Select Committee on Treasury Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 1 - 19)




  1. Good afternoon, gentlemen. Thank you very much for showing us around the Royal Mint. It has been very interesting. I shall plunge straight into our first question. Why do you believe that the Royal Mint needs to remain a nationalised undertaking?

  (Mr Holmes) Good afternoon. We are delighted that the Sub-Committee has found time to see the Mint and to take evidence in South Wales. It is difficult to answer your question because the Mint has an operational executive role within government. We do not decide the policy as to our ownership. During the various reviews in relation to whether the Mint should be privatised, the Mint has not taken a particular position. For a long time we have operated within the public sector. We have not experienced major constraints from having been in the public sector, but we have not argued the point either way as to whether we should be privatised or not.

  2. Do you see any advantages to being in the public sector?
  (Mr Holmes) Clearly, there are arguments both ways. The main point to be made is that we acknowledge that there would be differences between being in the private sector as opposed to the public sector. Whether those differences are pluses or minuses is not a matter for us to judge. I emphasise that we see ourselves as an organisation with commercial objectives, the objectives set for us by the Treasury. The prime objective is to make a return on capital. I believe that all the employees in the Royal Mint understand that and understand that their jobs depend on success in the commercial market, whether it is selling circulating coins and blanks overseas or selling collector coins into the commercial market place to the individual consumer.

  3. Are there any activities that you undertake that are not what one may define as commercial?
  (Mr Holmes) We do not believe so. Obviously, the original reason for the Royal Mint's existence was to provide circulating coinage for the United Kingdom. In that context we have a statutory position as the national mint. The arrangement by which we currently provide that coinage is a contract between ourselves and the Treasury. At the moment it is a five-year contract and by and large it is written as though it were a commercial contract.

  4. On the subject of contracts, what proportion of your work do you contract out to others?
  (Mr Holmes) That varies over time. The UK coinage is not contracted out. We are able to supply the whole of the UK requirement. In relation to our overseas work, outside Europe we operate in what we call a consortium with De La Rue plc and the Birmingham Mint. Within that consortium we work together to capture overseas coinage business outside Europe and then the manufacturing work is split between the Royal Mint and the Birmingham Mint. We act as the prime contractor. Birmingham Mint is subcontracted a certain share of the work from us.

  5. Presumably there is other contracted-out work, other than your foreign work?
  (Mr Holmes) In that case I was talking essentially about coins. We subcontract out certain overseas coins. We obviously buy in many things. Although we have a large blank production facility, we occasionally buy in blanks. We also buy in other requirements. We buy in huge quantities of metal and many of the other requirements such as the normal requirements of manufacturing.

  6. You have said that you are almost exclusively a commercial operation. Later on we shall discuss how successful you are commercially. If you were a privatised undertaking, would you be subject to rather different disciplines and incentives than you are in the public sector?
  (Mr Holmes) I guess that we would expect some changes if we were in the private sector. I imagine that that would depend upon what type of owner or what type of shareholder we had. The Treasury tries to act as though it were a shareholder in a private sector sense in the way in which it monitors our activities. Therefore, the change may not be as obvious as it may have been, say, 20 or 30 years ago. It could be that our management and pay structures would change in the private sector, as has happened in other privatisations, but that is not for us to speculate on. As far as the incentives on employees of the Royal Mint to achieve and to maintain competitiveness are concerned, that is already there. We all know that our jobs depend on success in the commercial marketplace. I do not believe that that would change whoever owned the Mint.

  7. Presumably the bottom line, the profitability, would change?
  (Mr Holmes) In a sense that is already there. We are set a target on return on capital by the Treasury and, no doubt, if we were in the private sector we would be expected to earn certain levels of profitability. Like private sector organisations, we do not always meet our levels of profitability, although in the past we have had a long track record of having done so. That again is there. If we do not meet our profitability that could affect outside perceptions of the Mint. If we are not competitive our jobs could be affected. In my view the difference is not very marked.

  Chairman: Perhaps we can turn to look at how successful you have been on the commercial front.

