Guide to British Parliamentary Papers


British parliamentary papers are similar to the congressional publications in the U.S. This guide is for the beginning user in navigating the different types and formats of British parliamentary papers found in West Texas A&M's Government Documents Department of the Cornette Library. Debates and Sessional Papers are highlighted.

Introduction

The UK Parliament is based on a two-chamber system. The House of Lords and the House of Commons sit separately, and are constituted on different principles. However, the legislative process involves both Houses.

Parliament has three main functions:

Since the Second World War, all the governments in the UK have been formed either by the Labour Party or the Conservative Party. The Party that wins the largest number of seats in the House of Commons during the General Election is invited by the Monarch to form a government. The leader of the Party becomes Prime Minister and selects a team from among Party Members of Parliament (MPs) and peers to become ministers in his government. The most senior of these are known as the Cabinet. Elections are held for MPs who serve in the House of Commons, the House of Lords is an unelected chamber.

To learn more about how Parliament works, the best starting place is Parliament's home page.

Citations

To find a Sessional Paper, you need to know the sessional year, volume, and page number of the item. Citations are composed as follows:

Session date - Bill, Paper, or Command number - Volume number - page number

Examples:

Bill or Paper: 1884 (181) LXII 395
Command Paper: 1881 [c.2802] XCVIII 367

Bill and Paper numbers appear in (round brackets).
Command Paper numbers have no brackets or [square brackets].

Debates

Often called Hansard (after the publisher), Debates are an official record of what is spoken in Parliament. Currently, they are largely verbatim and in the first person. In 1909, however, the Debates were often derived from secondary reports (in both the third and first persons) and were not as accurate as present-day Debates.

The Historic Hansard (1803-2005) has been digitized and is available for free online.

Since 1803, the Debates have been printed in several series.

Series Dates
First 1803-1820
Second 1820-1830
Third 1830-1891
Fourth 1892-1908
Fifth (Lords) 1909-present
Fifth (Commons) 1909-March 13, 1981
Sixth (Commons only) March 16, 1981-present

Beginning in 1909, the Commons and Lords Debates, which had been published together, were separated. Also, Debates began to be published by the government, and were called the "Official Report."

House of Commons

Item Dates Location
Hansard Debates: Cobbett's Parliamentary History of England (First and Second series) 1066 - 1830 Gov. Docs - Micro-cards
Hansard Parliamentary Debates (Third - Fifth series) 1830 - 1979/80 Gov. Docs - Micro-cards
Microfiche (Fifth -Sixth series) 1980/81 - 1994/95 Periodicals - Microfiche
Hansard Nov. 1988 - present Internet

House of Lords

Item Dates Location
Hansard Parliamentary Debates (Fifth series) 1919 - 1979/80 Gov. Docs - Micro-cards
Microfiche (Fifth series) 1980-81 - 1993/94 Periodicals - Microfiche
Hansard Nov. 1994 - present Internet

For more online information, you can also search the UK Parliament Publications and Records

Sessional Papers

Beginning in 1801, the papers for each House of Commons session have been bound into volumes known as the "sessional papers." They include the following documents:

Document Group Types of Documents Series Name
Bills Public Bills HC Bills
Reports from Committees Reports from parliamentary Committees HC Papers
Reports from Commissioners Reports from non-parliamentary committees, commissions, etc. Command Papers; HC Papers if
presented by Act
Accounts and Papers Accounts, Estimates, "White Papers,"
State Papers (e.g., treaties)
HC Papers and Command Papers
Accounts HC Papers
Estimates of the Public Service HC Papers
Returns (papers required by Parliament from other departments) HC Papers
"White Papers" (statements of Government policy) Command Papers
Treaty Series, international papers, etc. Command Papers

Since 1801, the sessional papers and index were arranged such that references were given to sessional volume and page number. Beginning in 1979/80, however, the publication format was altered, no longer using overall pagination. So, for this more recent time period, you only need the session and document number in order to locate a paper.

