Vellum and Acts of Parliament III

This is not one of my usual blog posts. There are no pictures as what has happened is, in my view, very serious and needs no illustration. A clear decision taken by MPs in the House of Commons has been overturned by 3 members of a committee. The result is that Acts of Parliament will no longer be printed on vellum, despite a clear and substantial majority of MPs, and, it seems, the view of almost all of those interviewed in the media. What a shocking state of affairs for the Mother of Parliaments and democracy! 

We were all so thrilled when on April 20th 2016 the debate in the House of Commons on vellum and Acts of Parliament resulted in a resounding majority vote of 117 to continue printing Acts of Parliament on vellum, with only 38 against (see the full debate here in Hansard). It seemed that the campaign we had been running since November 2015, whereby many people who had never had any advocating or lobbying experience and who had probably never before contacted their MPs, had succeeded. I remember going home in the train after that debate and phoning William Cowley (the company that produces the vellum used in parliament) to tell them the good news, and almost dancing a little jig in delight!

Obviously it was going to take a little time for the decision to be enacted, but we had won and we were patient. However, early this year we heard quietly that there had been a meeting of the Commons Administration Committee, chaired by Tory MP Paul Beresford. Apparently, despite various options researched by the Clerks of the Commons, Beresford allowed no debate of the issue and simply proposed a vote on whether to continue using vellum or not for printing Acts of Parliament. There were 7 people attending that committee, 5 voted to discontinue the use and 2 voted to continue. So by a majority of only 3 people, the clear wish of those MPs was overturned; many of those MPs had been contacted by their constituents with strong arguments as to why vellum should be used.

When we heard this, Adrian Visscher whose family owns William Cowley wrote this letter to Mark Lancaster, the company is in his constituency (I have permission to use the text of each of these letters):

Dear Mr Lancaster,

Supply of vellum for record copies of Acts
by William Cowley Parchment and Vellum of Newport Pagnell.

My two brothers and I are owners and partners of William Cowley Parchment and Vellum, who as you know have supplied vellum for record copies of Acts for a very long time. It is with a real sense of urgency that I now write to you on behalf of the Partners in support of the campaigning work on this issue by our excellent Manager Paul Wright. May I first take the opportunity to thank you for your assistance to date supporting the strong advocacy of James Gray within the media and parliament during the past year and not least in the Commons debate on 20 April 2016.

The William Cowley Partners ask for your immediate assistance in challenging the apparently undemocratic decision of the House of Commons Commission on 23 January 2017 when the minutes state “The Commission endorsed the provision to the Lords of front and back vellum covers for record copies of Acts”. Consequently, on 30 January, the Clerk of the House then wrote a letter to Paul Wright declaring the House’s intention to order “front and back covers” in due course.

Our dismay and concern at this turn of events is because hitherto we had always supplied two larger sheets of manuscript vellum on which the two copies of each Public Act were actually printed. The 117 – 38 Commons vote on 20 April 2016 supported a motion specifically stating the House’s wish to continue the traditional printing of public Acts on vellum and specifically not on archival paper. The subsequent Commons Commission’s decision disregards these wishes, choosing to use archival paper after all, with a token gesture of using vellum for front and back covers which we understand would also be of smaller size and lesser quality resulting in a serious loss of overall business for William Cowley. These facts were confirmed when Common’s representatives went to speak with Paul Wright following our receipt of David Natzler’s letter. This is of great concern to us, but may I say, so is the apparent failing of the democratic process in parliament which threatens to ride roughshod over proven practical considerations and centuries of British parliamentary tradition, as were well aired in the 20 April debate.

