Why MPs insist that Acts of Parliament still need the slaughter of Norwegian goats
A founder member of The Independent David Lister joined the paper in 1986 as Assistant Home Editor. He became the paper's arts correspondent in 1988 and is now Arts Editor and writes a column each Saturday. He is a Fellow of the Royal Society of Arts.
Wednesday 03 November 1999
MPs dug in their heels, and in a free vote, refused to end the tradition of printing Acts of Parliament on vellum. The supposedly modernising House is unmoved that use of paper would save the taxpayer pounds 30,000. Vellum costs pounds 28 per A4 page.
It cares not that vellum is made from goatskin. It cares not for the nasal passages of workers at the Record Office in the Victoria Tower at Westminster, where there are almost 60,000 Acts of Parliament on the shelves. "It is a bit oily and it smells," moaned one clerk of his daily encounters with vellum. "It is not attractive stuff to come into contact with."
Nonsense, says Wim Visscher, a partner at William Cowley, the only producer of vellum in the country. He told the BBC Radio 4 Today programme that vellum demanded craftsmanship of a high order.
"We take an animal skin and we spend an awful lot of time stretching it and scraping it to get a flat surface. It demands a lot of elbow grease." Vellum, he says, has qualities that paper can only dream of. It doesn't burn, and it is the only material apart from stone guaranteed to last for centuries. What would the Domesday Book be now if not written on vellum? Dust. What would Magna Carta be now if not written on vellum? Also dust.
Nicholas Palmer, a Labour member of the Commons administration committee, who tried to persuade MPs to abandon vellum, is aghast. "Our constituents will react with total incredulity if we continue to insist that our laws are prescribed on goatskin," he says.
And spare a thought for the goats. William Cowley buys the skins from Britain and Norway for parliamentary use. One skin will make about 16 leaves of writing. That's not a lot of legislation per goat.
It could be worse. Two years ago archaeologists discovered a "gospel factory" that produced the vellum for the 1,300-year-old Lindisfarne Gospels and other priceless Dark Age illuminated manuscripts. Excavation unearthed the bones of scores of calves, with the remains of a vellum-production complex that appears to have included a slaughterhouse, pens, and two workshops.
Each 500-page book would have needed the skins of 130 calves. So perhaps today's Parliamentarians are champions of change. Though they might need to justify their faith in vellum with more logic than the Conservative MP Gerald Howarth. He says: "I take the view that if it is not necessary to change it is necessary not to change. That seems to me to be the foundation of tradition."
The view of one lobby correspondent is more convincing. "The best vellum has a smooth and glossy surface. Vellum is thus the perfect metaphor for what goes on in Parliament."
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