Her Majesty's Most Honourable Privy Council

2008/9 Schools Wikipedia Selection. Related subjects: UK Politics & government

Her Majesty's Most Honourable Privy Council is a body of advisors to the British Sovereign. The Privy Council was formerly a powerful institution, but its substantial decisions are now controlled by one of its committees, the Cabinet. The Council also performs judicial functions, which are for the most part delegated to the Judicial Committee.

The Sovereign, when acting on the Council's advice, is known as the King-in-Council or Queen-in-Council. The members of the Council are collectively known as The Lords of Her Majesty's Most Honourable Privy Council (sometimes The Lords and others of...). The chief officer of the body is the Lord President of the Council, who is the fourth highest Great Officer of State, a member of the Cabinet, and normally, the Leader of either the House of Lords or the House of Commons. Another important official is the Clerk, whose signature is appended to all orders made in the Council.

Both "Privy Counsellor" and "Privy Councillor" may be correctly used to refer to a member of the Council. The former, however, is preferred by the Privy Council Office, emphasising English usage of the term "Counsellor" as "one who gives counsel", as opposed to "one who is a member of a council". A Privy Counsellor is said to be 'sworn of' the Council when he/she first joins it.

Members of the British House of Commons who are also Privy Counsellors are traditionally addressed as " The Right Honourable" (see also The Right Honourable) when referred to in the chamber. Other members of the House are simply addressed as " The Honourable". Examples of such address include "my Right Honourable friend", for a member of one's own party, "The Right Honourable gentleman" (or "lady") for members of other parties, and "The Right Honourable member for ..." adding the name of a constituency. The title is usually also used when formally referring to the member in the media, such as when announcing a speech to the nation by the Prime Minister, or when an individual takes part in a public event as a representative of the Government.


During the reigns of the Norman monarchs, the English Crown was advised by a royal court, which consisted of magnates, ecclesiastics and high officials. The body originally concerned itself with advising the Sovereign on legislation, administration and justice. Later, different bodies assuming distinct functions evolved from the court. The courts of law took over the business of dispensing justice, while Parliament became the supreme legislature of the kingdom. Nevertheless, the Council retained the power to hear legal disputes, either in the first instance or on appeal. Furthermore, laws made by the Sovereign on the advice of the Council, rather than on the advice of Parliament, were accepted as valid.

Powerful Sovereigns often used the body to circumvent the courts and Parliament. For example, a committee of the Council—which later became the Court of the Star Chamber—was during the fifteenth century permitted to inflict any punishment except death, without being bound by any rules regarding evidence or the burden of proof. During Henry VIII's reign, the Sovereign, on the advice of the Council, was allowed to enact laws by mere proclamation. The legislative pre-eminence of Parliament was not restored until after Henry VIII's death.

Though the royal Council retained legislative and judicial responsibilities, it became a primarily administrative body. The Council was a large body—it consisted of forty members in 1553—which made it difficult to manage as an advisory body. Therefore, the Sovereign relied on a small committee, which later evolved into the modern Cabinet. James I and Charles I attempted to rule as absolute monarchs, contributing not only to further deterioration of the power of the Council but ultimately of the crown as well.

After the English Civil War, Charles I was executed, and the monarchy and House of Lords abolished. The remaining house of Parliament, the House of Commons, instituted a Council of State to execute laws and to direct administrative policy. The forty-one members of the Council were elected by the Commons; the body was headed by Oliver Cromwell, the de facto military dictator of the nation. In 1653, however, Cromwell became Lord Protector, and the Council was reduced to between thirteen and twenty-one members, all elected by the Commons. In 1657, the Commons granted Cromwell even greater powers, some of which were reminiscent of those enjoyed by monarchs. The Council became known as the Protector's Privy Council; its members were appointed by the Lord Protector, subject to Parliament's approval.

In 1659, shortly before the restoration of the monarchy, the Protector's Council was abolished. Charles II restored the royal Privy Council, but he, like previous Stuart monarchs, chose to rely on a small committee of advisors. Under George I, who did not speak English, even more power passed to the body. Thus, the Privy Council, as a whole, ceased to be a body of important confidential advisors to the Sovereign; the role passed to a committee of the Privy Council, now known as the Cabinet.


