House of Commons Wednesday 20 April 2016 Record Copies of Acts Column 1001

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House of Commons

Wednesday 20 April 2016

Record Copies of Acts

Column 1001

​Mr James Gray (North Wiltshire) (Con)

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.]

  • Madam Deputy Speaker (Mrs Eleanor Laing)

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.

  • Mr Gray

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.

  • Sir David Amess (Southend West) (Con)

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.

  • Mr Gray

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.

  • Michael Ellis (Northampton North) (Con)

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.

  • Mr Gray

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.

  • Melanie Onn (Great Grimsby) (Lab)

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?

  • Mr Gray

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.

  • Melanie Onn


  • Mr Gray

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.

  • Rebecca Harris (Castle Point) (Con)

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?

  • Mr Gray

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.

  • Sir Gerald Howarth (Aldershot) (Con)

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.

  • Mr Gray

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.

  • Robert Jenrick (Newark) (Con)

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.”

  • Mr Gray

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.

  • Tim Loughton (East Worthing and Shoreham) (Con)

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?

  • Mr Gray

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 Lindesfarne 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—

  • Mr Speaker

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.

  • Mrs Sharon Hodgson (Washington and Sunderland West) (Lab)

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.

  • The Minister for the Cabinet Office and Paymaster General (Matthew Hancock)

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.

  • Mrs Hodgson

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.

 5.46 pm

  • Sir Paul Beresford (Mole Valley) (Con)

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.

  • Mr James Gray

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.

  • Mr Gray

I beg my hon. Friend’s pardon.

  • Sir Paul Beresford

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.

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