HL Deb 26 January 1982 vol 426 cc862-6

2.59 p.m.

The Minister of State, Treasury (Lord Cockfield)

My Lords, I beg to move that this Bill be read a second time. This I suspect is the shortest and least controversial Bill which your Lordships are likely to be troubled with this Session. It consists of one clause of five lines, and a Short Title.

When the coinage was decimalised in 1971, under the terms of the Decimal Currency Act 1967, it was decided to retain the penny. Some of the ancient descriptions, such as " shilling " and " florin " vanished for ever. But " penny " was retained; otherwise the English language would have been poorer, and phrases such as " a penny for your thoughts " would have gradually lost their meaning. Indeed I find that the Oxford Dictionary of Quotations lists no less than 14 quotations referring to the penny. One of these, from The Gondoliers, reads: " Dukes were three a penny ". I suspect that that was not intended as a prophetic reference to attendance at today's debate.

But the decimal penny was worth 2.4 of the old pennies. So it was necessary to distinguish it, and this was done by describing it as a " new penny ". Now, 11 years later, even the most conservative of us have become accustomed to the new penny as the ordinary unit of coinage, and few people now use the full title " new penny ". The time has therefore come when the law might suitably be brought into accord with popular practice. The Bill therefore permits the use of either the term " penny ", or " new penny ". On new coins it is now intended to use the description " penny ", but it is necessary to preserve in law the description " new penny " to ensure that existing coins continue to comply with the law.

The immediate reason for the Bill is that we hope shortly to issue a 20 penny piece. This requires a Royal Proclamation, which is dependent of course on the passage of the Bill. My Lords, therefore I beg to move.

Moved, That the Bill be now read a second time.—(Lord Cockfield.)

3.2 p.m.

Lord Bruce of Donington

My Lords, the House will appreciate the non-controversial terms in which the noble Lord has introduced the Bill, and I am very happy to inform him that I am in complete unanimity with him, perhaps uniquely, owing to the fact that the Bill, including the preamble, occupies only 10 lines. Of course I cannot give hostages to the future, but it would appear to us on this side of the House most unlikely that there will be a protracted Committee stage, or many amendments to the Bill, and it is reasonable to suppose that the Report stage and Third Reading will go through with the minimum of delay.

The noble Lord has referred to a part of the history of decimalisation. I was reminded of it today when I tried to equate the price of some of the things that we now buy with the price that we paid in old currency in 1971. The cost of living, according to the cost of living index, as adjusted, shows that prices in general have risen to four times the level they were at when decimalisation was introduced. I am happy to report that The Times, now at 20 pence, is exactly four times what it was in 1971. I regret that the same cannot be said of the Daily Express, which originally cost 6 pence, and is now six times the price it was in 1971.

It is important to realise that decimalisation in this country was achieved at some cost. There have been some advantages to it, many advantages, of which your Lordships are well aware; but there were certain disadvantages at the time of its introduction. Many of us recall that the abrupt repricing of many items, in particular those that were lower-priced in old pence, gave rise to a certain amount of confusion early on, and in terms of working-class budgets made a significant addition to household expenses in the earlier part of the scheme. For example, one found that potatoes that cost 4 old pence a pound were marked up to 2 new pence, which was an increase of 20 per cent., or even to 3 new pence, which was an increase of 87 per cent. In those days there were many cases where ordinary working people suffered to a considerable extent by reason of the completely unjust up-pricing of goods on decimalisation. At the same time wages and pensions were precisely calculated.

Therefore it is important to remember that decimalisation was achieved at a cost. There can be no doubt that the earlier stages of decimalisation, imposing very heavily upon the incomes of old-age pensioners and of the workers generally, gave a powerful impetus to inflation. I do not think that the noble Lord in retrospect would deny that.

But decimalisation has produced advantages. There is no question but that it has aided commerce and simplified accounting. In saying that it has simplified accounting I have a slight unease because nowadays few people, including school children, go about without their pocket calculators, to which the new decimalisation gave a considerable impetus. It is for consideration as to whether decimalisation, leading to the very widespread use of calculators in their modern form, has caused a certain degree of laziness among people who would normally have to calculate. It is for consideration as to whether we are in fact now more numerate than we then were, and I would doubt it. Nevertheless decimalisation has brought considerable advantages.

When decimalisation was introduced many of us hoped—and I believe that the view was shared on the other side of the House—that it would have been wiser had we chosen the 50 pence unit, or the old 10 shillings unit, instead of the old pound sterling as the new unit. But I gather that the prestigious pressure emanating from the City of London, that promised all kinds of dire things unless the sacredness of the pound sterling was preserved, operated to influence the Government of the day, who happened to be a Government from my own party. But personally I think that perhaps it would have been far better had we adopted the old unit. Certainly it would have made the new penny a smaller unit and would have led to far less abuse in the early stages. But decimalisation is now with us, it is now successfully in operation, and aside from the slight misgivings that I have about the likelihood that, in general, we as a nation are not quite as numerate as we were, it is probably a very good thing indeed. There is certainly nothing in the Bill that would make me wish to detain your Lordships further on the matter.

3.9 p.m.