The Sovereign may appoint anyone a Privy Counsellor, but in practice appointments are made only on the advice of the Government, and generally consist only of senior members of the government. There is no limit to the numbers sworn in as members. Presently there are several hundred.

The heir is always appointed to the Council, when of age, as are the Church of England's three highest ecclesiastics—the Archbishop of Canterbury, the Archbishop of York and the Bishop of London. Other senior members of the Royal Family may also be appointed—The Prince Philip is a member, the most senior at present in terms of service.

Several senior judges— Lords of Appeal in Ordinary, judges of the Court of Appeal of England and Wales, judges of the Court of Appeal in Northern Ireland and judges of the Inner House of the Court of Session (the highest court in Scotland)—are also named to the Privy Council.

Two civil servants, the Cabinet Secretary and the Queen's Private Secretary are always appointed to the Council.

The bulk of Privy Counsellors, however, are politicians. The Prime Minister, ministers in the cabinet, and the Leader of the Opposition must be sworn to the Privy Council on appointment. Leaders of large parties in the House of Commons, some senior ministers outside the cabinet, and on occasion senior Parliamentarians are appointed Privy Counsellors.

Although the Privy Council is primarily a British institution, officials from some other Commonwealth realms are also appointed to the body. The most notable continuing instance is New Zealand, whose Prime Minister, senior politicians, Chief Justice and Court of Appeal judges are conventionally made Privy Counsellors, as formerly were the prime ministers and chief justices of Canada and Australia. Prime Ministers of some other Commonwealth countries which retain the Queen as their sovereign continue to be sworn as Privy Counsellors, though the practice is declining.

The following oath is administered to Privy Counsellors before they take office:

You do swear by Almighty God to be a true and faithful Servant unto The Queen's Majesty as one of Her Majesty's Privy Council. You will not know or understand of any manner of thing to be attempted, done or spoken against Her Majesty's Person, Honour, Crown or Dignity Royal, but you will lett and withstand the same to the uttermost of your power, and either cause it to be revealed to Her Majesty Herself, or to such of Her Privy Council as shall advertise Her Majesty of the same. You will in all things to be moved, treated and debated in Council, faithfully and truly declare your Mind and Opinion, according to your Heart and Conscience; and will keep secret all matters committed and revealed unto you, or that shall be treated of secretly in Council. And if any of the said Treaties or Counsels shall touch any of the Counsellors you will not reveal it unto him but will keep the same until such time as, by the consent of Her Majesty or of the Council, Publication shall be made thereof. You will to your uttermost bear Faith and Allegiance to the Queen's Majesty; and will assist and defend all Jurisdictions, Pre-eminences, and Authorities, granted to Her Majesty and annexed to the Crown by Acts of Parliament, or otherwise, against all Foreign Princes, Persons, Prelates, States, or Potentates. And generally in all things you will do as a faithful and true Servant ought to do to Her Majesty. So help you God.

Senior ministers who lose office and go into opposition remain Privy Counsellors, (although of course they are no longer summoned to meetings of the Cabinet, which is a Committee of the Privy Council). Confidential discussions between senior politicians of opposite parties may thus be held "on Privy Council terms".

Membership ceases upon the dissolution of the Privy Council, which automatically occurs six months after the death of a monarch. (Formerly, until a statute to the contrary was passed during the reign of Anne, the death of a monarch brought an end to the Council immediately.) By convention, however, the Sovereign reappoints all members of the Council after its dissolution; hence, membership is, in practice, for life.

The Sovereign may however remove an individual from the Council, and individuals may choose to resign to avoid expulsion. The last individual to leave the Privy Council voluntarily was Jonathan Aitken, who left in 1997 following allegations of perjury. He was one of only three Privy Counsellors to resign in the twentieth century (the others being John Profumo, in 1963, and John Stonehouse, in 1976). The last individual to be expelled from the Council against his will was Sir Edgar Speyer, 1st Baronet, who was removed in 1921 for pro-German activities during the First World War.


Victoria held her first Privy Council meeting on the day of her accession in 1837.
Victoria held her first Privy Council meeting on the day of her accession in 1837.

