It's been 400 years since the first businessman issued a signed document that eventually became known as a check, and policymakers and bankers in the United Kingdom have decided enough is enough. Following nearly 20 years of declining check usage among businesses and consumers in the U.K., the Payments Council's board, which sets strategies and directives for U.K. payment systems, has set a sunset date for check clearing: Oct. 31, 2018.
The decision applies across the U.K. and Northern Ireland.
According to Checks at the End of the 20th Century ... and Beyond! by Paul H. Green, President and Chief Executive Officer of The Green Sheet Inc., the first "check" was written by Mr. Dalboe, a man doing business with London goldsmiths, in 1659. Checks were created to facilitate trade (especially international trade) without having to include chests of gold and coins with individual shipments.
After a nearly four-century run, however, check usage in the U.K. began to decline in 1990, and in the past 5 years alone, dropped a significant 40 percent, according to the Payments Council. In 2008, just over 1.4 billion checks were written in the U.K. and Northern Ireland, according to data published by the Bank for International Settlement. Based on data from the BIS and the Payments Council, it costs banks in the U.K. an estimated $1.40 (USD) to process one check.
The decision to phase out checks in the U.K., announced on Dec. 16, 2009, follows 18 months of consultations and deliberations and a decision by the Payments Council to take an active role in the transition to a checkless U.K.
The Payments Council is a private sector watchdog group for policy and enforcement actions involving payment schemes; its membership includes major banks and interbank payment exchanges.
"The Payments Council wants to ensure that consumers and businesses are not left high and dry when the closure of the clearing [system] occurs," the council stated. "This announcement marks the start of extensive work that we need to do to ensure that everyone has a viable alternative, should the check clearing close."
The council said it will "revisit" its decision in 2016.
"[T]he real challenge lies ahead if we are going to be comfortable to wave good-bye to the check, which undeniably occupies a unique place in British culture," said Payments Council Chief Executive Officer Paul Smee. "The payments industry will have to react positively and take the lead on delivering solutions which suit all their customers."
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