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Record Copies of Acts

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 6:00 pm on 20th April 2016.

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Photo of Chris Skidmore Chris Skidmore Conservative, Kingswood 6:00 pm, 20th April 2016

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 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.