James Gray: The case for vellum

Posted On: 
18th April 2016

As MPs prepare to debate whether to abolish vellum, Conservative MP James Gray writes about why the arguments against it are getting his goat.

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PA Images

On Wednesday 20 April there will be a 1.5 hour debate on a substantive motion, the net effect of which would be to disagree with the House of Lords’ recent decision to discontinue the ancient tradition of using vellum to record Acts of Parliament.

Here are three strong reasons why I hope the motion will receive widespread cross-party (perhaps unanimous?) support, as it did the last time the matter was debated under a Labour motion in 1999.

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First, vellum is and has for centuries been used for documents of significance and importance. University graduation certificates, certificates of long service, some military commissions; all use vellum. So why should it be that we are now proposing to downgrade the status of the laws of the land by printing them on paper?

Second, vellum is a great deal more durable than paper. It cannot be torn or crushed, it is somewhat resilient to fire. It needs very little special maintenance as the vellum scrolls in the parliamentary archive attest to. It lasts for up to 5,000 years, by comparison with a few hundreds of years by the best archival paper. Who could be confident that paper documents, even less those stored electronically, would be as long-lived as the Dead Sea Scrolls, the Lindisfarne Gospels, or Domesday Book?  If Magna Carta had been written on paper it would have been lost around 1465, some time before the birth of King Henry Vlll. The oldest complete bound book in Europe, the St John’s Gospels put in the coffin of St Cuthbert in the year 687, can still be read as clearly today as when it was written. That is because it was written on vellum. The use of vellum guarantees that no matter what may happen in the future – wars, riots, floods, fires – our acts of parliament will be preserved for all time.

Third, William Cowley and sons from Newport Pagnell in Buckinghamshire are the last remaining vellum manufacturer in the UK. That alone makes it a craft skill worthy of keeping. As well as the parliamentary contract, they maintain and preserve vellum books and manuscripts for the British Library, the Fitzwilliam Museum, the Bodleian. If they were to go out of business Britain would have lost an important heritage resource, quite apart from a number of jobs and apprentice-ships.

By contrast, the arguments advanced by the Lords for the abolition of vellum are pretty thin.

They allege that vellum manufacture and printing costs £103,000 per annum, and that paper would cost around £30,000. Yet William Cowley tell me that the most they were ever paid was £47k, and that in years when few acts are passed, it can be very much less than that.

At any rate, whereas vellum can last for hundreds of years without a great deal of attention, paper will without doubt need environmentally controlled archiving. And anyhow, Matt Hancock has now announced that if there are costs, the government will bear them. Either way round it’s not a lot – roughly equivalent to one MP, and in the boundary changes which are currently being considered we will lose 50 MPs. It costs a little short of £500 million to run this parliament; the Holyrood one coming in at £72 million; the European parliament at a staggering £1.3 Billion. Vellum is a pretty small drop in any of those oceans. So it really is not a noticeable cost-saving measure at all.

They argue some kind of procurement risk, since there is only one vellum manufacturer in the UK. Monopoly purchasing may not be the best thing, but it occurs across government – very many defence procurement contracts equally being from a single source. The argument that few printers have the capacity to print on vellum is simply incorrect. Ordinary printing machinery can be used and there is a multiplicity of printing companies who would be happy for the business.

Their third argument is even more bogus. I would be the first to want to discontinue vellum if animals were being slaughtered specifically for it. But that is simply not the case. William Cowley source the calf-skins they use from abattoirs, the animals having been killed for meat. If they did not use the skins, they would go to landfill. So their use for acts of parliament is animal friendly and green in every respect.

Some traditions in this parliament are worth preserving for themselves. And this is one of them. Generations of schoolchildren have been taught of the importance of acts of parliament demonstrated by their being printed on calf-skin. Extra costs of doing so are more imagined than real, and anyhow will be paid by the government rather than parliament.  Printing our acts on vellum gives them the status they deserve as the law of the land; it makes them far more long-lasting and durable, and it preserves a centuries–old tradition. Voting for the motion will mean the preservation of the skills of William Cowley and sons. And it will assert the rights of the House of Commons to make decisions of this kind.

James Gray is Conservative MP for North Wiltshire