If the Monarch should fall ill or is absent from the UK, they can call upon Counsellors of State to carry out certain duties.
But what is a Counsellor of State and who are they currently?
By law, Counsellors of State include the Sovereign’s spouse and the next four people in the line of succession, over the age of 21, or 18 for the Heir Apparent/Presumptive.
Shortly after George VI came to the throne in 1936, a new Regency Act was passed which provided a rule for all future reigns. It was at this time that the new Counsellor of State role was created to cover short term absences of the Monarch where a regency would otherwise be needed.
Prior to 1937, Regency Acts were drafted and passed only as needed, usually in cases of illness.
What do Counsellors of State do?
Letters Patent grant the Counsellors the powers needed to perform the duties, and come from the Monarch themselves. Two counsellors are appointed each time to ensure no action can be legally challenged.
Counsellors of State can carry out duties such as:
- – attending Privy Council meetings
- – signing routine documents
- – receiving the credentials of new ambassadors to the UK,
- – and in 2022, we had the first time Counsellors of State opened a session of Parliament on the Monarch’s behalf.
However, Counsellors of State cannot carry out the core constitutional functions such as, Commonwealth matters, the dissolution of Parliament (except on the Sovereign’s express instruction), the creation of peers, and appointing a Prime Minister.
A rare example of the Proclamation of the Dissolution of Parliament under The Queen’s strict instruction took place in 1974. Prime Minster Edward Heath asked The Queen – who was in New Zealand for the 1974 British Commonwealth Games – to dissolve Parliament in order for a general election to take place.
On instruction from The Queen, The Queen Mother and Princess Margaret acted as Counsellors of State to dissolve Parliament.
The proclamation in their names on behalf of The Queen read: “We, Elizabeth The Queen Mother and Margaret, Countess of Snowdon, by and with the advice of Her Majesty’s Privy Council and having received the express instruction of Her Majesty in that behalf, have thought fit to dissolve this present Parliament which stands prorogued to Tuesday, the twelfth day of February instant.”
Who are current Counsellors of State?
Queen Elizabeth II’s eligible Counsellors of State are currently: The Prince of Wales, The Duke of Cambridge, The Duke of Sussex and The Duke of York.
If Prince Harry becomes non-domiciled in the UK, he will be ineligible to serve as a Counsellor, and Princess Beatrice would fill the fourth slot. She will automatically be eligible when Prince Charles becomes King, in time.
It is not a permanent power or role, and is revoked after the duties are performed, until the Counsellors are needed again.
As of May 2022, Counsellors of State were last used for the State Opening of Parliament.