In March, as part of the BBC Civilisations Festival, I was asked to select and give a talk about the object held by the House of Commons Library that most embodies civilised democratic values. It didn’t take me long to decide to speak about the Library’s set of the House of Commons Official Report or Hansard. Hansard is an intensely civilised object. It is the written record of our democracy: an expression of the thoughts of our elected representatives over a period of more than 200 years. And many legislatures around the world have even adopted the name for their own official reports of proceedings.
A unique record
Hansard is a vital historical source, providing an insight into the minds of Members of Parliament—and, by extension, into the minds of members of the electorate— making their arguments on every aspect of Government policy since the early years of the 19th century. It contains statements of Government policy and a record of Government Ministers defending these policies, often in the face of probing and hostile questioning. Once a speech has been published in Hansard, it is on the record—accessible to any member of the public, anywhere in the world.
Hansard is produced extremely swiftly, which is a tribute to the skills and efficiency of the Hansard reporters. The whole text of Hansard—from 1803 onwards—is available online. It is searchable by the name of a Member, by date, and by word or phrase. A “rolling” version appears throughout the day and the hardcopy is printed early the following morning. The hardcopy volumes, which appear a few months later, are beautifully presented and bound.
Hansard helps to build the link between members of the electorate and their elected representatives; anyone can read it and learn what their Member of Parliament is saying. That might not seem like a big deal, but it hasn’t always been the case. In fact, in the 17th and 18th centuries the House of Commons regularly tried to assert its parliamentary privileges against reporting proceedings. And it wasn’t until 1909 that Hansard reported in full the speeches of all Members.
Some of the most famous speeches ever made and some of history’s most significant events are recorded in the columns of Hansard. For example:
- On 6 February 1918—one hundred years ago this year—it was recorded that the Representation of the People Act 1918, which greatly extended the franchise and for the first time gave some women the right to vote in parliamentary elections, received Royal Assent.
- On 10 December 1936, the House was informed of King Edward VIII’s decision to abdicate. A note explaining the decision, signed by the King, was read out by the Speaker. Prime Minister Stanley Baldwin said:
This House to-day is a theatre which is being watched by the whole world.
- And (most importantly, of course) on 14 May 1908, the House agreed to establish its own in-house reporting staff for the provision of a “full” report. This became the Official Report that you would recognise as today’s Hansard. Among the many reasons for this decision, possibly the most civilised was that Members would no longer be able to change substantially the text of their speech, which they had previously been entitled to do. Mr Arthur Lee said:
We are to be dependent in future upon unrevised reports. I have no objection to that in principle so long as the reporter has a fair chance to report what is said.
The House of Commons Library holds a complete set of Hansard, consisting of hundreds of volumes. They are used rather less than they were, owing to their ready availability online. And, of course, they constitute only a small part of the Library’s collection, which contains many thousands of volumes. However, they remain among the most important items held by the Library and are, I would say, its most civilised.
Greg is the loans manager of the House of Commons Library.
Photo Credit: James Ford
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