I beg to move,
That this House disagrees with the conclusion of the House of Commons Administration Committee’s First Report of Session 2015-16; welcomes the view expressed by the Minister for the Cabinet Office and Paymaster General that government funds would be available to pay for the continued use of vellum for printing Acts of Parliament; is unwilling to amend or resile from the terms of the Resolutions agreed by both Houses on 12 February 1849; and accordingly instructs the Clerk of the House to convey to the Clerk of the Parliaments that the House of Commons has withheld its consent to the use of archival paper rather than vellum for the printing of record copies of public Acts of Parliament.
The motion is in my name and those of 43 colleagues from both sides of the House. If it is passed, it will send a strong message to the other place—the House of Lords—that its unilateral decision to end the ancient practice of using vellum to record Acts of Parliament is not accepted by this House. If that occurs, I very much hope that the other House will listen carefully to the views of this place. We have moved from a matter of grave significance to the world and to humanity—[Interruption.]
Order. I am sorry to interrupt the hon. Gentleman. It is most discourteous of Members to gather at the end of the Chamber when someone is trying to make an important speech.
I am most grateful to you, Madam Deputy Speaker. I am not certain whether my speech can be described as important, but I am nevertheless grateful to you for your flattering remark.
This debate is of less importance than the previous one, and I make no complaint about losing some time to that debate, which was about something of very grave concern to the world. None the less, this matter is important in terms of symbolism and for a number of other reasons, which I will return to in a moment. I feel no shame in bringing forward this matter.
I intend to be reasonably brief, not least because the main arguments in favour of saving vellum for the future have been laid out this week in an outstandingly good article in that outstandingly good magazine, The House. Unfortunately, because that magazine is printed on paper, those arguments will disappear within a matter of a year or two. If it were printed on vellum, they would still be in existence some 5,000 years from now. It is therefore important that I advance the arguments in a way that future generations will be able to remember.
I pay particular tribute to the hon. Member for Washington and Sunderland West (Mrs Hodgson), who has fought this battle for a very long time, and her Labour colleagues who, in 1999—the last time this matter was raised—were resolute in defeating the House of Lords. I also pay tribute to the Under-Secretary of State for Defence, my hon. Friend the Member for Milton Keynes North (Mark Lancaster). As a member of the Government, he is probably unable to speak in the debate, but I know his support for William Cowley and sons in his constituency, the last remaining vellum manufacturer, is second to none. I believe that his neighbour, my hon. Friend the Member for Milton Keynes South (Iain Stewart), is hoping to catch your eye, Madam Deputy Speaker, to speak on the company’s behalf.
I would be the first to accept there are a great many more important matters that we should discuss in this place. I would not have wished to discuss the use of vellum were it not for the fact that the House of Lords unilaterally, without consulting us, decided to discontinue it. All I am seeking to do in the debate is to assert our right as the House of Commons to have at least a say in the matter. If we have a Division later and the motion is defeated—if the House of Commons decides to agree with their lordships to abolish the use of vellum—so be it. However, it is right that Members should have a say about how our laws are recorded for future generations, as we did in 1999, 1849 and throughout the generations.
My hon. Friend might not be aware of this, but I, as a fellow member of the Administration Committee, have changed my view on this matter, and I now very much agree with him because I believe that this change would be a false economy. We must hang on to this tradition and cherish it.
It takes a big politician to say that they have changed their mind, and my hon. Friend is indeed a big politician. I pay tribute to him for being ready to change his mind.
Three broad arguments are advanced by those who would abolish the use of vellum, each of which can be easily dealt with. The first and main argument is the cost of using vellum to record our Acts of Parliament. It is alleged that the cost of printing Acts on vellum comes to £103,000 per year, whereas doing so on paper would cost £30,000 per year. The House of Lords therefore says that the saving would be in the order of £70,000 per year. However, I have been thorough in my research, and I have been in touch with the Archives and Records Association of the UK and Ireland. Its chief executive, Mr John Chambers, who is the authority on these matters, tells me that the cost of printing on vellum is identical to that of printing on paper. The cost of printing the laws of this land is approximately £56,000 per annum and the cost of vellum is a relatively small amount on top of that. In other words, the saving by changing to paper would be, at best, perhaps £10,000 or £20,000 a year.
William Cowley and sons, the last vellum manufacturers and printers, tell me that the most they have ever been paid in a year was £47,000, and that was a year when we made far too many laws in this place, including too many long ones, so it cost more to print them. If we keep ourselves under control, pass fewer laws and keep them short, the amount that we pay to William Cowley and sons will be even less than that £47,000.
Does my hon. Friend agree that it is not just the laws of the land that are printed on vellum? Such things as the Torah scrolls that are used by members of the Jewish community are printed on vellum. If the sole provider of vellum in this country were forced to close because of the House of Lords stopping our use of vellum, that might inconvenience other people and force them to source their items from outside this country—assuming that they are not already doing so, which they might well be.
My hon. Friend makes an extremely good and important point to which I will return in a moment.
We think that the figures produced by the House of Lords are pretty bogus and that the difference in cost, if there is one, will be marginal. In any event, I am delighted that my right hon. Friend the Paymaster General has announced that if there are any extra costs to be borne, Her Majesty’s Government, not this place, will bear them, which I welcome. I was also delighted that the shadow Chancellor indicated his support for the motion in discussions with me. He has authorised me to say that a Labour Government would also seek to fund the cost of vellum.
In addition to the cost of vellum, there is the matter of the printing machinery, which is due to be replaced. Does the hon. Gentleman have an idea of the cost of the contract that would be required and the length of time the contract would need to be in existence to recoup that expenditure?
I am grateful to the hon. Lady for raising an extremely important point. She is quite right that if some complicated piece of machinery were required at great cost, meaning that it would take us years and years to pay that off, it would be important to take that into consideration. However, the fact of the matter is that any corner shop—any printer in the land—can print on vellum. I have been informed by printers—there are two in my constituency who would be delighted to do it—that the £56,000 that is currently spent is a great deal too much, and that they would do it for significantly less.
The hon. Lady will have a chance to make her points later. I am interested that she is apparently opposed to the motion.
The difference in cost will be pretty marginal, so let us move on to the substance of the matter. If we were to change to paper, I would be very surprised if the cost was as low as the House of Lords has indicated. The county of Hereford has announced this week that it has just opened a new archive centre at a cost of £11.5 million. Paper, of course, requires all sorts of special care over the years, whereas vellum, as can be demonstrated by a glance at the records in the Victoria Tower, survives for generations—hundreds of years—without any care whatsoever. It can be put in a cupboard and it will be as good as when it went in.
When I last had a proper job, I worked in local history publishing. We published John Morris’s translation of the Domesday Book and relied heavily on other archives, such as materials in the parish chest, that were written on vellum. I will not ask my hon. Friend to comment on whether I would be much the poorer had those things been written not on vellum but on paper, and it had disintegrated, but does he agree that we would be much poorer as a nation in our understanding of our history had such things been written on paper?
My hon. Friend makes an extremely good point. Were I a nimble enough speaker, I would leap from the place where I am in my speech to the point to which she refers. However, I will talk in a moment about the things we have today because they were made of vellum but which we would not have if they had been made of paper.
My hon. Friend mentioned the debate in 1999, when Mr Brian White raised the issue, as a Milton Keynes Member, because the factory would have had to close. I made the point in that debate that down the other end of the building, there was an Act of Parliament dated 1497 that was on view to the public. It was not a facsimile or a replica; it was an Act of Parliament—it bore the sovereign’s signature and it was legible. We know that vellum lasts 500 years, but we do not know that any other material will last 500 years.
My hon. Friend makes an extremely strong point.
The third argument that is sometimes advanced by those who are opposed to vellum is that this is some sort of animal rights or animal welfare matter because of the use of calfskins in making vellum. The answer to that point is that the calfskins are picked up from the abattoir. The calves are killed for the purpose of being eaten, so there is absolutely no animal welfare consideration of any kind at all. Indeed, we could argue that reusing the calfskins is a much more environmentally friendly approach.
