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British Parliamentary Papers

About British Parliamentary Papers

The term "Parliamentary Paper" is a broad one covering all the published records of the activities of the British Parliament. It could conceivably include the reports of debates. However, it has a more precise meaning referring solely to particular groups of papers which came before the House of Commons. These papers were printed for the use of Parliament and were included in numbered series. The popular term for them was "Blue Books" because for most of the nineteenth century, the printer used a blue paper cover on many of them.

For the student of public affairs, sociology and economic and industrial history the most important of the Parliamentary Papers are those which gave to Parliament information on questions of policy and administration with which its members were concerned. Of particular importance amongst the papers which were ordered by the House of Commons to be printed were reports of Select Committees. These committees were made up of a limited number of Members of Parliament who were chosen to examine or deal with certain problems which were relevant to the activities of the legislature.

The tasks delegated to a Select Committee could be handled more effectively and expeditiously by a small group than by the whole house. The committees collected evidence, examined witnesses and prepared reports. Their printed reports usually contain not only the actual reports but also a record of the proceedings of the committees and the minutes of evidence, if any, taken. The record of proceedings is sometimes a valuable guide to the trends of opinion within a committee, while the minutes of evidence are usually a veritable mine of information.

Reports of Royal Commissions, Departmental Committees or of other investigating bodies are of at least equal importance. They were not appointed by the House and did not report to it, but to their appointing authority, that is to the Crown or to the Minister. Their reports came before the House of Commons by Command, that is, they were not "ordered by the House of Commons to be printed", but technically were presented by command of the Crown. Unlike the Select Committees, which were composed of Members of Parliament, Royal Commissions included as members persons who had no connection with politics but who were considered experts in the subjects to be investigated. If the necessity arose a commission could send its members abroad to take evidence. For example a commission early in this century sent members to Australia, New Zealand, South Africa and Canada to take evidence on the "Natural Resources, Trade and Legislation of Certain Portions of His Majesty’s Dominions".

Besides the reports of Select Committees and Royal Commissions, the Parliamentary Papers include a wide variety of other documents. Collections of correspondence showing details of certain aspects of public policy were often laid before the House. Some of these rival the reports of Select Committees and of Royal Commissions in both volume and historical value.

For the nineteenth century the full range of Parliamentary Papers totals close on seven thousand hefty folio volumes. They have been described with absolute truth, as "the richest important nineteenth-century collection of printed government records in existence in any country". Through the series is scattered some of the most important fundamental source-material of many aspects of history. Professor James T Shotwell, the noted social historian, has stated, ‘if any one type of source must be regarded as the most important for English social and economic history in modern times the Blue Books of Parliamentary Papers must be ‘chosen’. They are a veritable mine, an almost inexhaustible but largely unworked seam of contemporary knowledge of an era when humanitarianism was beginning to mould legislation.

The list of topics which they cover reads like a litany of human problems consequent upon the industrial revolution: enclosures, game laws, trade conditions, river pollution, railways, wages, conditions of employment, migration, emigration, sewerage, smoke prevention, charities etc. These lay bare the personal miseries on which industrial progress was made. They explain the social and economic thinking of the years between the Congress of Vienna and the outbreak of World War 1.

This magnificent series of papers included a variety of documents which it was felt Members of Parliament should have. Among them are personal reports such as that by Captain Renham on passenger accommodation on ships travelling between Ireland and Liverpool and correspondence explanatory of the administrative actions in relation to poverty in the 1830s. The Inspector General’s report on Newgate Prison in 1856 was followed by a report by a committee of aldermen of London on the same subject. Both are in the papers presented to Parliament though neither of them originate in Parliament.

One of the reasons why this great source has not been used to the full extent of its potential has been the difficulty of access to sets of the Parliamentary Papers. Not many of even the major libraries of Britain can boast of having anything approaching a complete set. None, not even the House of Commons itself or the British Museum, has an absolutely perfect run of them. Outside of Britain they are rarer still.