New Clause 1 — Register of dormant accounts

Orders of the Day – in the House of Commons at 4:30 pm on 3rd November 2008.

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'(1) The Treasury may make such regulations as are necessary for the establishment, maintenance and operation of a register of dormant account funds ("the register").

(2) The regulations made under subsection (1) shall provide for—

(a) particulars relating to the dormant account to be entered into the register;

(b) arrangements to allow any registered charity to enquire of the registrar whether the register includes an account in the name of a deceased individual from whom the charity might expect to benefit;

(c) arrangements to allow any registered charity to be able to trace an account or accounts at any one time; and

(d) other particulars as may be prescribed by the Treasury.

(3) Before making any regulations under subsection (1), the Treasury shall consult—

(a) such persons as are likely to be affected by those regulations; and

(b) such persons as the Treasury considers appropriate.

(4) Regulations made under subsection (1)—

(a) may make different provision for different cases; and

(b) may contain such incidental, supplemental, consequential and transitional provision as the Secretary of State thinks fit.

(5) The power to make regulations under subsection (1) is exercisable by statutory instrument.

(6) No regulations may be made under subsection (1) unless a draft of the statutory instrument containing the regulations has been laid before, and approved by a resolution of, each House of Parliament.'.— [Mr. Jeremy Browne.]

Brought up, and read the First time.

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Photo of Jeremy Browne Jeremy Browne Shadow Minister (Treasury)

I beg to move, That the clause be read a Second time.

As the Bill has commanded cross-party support throughout its progress, it might, in keeping with that spirit, be worth my drawing attention before I discuss the substance of the new clause to the distinguished list of Members from all parties who are signatories to it. They include the deputy leader of my party, my hon. Friend Dr. Cable, and the Chairman of the Treasury Committee, John McFall, whose report on unclaimed assets recommended that a reserve power to create a register be included in the Government's proposals, which is precisely the purpose of the new clause.

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Photo of Rob Marris Rob Marris PPS (Rt Hon Shaun Woodward, Secretary of State), Northern Ireland Office

The hon. Gentleman was referring to the hon. Members who were signatories to the new clause. The amendment paper lists six names, so I am curious as to why it also says that the total number of signatories is seven. Who is the seventh?

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Photo of Jeremy Browne Jeremy Browne Shadow Minister (Treasury)

I do not know; there are so many wise Members in this House, of all different parties, that the list could include hundreds. I can only speculate that those who have not signed have not been sufficiently attentive to notice that the new clause was there to be signed, because anyone who had had the opportunity to sign it would have taken that chance.

The new clause was signed not only by the widely respected deputy leader of my party, but by hon. Members from all three main parties in this House, including the Chairman of the Treasury Committee, the right hon. Member for West Dunbartonshire. The Committee's report on unclaimed assets recommended that a reserve power to create a register be included in the Government's proposals. The right hon. Gentleman was also primary sponsor of early-day motion 1581, which I, too, have signed, along with other hon. and right hon. Members. It calls for a reserve power to create a register if reunification efforts prove insufficient. That is the nub of the matter, and I shall address it in due course.

The new clause was also signed by Dr. Gibson, chairman of the all-party group on cancer, and by two Conservatives, Miss Kirkbride, who I believe used to be a vice-chairman of that group, and Mr. Walker, who was a member of our Public Bill Committee. It was also signed by the Member who has perhaps devoted more time and effort to considering dormant bank accounts than any other—Mr. Jones. He, too, has expressed support for a reserve power for a register, and did so on Second Reading and in Committee.

In summary, unlike the other new clauses that we have discussed this afternoon, this measure is supported by Members from all three parties; it is doubtless supported by Members from other parties too. That is because the intentions behind it are entirely laudable, and it would help the House if I were to provide a small amount of background. We are concerned with the ability of charities to access legacies, which are a vital strand of the income of charitable organisations. The Building Societies Association and the British Bankers Association have estimated that up to £500 million is sitting in dormant accounts, but that estimate is disputed—there are a range of views as to how much money will be realised as and when this Bill becomes law. Some think that the sum may be as high as £5 billion, so we are talking about a large sum.

It is worth setting out a few facts for the House to give context on unclaimed funds and the impact on the charitable sector. One in seven people leave legacy gifts to charity, and those average 5 per cent. of their total estate. The Institute of Fundraising estimates that legacies accounted for 36.3 per cent.—more than a third—of the voluntary income received by charities in 2007, and that that totalled £1.6 billion.

