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. 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. A return from the Privy Council or from departments headed by a Secretary of State is called for by means of a motion on the Order Paper for an humble address. If such a motion is agreed, an humble address is sent to the Queen requesting that she direct that the papers be supplied as set out in the motion. A return from a department not headed by a Secretary of State is sought directly by means of an Order of the House rather than via an humble address.

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.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 Orders for returns of papers which it transpired did not fall into such categories have been withdrawn or rescinded.2 The power itself, however, is not so limited.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 the 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.
  2. 2. Eg CJ (1884) 336.
  3. 3. Votes and Proceedings, 4 December 2018; the Government published the advice the next day.