Understanding the UK’s central government

The United Kingdom operates under a governance system that includes both a central government and devolved governments. While the devolved governments – Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland – have their own areas of authority, the central government plays a crucial role in high-level decision-making in England and across the entirety of the United Kingdom. 

What is the central government of the UK?

The central government of the United Kingdom is the overarching authority responsible for managing the nation’s affairs as a whole. It is based primarily in Westminster, London, where key governmental functions are carried out.

The central government includes:

There are also two additional public sector categories in the UK.

  • Local government includes regional authorities, local authorities and parish councils, and delivers local services.
  • Public corporations are managed by either the central government, a regional government, a local authority or a parish council.

The central government, meanwhile, works with devolved governments, local governments, and public corporations to ensure the well-being of the entire UK population.

Who controls the UK’s central government?

The UK’s central government is managed by the elected representatives of the people.

The ultimate authority rests with the UK Parliament, which consists of two houses.

  1. House of Commons
  2. House of Lords

Members of Parliament (MPs) from different political parties are elected by the public to the House of Commons, and they play a vital role in scrutinising and enacting legislation.

The Prime Minister, who is the head of the UK government and appoints ministers to its Cabinet, is typically the leader of the political party commanding a majority in the House of Commons.

What does the UK’s central government do?

The central government in the UK manages a number of critical tasks, including:

  • setting, implementing and administering government policy
  • enacting laws and legislation
  • managing the economy
  • overseeing national security
  • delivering essential government services in areas such as health and social care, education, transportation, defence, justice and the environment
  • safeguarding the nation’s values and principles.

The main responsibilities of the UK’s central government

Central government has a number of responsibilities, though there are four main areas of primary importance.

Governance and decision-making 

Central government represents the interests of the entire United Kingdom, overseeing the functioning of local government authorities and ensuring consistency in the application of policies and regulations. It also makes high-level decisions in international affairs, such as negotiating treaties and maintaining diplomatic relations with other countries.

Service provision

The central government is responsible for providing essential public services. This includes healthcare through the National Health Service (NHS) in England, education through the Department for Education (DfE), law enforcement through the Home Office, and pensions through the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP). 

Civil administration

The central government employs the UK’s Civil Service – the impartial body which supports the day-to-day operations of government departments and implements their policies.

Policy work 

The central government develops policies aimed at addressing various challenges faced by the nation, and aims to enhance the UK’s quality of life, its social, economic, and environmental outlook, and so on. This policy work begins by assessing the needs of the country and its citizens and then building strategies that address these needs. Once policies are established, the government then delivers their implementation through legislative and executive actions.

Examples of central government in the UK

The Cabinet Office

The Cabinet Office is an important arm of the UK’s central government, created to support the Prime Minister as well as the effective running of government.

According to the Cabinet Office, its responsibilities are varied, including:

  • developing, coordinating, and implementing policies
  • supporting the National Security Council and the Joint Intelligence Organisation
  • coordinating the government’s response to crises and managing the UK’s cyber security
  • finding efficiencies through innovation, procurement and project management, and new ways to deliver services
  • making government more transparent
  • managing the Civil Service
  • overseeing political and constitutional reform.

The Cabinet Office also oversees the Government Digital Service team, which manages the gov.uk public information website. 

The Home Office

The UK’s Home Office is a ministerial department tasked with keeping its citizens safe and the country secure. It oversees:

  • immigration and passports
  • drugs policy
  • reducing and preventing crime
  • fire prevention and rescue
  • counter-terrorism measures
  • police services.

According to the Home Office, the department’s main priorities as of June 2023 are:

  • cutting crime, including cyber-crime and serious and organised crime
  • managing civil emergencies
  • protecting vulnerable people and communities
  • reducing terrorism
  • controlling migration
  • providing public services and contributing to prosperity
  • maximising opportunities arising as a result of the United Kingdom leaving the European Union.

The Department of Health and Social Care (DHSC)

The Department for Health and Social Care is responsible for developing and implementing policies around health and social care services across England. It also supports the three devolved nations to a lesser degree, with Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland each having their own health services.

To achieve its aims, the DHSC collaborates with healthcare professionals, county councils and other local government bodies, health researchers and other stakeholders to ensure the effective delivery of healthcare across the population.

The DHSC’s focus includes improving access to quality healthcare, addressing health inequalities and advancing the government’s commitment to achieving net zero emissions in the health and social care sector.

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