Let us consider the impact that those legacies have on specific well-known charities. Some 46 per cent., or almost half, of the British Heart Foundation's voluntary income came from legacies last year, as did 33 per cent. of Cancer Research UK's voluntary income, totalling £135 million. This is not controversial; hon. Members on both sides of the House understand how important it is for the charitable sector that legacies can be realised, because they form a vital part of their funding. This country has an extremely healthy charitable sector. Many charities in Europe caring and catering for people afflicted by illness or other circumstances look enviously at the British charitable sector, because it raises more money, and employs and deploys more people, for charitable causes than those in many comparable countries. We are very well served by our charitable sector, and it is important to ensure that it can access the funds that it requires and that were intended for it by people in their legacies.

In the view of many in the charitable sector, charities cannot adequately locate legacies left in dormant accounts. In that regard, everyone welcomes the industry's main initiative: the website, which allows any person or charity to search online using basic information. That facility has been useful to many people, but nevertheless a feeling remains that it is not sufficient and that some charities will be unable to access the money intended for them.

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Photo of Rob Marris Rob Marris PPS (Rt Hon Shaun Woodward, Secretary of State), Northern Ireland Office

I am listening very closely to the hon. Gentleman; I understand his logic, but why does the new clause not refer to executors or administrators of estates? It is they who would be seeking to fulfil a bequest made, for example, by a deceased person in their will to the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, of which I am a member. In such a situation, the RSPCA would have a vested interest in accessing any money due to it from the estate and in ensuring, if it could, that the estate had sufficient funds. However, surely that is primarily the duty of the executor or administrator. Should the register not advert to them rather than to registered charities?

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Photo of Jeremy Browne Jeremy Browne Shadow Minister (Treasury)

The hon. Gentleman makes a reasonable point about where the emphasis should lie. If the new clause does not cater for that point sufficiently, it is because it was inspired by representations from many charities keen for progress to be made.

In Committee, I tabled an amendment to create a reserve power allowing a register of dormant accounts to be set up in the triennial report, if the scheme's reuniting practices were found to be inadequate, but the Government were reluctant to accept that reporting requirement. However, Government new clause 3 introduced a mechanism allowing for a one-off report after three years to consider how the legislation has worked out. New clause 1 is particularly appropriate given the adoption of Government new clause 3. If the report were to find that the ability to reunite charitable organisations with legacies intended for them is inadequate, new clause 1 would be all the more valuable.

In the Lords, an amendment to introduce a reserve power to create a register was narrowly defeated—this takes me to the crux of new clause 1. It had been argued that it was desirable for individuals to be able to access a register to find moneys that were rightfully theirs. Concerns were expressed, although representations were made that those concerns were unfounded, that a database that was drawn so widely and accessed by a large number of people might cause problems. New clause 1 has been drawn much more tightly to take account of those concerns.

New clause 1 seeks to give the Treasury the reserved power to create a register to allow registered charities—not any organisation, but registered charities—to search for legacies left to them. Under subsection (2)(b), the register would be regulated by a registrar. Under subsection (2)(c), the search would be conducted across all dormant accounts that were registered. Subsection (2)(d) would provide the Treasury with flexibility to include other stipulations as it saw fit, and require it to consult those who were likely to be affected.

That is the essence of the proposal. I know that some concerns have been expressed, not least by the Conservative party, about whether a register would infringe people's rightful expectations about data protection. I take those concerns seriously, because I share them. However, the advice that I have heard—other Members have received these representations, too—is that the new clause tabled by me and supported by Members of all three main parties would, as worded, not cause undue concern in that regard. The charities would have limited access to information and data that they would find useful in trying to access the legacy money that I described, which is essential to them, but people's rightful expectations of privacy would not be infringed. Crucially—this is, in a way, a concession made by me and by others who share my view—that access would be restricted to registered charities only.

Some people have particular concerns. The United States, Canada and Ireland, as I understand it, all have registers as part of their dormant bank accounts initiatives, which have not been found to be susceptible to fraud and have not given rise to the type of concerns that some might have about the proposal in new clause 1. As to experience from abroad, the concession that has been made in terms of limiting charities' access to the register is an attempt to find the common ground that has typified most of our deliberations on the Bill.

