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Twentieth Century British House of Commons Documents Now Available Online

The Wells Library recently added a new database to its collection that will be useful to anyone conducting research in the political or legal history of the United Kingdom during the twentieth century.  The database is the House of Commons Parliamentary Papers, which currently contains some 5.5 million pages of sessional documents published at the behest of Parliament in the course of its proceedings from 1902-2004.  As the working documents of government, parliamentary papers relate to all areas of social, political, economic and foreign policy, showing how issues were explored and legislation was formed.  In short, these documents play the same role in parliamentary research that Congressional documents play in helping researchers to understand the development of U.S. legislation.

The House of Commons documents fall into three broad categories.  The least complex category includes bills introduced into the House of Commons.  All versions of bills, as they pass through the process of consideration and passage, are included.  There are also two catch-all categories of documents.  The first of these is called parliamentary papers, which encompass a wide variety of documents used by Parliament in its work.  The most important documents in this group will usually be the reports of standing and select committees issued in response to legislative proposals.  These reports look very much like the reports issued by Congressional committees and include the same kinds of information.  The second catch-all category of documents is referred to as command papers, which are documents issued by Government ministries conveying information or decisions the Government wishes to draw to the attention of the House.  They are called command papers because they are presented ‘by Command of Her Majesty’.  Again, many different types of documents are published as command papers, including some, such as treaties, that are also published and indexed elsewhere.  From a research standpoint, the most interesting command papers will usually be “white papers” and “green papers.”  White papers, so called because they were originally published as individual, unbound pamphlets, are statements of Government policy, indicating “the broad lines of the legislation the Government intend to introduce and, very often, of executive action that will be taken.”  Green papers are considered consultative documents, intended stimulate debate.  They represent Government thinking at an early stage of policy formation.  Both white and green papers include important background information about the Government’s policy goals and justifications.

The database includes a well developed search screen, which permits the researcher to retrieve documents by keyword, title, or subject.  It is also possible to limit searches by year (or range of years), by category, and by several other useful criteria.  Documents are generally available in PDF format, and can of course be printed or downloaded.  The best feature of the search screen is that it makes it possible to retrieve documents related to one another, such as bills and their accompanying reports.  This will be helpful to researchers tracing the progress of a bill (or bills on the same subject) through a session (or group of sessions) of Parliament.



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