HC Deb 01 November 1999 vol 337 cc32-49

[Relevant document: The Second Report from the Administration Committee on Record Copies of Acts (HC 539).]

Madam Speaker

We come now to motion 7 on record copies of Acts. It is for the hon. Member for Broxtowe (Dr. Palmer) to move the Lords message.

Dr. Nick Palmer (Broxtowe)

I beg to move that this House agrees with the Lords in their resolution.

Madam Speaker

May I give the hon. Gentleman a little guidance? I require him to move the first motion, which is that the Lords message be now considered. Once that is formally moved, we can make a start.

Dr. Palmer

I am grateful for that guidance. I beg to move

Mr. Brian White (Milton Keynes, North-East)


Madam Speaker

If the hon. Gentleman objects, he must divide the House.

Mr. White

I am sorry, Madam Speaker. I misunderstood when the Division was due.

Ordered, That the Lords Message of 19th October, communicating a resolution relating to record copies of Acts of Parliament, be now considered.—[Dr. Palmer.]

4.1 pm

Dr. Palmer

I beg to move, That this House agrees with the Lords in their resolution. I convey to the House apologies from the Chairman of the Administration Committee, the hon. Member for Broxbourne (Mrs. Roe). I know that she has already written to you, Madam Speaker, but she had a long-standing prior engagement that she could not break.

The Lords message contains the recommendations made by the Administration Committee in its second report. In effect, if not in fact, the House is being asked to approve our report. As it was unanimous, I can speak on behalf of the hon. Member for Broxbourne and all my Committee colleagues. I thank the Clerk of the House for detailed way in which he put his case and the Administration and Works Sub-Committee in another place and the Clerk of the Parliaments. As the matter was of equal interest to both Houses, the Committee was pleased that the other place kept us informed fully of progress on the parallel proposals there.

Although I support the modernisation of Parliament's procedures and practices, I am not an iconoclast. I do not advocate or support change for its own sake. I had to be convinced that the proposal to keep record copies on paper rather than vellum was justifiable and that it would be appropriate both in terms of practicality and of what I might call the dignity of the House.

There are two strands to our report. The first would end the deposition of duplicate record copies of both public and private Acts at the Public Record Office. That appears to serve no useful purpose and the Committee received no representations against the proposals from hon. Members, the PRO, the Master of the Rolls or anyone else. My short speech will therefore concentrate on our other proposal that, from next year, record copies of Acts should be preserved on archival paper rather than on vellum goatskin.

The proposal has generated some interest among hon. Members and others, including the impressively powerful campaign of my hon. Friend the Member for Milton Keynes, North-East (Mr. White), who has fought hard on behalf of his constituents who work for William Cowley's, the company that produces vellum. The proprietor of Cowley's and his relatives have vigorously mobilised opposition; they have inspired letters from, among others, the British Library, the National Library of Wales, the National Library of Scotland and Trinity college, Dublin. All those bodies claim that vellum is best for maintaining record copies; they have expressed various concerns and have made arguments about why that should be so. I shall address those concerns, and hope to convince the House that they are groundless. I shall add a—perhaps—more fundamental reason why those libraries have made those objections.

It has been pointed out that vellum is less susceptible than paper to fire damage. However, the problem with that argument is that vellum and paper are both flammable, so security cannot depend only on the document's material. If there is a serious fire, a document will burn whether it is of vellum or paper. I remind the House that all the records of the House of Commons were destroyed in the fire of 1834, whereas most of the records of the House of Lords survived. That was not because the House of Lords documents were recorded on a different material, but because officials, policemen and soldiers braved the flames and were able to save many of the documents by throwing them out of the window. We depend partly on that type of physical security; the Administration Committee and other Committees are anxious to maximise it. However, to rely only on the fact that the paper itself will not burn is not adequate.

Let us suppose that the record copy of an Act was destroyed or damaged. That would not be such a disaster as it would at first appear. One possible course of action would be the issue of a new, authenticated version by the Clerk of the Parliaments of the day. The Stationery Office has helpfully offered to provide a CD-Rom of the authenticated text for the Public Record Office. That would be much easier for hon. Members and for the Library to consult than a paper or vellum record, so the paper copy would be requested less often, and would be less likely to be damaged in the first place.

It has been claimed that electronic documents cease to be readable after a few years, unless constantly upgraded. That is a misunderstanding based on the fact that people who work with different versions of Word, for example, are aware that they may not stay current after several years. However, as I am sure that my hon. Friend the Member for Milton Keynes, North-East will agree, the computing industry met that concern with the introduction of portable document format and other formats that are designed to last and can be supported by future documents.

Mr. White

I am slightly confused. Is my hon. Friend saying that internet technology and CD-Rom are incompatible with the storage of records on vellum? I would have thought that both could occur at the same time. Why is that technology an objection to the continued use of vellum?

Dr. Palmer

I wholly agree with my hon. Friend that the fact that we now have additional ways of providing secure copies is not an argument against vellum; it is merely that the fact that it is possible to set fire to a piece of paper is not a conclusive argument against paper.

It was claimed that the Committee was biased against the use of animal products—because vellum is goatskin and paper is not. The idea that we should not use animal products unnecessarily is an attractive one. However, we did not advance that argument either in our report, or in the memorandum appended to it by the Clerk of the House. Neither sentiment nor animal welfare considerations affected our judgment. We reached our conclusion for practical—even prosaic—reasons.

