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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

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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:

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

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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

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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 be printed on archival paper instead of vellum, with effect from the first Act of 2000.

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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 changein 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.

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