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3.58 pm

Mr. Hawkins: I greatly welcome the Minister's helpful clarification. I am grateful to him for meeting a delegation of leaders of the construction industry which I took to see him a few weeks ago. He made it clear then that he was prepared to clarify these points so that we could rely on what has been said in future cases, in line with the Pepper v. Hart decision, and I am grateful to him.

The industry has continuing concerns but is prepared to accept the Minister's helpful clarification. The Opposition echo what the Minister said about the value of the Law Commission's work, and we made it clear in Committee and on Second Reading that we greatly welcome the Bill, which is a helpful, and perhaps overdue, change in the law. As the Minister has clarified matters specifically to help the construction industry, I can do no other than welcome what he has said.

3.59 pm

Mr. Burnett: I am grateful to the Minister for clarifying the provisions on variations. I am grateful also to the Law Commission for its excellent work and for promoting this Bill, which we support and will not impede.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill accordingly read the Third time, and passed, without amendment.

1 Nov 1999 : Column 31


Madam Speaker: With permission, I shall put together the motions relating to delegated legislation.

Motion made, and Question put forthwith, pursuant to Standing Order No. 118(6) (Standing Committees on Delegated Legislation),

Insurance Brokers Registration Council

    That the draft Financial Services Act 1986 (Restriction of Exemption) Order 1999, which was laid before this House on 27th July, be approved.

    Value Added Tax

    That the Value Added Tax (Sport, Sports Competitions and Physical Education) Order 1999 (S.I., 1999, No. 1994), dated 14th July 1999, a copy of which was laid before this House on 20th July, be approved.--[Mrs. McGuire.]

Question agreed to.


Madam Speaker: With permission, I shall put together the motions relating to European Community Documents.

Motion made, and Question put forthwith, pursuantto Standing Order No. 119(9) (European Standing Committees),

Harmonisation of Copyright and Electronic Commerce in the Single Market

    That this House takes note of European Union Document No. 6793/97, a draft Directive restructuring the Community framework for the taxation of energy products; and supports the Government's objective of securing a permanent exemption for the domestic use of energy.--[Mrs. McGuire.]

Question agreed to.

1 Nov 1999 : Column 32

Record Copies of Acts

[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): Objection.

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.


4.1 pm

Dr. Palmer: I beg to move,

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

1 Nov 1999 : Column 33

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.

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