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United Kingdom: The Parliaments

This guide is to assist people researching the Parliament of the United Kingdom Parliament of Great Britain and Northern Ireland and its predecessors. 

Introduction to the History and Functions of Parliament

Parliaments of the United Kingdom

Below are brief descriptions of the four currently functioning national legislative bodies, with links to their websites. [Any quotations are from the body's own web-pages.]

Parliament of United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland

This is the legislative body of the United Kingdom, including its overseas territory, and is located in London's Palace of Westminster.

The Parliament is properly known as the Parliament of United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. In 1707 the Treaty of Union between England and Scotland created the Parliament of Great Britain from the Parliament of England and added Scottish members to both Houses. The 1800 Act of Union created the Parliament of Great Britain and Ireland, abolished the existing Parliament of Ireland, and added Irish members to both houses. In 1920 the government of Ireland Act created two parliaments in Ireland, Northern Ireland and Southern Ireland, while reducing Irish representation in Westminster. In 1922 the independent Irish Free State was created and in 1927 the name of Parliament was officially changed to the current Parliament of United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland.

Parliament is divided into two Houses: the House of Commons whose members are elected and the House of Lords, which are not. Members of the House of Lords are of two types, bishops from the Church of England (Spiritual) and those from the Peerage (now appointed titles). According to the Parliament website the Commons is a "Democratically elected house, makes laws and checks the work of Government and the Lords is "A forum of expertise, making laws and providing scrutiny of Government." There are 550 members of the House of Commons (Members of Parliament, or MPs) and 786 Lords.

Northern Ireland Assembly

The Parliament of Northern Ireland existed from 1920 until 1972, with 52 members of Commons and 26 members of a Senate. Suspended in 1972 and then abolished in 1973, the Parliament of Northern Ireland was replaced with the Northern Ireland Assembly with 108 members.According to its website "The Northern Ireland Assembly is the devolved legislature for Northern Ireland. It is responsible for making laws on transferred matters in Northern Ireland and for scrutinizing the work of Ministers and Government Departments. The Assembly sits at Parliament Buildings Stormont Estate, in Belfast. Members meet to debate issues; question Ministers; and make laws for the benefit of people in Northern Ireland. Each MLA represents her or his constituency, and there are 6 MLAs for each constituency."

Scottish Parliament

In 1999 the Scottish Parliament (or Pàrlamaid na h-Alba) was created with 129 members. "Scotland was granted devolution by the passing of the Scotland Act in 1998 which means that Scotland has a parliament with ‘devolved’ powers within the United Kingdom. Any powers which remain with the UK Parliament at Westminster are reserved. Reserved matters were set out in Schedule 5 of the Scotland Act. A basic breakdown is given below. Essentially the powers of the Scottish Parliament are set out by what it does not have legislative competence in rather than in what it can do.Devolved powers: Matters such as education, health and prisons, which used to be dealt with by the Parliament at Westminster, are now decided in Scotland. Reserved powers: Decisions (mostly about matters with a UK or international impact) are reserved and dealt with at Westminster."

There is a website Records of the Parliaments of Scotland before the Act of Union here: : "The Records of the Parliaments of Scotland to 1707 (RPS) is a fully searchable database containing the proceedings of the Scottish parliament from the first surviving act of 1235 to the union of 1707. The culmination of over ten years’ work by researchers from the Scottish Parliament Project based in the School of History at the University of St Andrews, the online edition seeks to make this key historical source freely available to all in a technologically advanced and user-friendly format."

National Assembly for Wales

1999 was also the founding and first meeting of National Assembly for Wales (or Cynulliad Cenedlaethol Cymru/span>), which has members. The National Assembly for Wales is "the democratically elected body that represents the interests of Wales and its people, makes laws for Wales, and holds the Welsh government to account."


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Online Resources

The online database UK Parliamentary Papers will contain almost all of the Command and Sessional Papers. But it is also worthwhile to look for content in other databases, particularly for the period before the nineteenth century and the normalization of government printing in the HMSO. Many of the works in the following box can be found in one of these online resources.

How to Read a Parliamentary Papers Citation

From the earlier printed guide to Parliamentary Papers by George Thompson.

A complete citation to a parliamentary paper should resemble the example below. The citation may appear with or without the name of the bill, report or paper. The numbers correspond to the following information: session/paper number/volume of bound set/volume page number.

Game Law. Sel Cttee. Report; 1845(602): xii, 331

or simply

1845(602): xii, 331

Sessions may be given as one year (1845) or two consecutive years, since Parliamentary sessions varied in length and starting date. The volume of the bound set (xii) is often given in Roman numerals, followed by the page number (331) within the bound volume on which the paper begins. The volume and page numbers are the most important information for locating the item within the bound sets. The report number (602) usually appears on the first page of the item. References are usually to House of Commons papers; references to reports appearing only in the House of Lords papers should have a paper number preceded by "HL". The examples on this page are from W.R. Cornish et al., Crime and Law in Nineteenth Century Britain. (Government and Society in Nineteenth Century Britain/Commentaries on British Parliamentary Papers). Dublin: Irish Academic Press, 1978, vii.

Command Papers

These are indicated by an abbreviation forming part of the word "command", e.g. Cd.112 or Cmd. 394. In many academic works command papers are referred to solely by this number, as in the following example:

Finance and Industry. Committee Report 1930-31. Cmd. 3897.

It is necessary to translate this command number into a full reference (to the annual bound sets) in order to correctly or locate the report, as follows (where 219 is the page number and xii is the volume number)

Finance and Industry. Committee Report 1930-31 Cmd. 3897, xii, 219.