Meetings of the Privy Council are normally held once each month wherever the Sovereign may be residing at the time. The Sovereign attends the meeting, though his or her place may be taken by two or more Counsellors of State. Under the Regency Act 1937, Counsellors of State may be chosen from amongst the Sovereign's spouse and the four individuals next in the line of succession who are over 21 years of age (18 for the Heir to the Throne).

Normally the Sovereign is pleased to remain standing at meetings of the Privy Council, so that no other members may sit down, which ensures that the meetings are kept brief. The Lord President reads out a list of Orders to be made, and the Sovereign merely says "Approved." In theory, the Sovereign may also say "Declined" but in practice this has not happened since the reign of Queen Anne.

Only a few privy counsellors attend the regular meetings, and only when summoned (at the Government's request).

The settled practice is that day-to-day meetings of the Council are attended by four privy counsellors, all being at the time members of the Cabinet. In other words, regular meetings of the Council are only attended by members of the Government of the day, since they are the ones constitutionally charged with the task of advising the Crown on the actions formally taken by the British monarch. Unless prevented from attending, the Government Minister holding office as Lord President of the Council is usually among the privy counsellors who are present at the regular meetings; the others are invited at random among the members of the Cabinet by the Privy Council Office, that checks who is available to attend, so as to guarantee a quorum at each meeting. Due to Britain's modern conventions of parliamentary government and constitutional monarchy, every order made in Council has been drafted by a Government Department and has already been approved by the responsible Ministers and the action taken by the Queen in Council is a mere formality required for the valid adoption of the measure.

Full meetings of the Privy Council are only held to receive the statutory oaths required before a Regent can enter into the execution of his office (which happened on February 6th, 1811, when George, Prince of Wales, the future George IV, became Regent during the illness of his father, King George III; the current statutes regulating the establishment of a Regency in the case of minority or incapacity of the Sovereign also require any Regents to take their oaths before the Privy Council); when the reigning Sovereign announces his or her own engagement (which last happened on November 23rd, 1839, in the reign of Queen Victoria); or when there is a Demise of the Crown, either by the death or abdication of the monarch.

In the latter case, the Privy Council – together with the Lords Spiritual, the Lords Temporal, the Lord Mayor of London, the Aldermen of the City of London and representatives of Commonwealth nations – makes a proclamation declaring the accession of the new Sovereign and receives an oath from the new monarch relating to the security of the Church of Scotland, as required by law. That special assembly of the Privy Council and others held to proclaim the accession of the new Sovereign and to receive the required statutory oath from the monarch, is known as an Accession Council. The last such meetings were held on February 6th and February 8th, 1952. Given that Her present Majesty was abroad when the last Demise of the Crown took place, the Accession Council had to meet twice, once to proclaim the Sovereign (meeting of February 6th, 1952), and then, after the new Queen had arrived in Britain, to receive from Her the oath required by statute (meeting of February 8th, 1952).


The Sovereign exercises executive authority by making Orders-in-Council upon the advice of the Privy Council. Orders-in-Council, which are drafted by the government rather than by the Sovereign, are secondary legislation and are used to make government regulations and to make government appointments. Furthermore, Orders-in-Council are used to grant the Royal Assent to laws passed by the legislative authorities of British Crown dependencies.

Distinct from Orders-in-Council are Orders of Council. Whilst the former are made by the Sovereign on the advice of the Privy Council, the latter are made by members of the Privy Council without the participation of the Sovereign. They are issued under the specific authority of Acts of Parliament, and are normally used to regulate public institutions.

The Sovereign, furthermore, issues Royal Charters on the advice of the Privy Council. Charters grant special status to incorporated bodies; they are used to grant city and borough status to towns.

The Privy Council therefore deals with a wide variety of matters, including coinage, university statutes, graveyards, dates of Bank Holidays and the appointment of government ministers. One-off announcements such as the merging or splitting of government departments can also be dealt with more easily by the Privy Council than by the departments themselves.

