New Clause 1 - Authorised reclaim funds: duty to assess and report

Part of Dormant Assets Bill [Lords] – in the House of Commons at 8:00 pm on 31st January 2022.

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Photo of Alex Davies-Jones Alex Davies-Jones Shadow Minister (Digital, Culture, Media and Sport) 8:00 pm, 31st January 2022

I rise to speak to new clause 1 in my name and that of my hon. Friend Jeff Smith. As the Bill has moved through this House and the other place, I have been pleased by the progress that has been made, although there is still work to be done to ensure that dormant assets are distributed and governed effectively. Colleagues will be aware that the Bill will expand the current dormant assets scheme, which was first introduced by a Labour Government in 2008. The Government define dormant assets as a financial product, such as a bank account, that has not been used for many years and which the provider has been unable to reunite with its owner, despite efforts aligned with industry best practice.

In 2008, the Dormant Bank and Building Society Accounts Act was passed to provide a system to distribute dormant assets to good causes. Currently, 24 banks and building societies participate in the reclaim fund scheme, but Labour has always intended that the dormant assets scheme would broaden the financial products to which that legislation applies.

Although the Bill makes some progress and Labour supports the need for consultation, we urge that the scheme go much further. With the right safeguards in place to find the owners of assets, unclaimed winnings from gambling, pension assets and physical assets could be considered in the future, too. While I am grateful to the Minister for his frankness throughout the passage of this Bill, I must once again put on record that while Labour is generally supportive of the Bill, we urge that further consideration be given to incorporating pension assets into the scheme. While I recognise that the Minister has highlighted that occupational pension schemes and personal pension schemes whose owners were automatically enrolled are excluded, or out of scope of the Bill, I hope that in the future those assets will receive further consideration.

The core principles of any scheme must remain clear. Attempts should first be made to reunite assets with their rightful owners before transferring them. Owners should always be able to reclaim their funds, and participation must ultimately be voluntary. Labour is also clear that any funds released to the dormant assets scheme must not be used as a substitute for Government spending. We know that the increasing cost of living is impacting so many people across the country, and this Bill presents an important opportunity to release further funding and to put right some of the wrongs. On that point, I pay particular tribute to colleagues on the all-party parliamentary group for “left behind” neighbourhoods, who have been closely focused on the importance of dormant asset funding for vital community projects in the most left-behind parts of the country.

With that in mind, I place on record Labour’s thoughts on community wealth funds, which the Minister knows I feel passionately about. In the other place, Labour secured an amendment that would have allowed the Secretary of State to include community wealth funds as recipients of funding. That amendment had cross-party support and was generally welcomed by the sector. The aim of including community wealth funds as recipients of funding is clear. The designated money would be designed to go towards social infrastructure to further the wellbeing of communities suffering from high levels of deprivation. I was disappointed and also surprised that the Government chose to remove a measure aimed at empowering communities, which is also at the heart of the Government’s well-rehearsed levelling-up agenda. That said, I welcome the Minister’s collaborative and candid approach throughout the latter stages of this Bill, and Labour welcomes the Government’s commitment to including community wealth funds as part of the first round of consultations, as outlined in the Government’s amendment 2.

We must now make sure that momentum is not lost on that important development, as community wealth funds are central to reviving so many communities up and down the country. With that in mind, central to any spend is the importance of governance and sustainability in ensuring that funds of this nature are maintained and in good health.

The Minister knows, and I believe agrees, that scrutiny of the reclaim fund is vital. That is why we have tabled new clause 1. Recent events have highlighted the need for a transparent approach to decisions made in this place and the other place, and it is therefore vital that the Government are held to account on the health and governance of reclaim funds, especially in relation to the potential for insolvency.