The crucial matter is the durability of paper as a suitable medium for record copies of Acts. That is confirmed in the memorandum from the Clerk of the House, which forms the appendix to our report. The memorandum states: British Library Conservation Department laboratory tests have proven a life expectancy of 250 years and indicate that archival paper can have a life expectancy exceeding 500 years. If the Clerk's memorandum has a fault, it is there—it is far too conservative, although I hate to label the Clerk as one of the dark forces of conservatism. The House should consider how paper can last and, indeed, has lasted—I am talking about true paper, as invented by the Chinese in the first century AD, rather than about papyrus, which was invented even earlier.

The British Library contains paper documents from the Han dynasty; although they bear no specific date, they can be dated by association to between 25 AD and 220 AD, but let us be conservative and assume that they date from the end of that period. The documents are almost 1,800 years old—they are twice as old as Westminster Hall, three times as old as the earliest Act of Parliament in the House of Lords Record Office and they predate Magna Carta by 1,000 years. I yield to no one in my respect for the Acts that Parliament passes, but I suggest that that is a reasonable period of time for the original paper copy to last, given that we also have electronic support these days. Those of an historical bent might be interested to learn that the earliest complete and printed book in the world, the Diamond Sutra, is more than 1,100 years old. Record copies of Acts will be kept in proper archival conditions and, as with all House documents, they will be printed on paper with an alkali reserve to ensure that a non-acid pH balance will be maintained over the years.

Another factor that influenced the Committee's decision and which has not been called into dispute is that archival paper is considerably less bulky than vellum. That is an important consideration, given that storage space is finite, especially in the Lords Record Office, which, like many other archives, is getting short of space. When hon. Members raised the matter with her, the hon. Member for Broxbourne, who is the Chairman of the Committee, organised an illustration of the difference in thickness by comparing copies of the Finance Act 1998. The House will be aware that such Acts are rarely short: the vellum copy of the 1998 Act was three times as thick as the paper version. The question of thickness will become even more important when Bills and Acts are printed in a larger typeface, as has been proposed. That welcome move will assist visually impaired Members of Parliament and others, but larger print will mean more pages—in the case of vellum, three times more.

On the question of cost, the Committee's report mentions savings of about £30,000 a year. Some hon. Members have described that as a derisory sum, but the Committee believes in principle that no sum accruing to the taxpayer is derisory and that if we can save money, we should.

Mr. White

Were the costs considered purely the costs to the House authorities?

Dr. Palmer

The cost is the raw cost of purchasing paper compared with the cost of purchasing vellum. However, £30,000 is not all that would be saved, as that is only the savings on the cost of raw material.

Because printing on vellum is highly specialised and because only one company in Britain does it, it is costly and we do not have the opportunity to take tenders for the contract to print Acts from printers other than the Stationary Office. If we print Acts on archival paper, genuinely competitive conditions for the award of new printing contracts could result in savings. The Committee anticipates that the savings thus secured would considerably exceed £30,000. I cannot quantify those savings, but I can state that, since 1993, the House authorities have been able to make savings of about £3 million in expenditure on publishing House documents. About one third of that saving has been made since the privatisation of HMSO. Although that move is not supported universally on other grounds, it must be acknowledged that House officials have been able to use the same competitive conditions that will apply if we introduce archival paper.

Mr. John Bercow (Buckingham)

I am listening with rapt attention as the hon. Gentleman develops his argument. The anxieties expressed by the hon. Member for Milton Keynes, North-East (Mr. White) are well understood and respected on both sides of the House. Will the hon. Member for Broxtowe (Dr. Palmer) advise the House at what point in the process the hon. Member for Milton Keynes, North-East apprised the Administration Committee of his concerns on behalf of his constituents?

Dr. Palmer

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his intervention: it is always a pleasure to have his rapt attention. I understand that my hon. Friend the Member for Milton Keynes, North-East approached the Committee as soon as he heard about the proposal and realised that it would affect a firm in his constituency. However, my hon. Friend is in a better position to answer that question.

Mr. White

I first heard about the proposal when I read the Committee's report.

Dr. Palmer

I am sure that my hon. Friend raised his concerns at the earliest opportunity. We acknowledge that he has been fighting extremely hard on behalf of the company in his constituency.

Against the background that I have mentioned, it may seem puzzling that distinguished libraries have recommended retaining vellum. Why are they so interested? Another factor has undoubtedly influenced their views; it is a five letter word: m-o-n-e-y. With the indulgence of the House, I shall quote from a letter that the Committee received from Trinity college, Dublin, which reads: The availability of this material"— that is, vellum— at a price and quality our libraries and archives feel they can afford depends on the efficiency and productivity of the vellum makers … The half dozen skins that we"— that is, the libraries— purchase each year … will do little to sustain the craft or business … This indirect support"— from the House— will do much to aid our preservation work". I understand that argument: if I were a chief librarian, I would wish to secure an effective subsidy from the House to help meet the costs of my library. The question is: should we force the taxpayer to subsidise our national libraries so that they do not have to pay the going rate for vellum?

I have a great deal of sympathy with the view that public money should be used to preserve our national treasures and to support libraries. However, let us support the libraries directly: let us not wrap up that support in a subsidy for vellum.

Mr. David Lidington (Aylesbury)

In view of the hon. Gentleman's comments about libraries, can he assure the House that the conservation programme of the Public Record Office will not be adversely affected by the economic factors that he has described?

