OffWhat? Government departments explained

Based on our research from the last couple of years, here's some more detail on central government departments and the experience of their Government Legal Service trainees.

 

The Cabinet Office does the administration for the rest of the Civil Service: essentially its role is to coordinate all other departments. Advisory seats here tend to entail “a very steep academic learning curve” – one source told us: “The work is complicated even if you're only looking at a small part of a bill.” There's the opportunity to work on Brexit planning (all very hush-hush), emergency situations, constitutional reform and electoral issues. I worked on the Electoral Registration and Administration Act when it was going through parliament,” a recent interviewee told us. The Act made changes to the way elections are administered so that voters are now registered individually. There was one specific clause which I had to deal with.” Trainees also assist with broader constitutional issues like House of Lords reform, devolution and prisoner voting. A point that may seem discrete can end up splintering off into a hundred different things,” said one interviewee, so you always need to have that broader policy perspective in mind.”

GLS lawyers and trainees at the Ministry of Defence (MoD) work on personal injury cases for soldiers, disciplinary proceedings and pardoning – also known as the Prerogative of Mercy. Personal injury cases tend to be “pretty high-profile class actions concerning millions of pounds,” often related to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. “The cases are really interesting and exciting to deal with; these issues are important. If something went wrong, you can imagine the reputation damage to the British Army.” There are smaller discrete matters trainees can get their teeth into too – “like someone who worked for the MoD and injured her back during training, then had to miss her daughter's wedding as a result.”

The Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS) was formed in July 2016 (it's pronounced 'bees'), after the merger of the Department of Energy and Climate Change and parts of the Department of Business, Innovation and Skills (whose responsibility for trade moved to a new Department for International Trade). Going forward BEIS will be responsible for navigating the government's relationship with businesses, devising and implementing the UK's industrial strategy and promoting the interests of the UK's scientific and research industries. It will also seek to secure affordable, reliable and clean energy supplies and work to combat climate change. 

The Department for Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) is one of Whitehall's smallest departments, but deals with a broad range of issues, from art galleries and the Royal Parks to sports and the BBC. “There's a lot of research into finer, technical points of law with a view to drafting advice for civil servants,” one trainee told us. “And I frequently go to meetings to discuss proposed bills.”

Higher and vocational education, which was previously handled by BIS, now comes under the remit of the Department for Education (DfE). Fittingly we heard that working on higher education matters “really stretches you intellectually.” The team handles “student loan legislation and higher education legislation and policy. Clients will often reach out to us for advice on how the legislation applies to whatever situation they might find themselves in so I often find myself explaining what the legislation allows or requires an organisation to do.” Other trainees at the DfE might get involved in issues related to schools, academies, children's law, special needs education, safeguarding and adoption. An insider reported: “I spent a lot of time working with policy officials, giving them advice on specific issues relating to the bill they were trying to pass. That meant writing speech notes for ministers, drafting parts of the bill and attending debates in Parliament. I loved all the interaction that came with that – there's always an incredible buzz around Parliament.”

One of the most specialist government departments is the Department for Transport (DfT), which is responsible for the UK's transport network – ie roads, railways and aviation. Rail franchising and new infrastructure projects form some of its biggest areas of work. “Our work is pretty cutting-edge,” one chuffed trainee reported. “Some of it is right at the top of the main parties' election manifestos or front-page news in the papers.” An example is HS2 and the planned start date for construction of this controversial London-to-Birmingham high-speed railway. Perhaps surprisingly, work at the DfT at present extends beyond the UK's borders. Some “really big EU matters” enable trainees to get “first-hand experience of dealing with cross-governmental clearances and policy considerations.”

The Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) has a huge remit being responsibility for all government social security and pensions payments and schemes. One major recent issue has been the roll-out of so-called Universal Credit: first introduced in 2013 it introduction has been (intentionally) slow and (unintentionally) plagued by all manner of complications. Trainees at DWP are warned to be careful of what terminology they use. “Bedroom tax? That word's a banned term in the department,” one revealed. “We have to call it 'removal of the spare room subsidy'.” Well, that certainly rolls off the tongue... “Bedroom tax is something the press made up,” a source clarifies. Once they were comfortable with phraseology, trainees tucked into “drafting submissions to tribunals when someone appeals against a decision to cut their housing benefit, drafting statutory instruments, doing ad hoc pieces of research, and writing letters going out to claimants.”

A smaller government department with not many lawyers is the Department for Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS). It deals with a broad range of issues, from art galleries and the Royal Parks to sports and the BBC. “There's a lot of research into finer, technical points of law with a view to drafting advice for civil servants,” one trainee told us. “And I frequently go to meetings to discuss proposed bills.” The department has recently been dealing with the renewal of the BBC Charter as well as basking in the glory of the success of the London and Rio Olympics for Team GB and UK Sport.

The Ministry of Justice (MoJ) is the government department that administers and controls the justice system, including (indirectly) the courts and legal aid. In addition, MoJ is “the lead department across Whitehall for human rights issues – if something crops up anywhere then we get involved.” One trainee told us: “I'm not so much involved in giving advice on day-to-day issues, but instead work on bigger, high-profile matters, which means some really interesting and difficult points of law come across my desk.” A lot of work relates to the Freedom of Information Act and data sharing. As well as public law issues, there are private law matters to advise on too, like personal injury claims made by prisoners or prison employees against the government. Take note that MoJ has recently attracted criticism from some in the legal profession for its handling of legal aid cuts, while Conservative plans to abolish the Human Rights Act landed the department in further hot water with lawyers and campaigners alike.

The Department for Communities and Local Government (DCLG) deals with localism, housing, planning and local government finance. A trainee who'd sat in the department told us: “I drafted instructions to parliamentary counsel relating to a private member's bill supported by the government, and gave day-to-day advice to policy colleagues.”  In recent years GLS lawyers have been involved in the drafting of the Infrastructure Act 2015 and the Housing and Planning Act 2016. One recent trainee told us they were involved in a piece of legislation which would “allow local community groups the chance to buy local buildings of interest before private companies do so.”

Like their colleagues embedded in other departments, trainees at the Treasury find themselves working on large ongoing projects like the Help to Buy scheme and the Pensions Act. Trainees are involved in the drafting of new legislation – commencement orders, statutory implements – and “preparing ministers' answers to parliamentary questions.” If they've got a few minutes to spare, trainees could also seek out the Treasury's new mouser cat Gladstone, for a quick one to one, as we hear he's very partial to a cuddle.

Lawyers across Whitehall turn to the Attorney General's Office (AGO) for advice on “tricky legal issues” and to get clearance for legislation going through parliament. The AGO is the smallest Whitehall department, home to just 50 staff, almost all of whom are lawyers. The job of the lawyers here – including trainees – is to advise the Attorney General (currently Jeremy Wright QC, who is also a barrister at Birmingham's No 5 Chambers) and his deputy the Solicitor General, affable Welsh MP Robert Buckland. One recent interviewee said they had spent their time at the AGO advising on issues as varied as the 2015 Counter-Terrorism and Security Act and the Scottish independence referendum. Another source told us: “I was working with the criminal team, dealing with sentences that could be considered unduly lenient. I advised the Attorney General personally on whether cases should be referred to Court of Appeal – and just about every case was. My duties included meeting victims' families, which is delicate work and requires quite a bit of personal investment.”

Central government departments are sometimes renamed, merged or – more rarely – abolished. Keep your eyes open for any potential changes.