Freesteel Blog » The vellum has got to go

The vellum has got to go

Thursday, June 26th, 2008 at 12:11 pm Written by:

Back in 1999 the Select Committee on Administration, the Clerk of the Parliaments, and all those out-of-touch fuddy-duddies in the House of Lords thought that maybe it was about time to stop printing every public Act of Parliament on vellum (calf hide). We’re not talking about just the covers here, but every single page of drivel.

As to the cost, which was at issue in 1984, it is clear that there would be substantial savings to public funds from such a change. The current cost of vellums is £27 per page (ie for two copies). Expenditure on vellums amounted to £59,000 for the 1997 Acts, and is projected to be £67,000 for the 1998 Acts. The Finance (No. 2) Act 1998 alone cost £11,502.[1]

However, the MPs voted 121 to 53 to keep the practice. The campaign to keep the tradition was led by Brian White MP, in whose constituency the sole remaining vellum manufacturer in Europe is based.

Now, to me it’s not a money issue. I’d quite happily see some of the millions of pounds paid to Dairy Crest diverted to support the vellum industry, so that we could all afford to have our business cards and birth certificates made on white leather. Printing those Acts of Parliament on the sides of cows seems like a waste, given their quantity and quality. No one wants to read that crap in the future when everything else has burnt down.

“Oh, but vellum sheets can last thousands of years, unlike acid-free paper, which can last 500 years max. And data in computer format rapidly becomes incompatible (wake up: not anymore, since the internet began). And anyway, there might be a war and our fragile computer technology will become obsolete when we go back to the precomputer age. Either that, or the PICT project will never complete.”

Well, in that case, the Computer Misuse Act won’t be much interest then, will it? And anyway, given the destructive effects of war, what good are two physical copies in London going to be — especially when there is no way trivial way to duplicate them through an electronic pipe. Is someone going to type the worthless text back in or something?

Dr Palmer MP: said:

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.[2]

And so the useless, out-of-date, and frankly quite embarrassing tradition was saved for us. So proud of it are they that there’s scarcely a mention of it on the Parliament webpage, no photos, no patriotic declarations about how we record our laws “properly” in human-readable-only (barely that) unstructured form on the same substrate as the execution warrant for kings.

There’s one mention of vellum in the FAQ under: “I want… the text of an Act of Parliament”.

Apart from [post-1988 and some other historical exceptions], you will need to consult the paper versions – there are no free online versions available. Most Acts have been printed and will be available at a good public library or university research library near you. We can also make them available to you in our search room at Westminster. We also have our own set of digitised Local Acts 1799-1990 which can be consulted in our searchroom on CD.

If you are looking for a Private Act, for instance an Act that concerned a divorce, naturalisation or an estate, then it is unlikely to have been printed and you may need to consult the Original Act in the form of a parchment roll here at Westminster or order a copy from us – we will be the only place you can find it. Please note that photocopying of original act vellums is not permitted as per our reprographic guidance; all copying of vellum acts will be printed from microfilm.

A later FAQ caught my eye: “I want…the text of a debate after 1988 (Commons) or 1995 (Lords)”:

Hansard (the Parliamentary Debates) from 1988 (Commons) and 1995 (Lords) to present day is available online. If you know the exact date it is probably easiest to follow links to that specific date and browse the text from there. Otherwise use the Parliament website search engine, restrict your search to Commons and/or Lords Hansard and put in as many other factors as possible (e.g. date range, name of speaker).

How to find a division: Votes by MPs (divisions) are recorded in Hansard. Be aware that Hansard debates are long and can be split over many pages, which can make searching difficult. In particular the long lists of names of MPs in a division may cover pages and pages on their own, so (for example) you might find an MPs name recorded in a division on a different page from that of the word ‘Division’ or the name of the bill they were voting on. If you can use the search to locate a day where there was evidently debate on the piece of legislation you are interested in, it may be worth then following the debate page by page until you find the division.

Tracing debates on bills: If you can find out the exact dates a particular bill was debated on, you can follow links from the Hansard home page to all debates on that specific date and browse the text from there. You can find out the dates specific bills back to 1995 were debated by looking first at the Sessional Information Digest . Follow the link to the session you want and look under ‘Complete list of Public Bills and their stages in both Houses’. Once you have the dates, you can then go back to the Hansard page to find the actual debates on those dates.

Well, fancy that. Is it that the TheyWorkForYou and PublicWhip webpages are Not Invented Here? Or do they believe that these new-fangled computer indexes should be discouraged. After all, if the law and government business is such that it is both

  • (a) in the public domain so that you can’t legally be ignorant of it, and
  • (b) in such a disorganized state that only a qualified barrister with five assistant secretaries can find what he needs in it

then that’s the best of both worlds satisfied.

*Rip* Mooooo!

Update: FOI request made.

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