Dormant Bank and Building Society Accounts Bill [Lords]

Part of Orders of the Day – in the House of Commons at 5:31 pm on 6th October 2008.

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Photo of Martyn Jones Martyn Jones Labour, Clwyd South 5:31 pm, 6th October 2008

I am sure that you will not allow me to go down that line, Mr. Deputy Speaker. However, I agree with the hon. Gentleman's other point that the distribution should be needs-based. However, as a Member from mid-Wales, he will know that there are problems with distribution even within Wales, and they must be closely watched.

I have discussed the regulation controlling the use of funds and observed the extreme juxtaposition of regulation in the Bill. I do not oppose the regulation of distribution. The task is difficult and the Government should be involved in the use of public money by an external agency to fulfil social goals. However, I cannot help but notice the contrast. It appears that the agencies distributing the money cannot be trusted to do their job without tight regulation, yet they are charities with a record of success, such as the Big Lottery Fund. On the other hand, it appears that the banking industry can function fine without regulation, despite its record of indifference in that area.

Let me move to an entirely separate aspect of the Bill: the definition of dormancy. As many of my hon. Friends will know, it was a matter of some discussion in the other place. I have looked into some of that debate and a few alternative definitions of dormancy have suggested themselves. When I refer to the definition of dormancy, I am referring to the time period over which an account has to be left untouched before it can be transferred from the bank's revenue to the central reclaim fund. The Bill declares that period to be 15 years, as per clause 11(1)(a). I would like to ask the Minister why exactly a 15-year period was selected.

In the consultation, the Commission on Unclaimed Assets appeared to recognise that time period as provident, as

"it best recognised the accounts which were dormant".

However, that explanation appears to be little more than a reformulation of the question, rather than a genuine answer to it; indeed, it is a tautology. A similar explanation was used by the Government in response to the Treasury Committee's recommendation that 15 years be reduced to 10 years. Can the Minister today shed any further light on those two explanations? I was pleased to hear that, as the Chief Secretary said, the Government will apparently support a possible change in the definition somewhere down the line. However, 15 years is too long, and can be proven to be too long now.

Given the protection of individual funds, which I praised so highly at the start of my speech, I am confused as to why we should need such a long definition when the money is not going to disappear. The money is there, and people who have the information can go to their bank and the reclaim fund and get their money back, regardless of the time period. I would have thought that there was a case for a differential definition, so that if we are talking about an investment account, the period should be 10 years, and if we are talking about a current account, the period should perhaps be three years. There are international precedents for using a sliding scale, which is one of the ways in which a dormant bank account is defined in the United States.

I have two further points—I am sorry that I am taking up so much of the House's time, but as you can probably tell, Mr. Deputy Speaker, I have been looking into the issue for a long time. The first point is about the mechanism used to allow people to reclaim their dormant funds. The British Bankers Association and the Building Societies Association have set up a central tracking website, as well as a central tracking form. That request for information will then be circulated around various banks and building societies, which will check their records to see whether any names match, in the hope of locating any dormant accounts. That is a great move forward, although one that has happened only in the past few years—the banks and building societies seemed to be quite happy before the prospect of legislation. That view is echoed in early-day motion 1581, which stands in the name of my right hon. Friend John McFall, and the idea seems preferable in most respects.

Secondly, the Government have thus far rejected the notion of a central register, claiming that it would have vast repercussions for the bank-customer relationship. That point is not without merit and there is no doubt that we should act with caution before impacting on such a contractual arrangement. However, I would like the Chief Secretary to say exactly what she considers the danger of such a centrally held register to be. Surely it would be formed with a minimum of information. Names of account holders and funds would be the only two details originally required. If the reclaim fund is a secure database, I struggle to see what threat is posed by such a register. I am sure that other hon. Members will talk about the issue later and it is right that it should be covered in more depth. However, I felt that I should at least offer my support to the cause, as I believe it to be a good cause and one worthy of championing.

Let me make one final point—again, it has already been made, but it is worth repeating. The Bill is a good start. It is not, as an infamous US politician once declared, a case of "mission accomplished". Instead, the Bill is the moment when the mission really begins. The fight to stop private interests from writing off billions of pounds of assets into their profit margins has now been taken up in the limited instance of bank accounts, but it has yet to find a legislative champion when the practice rears its ugly head in different forms, some of which have already been mentioned. To name just three, unclaimed insurance policies, unclaimed pension policies and unclaimed gambling winnings are examples of where private interests are winning out. The Bill is not the right place for those issues; I mention them to remind the Minister of the continuing work and legislation still required in this field, which I am sure she will acknowledge.

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