In support of my request to you and my remarks above may I remind you of the following:

Re: The House of Commons debate “Record copies of Acts” on 20 April 2016

The motion that day began as follows:

“That this House disagrees with the conclusion of the House of Commons Administration Committee in its First Report of Session 2015-16, and regrets the decision by the House of Lords to discontinue the use of vellum for printing Acts of Parliament;

 The motion further noted that

“the Second Report of the Lords Select Committee on House of Lords Offices, published on 25 May 1999, clearly states that when the Parliament Rolls of Acts of Parliament were discontinued in 1849, it was resolved by both Houses that two copies of every Act should be printed on vellum and that resolutions of both Houses would be needed to give effect to a recommendation to discontinue the use of vellum;”

 …and called for…

“the House of Lords to reverse its decision to use archival paper rather than vellum for the printing of record copies of public Acts of Parliament”

 Furthermore, Hansard shows the Commons resolution following the debate:

“instructs the Clerk of the House to convey to the Clerk of the Parliaments that the House of Commons has withheld its consent to the use of archival paper rather than vellum for the printing of record copies of public Acts of Parliament.”

 I note that the Clerk of the House was present at the Commons Commission’s 23 January meeting.

Does his letter of intention to William Cowley not conflict with the above instruction to him by the House following the April debate. Is he not placed in a directly contradictory position with the Commission’s decision to now use archival paper for the printing!

The continuing actions of the House of Common’s Commission, (chaired by the leading opponent to continuing vellum Sir Paul Beresford), appear wholly undemocratic and we believe must be challenged. I further note that of the 11 Commission members attending the 23 January meeting, Hansard shows that only one, Valerie Vaz, had voted in favour of the motion on 20 April.

In strongly supporting this motion the House clearly advocated actually printing on vellum and specifically not on archival paper. The earlier Commons Commission’s report of 12 October 2015 had requested the assent of the Commons to a change to printing on archival paper rather than vellum. That request was overwhelmingly rejected by the Commons vote, so on what basis is the will of the Commons now being ignored we ask?

House of Lords reaction to the Commons debate vote:

The recently published Commons Library briefing paper ‘Vellum: printing record copies of public Acts’ reveals that the ‘House of Lords House Committee’ met on 3rd May 2016 to consider the implications of the Commons vote. As a result the Chairman of Committees of the House of Lords wrote to the Chair of the House of Commons Administration Committee on 4 May 2016 saying;

“As you know, this House agreed in 1999 to move to printing Acts of Parliament on archival paper instead of vellum. We are persuaded that printing on archival paper is a more appropriate use of public funds, and that the case for continuing to print on vellum is not made. If, in the light of the debate, the House of Commons wishes to arrange a contract for printing record copies of Acts on vellum then the House of Lords Administration will gladly share experience of managing the legacy contract to assist you in making such arrangements. I am sure you will appreciate that this House does not wish to contribute financially to any future printing on vellum. It is also important that we ensure the longevity of any public acts, as the Clerk of the Parliaments must certify a record copy of them.”

This statement shows that the House of Lords would not stand in the Commons way of continuing to print on vellum and indeed would actively assist them in the process. Nevertheless, I would still question whether the Lord’s actually have the right to relinquish their funding responsibility as confirmed by answers to parliamentary questions put late last year.


The source of ongoing funding of traditional vellum use is clearly another key factor affecting this whole issue. The William Cowley Partners would be grateful for your intervention to clarify the funding issue. During the 20 April debate, the then Paymaster General, Matthew Hancock, said;

“Should the House carry the motion today, I hope that we can work with the other place to find a path forward that both Houses find satisfactory. In that spirit of pragmatism, the Government have offered financial support from other savings, without further burdening taxpayers, to ensure that this tradition, which is of great symbolic and practical value, is not irrecoverably broken by a lack of funding on this small scale.”

We are encouraged that Matthew Hancock’s successor, Ben Gummer, also voted in favour of vellum retention. Can you ascertain that he will honour the Government’s commitment made by his predecessor?


The facts behind the actual printing on the vellum are factors that appear to have muddied this whole matter. We have heard many misconceptions and inaccuracies quoted. Rather than the actual cost of the vellum itself, we suspect that it was printing costs and the perceived availability of suitable printing were major influencing factors in the House of Lords Committee’s request to discontinue vellum usage. It has emerged that the TSO printers were tied to exorbitant traditional contracts negotiated by Sogat. A clarification of their position would be welcome. From a technical stand point William Cowley (Paul Wright) will be able to recommend suitable alternative printing firms if needs be.

