HC Deb 01 April 1960 vol 620 cc1773-84

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. J. E. B. Hill.]

4.3 p.m.

Mr. William Shepherd (Cheadle)

I apologise to my hon. Friend the Economic Secretary to the Treasury for bringing him here on a Friday afternoon at a time so close to Budget day. I can only say that I fixed neither the day of the Adjournment nor Budget day. Therefore, perhaps I should not be too heavily condemned by him.

I regret having to raise this matter in an Adjournment debate. I wish the circumstances had made it unnecessary for me to do so, but a new bank note has recently been issued by the Bank of England, and with it yet another blunder has been committed. The new note is weak, flabby, bitty and unimpressive. The only people who seem to be proud of it are those anonymous individuals described in the Press as "the spokesmen of the Bank of England." They are consoling themselves with a number of thoughts with which I would not be happy had I been responsible for such a design.

I do not wish to be dogmatic upon the question of design. I realise that in design there is a question of taste, but we have reached the stage where we now have some idea what good design ought to be—what constitutes line, form, shape, balance and colour—and anyone who produces a document, or even a piece of furniture, now has no justification for saying that he does not know what good design is.

In the past decade we have tried greatly to improve the standard of design in this community. I think it is true to say that we have succeeded. I think there has never been a time since the eighteenth century when so much that is good has been produced by our people in almost every form of industry and commerce, and when there has been such a consciousness of the need for good design. This consciousness, apparently, does not permeate the Bank of England.

We spend a large amount of money each year in supporting two organisations which have as their object the improvement of design in the United Kingdom. Yet it is remarkable that neither the Royal Fine Art Commission nor the Council of Industrial Design has, so far as I am aware, been consulted over the design of the new bank notes. There are people who will say frankly, "I do not care about design, I do not care how unfit for its purpose or how shoddy or ill-designed a product or a piece of paper is". Those people are happily fewer among us than they have been, though obviously they are greater in number at the Bank of England than elsewhere. There are other people who say that all design is a matter of taste. This, of course, although a more persuasive argument in a way, is also nonsense.

When we go to a shop to see wallpapers, we see a large number of patterns which we will readily recognise as being well designed but perhaps not according to our taste or particularly fit for our purpose. I want to make the point that it is no use my hon. Friend saying that this is a matter of taste, because although a question of taste arises, there is an accepted standard in this country of what constitutes good design. If the Bank of England is so incompetent, as it appears to be, it should have the duty of consulting those who have a little better idea of what should be produced than it appears to have.

This bank note is yet another blunder by the Bank of England. A relatively short time ago the Bank produced for us a monstrosity in the form of the new £5 note. It was functionally bad and aesthetically quite unacceptable. No one would imagine for a moment, certainly not anybody who for part of his life has been concerned with design, as I have been, that this was by any standard an acceptable design. It is also functionally bad. I am told that the numbers are placed on the left-hand side of the note and that this makes more difficult the work of the banks.

We are endeavouring to encourage work study and the development of efficiency in every part of trade, industry and commerce. One would have thought that if a new £1 note was being produced by the Bank of England, it would have had sufficient common sense not to have made an alteration in the marking of the numbers which would make more difficult the working of the clearing banks. That seems to me so elementary that I ought not to have to get up in this House to complain about such a thing.

What is the use of our trying to tell business people that they should reorganise their own stationery and improve their own systems and call in expensive consultants to set up work study when the Bank of England indulges in this sloppy work, without any apparent regard to the functional purpose for which the notes are intended? I only, hope that the Governor of the Bank of England is better at running the general business of the Bank than he is at selecting these notes. If he is not, we ought to get a new Governor.

These blunders are, in my view, damaging to our prestige. I take perhaps—if one likes to put it this way— a somewhat exaggerated view of the importance of design. I believe that every symbol produced by an official body in this country ought to conform to the highest standards that we can attain. I want to be able to say to foreigners who come to this country that we produce the best postage stamps and the best bank notes in the whole world. Unhappily, I cannot say this.

Curiously enough, we have gone backwards in this matter. In the ordinary way the country is improving its standard of design at a very rapid rate. Trade, industry and commerce have never done so well. But official bodies appear to be sliding the other way instead of improving their standards; and by comparison with almost anything we have produced hitherto the present bank note is a very poor specimen indeed.

