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150 years of the Office of the Parliamentary Counsel

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Group of men and women facing the camera, some holding wine glasses
Elizabeth Gardiner (second row, centre), First Parliamentary Counsel, with colleagues celebrating the 150th anniversary of the Office of the Parliamentary Counsel

Friday 8 February 2019 marked exactly 150 years since the Treasury Minute that established the Office of the Parliamentary Counsel in 1869.

Before the office was established, the system for preparing government bills was a haphazard one. Some bills were prepared by the counsel to the Home Office, who was also responsible for drafting bills for a number of other government departments; some departments employed independent counsel to draft their bills; and other bills were drafted by departmental officials. As a result, methods for drafting bills, and the quality of bills, varied greatly. Such variation was not a helpful recipe for improving the coherence of the statute book.

In February 1869, the office was constituted by Treasury Minute as a two-year experiment, “to settle all such Departmental Bills and to draw all such other Governmental Bills, excepting Irish and Scotch, as may be required to settle and draw by the Treasury”.

The office initially comprised Henry Thring, as its full-time head, with one assistant, selected by Thring with Treasury approval. So it started as an ‘office’ in the sense of a post to which certain duties are attached, rather than as a group of drafters. In January 1871 the experiment was made permanent. The Treasury minute of that year noted that Thring had “succeeded in systematising and greatly improving the method of preparing the Government Bills… My Lords can have no doubt as to the advantage to the Public Service of placing the Department on a permanent footing”.

The office gradually took over the drafting of bills for all departments, and expanded to take on more and more drafters as the volume of legislation increased. The office ceased to be part of the Treasury in 1968 and, after 12 years in the Civil Service Department, became part of the Cabinet Office in 1980, where it has remained ever since. It is now an office of around 50 drafters – a far cry from the two-man band of the late 1860s.

Things have changed a little since Thring’s days in charge. Take his own account of how he prepared the Bill for the Irish Land Act of 1870:

The instructions given to me were... to a great extent verbal and were conveyed during a series of conferences with [the Prime Minister] Mr Gladstone. I used to attend him at his house, generally by myself. I never hesitated to tell him my mind… He would then stand up, his back to the fire, and make me a little speech urging his view of the case. I then replied shortly till the point was settled.

While it’s hard to imagine a bill being thrashed out in this way today, many of the principles that guided Thring – in particular in relation to the need for bills that are accurate, concise and clear – are as relevant now as they were in his day. So, however different the world in which we now operate is from that of the later-19th century, it’s striking that in our day-to-day work we continue to have in mind essentially the same goals as those that guided our predecessors.

The Office of the Parliamentary Counsel will focus its celebrations on the second half of 2019, with a range of events planned. But the 150th anniversary itself was marked with a glass of sherry – continuing a tradition established (at least) 50 years ago! 

For more information about what the office does and what it’s like to work here, and for links to guidance produced by the office, visit the website for the Office of the Parliamentary Counsel.

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