HC Deb 24 February 1958 vol 583 cc163-72

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Colonel J. H. Harrison.]

10.12 p.m.

Mr. William Shepherd (Cheadle)

I wish to raise tonight what, in the opinion of many hon. Members and people outside, is perhaps a small matter, but which I do not consider to be a matter of no importance. I believe it is very desirable to maintain a high standard of design. My impression is that in recent months the Government have not maintained the standard of design which has been common in this country for a number of years. I believe that in two respects lately the Government have fallen below the level of design which has been maintained here over a long period.

The two things I complain about tonight are, first, the new postal order and, secondly, the new £5 note. I am glad that my right hon. Friend the Postmaster-General is thinking about the postal order again. He intends to give reconsideration to the design, if one can call the new postal order a design. Therefore, I exclude him from my strictures this evening.

We are left with the design of the new £5 note. In the past, Government Departments producing "symbols" such as postage stamps, £5 notes and £1 notes have maintained a very high level of design indeed. It would be true to say that the reputation of this country for design in postage stamps and banknotes is as high as any in the world. That, I think, makes the fall from grace on this occasion even more grievous.

I am glad to see that my hon. and learned Friend the Financial Secretary has come here to answer my allegations. I want to give some reasons why I dislike the new £5 note. When I say I dislike it, I mean that I dislike the design; the objection most of us have is that we do not get hold of enough of them.

The design is clumsy, ugly and undistinguished; there is little doubt about that. The back of the note is really ghastly. It is difficult to imagine how anyone, in 1957, could have designed anything so miserably below the standard expected of this country. Can anyone imagine a more drab and dispiriting colour? It looks as depressed as sterling looked before the Bank Rate was put up.

I quite agree that it was a good thing to reduce the size of the existing £5 note. But I cannot understand why, if one were to approximate it to the size of the ordinary £1 banknote, the convenience of the public was not studied by altering it in only one dimension. The length could have been retained the same as a £1 note, which would have facilitated putting £5 notes into people's wallets, and the depth could have been a little larger to enable people to distinguish between the two. It appears that when the design was decided it did not take into account the convenience of the public.

The fourth reason that I object to the note is that it is so easily confused with the Scottish £1 note.

Mr. John Paton (Norwich, North)

No Scot would ever confuse the £1 note with the £5 note.

Mr. Shepherd

I think that many people have fallen into that trap. It is true that Scotsmen, accustomed to the more detailed examination of their£1 notes—and I understand that they make a very detailed examination of them—would more readily detect the difference between their £1 note and a £5 note, but in this country there have been some alarming mistakes as a result of confusion between £1 notes and £5 notes. In any case, I do not think that the Scottish £1 notes are attractive. After all, the Scots are not an artistic race and they certainly have not a very distinguished banknote.

Mr. Paton

They invented the banknote.

Mr. Shepherd

I am not sure that they did. It may be that they invented it a long time ago, but we are concerned with modern design.

Sir Thomas O'Brien (Nottingham, West)

They were made of thistles in those days.

Mr. Shepherd

Perhaps I had better proceed with my speech. I have been told that a Scottish designer designed the banknote. If that is so, I should be glad if my hon. and learned Friend would confirm it.

At a time that we are urging industry generally to improve design, we turn out this £5 note and, for that matter, the postal order. How can the Government justify urging business men to improve their standards of design and to improve their exports when the Treasury turn out things like this £5 note? [HON. MEMBERS: "Economy."] It is not economy. There is an organisation known as the Council of Industrial Design. When I saw this note I telephoned the Council and asked whether it had been shown the note and, if so, approved of it. I was told, "We were not shown the note." The Council expressed in no uncertain terms its view about the design considerations of this note.

The Government produced this note by methods best known to themselves and did not submit it to the Council of Industrial Design or to any other body competent to judge before they printed it. If we are spending upwards of £200,000 a year on the Council of Industrial Design, the Government should take advantage of the services it renders. The Council has experts on its staff and can command a good deal of expert advice outside. Why did not the Treasury put this design before the Council and ask for its opinion?

