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The British Government: The Cabinet & Privy Council
The British Government: A Brief Overview
Information courtesy of The British Information Services

The Cabinet
The Cabinet is composed of about 20 ministers, although the number can vary. They are chosen by the Prime Minister and may include departmental and non-departmental ministers. The functions of the Cabinet are to initiate and decide on policy, the supreme control of government and the co-ordination of government departments. The exercise of these functions is vitally affected by the fact that the Cabinet is a group of party representatives, depending upon majority support in the House of Commons.

Cabinet Meetings
The Cabinet meets in private and its proceedings are confidential. Its members are bound by their oath as Privy Counsellors not to disclose information about its proceedings, although after 30 years Cabinet papers may be made available for inspection in the Public Record Ottice at Kew, Surrey.

Normally the Cabinet meets for a few hours each week during parliamentary sittings, and rather less often when Parliament is not sitting. To keep its workload within manageable limits, a great deal of work is carried on through the committee system. This involves referring issues either to a standing Cabinet committee or to an ad hoc committee composed of the ministers directly concerned. The committee then considers the matter in detail and either disposes of it or reports upon it to the Cabinet with recommendatioms for action.

The membership and terms ot reference of all ministerial Cabinet committees is published by the Cabinet Oftice. Where appropriate, the Secretary of the Cabinet and other senior officials of the Cabinet Office attend meetings of the Cabinet and its committees. Diaries published by several former ministers have given the public insight into Cabinet procedures in recent times.

The Cabinet Office
The Cabinet Office is headed by the Secretary of the Cabinet, a civil servant who is also Head of the Home Civil Service, under the direction of the Prime Minister. It comprises the Cabinet Secretariat and the Office of Public Service and Science (OPSS). The Cabinet Secretariat serves ministers collectively in the conduct of Cabinet business, and in the co-ordination of policy at the highest level.

The Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster is in charge of the Office of Public Service and Science (OPSS) and is a member of the Cabinet.

The OPSS is responsible for; raising the standard of public services across the public sector through the Citizen's Charter; promoting openness in government; improving the effectiveness and efficiency of central government, through, among other things, the establishment of executive agencies and the market testing programm; and advice through its Office of Science and Technology on science and technology policy, expenditure and the allocation of resources to the research councils.

The Historical and Records Section is responsible for Official Histories and for managing Cabinet Office records.

Ministerial Responsibility
'Ministerial responsibility' refers both to the collective responsibility for government policy and actions, which ministers share, and to ministers' individual responsibility for their departments' work.

The doctrine of collective responsibility means that the Cabinet acts unanimously even when Cabinet ministers do not all agree on a subject. The policy of departmental ministers must be consistent with the policy of the Government as a whole. Once the Government's policy on a matter has been decided, each minister is expected to support it or resign. On rare occasions, ministers have been allowed free votes in Parliament on government policies involving important issues of principle.

The individual responsibility of ministers for the work of their departments means that they are answerable to Parliament for all their departments' activities. They bear the consequences of any failure in administration, any injustice to an individual or any aspect of policy which may be criticised in Parliament, whether personally responsible or not. Since most ministers are members of the House of Commons, they must answer questions and defend themselves against criticism in person. Departmental ministers in the House of Lords are represented in the Commons by someone qualified to speak on their behalf, usually a junior.

Departmental ministers normally decide all matters within their responsibility. However, on important political matters they usually consult their colleagues collectively, either through the Cabinet or through a Cabinet committee. A decision by a departmental minister binds the Government as a whole.

On assuming office ministers must resign directorships in private and public companies, and must ensure that there is no conflict between their public duties and private interests. There is, however, compensation. The salaries of ministers in the House of Commons range from 45,815 a year for junior ministers to 64,749 for Cabinet ministers. In the House of Lords salaries range firom 38,894 for junior ministers to 52,260 for Cabinet minsters. The Prime Minister receives 78,292 and the Lord Chancellor 120,179. (The Leader of the Opposition receives 61,349 a year; two Opposition whips in the Commons and the Opposition leader and Chief Whip in the Lords also receive salaries.)

The Privy Council
The main function of the Privy Council is to advise the Queen on the approval of Orders in Council, including those made under prerogative powers, and those made under statutory powers. Responsibility for each Order, however, rests with the minister answerable for the policy concerned, regardless of whether he or she is present at the meeting where approval is given.

The Privy Council also advises the Sovereign on the issue of royal proclamations, such as those summoning or dissolving Parliament.

Membership of the Council, which is retained for life, except for very occasional removals, is granted by the Sovereign, on the recommendation of the Prime Minister, to people eminent in public life in Britain and the independent monarchies of the Commonwealth. Cabinet ministers must be Privy Counsellors and, if not already members, are admitted to membership before taking their oath of office at a meeting of the Council. There are about 400 Privy Counsellors.

Committees of the Privy Council There are a number of Privy Council committees. These include committees dealing with legislation from the Channel Islands and the Isle of Man and those responsible for approving certain rules and regulations made by the governing bodies of the medical and allied professions.

Administrative work is carried out in the Privy Couxcil Office under the Lord President of the Council, a Cabinet minister.

The Judicial Committee of the Privy Council
is the final court of appeal for certain independent members of the Commonwealth, the British dependent territories, the Channel Islands and the Isle of Man. It also hears appeals from the disciplinary committees of the medical and allied professions and certain ecclesiastical appeals.

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