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Finding British Parliamentary Papers in the M.S.U. Libraries, Collections Guide No. 6 (Advanced): Parliamentary, or Sessional Papers--Discussion

Parliamentary, or Sessional Papers--Discussion

The Sessional Papers of the House of Commons are among the most frequently sought British documents; they include documents giving Parliament information bearing on questions of policy, administration, and the like. Sessional Papers include House papers (including public and private bills, reports of committees of the whole House, reports of select committees, returns, and act papers. These documents all originate within the House itself, from its own work. Public bills concern matters of public policy; private bills advocate the interests of particular groups or local authorities. Reports of committees of the whole House are those that derive from the House sitting as a whole to consider a topic. This method of deliberation originated in the 17th Century, during the Civil War. In the past, this method of deliberation was much used for inquiries, the hearing of evidence on particular issues. "Inquiry," "hearing of evidence," and "taking of evidence" are British terms. In the United States "hearings" are held when our Federal government committees bring in experts to speak on issues to inform committee members. The function of hearings and taking/hearing evidence and inquiries are similar.

The Sessional Papers also include reports of select committees. Each select committee's purpose is to investigate a particular problem and to write a report of its findings and recommendations. This report is presented to the House of Commons for its consideration. Select committee reports include minutes of meetings and minutes of "evidence taken" (hearings). Before and well into the 19th Century the select committee was an important means by which Parliament conducted investigations of issues. For example, the issue of widening the franchise to include middle class males, which was partly accomplished by the Great Reform Bill of 1832, was studied by a select committee.

Another kind of document in the Sessional Papers is returns. Returns are documents which the House requires government departments to provide it with to show evidence of progress being made on issues under study. There are also act papers which are documents that must, by law, be presented to the Commons. Annual reports of significant boards, authorities, and commissions fall into this category.

The Sessional Papers also contain documents that the House of Commons' membership does not itself create or initiate. The most numerous of these are reports of royal commissions and departmental papers. Royal commissions are appointed by the Crown to study particular issues and problems. Their members are experts on the subject concerned or have general experience in public affairs. Sometimes Members of Parliament (MPS) are appointed to royal commissions, too. The work of these groups may last for several years; they need not meet only during the Parliamentary sessions. Some have, in fact, become permanent bodies, such as the Royal Commission on Historical Manuscripts. While not used much in the 17th or 18th Centuries, royal commissions were employed a great deal in the 19th Century. Today, complex investigations instigated because of public demand may be handled by royal commissions.

Departmental papers are documents prepared by government department committees, working parties, and advisory/consultative bodies to government departments. Departmental papers may include evidence taken (hearings) and meeting minutes, but this is not required. Departmental annual reports and statistical series may also be part of the Sessional Papers.

Users must understand the concept "by command" because the command papers are also a part of the Sessional Papers. Documents that are presented to the House by its command have come to be known as command papers. As far back as 1870 these documents have had a "c" or "cd" or "cmd" number on the cover at the bottom. Traditionally, command papers have had blue covers, also. Before 1870, most documents created were commanded to be printed and laid before the House, but they did not have a special number on them. Today, because of high printing costs, fewer documents appear as command papers than previously. To further confuse matters, not all documents associated with an issue (that make up its legislative history) will necessarily be command papers, and this has been true in Great Britain for many, years. Since 1921, the British government has steadily cut back on its own publishing which is done by HMSO, Her Majesty's Stationery Office. Documents not published by HMSO are said to be non-parliamentary. Chapter six contains more information on locating the mass of departmental publications which fall into this category.

To sum up, the House of Commons' Sessional Papers are composed of the house papers (various kinds of documents outlined in the first paragraph of this section), plus command papers, those that the House commands be sent to itself. It is significant that no mention has been made of the House of Lords. In the United States both houses of Congress produce quantities of material useful for study. The House of Lords does produce papers, but the most important ones are forwarded to the Commons anyway and are accessible in the House of Commons Sessional Papers and this is where we look for them. There are some joint Lords and Commons committees and their work appears in the House of Commons Sessional Papers set, too. Historically, the House of Commons Sessional Papers have been the most sought after and the most well-represented in libraries; the M.S.U. user community and library collection are no exception.

One may see or hear references to white paper, green paper, or blue paper. White papers are issued by the Government as command papers and are statements of policy. They may also be the Government's responses to the final reports of select committees' work efforts. Green papers set out for discussion proposals for legislation which are still in the formative stage. They are consultative documents and may be issued as either command papers or as non-parliamentary publications. Blue papers are documents brought before Parliament to enable the members to formulate judgement on foreign policy matters. If printed by HMSO, these documents may be included in the Sessional Papers.

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