We sincerely hope that you will not only be able to defend William Cowley’s interests but we also reiterate our belief that there is a democratic principle to be defended here. We further genuinely believe that the National public interest is at stake both in practical terms of long lasting protection of our laws and in a traditional and historical sense.

I look forward to hearing from you as soon as possible and perhaps meeting with you and Paul in due course.

This letter was answered by James Gray, MP, who championed the use of vellum, and arranged for the motion to be put in the House of Commons:

20th March 2017

Dear Mr Visscher,

Thank you for copying your letter to Mark Lancaster on the subject of supply of vellum for recording copies of Acts of Parliament to me. Your letter is quite correct. In a Backbench Business Committee Debate on April 20th called by me, the House voted by a substantial majority to continue the use of vellum for recording Acts of Parliament. However that motion was not of itself binding, particularly since the instruction was simply to write a letter to the Clerk of the Parliaments informing him of our view. The House of Lords despite that declined to continue the use of vellum for recording Acts of Parliament and returned the matter to the House of Commons Administrations Committee that vellum should be discontinued. I personally resigned from the Administration Committee because of it, and because of what I view to be bad handling. Like you I took the view that the House of Commons had voted to maintain vellum and was disappointed that a combination of the House of Lords, the Clerks in both Houses and the Administration Committee and House of Commons Commission, had apparently reversed that decision.

In discussion with Dr David Natzler, the Clerk of the House of Commons, he then made plain that if we were to seek to reverse that decision it would be necessary to have a full and substantive vote in the House of Commons since we would be asking for money to be spent which the Clerk himself would not be able to do. He was of the view, and I suspect he was probably correct, that any such full and substantive motion might well have been defeated by the Whips and we would therefore have been in a worse position than we are today. He and I therefore cooked up this compromise which is that rather than the Act be recorded on vellum, there should simply be back and front covers in vellum. This preserves the tradition and use of vellum although of course it does not give William Cowley and Sons anything like the business which they previously had.

…I fear that, under the circumstances there was nothing else that we could do about it and that we have achieved the best we possibly could. I recognise that is very regrettable from the point of view of William Cowley’s business, and I am sorry that I was not able to achieve more.

Jon Elliott of the Archives and Records Association of UK and Ireland worked with me on the campaign and in fact we were both in the House of Commons listening to the debate with Adrian Visscher. John Chambers who is CEO of ARA sent this letter to John Bercow, the Speaker of the House of Commons. He has not yet had a reply.

Dear Mr Speaker


I write on behalf of the ARA, the lead professional body representing archivists and archive conservators in the UK and the Republic of Ireland, to express the profound concerns of our members about the handling of what we understand to be a recent decision by the Administration Committees of the Lords and Commons to discontinue the use of vellum for recording Acts of Parliament. I say ‘understand’ because the only information we have is a series of brief reports in the media.

You will recall a debate in the House of Commons on 20 April last year and its clear majority in favour of urging the Lords to reconsider a 1999 decision it made to discontinue using vellum. You may recall that the Administration Committees had decided to try again in 2015 to implement a 1999 Lords decision, despite a Commons vote in the early 2000s not to recognise it. The fact that this latest, expressed view of the Commons appears to have been ignored and overridden, in manipulatory fashion behind closed doors, damages the credibility of Parliament and undermines its stated aims of openness and transparency. We have heard that the April 2016 Commons debate was ‘merely’ advisory so can be ignored. Its standing should be irrelevant. What is clear is that certain members of the administration committees in question have decided that their opinion is more important than the chamber’s. To members of the public, such behaviour looks like small-print, bureaucratic chicanery of the worst sort.

