His Majesty's principal secretaries of state, or secretaries of state, are senior ministers of the Crown in the Government of the United Kingdom. Secretaries of state head most major government departments and make up the majority of the Cabinet of the United Kingdom. There are currently 17 secretaries of state. They are all also currently members of Parliament elected to the House of Commons, although it is possible for them to be members of the House of Lords.
Legislation in the United Kingdom is often written like this example section of a hypothetical Silly Walks Act 1970:
1. Grant powers
On the appointed day, the Secretary of State shall be empowered to grant money towards the development of fatuous ambulations as seen fit.
The "Secretary of State", thus capitalised, is interpreted under the Interpretation Act 1978 as referring to any one of the secretaries of state in use; in practice, such secretaries are provided a portfolio by the prime minister, and only exercise their power in that portfolio. In this example, a "Secretary of State for Silly Walks" would be created to enforce the provisions of the Act, but could theoretically exercise the powers of, for example, the Secretary of State for Scotland at any time. A prominent exception to this arrangement is the Lord Chancellor, who is explicitly referred to as such in primary legislation and is not interchangeable with other offices by executive order.
Under the Ministerial and other Salaries Act 1975, a maximum of 21 secretaries of state can receive a salary.
Secretaries of state, like other government ministers, are appointed through the royal prerogative.
Most secretaries of state are incorporated as a "corporation sole". This gives the minister a separate legal personality, allowing continuity in areas such as the ownership of property between office-holder changes.
The origin of the office lies in the office of the king's private secretary. However, by the Tudor period, the office's purview had become more onerous.
In 1539 or 1540, Henry VIII appointed two people to the office.: p.29 After the Stuart Restoration, the practice of appointing two secretaries of state resumed. A formal division, in the form of the offices of the secretary of state for the Northern Department and the secretary of state for the Southern Department, was made in 1689, though the office had been first divided into the Northern and Southern Department purviews in 1660.: p.30
In 1782, the responsibilities of these offices were changed, so that one would be responsible for foreign affairs and one for domestic affairs, thus establishing the embryonic offices of foreign secretary and home secretary. Over time, the number of secretaries of states grew, so that there were five in 1900 and 14 by 1996. There are currently 16 secretaries of state.
The secretaries of state that have been used for the matters of health, education, work, business, energy, environment, transport and the regions are shown in the graphic below. It shows how portfolios of responsibilities have been broadly passed down from one secretary of state position to the position(s) directly below it. However, it is impossible for such a graphic to be completely accurate; it cannot show smaller changes, or gains or losses of responsibilities within a position due to changes of responsibilities for the UK Government (for example, due to devolution or Brexit). It is not to scale. In the gaps, and before the first of these secretaries of state, relevant responsibilities were taken on by ministers not titled 'Secretary of State'.
The Secretaries of state that have been used for culture, heritage and sport are as follows:
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