I am not suggesting to my hon. and learned Friend that the Government are bound to accept the view of the Council of Industrial Design. Obviously, they must be free to take the decision. I am saying that when the Government are asking business people to improve their designs and to submit designs to the Council, it is wrong that the Government should produce something like the £5 note for semi-mass distribution and neglect to submit it to the Council.

I cannot understand why it was necessary to go so wide of the existing mark when introducing this new £5 note. I thought that the old note had dignity and a crisp simplicity and that it added to our prestige, much as I think the existing note detracts from our prestige. I should like to know why my right hon. Friend found it necessary to go so far from the previous design, which I thought was a good one.

My hon. and learned Friend will probably tell me, "We had to change the design drastically for security reasons." There are obvious security reasons' involved in the production of these notes, but it was not so easy to make a satisfactory forgery of the old £5 note. For one thing, the paper, made, I think, in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Basingstoke (Mr. Denzil Freeth), was of so distinctive a character that even when the whole resources of the Nazi empire were mobilised to forge them they made a miserable effort which could not deceive. So I would say that, while security may have caused the Treasury to bring about some changes in the note, it was not necessary to produce a design as ghastly as this to achieve security.

Anyone who designs anything has to make a compromise between function and design. An engineer designing a tool, or an architect designing a building, has always to compromise between function and aesthetics, and we must expect the Treasury to do so, and not to say, "To get maximum security, we will throw overboard all considerations of design." We expect the Treasury, as we expect the businessman or the architect, to compromise between the functional and the aesthetic side. I think that it is true to say that the Treasury has not done that in this case.

What do I want my hon. and learned Friend to say tonight? First, I want him to say that he will have this wretched note redesigned and give us something of which we may be proud. As I have already said, our reputation in the production of postage stamps and banknotes is probably the highest in the world. I grieve to see our reputation damaged by a production of the kind turned out last year. Therefore, I hope he will be able to say that the Government will give attention to making this note more in line with the distinguished tradition of English banknotes.

The second thing that I want him to say is that the Treasury will itself and, in so far as it is able to influence other Departments—and I think that, occasion-ally, the Treasury does have some effect on other Government Departments—see that when symbols of this kind are produced, they will be submitted to some competent body for judgment; that the Council of Industrial Design will not simply be disregarded; that my hon. and learned Friend will not turn to business men and say, "You must do it, but we need not"; that he will not so spend £200,000 of the taxpayers' money and ignore the services of the Council. If he will do that, he will do something that pleases me, but he will please me most if he will say that he himself agrees, as I hope he may, that this is really a most disreputable design, and that he will withdraw it as early as possible.

Mr. Denzil Freeth (Basingstoke)

Before my hon. Friend sits down, will he make it clear that in condemning the design of the note he is not in any way casting doubts on my constituents who make the paper for the new notes, but purely on the Treasury, which is alone responsible for the design?

Mr. Shepherd

Certainly. I said that the paper was produced in so distinctive a manner as to make safe the banknote as it might not otherwise have been.

10.24 p.m.

Mr. Michael Clark Hutchison (Edinburgh, South)

I want to support my hon. Friend the Member for Cheadle (Mr. Shepherd) and to stress one point in particular—the similarity of the new English £5 banknote to many of the Scottish £1 notes. I have in mind particularly the notes of the Clydesdale and North of Scotland Bank, the Commercial Bank, and the British Linen Bank. I have the notes here, and I will show my hon. and learned Friend afterwards exactly what the similarity is. It has given rise to considerable confusion and loss. I may say that the Scottish notes were in existence long before this English £5 note came along.

As I understand, the Bank of England is responsible for the design and size of English banknotes but, in the preparatory stages, it keeps in touch with the Treasury, and final approval is given by the Treasury to the issue under the Currency and Bank Notes Act, 1954. Considerable control is, therefore, in the hands of the Treasury. I would remind my hon. and learned Friend that it is the British Treasury and not the English Treasury. Will he, therefore, ensure that in future, when the Bank of England is to issue new notes, it chooses a design and size not similar to those of Scottish notes already in existence? Scottish notes are often attractive, but we in Scotland do not want to be flattered by having them copied on these occasions.

