Guide to Parliamentary Papers
As the working documents of government, the parliamentary papers encompass all areas of social, political, economic and foreign policy, showing how issues were explored and legislation was formed. Many contributors to the papers were found outside the official world, providing evidence or supplying memoranda to committees and commissions. The labours and concerns of Matthew Arnold, John Stuart Mill, Michael Faraday, Charles Babbage, Edwin Chadwick, Marconi, Keynes and Beveridge are recorded in these pages, alongside thousands of others. The evidence gathered by numerous Committees and Royal Commissions influenced public opinion and social and political philosophies as disparate as those of Marx, Dickens and Disraeli.
Before the advent of a fully formed Whitehall departmental system, Parliament was the main source of public information, ordering the publication of papers, returns, reports and evidence on a grand scale. These papers and reports are often fascinating and exhaustive in their detail. In an environment of relatively inexpensive printing, the result was around 5,900 bound volumes and 4.2 million pages of papers for the 19th century alone. An additional 5.5 million pages was added between 1901 and 2004.
HCPP includes digital versions of these sessional papers. Debates (Hansard), the House of Commons Journal, and daily business papers, such as Order papers and Votes and Proceedings, are outside the scope of a precise application of the term parliamentary papers and are not part of the 19th, 20th and 21st Century House of Commons Parliamentary Papers collections; however, the separately digitised Hansard can now be searched through HCPP, while the Eighteenth Century collection includes debates, journals and other related material.
Sessional papers, sometimes called blue books, were required for the work of the House of Commons, providing information on matters of policy and administration, and ordered by the House to be printed. They fall into the following three categories:
- Bills - drafts of legislation, to be reviewed through
various parliamentary stages. If the Bill passes through these stages, it
will become an Act of Parliament.
- House Papers - documents resulting from the work of the
House and its Committees.
- Command Papers - Government papers (from Ministers) conveying information or decisions the Government wishes to draw to the attention of the House, presented 'by Command of Her Majesty'.
As the parliamentary papers evolved, each of these categories acquired its own unique numerical sequence. Prior to this, from the beginning of the 19th century when papers first began to be bound into sessional volumes, all papers consisted of a single, numbered series, with a new sequence beginning with each session from 1801.
Within these categories, there are further classifications reflecting the disparate nature of Parliament - its legislative function, its quasi-judicial and inquisitorial role, and its duty to supervise and control the executive functions of government:
- Bills - drafts of legislation, to be reviewed through various
parliamentary stages. If the Bill passes through these stages, it will become
an Act of Parliament. e.g. 1842, (282) Bill for carrying into effect
Treaty between H.M. and Argentine Confederation for Abolition of Slave Trade.
- Reports of Committees - Select or the Whole House. Appointed
to investigate issues of concern. e.g. 1844, (556), Select Committee
on State of Colony of New Zealand.
- Reports of Commissioners - Commissions appointed by the
Crown to investigate social problems, to conduct inquiries into events, and
as a preparation for legislation. The Commission was made up of experts in
the field in question, who are not usually MPs. Alternatively, investigating
committees were sponsored by particular government departments, and reported
back to the Minister in question. e.g. 1851 (415) Report of Inquiry
into Fatal Collision near Clay Cross Station, on Midland Railway, May 1851
- Accounts and Papers -
- Accounts. Statistical information, originating primarily from the Treasury,
the Board of Trade and the War Office/Admiralty.
- Correspondence from ambassadors, governors, army officers abroad. Commercial, trade and navigation accounts
- Statistical abstracts: judicial, taxation, etc
- Census data.
- Slavery and slave trade documents.
e.g. 1852-53  Census of Ireland 1851: Part I., Area, Population, and Number of Houses, by Townlands and Electoral Divisions, County of Kildare, 1854-55 (38) Return of Quantity of Coffee sent to Army in Crimea
- Accounts. Statistical information, originating primarily from the Treasury, the Board of Trade and the War Office/Admiralty.
The final three categories above were used until 1969. Thereafter, documents were classified only as Bills, House of Commons Papers or Command papers.
Both Houses of Parliament, the Commons and the Lords, produce parliamentary papers. Although HCPP is a collection of Commons papers, some from the Lords are also included. This is because the Lords often presented papers to the Commons, such as reports prepared by Lords Select Committees. These reports were then included in the House of Commons Papers, and therefore appear in HCPP.