I hope that for all those reasons, as well as our collective desire for charities not only to raise as much money as possible but to raise money that was intended for them and for the causes that they wish to pursue, the new clause will be looked on sympathetically by Members from both sides of the House, and might even become part of the legislation.

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Photo of Martyn Jones Martyn Jones Labour, Clwyd South 5:00 pm, 3rd November 2008

I shall not detain the House for long, but I wanted to point out why I put my name to the new clause. One of the main tenets of the Bill is to encourage people to get their money back—to get as much as of this money as possible back to its original owners and to those who are entitled to it. They include those whose wills have lost contact with their bank accounts and so on. It should ensure that those who should have the money have the money. One of the best ways to do that, as has been seen throughout the world in all the other many countries that have such legislation, is to have a centralised register. That is so much easier than having to tout data around all the different banks and building societies.

If there is a central register that people know about, the process is much easier. I know that we have, but I do not see why the Government should set their face against the new clause, which would be an added benefit for people who have lost contact with their money. It would also mean that not many more data were flying around. At the moment, those data have to be put into whatever other process has to be gone through, and sent around to various different organisations. There cannot be so much risk of data falling into the wrong hands. I wish that the Minister would reconsider the issue at this late stage and try to accept the new clause.

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Photo of Charles Walker Charles Walker Conservative, Broxbourne

If I have any concern about the Bill, this is one of the areas that I am most concerned about. We recognise in the House that charities derive a significant amount of their income from legacies, and the fact is that the Bill does not make adequate provision to ensure that that is adequately reflected when the money in dormant building society accounts is divvied up.

I have added my name to the new clause almost in a probing way, because I would very much like the Government to accept that part of the large sums of money that we are talking about could make a significant difference to the funding of charities in this country. If 5 per cent. of legacies goes to charities, it would not be unreasonable for the Bill to reflect that by having 5 per cent. of the dormant bank and building society accounts fund set aside to be distributed to the charitable sector. I appreciate that, in going to the Big Lottery Fund, the money will go to good causes or to a good cause, but that is a very specific allocation.

I have listened to the arguments of a coalition of charities, and I am very sensitive and alive to them. In particular, the money that will be set aside from dormant bank and building society accounts could make a huge difference to less well-funded charities. Many popular charities do not struggle to secure funding and charitable giving, but a number of very worthy charities find it very difficult to raise funds, because they do not have the infrastructure or do not strike the same chord with the public.

I will not try your patience, Madam Deputy Speaker, by going through a range of the charities that struggle for funds, but I point out that mental health charities, for example, find it very difficult to raise funds. I go to many sporting events and see sporting teams wearing pink for breast cancer, which is an honourable and noble thing to do, but I see very few sporting teams wearing something to help to raise funds for the mentally ill, and I should like more of them to do so.

If I could prevail on the Government, I would say, "Please look at this." We are talking about hundreds of millions of pounds. Would it not be possible to go away, rethink and ask officials, "Couldn't we set aside 5 per cent. of the fund in a mechanism that would enable it to be distributed to the charitable sector?" That would find favour among many charities and among many of our constituents as well.

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Photo of Rob Marris Rob Marris PPS (Rt Hon Shaun Woodward, Secretary of State), Northern Ireland Office

I support the concept of a register, for some of the reasons set out. We could be doing many things to tighten data protection. For example, Wolverhampton city council has no port for a memory stick on many of its computers, so there is no chance of a memory stick with information on it going missing, because a memory stick cannot be plugged in.

We are focusing on charities in the new clause. Although that focus is extremely worth while—I very much support what has been said about charities—it is too narrow, because individuals who should inherit money from dormant bank accounts could not do so, because of the regulations envisaged in the new clause. Charities could do so, as one class of beneficiary, but not individuals. That takes us on to a little background on what happens on someone's death, which some hon. Members might not be aware of—I am; I was a solicitor before I entered the House.

For shorthand, I will refer to executors, rather than referring in the legal way to executors and executrices and administrators and administratices, because that confuses people. In everyday terms, when someone dies without a will, administrators are appointed to deal with the estate. If someone dies with a will, executors are appointed. However, there will be a grant of letters of administration on intestacy or a grant of probate if someone dies with a valid will. However, for the sake of argument, let us simplify and say that those who deal with the estate are executors.