House of Commons

Prior to the twentieth century, many House of Lords papers were "communicated" to the House of Commons, and printed with the Commons papers, meaning some Lords documents of that time period can be found in Commons publications.

Item Dates Location
House of Commons Sessional Papers 1731-1800 to 1978/79 Gov. Docs - Micro-cards
House of Commons Sessional Papers 1979/80 - 1994/95 Periodicals - Microfiche
Bills - House of Commons Sessional Papers 1979/80-1994/95 Periodicals - Microfiche
Command Papers - House of Commons Sessional Papers 1979/80-1994/95 Periodicals - Microfiche

Command Papers

Command papers are a special group of papers that do not originate from Parliament itself, but are presented to Parliament by governmental Ministers. Including State papers such as treaties, they address issues on which the Government (i.e., the executive branch) intends to act.

The numbering of Command papers is in several series:

First series [1]-[4222] 1833-1869
Second series [C. 1]-[C. 9550] 1870-1899
Third series [Cd. 1]-[Cd. 9239] 1900-1918
Fourth series [Cmd.1]-Cmd. 9889 1919-1956
Fifth series Cmnd. 1- 1956-

During the late 1800s, the House of Lords began eliminating the Command papers from its sessional papers; and beginning in 1900, the Command papers are found only in the House of Commons volumes.

Bills

Bills are pieces of proposed legislation under consideration by Parliament for passage. A summary of how bills pass through Parliament can be found at the House of Lords Web site.

Bills may be located within the sessional papers, and typically fall first in the arrangement of papers within each session. (See "Sessional Papers," above.)

Some official Internet resources that cover the past few sessions of Parliament include:

Item Dates
Public Bills now before Parliament Current
Weekly Information Bulletin (includes information on bills) Current session
Acts (Bills that have passed through Parliament, received Royal Assent, and become law) 1996-present

Reports from Committees

For an overview of Parliament's various committees, see Committees. Standing committees are appointed by the Commons to consider and debate a certain bill; membership changes with each piece of legislation. Select committees have a more investigative function. Typically, they are appointed for an entire session, inquire into a given subject, and report on their findings. Select committees that are re-appointed each session are called "sessional committees." Commons and Lords Select Committees may join to form a Joint Committee.

Some recent Select Committee and Joint Committee reports (dating from 1996 onward) may be found on the Web:

Indexes

Online

BOPCRIS: British Official Publications Collaborative Reader Information Service: 1688-1995
This is an online, searchable index of selected British Official Publications. A limited number of documents are available full text.

Print

NOTE - Not all indexes give page numbers. See citation layout above.

Ford, P., and G. Ford. Select List of British Parliamentary Papers, 1833-1899.
J301 .M3 1969. Docs/Ref (by Micro-cards)
This is a select index that covers the fields of economic, constitutional, and legal policy, excluding foreign policy. Lists documents in table of contents by subject, or by a keyword index.
Ford, P., and G. Ford. A Breviate of Parliamentary Papers, 1900-1916.
J301 .F6 1969 Docs/Ref (by Micro-cards)
Lists documents in table of contents by subject, or by a keyword index.
Ford, P., and G. Ford. A Breviate of Parliamentary Papers, 1917-1939.
J301 .F6 1969 Docs/Ref (by Micro-cards)
Lists documents in table of contents by subject, or by a keyword index.

Microcard

British Sessional Papers Indexes
1696-1900
1801-1862
1863-1900
Collection of Indexes
Divisions of the House - 1836-1875
Public Petitions Reports - 1833-1852
Subject Matters of Reports - 1735-1854

More Information

Here at WTAMU:

Ford, P., and G. Ford. A Guide to Parliamentary Papers.
Z2009 .A1 F6 1972. Docs/Ref (by Micro-cards)

Elsewhere:

Here are a few links to Web sites that contain more information on how to do research with the Parliamentary Papers.

Any questions? Ask a Librarian, or call us at 806/651-2205.