With this blunder coming on top of the blunder with the £5 bank note, some of us are getting a little distressed about the matter. We spend a lot of time encouraging people in trade and industry to improve their standards and we spend £280,000 a year in supporting the Council of Industrial Design and another large sum of money upon the Royal Fine Art Commission, and yet we get this sort of drooling work from the Bank of England. I know that good design is not easy to come by. About some of the best things that I happen to have done people said how simple it looks, and it does look simple, but it nevertheless involves a good deal of work.

I should like my hon. Friend to tell me what the Bank of England has done to ensure the highest standard. How has it tackled this important task of producing a national symbol of great importance? I do not want to be unkind to the gentleman who produced the present note. He was rather pleased with the statement by the right hon. Member for Huyton (Mr. H. Wilson) who said that it looked like a detergent coupon. I think the right hon. Gentleman was being rather unfair to the detergent coupon, because one must judge a design almost entirely upon its fitness for a purpose, and most of the detergent coupons that I have seen are fit for their purpose; but this bank note is not.

I should like to know how the Bank of England arrived at this design. I am told that the gentleman who did it was a commercial artist of 65 years of age— and those who know something about commercial art will regard that as being significant. I do not want to say anything against the gentleman who did the design, because he probably did his best, but what I am anxious to find out is what effort was made to get competitive designs for the note. How many artists who were competent, and some of whom were, perhaps, in their more productive periods, perhaps between the ages of 40 and 45, did the Bank of England ask to submit designs which might then be judged by a panel at the Bank of England? Or did it simply hand the job out to one man and say, "You have drawn beer labels before. You can now draw us a bank note"? If the Bank of England did not take immense care to put the job out to a number of artists of different ages and qualifications, it was, in my view, failing in its duty to produce for us the best kind of bank note of which the country is capable.

I should be very surprised to learn that it went to anything like the trouble to which it should go, and to which everybody must go if he wishes to achieve a high level of design. I believe that the Bank of England regards this as a sort of sideline and that what suits it will have to do for the rest of the country. There is, I think, an arrogant approach by the Bank to these problems.

It managed to produce the £5 note— a ghastly specimen—without, I believe, consulting the Treasury at all. It was virtually a fait accompli before anyone was aware of what was to be produced. This is not good enough. Britain has to sell her goods and herself throughout the world, and one of the ways in which we can sell ourselves is by seeing that in these national symbols we maintain a high standard of design and that those who have the task of creating these designs take all the trouble that is necessary.

I want to stress finally that good design is not achieved by hit-or-miss methods. It is achieved only by a great deal of hard work, by searching in more than one direction to get the right sort of man to do the job. I believe very strongly that the Bank of England has failed us once again in this way.

We cannot get rid of this note. We shall have to put up with something that is cheap, nasty and inadequate for a long time. This note is a disgrace to this country, and I hope that my rather strong words will impress upon the Bank of England that it has a duty in the matter of design just as other people in commerce have a similar duty which they recognise.

4.17 p.m.

Mr. Harold Wilson (Huyton)

I shall not detain the House for more than one minute. Perhaps the hon. Gentleman the Economic Secretary will tell us who were consulted by the Bank of England before it issued this ticket—I think it is more often regarded as a ticket than as a proper bank note. I have heard a number of hon. Members liken it to the Irish Free State hospital sweepstake ticket. As I have not actually seen one of these sweepstake tickets I cannot say whether that is a good comparison.

Perhaps the hon. Gentleman can tell us whether the Council of Industrial Design and other bodies were consulted about this note. The point has been made in another place by a Minister that this kind of note was issued for the sake of the blind. We can very well understand the point that changing the size, and having different sizes for different notes, is valuable for blind persons, but that does not justify what is uniformly admitted to be the badness of the design of this new note.

I hope that the hon. Gentleman will desist from making the point too strongly about helping the blind. We accept that fully, but it is not a reason for the design to which the hon. Member for Cheadle (Mr. Shepherd) has drawn attention.

4.18 p.m.

The Economic Secretary to the Treasury (Mr. Anthony Barber)

I am sure that the House will agree that in the limited time available to me I should concentrate on the points made by my hon. Friend the Member for Cheadle (Mr. Shepherd). I feel bound to start with the reminder—although the point is, I think, well understood—that the statutory responsibility for the design and production of bank notes rests with the Bank of England and not with the Government. I realise and accept that this is not in itself an answer to those who have made criticisms.