Dr. Palmer

I understand that the Public Record Office accepts that this proposal will result in a significant saving to the public purse. I have not spoken to its officers directly—I am slightly handicapped in that I am acting as deputy to the hon. Member for Broxbourne—but I understand that the cost to the Public Record Office will be more than compensated for by savings to the public purse.

Mr. Gerald Howarth (Aldershot)

I apologise for not being in the Chamber to hear the hon. Gentleman's opening remarks, but I am extremely interested in his concern for the public purse—it is interesting to hear a Labour Member express such a view. As the hon. Gentleman sets great store by a saving of £30,000 to the Exchequer, will he remind the House how much rooms across the road for Members of Parliament cost?

Madam Speaker

Order. That is a very interesting point and the information is available, but it is not at all relevant to this motion.

Dr. Palmer

As much as I would like to answer the hon. Member for Aldershot (Mr. Howarth), I am, alas, unable to do so.

Hon. Members may say that we are getting rid of a tradition, but it is a tradition that can no longer be justified. The printing of Acts on goatskin should go the same way as tally sticks and collapsible top hats. It is slightly ironic that the House of Lords, which one sometimes hears criticised for not being in touch with the modern world, readily accepted the proposals without a Division. Our constituents will react with total incredulity if the House rejects this motion and insists that our laws be inscribed on goatskin. That policy might be prestigious for a tribe of nomadic goatherds, but it is, frankly, bizarre for the Britain of today. To put it bluntly, such a decision would serve only to make this House look out of touch.

The Committee has carefully considered all the representations made and produced a concise, convincing report, which I commend to the House.

4.21 pm
Mr. Robert Walter (North Dorset)

I shall not delay the House for long in giving the Opposition's view that the resolution should be approved. The printing of Acts on vellum is an anachronistic practice that dates back to 1849. In October 1956, Madam Speaker, one of your predecessors was wise enough to institute a partial change by suggesting that private Acts should no longer be printed on vellum and deposited in the Public Record Office.

I shall be so bold as to suggest that the Opposition regard the move as part of the common-sense revolution. It is ironic that in these days of computers and electronic data storage, we should be debating the merits or otherwise of continuing to keep the work of the House stored on vellum. The case for change has been made admirably by the hon. Member for Broxtowe (Dr. Palmer) on behalf of the Committee. Vellum is very expensive, and the note by the Clerk of the House that is appended to the report suggests that printing last year's Finance Act alone on vellum cost nearly £12,000. That cost is increased by the necessity to place duplicate copies on vellum in the Public Record Office.

I do not know, and the hon. Member for Broxtowe did not mention, why, in 1985, his predecessor Committee rejected the proposal to extend the proposals to public Acts.

Dr. Palmer

I understand that the then Committee included an hon. Member in whose constituency there was a vellum manufacturer. He argued very forcefully against the proposals, and the matter was not proceeded with.

Mr. Walter

I thank the hon. Gentleman for those comments because they probably make the case exceedingly well.

Mr. Bercow

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for allowing me to intervene. Far be it from me to interrupt the eloquence of his flow for long, but the remarks just made by the hon. Member for Broxtowe are a source of anxiety to me because I have attended closely to the letter that I received from the hon. Member for Milton Keynes, North-East (Mr. White). In paragraph 7 he informs me that he understands that the vellum producers nearest to those in his constituency are in France. I sense a split between Labour Members, and I would be grateful if that could be resolved as speedily as possible.

Mr. Walter

I thank my hon. Friend for his intervention. Unfortunately, I can throw no light on the question of where the nearest alternative source of vellum is to be found other than the correspondence that I, too, have had with the hon. Member for Milton Keynes, North-East (Mr. White).

The Parliamentary Secretary, Privy Council Office (Mr. Paddy Tipping)

Perhaps I may assist the hon. Member for North Dorset (Mr. Walter). As I understand it, representations were made in 1985 on behalf of a firm that manufactured vellum. That firm no longer exists. The firm in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Milton Keynes, North-East (Mr. White) produces vellum. The impression that the House has been given that the nearest alternative supply of vellum is in France is correct.

Mr. Walter

I thank the Minister for that clarification.

I said that I would not delay the House in giving the Opposition's view. We have no objection to the motion, and shall let the matter stand there.

4.25 pm
Mr. Brian White (Milton Keynes, North-East)

I apologise for the earlier confusion when I objected to the first motion.

Like my hon. Friend the Member for Broxtowe (Dr. Palmer), I was in the computer industry before I entered this House, so I have no problem with the modern techniques of recording Acts. I have supported wholeheartedly the efforts of the Modernisation Committee to modernise the processes of the House.

I oppose the motion for three reasons: first, because of the way in which the matter was handled, to which I shall return; secondly, because I disagree with the Committee's arguments, which I hope to demonstrate are wrong; and thirdly, and most importantly, because the decision means the end of an industry in which Britain leads the world. I hope that, for each of those reasons, the House will support me in what I understand is a free vote, and reject the Committee's report, so that we can find a different way forward.

Committee members did not talk to the supplier until it was too late and they had made their decision. Let us take the issue of the Finance Bill, to which the hon. Member for North Dorset (Mr. Walter) referred. The House authorities asked for a certain quantity of vellum; it was supplied. Then, at very short notice, they asked for a considerable quantity more, demanding it within 24 or 48 hours. Any reasonable request could have been met.

