Government of the United Kingdom
The United Kingdom is a Constitutional Monarchy
in which the reigning monarch (that is, the king or queen who is the head of state at any given time) does not make any open political decisions. All political decisions are taken by the government and Parliament. This constitutional state of affairs is the result of a long history of constraining and reducing the political power of the monarch, beginning with Magna Carta
Since the start of Edward VII
's reign in 1901, the prime minister has always been an elected Member of Parliament (MP) and thus directly answerable to the House of Commons. A similar convention applies to the chancellor of the exchequer
. It would probably now be politically unacceptable for the budget speech to be given in the House of Lords, with members of Parliament unable to question the Chancellor directly, especially now that the Lords have very limited powers on money bills. The last chancellor of the exchequer to be a member of the House of Lords was Lord Denman
, who served as interim chancellor of the exchequer for one month in 1834.
Her Majesty's Government and the Crown
In addition to explicit statutory authority
, the Crown also possesses a body of powers in certain matters collectively known as the royal prerogative
. These powers range from the authority to issue or withdraw passports to declarations of war. By long-standing convention, most of these powers are delegated from the sovereign to various ministers or other officers of the Crown, who may use them without having to obtain the consent of Parliament.
The prime minister also has weekly meetings with the monarch, who "has a right and a duty to express her views on Government matters...These meetings, as with all communications between The Queen and her Government, remain strictly confidential. Having expressed her views, The Queen abides by the advice of her ministers."
Royal prerogative powers include, but are not limited to, the following:
- The power to appoint (and in theory, dismiss) a prime minister. This power is exercised by the monarch themself. By convention they appoint (and are expected to appoint) the individual most likely to be capable of commanding the confidence of a majority in the House of Commons.
- The power to appoint and dismiss other ministers. This power is exercised by the monarch on the advice of the prime minister.
- The power to assent to and enact laws by giving royal assent to bills passed Parliament, which is required in order for a law to become effective (an act). This is exercised by the monarch, who also theoretically has the power to refuse assent, although no monarch has refused assent to a bill passed by Parliament since Queen Anne in 1708.
- The power to give and to issue commissions to commissioned officers in the Armed Forces.
- The power to command the Armed Forces. This power is exercised by the Defence Council in the Queen's name.
- The power to appoint members to Privy Council.
- The power to issue, to suspend, cancel, recall, impound, withdraw or revoke British passports and the general power to provide or deny British passport facilities to British citizens and British nationals. This is exercised in the United Kingdom (but not necessarily in the Isle of Man, Channel Islands or British Overseas Territories) by the Home Secretary.
- The power to pardon any conviction (the royal prerogative of mercy).
- The power to grant, cancel and annul any honours.
- The power to create corporations (including the status of being a city, with its own corporation) by royal charter, and to amend, replace and revoke existing charters.
Even though the United Kingdom has no single constitutional document, the government published the above list in October 2003 to increase transparency, as some of the powers exercised in the name of the monarch are part of the royal prerogative
However, the complete extent of the royal prerogative powers has never been fully set out, as many of them originated in ancient custom and the period of absolute monarchy
, or were modified by later constitutional practice.
Ministers and departments
Foreign Office, London
In theory a government minister does not have to be a member of either House of Parliament. In practice, however, convention is that ministers must be members of either the House of Commons or House of Lords in order to be accountable to Parliament. From time to time, prime ministers appoint non-parliamentarians as ministers. In recent years such ministers have been appointed to the House of Lords.
Government in Parliament
Under the British system, the government is required by convention and for practical reasons to maintain the confidence of the House of Commons. It requires the support of the House of Commons for the maintenance of supply
(by voting through the government's budgets) and to pass primary legislation
. By convention, if a government loses the confidence
of the House of Commons it must either resign or a general election is held. The support of the Lords, while useful to the government in getting its legislation passed without delay, is not vital. A government is not required to resign even if it loses the confidence of the Lords and is defeated in key votes in that House. The House of Commons is thus the responsible house
The prime minister is held to account during Prime Minister's Questions
(PMQs) which provides an opportunity for MPs from all parties to question the PM on any subject. There are also departmental questions when ministers answer questions relating to their specific departmental brief. Unlike PMQs both the cabinet ministers for the department and junior ministers within the department may answer on behalf of the government, depending on the topic of the question.
During debates on legislation proposed by the government, ministers—usually with departmental responsibility for the bill
—will lead the debate for the government and respond to points made by MPs or Lords.
of both the House of Commons and House of Lords hold the government to account, scrutinise its work and examine in detail proposals for legislation. Ministers appear before committees to give evidence and answer questions.
Government ministers are also required by convention and the Ministerial Code
when Parliament is sitting, to make major statements regarding government policy or issues of national importance to Parliament. This allows MPs or Lords to question the government on the statement. When the government instead chooses to make announcements first outside Parliament, it is often the subject of significant criticism from MPs and the speaker of the House of Commons
Main entrance of 10 Downing Street
, the residence and offices of the First Lord of HM Treasury
Since 1999, certain areas of central government have been devolved to accountable governments in Scotland
and Northern Ireland
. These are not part of Her Majesty's Government, and are directly accountable to their own institutions, with their own authority under the Crown; in contrast, there is no devolved government in England.