In contrast to those three—rather weak, in my view—arguments in favour of abolishing vellum, there are three vastly stronger reasons for keeping it. First, vellum has for centuries been used for documents of significance and importance. University graduation certificates have always been on vellum, as have certificates of long service and military commissions. Every law in every Commonwealth Parliament throughout the world is on vellum. In America, West Point graduates get vellums. Knighthoods are on vellum, as are peerages. Any decent, important document that we have uses vellum. When we give a certificate to our Lord Mayor for his long service, it is always on vellum. Why should we be uniquely downgrading the laws of the land and saying that they are not important enough to be on vellum, despite the fact that our university graduation certificates are?
Secondly, vellum is hugely more durable than paper—there is no question about that at all. It cannot be crushed and it cannot be torn up. Of course, we are not allowed to use visual aids in this Chamber, Mr Speaker—I would not dream of doing such a thing—but I can show that it is true that vellum cannot be crushed or squashed, because it comes out just as it was before its crushing. It cannot be torn or burned, and it is not affected by water. It is durable in a very real sense.
As some of my hon. Friends have mentioned, we have good examples of how vellum has survived without any maintenance at all. It lasts for up to 5,000 years; by comparison, the maximum that can be achieved for the highest quality archival paper is 200 or 300 years.
Perhaps my hon. Friend will be interested to hear the opinion of a former colleague of mine, Mrs Meg Ford, who is the head of books and manuscripts at Christie’s and one of the world’s foremost experts in this field. She advises the great collectors who spend millions of pounds purchasing books and manuscripts. She emailed me to say:
“Vellum surely is the strongest, most durable writing material. Maybe there is some newly invented material lined with graphene, but if the choice is between even the best paper and vellum, vellum will win.”
My hon. Friend speaks with passion from a position of great expertise, and he is absolutely right. When I was going through my personal archives recently, I was interested to come across my grandfather’s certificate as a graduate of Edinburgh University. I have it here—this is not an aide-mémoire, Mr Speaker. He graduated in engineering in 1903, and his certificate is absolutely as it was when it was first printed. It has simply been sat in a cupboard in my family’s house for 120 years, and it is as good as new.
I congratulate my hon. Friend on the great campaign he has run on this issue. Is it not slightly ironic that the year after we celebrated the 800th anniversary of Magna Carta—a document that is essential to our constitution and was written on vellum—their lordships are considering doing away with vellum? Is he aware that while the laws in the Republic of Ireland are written on vellum, I am not aware of any plans to scrap that tradition there?
They have plenty of cows in Ireland, as we do in this country, and my hon. Friend is absolutely correct. Had Magna Carta been written on paper, it would have been lost by around 1465, before the birth of Henry VIII—it would not have survived to his times. Let us think of other great documents such as the Dead Sea scrolls, the Lindisfarne gospels and the Domesday Book—all were written on vellum. The Codex Sinaiticus in the British Library was commissioned by the Emperor Constantine in 350 AD. We can look at it today and turn its pages; it is exactly as it was when it was written, and it is as clear as anything. Can one imagine a piece of paper from 350 AD surviving? The oldest complete bound book in Europe, the St John’s Gospel, was put into the coffin of St Cuthbert in the year 687 in Durham cathedral, and it can still be read today as clearly as when it was written because it is on vellum. The use of vellum guarantees that no matter what happens in the future—war, floods, riots or anything else—Acts of Parliament will be preserved for all time.
The third reason why I think it vital to maintain vellum is that William Cowley and sons in Milton Keynes, the last remaining manufacturers of vellum, supply services to the British Library, the Bodleian and records offices up and down the land. If the parliamentary contract is withdrawn, there is at least a chance that the firm’s six employees would no longer be there, meaning that everyone who requires vellum services would have to go to America, because there are no other vellum manufacturers in Europe.
Why on earth, for the sake of some £20,000 a year, if that, should we be considering doing away with a craft of this kind? Why would we want to close down an ancient business? Why should we be considering changing a 1,000-year tradition of this place? Why should we downgrade Acts in the way that is suggested? To me, it is beyond understanding. If Members care for the traditions of this place, if they care for crafts and if they care for Acts of Parliament, they will join me in the Aye Lobby today.
Several hon. Members rose—
Order. Many Members wish to participate in the debate, so there will have to be a five-minute limit on Back-Bench speeches, which will be open to review, depending on progress. We must start with five minutes with the intention of not exceeding that limit.
I congratulate the hon. Member for North Wiltshire (Mr Gray) on securing this afternoon’s debate, and on spearheading the opportunity for this House to voice its concerns about the decision taken by the House of Lords and the House of Commons Administration Committee to end the centuries-old practice of printing Acts of Parliament on vellum.
My involvement came about after the issue was brought to my attention by Patricia Lovett—calligrapher, illuminator, vellum-user, and vice-chair of the Heritage Crafts Association. She was concerned about the impact on an important heritage craft in this country. It was our shared hope to see this decision reversed when the matter was first considered back in October, when the Administration Committee recommended that the Commons agree to the renewed request by the Chairman of Committees in the Lords that we print record copies of public Acts not on vellum, but on archival paper. This House, however, was never consulted on this, and neither was the sector on which the change would have the greatest impact—nor indeed were the wider public, who might have an interest in the future of this heritage craft.
It was with great dismay that, two months ago, we were informed that the printers had been given a 30-day notice to cease printing on vellum, with no public announcement or dissemination of this decision to parliamentarians; I found out from Patricia Lovett, as I said. That led to my point of order on 9 February, in which I raised my concerns about this shady back-room deal between the Commons authorities and those in the Lords.
After the points of order raised by the hon. Member for North Wiltshire and me, the Minister for the Cabinet Office intervened with the welcome news that the money necessary to continue printing on vellum would be found from Government coffers. Although I genuinely thank the Minister for his support for our campaign, I really think that printing, preserving and protecting our own archival history through our own budgets is a matter for Parliament.
Let me make it clear at this stage of the debate that this is very much a matter for the House. Although we on the Treasury Bench offer our support, it remains a matter for the House.
That saving grace is very welcome.
Many of us from different parties might be described as strange bedfellows in this debate, but we have come together on this issue because we agree that the continued use of vellum is part of recognising our heritage and traditions. The Palace of Westminster is to undergo a potential £7 billion refurbishment to conserve this place for future generations to use, visit and admire; how can anyone argue for a saving that is so small by comparison, without considering what we would lose?
Our most important documents have been printed or written on vellum, from the Magna Carta to the Domesday Book and a piece of important north-east English history, the Lindisfarne gospels. All these historical manuscripts have been preserved for posterity because they were printed on vellum. They have lasted through the ages due to vellum’s durable qualities, which have ensured that future generations can appreciate and respect our shared history. Surely the legislation that we make here is worthy of this small additional cost. These are the laws of our land, and they should have the status and respect that is implied when they are printed on vellum. As Paul Wright from William Cowley said on the Jeremy Vine show last year, “If it is precious, put it on vellum.”
The crux of my concern about the change is the debate about the costs of printing on vellum. Both the Administration Committee and the Chairman of Committees in the House of Lords have claimed that ending the use of vellum would save Parliament, and the taxpayer, an average of £80,000 per year, but that figure has been disputed. William Cowley has said that, according to its books, the sale of vellum to Parliament is worth £47,000 per year. My question is: where does the proposed saving of £33,000 come from?
There is also concern about the use of archival paper. As we have heard, vellum manuscripts have lasted for centuries, and archival paper has not been proved to have that kind of longevity. There is talk of 250 years and of 500 years, but it must be borne in mind that those are estimates, not facts. It is a fact, however, that vellum lasts longer, and I therefore cannot support a switch to the inferior medium of archival paper.
Parliament is an important beacon of our history and heritage, and the fact that Members of either House can so easily dismiss a centuries-old practice is deeply worrying. We should remember that William Cowley is our last remaining vellum maker here in the UK. If it were to lose its contract with Parliament, that could be detrimental to the future of this heritage craft, and those who wished to buy vellum would have to look to other countries. It would not be just our medals that we would be buying from France. That is why I hope that today we can finally save vellum for good.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for North Wiltshire (Mr Gray) on initiating the debate. It has forced me to do an awful lot of homework and get hold of some real facts and figures, so that I can pass them on to the House as they have been presented to me.
Vellum has been used to record Acts of Parliament for only about 170 years. The oldest surviving parliamentary records are on parchment, which is a very similar material. The oldest surviving archival paper records date back to 1510, which is just 13 years short of the date of the oldest parchment record. Those paper records are the manuscript journals of the House of Lords. It appears to me, on the basis of viewing and research, that records kept on vellum and those kept on archival paper in the same environment last equally well.