Mr. Bercow

I reiterate that I understand and am sensitive to the hon. Gentleman's legitimate anxieties. Will he clarify for the benefit of the House whether the company in his constituency was given any opportunity to make representations? If it was not, that would, at the very least, count as a rank discourtesy, and the hon. Gentleman would have every reason to be dissatisfied about it.

Mr. White

The hon. Gentleman makes the point about the supplier's feelings more eloquently than I can. The supplier has written several letters and received replies, but in a letter to me in September, he said: I have tried to find out more about the reason behind the review of Vellum. I cannot find any reason why the officials of the Public Bills Office were so 'determined' to hold the Press to its contract when there was no … reason. It seems to him that there has been a campaign to end his contract; that it was a question of making a decision and then finding reasons for it. He is rightly upset about that. One of the things that worry me is the way in which the episode has been handled, because I do not think that it has been handled correctly. Many issues, such as those of cost, thickness and storage, could have been resolved in discussion with the supplier. There did not need to be a change of material.

The right hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Mr. Beith) said that this important debate was not important. The jobs in his constituency are very important; I accept the arguments on behalf of his miners. The supplier is very important to an old part of my constituency, so I contend that this an important debate.

Dr. Palmer

Is my hon. Friend asserting that, with further consultation, it would have been possible to reduce the bulk of vellum by one third and to eliminate all the extra cost?

Mr. White

I am saying that it would have been possible to reduce the thickness and costs. Whether that was what the Committee had in mind would have been resolved by discussion.

One of the arguments compared vellum with archival paper. I quote from a letter that I have received from the British Library: my colleagues at the British Library were consulted about recommending an archival quality paper, which they were happy to do. I understand that they were not asked to compare the longevity of parchment with that of paper. Therefore, the question that they were asked was not necessarily the one that should have been asked.

Equally, the Institute of Paper Conservation has said: We are concerned by the Select Committee's statement that archival paper has a proven life expectancy of 250 years, possibly more. I wonder whether my hon. Friend the Member for Broxtowe was right to say 500 years. The institute goes on: It seems to ignore the more fundamental problem of finding and securing supplies of archival paper made to the high specification required. Again, the House has been given only part of the story. It is possible to get the sort of quality from the paper to which my hon. Friend the Member for Broxtowe referred, but it comes at a cost. It is not a matter of going to the local branch of Staple's and picking up some paper. There are issues to be resolved on the question of high quality.

We have already heard that the recommendation is about achieving a saving to the House, but fundamental costs to libraries and to archives would increase, as my hon. Friend the Member for Broxtowe accepted.

When we compare longevity of 250 or 500 years with the 1,500 years of vellum, the cost of £30,000 pales into insignificance. The supplier has assured me that the thickness requirement is dictated by the House authorities. He could easily supply vellum at half the current thickness if he were asked to do so. New techniques are being developed all the time that improve the quality of vellum at a much thinner specification. Again, no one has discussed that with him. It was taken as read that the current thickness was required. No one asked whether the vellum could be thinner.

I am glad that my hon. Friend the Member for Broxtowe recognised that it is not an animal welfare issue. The calf skin is from animals that are already dead, or that would be used for other purposes—it is waste material.

It has been alleged that there is a short supply of vellum. Again, the evidence that I have would dispute that. One of the most fundamental suggestions in the report is that it is difficult to print on vellum, but that seems to ignore modern developments that mean that printing on vellum is possible from a standard ink-jet printer. If that can be done, there will be no problem in continuing to use vellum. Other people are not suggesting that there are printing problems with vellum.

I have a letter from Sotheby's, which suggests an idea for the House: Would you like to borrow a piece of real medieval vellum? … If you were speaking about the durability of vellum and could exhibit a piece, you could virtually defy anyone in the House to tear it in half. My notes are on vellum. Before I came into the Chamber, I offered them to the Government Whips and said, "If you want to rip them up, feel free to do so." As hon. Members can see, they were unable to tear them in half.

There is a fundamental reason for opposing the motion. Arguments in the Committee's report could be discussed. In fact, arguments on both sides could be discussed with the supplier. There is only one supplier in the country who deals with vellum; Britain leads the world in the sector. If we were to lose that supplier, an industry would be lost. The company has one major contract, on which all the others depend. It is sustained by its contract with the House—so that, in turn, it is able to supply vellum to its other clients, such as bookbinders, archives and museums. The contract also enables the firm to supply very small quantities of vellum to other clients, such as—as my hon. Friend the Member for Broxtowe said—the six pieces supplied to Trinity college.

We can save our vellum industry, and the unique skills practised in it. The National Library of Scotland stated: This material is more durable and long lasting than even the archival papers in common use today. Archival papers are long lasting but they do not have the life of parchment/vellum and are yet unproven … If it is the intention to preserve the original records of state for as long as possible, then parchment/vellum should be the information carrier. Christopher Clarkson, a conservator of library and archive materials, said: I teach in many countries, including America, and I can in all honesty say that many workshops rely on England … Your colleagues in Parliament may think that discontinuation of the use of parchment is an economy, but they must be made aware of the larger picture. In the aftermath of the Florence flood disaster, the skills of many people were required. Subsequently, many of those skills have been lost. If the House cancels the contract, Britain will lose conservation, bookbinding and archival skills, and, in the years to come, we will come to rue the decision.