It can be, and, indeed, it has been, argued that the Government ought either to take statutory powers to control the design of bank notes, or give directions under existing powers which would have the same result. The first course is outside the scope of this debate, and the second course—that the Government should give directions—has been discussed by the House in the past, and I do not think I can do better than refer hon. Members to what my right hon. Friend the Minister of Pensions and National Insurance, who was then Financial Secretary to the Treasury, said on 22nd January, 1953.

The fact is that it is perfectly natural that the management of the note issue should be the responsibility of the Bank of England. As a matter of historical development, the notes are essentially the instruments of the bankers, rather than of the Government, which is illustrated by the fact that the Bank of England has been issuing notes since the year of its incorporation, in 1694. No one can say that the Bank is a beginner in this art. Nor can it be said that this is an unusual arrangement. After all, it is common practice all over the world for central banks to have the sole right of issuing notes. Indeed, this is usually regarded as one of the main functions of a central bank.

Of course, in so far as suggestions on these lines imply that a Government Department would be better able than the Bank of England to design bank notes, I must admit, on behalf of the Treasury, that I am prepared to bask in the glow of that flattery, but I am bound to say that the assumption seems to be somewhat rash.

The new £1 note has been indicted on a variety of grounds and I should like to examine, in turn, the principal grounds mentioned by my hon. Friend this afternoon. First, however, it may help to keep the matter in perspective if I remind the House that it is, after all, a fairly well-established custom, in this country and in many others, to complain whenever an innovation is introduced into the note issue.

For example, the £1 notes and the 10s. notes which were introduced in 1928, designs which have rendered yeoman service for more than thirty years, themselves brought a good deal of protest and yet are accepted now. My hon. Friend described the new £1 note as being weak, flabby and unimpressive. No less an authority than Jacob Epstein described the design of the 1928 note as "poor, commonplace and undistinguished". The Morning Post said that the 1928 notes had "a distinctly foreign appearance and might be mistaken for German mark notes". The general effect was criticised as "confusing and undignified" and shopkeepers were said to be very suspicious of the new notes. A story which had a short but merry life was that the ink used in printing the notes contained enough arsenic to poison the bank clerks who handled them.

To return to the new note, my hon. Friend concentrated on two main criticisms. The first alleged the wrong placing of the serial numbers and then, in more detail, he criticised the design. I must confess my amateur status about the placing of serial numbers. At this time of the year I have my fair share of worries, but I am bound to say that difficulty in counting bank notes is never one of them.

There is no substance in that criticism. As I understand, no responsible bank teller counts notes by their serial numbers. He may check his count when handling new notes by looking at the first and last numbers. We have all seen that done and it can be done as easily with the numbers in one corner as in another, but any experienced bank teller knows perfectly well that there is no guarantee whatever that bank note numbers will run in sequence, simply because notes spoiled in production are withdrawn. What is wanted is not a scrutiny of serial numbers, but a close watch for forgeries.

This is a job in which the Bank of England can properly claim more experience than anyone else and it is the Bank's considered view that the best protection against forgery in the new note is the portrait of Her Majesty the Queen. That is why it has been deliberately put in a conspicuous place on the note. The Bank of England have found no difficulty at all in handling the new note and inquiries which it has made of some of the large clearing banks show that they, too, are having no difficulty. The story of the left-handed bank notes was no doubt good headline stuff for a day or two, but it does not amount to anything more than that.

My hon. Friend said that it was no good saying that design was just a question of taste. But it certainly is a question of opinion. As my right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer has already explained, his approval of the design was neither required nor sought and I have no intention this afternoon of arguing either the merits or demerits of this design. My hon. Friend said that design should be judged by its fitness for a purpose and I agree with him entirely. In this connection, I must, in fairness to the Bank of England, remind the House that the problems involved in designing a bank note today are far more complex than simply obtaining a generally artistic and acceptable appearance. In view of the strictures which my hon. Friend passed on the staff of the bank I assure him, because I have made careful inquiries about this, that the Bank took immense trouble to produce the best possible design within the difficult limitations which confronted it.

Techniques of forgery have not stood still in the last thirty years. I hardly think that there is anybody in the House who would want to criticise the Bank for taking the view, as it does, that the primary requirement of a bank note is that it should be as secure as possible against forgery.

