This House of Commons Library Briefing paper provides information about the practice of printing record copies of public Acts on vellum. It includes information on how this practice was established, and on calls for change.Jump to full report >>
Record copies of public Acts have been printed on vellum, a durable material made of calfskin, since 1849. They were handwritten on parchment rolls (usually made from goatskin) until then.
The practice of printing record copies of public Acts on vellum was adopted through resolutions by both Houses of Parliament. These resolutions followed recommendations made by the Select Committee on Printing in 1848, and in a 1849 report by the then Clerk Assistant of the House of Lords. The resolutions abolished the practice of ‘ingrossing’ (handwriting) record copies of Acts and ‘inrolling’ them in parchment rolls containing all public Acts passed in a Parliamentary session. Record copies of Acts have since been printed in book form, on vellum. Record copies of private Acts were printed on vellum between 1849 and 1956, since when they have been printed on archival paper.
There have been proposals to print record copies of public Acts on archival paper too. Parliament last voted on the practice of printing record copies of public Acts on vellum in 1999. The House of Lords approved a proposal to change to printing on archival paper, but the House of Commons voted against. The 1999 House of Lords resolution stands.
Those arguing in favour of the change claimed that archival paper was of suitable quality for printing record copies of Acts, and that this move would save a significant amount of public money. Those arguing against the change claimed that printing on vellum was a longstanding tradition; that vellum was more durable than paper; and that the change would have damaging effects on the only remaining company printing vellum in the UK.
The House of Commons Administration Committee published a report on 12 October 2015 that recommended agreeing to a renewed request from the Chairman of Committees of the House of Lords for the assent of the Commons to a change to printing public Acts on archival paper instead of vellum.
On 15 February 2016, media reported that the Cabinet Office had decided to take on the cost of printing record copies of public Acts on vellum. A Backbench Business debate on the continued use of vellum was scheduled but did not take place on 10 March 2016.
On 20 April 2016 the House of Commons agreed a motion instructing the Clerk of the House to convey to the Lords that the 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". Mr James Gray, the Member who had secured the debate from the Backbench Business Committee, said that he hoped the Lords "will listen carefully to the views" of the Commons.
The Chairman of Committees of the House of Lords wrote to the Chair of the House of Commons Administration Committee on 4 May 2016 regarding the implications of the Commons vote. He wrote that: “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”. He added that if the Commons wished to arrange a contract for printing record copies of Acts on vellum, then the Lords would share experience of managing the legacy contract to assist with this. However, the Lords “does not wish to contribute financially to any future printing on vellum”.
Answers provided to Parliamentary Questions on 9 November and 2 December 2015 clarified that the House of Lords manages the contract for, and is responsible for the cost of, printing record copies of Acts and purchasing vellum. The answers also included detailed information on the implications of the proposed change to printing record copies of Acts on archival paper instead of vellum.
Details of the House of Lords’ contract with the vellum printers for printing record copies of Acts have been made available through Freedom of Information requests.
Commons Briefing papers CBP-7451
Authors: Elise Uberoi; Michael Everett