Types of parliamentary paper

‘Parliamentary paper’ is a term used to describe a document which is laid before Parliament. Most government organisations will produce at least one parliamentary paper per year. There are three categories of parliamentary papers covered by this guidance:

  • 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 is responsible for ensuring that services for the production of these documents are available to government organisations. The services are currently provided through the cross-government Print Vendor Partner Contract, managed by the Crown Commercial Service (previously the Government Procurement Service).

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 (‘white papers’)
  • consultation documents (‘green papers’)
  • government responses to consultations
  • 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  • reports of inquiries that are not to be published as House of Commons Papers may be published as Command Papers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)
  • 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 Command Paper requirements 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.