Vellum Acts to be axed

Hannah Jordan and Max Goldbart
Friday, March 24, 2017

The House of Commons has agreed a compromise with peers in the House of Lords that will put an end to centuries of printing new laws on vellum.

Instead of printing on calf or goat skin, new Acts of Parliament will now be printed on special archival paper, while vellum will still be used to print the covers.

Last year the House of Lords took the decision to scrap the centuries-old tradition of printing all new Acts on vellum, citing cost savings of around £80,000 as the reason. The move, which caused outrage and even sparked its own Twitter hashtag #savevellum, was seemingly blocked when the Cabinet Office offered to stump up the money for materials and printing.

But now, according to a report in The Telegraph, which originally reported on the story last year, MPs have agreed, at a private meeting of the House of Commons’ administration committee, to compromise and to print only the covers of future parliamentary Acts on vellum and the inside pages on paper.

A House of Commons spokesperson said: “Last year the House of Lords announced their intention to replace vellum with high quality but markedly cheaper archival paper: the House of Commons voted to withhold its consent: but on this occasion the House of Lords made it clear that they were not prepared to print record copies on vellum.

“The House of Commons Commission has agreed to provide and pay for vellum front and back sheets for record copies, out of respect for tradition, and hopes to be able to use British vellum from Cowley’s.”

A House of Lords spokesman said: “The House of Lords decided to stop printing public acts on vellum in 1999, though the House of Commons voted to keep it.

“Our planned alternative, archival paper, is of extremely high quality and durability. Switching from vellum to high quality archival paper will, on a conservative estimate, cut costs by approximately 80% - at least £80,000 per year.

“The Parliamentary Archives has records on paper dating from early 16th century around the same time as our earliest vellum records so it would be wrong to suggest it is not suitable and robust material.”

The news will be a disappointment to Newport Pagnall-based vellum and parchment manufacturer William Cowley and its general manager Paul Wright. Britain's last remaining parchment and vellum maker, the company has been in business since 1850 and holds the prestigious House of Lords contract.

"For me this has gone beyond a debate about parliament and vellum, this is into a debate of democracy," said Wright. 

"Under an 1849 House Resolution, if vellum is to stop being used both houses must agree. The debate was fascinating, two hours in the House of Commons and at the end of that a majority vote to continue the use of vellum; it was demoracy at work. 

"A secret meeting of lords said we have not been convinced and we are going to stop it. So the question for me is, why do I have an MP?"

Wright, who will supply the vellum covers, disputed the savings figure provided by the House of Lords and said the savings for the House of Commons will amount to just £23,000 per annum, £7,000 less than the weekly wine bill for the House restaurants and bars. 

Wright appeared on the BBC's Newsnight in April 2016 to debate the matter. 

However, supplying government with vellum is only a small part of the William Cowley business, generating on average £46,000 per year. The company also provides vellum and parchment to bookbinders, calligraphers, furniture makers and musical instrument manufacturers as well as other governments around the world.

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