The National Library of Wales said: Vellum is essential for the conservation of historic books and manuscripts, but it is used in far smaller quantities for conservation than when it is used for printing, and in my opinion the combined purchasing power of British conservators is insufficient to sustain the sole surviving British manufacturer of vellum. The House may decide that making a £30,000 economy justifies destroying an industry—but such a decision would be wrong. We are again in danger of being penny wise, but pound foolish. If the company loses the contract and goes out of business, we shall be putting a dozen people out of work. Although that number of jobs lost—compared with those lost in the coal, steel or shipbuilding industries—is not great, we shall be losing entirely another industry and the skills that create products that we export around the world.

I ask the House to reject the report, so that we might find another solution. If we reject the report, we shall be able to continue discussions with the supplier on finding savings. If the report is accepted, we shall damage not only the company and my constituency, but—most of all—the United Kingdom.

I refer Opposition Members to today's editorial in The Times, which urges them to treat the matter with the importance that it deserves. I tell Conservative Members that, if last week's rhetoric meant anything, they should vote today to support a British industry that depends on British agriculture. Any Conservative Member who votes today to accept the report will only be exposing as rhetoric the statements that the official Opposition made last week.

I remind my colleagues that, when we were in opposition, we were unable to save the shipbuilding industry or the coal mines—which others had resolved to destroy. If we accept the report, we too shall be destroying an industry, albeit a small one.

We should deal with the matter properly. There should be proper consultation, so that we might find the best way forward and treat people decently. The proposal would make a small saving for a small number of people, but we would lose something important for everybody else.

I ask the House to reject the report and give us time to find a different way forward that does not destroy an industry. The nearest vellum producers are in France. Whether the other business would go there remains to be seen, but we would lose it for this country. I shall be pushing for a Division. We need to have further discussions to look at the wider picture and engage in joined-up thinking rather than just saving money for the House authorities at the cost of jobs and industries and increasing costs for libraries and other parts of the public sector. Please reject the report.

4.40 pm
Mr. John Burnett (Torridge and West Devon)

I have listened to the speech of the hon. Member for Milton Keynes, North-East (Mr. White) with considerable interest. I understand, and have some sympathy with, his legitimate constituency concerns. However, we support the Committee's recommendations and the resolution. They are in the interests of the economy and of the better running of the affairs of this House.

4.41 pm
Mr. Gerald Howarth (Aldershot)

The hon. Member for Milton Keynes, North-East (Mr. White) may be pleased to know that he will not be the only one voting against the motion, because I—and, I believe, one or two of my colleagues—will support him. It is one of the tragedies of our time that the Government clothe every change that they make with the word "modernise". That is held to be enough to uproot our traditions and change the way in which we do many things.

Dr. Palmer

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for giving way so early in his speech. Is he aware that the proposal comes not from the Government, but from an all-party Committee chaired by his hon. Friend the Member for Broxbourne (Mrs. Roe)?

Mr. Howarth

Yes, I can read. I understand that this is a House matter and that the Whips will not be in evidence tonight. I am glad that this is a matter for the House to debate. I preface my remarks by saying that it is one of the tragedies of our time that the Government clothe everything with the word "modernise" and believe that that is sufficient justification for their actions. Some Committees of the House do the same. This is a case in point. We are told that we must modernise. Even my hon. Friend the Member for North Dorset (Mr. Walter) said that we have an antiquated arrangement.

I am a traditionalist. I believe in tradition, as do the people of this country. That is the first reason why I object to the conclusions of the report. The note by the Clerk of the House in the report says that the matter was considered in 1985. A similar proposal was agreed by the other place and was considered by the Accommodation and Administration Sub-Committee. The note continues: it is believed that Members took the view that the anticipated level of savings did not justify a departure from long-standing tradition. I take the view that, if it is not necessary to change, it is necessary not to change. That is the foundation of tradition. I share the view of the 1985 Committee.

As the hon. Member for Milton Keynes, North-East has said, it is not just the House that benefits from the 12 jobs in his constituency. University College Dublin has made representations to us because it derives some benefit. I thought that the Conservatives were in favour of cross-subsidisation. If the House can play a small part in helping to maintain a skill and tradition in this country that is not available elsewhere, save perhaps in France, we should take that into account. We should not lightly dispense with a skill available to this country that is of great value and practical assistance not only to University College Dublin, but to other institutions. We have long been admired for the way in which we conserve pictures and books. We need to maintain that, and should reject it only for good reasons.

The Committee and the hon. Member for Broxtowe (Dr. Palmer) have referred to costs as one of the real reasons to depart from the recommendations of the Committee in 1985. It seems to be a rather small amount, worth about eight months' pay for one Member of Parliament. To use the terms of the hon. Member for Milton Keynes, North-East, it is eight months of one Member for 12 of his constituents. I would not like to ask the House to anticipate which the public would see as the better deal. They would probably be prepared to dispense with any number of hon. Members for 12 of the hon. Gentleman's skilled constituents.

It is true that £30,000 is a lot of money but, set against the cost of the new building at Westminster—some £1 million per Member, I am told—£30,000 is not a lot to maintain a tradition, preserve skills and make available a service to museums and other conservators. That is a small contribution that this House could make. People might think it odd that we are prepared to spend all that money on ourselves, while taking action that would put 12 of the hon. Gentleman's constituents out of work.

Mr. Graham Brady (Altrincham and Sale, West)

Does my hon. Friend agree that, if the Cabinet were to take a further measure of pay restraint, the savings could be found by that route instead?