My hon. Friend is trying to make a distinction between vellum and parchment, but they are, of course, the same thing. The “Oxford English Dictionary” defines vellum as fine parchment.
I am obviously talking too quickly, because, in effect, that is what I said: they are much the same.
I beg my hon. Friend’s pardon.
Before 1849, all Acts were written out by hand on rolls of parchment, in exquisite handwriting; it is really worth seeing. The motion refers to a resolution of both Houses dated 12 February 1849. At the core of that resolution was a proposed move from beautiful handwritten copies to the then cutting-edge innovation of printing. Perhaps my hon. Friend wishes that we could return to handwritten copies on vellum, as they do look beautiful. In 1999, the House of Lords announced that it wished to cease printing public Acts on vellum, having ceased to print private Acts on it in 1956. Two copies of each Act of Parliament are printed on vellum. One is kept in the Parliamentary Archives, and the other is sent to the National Archives.
The amount of money that would be saved by a move from vellum to archival paper has been disputed, but in the grand picture of public expenditure, it is not enormously significant. It is worth observing that we expect the saving to be more than the salary of a single Member of Parliament, which many of us probably consider not to be that great anyway. The National Archives has helpfully informed Parliament that it does not require vellum, and as it is part of the Minister’s departmental portfolio, I must take notice of that.
Vellum is an extremely expensive material, requiring an expensive and specialised form of printing. The cost of printing the Acts of 2014-15 on vellum—I asked about this specifically, in order to try to get it right—was approximately £107,000. The cost of using even the most expensive parchment-style paper would have been £8,000, a reduction of 92%. Unfortunately, however, the challenges associated with printing on vellum do not stop there.
As was pointed out by the hon. Member for Washington and Sunderland West (Mrs Hodgson), there are precisely two surviving printing machines that print double-sided on vellum to the standard that is required—note: to the standard that is required. One is in a museum, and the other is owned or utilised by the contract printer, but to put it colloquially, it is on its last legs and is probably being held together by Sellotape. Therefore, if the decision were made to continue to print public Acts on vellum, my opposite number in the House of Lords would have to provide a business case for a contract with the firm that was prepared to construct a new printer. The cost of that would leave Parliament contracted to a single supplier, which would negate the normal practice of competitive tendering.
If we put that one supplier out of business, it is not just parliamentary Acts that will be affected. I understand from the Office of the Chief Rabbi that the Torahs used in this country are not in fact made here, but if that one supplier were to close down because Parliament stopped using it, Torahs and many other non-parliamentary items would not be able to be made here, and the work would have to be exported elsewhere.
I have not had words with the Chief Rabbi, but I can assure my hon. Friend that we have made inquiries and we are just one of the contracts for this particular contractor. If we stopped using him, his profits would go down but he would not close.
During these complex discussions, the Minister for the Cabinet Office came along with his chequebook. I was surprised, as someone who has enthusiastically endorsed his admirable policies on cutting out waste, reducing red tape and improving Government efficiency. His Department believes that we should be “digital by default”, but that is a little different from what he is now talking about. A similar approach has been taken by the House; we also have everything digitised.
However, it is a legal requirement that quality prints of the original Acts be certified by the Clerk of the Parliaments in the House of Lords—the legal authority. Moreover, most modern Acts of Parliament are brought into force by statutory instruments at some point after receiving Royal Assent, and no statutory instruments are printed on vellum. The relevant information is available digitally.
I have huge respect for the Minister’s campaign, as he is aware. I must point out that we digitally store the Acts, and that he has ensured that if anything were to happen to the paper or vellum archive, the Acts could be reprinted.
My hon. Friend talks about the cloud. How confident is he that the cloud will be here in 5,000 years, when vellum most certainly will be?
I will not be here in 5,000 years; my teeth will have gone long before that. However, my hon. Friend’s question ignores the fact that there will be progress. I doubt that we will be storing anything in the form that we do now, be it on vellum, on paper or digitally. There will be another way.
I was encouraged by the Minister’s offer to cover the cost of printing on vellum. For a moment, I thought he was offering a blank cheque to pay for all the printing in the House of Commons, because it would be logical to extend the offer in that way. I am not particularly well educated on the constitution, however, and it was pointed out to me forcefully that it would be inappropriate for the Government to play that kind of role in the business of Parliament. Of course, the Minister and the Cabinet Office could choose to fund the purchase of the material, the equipment and the managing of the contract, as well as the long-term storage, if they wished to produce their own copies on vellum from the digital records. Unfortunately, the record of Acts produced by Parliament, on whatever medium is chosen, are the legal authority. The Minister has been gracious in his benevolent offer, but it is not appropriate.
The printing of Acts over many years has changed as time and technology have progressed. We have moved from parchment to vellum to paper, and from handwriting to printing, all of which now have a digital back-up. The only recent backward step that I can think of has been the Ed stone, but that was just an unfortunate incident. I conclude simply by noting that, of the two Houses, it is the one that we would expect to make a stand purely on tradition that is suggesting to the House of Commons that we should progress.
I am afraid that I fundamentally disagree with the hon. Member for Mole Valley (Sir Paul Beresford). I congratulate the hon. Member for North Wiltshire (Mr Gray) on securing this debate and on ensuring that it has been held after the previous debate was postponed. I also pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Washington and Sunderland West (Mrs Hodgson) for doing so much to raise the issue’s profile.
On the subject of paying tribute, we should formally acknowledge the extremely important role played by Brian White, MP for North East Milton Keynes from 1997 to 2005, who took us through this whole business in immense detail and won the argument and the vote that kept vellum.
It is important that we acknowledge Brian White. Indeed, I will go on to say something about the industry in his constituency that he protected.
It is perhaps because I have a truly magnificent cathedral in my constituency that is over 1,000 years old that I feel strongly that tradition is important and that we should continue to record Acts of Parliament on vellum. The existence of so many beautiful old buildings in Durham has reinforced my belief that we should treasure our heritage and look after it for future generations, something which this country has unfortunately not always been good at. For example, beautiful Victorian terraces have been ripped down, apparently in the name of progress, for new blocks of flats that are demolished just years later because of poor construction and, most critically of all, their not being fit for purpose. We run the risk of doing something similar with vellum.
Our lack of respect for heritage is equally apparent in other areas. For example, we have lost many of our folk songs, dances, music, poetry and other aspects of our culture, because we have not kept them alive by using them. Were it not for champions of their causes, we would have lost many others altogether. We can be a champion for vellum today.
Both Houses of Parliament will soon enjoy the ceremony and tradition of the Queen’s Speech. Does the hon. Lady agree that it would not be a favourable idea to save money by getting the Queen to make a webcast from her sitting room?
The hon. Lady makes her point extremely well.
When it is proposed that vellum must be discontinued because there is a cheaper alternative, I start from a perspective of great scepticism. Why should we change the practice when it has served us so well for centuries? The issue is close to my heart because of the Lindisfarne Gospels. Everyone here will know their relevance to the north-east and to my Durham constituency. Produced in around 700, the gospels were written and painted on vellum, without which the gospels simply would not be with us today. Not just old relics, they are important living texts for our understanding of the culture and heritage of the north-east and elsewhere. When last on display in Durham a few years ago, over 100,000 people viewed them in just three months, most of them paying to do so.
Vellum is needed in the restoration of our ancient texts and for the recording of a range of important documents not only in the UK, but abroad. I hope that this House and the other place will take steps to protect the industry that supports that restoration, not put its future viability at risk by discontinuing the use of vellum. I pay tribute to the former Member of Parliament for North East Milton Keynes and the current Members of Parliament for Milton Keynes for trying to support and keep the industry alive.
I rarely agree with the Minister for the Cabinet Office, but I did when he told The Daily Telegraph:
“Recording our laws on vellum is a millennium long tradition, and surprisingly cost effective. While the world around us constantly changes, we should safeguard some of our great traditions and not let the use of vellum die out.”
I strongly agree with him on that and I hope that in this House today we can send a strong message to their lordships that they should think again about this decision.
I am not against modernisation—indeed, I think the House of Lords could do with some of it—but we need to get the balance right. Things do have to change, but we also need to preserve what is important about our past. Acts of Parliament fall into that category, and we should continue to use vellum. I hope that we all vote in support of that today.
