"We are the moles within Parliament": Exploring the enigmatic work of parliamentary agents
Lady Justice (Piotr Adamowicz / Alamy Stock Photo)
4 min read
Parliamentary agents have been working in Parliament for nearly 200 years, but their role is shrouded in mystery. Sophie Church hears from one parliamentary agent, Richard Bull, about his profession
Former prime minister William Gladstone called parliamentary agents, “the deeper power in opposition.” Today, that formidable status is somewhat diminished. In fact, many in Westminster do not even know who they are.
“On several occasions when I’ve met MPs in social events, they have been utterly bewildered about what a parliamentary agent does. We are the moles within Parliament,” says Richard Bull, an agent since 2016.
Parliamentary agents, who are lawyers by trade, promote private legislation on behalf of clients who want to change the statute of law as it applies to them, rather than the general public. Bull, 52, is a partner at Bexley Beaumont, a small Manchester-headquartered law firm, and originally became a parliamentary agent after training as a solicitor and working as press secretary to former prime minister Edward Heath. “Parliamentary agency allowed me to capitalise on my time in Westminster,” he says.
There were so many railways being built during the Industrial Revolution, and each company required a private bill to authorise their work. Parliamentary agents were vital
However, the process of becoming a parliamentary agent was rigorous. “In the old days, agents would turn up for a glass of sherry with the deputy speaker and that would be that. Now, you have to display knowledge of the standing orders and public law principles to be admitted to the roll,” he says.
The parliamentary agent’s role originated in 1836. Britain was rapidly industrialising, and parliamentary agents were in high demand. “There were so many railways being built at the time, and each company required a private bill to authorise their work. Agents were vital,” Bull says.
They were so influential that many, Gladstone included, feared private laws were favouring railway owners to the public’s detriment. “One of the greatest impositions the state can make is to displace a person from their land. Parliamentary agents played an important role in facilitating infrastructure development, and therefore in curtailing the individual’s rights,” he explains.
Bull is one of only 15 parliamentary agents practising today. He partly attributes the decline in agent numbers to fewer private bills – “in recent sessions there have only been a handful.” But he also points to the onerous processes agents and parliamentarians go through.
“With private bills, anyone directly affected by the proposed legislation can petition Parliament, and have that petition considered by a committee of MPs. Infrastructure legislation always engendered a large number of petitioners, so parliamentarians were constantly scrutinising bills – it diverted them from what they, and their constituents, thought they ought to be doing,” Bull says.
While Parliament later unburdened parliamentarians from having to sit on infrastructure committees, the Crossrail and HS2 projects demanded an exception be made. “Many MPs who became members of the Crossrail Bill Committee initially thought it was a great privilege. But then as it was taking ever longer, they started to think the whips were punishing them. They concluded that they had voted against the government on some key piece of legislation, and had been put on the naughty step,” he laughs.
Still, Bull praises the process. “[A] bill I was promoting for the University of London was challenged at length, though it was a modest measure. But that is perfectly proper, because Parliament is undertaking its scrutiny role,” he says. And where possible, processes are being streamlined. Bull says that Parliament is considering allowing remote petitioner hearings, a reform that would drag us “kicking and screaming into the modern age.”
Quirks aside, parliamentary agency gives Bull the opportunity to work within Parliament again. “It is a true profession that lets me get involved – even if it is at a subterranean level!”
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