wish), was for life. They were bound by a special oathq, binding them to "advise the King according to the best of their cunning and discretion," to keep the King's counsel secret, and to help in the execution of what should be resolved; and received salaries'of large amounts, if the value of money in the 15th century be taken into account.

Certain officials, as the Marshal, the Chamberlain, necessarily formed part of every Council. Their offices were moreover, in many cases, not in the gift of the Crown, but hereditary in certain families. Further, the presence of a large number of Bishops at the Council board was unavoidable. For (not to speak of the two Archbishops, who claimed a prescriptive right to be present at all Councils), many offices, the chief of which was the Chancellorship, could be filled by none but ecclesiastics. Which Bishops should be summoned was, it is true, dependent on the King's choice. But the presence of men whose main claim to respect the Crown could not touch, who stood as representatives of the greatest corporation of the day, imparted to the Council a dignity and independence which raised it far above a collection of paid officials. Further, although the King's right of appointing Counsellors at his pleasure was unquestioned, it was a prerogative not unfrequently trenched upon by Parliament.

For centuries, Privy Counsellors were sworn to secrecy by the Privy Council Oath and until 1999 to break that oath was regarded as an act of treason. The Privy Council swearing-in ceremony is normally an obscure piece of British pomp that takes place behind closed doors with a clerk and a few ministers. When someone is sworn in to the Privy Council, an ancient body of trusted royal counsellors that dates back centuries, they take an oath of allegiance while kneeling on a stool and then kiss the queen's hand. The membership ceremony is purely a formality. The oath required of privy councillors is much more complete than thaty of the House of Commons and dates back to Tudor times. Councillors have to pledge to defend "Her Majesty's Person, Honour, Crown or Dignity Royal".

The leader of Britain's main opposition party traditionally becomes a member of the Privy Council, allowing him or her to receive briefings from the security services after swearing absolute secrecy.

The Judicial Committee of the Privy Council is the final court of appeal for many Commonwealth and Caribbean countries. Presided over by the same judges as those sitting in the UK Supreme Court, its decisions are highly persuasive in domestic UK proceedings as well as across the common law world. Members have been called to foreign jurisdictions, including but not limited to: Antigua, Bahamas, Barbados, the Cayman Islands, Dominica, Hong Kong, Jamaica, Mauritius and Trinidad & Tobago.

Members regularly appear in the Privy Council representing individuals, public interest groups, foreign companies, governments and government agencies, local government departments and regulatory bodies amongst others. The appeals often concern difficult and interesting points of constitutional and human rights law, whether arising in the context of civil and commercial disputes, criminal appeals or appeals from domestic constitutional claims. Many of these cases have contributed to the development of key principles of the common law.




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Page last modified: 30-09-2015 20:24:44 ZULU