The executors will distribute the money of which they are aware in accordance with the deceased's wishes if there is a will and in accordance with the law of intestacy if there is no will. If someone dies intestate and there is no beneficiary at all, the estate goes bona vacantia, which is referred to in the explanatory notes and means that the Crown gets it.

If someone dies with a will and leaves a bequest to a charity in it, the charity should get the money. However, there may not be enough money in the estate, or it may be that the charity is the residuary beneficiary. For example, the will might say, "I leave all my furniture to my kids, and everything else I've got goes to the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals." The RSPCA is then the residuary beneficiary, and gets everything that is left over after the furniture has gone to the kids. That residuary sum will be higher if there is a dormant bank account that can be brought back in to swell the estate. The RSPCA, in the example that I gave, would then get more.

The difficulty with the wording of new clause 1, worthy as it is, is that it focuses only on charities. Let us say that someone dies and leaves several bequests in their will, which is quite common; often they leave a specific bequest of a named sum to a charity, and the residuary beneficiaries are their children. In that situation, the residuary beneficiaries may not get all that they are entitled to if they did not know that their deceased parent had a dormant bank account that had been swept into the reclaim fund, but that could come out of it if they ever found out about the account.

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Photo of David Taylor David Taylor Labour, North West Leicestershire

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for imparting his professional knowledge to the House. Could he go a little further and say whether there is any legal obligation imposed on executors and administrators to conduct a reasonably thorough search for less obvious assets, such as dormant accounts, that the deceased may have left?

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Photo of Rob Marris Rob Marris PPS (Rt Hon Shaun Woodward, Secretary of State), Northern Ireland Office

My hon. Friend has an accountancy background, not a legal background, but he is absolutely right to use the term, "a reasonably thorough search". Executors have to take reasonable steps; they do not have to search to the ends of the earth to find assets that might be brought into the estate and distributed in accordance with the law on intestacy, or the wishes of the deceased.

That brings me neatly to my point about the way in which the new clause is framed. It does not do what I—and, I suspect, those who tabled it—would like it to do. It focuses on charity, for obvious reasons, but there is a simpler way of doing things. I preface my remarks by saying that I think that there should be a register. There is a body that hands out grants of probate. One applies to it, shows it that there is a valid will, and that one is the executor and so on, and one gets a nice, stamped document back with "grant of probate" on the top. It has the name of the executor on it, and the name of the deceased, whose estate the executor is going to sort out. I cannot remember the body's name, because it is a quarter of a century since I did such work. When that body—I think that it is a court of some sort—acceded to a request for a grant of probate and sent out that grant of probate, it could check a register to see whether the deceased had any dormant bank accounts. It could then let the executors know. If there was a dormant bank account, the executor could get the money back from the reclaim fund and use it to increase the value of the estate. Those who were entitled to distribution from that estate, be they individuals or charities, would then get more money.

Let us have a register, but it would be much simpler if the court that hands out grants of probate could simply check that register—that would, to some extent, deal with data protection issues—and inform the executors that it knew that there was a dormant bank account, because it had found the name on the register. That would be a much simpler way of doing things. It would benefit charities, which is what those who tabled the new clause admirably wish to do, and benefit others.

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Photo of Mark Hoban Mark Hoban Shadow Minister (Treasury)

New clause 1 clearly shows that there has been some movement on the issue since we debated it in Committee. I am not entirely clear from the speech given by Mr. Browne how he expects the register to work in practice. For example, it is not clear whether we are talking about a voluntary register, which would go with the grain of the scheme envisaged in the Bill, or a compulsory register, to which banks and building societies would have to sign up. That is an important distinction to draw. As I mentioned, the scheme in the Bill is voluntary; banks and building societies have the right to opt into it. All the arrangements are predicated on that basis. I am not entirely clear whether the hon. Gentleman would require banks and building societies to put this information on a register and therefore convert the scheme from a voluntary to a compulsory scheme. He may wish to intervene to clarify that.

I think that we all accept that charities want to maximise their income from legacies, and there is a set of circumstances in which they are not in a position to do so because they do not have the right to access the "mylostaccount" website, which is the portal that has been used to allow individuals to search for dormant bank, building society and NS&I accounts. It is not clear to me whether the hon. Gentleman expects that voluntary scheme to be superseded by his register. He did not talk about the interaction between the two processes and whether for charities the compulsory or voluntary register would supersede that scheme. He touched on my objection in Committee about the confidentiality of information, although I do not think that he has gone as far as I would have liked him to have done to reassure us. Just because it is a registered charity that has access to the register, that does not necessarily act as a tight limit on the number of people who could access that information. We need to be careful that we do not provide a window that people will use to commit fraud or to go on fishing expeditions for personal information. I do not think that the assurances that he gave dealt with that point.

