Parliamentary Agents are solicitors (and, hence, the firms they belong to) who are licensed by the Houses of Parliament in the United Kingdom to draft, promote or oppose Private Bills. Private Bills are a specific class of legislation promoted by organisations outside Parliament to obtain powers for themselves that differ from the general law.
In 1836, due to the obvious conflict of interest, the Clerks of the House were debarred from carrying out what had been a lucrative line of agency work. Parliamentary Agents expanded into the space left by the clerk and formed the Society of Parliamentary Agents in 1840.
The high point for Parliamentary Agency work was during the mid 19th century during the rise of the Railway industry, as these companies often needed Parliamentary powers in building and running their operations. This was a source of political controversy, since Railway directors were becoming seen to be overly powerful, leading the Prime Minister at the time, William Ewart Gladstone, to identify Parliamentary Agents as ‘the deeper power in opposition’.
Parliamentary Agents today
As Private Bills make up for a very small proportion of contemporary legislation, with most legislation being sponsored by the government and thus drafted and supported by the Civil Service, the work of Parliamentary Agents has relatively diminished and there are now only six firms of Roll “A” Parliamentary Agents: Bircham Dyson Bell and Winckworth Sherwood, each employing four Roll A Agents, Eversheds LLP (formerly Rees & Freres), employing three Agents, and Sharpe Pritchard, Vizards Tweedie and Berwin Leighton Paisner, who each have one Agent.
It is also possible for any person to become a Roll B Parliamentary Agent for the purpose of opposing a single Bill in Parliament. Such a person must either be a solicitor or have "a certificate of respectability".
Much of the work of Parliamentary Agents, as experts in the legislative process and Whitehall and Westminster political culture, would now come under the profession of political consultancy, although the remaining Parliamentary Agents are now billed as Law firms first and Parliamentary Agents second. However, the largest of the six firms, Bircham Dyson Bell, has developed a political consultancy business within its legal practice, thus giving it the rare distinction of most of its political consultants also being qualified lawyers.
- Latham, R. (1956) 'The Clerical Organization of the House of Commons, 1661-1850', The English Historical Review, 71 (278), 104-108.
- Olney, R. (1982) 'The Parliamentary Agents. A History', The English Historical Review, 97 (382), 238.
- McLean, I. (2002) 'The origin and strange history of regulation in the UK: three case studies in search of a theory', Workshop Paper.