What is the Defence Council of the United Kingdom?

Introduction

The Defence Council of the United Kingdom is the body legally entrusted with the defence of the United Kingdom and its overseas territories and with control over the British armed forces, and is part of the Ministry of Defence.

Functions

Prior to 1964, there were five bodies responsible for the British Armed Forces: the Admiralty, the War Office, the Air Ministry, the Ministry of Aviation, and a smaller Ministry of Defence. By Orders-in-Council issued under the Defence (Transfer of Functions) Act 1964, the functions of these bodies were transferred to the Defence Council and the Secretary of State for Defence, who heads a larger Ministry of Defence.

The Secretary of State for Defence, who is a member of the Cabinet, chairs the Defence Council, and is accountable to the Queen and to Parliament for its business. The letters patent constituting the Defence Council vest it with the power of command over Her Majesty’s Forces and give it responsibility for their administration, or in the words of the letters patent:

…to administer such matters pertaining to Our Naval Military and Air Forces as We through Our Principal Secretary of State for Defence direct them to execute And to have command under Us of all Officers Ratings Soldiers and Airmen of Our Naval Military and Air Forces…

In practice, the Defence Council is a formal body, and almost all its work is conducted by the Defence Board. In addition, the three service boards (the Admiralty Board, the Army Board and the Air Force Board), which are sub-committees of the Defence Council meet annually for each service chief to report to the Secretary of State on the health of their respective services.

Membership

As of August 2021, membership of the Defence Council is as follows:

  • Political:
    • Secretary of State for Defence (Chairperson).
    • Minister of State for Defence Procurement.
    • Minister of State for Defence.
    • Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Armed Forces.
    • Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Defence (People and Veterans).
  • Her Majesty’s Civil Service:
    • Permanent Under-Secretary of State for Defence.
    • Director-General (Finance).
  • Military:
    • Chief of the Defence Staff.
    • Vice-Chief of the Defence Staff.
    • First Sea Lord and Chief of the Naval Staff.
    • Chief of the General Staff.
    • Chief of the Air Staff.
    • Commander Strategic Command.

Defence Board

The Defence Board is described as the highest committee of the Ministry of Defence, responsible for the full range of defence business other than the conduct of operations. It meets every month and provides strategic direction and oversight of defence matters.

  • Political:
    • Secretary of State for Defence (chairperson).
    • Minister of State.
  • Her Majesty’s Civil Service:
    • Permanent Secretary.
    • Director General (Finance).
  • Military:
    • Chief of the Defence Staff General.
    • Vice-Chief of the Defence Staff.
  • Non-executive board members:
    • Lead Non-Executive Board Member.
    • Chair of the Defence Audit Committee.
    • Defence Board Manager.
    • Chair of the People Committee.
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