The other important aspect that the hon. Gentleman did not touch upon is how much this will cost. We are being asked to establish a register for charities, which could be an expensive process. It would require banks to put data away to enable them to transfer it across to the register and there would be a registrar who would look after the register, which would have to be updated regularly and made available. There would be systems costs, input costs and data protection costs. One of the merits of the current scheme is that it should be a relatively lower-cost operation compared with a compulsory scheme, because every extra pound that is spent on administration is a pound less for the good causes specified later in the Bill. I am concerned that we have had no explanation of the cost of the scheme. The hon. Gentleman may return to that in winding up; I do not know. Perhaps his opening speech was just a warm-up for his conclusion.

The question is whether this is a remedy proportionate to the potential loss that charities face. Part of the problem is that we do not have a sense of how much money is at stake here for charities. No hon. Member would want to see a disproportionate solution being proposed to the concern that charities will lose out as a consequence of the Bill because they will not have the power to search for bequests.

It is helpful to note that the British Bankers Association has offered to work with the charities to try to identify the scale of the problem. That would enable the charitable sector, the banks and the Treasury to determine whether there is a significant problem that needs to be tackled. That could be picked up formally through new clause 3(1)(b) which states that the Treasury can review

"the effectiveness of the efforts made by financial institutions to secure that those entitled to the money in inactive accounts are made aware of the fact."

It would fall within that new clause to check whether charities are losing out and by how much, and therefore to determine what action can be taken to improve the flow of money through to charities. There is a strong argument that the charitable sector may lose access to funds as a consequence of the arrangements in the Bill, but I have yet to be convinced that the hon. Gentleman's proposed mechanism would be a proportionate response to the problem, and that it would contain adequate safeguards. There is a risk that, actually, it would undermine the voluntary nature of the Bill, and that the cost of operating the scheme would be such that it would reduce the amount of money to be made available to other good causes.

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Photo of Ian Pearson Ian Pearson Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Department for Business, Enterprise & Regulatory Reform, Economic Secretary, HM Treasury 5:15 pm, 3rd November 2008

New clause 1 proposes giving the Government a power to establish a central register and to put in place specific arrangements regarding charitable legacies. The Government share several of the concerns expressed by Mr. Hoban. I was disappointed that he did not want to accept new clause 3, but it seems that, on new clause 1, we are thinking along similar lines. We debated the issues at length in Committee in the light of a similar amendment, and I am happy to set out our strong belief in the importance of effective reuniting arrangements and our commitment to ensuring a scheme that is effective, transparent and, above all, fair for consumers, and our legitimate concerns about the implications of the new clause for consumers and for human rights.

I recognise the position of some representatives of the charitable sector, including the Unclaimed Assets Charity Coalition, and I welcome its contribution to the debate and pay tribute to its valuable work. All parts of the House share a commitment to ensuring that charities get money that is rightfully theirs. Naturally, I welcome all constructive suggestions about how industry reuniting arrangements might be further improved, and I should welcome discussions between the British Bankers Association, the Building Societies Association and the charities to see what more can be done.

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Photo of Charles Walker Charles Walker Conservative, Broxbourne

I know that this issue was gone over in Committee and in another place, but is the Minister aware that charities are concerned that, in effect, they will be cut out of the loop and lose 5 per cent.—potentially—of the legacies in the dormant bank and building society account fund? Would it not be better for 5 per cent. of the fund to be earmarked for distribution to charities? Is it not something that the Minister might consider at this late stage?

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Photo of Ian Pearson Ian Pearson Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Department for Business, Enterprise & Regulatory Reform, Economic Secretary, HM Treasury

I heard the hon. Gentleman make that suggestion in his contribution, and if he feels that strongly about it, I am surprised that he has not tabled an appropriate amendment for discussion today.

