Government of the United Kingdom

Last updated

His Majesty's Government
Welsh: Llywodraeth ei Fawrhydi
Irish: Rialtas a Shoilse
Scottish Gaelic: Riaghaltas a Mhòrachd
HM Government logo.svg Royal Coat of Arms of the United Kingdom (HM Government).svg
Overview
Established1707 (1707)
State United Kingdom
Leader Prime Minister (Rishi Sunak)
Appointed by Monarch of the United Kingdom (Charles III)
Main organ Cabinet of the United Kingdom
Ministries23 ministerial departments, 20 non-ministerial departments
Responsible to Parliament of the United Kingdom
Annual budget£882 billion
Headquarters 10 Downing Street, London
Website www.gov.uk OOjs UI icon edit-ltr-progressive.svg

The Government of the United Kingdom (commonly referred to as British Government or UK Government), officially His Majesty's Government (abbreviated to HM Government), is the central executive authority of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. [1] [2] The government is led by the prime minister (currently Rishi Sunak, since 25 October 2022) who selects all the other ministers. The country has had a Conservative-led government since 2010, with successive prime ministers being the then leader of the Conservative Party. The prime minister and their most senior ministers belong to the supreme decision-making committee, known as the Cabinet. [2]

Contents

Ministers of the Crown are responsible to the House in which they sit; they make statements in that House and take questions from members of that House. For most senior ministers this is usually the elected House of Commons rather than the House of Lords. The government is dependent on Parliament to make primary legislation, [3] and general elections are held every five years (at most) to elect a new House of Commons, unless the prime minister advises the monarch to dissolve Parliament, in which case an election may be held sooner. After an election, the monarch selects as prime minister the leader of the party most likely to command the confidence of the House of Commons, usually by possessing a majority of MPs. [4]

Under the uncodified British constitution, executive authority lies with the sovereign, although this authority is exercised only after receiving the advice of the Privy Council. [5] The prime minister, the House of Lords, the Leader of the Opposition, and the police and military high command serve as members and advisers of the monarch on the Privy Council. In most cases the cabinet exercise power directly as leaders of the government departments, though some Cabinet positions are sinecures to a greater or lesser degree (for instance Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster or Lord Privy Seal).

The government is sometimes referred to by the metonym "Westminster" or "Whitehall", due to that being where many of its offices are situated. These metonyms are used especially by members of the Scottish Government, Welsh Government and Northern Ireland Executive in order to differentiate their government from His Majesty's Government.

History

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 in 1215.

Since the start of Edward VII's reign in 1901, by convention the prime minister has been an elected Member of Parliament (MP) and thus answerable to the House of Commons, although there were two weeks in 1963 when Alec Douglas-Home was first a member of the House of Lords and then of neither house. A similar convention applies to the position of chancellor of the exchequer, as 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. The last chancellor of the exchequer to be a member of the House of Lords was Lord Denman, who served for one month in 1834. [6]

His Majesty's Government and the Crown

The British monarch is the head of state and the sovereign, but not the head of government. The monarch takes little direct part in governing the country and remains neutral in political affairs. However, the authority of the state that is vested in the sovereign, known as the Crown, remains as the source of executive power exercised by the government.

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 [their] views on Government matters ... These meetings, as with all communications between the King and his Government, remain strictly confidential. Having expressed his views, the King abides by the advice of his ministers." [7]

Royal prerogative powers include, but are not limited to, the following:

Domestic powers

Foreign powers

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. [8] 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 Open House, Foreign Office, London-6159194985.jpg
Foreign Office, London

As of 2019, there are around 120 government ministers [9] supported by 560,000 [10] civil servants and other staff working in the 25 ministerial departments [11] and their executive agencies. There are also an additional 20 non-ministerial departments with a range of further responsibilities.

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. [12]

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.

Committees [13] 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, [14] 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. [15]

Location

The main entrance of 10 Downing Street, the official residence and office of the First Lord of the Treasury, who is by law nowadays also the prime minister Larry the cat outside 10 Downing St.jpg
The main entrance of 10 Downing Street, the official residence and office of the First Lord of the Treasury, who is by law nowadays also the prime minister

The prime minister is based at 10 Downing Street in Westminster, London. Cabinet meetings also take place here. Most government departments have their headquarters nearby in Whitehall.

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. [16]

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 [17] 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 disputed.

Similarly, the monarch is totally immune from criminal prosecution and may only be sued with his permission (this is known as sovereign immunity). The sovereign, by law, is not required to pay income tax, but Queen Elizabeth II voluntarily paid it from 1993 until the end of her reign in 2022, and also paid 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, His Majesty's 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).

Terminology

While the government is the current group of ministers (the British Government frontbench), the government is also sometimes seen more broadly as including people or organisations that work for the ministers. The civil service, while 'independent of government', [18] is sometimes described as being part of the government, [19] [20] [21] [22] due to the closeness of its working with ministers, in advising them, supporting them, and implementing their executive decisions. Some individuals who work for ministers even have the word 'Government' in their title, such as the Government Actuary and the Government Chief Scientific Adviser, as do civil service organisations such as the Government Statistical Service, the Government Legal Profession, and the Government Office for Science. Companies owned by the government can also be seen as parts of the government, such as UK Government Investments [23] and HS2 Ltd. [24]

Similarly, Parliamentary Private Secretaries are not ministers and so not part of the government. [25] However, they are bound by parts of the ministerial code, are part of the payroll vote, and can be seen as being on the 'first rung of the ministerial ladder'. [26] [27] They are sometimes described as being part of the government. [28] [29] [30]

Devolved governments

Since 1999, certain areas of central government have been devolved to accountable governments in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. These are not part of His 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.

Local government

Refurbishment notice at Old Fire Station, Oxford, showing government support Old Fire Station Oxford 1.jpg
Refurbishment notice at Old Fire Station, Oxford, showing 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.

See also

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References

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Footnotes