10.25 p.m.

Mr. Robert Cooke (Bristol, West)

I must declare a personal interest in this matter, in view of the fact that I was the first person in the West Country to own one of the new £5 notes with the aid of which I made my initial deposit for the by-election at which I was elected to this House. I retain one of those notes with, I might add, the rest of the deposit.

The present design is undistinguished and undersized. The old design had, I think, a strong disincentive to expenditure. One cherished it. One kept it for as long as possible. It was lovely to look upon.

In spite of what my hon. Friend the Member for Basingstoke (Mr. Denzil Freeth) said, I believe that the old £5 note paper was made in the County of Somerset and not in Hampshire.

This present undersized weakling is all wrong in our economic situation. The most immediate feeling that one has when one gets hold of it is to get rid of it, and that is surely an inflationary tendency. Therefore, in view of the economic circumstances, if for no other reason, I would ask my hon. and learned Friend to change the design. Let us have no more of these measly things.

10.27 p.m.

Sir Thomas O'Brien (Nottingham, West)

I should like to point out that the £5 note differs from the £1 note to the extent of one-eighth of an inch in depth and a little more than one-eighth of an inch in width. I would ask hon. Members to go to any street in London or the provinces where the new street lighting system is in existence. If one hires a car, as I have to do, or uses a taxicab—I have no car of my own—and wishes to pay the driver, I defy anyone in those circumstances to tell the difference in colour. I have put the matter to the test, and any taxi driver or private hire driver will confirm that in that sort of street lighting one does not know whether one has been handed a £1 note or a £5 note. That in itself deserves consideration, and there are many citizens who use taxis and private cars.

I support everything that has been said by other hon. Members about the clumsy design, the size and exerything else concerned with this very bad note.

10.28 p.m.

The Financial Secretary to the Treasury (Mr. J. E. S. Simon)

This matter has been raised and supported in a number of delightful speeches, but, with all the humour and talent that have been brought to bear on it, I confess that at the end of it I am completely unconvinced. However, it has one great advantage, in that I confess that good as is the material which the Treasury always produces for its Ministers' speeches, the notes with which I have been provided this evening are far more valuable than I have had before.

A number of arguments have been brought forward, of which the most substantial came from my hon. Friend the Member for Cheadle (Mr. Shepherd). Before coming to his arguments, however, I think I ought to deal with one point which was raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Bristol, West (Mr. Robert Cooke), which was that the test of a good note is that it is not one which one tends to spend. He said that the old £5 note was a strong disincentive to expenditure. I really cannot accept that as the proper test of a £5 note. Much as I like to see a strong current running against the inflationary tendencies which we have had in the economy, that cannot be the sole or the main test. I cannot help thinking that one could say of my hon. Friend the Member for Bristol, West and the £5 note he described so endearingly that they were lovely … in their lives and in death they were not divided … I now come to the points made by my hon. Friend the Member for Cheadle and other hon. Members who supported him, mainly on the question of the design of the note. There are two elements in design—does it fit and does it please; does it fulfil its function and is it agreeable? In all seriousness, there is great danger in giving way to the shock of innovation. I could not help being reminded, as I heard my hon. Friend's speech, of the very highly respected critic who first went to see the Impressionist exhibition in Paris. He saw works of art, which are among the most highly prized which we and the Louvre and a great many other collections have in our galleries, and he said: I enter and my horrified eyes behold something terrible —almost the same words as my hon. Friend the Member for Cheadle used this evening. The critic said: Five or six lunatics, among them a woman. have joined together to exhibit their works. I have seen people rock with laughter in front of these pictures, but my heart bled when saw them.

Mr. John Tilney (Liverpool, Wavertree)

Surely he would not find it difficult to differentiate between those works and the Mona Lisa?

Mr. Simon

I certainly would not find it difficult to differentiate between the two, but the difference was that a critic who was perfectly ready to see beauty in the Mona Lisa was unready, because the others were new, to see the beauty in those works which he would be the first to acclaim today.

