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Record Copies of Acts

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 6:18 pm on 20th April 2016.

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Photo of Ronnie Cowan Ronnie Cowan Scottish National Party, Inverclyde 6:18 pm, 20th April 2016

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 We need only look at the outdated estimates process, the antiquated upper House’s unelected bishops and hereditary peers or this Chamber’s box of complimentary snuff to see that every tradition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.