What is a privy counsellor?

June 8, 2009 at 1:24 pm Leave a comment

Today Downing St announced that MPs Sadiq Khan, Angela E Smith, Paul Goggins, and Mike O’Brien will become privy counsellors.

Being sworn of Her Majesty’s Most Honourable Privy Council is a highlight in any politician’s career.

It means they are either in the Cabinet or are important enough to the Prime Minister and the government that they soon could be.

The Privy Council was the private council of the monarch, and the Cabinet grew as a committee of the council.

It is described as 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.

This includes advising on the business under the Royal Prerogative as well as statutory areas where an Act of Parliament has given an order-making power to the Privy Council.

Privy counsellors are referred to as “right honourable” rather than “honourable” members.

All members of the Cabinet, the Speaker, the Lord Speaker, some other high-profile ministers, the Archbishops of Canterbury and York and the Bishop of London, the heads of the devolved governments and some members of the Royal Family are members.

Judges and Commonwealth politicians are also appointed.

As membership is for life, there are nearly 600 privy counsellors, though in effect just a few government ministers attend meetings.

There are only two occasions when the full council meets.

On the death of the Sovereign the privy counsellors, the House of Lords, Lord Mayor and Aldermen of the City of London and Commonwealth representatives proclaim the accession of the new King or Queen.

The council also meets if the reigning monarch announces his or her engagement to be married.

thequeen The Sovereign, when acting on the Council’s advice, is known as the “Queen- in-Council.”

The Queen gives Royal Assent to bill at Privy Council meetings, whereupon they become law.

At those meetings, held once a month, she stands, ensuring they are kept short.

The Lord President of the Council, always a Cabinet minister, reads out a list of Orders to be made, and the Queen says “Approved.”

Three ministers have left the council in recent times.

In 1997 the Queen accepted Jonathan Aitken’s resignation after an investigation began into allegations of perjury and perverting the course of justice after he abandoned his libel action against Granada Television and The Guardian newspaper. He was later jailed for perjury and served seven months in jail.

Tory Cabinet minister John Profumo, who was caught up in a sex scandal in 1963, and Labour MP John Stonehouse, who tried to fake his death in 1974, also resigned.

Mr Stonehouse, a former minister under Harold Wilson, left a pile of clothes on a Miami beach and was presumed dead. He was discovered in Australia a month later.

In 1998 Margaret Beckett, then President of the Council, published the text of the oath sworn by privy counsellors.

“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 unto 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.”

The Leader of the Opposition and other party leaders are members of the council, which allows the Prime Minister and other ministers to share confidential information with them on “Privy Council” terms.


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