Mr. Howarth

My hon. Friend presupposes that the Cabinet would be prepared to do that. According to the newspapers today, the Deputy Prime Minister—the trade union shop steward on behalf of the Cabinet—takes a dim view of such pay restraint. My hon. Friend nevertheless makes a good point in comparison.

The hon. Member for Milton Keynes, North-East made a strong case about the durability of vellum. I wonder how many hon. Members have taken visitors to the other place to see the showcase of significant Acts of Parliament and other parliamentary documents. One of my great delights in showing people those is to say, "That is not a facsimile, copy or replica. That is the Act of Parliament, dating back to 1497, which bears the signature of the King—and it survives to this day." I do not believe that that tradition should be tossed aside lightly.

People who see those documents are in awe. The death warrant of Charles I is there—not a copy or facsimile, but the actual document. Who is to say whether archival paper would survive for 300 or 500 years? The jury has to be out, and none of us will be here to act as the jury to find out whether it works. Therefore, we should not take a chance, and we should stick with vellum, which has proved that it can survive over time.

The hon. Member for Milton Keynes, North-East is a computer specialist. I understand that computers do crash, and that they are not made from such robust material as vellum. It would be a foolish House—which has the stewardship of these matters for future generations—to entrust the records of the proceedings of our times to a bit of plastic that might not stand the test of time, and to do so in the full knowledge that vellum does stand the test of time and has lasted for 500 years.

Mr. White

Does the hon. Gentleman accept that, while it is right to be able to see the vellum next door, it is also right to be able to see the same Act of Parliament whether one is in Australia, Northumberland or wherever? The two go together; they are not incompatible.

Mr. Howarth

Yes, I accept that point.

This is a House of Commons matter, not a Government matter, but what has happened has been very much in the tradition of the way in which the Government like to handle matters. I believe in tradition. I see no good reason why we should dispense with vellum. Indeed, I see grave risks in our doing so and entrusting ourselves to the world of the computer. I shall vote against the motion.

4.50 pm
Mr. Owen Paterson (North Shropshire)

The outside world will be looking on in amazement at our debate on this issue when, for instance, the debate on agriculture was arbitrarily stopped at 7 o'clock the other night when numerous hon. Members still wanted to talk about the largest farming crisis since the 1930s.

My interests are declared in the Register: I was previously in the leather business and there is some connection with the trade in vellum. I endorse the comments of my hon. Friend the Member for Aldershot (Mr. Howarth). I, too, believe in tradition. It is sad that we are wilfully throwing away a material that works. That is the first thing to be said in praise of vellum: it has worked since the middle ages. There is no track record of 500 or 1,000 years to let us know whether archival paper will work.

Why not leave matters where they stand? A few technical criticisms were thrown at vellum. As I understand it from the leather conservation centre in Northampton, vellum can be taken down to 0.4 mm to 0.5 mm. That is as thin as archival paper and would do the job just as well. There are no practical problems.

Cost has been spoken of, but let us consider the £30,000 against the £1 billion that the Government are spending on extra government in organisations, spin doctors and general hangers-on. It would probably not cover half the expense account for six months of one of the Government's more glossy and glamorous spin doctors. The easiest way of reducing the bill of £11,000 on the Finance Bill is to have a shorter Bill; it is far too long and far too much government is enacted in the House without enough scrutiny. I regret the fact that we are considering this issue rather than welfare, for example.

I shall vote for tradition and for keeping a material with a splendid track record going back to the middle ages, and one that keeps a tiny business in the constituency of the hon. Member for Milton Keynes, North—East (Mr. White) going. If the contract is withdrawn, I suspect that several of the 10 or a dozen people involved will be on the dole and the British taxpayer will pick up a larger bill than the £30,000 that this stingy, miserable, petty report says that we will save.

4.53 pm
The Parliamentary Secretary, Privy Council Office (Mr. Paddy Tipping)

I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Broxtowe (Dr. Palmer) for so ably moving the motion and to my hon. Friend the Member for Milton Keynes, North-East (Mr. White) for his spirited contribution.

This is clearly a matter for the House to decide. Last week, the House had the opportunity to discuss the history, tradition and precedence of parliamentary privilege. Today, we have the opportunity to discuss parliamentary history again. Many of our practices date from experience in the 19th century. Altering an 1849 resolution about the record copies of Acts is not something that we would want to do without mature consideration, and we have had some of that this afternoon.

I am aware of some hon. Members' concerns that this may not be the best use of parliamentary time, but it is essential that the legislation be enacted by the end of the Session if it is to take effect in time for the first Act of 2000. On 16 June, the other place approved the second report from the House of Lords Offices Committee, which recommended that the record copies of Acts of Parliament kept in the House of Lords Record Office should he printed on archival paper instead of vellum, with effect from the first Act of 2000.

It was also agreed that the supply of a duplicate copy for the Public Record Office should cease. The Public Record Office consented to that and believes that its services will not be affected.

We are indebted to the Administration Committee for looking into the matter, and it recommended that record copies of Acts should be preserved on archival paper rather than vellum. As we have heard, substantial cost savings can be made.

In the other place a fortnight ago, one peer said that he thought that the records should go straight to CD-Rom. Such is the pace of technological change that I imagine that—unlike its predecessor, the 1849 Act—any new resolution agreed in 1999 will not survive unamended for 150 years.