I should declare an interest, not only as a part-time historian who spent a large part of his youth burrowed away in the National Archives researching Tudor history, but as the chair of the all-party group on archives and history. The group has more than 100 members in both Houses, and has been fortunate to have as its secretariat the Archives and Records Association of the UK and Ireland, the leading professional body for archivists, record managers and conservators in these islands. The ARA has about 2,500 paid-up members, who have naturally raised concerns over the possible change in the recording of Acts of Parliament from vellum to archival paper, which I wish to reflect in my speech.
There has been a lot of debate on this issue and strong feelings have, naturally, been expressed. That is entirely understandable, as vellum, and parchment, its sheepskin cousin, is at the core of our national heritage. Vellum has been used to record some of the most important events in the history of these islands, not just Acts of Parliament. It is still actively used by our conservation community to repair and extend the life of our existing ancient manuscripts. Vellum is also a highly practical material. It is durable, accessible and much more resistant to fire and water than any kind of paper. It is also an alkaline material. Paper is more fragile, and it is acidic and deteriorates much more quickly over time.
Does my hon. Friend agree that the even the highest quality archival paper is going to last only about 300 years, and even then it would cost a lot to maintain in the right humid conditions, whereas vellum can be kept just about anywhere on a shelf and will last 5,000 years?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right: with vellum, we know it will last. It has already stood the test of time, as any historian or archivist will verify, through its continued existence over centuries. With paper, we can only guess how long a printed version will last; it depends on precisely what paper is used, what ink is used and how the resulting document is stored.
I had better repeat what I said earlier. In this House we have been recording on parchment equivalent since 1497 and on paper from 13 years later. Having looked at the paper, the parchment and the vellum, I can say that they look the same.
My hon. Friend is shaking his head, but I suggest he goes and looks.
I want to talk from my own professional experience as a historian. Someone who goes to the National Archives and tries to order up SP1—the state papers of Henry VIII—will find that they are not allowed to do so. They will only be able to look at those on microfilm, because the paper is so fragile that it will crumble if touched. I have opened boxes and been amazed at how many documents have still not been looked at, but I know that paper from the 15th and 16th centuries is so fragile that it would crumble to the touch, and often those documents have to be returned unopened. That is not the case with vellum. People can order up stuff that is still in its original leather bag. It will be filthy but it remains there and people can study it, using ultraviolet light. That is the contrast I have seen as a historian. What if in 500 or 1,000 years’ time future generations of historians have this problem? It is simply not true to equate paper and vellum.
Europe’s leading expert on the subject, Dr Henk Porck of the Netherlands national library, has gone on record as saying that current ageing tests for paper
“cannot be reliably predicted by means of the present artificial ageing tests.”
When it comes to printing our country’s laws, arguably our most important documents, we need to ensure that we have a clear assurance that the materials they are printed on will last the test of centuries, as vellum has. Paper-printed Acts of Parliament may last a long time—I do agree that they last a significant amount of time—but it is not long enough, and we need all the details of what is being proposed.
There has also been significant debate about the cost of using vellum and the prospective savings from printing future Acts of Parliament on paper. On 19 January, in a letter to the Archives and Records Association, Lord Laming, the Chairman of Committees, explained that the cost of printing Acts of Parliament is about £103,000 a year, yet we know, as my hon. Friend the Member for North Wiltshire (Mr Gray) has said, that the only remaining UK firm involved in this, William Cowley Ltd in Milton Keynes, receives a maximum of £47,000 a year from selling vellum to Parliament. That means that associated costs are around £56,000 a year. Lord Laming stated in his letter to the ARA that the expected cost of printing future Acts on paper, including the paper itself, is around £20,000 a year, so there is still a discrepancy between £20,000 and £30,000. It would be good to know precisely what the saving is meant to be.
We know from specialists in the sector, including the ARA, that the cost of printing on vellum and paper should be roughly the same. It has been confirmed to the ARA by specialist printers, including the Gregynog Press and the Westerham Press, that current costs of printing on vellum could be achieved for much less. People who work with vellum say that printing techniques have come a long way in recent years. They add that letterpress, litho and screen-printing are all used successfully for vellum and parchment, and they should know. Yet the Chairman of Committees has said:
“Vellum requires a specialist and time-consuming printing process, and uses equipment which is not used for any other purpose. It is firmly expected to be significantly cheaper to print on quality archival paper.”
We have a difference of opinion here. First, will the Chairman of Committees set out the proactive efforts that he and previous incumbents have made to consult members of the heritage community on printing as it relates to vellum? Secondly, will he explain how often the contract for printing Acts of Parliament on vellum has been put out to tender, and—if known—what bids came in? Thirdly, will he publish the full cost-benefit assessment that he and his colleagues have carried out on this matter? We need this in order to give the issue proper scrutiny in this place, and for wider public transparency.
We all want to see value for money, but we should also be aware of false economies. Parliament should not subsidise vellum manufacture, but we should be mindful of the future cost of archival facilities, given the fragility of paper and the potential risk of damage to such important documents. We should also consider the impact on our conservation sector if the current Cowley contract is stopped.
Vellum, like sheepskin parchment, has played a key part at key points in the history of these islands in recording our most important events. Its continuous use over centuries should cause all Members to pause in sober reflection on the fact that we, as legislators, are the inheritors not just of a tradition of preserving our laws on vellum, but of a seamless legal tradition that goes back centuries. George Macaulay Trevelyan once wrote:
“The poetry of history lies in the quasi-miraculous fact that once, on this earth, once, on this familiar spot of ground, walked other men and women, as actual as we are to-day, thinking their own thoughts, swayed by their own passions, but now all gone, one generation vanishing after another, gone as utterly as we shall shortly be gone as ghost at cock crow.”
We, too, will be gone. We will be replaced by new generations of Members, and become footnotes to the past. If we are to govern in prose, we should at least allow ourselves, in our responsibilities to generations to come, to be reminded that the poetry of history matters.
People watching this debate from outside will be convinced that this House is completely out of touch. We are talking about a vanity project. We could save £100,000 if we retain Acts of Parliament digitally. We do not need this project. The Paymaster General is very generous with taxpayers’ money and he has offered to pay that money. He was equally generous last year when he gave £3 million to Kids Company three days before it went bankrupt. That was another vanity project that was run by Mrs Batmanghelidjh, who was the poster girl of the big society. So, there is money for vellum. There was also money to save an organisation that did great harm to the people with whom it dealt and that was run by a confidence trickster, but it had the imprimatur of the big society—the Government stunt at the time.
Those outside can look at the decisions that we took on 2 March and at the way we have treated people in dire financial distress. Most of the Members who have spoken today on this matter voted in favour of taking £30 a week from the meagre budgets of disabled people.
Does the hon. Gentleman remember that we are talking about vellum and record copies of Acts?
We are talking about the priorities of this Chamber. Those outside will ask what on earth we are talking about, when we could not pay that money to the Women Against State Pension Inequality Campaign pensioners—the 2.7 million of them who have paid into their pensions and are being cheated. There is no money for that, but we save the vellum. What are we doing about the 500,000 overseas pensioners whose pensions are frozen? They paid all their dues. There is no money to give them justice, but there is money for the vellum. I think that people outside will certainly see that, and that we have one law that applies to ourselves—to our own vanities, our own history. It is history; there is no modern justification for using vellum now. This is part of the traditions of this place that should have been dumped along with top hats and quill pens.
Robin Cook tried to do it—it was an obvious saving. Remember the pressure we put on outside bodies to save money and make efficiencies. When we have a very sensible proposal from the House of Lords for an efficiency that will save £100,000, we turn it down because of sentimental, confused thinking, as though we were still living in past ages. It has no relevance for the future whatsoever.
I think that I have heard the hon. Gentleman refer in the past to the Chartist movement and to other historical aspects of this country. Vellum does not only record positive things. Vellum in society—history—records positive and negative things. If he hates most of the history of this country—perhaps he does not—does he not want to record that history, whatever it says?
I cherish the history of this country; I cherish the Book of Aneirin, Y Gododdin, presumably written on vellum:
“Gwyr a aeth i Gatreath
Godidog oedd eu gwedd”.
