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 Unit of the Cornette Library. Debates and Sessional Papers are highlighted.


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:

  • to examine proposals for new laws
  • to scrutinize government policy and administration
  • to debate the major issues of the day

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.


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


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].


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.

Historic Hansard Series and Dates
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

House of commons
ItemDatesPhysical Location
Hansard Debates: Cobbett's Parliamentary History of England (First and Second series)1066 - 1830Gov. Docs - Micro-cards
Hansard Parliamentary Debates (Third - Fifth series)1830 - 1979/80Gov. Docs - Micro-cards
Microfiche (Fifth -Sixth series)1980/81 - 1994/95Periodicals - Microfiche
House of Commons/Hansard Archives1988-2016Online-only
House of Commons/Hansard2017 – presentOnline-only

House of Lords

House of Lords
ItemDatesPhysical Location
Hansard Parliamentary Debates (Fifth series)1919 - 1979/80Gov. Docs - Micro-cards
Microfiche (Fifth series)1980-81 - 1993/94Periodicals - Microfiche
House of Lords/Hansard Archives1995-2016Online-only
House of Lords/Hansard2017 – presentOnline-only

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:

Sessional Papers
Document GroupTypes of DocumentsSeries Name
BillsPublic BillsHC Bills
Reports from CommitteesReports from parliamentary CommitteesHC Papers
Reports from CommissionersReports from non-parliamentary committees, commissions, etc.Command Papers; HC Papers if
presented by Act
Accounts and PapersAccounts, Estimates, "White Papers,"
State Papers (e.g., treaties)
HC Papers and Command Papers
AccountsHC Papers
Estimates of the Public ServiceHC 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.

House of Commons Publications Containing House of Lords Papers
House of Commons Sessional Papers1731-1800 to 1978/79Gov. Docs - Micro-cards
House of Commons Sessional Papers1979/80 - 1994/95Periodicals - Microfiche
Bills - House of Commons Sessional Papers1979/80-1994/95Periodicals - Microfiche
Command Papers - House of Commons Sessional Papers1979/80-1994/95Periodicals - 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:

Command Papers
Series OrderSeries NumbersYears
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. 98891919-1956
Fifth seriesCmnd. 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 are pieces of proposed legislation under consideration by Parliament for passage. A summary of how bills pass through Parliament can be found at Making Laws.

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 of the older Acts of the English Parliament (1267-1706) are available online.

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

Recent Parliamentary Sessions
Parliamentary BillsCurrent
Progress of Public Bills this sessionCurrent session
Acts (Bills that have passed through Parliament, received Royal Assent, and become law)1988-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 Select Committee publications are available by Parliamentary session via the "Find a Publication" option. Recent reports are also available online. Publications and "recent reports" before 2020 are archived 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.


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.


British Sessional Papers Indexes
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)


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