Dormant Bank and Building Society Accounts Bill [Lords]

Part of Orders of the Day – in the House of Commons at 7:36 pm on 6th October 2008.

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Photo of Charles Walker Charles Walker Conservative, Broxbourne 7:36 pm, 6th October 2008

It is wonderful to be back after a long summer recess, and thank God we are back. Let us look at what happens when the House goes into recess for 10 weeks: Russia goes to war, there is a global banking crisis, stock markets are routed and inflation hits 5 per cent. The nation can breathe more easily now, because we are back. Parliament is back and those troubles will be quickly put behind us.

Let me make a serious point. When we started the debate a number of people asked whether, given the problems in the financial and banking sectors, this was the right time to have the debate and whether we should not focus on more important and pressing matters. On reflection, this probably is the right time to have the debate. We cannot allow the ongoing banking crisis to dominate everything we do in our political lives, because the world goes on. I am more than happy to have this debate today.

The fact that we have to raise such concerns about whether we should be having the debate is testament to the fact that we have an incompetent banking sector that has overextended itself in a number of ways with other people's money—a bit like the Government, in fact, although it would be churlish to continue down that line. Every cloud has a silver lining, though. When I left here in July, as a politician I belonged to the most hated profession in the country. I came back as a member of the second most hated profession in the country, because we have been replaced by investment bankers. I am slightly grateful for that.

Let me be serious. It is important to recognise that the money that we are discussing does not belong to the banks. It is deposited in banks at the moment but it belongs to people who have forgotten that it belongs to them, who have died or who have simply failed to use their bank account for a number of years. I recall at least one building society account and one bank account from my early teens that I no longer use. One is with Barclays and one with the Chelsea building society, but there is not a lot of money in either—there was, I think, about £10 in each one when I last looked 30 years ago.

We need to discuss sensible measures for the long-term use of this money. I have been slightly confused by the numbers discussed today. Some people have said that the figure is £500 million, while my hon. Friend Mr. Binley told us that The Sun had scandalously said that it could be £1 billion. My researcher said that it is somewhere between £15 billion and £20 billion, according to the unclaimed assets register in 2007. I am sure that he has a great future as an investment banker, taking £1 and leveraging it 30 or 40 times. However, a vast sum is involved, and perhaps a lot of the money on the unclaimed asset register lies in different places outside people's bank accounts.

There is a good argument to return the money to the community. I am sure that local communities can put it to better use than the banks can. My word, if they could not do that, they would be in trouble. With the greatest respect, they can probably put it to better use than the Government can. As one of my hon. Friends pointed out, the Government spend £500 billion or £600 billion a year, so even if the sum is £1 billion or £2 billion at the high end, it is but a fraction of what the Government spend. Nevertheless, it is still an enormous sum that can make a great deal of difference to a huge number of people.

Of course, I would very much like young people to benefit from that cash. We have a number of issues with youngsters, many of whom are absolutely wonderful members of the community, but many of whom need a good deal more time and care spent on them to ensure that they have the opportunity to live out happy years as youngsters and to grow up into productive members of society. Many organisations—the Sea Scouts, the Scouts, the cadet forces and so on—do wonderful things with young people and have a proven template that works, and they could put the money to good use. Many community facilities could receive investment. Young people have lots of energy that they want to get rid of, and that energy needs to be channelled. A number of boxing clubs around the country struggle for funding, year on year, but they are very good at diverting youngsters from the street and possibly from a life of crime. All those things are good.

A number of hon. Members have also pointed out that charities have some claim to the money. It would be fantastic if some of the money went to hard-pressed charities. After all, about one in seven people make a bequest to charity in their wills. Of course, the cancer charities, such as Cancer Research UK, do a fantastic job. They help tens of thousands of families, and they raise tens of millions of pounds to alleviate suffering and find new cures. However, on the whole, cancer charities are well funded; they have high levels of public awareness. Now, in the run-up to world mental health day, it would be wonderful if some of the less glamorous charities that struggle to secure funding could find a way to access the money. I leave that with the Minister to reflect on.

I served on the Committee that considered the National Lottery Bill and went for the Big Lottery Fund. I have met representatives of the Big Lottery Fund, which is full of bright, capable people, but I am not sure whether "big" is the right word to use; it is a sort of slightly smaller and ever-shrinking lottery fund. Trade descriptions officers would probably have a few concerns about the use of the word "big". It is a bit like buying cereal at discount retailer. It is very cheap, but it is called luxury cereal to make it look attractive. The Big Lottery Fund is being rather over-egged as a vehicle to deliver the money. Too much of what the fund does involves replacing expenditure that should come from the Government.

I would be extremely concerned if the money just went to fund more things that should be funded by central Government. My constituents in Broxbourne, like those of my hon. Friend the Member for Northampton, South, would be very concerned to think that money, which could make a once-in-a-generation difference to young people in their community and to charities that serve their community, was somehow siphoned off to fund expenditure and projects that most people think the Government should fund. Again, I have tried to raise that issue in a non-partisan way, and I hope that the Government will take that concern on board.

I should just like to have a little dig at the banks—why not? I would be foolish to let this opportunity pass, to be honest. To be fair, we have heard a lot of Members say today, quite rightly, that the banks have been good at tracking down the people whose accounts have fallen into disuse and repatriating the money to the original depositors, but it took the banks rather a long time to get to that stage. We wonder what they have been doing for the previous 20 or 30 years.

I might have heard wrong, but I understand that some of the money may go towards making people financially literate—educating them about bank accounts and borrowing—and the banks have a lot to fear from that. They have made a huge sum over the past 10 years by playing off people's lack of financial literacy. They have ruthlessly pushed self-certification mortgages and people borrowing far more than they can pay back—five or six times their earnings—and they should hang their heads in shame. Of course, we must all take responsibility when we borrow money, but the banks have been pretty shabby in their behaviour.

Finally—I hope that this point does not take me out of the bounds of the Bill, Madam Deputy Speaker—the banks simply refuse to serve many communities. They have no interest in serving them, because they do not believe that there is any profit in doing so. We have heard that banking is a low-margin business. Banking is not a low-margin business. The margins in banking are very good, and one has only to look at the banks' profits to realise that that is the case. The reason investment banks are in trouble is that they got very greedy, and a number of retail banks got very greedy as well. If the money goes towards educating people about the risks of over-extending themselves, that is a good thing. If that has an impact on the banks' ability to make profits from the most vulnerable people in our society, that is an even better thing.

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