Opposed returns

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7.31The power to call for papers was frequently exercised until about the middle of the nineteenth century but has been used less frequently since then because much of the information previously sought in this way is now produced in Command Papers or in Act Papers, or in response to questions (but see below). The power has a continuing importance since it is regularly delegated to select committees, thus enabling them to send for papers and records (see para 38.32 ) although the House has itself ordered that certain papers be provided to a specified committee or under specified conditions. Returns may be called for by an Order or an humble Address, and it is not always clear which is appropriate. A return from the Privy Council or from departments headed by a Secretary of State is usually called for by means of a motion on the Order Paper for an humble Address. A return from a department not headed by a Secretary of State is usually sought directly by means of an Order of the House, although an humble Address will be appropriate where prerogative matters are closely involved.A1 It is no longer the case that an humble Address is sent formally to the Monarch after such motions are agreed; the understanding is that the Government will comply.

The use of motions calling for a return of papers, both as a basis for debate and in pursuit of the papers themselves, has been revived in the House of Commons in recent years. Since 2018 the House has used the power to call for papers from the Government more frequently, both as a means of forcing a division on an Opposition Day and to secure specific pieces of information that would not routinely be published. The success of such motions depends on cross-party support. The papers called for must be clearly identifiable, but motions have varied in style, from calling all papers of a particular category to more detailed reference to specific papers.1 The long-standing practice of the House has been that papers should be ordered only on subjects which are of public or official character. Orders for returns of papers which it transpired did not fall into such categories have been withdrawn or rescinded.2 The power itself, however, is not so limited. In the case of a select committee with power to send for papers and records, for example, there is no restriction on its power to require the production of papers by private bodies or individuals, provided that such papers are relevant to the committee's work as defined by its order of reference (see para 38.32 ). Although the opinions of the law officers of the Crown given to Ministers have generally been withheld from Parliament (see para 21.27 ), the failure of the Government to comply with a resolution calling for the production of the Attorney-General's legal advice to the Government has been judged to be a contempt.3


  1. 1. For example, in Session 2017–19, the House resolved that a broad set of so-called Brexit Impact Assessments (sectoral impact assessments) should be provided to the Committee on Exiting the EU, see Votes and Proceedings, 1 November 2017. In Session 2021–22, the House resolved that minutes, notes and correspondence relating to specified Government contracts awarded to Randox Laboratories Ltd should be laid before the House, see Votes and Proceedings, 17 November 2021.
  2. 2. Eg CJ (1884) 336.
  3. 3. Votes and Proceedings, 4 December 2018; the Government published the advice the next day.
  4. A1. See Votes and Proceedings, 29 March 2022, for an humble Address being used to call for papers from the Prime Minister's Office and Cabinet Office.