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Finding British Parliamentary Papers in the M.S.U. Libraries, 2007 edition: Parliamentary, or Sessional, Papers--Discussion

This is a guide to doing research with British government documents, particularly Parliamentary documents, emphasizing electronic access and information. Last updated 06-05-2023

Parliamentary, or Sessional, Papers--Discussion

The Sessional Papers of the House of Commons are among the most frequently sought British documents for history research; they include works 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 educate committee members. The functions 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. The report written by the committee 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, a select committee studied the issue of widening the franchise to include middle-class males, which was partly accomplished by the Great Reform Act of 1832.

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, significant documents that must, by law, be presented to the House of 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. The most numerous of these are reports of royal commissions and departmental papers. The Crown appoints royal commissions to study particular issues and problems. Their members are experts on the subjects concerned or have general experience in public affairs. Sometimes, members of parliament 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, royal commissions may handle complex investigations instigated because of public demand.

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.

Another kind of document in the Sessional Papers is papers presented by command. These include reports sent to Parliament by government ministerial initiative or by royal warrant, rather than by Act of Parliament. Traditionally, the paper versions have had blue covers; they have been numbered consecutively, and have been issued in six series thus:

    First series 1-4222 1863-1869
    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-Cmnd.9927 1956-1986
    Sixth series Cm. 1- 1986-

References to Sessional Papers traditionally follow this form or at least provide this information, in the literature and in the various indexes and bibliographies, online and in print:

Document title, session year, paper number (if given; for example, the Command number), volume number within the session year, and volume page number.

Example: 1865 (1017) XXII, 251

Do not confuse the page numbers internal to each document with the page number needed, which is that of the overall continuous paging scheme of the volume.

Fewer documents are issued in print form today than in the past because of printing costs. Not all the documents associated with an issue (making up its legislative history) will necessarily be contained in the Sessional Papers set. Today many documents are located on the Internet only.

The House of Lords does produce documents, but its most important ones are forwarded to the House of Commons and are accessible in the House of Commons Sessional papers and this is where researchers look for them. The work of joint Commons and Lords committees also appears in the Commons Sessional papers. Historically, the House of Commons Sessional papers are the most sought after for research 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, green, or blue papers. White papers are issued by the Government as command papers and contain 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 either as command papers or as non-parliamentary publications. Blue papers are documents brought before Parliament to enable the members to formulate judgment on foreign policy matters. They may be included in the Sessional Papers.