That goes back to the early centuries, before English existed as a language. Of course we treasure the past, and our heritage, but it has nothing to do with this century. We have other ways of maintaining a record. How precious are what we think of as these glorious words we produce, the prose of the laws that we pass. In 13 years of Labour Government, 75 laws were passed by Parliament and went through the whole process but were never implemented fully—never. They are rubbish; they are litter. Another such Bill at the moment, on psychoactive drugs, will do positive harm. I am afraid that we commit this sin. It is said that when there are crises, dogs bark, children cry and politicians legislate. Much of our legislation—the Bill on psychoactive drugs is an example of this—has no right to be preserved in any way. That will be regarded in the future, when the harm the legislation will do is obvious, as a vanity and an extravagance.
There are many outside who feel the austerity implemented mercilessly by that Government over there, who have taken large sums from people’s meagre incomes, with no attempt to make a case for that and no debate on it that makes sense. We have cut and cut again, and those people who are in financial distress will look at this House and laugh, and say, “There they go again: out of touch, looking after themselves and wasting huge sums of money—£100,000 for the parchment, £47 million for Kids Company—and for what?” Those on the Government Benches can say, “Oh yes, we have done that,” but we have 3.7 million children in poverty. We are not talking about them tonight, but we have saved the vellum. Contemptible.
Several hon. Members rose—
Order. Before I call the hon. Member for Milton Keynes South (Iain Stewart), I should emphasise that I am looking to call the shadow deputy Leader of the House at approximately 6.35 pm. I simply make the point that interventions are perfectly orderly and proper, but if there is a profusion of them colleagues on the list wanting to be called to speak will not be called. I am afraid colleagues will have only themselves to blame, to put it as bluntly but politely as I can. Let us help each other.
I am glad to have caught your eye, Mr Speaker, in this important debate.
I start by adding my congratulations to my hon. Friend the Member for North Wiltshire (Mr Gray) on putting the case so powerfully. I am happy to pay tribute to the hon. Member for Washington and Sunderland West (Mrs Hodgson) for her work, and also to Brian White, the former Member for North East Milton Keynes, for his championing of the cause. Brian has just announced his retirement from Milton Keynes Council and has given many years of dedicated public service. I am happy to pay tribute here to all the work that he has done for this cause and many others.
My reason for speaking has been mentioned—Milton Keynes is home to the last British producer of vellum, William Cowley, founded in 1870 and family-owned throughout, which currently employs six people. It is in the constituency of the Under-Secretary of State for Defence, my hon. Friend the Member for Milton Keynes North (Mark Lancaster), who, if he were not bound by ministerial responsibilities, would be hoping to speak in the debate. My comments can be amplified by him.
It is rather ironic that the home to one of the oldest traditions and industries in this country is located in the borough that is perhaps the most modern, the newest of new towns, the innovator of matters digital, autonomous pods, smart cities and the rest, but we are very proud to have it in Milton Keynes. Although I am a great believer in innovating digital technology, records and so on, I believe that we should preserve for all time the laws of this place on an indestructible material, and not run the risk that everything gets wiped out one day by some cyber-attack. I take comfort from the fact that we will have a permanent record here.
We should not take a risk with one of the oldest industries. Most nations of the world use vellum from William Cowley to record their national history for future generations or to create documents and works of art. Britain is the world’s foremost authority on vellum. We should not underestimate the disbelief in other countries that we are even considering ending its use. Should we decide today to turn our backs on vellum, we are likely to consign another traditional craft to the history books. It will lead us to import more from overseas. It risks supplies to other bodies, as my hon. Friend the Member for Northampton North (Michael Ellis) eloquently pointed out.
I cannot see good reasons to abandon the practice. Vellum is cost-effective. There is an opportunity cost if we move to other sources. Vellum does not require intricate monitoring of storage. There is no need for expensive systems of microbiological or insect control. It is non-combustible, so there is no need for expensive non-water-based fire prevention systems. It is 16 times more durable than the highest quality paper available. I represent Milton Keynes, but I come from Scotland. Thrift is important and I abide by the old adage, “Buy cheap and you buy often.” Vellum is eco-friendly. It is, as we have heard, a by-product of the meat and dairy industry. The skins not used for vellum would otherwise have to be incinerated or go to landfill. It avoids tree felling and the use of chemicals to treat the paper.
We should protect our heritage and tradition of skilled craftspeople. I cannot see a problem that needs to be fixed by abandoning the use of vellum. I therefore hope the House will enthusiastically back the motion in the name of my hon. Friend the Member for North Wiltshire.
I have been fortunate enough to represent Inverclyde in this House for almost a year. In that time I have welcomed a number of constituents to the parliamentary estate not only to give them a tour of these historic buildings, but to show them how this Parliament operates. While guiding my constituents through the Royal Gallery and Central Lobby, I have often thought that the Palace of Westminster would make a magnificent museum.
I am not against tradition and today I am proudly wearing my Innerkip Society tie. The Innerkip was established as a charitable organisation in 1798, and for over 218 years has survived to do its good work in the Inverclyde community by adapting and moving with the times.
Politically, Westminster means different things to different people, but this Parliament has had an undeniable influence on the history and culture of the UK’s nations over the centuries. Those centuries have led to the development of many important traditions, and I hope we can all agree that the history of any elected Chamber is worthy of respectful consideration.
However, I would caution that we should not let grand architecture and fine paintings distract us from the primary purpose of this building—as a functional centre of governance. It will be apparent to some Members that the UK Parliament does not always convincingly carry out that purpose. We need only look at the outdated estimates process, the antiquated upper House’s unelected bishops and hereditary peers or this Chamber’s box of complimentary snuff to see that every tradition is not worth continuing. Indeed, as Woody Allen said,
“Tradition is the illusion of permanence.”
It is in that context that we are here today to consider whether it is appropriate to continue recording public Acts of Parliament on vellum. Perhaps it is unsurprising that the modernisers in this debate are those advocating the use of paper—a writing material that has been available in Europe since the middle ages. Westminster politics has never been known for its ability to quickly adapt to changing circumstances.
Those arguing in favour of the continued use of vellum have cited its durability as one of the most important aspects of its use. I understand the point that original copies of records should survive so that future generations can enjoy them. I suggest, however, that the UK Government flatter themselves if they think that, 500 years hence, schoolchildren will clamour to visit this Parliament, eager to see an original copy of the Speed Limits on Roads (Devolved Powers) Act 2016. Whether or not legislation is written down on paper that is replaced over subsequent generations is inconsequential; it is the idea, principles and continued effectiveness of our laws, not the means of recording them, that are most worthy of our attention.
As Members are aware, the National Archives are one of two locations in which vellum copies of new public Acts are stored, and the National Archives, too, take the practical view that archival-quality paper is sufficient to maintain the public record.
Ultimately, there are risks associated with any form of recording, whether vellum, archival paper or full digitisation. We should be wary of anyone claiming that there is any one foolproof method of storage. Lack of foresight and unpredictable events have led to the destruction of records before and may do so again. It is worth remembering that the vellum records in the House of Commons archive were destroyed by fire in 1834, with the House of Lords records surviving only because they were housed in a separate building. Many nationally significant paper records have also been destroyed—particularly during the blitz.
Digitisation has also had its difficulties, as evidenced by the BBC Domesday project, which ran from 1984 to 1986, but which faced technological difficulties just 15 years later. My personal preference is for a combination of archival paper and digitisation. After all, the increased accessibility as a result of digitisation has undoubtedly improved the transparency of our public records.
I am sympathetic to those who argue that discontinuing the use of vellum would negatively affect the UK’s sole remaining producer. I would never argue lightly in favour of a measure that negatively impacted on the employment of any Member’s constituents.
None the less, Westminster is not a museum. It does not exist to propagate tradition for the sake of tradition. We are here to govern, to pass laws and to do so in a way that reflects the UK’s nations as they are today—not as they were in the past. For too long, this Parliament has doggedly refused to enter the 21st century. I therefore urge colleagues to vote against the motion.
Finally, if anyone from digital services is listening, could they please pop into my office and fix my printer? I have a sheet of vellum stuck in it—apparently vellum is not compatible with the 21st century.
Several hon. Members rose—
Order. I am sorry that I must now, with immediate effect, reduce the time limit on Back-Bench speeches to three minutes, but I do so with the purpose of trying to accommodate everybody.
