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What is the privy council and what does it actually do?

Jeremy Corbyn is missing a meeting of the body because of prior commitments

Jon Stone
Thursday 08 October 2015 11:30 BST
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Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn is reported to be missing a meeting of the Queen's privy council because of prior commitments.

The meeting would have seen Mr Corbyn sworn in to membership of the council in a ceremony that involves kissing the Queen's hand.

But what is the privy council, and what does it do?

What is the privy council?

The privy council is, broadly, a collection of senior politicians who are or have been members of the House of Commons or House of Lords.

Historically the privy council – private council – consisted of the monarch’s close advisors. It played the role of what we would now think of as a governing cabinet.

As the British constitution has evolved, the monarch has taken a less important role in government. The privy council has, too.

The modern Cabinet is technically a committee of the privy council and so everyone who is a member of the Cabinet must be a privy councillor.

What does it do?

The exact content of the privy council’s work is not public because its meetings a conducted in secret. However, the council’s business is reported to be largely administrative.

The council advises the Queen on exercising the royal prerogative and officially enacts legislation. It is nominally responsible for any organisation established by Royal Charter.

Its judicial committee is also the highest court of appeal in some cases, including, rather uniquely for some other independent nations.

Opposition leaders who are members can receive security briefings through their membership of the group.

Who is a member?

The council has around 600 members. Once you are appointed to the privy council you are a member for life.

People can be removed from the privy council by the monarch for misdeeds and it is possible to resign.

MPs who are members of the privy council are referred to as “the Right Honourable member” in the House of Commons.

When does it meet?

The council meets once a month, wherever the Queen is. For a meeting to go ahead at least three members must attend, including the Lord Chancellor.

How do you become a member?

New members usually undergo a ceremony attended by the Queen. During this ceremony the new member kisses the hand of the Queen and recites a binding oath to keep the Council’s proceedings secret and defend the monarch against “all foreign princes, persons, prelates, states or potentates”.

This may present a problem for republicans opposed to the existence of the monarchy. Some members of the council skip the ceremony but it is rare for prominent politiicans to take this approach.

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