Queen’s Consent: Simple formality or misuse of power?

March 2, 2021

3 min read

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What's going on here?

Queen’s consent is a historical process whereby the Queen is asked for her approval on certain bills before they are debated in Parliament. This is supposedly a formality. However, recent allegations suggest the Queen has used this power to benefit the Crown.

What does this mean?

Before any bill can be debated, lawyers representing parliament will analyse its content and decide if Queen’s consent is required. The consent of the monarch is usually necessary for two areas: bills relating to the royal prerogative (powers once held by the crown now exercised by the government) and bills that may directly impact the monarch and their estate. If Queen’s consent is deemed necessary, a minister will write to the Queen’s representatives. The Queen’s lawyers will then have two weeks to assess the bill and advise her to either give or refuse consent. If consent is given, then the bill can be debated in parliament. The Queen has scrutinised over 1000 bills during her reign.

As the Queen is an unelected head of state, there are a number of checks (known as constitutional conventions) that ensure her power remains consistent with principles of modern democracy. Queen’s consent is supposedly a formality. Palace representatives have stated it “is a parliamentary process, with the role of sovereign purely formal” and that “consent is always granted by the monarch”. However, reporting by the Guardian has unearthed a number of occasions where the Queen appears to have used this process to her advantage. In 1973, the Queen’s representatives suggested changes to “The Companies Bill” which, in its original form, would have forced the crown to disclose detailed financial information. These changes were accepted by parliament, purportedly to protect the Queen’s privacy. Queen’s consent may not be the simple formality it was once accepted as. Further, Robin Butler, an aide to the Prime Minister in 1983 argued the consent procedure was “no longer a formality”, as the Queen’s lawyers did make direct changes to proposed legislation.

What's the big picture effect?

Queen’s consent has been requested in areas ranging from parking charges to Brexit trade deals. Although a supposed convention, evidence the Queen has actually acted on this power has sparked fears that the process undermines the separation of powers (the idea that each branch of the state has a defined role and only acts within the powers conferred to their role). Legislation is supposedly debated and approved by elected members of parliament. These findings suggest that democratic processes may have been subjugated to an unelected monarch’s self-interest.  

 The power of Queen’s consent also extends to the Prince of Wales. Research shows Prince Charles has also assessed legislation, giving Prince’s consent to the 2002 Leasehold Reform Act which prevented tenants on his land from outright purchasing their homes. Academics have expressed concern that a future, more politically active monarch such as Charles, might further abuse the consent process. Robert Blackburn of King’s College London explains that there is an “inherent danger that a misguided future monarch…might believe he or she is entitled to impose his opinions on the matter”.

 Queen’s consent is ultimately a constitutional convention. It has no legal basis and can be abolished without any formalities. However, despite having vetted thousands of bills, the Guardian’s research suggests actual intervention on the content of proposals has only happened on four occasions; the Palace continues to deny that the Queen has abused her power in any way. The government is perhaps unlikely to make dramatic reforms on this process to completely abolish Queen’s consent. Conventions, whilst not legal, are deeply rooted in the constitution. While the Queen’s consent may cause some democrats to worry, there is no evidence to suggest this government has plans to alter the procedure any time soon.  Now the Queen’s consent has been placed under great scrutiny and met with criticism, perhaps the Palace will be warier of the Queen overstepping her constitutionally ceremonial role in future.

Report written by Amber Allen

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