I rise to support my hon. Friend the Member for North Wiltshire (Mr Gray), who has been fighting the good fight to maintain the 1,000-year tradition of using vellum for the printing and preservation of Acts of Parliament. I confess that I have a vested interest: I successfully took a private Member’s Bill through this place and it became an Act of Parliament. However, you will be pleased to hear, Mr Speaker, that there will be no jokes about Peter Pan and Wendy this evening.
When I first came to this place, I was—I often still am—bemused by its many traditions, but they are an integral part of everything that makes this place the mother of all Parliaments. The use of vellum is one such tradition. In a world of fast-moving technology, which we have heard about this afternoon, and of improvements in printing and processing techniques, and document storage, I agree that it is only right to review the practices for printing record copies of public Acts. Some might call me a dinosaur, but I do not think that there is anything wrong with holding on to a tradition of history.
Printing on vellum is a long-standing tradition. Record copies of public Acts have been printed on vellum since 1849. Vellum is far more durable than paper, even archival paper. Without vellum, as we have heard, we would not have Magna Carta, the Domesday Book, the Lindisfarne documents or many other important historical documents.
Time is pressing, so I will conclude my comments there, except to add that the anticipated savings do not justify a departure from this long-standing tradition. Although the world is, indeed, changing, it is important that we do not lose some of our great traditions, so we should not let the use of vellum simply die out.
Traditions are an important part of our country, our way of life and, indeed, our Parliament. Without them, this House would be a duller, drearier place. As we know from history, once traditions are torn down, it is all but impossible to revive them.
On the question of vellum, I am tempted to defer to Edmund Burke’s view of society as a contract between the living, the dead and those who are not yet born. I have no wish to deprive future generations of the ability to touch and smell the records of their past. In fact, we have a duty to our descendants to leave behind an abiding physical record of our laws and customs, just as our forebears, in their turn, did for us.
Without doubt, vellum is the natural document to last the ages. Without vellum, we would not have the Domesday Book, nor would we have been able to mark more than 800 years of Magna Carta, with all the historical significance that the four surviving 1215 copies added to our celebrations in Odiham in my constituency and elsewhere. It is entirely due to vellum that awe-inspiring texts such as the St Cuthbert Gospel from the 7th century have survived for so long. Even by the most generous estimates, the archive paper that the other place has proposed as a substitute to vellum has nothing like its lifespan.
As our methods of documentation move into an increasingly digitised world, we will gradually lose the ability to experience historical artefacts and to immerse ourselves fully in the study of the past. Every time a dusty volume is replaced by a PDF, and every time a print newspaper transfers to the internet, we gain something—our lives become more efficient and the pursuit of knowledge becomes easier—but we also lose something: the tactile elegance, the timeless simplicity and the physical permanence of record-keeping.
When it comes to preserving this valuable tradition, I believe that Paul Wright, who works for the vellum manufacturer, put it best when he said, “If it’s precious, put it on vellum.” If we in this House have the confidence to make and enact laws, we must also deem them worthy of preserving through the ages.
I wonder whether we are belittling ourselves slightly. Yes, vellum is almost immortally permanent and—from the Domesday Book to the equally wondrous Supply and Appropriation (Anticipation and Adjustments) Act 2016—has faithfully freighted and defended its contents. If we ditch it for a ream of A4 80 gsm paper, or whatever it might be, our descendants will watch as the laws governing them gradually putrefy, wither and dissolve. Yes, that might be an advantage for many things, but is not this about more than a practical issue?
I am sure that hon. Members will agree that every day we sit in this place and hear soaring flights of Ciceronian oratory from both sides of the House. This place bears witness to an indefatigable tide of facts, figures and predictions, all of which are dispensed with rhetorical clusters of clauses and sub-clauses nesting like Russian dolls, and held up with towering eloquence. Is it not fitting for the laws, Bills and Acts in which those words are made manifest to be conveyed and preserved in a manner worthy of their breadth and nobility?
I am sure hon. Members will remember “Gulliver’s Travels”, in which one Lilliputian inspired awe in the others because he was taller than his peers by the breadth of one fingernail. We must not be guilty of the same—of thinking small and measuring ourselves against one another instead of taking the wider view and the historical perspective, and reflecting the enormous historical significance and distinction of this place.
We have faced this hurdle before when, with great irony, the distinguished and noble Members of another place sought to end a millennium-long tradition. While balancing precariously on a quivering tower of ritual custom and convention, they thrust their ancient swords in the direction of another small part of our heritage, and their efforts were thwarted. I, for one, hope we will resist them again.
In this place, the thought ought to be not, “Can we make do?” but, “Can we do no better?” I am delighted that so many Members support this motion. As negligible as a politician is, and however much today’s Lilliputian thoughts might seem perishable, it is incumbent on us today to uphold their imperishability.
It is a pleasure to follow that Ciceronian example of oratory from my hon. Friend the Member for Somerton and Frome (David Warburton). I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for North Wiltshire (Mr Gray) and the hon. Member for Washington and Sunderland West (Mrs Hodgson) on their work.
I wish to address a point that I feel has been somewhat overlooked: these proposals represent the thin end of the wedge, and a general direction of travel away from physical storage and towards a digital-only future that I would want to avoid. I was concerned to read in a written answer from 9 November last year that in addition to reassurances that archive paper is a sufficient replacement for vellum—a claim I dispute—further reassurance was offered that Parliament maintains a comprehensive database of legislation, both “as originally enacted” and “as amended” on the website www. legislation.gov.uk. I took that as a sign that some think that web-based archives can be the equivalent of hard copies, but they are not, for the simple reason that technology evolves far too quickly to serve as a permanent record for any sensible length of time. New and “better” devices and file formats come on the market every month, and it takes only a few years for technology to become redundant. If I handed you, Mr Deputy Speaker, a copy of your maiden speech from 1997 on a floppy disk, would you be able to access it readily? I doubt that you would, and let us not even begin thinking about transferring documents between PC and Apple formats.
Many computer devices that are sold now do not even feature CD-drives, such is the fashion for online storage—the “cloud”. While online storage might be the current flavour of the decade and it works fine for now, such is the pace of change that I ask whether we can really expect information to be stored sufficiently in that format in 10 or 20 years, let alone in 500 or 1,000 years. If we are not cautious, we could soon be facing a new digital dark age in which accessing digital files from a few years earlier will prove trickier and trickier.
One difficulty is that although the law is printed on vellum, its implementation is done through statutory instruments, which are printed on paper and kept digitally. The other interesting thing that I have found—being old enough—is that digital records are changed and moved as we go on with digital invention.
My hon. Friend raises a number of interesting points, although whether we should print the deliberations of statutory instrument Committees on vellum is a moot point.
I simply warn about this digital dark age that will soon be sweeping over us. We should resist the change and hold on to an established, prestigious, and time-tested physical form of record storage—the premier form of record storage which, of course, is vellum.
I am fortunate enough to have the honour that my private Member’s Bill has been passed by the House. It is currently making its way through the other place but, if these proposals go ahead, I could add to that honour the somewhat more dubious one that should my Bill receive Royal Assent, it could become one of the last few Acts of Parliament to be recorded on vellum.
May I inform my hon. Friend that since 1956 that has been what happens? I am sorry, but if he gets his Bill through, it will not be on vellum.
I am hugely disappointed. I wonder whether I would be able to ask the fine procurer of vellum in the constituency of the Under-Secretary of State for Defence, my hon. Friend the Member for Milton Keynes North (Mark Lancaster), to print the Act. I would be happier to forgo the honour of having my Act of Parliament printed on vellum if I knew that future Acts would be printed on vellum.
As a point of clarification, I also promoted a private Member’s Bill that became law, and it is printed on vellum. I have seen and held it, and it is definitely vellum. It is private Acts, not private Members’ Acts, that are printed on paper.
I am grateful for that helpful intervention from the hon. Lady, who is extremely learned in these matters. In conclusion, I say to the House that our predecessors in this Chamber resisted the change proposed by the other place in 1999, and I urge Members to do so again today.
