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LONDON (Reuters) - The Bank of England is moving closer to ditching paper pounds and following Australia and Canada into switching to plastic banknotes instead.
The central bank said on Tuesday it would ask the public its opinion before taking a decision in December on whether to adopt polymer pounds that also would be smaller than current notes.
Governor Mark Carney introduced polymer banknotes while head of the Bank of Canada in 2011 and credited the material for a sharp drop in the rate of counterfeiting.
The BoE has issued paper banknotes ever since the central bank was created in 1694 as a way of raising money for King William III's war against France. The first fully printed notes appeared in 1853. Before that, notes were handwritten and signed by one of the bank's cashiers.
Polymer banknotes, as well as being hard to fake, are durable and stay cleaner for longer because the material is more resistant to dirt and moisture, the BoE said, adding feedback so far on the new-look notes had been positive.
"It's a great idea because I never have a wallet so if my girlfriend washes my clothes, there have been so many times where notes that end up in the washing machine," said 37 year-old waiter Jean-Christophe Rigolet.
"I've used Australian dollars before so I'm kind of used to them and I don't mind at all if they were plastic," he added.
But book dealer Richard Klevan, feeling an Australian bank note for comparison, was doubtful whether the new notes would be harder to forge.
"One way of feeling that a banknote is genuine or not is the feel of it and this feels as though it could be copied more easily," he said.
Britain's central bank has reassured the public that polymer notes would carry the same designs and be tiered in size like current notes. They would, however, be smaller to allow larger denominations to fit more easily into purses and wallets.
If the decision is taken to issue polymer notes, they would be introduced one denomination at a time, beginning with the new five pound note featuring Winston Churchill in 2016.
"The Bank of England would print notes on polymer only if we were persuaded that the public would continue to have confidence in, and be comfortable with, our notes," said Charles Bean, BoE deputy governor.
More than 20 countries currently issue polymer banknotes. Australia introduced them in 1988 and was followed in the 1990s by Indonesia, Thailand, Malaysia and New Zealand.
Editing by William Schomberg/Jeremy Gaunt