The Crown-in-Council also performs certain judicial functions. Within the United Kingdom, the Crown-in-Council hears appeals from ecclesiastical courts, the Court of Admiralty of the Cinque Ports, prize courts and the Disciplinary Committee of the Royal College of Veterinary Surgeons, appeals against schemes of the Church Commissioners and appeals under certain Acts of Parliament (eg the House of Commons Disqualification Act 1975). The Crown-in-Council was formerly a supreme court of appeal for the entire British Empire, a function which began to be cut back beginning in 1875 when the Supreme Court of Canada Act removed the Imperial Privy Council's appellate function in criminal matters for Canada; the Privy Council does continue to hear appeals from a few Commonwealth countries, from British Overseas Territories, Sovereign Base Areas and crown dependencies. The aforementioned cases are theoretically decided by the monarch in Council, but are in practice heard and decided by the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council, which consists of senior judges who are Privy Counsellors (hence the abbreviation in jurisprudence "JCPC"). The decision of the Committee is presented in the form of "advice" to the monarch, but in practice it is always followed by the Sovereign, who formally approves the recommendation of the Judicial Committee. The Judicial Committee has direct jurisdiction in cases relating to the Scotland Act 1998, the Government of Wales Act 1998 and the Northern Ireland Act 1998.

In short, the Privy Council deals with a variety of formal matters of State which either have not been delegated from the Crown to any other official body, or which Acts of Parliament have placed under direct Crown authority for convenience.

Rights and privileges of members

Though the Privy Council as a whole is " The Most Honourable", individual Privy Counsellors are entitled to the style " The Right Honourable". Peers who are also members of the Privy Council also append the post-nominal letters "PC": as peers are already entitled to the style "The Right Honourable" (in the case of barons, viscounts and earls) or other higher style (in the case of dukes and marquesses), even when they are not Privy Counsellors, the letters "PC" are necessary to indicate membership of the Council. For commoners, on the other hand, "The Right Honourable" is sufficient identification of status as a Privy Counsellor. The Earl of Mar and Kellie and the Earl of Scarbrough prefer not to be addressed as 'The Rt Hon' at all on the grounds that the prefix more properly belongs to Privy Counsellors.

Privy Counsellors are entitled to positions in the order of precedence. At the beginning of each new Parliament, members of the House of Commons who are Privy Counsellors may take the oath of allegiance before all other members except the Speaker and the Father of the House (the most senior member of the House). Formerly, whenever a Privy Counsellor rose to make a speech in the House of Commons at the same time as another member, the Speaker would first recognise the Privy Counsellor. This informal custom, however, was abolished in 1998.

Also, only Privy Counsellors can present Royal Messages to the Houses of Parliament, and only they can signify, at the monarch's command, the royal consent to the examination of a bill affecting the rights of the Crown.

Privy Counsellors are allowed to sit on the steps to the Sovereign's Throne in the House of Lords Chamber during debates. They share this privilege with princes of the blood, hereditary Lords who were members of the House of Lords before the reform of 1999, diocesan bishops of the Church of England, retired bishops who formerly sat in the House of Lords, the Dean of Westminster, Peers of Ireland, the eldest child of members of the House of Lords, the Clerk of the Crown in Chancery and the Gentleman Usher of the Black Rod.

Each Privy Counsellor has the individual right of personal access to the Sovereign. Peers also enjoy the same right individually; members of the House of Commons possess the right collectively. In each case, personal access may only be used to tender advice on public affairs.

Other councils

The Privy Council is one of the four principal councils of the Sovereign. The other three are: the courts of law, the commune concilium (common council, or Parliament) and the magnum concilium (great council, or the assembly of all the peers of the Realm). All are still in existence, but the magnum concilium has not been formally summoned since 1640.

Several other "Privy Councils" have advised the Sovereign. England and Scotland once had separate Privy Councils, but the Act of Union 1707, which united the two countries into the Kingdom of Great Britain, replaced both with a single body. Ireland, on the other hand, continued to have a separate Privy Council even after the Act of Union 1800. The Privy Council of Ireland was abolished in 1922, when the southern part of Ireland separated from the United Kingdom; it was succeeded by the Privy Council of Northern Ireland, which became dormant after the suspension of the Parliament of Northern Ireland. Only about ten members are alive [in 2006].

Canada has had its own Privy Council—the Queen's Privy Council for Canada—since 1867. (Note that while the Canadian Privy Council is specifically "for Canada", the Privy Council discussed above is not "for the United Kingdom"; in order to clarify the ambiguity where appropriate it is referred to as the Imperial Privy Council.) The equivalent organ of state in the other Commonwealth Realms, Canadian Provinces, Australian States and some Commonwealth Republics is called the Executive Council.

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