Refurbishment notice at Old Fire Station, Oxford
, showing HM Government support.
Up to three layers of elected local authorities (such as county, district and parish Councils
) exist throughout all parts of the United Kingdom, in some places merged into unitary authorities
. They have limited local tax-raising powers. Many other authorities and agencies also have statutory powers, generally subject to some central government supervision.
Limits of government power
The government's powers include general executive and statutory powers, delegated legislation
, and numerous powers of appointment and patronage. However, some powerful officials and bodies, (e.g. HM judges, local authorities
, and the charity commissions) are legally more or less independent of the government, and government powers are legally limited to those retained by the Crown under common law
or granted and limited by act of Parliament. Both substantive and procedural limitations are enforceable in the courts by judicial review
Nevertheless, magistrates and mayors can still be arrested for and put on trial for corruption, and the government has powers to insert commissioners into a local authority to oversee its work, and to issue directives that must be obeyed by the local authority, if the local authority is not abiding by its statutory obligations.
By contrast, as in European Union
(EU) member states, EU officials cannot be prosecuted for any actions carried out in pursuit of their official duties, and foreign country diplomats (though not their employees) and foreign members of the European Parliament
are immune from prosecution in EU states under any circumstance. As a consequence, neither EU bodies nor diplomats have to pay taxes, since it would not be possible to prosecute them for tax evasion. When the UK was a member of the EU, this caused a dispute when the US ambassador to the UK claimed that London's congestion charge
was a tax, and not a charge (despite the name), and therefore he did not have to pay it – a claim the Greater London Authority
Similarly, the monarch is totally immune from criminal prosecution and may only be sued with her permission (this is known as sovereign immunity
). The monarch, by law, is not required to pay income tax, but Queen Elizabeth II
has voluntarily paid it since 1993, and also pays local rates voluntarily. However, the monarchy also receives a substantial grant from the government, the Sovereign Support Grant
, and Queen Elizabeth II's inheritance from her mother, Queen Elizabeth The Queen Mother
, was exempt from inheritance tax
In addition to legislative powers, HM Government has substantial influence over local authorities and other bodies set up by it, by financial powers and grants. Many functions carried out by local authorities, such as paying out housing benefit and council tax benefit, are funded or substantially part-funded by central government.
Neither the central government nor local authorities are permitted to sue anyone for defamation
. Individual politicians are allowed to sue people for defamation in a personal capacity and without using government funds, but this is relatively rare (although George Galloway
, who was a backbench
MP for a quarter of a century, has sued or threatened to sue for defamation a number of times). However, it is a criminal offence to make a false statement about any election candidate during an election, with the purpose of reducing the number of votes they receive (as with libel, opinions do not count).
- ^ Her Majesty's Government Retrieved 28 June 2010
- ^ a b Overview of the UK system of government : Directgov – Government, citizens and rights. Archived direct.gov.uk webpage. Retrieved on 29 August 2014.
- ^ "Legislation". UK Parliament. 2013. Retrieved 27 January 2013.
- ^ House of Commons – Justice Committee – Written Evidence. Publications.parliament.uk. Retrieved on 19 October 2010.
- ^ The monarchy : Directgov – Government, citizens and rights. Archived direct.gov.uk webpage. Retrieved on 29 August 2014.
- ^ The Parliament Acts – UK Parliament. Parliament.uk (21 April 2010). Retrieved on 12 October 2011.
- ^ "Queen and Prime Minister". The British Monarchy. 2013. Archived from the original on 14 April 2010. Retrieved 27 January 2013.
- ^ Mystery lifted on Queen's powers | Politics. The Guardian. Retrieved on 12 October 2011.
- ^ Maer, Lucinda; Kelly, Richard (31 March 2021). "Limitations on the number of Ministers" – via commonslibrary.parliament.uk.
- ^ Civil Service Statistics Archived 10 November 2013 at the Wayback Machine. civilservant.org.uk. September 2011
- ^ LIST OF MINISTERIAL RESPONSIBILITIES Including Executive Agencies and NonMinisterial Departments. Cabinet Office 2009
- ^ Maer, Lucinda (4 September 2017). "Ministers in the House of Lords".
- ^ Committees – UK Parliament. Parliament.uk (21 April 2010). Retrieved on 12 October 2011.
- ^ Ministerial Code. Cabinet Office 2010
- ^ "Speakers' statements on ministerial policy announcements made outside the House"(PDF). Archived from the original on 16 July 2011. Retrieved 29 November 2010.. Parliamentary Information List. Department of Information Services. www.parliament.uk. 16 July 2010
- ^ "Secretary of State sends in commissioners to Tower Hamlets". Gov.uk. 17 December 2014. Retrieved 10 April 2015.
- ^ "The Immunity of Members of the European Parliament" (PDF). European Union. October 2014. Retrieved 10 April 2015.
Also referred to as the British Government
or the UK Government
Last edited on 7 May 2021, at 21:19
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