Naturally, we welcome all constructive suggestions about how relationships can be improved, and my understanding of the charities movement is that, yes, it has some concerns. It wants to continue putting pressure on banks and building societies to do all they can to ensure that there are simpler arrangements so that the movement can get its rightful money. However, I must stress that, as my hon. Friend Rob Marris pointed out, the issue is not just about charities. The key question is, how do we ensure that the rightful owners of dormant accounts are reunited with their property so that only genuinely dormant accounts are transferred to the scheme? The proposals are right and fair for customers, because, after all, it is their money. Whether it involves the estates of deceased persons, or individuals who have simply forgotten where they have put their money, both have similar rights, and we must continue to focus on reuniting them with the property that is rightly theirs.

The Government welcome the commitment of the banks and building societies to a major reunification exercise in the run-up to the scheme becoming operational, and, in particular, we welcome the launch by the British Bankers Association, the Building Societies Association and National Savings & Investments of the "mylostaccount" website in January, to which Members have already referred. Almost 190,000 people have already used this free cross-industry service to reunite themselves with tens of millions of pounds. We welcome the commitment of individual institutions to institution-by-institution efforts to reunite. We have seen the fruits of that through high-profile efforts by HBOS, Lloyds TSB, HSBC and Nationwide.

My strong advice to individuals who think that they might have a bank, building society or national savings account or premium bonds of which they have lost track is that they should go to The service is free; people tap in their basic information—name and current and previous addresses—and can make multiple searches for free. If people are owed money from such accounts, they can find where it is and get access to it. They need not go to commercial fee-charging services for the privilege; the process is simple.

The "mylostaccount" website already allows executors, nominated representatives and even beneficiaries of wills to conduct searches for lost accounts. Executors can ensure that anyone or any institution, including charities, due legacy income from moneys in dormant accounts receives their entitlement. I would expect an executor, as part of the reasonable steps that they should take, to go to the minimal trouble of visiting the website, feeding in basic information and checking whether any money of which they are not aware is due to the relevant heirs and successors. That would be an eminently reasonable and proportionate step for executors to take.

The current arrangements are working and will continue to be effective in allowing people to be reunited with their money. We will, of course, keep the matter under review; the review clause on which we voted a few moments ago will include a review of the effectiveness of reuniting arrangements, so the issue will not be forgotten. However, I should like to repeat the concerns that I set out in Committee about a register and the power to introduce one. First, it is important to recognise that financial institutions must respect the confidentiality of the information that they hold about their customers. Transferring such information to a central source would in effect require banks to breach that confidentiality; it is difficult to see how that would be compatible with the framework of current UK law on confidential information and data protection, and it would raise human rights issues. I am not saying that it would be impossible to do that but, as the hon. Member for Fareham suggested, it would raise significant issues about the overall design of the scheme. Mr. Browne said that other countries had similar schemes, but obviously he is aware that other countries have compulsory schemes, whereas we are proposing a voluntary scheme.

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Photo of Ian Pearson Ian Pearson Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Department for Business, Enterprise & Regulatory Reform, Economic Secretary, HM Treasury

The hon. Gentleman has just walked in; if he sits down and is patient, I might give way to him in a moment.

Let me just make this basic point: other countries have compulsory schemes and their registration schemes are part of that. If we had a registration scheme, a number of issues would be raised. How would the register be enforced and monitored? What would be the legal penalties for non-compliance? Those major issues would have to be dealt with through additional primary legislation, so we could not take such a step lightly. Furthermore, significant amounts of data would be moving to a different system. At the moment, individuals can interrogate the current banking system, with all its firewalls for confidentiality, through the "mylostaccount" website. Having a registration scheme would mean that all the personal information of the depositors of accounts worth about £400 million to £500 million would have to be transferred to a registrar who would operate a new scheme, and that would raise serious data protection issues. As the hon. Member for Fareham suggested, it would also raise significant cost issues by placing a significant administrative burden on the scheme.

Fundamentally, I do not believe that we as a Government should be taking the reserve powers suggested by the hon. Member for Taunton, which are not necessary. Nor are they desirable, because they would challenge the fundamentally voluntary nature of the scheme, raise serious data protection and confidentiality issues and, in the view of some people, raise concerns about the potential for fraud. Including these powers in legislation would not be a good use of parliamentary time. They would have significant implications for future primary legislation, because they could not be created by this provision alone but would require further clauses to be inserted into this Bill or, probably, an extensive consultation period and a completely new additional Bill. For those reasons, I invite hon. Members to oppose new clause 1.

