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1956: Macmillan unveils premium bond scheme

The British Chancellor Harold Macmillan has unveiled plans for a new state saving scheme offering cash prizes instead of interest.

The premium bond would be "something completely new for the saver in Great Britain," he told MPs.

The scheme is part of what he called his "savings budget" aimed at getting more people to save money by offering a top prize of 1,000.

However the proposal is likely to draw criticism from some who regard the scheme as a form of gambling and therefore oppose the idea on moral grounds.

Small fortune

Mr Macmillan tried to head off the critics by declaring: "This is not a pool or a lottery, where you spend your money."

The investor would be saving their money and the government would guarantee to buy the bonds back at the original price at any time.

There was laughter as he insisted the premium bonds would bring in new savers tempted by the possibility of winning a small fortune.

But Labour spokesman Harold Wilson urged the chancellor to take the sale of premium bonds out of his financial proposals and allow MPs to examine the idea in more detail as part of the government's bill on gambling and betting.

The Rev J Clark Gibson, secretary of the Churches' Committee on Gambling said he understood the chancellor's aim but rejected the plan. "As the prizes are distributed by chance the deal therefore becomes a gamble, because the gains of the few are at the loss of the whole body of investors, whether they want to gamble or not," he said.

The bonds will cost 1 each and holders will have a chance of winning a prize in a quarterly draw. The government will pay out the equivalent in prizes of 4% interest on the total number of bonds.

Lord Mackintosh of Halifax, chairman of the National Savings Committee, said he hoped the premium bond, with its tax-free prizes, would bring "millions of people who had so far not found the conventional forms of savings attractive" into the fold.

It seems likely the new bonds will be sold over the counter at post offices and possibly banks.

Sweden has had state lotteries since 1896. The last one was held in 1955 to raise funds for the State Opera. Finland and Greece have also had similar schemes.

In Context
The first premium bonds went on sale in November 1956 and the first prize draw was held in June 1957.

The bonds were extremely popular with the public, perhaps because the only other chance of winning a large sum of money was through the football pools, betting on the results of matches.

The government agreed to pay interest on the bonds invested and the money it raised was then used for prizes.

Winning numbers were generated by an Electronic Random Number Indicator Equipment, a computer otherwise known as Ernie.

Ernie 4, introduced in 2004, is far smaller than the original and much faster, capable of generating up to one million premium bond numbers per hour.

At the start of the scheme the top prize was initially 1,000 and there were only four winners a year. In 1991 the jackpot rose to 1m. Since September 2004 there have been two monthly jackpots of 1m.

About 23 million people in Britain have savings bonds. Since the second jackpot was introduced, the odds of winning have shortened from 27,000 to one, to 24,000 to one.

In 1994 Britain saw the introduction of its first national lottery. A 1 ticket stood a one-in-14 million chance of striking lucky and winning the weekly jackpot.

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