A number of speakers in the Commons debate last year debunked comprehensively arguments that had been advanced by the Chair of the Commons Administration Committee, Sir Paul Beresford, in pressing for ending the use of vellum, specifically that:

  • –  Switching from recording Acts on vellum to ‘archival paper’ would result in a saving to Parliament of £103,000. This was, and remains, nonsense. The sole remaining supplier of vellum in the UK, William Cowley (also Parliament’s supplier), revealed that it received an average of £47,000 a year to supply the vellum to print Parliamentary Acts. Presuming that the £103,000 for the overall costs is correct, this means that Parliament has in effect been paying £56,000 to have Acts printed, ie the same whether for vellum or any kind of high-quality paper. Sir Paul’s assertions about the likely ‘savings’ are evidently based on mis-reporting of financial data and/or a false understanding of economics.
  • –  Switching to ‘archival paper’ would represent a substantial saving to Parliament and the public purse. Despite being asked, Sir Paul did not reveal the basis for this calculation, including what specific ‘archival paper’ he was referring to. I also asked for evidence of any detailed cost-benefit analysis that the Committee did before reaching its conclusions; I received no response on that point either. Our own research suggests that the difference between using vellum and the higher-end qualities of archival paper is small, and not likely to result in any meaningful savings. Sir Paul’s failure (or worse, an express feeling that he did not need) to answer the above questions suggests to us that he had not actually bothered to research specific paper options (or their costs) independently. Further, unless he can be precise about what paper he has in mind, he cannot guarantee the longevity of any printing done on it. The only conclusion we can draw from this inability to provide basic information is that Sir Paul and his team did not do a proper due diligence or cost-benefit analysis and that their decision to dispense with vellum was prejudicial.

– Printing on vellum requires some kind of special printing machinery that needs to be maintained and/or replaced at great expense. This is nonsense. Yet we saw the argument being advanced by an unnamed ‘Westminster source’ in an article in The Telegraph last week. There are a number of specialist presses in the UK, including the Westerham Press (which printed the Magna Carta facsimiles in 2015) and the Gregynog Press which also prints high quality books on both vellum and paper, using the same presses. I and others made this point to Sir Paul in correspondence last year and it was also raised in the parliamentary debate, so he and his colleagues cannot claim to be unaware of it.

It is certainly true that some printers would rather not use vellum and would prefer to use paper in all their operations. They can make more money that way. But that does not necessarily make it good value for Parliament or the public purse. I asked Sir Paul to tell me when the contract for printing Parliamentary Acts was last put out to public tender, ie to see who could do the job – with vellum – at a more competitive price than the current providers. Needless to say, I got no response on that point either.

Separately, we understand that the current printers of Acts, Williams Lea, won a huge central government contract in 2011 (for four years) to do all official printing. What is the current status of that contract with regard to Parliament? Is it the case that Parliament is obliged to use Williams Lea because of this central contract, even if it represents bad value for money? Is the real reason that the Committees want vellum thrown out because Williams Lea would rather not have to deal with the material and the Administration Committee would rather not argue with Williams Lea and/or Whitehall departments? We remain having to reach our own conclusions on this until Parliament provides meaningful information.

The several thousand mere members of the public (and taxpayers) in our ranks find the way this matter has been handled both underhand and damaging to Parliament’s reputation. Parliament and its various committees should – by default – strive to be open in their decisions with the public and transparent and respectful of the will of our representatives in how it reaches them. In addition, I should not have to write to you because Sir Paul Beresford will not answer straight questions fully and properly. We should not have to initiate a formal Freedom of Information request to find out how the Administration Committees in both Houses conduct themselves on such matters.

All the above explains why I urge you to initiate a thorough, impartial investigation into the handling of this matter and to set aside the Commons Administration Committee’s recent decision to agree to dispense with vellum until it is completed.

Our position remains unchanged. Vellum remains both the best material for recording the most important decisions made in the name of the British people and also the best long-term value for money. Its storage flexibility, risk- mitigation, low-maintenance and research benefits – along with its easy accessibility – far outweigh its modest cost, compared to even the highest-grade of archival paper.

I will happily supply copies of previous correspondence if that would help. I am copying this letter to David Natzler, Clerk of the House (since we understand that he had a role in this matter) and a side copy to Sir Paul Beresford, for his information.

Many thanks in anticipation of your agreement to look into this matter and your reply.

So we shall see if Beresford, through the Speaker, answers the questions that challenge the due diligence that should be applied in all decisions, particularly where the public purse is concerned.