Lord Davies of Leek

My Lords I should like to ask a question arising from mention of the penny. Of course I am delighted that we are getting back the old term. I remember that as young schoolboys in West Wales every New Year's Day we used to go around the farms to get a bright new penny with the new year's date on it. Why is the penny not bigger than it is? Secondly, why has not something been said about the horrible, tiny coin, which arthritic old-age pensioners cannot handle, the half-pence? These coins are scattered in the gutters of Britain. Old people are unable to pick them up. I have seen them drop halfpence pieces on buses and not bother to pick them up. Surely something should be done about this. It must be costing Britain a fortune. A lady I know who is in the Women's Institute cadges off me every ½p I have. When I said, " What do you want them for? ", she said, " Every time I fill a matchbox with them I get ten shillings for the Women's Institute "; it amounts to that.

Despite his far-seeing introduction to this Bill today, what is the noble Lord going to do about that horrible coin the ½p; and why cannot the modern penny be bigger than it is? I will not quote a Welsh folk song about pennies, but I am delighted that something is being done to get rid of those horrible expressions " half p's " and " p's " from our economic language.

The Earl of Selkirk

My Lords, may I ask the noble Lord a question? First, how do you pay for a gallon of petrol which costs 159.9p? If it cannot be met by a coinage, is it improper to advertise it as such, or is it even illegal? Secondly, may I ask the noble Lord whether he is now envisaging a £1 coin? Have we reached that stage, and is this in the Government's mind?

Lord Harvington

My Lords, I rise to make what may seem to your Lordships quite a small point, and it may well have been made in the past when the de- bates on the former Bill took place. We have always been a country which has respected and valued tradition, and none of your Lordships, I am sure, takes a great liking to having a cheque returned marked" R.D." I have had three cheques returned marked " R.D." because when writing the sum of money I put " d " after the figure, instead of " p ". I was told by the bank that they were not prepared to accept the cheque unless the letter " p " succeeded the figure, and not " d ".

I think that is rather a poor show, and if it is going to catch on at all I think your Lordships and many others will get very vexed indeed. I wonder whether it would be possible, either to make a statement to banks through the Bank of England or, perhaps, to put something in the Bill to say that the letter " d ", signifying the old Roman denarius, in which we in this country dealt for about four centuries and which was one of the few links between us and the Roman occupation which were still in constant use, should be recognised as the proper denotation of what should appear after the pence figure; not that the " p " should be ruled out as making the cheque invalid, but that " d is the proper form.

Lord Hawke

My Lords, may I ask my noble friend one question? I have a bag of coins in a drawer labelled " One penny ". May I start to use them after the passage of this Bill?

Lord Harvington

My Lords, I am afraid I cannot answer for Her Majesty's Government but I am sure that you cannot because they are not part of the currency of the country today, and have been withdrawn.

3.14 p.m.

Lord Cockfield

My Lords, I am most grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Bruce of Donington, for his general welcome to the Bill, and for the suggestion he makes that the subsequent stages might well be expedited through your Lordships' House. As he himself was so generous to admit, the original Act of 1967 was of course passed by a Government which had the honour of being supported by him, and the points he raised were of course debated at very great length at that time. These are battles long since fought and won or lost, and I do not think that at this stage, however interesting these matters are, there is any question of them being re-opened now.

I noted what the noble Lord said about prices having increased four times since February 1971, and indeed I confirm that that in fact is the position. But, of course, there have been two Governments in power since then, and the Labour Government share some responsibility for the increase in prices which has occurred, although we all on both sides of the House greatly regret that it should be as great as it has been.

My noble friend Lord Selkirk raised the very difficult question of how you pay for petrol which is denominated in terms of decimal points of a penny. I am afraid that this goes outside the scope of this Bill. There has been a great deal of argument about this. The smallest coin we have is the much-maligned ½p. We do not have, and have no intention of producing, a coin equal to one-tenth of a penny. My experience is that it is much better to fill your tank to a figure such as £5, £10 or, in these days, even £20 than to concern oneself with tenths of a penny.

My noble friend also asked what is happening about a £1 coin. The intention to issue such a coin was announced early last year, and details of its general specification were given by my right honourable friend the then Financial Secretary to the Treasury in reply to a Question in another place on 31st July. The broad intention is that such a coin should be issued in April 1983.

The noble Lord, Lord Davies of Leek, asked why the penny is not bigger. Of course, most people object to the size and weight of the currency in this country as compared with the size of currency overseas. The complaint is that it wears holes in your pockets, although people fortunate enough to keep the money in their pocket long enough for it to wear a hole in it perhaps ought not to be complaining so loudly. But the general tendency is in the direction of lightening, not increasing, the weight of the currency. Indeed, the new 20p piece will in fact weigh, or is expected to weigh, five grammes only.

The noble Lord also referred to the question of the 1p piece. I have a considerable degree of sympathy with him because I in fact always discard the things immediately I receive them. Nevertheless, this opens up the possibility of people collecting these, as he suggests, and donating them to charity. The question of the continuation of this coin is kept under constant review. There still remains a considerable demand for it, and as long as that demand continues the Royal Mint feel that they need to meet it. The noble Lord will remember that in the comparable case of the sixpence this was ultimately discontinued when the public demand for it fell to such a degree it was no longer worthwhile keeping it. The old penny has now been demonetised, and cannot be used as legal tender. So far as Lord Harvington's problem is concerned, this seems to me to be essentially one between him and his bankers, and I would hesitate to intervene in that relationship.

On Question, Bill read a second time and committed to a Committee of the Whole House.

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