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Types of parliamentary papers
'Parliamentary papers' is a term used to describe documents laid before Parliament. There are three categories of parliamentary papers produced by government organisations:
- Command Papers
- House of Commons Papers
- Un-numbered Act Papers
The National Archives provides government organisations with guidance and information on publishing parliamentary papers.
In addition, The National Archives manages the cross-government Command and Other Papers Contract. The contract is let to a contractor and provides government organisations with services to produce and publish parliamentary papers.
Numbered Command Papers
The requirements for Command Papers are set by the Controller of Her Majesty's Stationery Office, an official operating within The National Archives.
Command Papers are documents that set out and describe government initiatives, the content of which will be of interest to Parliament. Papers are laid nominally by command of the Sovereign, but in practice by a Government Minister. The term Command Paper derives from the original wording carried on documents: 'Presented to Parliament by Command of His/Her Majesty'. Over time this wording has evolved, but the original wording is still used on a small number of documents. Command Papers form part of a continuous numbered series and cover a wide range of subject areas.
Typically they include the following:
- major policy proposals (sometimes known as white papers)
- consultation documents (sometimes known as green papers)
- government responses to consultations
- public responses to consultations (may be published as a summary document)
- independent reviews
- government responses to select committees
- certain departmental reports (not resource accounts)
- certain departmental reviews
- diplomatic documents such as treaties
- draft Bills
- reports of inquiries that are not to be published as House of Commons Papers may be published as Command Papers
Independent reviews and reports
High-profile independent reviews can also be published as Command Papers. If a large amount of media and public interest is expected, then the independent author and sponsoring department should consider formal publication of the report.
Examples of independent reviews published as Command Papers include Professor Löfstedt's review of health and safety legislation (Cm 8219), the review of the commercialisation and sexualisation of children (Cm 8078) and the review of police officers' pay and conditions (Cm 8024).
Please note that presenting a paper as a Command Paper does not imply that its contents have been endorsed or are supported by government, especially if the material has been produced by an independent body.
Why is publishing as a Command Paper important?
Publication of major government proposals and initiatives supports the democratic process and helps to ensure that government is transparent in its decision making. This is particularly the case where the issues raised could result in legislation or impact on public finances.
Publishing documents that can be easily accessed and have been produced to known standards ensures that MPs, citizens and businesses can engage with, and scrutinise, the work of government. Command Papers therefore need to be published using standard publishing industry processes.
The application of standard publishing processes helps users find papers long after a document is first published, so providing an audit trail of policy development and a historic record. The Command Paper series provides a continuous record of government thinking since mid-nineteenth century and is an invaluable resource for researchers.
If the content of a report meets any of the criteria listed under Should a document be a Command Paper then it should be published as a numbered Command Paper.
Un-numbered Command Papers
The vast majority of Command Papers are numbered. However, there are a few Command Papers that are un-numbered. The most significant examples are explanatory memoranda to statutory instruments and the Queen's Speech. Other documents that may be published as un-numbered Command Papers are:
- Contingent liability minutes
- Treasury minutes concerning remission of outstanding debt, departmental minutes (regarding gifts to foreign countries, for example)
- explanatory memoranda to treaties (which are themselves laid as numbered Command Papers)
- reports of non-governmental bodies where government or Parliament has a major interest (such as the BBC's annual report and accounts)
Other than these examples it is not usually appropriate to publish important documents as un-numbered Command Papers.
House of Commons Papers
House of Commons (HC) Papers are parliamentary papers that are laid before Parliament that have been ordered to be printed by the House of Commons. Many HC Papers are produced in response to a statutory requirement. HC Papers include departmental annual reports and accounts and National Audit Office reports. Statutory inquiry reports and other reviews may also be published as HC Papers.
HC Papers form part of a numbered series that is administered by the Journal Office in the House of Commons. The specific format and laying requirements of the HC Paper series are overseen by the Journal Office. HC Papers are covered by parliamentary privilege.
The Journal Office's detailed guidance on HC and un-numbered Act Papers is available on the Parliament website. Requests for HC numbers and other queries can be submitted to the Journal Office via email to JOURNALOFFICE@parliament.uk or by calling 020 7219 3361/3252.
The Journal Office is the ultimate arbiter on whether a paper required to be laid by statute may be published as an HC Paper and therefore covered by parliamentary privilege. If you are unclear as to whether a paper should be an HC Paper, you should seek advice from your organisation's legal advisers before you contact the Journal Office.
If required, some HC Papers can also be presented to the House of Lords by Command if 'Parliament' is replaced with 'House of Lords' in the standard Command Paper presentation line. You should check with your parliamentary unit if this is a possibility.
Un-numbered Act Papers
Sometimes known as 'Act Papers', these are documents that must be laid in Parliament by statute but do not form part of the numbered series of HC Papers. The Journal Office defines the requirements for Act Papers, which, unlike HC Papers, are not subject to parliamentary privilege. You can obtain advice from the Journal Office on whether a document should be published as an un-numbered Act Paper.