Citing documents not before House

21.26It is a general principle that the House should have before it the information, including documents, necessary to enable it to fulfil its responsibility to scrutinise and hold to account the conduct and administration of government. One manifestation of this principle is the long-standing rule that a Minister of the Crown may not read or quote from a despatch or other State paper not before the House, unless they are prepared to lay it upon the Table. Similarly, it has been accepted that a document which has been cited by a Minister ought to be laid upon the Table of the House, if it can be done without injury to the public interest.1 A Minister who summarises a correspondence, but does not actually quote from it, is not bound to lay it upon the Table.2 The rule for the laying of cited documents does not apply to private letters, memoranda or blogs.3

On 10 August 1893, the Speaker ruled that confidential documents or documents of a private nature passing between officers of a department, cited in debate, are not necessarily laid on the Table of the House, especially if the Minister declares that they are of a confidential nature.4 On 16 February 2006, the Speaker ruled that, although a document was highly commercially confidential, a copy of the document should be placed in the Library with any sensitive material removed. This practice has been followed on subsequent occasions.5

On 20 June 1974, the Deputy Speaker ruled that a letter from a department to a private individual did not come within the category of having to be laid.6 However, in exceptional circumstances and because they had become matters of acute political controversy, the Secretary of State for Defence on 18 February 1985 laid on the Table documents on the advice given to Ministers by an individual civil servant.7 Nothing stops a Minister presenting a paper to the House, notwithstanding it may have been ruled in the past to be of a kind that was not required to be presented. As the House deals with public documents in its proceedings, it could not incidentally require the production of papers which, if moved for separately, would be refused as beyond its jurisdiction.

On 26 January 1993, the Speaker ruled that summarising or confirming the accuracy of other people's summaries did not bring the rule into operation.8

In relation to the rule requiring papers being cited to be laid on the Table of the House, special conditions attach to European Union documents. These documents, though clearly of a public nature and regularly debated and cited in the House, are never formally laid upon the Table. They are, however, made available to Members by being supplied to the Vote Office, and no question has been raised about the propriety of this procedure.9 Accordingly, in spite of their general availability, no record of their presentation appears in the Journal.

There is no rule to prevent Members not connected with the Government from citing documents in their possession, both public and private,10 which are not before the House, even though the House will not be able to form a correct judgement from partial extracts.

Footnotes

  1. HC Deb (1992–93) 214, cc 753–54 and see motion of Mr Adam, 4 March 1808, to censure Mr Canning for having read to the House despatches and parts of despatches, none of which had then been communicated to the House, and some of which the House had determined should not be produced, Parl Deb (1808) 10, c 898, Colchester ii, 141. Mr Canning and Mr Tierney, Parl Deb (1818) 37, c 393. Debate in committee of supply, ibid (1857) 146, c 1759. See debate, 23 May 1862, on the Longford Election, in which Sir Robert Peel referred to information received by the government without citing documents; and comments made upon this course, and precedents cited, ibid (1862) 166, cc 2128–31. Also statement of rule by Viscount Palmerston, ibid (1863) 170, c 1585, and ibid (1864) 176, c 962; ibid (1865) 179, c 489; ibid (1877) 235, c 935; ibid (1887) 319, cc 1859, 1869; ibid (1889) 336, c 651; HC Deb (1913) 54, c 2345; ibid (1944–45) 407, c 409; ibid (1962–63) 668, cc 31–42. See also debate when a Minister quoted the evidence given before a military court of inquiry, and the Speaker's statement that the rule of debate had been complied with by laying upon the Table the evidence of the witness quoted, Parl Deb (1903) 119, cc 501, 570, 858. A Minister quoting a document in Committee of the whole House ought to lay that document on the Table, HC Deb (1947–48) 449, cc 1635–37. Lapse of time removes the necessity to lay a document, ibid (1982–83) 34, c 967.
  2. Parl Deb (1905) 151, c 814; HC Deb (1982–83) 36, cc 32, 34; ibid (1984–85) 89, c 1212.
  3. The Attorney General, on being asked if he would lay upon the Table a written statement and a letter to which he had referred on a previous day, in answering a question relative to the Leeds Bankruptcy Court, replied that he had made a statement to the House upon his own responsibility, and that the documents he had referred to being private, he could not lay them upon the Table. It was contended that the papers, having been cited, should be produced, but the Speaker declared that this rule applied to public documents only, Parl Deb (1865) 179, c 489; see also ibid (1883) 282, c 2108; HC Deb (1941–42) 376, c 2194; ibid (15 September 2010) 515, c 918.
  4. Parl Deb (1893) 15, c 1778; HC Deb (1957–58) 579, cc 1266–67.
  5. HC Deb (16 February 2006) 442, cc 1576–77.
  6. HC Deb (1974) 875, cc 712–15 and 720–21.
  7. CJ (1984–85) 246.
  8. HC Deb (1992–93) 217, cc 881–82.
  9. For the Speaker's ruling, see HC Deb (1979–80) 986, c 301.
  10. Parl Deb (1855) 137, c 261; ibid (1883) 280, c 250; HC Deb (13 March 2014) 577, c 458. A private Member's action in handing a document to a Minister in support of arguments was ruled to be ‘very irregular’, HC Deb (1946–47) 433, c 1566; ibid (17 January 2006) 441, cc 706–7.