Anybody who is watching BBC Parliament today will be completely confused about why the House is spending the best part of two hours debating whether to continue spending £100,000 a year printing laws on goatskins. I am surprised that this is how we are choosing to spend precious time in the Chamber. When there is a refugee crisis in Europe, the country is facing a huge decision on whether to remain in the EU, and child poverty and homelessness are increasing, surely we could be putting this sitting to better use. It is embarrassing that time limits had to be imposed on speeches in the previous debate on genocide by Daesh against ethnic and religious minorities so that we could debate this motion. I am also quite surprised that the Minister for the Cabinet Office, who is normally so eager to tell us of his prudence with taxpayers’ money, has said that the Government will find—
On a point of order, Mr Deputy Speaker. The hon. Lady indicates from the Dispatch Box that the time for the previous debate, which was a grave and important debate about Daesh, was curtailed to accommodate this debate. That is not correct. I went to great lengths to say that the previous debate could continue for as long as was desired, because this debate was much less important.
That was not a point of order, but the hon. Gentleman has put it on the record. The problem is that I am struggling to hear because of the shouting.
If the hon. Member for North Wiltshire (Mr Gray) had listened, he would have heard that I said that there were reductions in the time that people had to speak, which is a perfectly valid point—
Will the hon. Lady give way?
I will finish my sentence before I give way.
I am surprised that the Minister for the Cabinet Office, who is normally so eager to tell us of his prudence with taxpayers’ money, has said that the Government will find the extra money for this with no problem. I thought that the Government had a long-term economic plan, but it can hardly be called that if money can be found down the back of the sofa whenever it suits the Government politically.
When I heard that the hon. Lady was opposed to the proposal, I took the liberty—I hope she does not mind—of looking up whether there are any important documents from the town of Grimsby that are printed on vellum and would not have existed had they been printed on paper. It turns out that in Grimsby town hall there are 14 boxes of them including, from 1227, the charter creating the town of Grimsby; from 1256, the charter granting the town of Grimsby its right—
Order. Sit down, Mr Jenrick. [Interruption.] I suggest you sit down—[Interruption.] Order. Mr Flynn, I certainly do not need any help from you. I say to you, Mr Jenrick, that the Minister is desperate to come in. By all means make the point, but you cannot read a list as though it is the phone directory to tell me what is there or not. We have got the message; let us get on.
I am delighted that the hon. Member for Newark (Robert Jenrick) takes such a close interest in Great Grimsby’s fantastic history. However, we are talking about today, not the 1200s.
The Minister has said that the process is surprisingly cost-effective, and the hon. Member for North Wiltshire has said that keeping vellum costs little or nothing. However, the cost to Parliament of producing vellum in 2014-15 was £107,000. As the hon. Member for Mole Valley (Sir Paul Beresford) mentioned, using the most expensive parchment paper would cost just £8,000. You know what they say, Mr Deputy Speaker: “£100,000 here, £100,000 there—it soon starts to add up to real money.”
The Lords Committee cited a more conservative estimate of a saving of £80,000 a year from scrapping vellum. However, that does not take into account the renewal of the printing contract, under which the cost is likely to be greater than under the current arrangements, and nor does that take account of the cost of producing and printing the mammoth HS2 hybrid Bill, should that ever pass into law. At 49,000 pages long, I hate to think how many goats it will take to produce two copies.
Will the hon. Lady give way?
This expense is simply to continue a tradition because that is the way it has always been—that seems to be the only genuine argument that has been presented for continuing to print Acts of Parliament on vellum. A much more important tradition is the 800-year-old one that all Members of this House are equal, which the Government ended when they introduced English votes for English laws in such a shoddy way. Conservative Members were willing to let go of that tradition, and I see no reason why the tradition we are debating today is more worthy of retention.
The Minister and other hon. Members have said that vellum should be kept as it is the only way to maintain physical copies of Acts of Parliament for the long term, but the Parliamentary Archives contains paper records that date back just as long as vellum ones. The manuscript journals of the House of Lords, which date back to 1510, have been printed on paper, but the oldest vellum record is an Act of Parliament from 1497, which is a difference of only 13 years.
I know that the hon. Member for North Wiltshire likes to remind everyone that if Magna Carta had been printed on paper, it would have been lost in about 1465, sometime before the birth of Henry VIII, but we are not talking about Magna Carta. As the hon. Member for Inverclyde (Ronnie Cowan) pointed out, we are talking about the Coinage (Measurement) Act 2011, the Scrap Metal Dealers Act 2013, the Psychoactive Substances Act 2016 and every other Bill that is passed in this place. I might also point out that there was a greater need to print on vellum at the time when Magna Carta was drafted, given the surprise emergence of computers and the internet since the 13th century.
Several hon. Members raised concerns about the future of William Cowley, which is a serious point because that company currently provides the vellum for Acts of Parliament.
Will my hon. Friend give way?
We support this industry and agree that it is worth maintaining—[Interruption.] In response to the Under-Secretary of State for Transport, the hon. Member for Devizes (Claire Perry), I am not giving way because I have only two minutes left before the speech from the Minister, who wants to take 13 minutes to make his point clear.
We support this industry and agree that it is worth maintaining, but the company produces thousands of pages of vellum every year and its contract with Parliament is only a small part of its business. The company’s general manager has said that the loss of the contract with Parliament would be “nothing”, and I think that we should accept his expert opinion.
The Minister for the Cabinet Office said to The Daily Telegraph yesterday:
“Printing vellum copies of laws…provides a durability we cannot guarantee in the digital world, as we simply cannot know how easy it will be to read today’s data in a decade, let alone in a millennium.”
What absolute rubbish! One minute the Cabinet Office brags about
“building new digital services so good people prefer using them to the old paper versions they replace”,
and the next it says that it is all going to be unreadable in 10 years’ time. If we follow his logic, everything should be printed on vellum, not just Acts of Parliament.
The hon. Member for North Wiltshire and the hon. Member for North East Somerset (Mr Rees-Mogg) have claimed that to ditch vellum would be to downgrade the importance of the law of the land. As very few people are actually aware of laws being printed on goatskin in the first place, I can only think that they must be talking about the effect on themselves and their Conservative colleagues. If they believe the law would no longer be important after the change to manuscript paper, people might want to keep an eye on them.
I find it particularly surprising that the hon. Member for North East Somerset, who has written an article in The Daily Telegraph today, agrees with the argument that it is important for Acts to last 5,000 years. His lack of concern about rising global temperatures had led me to believe that he was not all that bothered about anything still being here in the year 7016.
Finally, there is the question of why on earth the Minister for the Cabinet Office is getting involved. This is a matter for the Lords, not the Commons or the Government. If the Government do wish to involve themselves, why is the Leader of the House not leading on this matter, rather than the Minister for the Cabinet Office? I am sure that there are much more useful things a Government Minister could be doing with his time, and there are certainly much more worthy causes on which £100,000 of taxpayers’ money could be spent each year. He should let the Lords end this archaic process and get on with something more important. The world has moved on since 1497 and it is time that this place did too.
It falls to this House to debate issues both large and small. Today’s debate has shown that this issue is both large and small: large because the question of how, as a Parliament and as a country, we record the sovereign laws of our land, and whether we should protect the traditions by which we have done this for many centuries, is of great importance; and small because the financial sums involved and the savings offered by the change that we are debating are but a minuscule fraction of the overall cost of government.
I want to be clear that this is, first and foremost, a House matter. Should the House carry the motion today, I hope that we can work with the other place to find a path forward that both Houses find satisfactory. In that spirit of pragmatism, the Government have offered financial support from other savings, without further burdening taxpayers, to ensure that this tradition, which is of great symbolic and practical value, is not irrecoverably broken by a lack of funding on this small scale.
I commend my hon. Friend the Member for North Wiltshire (Mr Gray) on his tireless campaigning. I have been buoyed by the support that we have received from across the House and, indeed, the other place. The case was set out powerfully by him, by the hon. Member for Washington and Sunderland West (Mrs Hodgson), and by many Members across the House.
It is absolutely inappropriate for the Government to dictate to the Houses of Parliament by a payment. The way in which it should work is that the Houses decide and pass on the bill, as traditionally happens every year. The Minister should know that. To tell us that he will pay for one specific thing is inappropriate.
This is indeed a matter for the House, and this House is just about to make sure that its view is well known.
The speech by the hon. Member for City of Durham (Dr Blackman-Woods), the intervention by the hon. Member for Ealing North (Stephen Pound) and the speeches by my hon. Friends the Members for North East Hampshire (Mr Jayawardena), for Aldridge-Brownhills (Wendy Morton) and for Milton Keynes South (Iain Stewart) were incredibly powerful and persuasive. There are Members who sit on the Treasury Bench, not least my right hon. Friend the Member for Sevenoaks (Michael Fallon), and my hon. Friends the Members for Milton Keynes North (Mark Lancaster) and for Devizes (Claire Perry), who would have spoken had convention not prevented them from doing so.
