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The Privy Council was originally the executive arm of English government from as early as the 13th century, although its powers declined as political authority shifted to the Cabinet in the late 17th and early 18th centuries. Formally, it remains an advisory body to the monarch and its members are known as Privy Counsellors. They can style themselves “the Right Honourable” and are required to take a special oath.

Counsellors are appointed for life by the King on the advice of the Prime Minister. They are individuals who hold or have held senior political, judicial or ecclesiastical office in the UK or in Commonwealth Realms. All Cabinet ministers are Privy Counsellors, as are others by custom, for example the Archbishops of Canterbury and York, the Speaker of the House of Commons, the Lord Chief Justice of England and Wales and, more recently, the First Ministers of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.

Today, the main function of the Privy Council is to advise the King on giving formal effect to Proclamations and Orders in Council, legal instruments which are made under prerogative or statutory powers. Such instruments are formally enacted by the King “with the advice of His Majesty’s Privy Council”, although in reality the Crown acts on the advice of ministers.

Orders in Council – which have the force of law – may be legislative, executive or judicial, providing for everything from the constitution of an Overseas Territory to the setting up of a new government department or the outcome of an appeal to the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council.

Privy Council meetings take place, on average, once a month. Only those Privy Counsellors summonsed (usually Cabinet ministers) by the Lord President of the Council attend, the quorum being three. The King presides, and the meeting is attended by the Clerk of the Privy Council, who authenticates the monarch’s assent to measures with their own signature and records the names of those present. All stand during the meeting. The monarch says “approved” or “referred” in response to each item of business.

Only a meeting of Privy Counsellors attended by the monarch (or Counsellors of State) constitutes “a Council”, otherwise it is a committee, of which there are several. The most important of these is the Judicial Committee, while other standing committees advise on matters relating to the Channel Islands, universities and Royal Charters. Larger meetings of the Privy Council are rare. A fuller Council only convenes to proclaim a new monarch or upon the announcement of a reigning sovereign’s intention to marry.

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The UK’s constitutional monarchy

Briefings on the Crown, its role in Parliament, the Commonwealth and the Overseas Territories, and the roles associated with the UK’s constitutional monarch.

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