There are other technical reasons. For example, in a continuous printing process, which it is hoped to adopt soon, it is desirable for security reasons that there should be a continuous water mark, and it is this that leads to the virtual blank space down the left-hand side of the front of the note. At first sight, it looks odd, but it is perfectly sensible. I think we can all agree that the technical requirements produce what is undoubtedly a rather tight specification. Within that specification there is scope, and nobody questions this, for producing a note which may or may not be appealing to the eye.

My hon. Friend said that there were people who say, "I do not care about design ". I do not associate myself with those views, and I am sure that the Bank of England does not, either. The Bank of England, and the very distinguished artist whom it enrolled after consultation with a considerable number of people, naturally did the best, within the limitations I have described, to produce a note which was attractive to look at.

Mr. Shepherd

Will my hon. Friend say how many people the Bank of England consulted, and from whom it received suggestions for designs? Or did the Bank merely see one man and say "You do it"?

Mr. Barber

The Bank consulted a number of leading figures in the world of art. As a result of those consultations it went to the gentleman who designed this note and who, as my hon. Friend knows, is President of the Royal Society of Printers in Water Colours and some time Professor of Engraving at the Royal College of Art.

I wish that I had more time to go into greater detail about the difficulties involved in designing a bank note, because it is not a question only of producing an attractive design. One has to work in close collaboration with the engraver. It is, therefore, essential that the person who does the designing has intimate knowledge of engraving. Inevitably, that must limit the number of people who would be able to do this sort of thing.

I had intended to say something about size, but all I will say on that is that there were particular reasons why these sizes were chosen. In view of the time limit, I should like to join in what I think is the wish of the whole House in congratulating the Bank on finding a satisfactory solution to meet the problems of the blind.

My hon. Friend referred, in passing, to the £5 note. The £5 note was introduced in 1957 and hardly anyone seemed to have a good word to say for it. My hon. Friend said that it was a blunder. The truth is that it has been very successful. My hon. Friend said that it was "functionally bad." The fact is that before the present design was issued £5 notes represented no more than 15 per cent. by value of notes in circulation. People thought they were splendid, but, like my hon. Friend they did not use them. Today, there are 136 million of these £5 notes in circulation—and not 15 per cent. by value as in the case of the previous design; they represent about one-third by value of the bank notes in circulation.

Mr. Shepherd

I said that it was functionally bad because it was so easily confused with the Scottish £1 note. I still believe it is bad for that reason. I believe that people have £5 notes because they represent purchasing power and not because they have an aesthetic value.

Mr. Barber

If my hon. Friend takes the view that though they were used in large numbers they were functionally bad, I hope that he will consider objectively the new £5 note when it comes out and think that it is both attractive and functionally good.

I know that there are still some people who have nostalgic memories of the crisp and luxurious feeling of the old £5 note, but, because of its size, that note was functionally not very good. This experience illustrates fairly clearly how slow the British people are to accept changes in their money, but also how readily they will, in the long run, absorb them.

I certainly think that my hon. Friend was entirely justified in raising this question this afternoon. Indeed, I am grateful to him for doing so, as it has given me an opportunity, on behalf of the Bank of England, to put forward its point of view, which has not, I think, so far received sufficient consideration. I am quite prepared to believe that many people who have made honest, sincere and genuine criticisms of the new bank note have done so because they have been under a fundamental misunderstanding of the difficulties with which any central bank, or any designer is faced.

While I think that my hon. Friend was entirely justified, I also believe that we should keep the whole matter in perspective. There is always a natural tendency to fight shy of changes in the appearance of such objects as bank notes, which enter so largely into our daily lives, but when, in a few months' time, we can see the present controversy in rather better perspective, we may well come to the conclusion that, although the new note might, perhaps, have been better, it is probably not so bad, after all.

4.31 p.m.

Mr. Martin McLaren (Bristol, North-West)

I should like very strongly to support the criticisms made by my hon. Friend the Member for Cheadle (Mr. Shepherd) of the design of the new bank note. I know that it is a matter of opinion, but I do not like this design. I do not think that it is a good design. All I can say is that the front of the note seems better than the back, which appears to lose all coherence altogether. I hope that it will not be long before this note is withdrawn, and is replaced by one that is more dignified, simple and symmetrical.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at twenty-eight minutes to Five o'clock.