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Mr. White: I am slightly confused. Is my hon. Friend saying that internet technology and CD-Rom are

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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:

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

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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.

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Against the background that I have mentioned, itmay 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:

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

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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.

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