My hon. Friend the Member for Milton Keynes, North—East referred to the effect of the change on a small firm in his constituency. I understand that it is the only firm in the United Kingdom with the necessary skills, and it is important to acknowledge the craftsmanship with which that firm has preserved our legislative work over all those years, and to thank it for that work. We should also acknowledge the service done by my hon. Friend over recent weeks in pursuing his constituents' case so vigorously.

Despite my hon. Friend's comments, and the concerns that he raised, it seems sensible to make the change in time for the first Act of Parliament of the next millennium. That would be a modest piece of modernisation in line with the Government's objective of improving the quality as well as the form of legislation, and I commend the report to the House.

4.57 pm
Dr. Palmer

I am grateful for the opportunity to respond briefly to a couple of the points made during the debate. My hon. Friend the Member for Milton Keynes, North-East (Mr. White) made a passionate and effective defence of the interests of his local company. I have resolved that, if I am ever defeated in Broxtowe, I shall move to Milton Keynes, so as to get the benefit of my hon. Friend's advocacy.

On the specific issue of consultation, I can tell my hon. Friend that the Administration Committee tries to abide by the terms of the Ibbs report, which means that we rarely take evidence in open session. We ask the Officers of the House to make inquiries, to discuss matters and to correspond with companies, as was done in the case in question.

I confirm that members of the Administration Committee were apprised of the contents of the letters from William Cowley, and had the opportunity to bring the issue back to the Committee before the decision was published. We decided that we were still satisfied with the case.

Mr. White

How many times did the Committee discuss with the supplier the issues of substance in the report?

Dr. Palmer

As I said, the Committee does not normally take direct evidence in session from companies or individuals, but our officers corresponded with the supplier; as my hon. Friend will know, there was a substantial correspondence on the subject.

Mr. Gerald Howarth

How long has the firm been under contract to the House?

Dr. Palmer

I am afraid that I do not have that information, but I shall be happy to supply the hon. Gentleman with it when I get hold of it after the debate.

As for durability, several hon. Members drew attention to the fact that, in principle, vellum will last for perhaps 1,500 years, and archival paper for between 500 and 1,000 years, or even, perhaps, 2,000 years. They argued that that was the crucial element. However, as I said earlier, the important question is not only the survival of the original documents but the security with which documents are kept, and the availability of computer back-up.

The hon. Member for Aldershot (Mr. Howarth) said that that was not a viable argument because computers crash. However, Members who work more actively with computers will agree that storage, especially storage of documents available on the internet, is not affected by the crash of any individual personal computer such as the hon. Gentleman and other hon. Members may own. We are talking about long-term storage with thorough back-up facilities, as thorough as those used by the Bank of England or other established bodies to secure the long-term viability of data.

Several hon. Members suggested that £30,000 is not a very large sum. Opposition Members attempted to ride with the hounds and run with the fox by attacking the Government for alleged overspending while recognising that the report is from an all-party Committee. I pointed out earlier that the availability of many more firms able to work with archival paper is likely to produce substantial savings of a kind that will be familiar to Opposition Members. It is unfortunate that they have presented their case as a partisan attack on the Government, and that approach will not benefit them in the vote.

It was suggested by my hon. Friend the Member for Milton Keynes, North-East and the hon. Member for Aldershot that it would be a shame to lose our foothold in an industry in which Britain is a leader in the world. Valuable though it may be to be the leader in the world in printing on goatskin, if we are unable to sustain the industry except by subsidising it with unnecessary orders from Parliament, the industry is not sustainable. I believe that that is the view of Ministers and Opposition Front Benchers, and of most hon. Members on both sides of the House. We are not in the business of preserving industries merely for the sake of it.

Mr. Kelvin Hopkins (Luton, North)

I am concerned by my hon. Friend's reference to subsidy. Does he agree that several valuable industries have been sustained by subsidy and that Britain remains an industrial nation as a result?

Dr. Palmer

My hon. Friend's point would lead us into a broader political debate, but I agree with him that key industries have effects on other industries and need to be preserved during difficult times so that they can survive in the longer term. I suggest that the printing of documents on goatskin is not one of them. I note also that my hon. Friend the Member for Milton Keynes, North-East mentioned the need to support British agriculture, but I understand that the goatskins in question come not from Britain but from Morocco.

Mr. White

My hon. Friend has referred to goatskin throughout the debate, but it is calfskin that is used.

Dr. Palmer

I am grateful for that correction. In any event, the skins in question do not come from British cows.

The hon. Member for Aldershot, who is the authoritative voice in this House of the 19th century—and earlier centuries—noted the value of the death warrant of Charles I. I am happy to assure the hon. Gentleman that any future royal death warrants will not be put on archival paper. The motion refers only to Acts of Parliament.

Mr. Gerald Howarth

I am grateful for that explanation. However, should some measure that is not an Act of Parliament require the approval of the House, from where will we get the material?

Dr. Palmer

In the event of a future royal death warrant or other matter, we might exceptionally violate the call of the Leader of the Opposition and import the material from France.

The hon. Member for North Shropshire (Mr. Paterson) argued that Finance Bills are too long. That is a non-party issue, which goes beyond the current debate, but I suggest that the way to shorten Finance Bills is not necessarily to preserve them on animal skin.

The hon. Gentleman also pleaded the case of tradition. Let me give a serious response to the arguments about preserving tradition. I do respect the traditions of the House and those of the country. I believe that we should support traditions that are in keeping with our concept of Britain today, but to preserve a tiny industry that prints on animal hide for the sake of tradition alone does not seem to me sensible, and would not be understood by our constituents as sensible.

