Below is the text of Mr Major’s speech on the Verdict of the Trial of the Pyx on 27th April 1990.
CHANCELLOR OF THE EXCHEQUER:
Thank you, Prime Warden, for those kind words of welcome. It is a very great pleasure for me to attend this occasion in my new capacity as Master of Her Majesty’s Royal Mint. It is an office with a very long and noble history – rather longer, I understand, than the office of Chancellor of the Exchequer and almost certainly more noble – and one which I know my predecessor Nigel Lawson held with much pride. It is a great honour to take my place in that long tradition.
May I first take the opportunity to thank the Jury who have so carefully checked the coins this year and say how very relieved I was to hear that they have found no fault in them. All in all, that’s quite a relief! My officials have had great pleasure – malign pleasure, even malicious pleasure – in warning me of the dreadful fate that can befall Masters of the Mint when the coinage was found to be below standard. I gather that one Master in 1318 was sacked and jailed for six weeks for making a silver coin below standard, and another, 30 years later, was fine 93 pounds, 13 shillings and 3 pence. I understand the penalties have been rather less in recent years, but I am nevertheless relieved that I have not had cause to find out what they are!
If I must be historical, I think I prefer to associate myself with Thomas Major, who held the office of Chief Engraver of Seals in the eighteenth century. A resourceful man, capable of speed and efficiency, he is said in 1784 to have provided within twenty-four hours a copy of the Great Seal of George III, stolen during the night from Lord Chancellor Thurlow’s house in Great Ormond Street. I am not sure that I ought to add that the first Proclamation to which the replacement seal was attached called for the dissolution of Parliament and the summoning of a new one!
It does not, of course, come as any surprise to know that the jury has found the coins fully up to standard. The Mint has a reputation for the quality of its products which is, I believe, unsurpassed in the world. Their financial performance over the past year has also been impressive. The Mint achieved profits last year of over 10 million pounds, a return on assets of a healthy 20%. Much of this profitability came again from their excellent export performance. The Mint have also achieved record production levels. I would like to congratulate the Deputy Master and all his staff for this notable achievement. I know how much hard work it has meant for everyone at Llantrisant.
I would like also to congratulate the Mint on becoming one of the 18 new Executive Agencies announced earlier this month. As a trading fund, the Mint has of course been subject to fewer restrictions than in many other parts of the public sector, but I hope they will nevertheless find that their new status gives them a clearer, firmer basis on which to develop their business on the sound commercial lines that have become their hallmark in recent years.
The next year will be a challenging one for the Mint because they are about to make a change in the coinage which will put them very much in the public eye. On 27 June, a new lighter 5 pence coin is going to be brought into circulation to replace the existing one. It is a brave Minister who interferes with anything so familiar to the public as the coins in their pocket, and, with your indulgence, Prime Warden, I would like to take this opportunity to remind people why the Mint is doing it.
Just over 3 years ago, after complaints about the weight of the coinage, my predecessor asked the Royal Mint to undertake a consultation exercise to test the public’s reaction to the idea of changing the existing coins to lighter ones. The Mint commissioned some research at Nottingham University where a range of sizes and shapes of coin were tested to see which could be most easily distinguished. Among those asked to test the designs were elderly residents in sheltered accommodation and blind people. In July 1987 the Mint issued a consultation pamphlet setting out four possible options.
I should say, to be precise, that the pamphlet set out 5 options because it included doing nothing at all. We made it very clear at the time that if that was what people wanted, no changes would be made.
The consultation exercise was widely publicised at the time and extensively reported in the newspapers. The Daily Mail actually ran its own survey and let us have the results. The Mint made a particular effort to draw the exercise to the attention of the representatives of the blind, the elderly and the disabled and made it clear that Ministers would listen to their comments very carefully before any decision was taken.
When the replies to the consultation exercise came in, a substantial majority of those who responded favoured a change to lighter coins, and preferred the option with the smaller 5 pence and 10 pence coin which the Mint are now introducing. The results of the exercise were announced by my predecessor in December 1987. Ministers gave two and a half years notice to give the vending machine industry as much time as possible to plan ahead for the switch over. And before settling the final specifications, the Mint gave test coins both to the vending industry and to representatives of the blind, to see if there were any particular modifications we could make to help them. One result is that the coins will have a special milled edge to help the blind.
No one likes change, and I have no doubt that there will be complaints when the coins are issued. But the Mint has done all it reasonably can to make the transition as quick and smooth as possible. The old 5 pence coins will be withdrawn by the end of the year.
The new 5 pence coin has the same design as the existing one and is about the size of the old silver sixpence, which many of us still remember fondly, and which was with us for over 300 years. It will make a substantial difference to the weight of the coinage, particularly after the lighter 10 pence has also been introduced in June 1992. This switch over will be irritating for many, I am sure, but I am convinced it will be worth it in the long term.
The Mint is of course issuing another, far less controversial, new coin later this year. It was with considerable pleasure that I announced on 28 March that the Royal Mint would be issuing a five pound commemorative crown to mark the ninetieth birthday of Her Majesty the Queen Mother on the 4 August. It is a magnificent coin and as I am sure you will all agree when you see it, a very fitting tribute.
Finally Prime Warden it only remains for me to thank you and the Goldsmiths for your generous hospitality and for a most enjoyable occasion. Thank you very much.