Tonight Lord Fowler is speaking at a Constitution Unit seminar about the future of the BBC, as the corporation’s Charter comes up for renewal amid fears about its future funding and independence. The Charter is formally approved by the Privy Council, but will in fact be subject to significant parliamentary scrutiny. In this post Robert Hazell explains the role of the Privy Council, and the process of Charter renewal.
In media interviews about Jeremy Corbyn joining the Privy Council, I have been tempted to dismiss it as a dignified part of the constitution. It has been criticised for being undemocratic and unaccountable, but in truth most of its formal business is of very little public interest. It does meet in private, and its members are sworn to secrecy (hence the security briefings which the Prime Minister can give to the Leader of the Opposition on ‘Privy Councillor terms’). But occasionally it is responsible for something of wide public interest, such as renewal of the BBC’s Charter. On those occasions approval by the Privy Council does not preclude extensive public and parliamentary debate.
The Privy Council has about 650 members, mainly senior politicians; many of them now retired, since appointment is for life. They are appointed by the Queen on the advice of the government; some members such as senior judges are appointed ex officio. Their role is to advise the Queen on the exercise of the Royal Prerogative. Meetings are held once a month, to approve Orders in Council. The Queen is usually attended by just four ministers, led by the Lord President of the Council (currently the Leader of the House of Commons, Chris Grayling). Meetings are held standing up, so despatch of the business is brisk. Every Order in Council has been drafted by a government department, and where necessary is subject to prior consultation and collective ministerial agreement; approval by the Privy Council is the final stage, a formal sign-off with no discussion.