Question put:

The House divided: Ayes 53, Noes 121.

Division No. 279] [5.6 pm
Ainsworth, Robert (Cov'try NE) Foulkes, George
Allen, Graham Heald, Oliver
Beckett, Rt Hon Mrs Margaret Heath, David (Somerton & Frome)
Beith, Rt Hon A J Hill, Keith
Bermingham, Gerald Hughes, Ms Beverley (Stretford)
Boateng, Paul Jackson, Helen (Hillsborough)
Breed, Colin Jones, Rt Hon Barry (Alyn)
Burnett, John Kennedy, Charles (Ross Skye)
Campbell, Rt Hon Menzies (NE Fife) Kennedy, Jane (Wavertree)
King, Andy (Rugby & Kenilworth)
Caplin, Ivor Kirkwood, Archy
Chaytor, David Lock, David
Clark, Dr Lynda (Edinburgh Pentlands) McAvoy, Thomas
Marsden, Paul (Shrewsbury)
Corbyn, Jeremy Morley, Elliot
Cotter, Brian Morris, Rt Hon John (Aberavon)
Darvill, Keith Mullin, Chris
Davies, Rt Hon Denzil (Llanelli) Murphy, Jim (Eastwood)
Dowd, Jim Pope, Greg
Prentice, Ms Bridget (Lewisham E) Taylor, Matthew (Truro)
Purchase, Ken Tipping, Paddy
Quinn, Lawrie Tyler, Paul
Radice, Rt Hon Giles Walter, Robert
Ruane, Chris Webb, Steve
Sarwar, Mohammad Worthington, Tony
Simpson, Alan (Nottingham S) Young, Rt Hon Sir George
Stevenson, George Tellers for the Ayes:
Stunell, Andrew Dr. Nick Palmer and
Taylor, Rt Hon Mrs Ann (Dewsbury) Mr. Andrew Miller.
Allan, Richard Harris, Dr Evan
Amess, David Healey, John
Anderson, Donald (Swansea E) Heppell, John
Barnes, Harry Hodge, Ms Margaret
Benn, Rt Hon Tony (Chesterfield) Howarth, Gerald (Aldershot)
Bercow, John Howells, Dr Kim
Best, Harold Iddon, Dr Brian
Betts, Clive Jamieson, David
Blunt, Crispin Jenkin, Bernard
Boswell, Tim Jones, Helen (Warrington N)
Bottomley, Peter (Worthing W) Khabra, Piara S
Bottomley, Rt Hon Mrs Virginia Kirkbride, Miss Julie
Brady, Graham Ladyman, Dr Stephen
Brinton, Mrs Helen Leigh, Edward
Butler, Mrs Christine Lepper, David
Campbell, Ronnie (Blyth V) Leslie, Christopher
Chapman, Sir Sydney (Chipping Barnet) Lewis, Dr Julian (New Forest E)
Lidington, David
Clapham, Michael McIntosh, Miss Anne
Clark, Rt Hon Dr David (S Shields) MacKay, Rt Hon Andrew
Clarke, Rt Hon Tom (Coatbridge) MacShane, Denis
Clarke, Tony (Northampton S) McWalter, Tony
Clelland, David Mahon, Mrs Alice
Cohen, Harry Marshall, David (Shettleston)
Coleman, Iain Marshall, Jim (Leicester S)
Connarty, Michael Meale, Alan
Cook, Frank (Stockton N) Moffatt, Laura
Cox, Tom Mountford, Kali
Cunliffe, Lawrence O'Brien, Bill (Normanton)
Dalyell, Tam O'Hara, Eddie
Davey, Valerie (Bristol W) Olner, Bill
Davidson, Ian Paice, James
Davis, Rt Hon David (Haltemprice & Howden) Paterson, Owen
Dawson, Hilton Pike, Peter L
Dismore, Andrew Pollard, Kerry
Dobbin, Jim Pound, Stephen
Donohoe, Brian H Powell, Sir Raymond
Edwards, Huw Prosser, Gwyn
Efford, Clive Rapson, Syd
Etherington, Bill Robathan, Andrew
Fabricant, Michael Rogers, Allan
Field, Rt Hon Frank Rooney, Terry
Fitzpatrick, Jim Salter, Martin
Flight, Howard Sanders, Adrian
Forth, Rt Hon Eric Sawford, Phil
Foster, Michael Jabez (Hastings) Sheldon, Rt Hon Robert
Fyfe, Maria Skinner, Dennis
Gapes, Mike Smith, Llew (Blaenau Gwent)
Gardiner, Barry Soames, Nicholas
Gerrard, Neil Starkey, Dr Phyllis
Gibson, Dr Ian Stinchcombe, Paul
Gill, Christopher Stringer, Graham
Golding, Mrs Llin Taylor, Ms Dari (Stockton S)
Gordon, Mrs Eileen Taylor, David (NW Leics)
Grant, Bernie Turner, Neil (Wigan)
Grieve, Dominic Vis, Dr Rudi
Griffiths, Jane (Reading E) Walley, Ms Joan
Hall, Mike (Weaver Vale) Wareing, Robert N
Hamilton, Fabian (Leeds NE) Watts, David
Wells, Bowen
Whitehead, Dr Alan Tellers for the Noes:
Winnick, David Mr. Kelvin Hopkins and
Wright, Anthony D (Gt Yarmouth) Mr. Brian White.

Question accordingly negatived.

Message to the Lords to acquaint them therewith.