Green papers, white papers and draft bills

You may have come across references to government “Green Papers” or “White Papers” and wondered what these are. What follows is a brief overview of both.

Green Papers, like white papers, originated in Great Britain. The term was coined by London newspapers from the colour of the covers of this type of document. The first “green” paper was introduced in the British House of Commons in 1967. It was “a statement by the Government not of policy already determined but of propositions put before the whole nation for discussion”. This document set the example for the continuing use of discussion or consultative papers.

In Great Britain, these documents are easily identifiable. They are published in green covers with the generic name “Green Paper” and their titles are listed in The Stationary Office (TSO) (formerly HMSO) Catalogues.

The difficulties in compiling a list of green papers put out by the Canadian federal government are numerous. In Canada, green covers are not used consistently so the colour of the cover cannot be used as a guide. Furthermore, the name “Green Paper” does not always appear in the title nor are these documents always tabled in the House of Commons or listed in any official source.

A green paper is taken to be an official document sponsored by Ministers of the Crown which is issued by government to invite public comment and discussion on an issue prior to policy formulation. A Green Paper is usually the first stage of setting new laws that the Government wants to bring in. Green Papers usually ask some big questions about policy direction and often give a broad indication of what the Government wants to achieve. They also provide an opportunity for the public to say what they think – they usually include some questions that the Government would like people to answer.

A recent example of a Green Paper is the UK Government’s Green Paper on Parliamentary Privilege, which you can download as a PDF here. If you take the time to do just that, you will see quite clearly how the Government has put forward some of the current issues surrounding parliamentary privilege, and asks a series of questions on each section in an attempt to solicit input from interested persons. These questions usually ask what people think or believe about the subject matter of the Paper.

A White Paper is the usual next step after the Green Paper consultation. The Government will review the submissions it received in response to its Green Paper, and then publish a White Paper. White Papers contain more detailed proposals about what the Government wants to achieve and proposals for Government legislation. They are usually based on a mixture of feedback from the Green Paper and additional research that Government departments have done.  There are usually opportunities for the public to comment on White Papers. At this stage, the questions asked might focus more on the process of how to bring about the changes needed.  Why are they called White Papers? Simply because they used to be printed on white paper. Now they tend to be more attractive and printed in a glossy format.

In Canada, the term white paper is more commonly applied to official documents presented by Ministers of the Crown which state and explain the government’s policy on a certain issue. They are not consultative documents. A recent example would be this White Paper explaining Canada’s Cyber Security Strategy (PDF).

A White Paper is not the same thing as a Draft bill. A Draft bill is a proposed bill and is usually accompanied by an extensive briefing paper explaining the rational behind the bill. However, rather than being introduced directly in the House for first reading, a draft bill is published to enable consultation and pre-legislative scrutiny. This allows proposed changes to be made before the Bill’s formal introduction. By doing so, the Government may hope that this will make it easier for the bill to be adopted. Almost all Draft Bills are Government Bills. Government departments produce Draft Bills and issue them to interested parties. MPs and Lords can also consider them in committees. After consultation and pre-legislative scrutiny has taken place, the Government will review the recommendations of the committee which studied the bill, and incorporate some or all of these. The new bill will then be introduced formally in the House of Commons or the House of Lords. The draft bill is a further step between a White Paper and the actual legislation, but a draft bill can also be produced on its own, without the Green and White Paper steps. Similarly, a White Paper can lead to a bill rather than a draft bill, since the Government may feel that it has already done enough consultation.

The Parliament of Canada does not do draft bills.

To summarise, Green Papers usually put forward ideas for future government policy that are open to public discussion and consultation. White Papers generally state more definite intentions for government policy, and are also open to public consultation. Draft bills are actual pieces of legislation which are submitted to a committee before being introduced in the House for consultation and pre-legislative scrutiny, and may or may not be preceded by a Green and White Paper

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