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Photo of Jeremy Browne Jeremy Browne Shadow Minister (Treasury) 5:30 pm, 3rd November 2008

I wish to follow up on a few points from our short debate on new clause 1.

Rob Marris asked who were the magnificent seven who put their names to the new clause. I will run through them: my hon. Friend Dr. Cable, John McFall, and the hon. Members for Norwich, North (Dr. Gibson), for Clwyd, South (Mr. Jones), for Broxbourne (Mr. Walker) and for Bromsgrove (Miss Kirkbride). I have obviously missed out myself as an important signatory, but I notice from the amendment paper that it is in fact the hon. Member for Bromsgrove who is missing. We are both no doubt pleased to have our names attached, but that is a matter for the record, and I will turn to the more substantial points.

Genuine and reasonable concerns have been raised about the confidentiality of the information about account holders. Charities would search against the register using their name, date of birth and last known address, so any match would allow them only to contact the financial institution to undertake a claim in the normal fashion. They would not be giving out reams of information about the bank account holder in the way that some Members fear. I reiterate that this has been tried and tested in other countries, where those fears have not been borne out.

I was asked whether the scheme would be voluntary. I suppose that, going with the grain of the Bill as a whole, that is likely to be the case. However, it would, to some extent, be voluntary in name only, because most of the institutions, with regard to the Bill as a whole, feel a degree of compulsion to be involved with the scheme, even if it is a moral rather than a legislative compulsion. I remind Members that the first line of the new clause says:

"The Treasury may make regulations as are necessary for the establishment, maintenance and operation of a register of dormant account funds".

It would not compel anybody to do anything, but it would provide that facility.

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Photo of Charles Walker Charles Walker Conservative, Broxbourne

Does the hon. Gentleman accept that a register may well be complicated, and that if the Government do not like that complication, then why not, instead of giving the Big Lottery Fund 100 per cent. of the moneys contained in the dormant bank or building society account held by a third party, give it 95 per cent. and earmark 5 per cent. for distribution to charities?

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Photo of Jeremy Browne Jeremy Browne Shadow Minister (Treasury)

That is an interesting alternative suggestion. Although it is not contained in the new clause, I imagine that the hon. Gentleman shares my concern about trying to ensure that the money intended for charities reaches them to the maximum degree.

I was asked whether this provision would be additional and complementary to the website or would replace it. I think that it could and should be complementary.

Points were raised about the cost. There would be a cost but, as the hon. Member for Broxbourne implied, there is currently a cost to the charities, who fear that they may not be united with money that was intended for them. Of course there would be an administrative burden if we were to set up a register, but one would hope that the total amount of money realised for charities would exceed the cost of administering the scheme many times over.

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Photo of Rob Marris Rob Marris PPS (Rt Hon Shaun Woodward, Secretary of State), Northern Ireland Office

In his opening remarks, the hon. Gentleman said that there were compulsory registers in Ireland and Canada. Can he give us an indication of the cost of running those registers, by way of comparison?

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Photo of Jeremy Browne Jeremy Browne Shadow Minister (Treasury)

No, because I do not have that information available. Ireland, for example, has a far smaller population than ours—it is about 5, 6 or 7 per cent. the size of that of the UK—so there would be difficulties in making a direct comparison. There may be economies of scale in running such a scheme in a country with a much larger population, such as our own. The parallels are not absolute in that the scheme in the new clause is voluntary. My earlier point was that Canadian and Irish residents are similarly concerned about data being used appropriately, but as far as I am aware, that process has not proven to be a great problem in those countries.

In conclusion, under the House's decision to adopt new clause 3, a provision has been made for a review. It seems appropriate to those in my party that the Treasury take on that power. It may have a register—it is under no obligation to do so, but that would be a reasonable part of any review that the Treasury can decide to have, thanks to the earlier vote. We are seeking to complement the process, and go in the same direction as the Government. Overwhelmingly, we are putting forward the voice of the charitable sector, which has made many representations to us, and is broadly supportive of the new clause. On that basis, I ask hon. Members to support it.

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Question put, That the clause be read a Second time:—

The House divided: Ayes 36, Noes 245.

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Division number 307 Orders of the Day — New Clause 1 — Register of dormant accounts

Aye: 36 MPs

No: 245 MPs

Ayes: A-Z by last name


Nos: A-Z by last name


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Question accordingly negatived.

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