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Record Copies of Acts

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 5:46 pm on 20th April 2016.

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Photo of Paul Beresford Paul Beresford Chair, Administration Committee 5:46 pm, 20th April 2016

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 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.