My hon. Friend the Member for Mole Valley (Sir Paul Beresford) made the case for abolition, but his speech ended up as a haggle about the costs. The hon. Member for Newport West (Paul Flynn) railed against the rule of law, ultimately, arguing that it was not worth preserving laws. Well, I think that the rule of law in this country is important and should be preserved.
The Minister is distorting the point I made. This is a vanity issue. Does he not realise that the people outside this House who have been badly hurt by the austerity cuts of this Government will look at that £100,000, and the £47 million that his Department gave to Kids Company, and imagine what they could do with it? The Government have been so mean on the employment and support allowance and on the bedroom tax, but are saving the vellum.
It is only because of the careful management of public finances that we can preserve and safeguard our best traditions.
My hon. Friend the Member for Kingswood (Chris Skidmore) brought his great and deep expertise to the debate, and told us why Dr Porck thinks we should print on goatskin. For that insight, I thank him. I also pay tribute to the speech by my hon. Friend the Member for Somerton and Frome (David Warburton), which was powerful and rhetorical, and made the point succinctly. All I think I can safely say about the speech by the hon. Member for Great Grimsby (Melanie Onn) is that she managed in her remarks to oppose the very material on which her own town’s charter is printed. I never expected to say this in the House, but her speech made me think, “Bring back Austin Mitchell.”
Why does this matter? First, because in a world racked by instability, volatility and change, we must safeguard our great traditions. I am an optimist about the power of human ingenuity, innovation and technology, and their ability to transform our lives. I passionately believe that modern invention can radically improve the way we do almost everything in Government. I am responsible for digital transformation and for cyber-security. But this is not a debate that pits tradition against modernity, because a truly modern outlook does not put them up against each other. Novelty is no guarantee of improvement. Traditions matter precisely because they connect us with the collective wisdom of our predecessors. There are times when a tradition should and must be done away with, but traditions should not be broken lightly, especially those of the longest standing, for once discarded, they cannot be replaced easily, and sometimes cannot be replaced at all. Let us combine the best of the old with the best of the new.
I am grateful to the Minister for letting me intervene, especially as I wanted to make a similar point to my hon. Friend the Member for Great Grimsby (Melanie Onn), who would not give way. I am pleased that the Minister is bringing the debate back to tradition. I come back again to my point about heritage craft. We are going to spend billions on saving this building, when it would be a lot cheaper to build a 21st-century building somewhere else. Heritage matters. The tiles that are being replaced out in Central Lobby are individually handmade; that money could have been spent on the poor. Why is no one making that argument? The same argument is not made about the fund for international development. Does he agree with me?
I agree with the hon. Lady about the importance of our traditions. The Heritage Crafts Association, which she so ably spoke for, has for many years supported the skills needed to keep these crafts going. I knew its work when I was Minister of State for Skills and Enterprise, and am delighted to support the skills of those who make and print on vellum now.
Committing our laws to this robust material underlines the point that the law of the land is immutable and that the rule of law is steadfast. We should never take that for granted. To those who say that this is symbolism, I say yes, it is vital symbolism. What else are laws but symbols on a page? What are these symbols? They are symbols of great importance that make up and underpin the fabric of our society. The vellum record copies of Acts—signed in Norman French, no less, by the Clerk of the Parliaments—are part of the rich character of this House and of our evolving constitution, just like Black Rod’s staff or the colour of the Benches of this Chamber. The symbolic power of vellum is undeniable. After the public outcry that followed the proposal to scrap it, it is time to reconsider. As Burke said, the British constitution is like an ancient house that
“stands well enough, though part Gothic, part Grecian, and part Chinese, until an attempt is made to square it into uniformity. Then it may come down upon our heads altogether in much uniformity of ruin”.
Let us not make the mistake of trying to square this great tradition into uniformity.
That is the symbolic case, but let me turn to the practical case for vellum. By any measure, vellum is far more durable and far stronger than archive paper, lasting thousands of years. It is hard to destroy, and without vellum, would we today have copies of the Domesday Book, the Magna Carta, the Lindisfarne gospels, Henry VIII’s certificate of marriage or Charles I’s warrant of death? I doubt that we would. Portugal is this nation’s most long-standing ally, and since 1373, the Anglo-Portuguese treaty has held the force of law, and it can be read. Why? Because it was written on vellum. We used vellum even for the town charter of Grimsby.
I would like to take the opportunity to add to that list the charter for the Salford Hundred, a document showing that Salford was of greater cultural and commercial importance than its neighbour, Manchester. Even in times of austerity, documents like that, written on vellum, are so important to the people of Salford.
And to places around the country: Grimsby, Salford, Chester—you name it. [Interruption.] Ebbsfleet—any more bids?
Let me deal with the costs. As has been noted, I bow to no one in my desire to save taxpayers’ money. For the first half of this decade, the drive for savings has been the backdrop to debate in this House, and I expect that to continue for some years yet. The Administration Committee estimates that the cost to Parliament of using vellum has been a little over £100,000 a year. Of course, any alternative would have its own costs, so all this amount could not be saved in any case.
Last year, the total costs of the House of Lords were around £100 million. If both Houses decide to sit for one extra day, the cost runs into tens of thousands. By comparison with the resources put into researching, debating and passing each Bill, the printing of an Act on vellum is negligible. Even my hon. Friend the Member for Mole Valley called the costs “not significant”. The savings proposed are just a tenth of 1% of the budget of the House of Lords, and one hundred thousandth of 1% of the total budget of the Government.
Vellum’s durability means that it is excellent value for money. At today’s prices, printing the Magna Carta on vellum would cost about £6 per century. I do not know of any other data storage system that can beat that, so I can give the House the commitment that, should there be any extra costs, taxpayers will be protected, and we will work with both Houses to find a solution that can work. I have heard the argument that there is only one printer and that it is being dismantled, but that is just not true. There are a multitude of printers; indeed, I printed the first page of my speech on vellum on a laser printer.
We have looked into the matter of suppliers, and one consequence of this debate and the scrutiny it has provided is that we can bring the costs of printing on vellum down. I have heard that we are running out of space for storage. That is not true. At the current rate, we could pass Acts for 500 years and there would be space enough in the Victoria tower for them. On the basis of symbolism, cost and practicality, therefore, we should continue this great and long tradition.
What a fine debate this has been. It has been well informed and impassioned on all sides. I believe that 13 of the 15 speakers supported the motion, while the two or three who did not were very helpful to my case, so I was grateful to them. The fact of the matter is that children up and down the land are told that the laws of the land are important, and one symbol of that importance is that they are printed on vellum. The durability and traditional quality of vellum, the traditions of this House and the way in which vellum symbolises the importance of the laws of the land all make it crucial that, for a marginal cost, if any, we continue with this long tradition.
In 1999, we told the House of Lords that we in the House of Commons were the people who must decide these matters. I therefore call on Members once again to assert our House’s right to say how we wish the laws of the land to be recorded.
20 April 2016
The House divided:
Question accordingly agreed to.View Details
That this House disagrees with the conclusion of the House of Commons Administration Committee’s First Report of Session 2015–16; welcomes the view expressed by the Minister for the Cabinet Office and Paymaster General that government funds would be available to pay for the continued use of vellum for printing Acts of Parliament; is unwilling to amend or resile from the terms of the Resolutions agreed by both Houses on 12 February 1849; and accordingly instructs the Clerk of the House to convey to the Clerk of the Parliaments that the House of Commons has withheld its consent to the use of archival paper rather than vellum for the printing of record copies of public Acts of Parliament.
On a point of order, Mr Deputy Speaker. I just want to clarify one point. The Minister for the Cabinet Office stated that the first page of his speech was printed on vellum. [Interruption.]
Order. Never mind the hon. Gentleman having his hand in his pocket, I want to hear the point of order.
The first page of the Minister’s speech was of course not printed on vellum. It may have been printed on a product called vellum paper, which is a completely different synthetic product. It is not vellum.
All I can tell the hon. Gentleman is that that is not a point for the Chair, and I am certainly not going to reopen the debate after what we have just been through.