Mercury Column – October 2016

Have you ever watched television coverage of the House of Commons and wondered why some Members of Parliament are referred to as the Right Honourable… whilst others are just referred to as the Honourable member? All MPs out of traditional courtesy are addressed as the Honourable Member, whilst the Right Honourable title refers to someone who is a Privy Counsellor.

The Privy Council is one of the oldest parts of Government, dating back to Norman times, originally acting as official advisors to the Monarch on administrative, justice and legislative matters. Over time its role has evolved as the country developed a constitutional monarchy, with democratically elected governments. Today, it advises Her Majesty the Queen on matters of State. Much of the day-to-day work is involved with the work of chartered bodies, a range of charities, institutions and companies who are incorporated by Royal Charter, for example, institutions like our universities or organisations such as the Royal College of Surgeons. Most of the business is conducted by those Government ministers who are Privy Counsellors, that is all Cabinet ministers and a number of junior ministers. However, there are around 650 Privy Counsellors at present, which also include clergy from the Church of England and senior members of the legal profession.

Most of the work of the Privy Council is now undertaken by written communication between different Government departments, although there are still requirements for formal meetings with Her Majesty. These take place around once a month, usually at Buckingham Palace, with four Privy Counsellors in attendance.

It’s an honour and a privilege to be appointed by Her Majesty as a Privy Counsellor and to take this important role in our constitution. Although an official announcement of my appointment was made by Buckingham Palace last week, I won’t formally be sworn in as a Privy Counsellor until a formal ceremony in the New Year. Strangely, it was previously considered criminal, and possibly treasonous, to reveal the oath used to swear in a new counsellor. It wasn’t until 1998 that the rather unsurprising words were finally revealed, so it is unlikely that I will be taken off to the Tower of London for writing this column.