My hon. Friend the Member for Cheadle will remember that even a greater critic of design than he, Mr. John Ruskin, when he saw the works of Whistler—again, works which are among the highest prizes in our galleries—said: I … never expected to hear a coxcomb ask two hundred guineas for flinging a pot of paint in the public's face. When I hear my hon. Friend, who has, perhaps, as strong a passion for beauty and design as had John Ruskin, and with a style of prose, as we have heard, second only to his, criticise, I ask him to show a little humility.

One must recognise that anything new tends to be distrusted. One tends to look askance at it. One tends to be very attached to the old £5 note which one saw so rarely in one's youth and which, therefore, had an especial value for one.

On whether it fulfils its function, I ask my hon. Friend to remember that it was designed by one of the most distinguished designers we have had in our time. It was designed by the late Mr. Stephen Gooden. I looked up his obituary in The Times—he died very shortly after the £5 note was issued. The Times said: Mr. Stephen Gooden, C.B.E., R.A., perhaps the most accomplished of the several artists and designers who took part in the revival of line engraving. The Times referred to his "inventiveness and concentration of design", "feeling for the page" and "purity of execution". It is mentioned that he is represented at the British Museum, the Victoria and Albert Museum and the Fitzwilliam Museum at Cambridge, as my hon. Friend well knows. Anybody who saw and remembers his designs for the Nonesuch Edition of the Bible will recognise him as really one of the foremost designers of our time. The Bank of England, with the full approbation of the Treasury, could have found no one more suitable to design its new note.

Mr. Shepherd

My hon. and learned Friend says that this gentleman was a great designer, and no doubt he may have been a great artist; but Graham Sutherland painted a portrait of my right hon. Friend the Member for Woodford (Sir W. Churchill) in ghastly fashion, and he is a very distinguished painter.

Mr. Simon

As I say, there can be no discussion in these matters of taste. I merely ask my hon. Friend to recognise that an artist absolutely in the forefront was chosen to design this note.

It is said that the new note is indistinguishable from the £1 note, and the hon. Member for Nottingham, West (Sir T. O'Brien) spoke about his difficulty when coming home in a taxi late at night in indifferent light—

Sir T. O'Brien

I did not say going home.

Mr. Simon

—with his eyesight, I do not doubt, playing him rather false. The fact remains that the £5 note, the £1 note, and the 10s. note are distinguished one from the other in almost the same way. The £5 note is different in colour from the £1 note, and it differs from it in about the same degree of size as the £1 note in its turn differs from the 10s. note. It is generally felt that there should not be any greater difficulty in distinguishing the two notes, at any rate when one's eyesight is perfectly to be trusted.

Sir T. O'Brien

The hon. and learned Gentleman should put them under sodium lighting and test them for himself, even with clear eyesight.

Mr. Simon

Obviously, sodium lights do play all kinds of curious tricks with the eyesight: people's faces tend to become all kinds of curious colours; but even the hon. Member for Nottingham, West would not, I think, suggest that one should try to mitigate that by going about in make-up designed to counteract the effect of sodium lights.

The new £5 note is larger than the Scottish £1 note. Apart from some similarity in colour, the resemblance between the notes is not really such as would lead to confusion, certainly not, I suggest, with the scrutiny with which Scotsmen are habitually wont to examine their notes. I would point out that the notes in the United States of America are of the same size, whatever their denomination, and virtually the same colour also.

Next, is the design of the note acceptable? The notes have been very well received; they are very popular. The number of £5 notes issued has been more than double the number of the old type issued in the previous year. The value of £5 notes in circulation increased from about 14 per cent. of the total circulation in February, 1957, to over 21 per cent. at the present time. In spite of the increase in the amount of note circulation over the past year, the greater use being made of the £5 note has resulted in a decrease in the number of notes in circulation.

Therefore, although I am not, I confess, prepared to argue on a matter of taste with my hon. Friend the Member for Cheadle—I recognise that his taste is his own, and any argument is apt to be not at all fruitful—I say that the Bank of England could not have done more than it did in getting an artist absolutely of the first rank as a modern engraver to design its notes. Apart from the reaction of my hon. Friend and his supporters, the reception has been very favourable.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at twenty minutes to Eleven o'clock.