Mr Fallon

  8. A moment ago, Mr Holmes, I believe you said that all your employees understood the importance of making a return on the capital employed. Three years ago that return was 22 per cent, then it was 9 per cent and in the last reported year, when the target was 14 per cent, the return was 0.5 per cent. What has gone wrong?
  (Mr Holmes) Perhaps I can take the history back a little further. The Mint has had a long track record of good returns on capital. More recently, there has been a combination of two major factors. First, the overseas market for the circulation of coins and blanks has become steadily more difficult. We have had more competition in the market. There are more mints and indeed private sector blank suppliers with spare capacity. Recently many people have put in additional capacity. In terms of the marketplace, we are also suffering from less favourable exchange rates than we had a few years ago. The traditional demand from some of our past coin customers appears, at the moment, to be static or declining. The demand for circulation coins and blanks is very volatile as has been seen in the UK, as we may talk about later, so it is difficult to predict how that will go. Clearly the difficult marketplace has been a factor. As we have explained in our memorandum to the Sub-Committee, we have also had a programme of change that we initiated some years ago, but which has been at its peak over the past two or two-and-a-half years. In that space of time we have carried out a major capital expenditure programme, amounting to about £25 million within a two to two-and-a-half year timeframe. That was designed partly to renew and to refurbish equipment that has been with us for most of the time since the Mint moved to South Wales 25 years ago, and to upgrade our capacity for new business requirements, particularly the blanks market that we knew would open up with the first wave euro countries. So we have had a major investment programme to put in right across the factory and allied to that we have introduced many changes to the working practices and working patterns. We have brought in a major amount of multi-skilling. We had some multi-skilling before, but we totally modernised the Mint's working practices and we have brought them right up to date over the past two to three years. That was allied with team working. Instead of everyone doing a particular job, we have people working in teams so that we have more flexibility in what they concentrate on. That has involved a lot of training for the multi-skilling team work to give us that flexibility. The training programme has been a major investment for the future. The other aspect of team working that I want to stress is that we have introduced a total productive manufacturing programme, to use teams not only to carry out the day to day work, but to involve everyone, at all levels, to gain improvements. That is starting to come through now. To go back to the change programme, associated with the new investment we have changed the shift patterns. The working hours regulations have assisted us towards a conclusion that we should have more shifts, more crews to cover the continuous process areas of the Mint. Previously, we had four crews in the continuous processes, many of which you will have seen in our blanks production area. We had four crews to cover the 168 hours of the working week and now we have five crews because of the need to cut down on overtime. In addition, we took advantage of that to have lower manning levels per shift, so the number of extra employees was reduced. Installing that new equipment and to get it running properly has inevitably caused some disruption. Much of the equipment that we have is very complex and to make it all work efficiently has been a big challenge. Secondly, we have a lot of people doing different jobs from those that they did before which has involved a lot of training. Allied to that perhaps I can emphasise, in relation to the blanks business, that we have gone into supplying blanks to other mints to a greater degree, as opposed to finished coins, and that has brought new challenges in terms of meeting customer requirements. We have had to learn our way through that. It has been a very disruptive period and one during which any organisation would have to suffer disruption. We are coming out of that now. In the last three months of last year the production was nearly 50 per cent higher than at the beginning of the year. That was accompanied by a high improvement in productivity. We recognise that we have a lot further to go in terms of achieving further efficiency improvements, but the marketplace—a difficulty that we have to confront—is still there.

  9. You have referred to all the difficulties and you have referred to the programme of change, but the latest result is very much worse than it was three years ago. You were set a target of 14 per cent and your outcome was 0.5 per cent. That is failure in anybody's book, is it not?
  (Mr Holmes) I believe it would have been a failure, in another sense, not to have tackled the change in the way that we did. Any organisation has to go through changes to modernise itself. It could have been argued that the Mint could have changed earlier. It did not go through some of the crises that many private sector manufacturers went through during the recession because it was quite successful during that period, but there comes a time when an organisation has to embark on changes. We felt that the Mint had to be in a different shape to cope with the 21st century. Yes, the disruption has lasted longer than we would have liked, but I am convinced that it was the only way forward to make the Mint stronger for the 21st century.

  10. What is the target return on capital employed for the current financial year?
  (Mr Holmes) It is 7 per cent.

  11. In your annual report you say that it is not yet confirmed.
  (Mr Holmes) Yes. It has now been confirmed as 7 per cent.

  12. Why was it confirmed so late in the financial year?
  (Mr Holmes) I think that was a matter of discussion between ourselves and the Treasury. The Treasury set the target. The Treasury wanted to consult the Shareholder Panel that had been newly appointed in March last year. Frankly, it did not affect the way in which we operated. We tried to maximise our return whatever.

  13. Perhaps you can tell the Sub-Committee about the way in which you operate. You have had 10 months of the financial year. What is your rate of return likely to be at the end of the year?
  (Mr Holmes) I cannot give you a profit forecast for the year at this point. However, I can say that we have had a difficult year on the circulating coins and blanks side of the business and a good year on the collector coins side. I do not believe that we shall achieve the 7 per cent target this year but how far short of it we shall be I cannot say.

  14. Moving away from accounting and turning to the operating profit, why do you not show the operating profit for the particular divisions?
  (Mr Holmes) Frankly, that is a matter of commercial confidentiality. We operate in a competitive market world-wide. Our competitors do not publish such figures because, like us, they believe that that would be useful ammunition for the competition.

  15. You have three big divisions. Roughly, what does the collector coins division make?
  (Mr Holmes) I believe this information is commercially confidential. The collector coins side of the business is profitable and it has always been that way.

  16. Does it make millions of pounds?
  (Mr Holmes) Yes.

  17. It makes millions?
  (Mr Holmes) Yes.

  18. I ask you that because last year your operating profit for the whole business was £345,000, so without the collector coins division, you would be bust.
  (Mr Holmes) "Bust" is a different concept in terms of having the cash resources. I want to emphasise that the investment programme was self-funded; we did not seek money from anyone else. We do not exactly have a debt burden. I willingly concede that in the past year the circulating coins and blanks business made a loss.

  19. Five years ago you were making £9 million profit and then £7 million, then £13 million and in the past two years £5 million and £345,000.
  (Mr Holmes) Yes.

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