Amendment 3

Dormant Assets Bill [HL] - Report – in the House of Lords at 5:00 pm on 16th November 2021.

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Lord Parkinson of Whitley Bay:

Moved by Lord Parkinson of Whitley Bay

3: Clause 29, page 22, leave out lines 17 to 20 and insert “—(a) carry out a public consultation about the purposes for which, or the kinds of person to which, the money apportioned under section 17 for meeting English expenditure should be distributed, and(b) consult the Big Lottery Fund about a draft of the order.”Member’s explanatory statementThe amendment would have the effect of adding to 18A(3) of the Dormant Bank and Building Society Accounts Act 2008 (as inserted by Clause 29) a new duty to carry out a public consultation before making a section 18A(1) order, in place of the duty in the current section 18A(3)(b). The consultation would relate to what, or who, should be supported by dormant assets money distributed in England.

Photo of Lord Parkinson of Whitley Bay Lord Parkinson of Whitley Bay Lord in Waiting (HM Household) (Whip), The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport

My Lords, a number of noble Lords tabled and signed amendments in Committee which sought to broaden the range of consultees listed in Clause 29 of the Bill, which I believe remains the primary intention of this group of amendments. We share the view about the importance of considering how dormant assets funding can be used most effectively, and we are keen to get a wide range of views to help shape our position, as I said in previous debates. That is why we have consistently committed to launching a public consultation on the social or environmental focus of the English portion of funding before the first order is laid under Clause 29.

In response to the multiple calls which have been made in your Lordships’ House, we are happy to formalise this commitment in legislation. Amendment 3, in my name, therefore makes a public consultation a requirement before any changes can be made to the focus of the English portion of funds now or in the future. I thank the noble Lord, Lord Bassam of Brighton, for adding his name and the support of Her Majesty’s Opposition to our amendment.

Amendment 3 takes the broadest and most inclusive approach to ensuring that the scheme benefits the most pressing social or environmental priorities in England. The Government plan to launch the first of these consultations after the Bill receives Royal Assent and are happy to commit to this lasting at least 12 weeks. Our amendment requires the Secretary of State to consult the National Lottery Community Fund, as the named distributor of dormant assets funding, about a draft of this order. The order would then be subject to the scrutiny of both Houses through the draft affirmative procedure. I beg to move.

Photo of Lord Bassam of Brighton Lord Bassam of Brighton Shadow Spokesperson (Digital, Culture, Media and Sport) (Sport), Shadow Spokesperson (Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy and International Trade)

My Lords, I am speaking on behalf of my noble friend Lady Merron, who signed Amendment 4 but is unable to participate in today’s debate. I should explain that one of our concerns has been a lack of clarity around future consultation. We have already had some discussion this afternoon about consultation, and, of course, it was raised by a number of colleagues during the Bill’s Second Reading and featured fairly heavily during the debates in Grand Committee.

On the face of it, we do not really understand why Amendment 4, which lists a variety of topics and proposed participants, is not acceptable to the Government, but we are nevertheless grateful to the Minister for tabling Amendment 3. For that reason, I agreed to co-sign it on behalf of our Benches. That amendment ensures that there will have to be a full public consultation, as the noble Lord, Lord Parkinson, has already described, which will have to take place before uses for dormant assets funds are determined in regulations.

I am grateful to my noble friend Lady Lister of Burtersett for tabling Amendment 5, which seeks to ensure that future consultations include consideration of the merits of establishing community wealth funds. This is a good addition, and we hope that the Minister can address this point explicitly in his response—not least, of course, because we have passed and supported the community wealth fund amendment this afternoon.

I am therefore looking for further reassurance from the Minister that the public consultation will be run in accordance with Cabinet Office best practice, including the Secretary of State being proactive when engaging with charities and social enterprises, rather than merely posting a notice online. We are satisfied by the Government’s amendment, but we would like to see them go further. I guess that our amendment is inviting them to flesh out exactly how they see this working in some more detail.

Photo of Baroness Lister of Burtersett Baroness Lister of Burtersett Labour

My Lords, I rise to speak in support of Amendment 4, to which I have added my name, and Amendment 5 in my name, which augments the original amendment by ensuring that the consultation makes specific reference to community wealth funds as a potential beneficiary of dormant assets.

I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Hodgson, and my noble friend Lord Blunkett for their support—and to the Government for listening to at least some of what we said in Committee about consultation so that, as we have heard, the Bill now makes clear that there will be a public consultation. I am very grateful to the Minister for, first, finding the time to have a word about this yesterday and, secondly, for confirming on the record that the consultation will last for at least 12 weeks, which I and others pressed for in Committee.

I will simply speak to Amendment 5, about the explicit reference to community wealth funds. When this was raised in Committee, the then Minister’s initial response was that she was unable to give any reassurance because:

“We need a collective agreement on what goes into any consultation document”.—[Official Report, 23/6/21; col. GC 99.]

But when I read that in Hansard, I realised that I did not really understand what she meant. Collective among whom? Could the Minister please explain? Could we not collectively agree today that the consultation should include specific reference to community wealth funds because, otherwise, many of those consulted might not have heard of them and only those who already know about them would be in a position to support them?

In doing so, I do not think it excludes other possible uses of the fund. The Minister raised this fear in his response to Amendment 1, but having a consultation that does not put out some options will not be terribly useful. Therefore, all we are asking is that he makes clear that this is one of the options and that the consultation would explain what community wealth funds are.

When I pressed the then Minister, she made a commitment to consider the community wealth fund proposal

“as we review the range of questions that go into the consultation.”—[Official Report, 23/6/21; col. GC 100.]

Can the Minister reconfirm that commitment? Regardless of what happens to Amendment 1 when it is sent to the Commons, it is important that the consultation on the use of the new dormant assets includes explicit reference to a proposal that has such widespread support from national civil society organisations.

Photo of Baroness Kramer Baroness Kramer Liberal Democrat Lords Spokesperson (Treasury and Economy) 5:15 pm, 16th November 2021

My Lords, my name is attached to Amendment 4 and I would gladly support Amendment 5. Government Amendment 3 is definitely an improvement on the previous situation, which was unclear; the Government were sure they would have a public consultation but were not really required to do so.

When the original Dormant Assets Bill was passed, the purposes for which dormant assets could be used were on the face of the Bill in primary legislation. Consultation, now that the Secretary of State is in a position to expand that range significantly, is absolutely vital. In Amendment 4, we reflect some of my ongoing frustrations with consultation after consultation: they fall to the attention of the usual suspects and, indeed, the responses of the usual suspects are very often taken into serious consideration, but they never get out into the wider world. When there are lots of diverse views, perhaps supported or mentioned by only small handfuls of people because they have never occurred to others, those tend to go into the “dismiss” bucket almost immediately.

I know how difficult it is to structure a consultation that really does consult. I say that from the position of having been a Minister during the coalition years, when I wanted to use a consultation to bring in new ideas as well as to get people’s responses to possible avenues that we might go down. It was a sheer battle with my own staff to devise such a consultation and questionnaire and to leave space for open responses and gather them in. It is not the norm; I am very well aware of that. I do want to press the Minister, because this should be going to a much wider range of groups than might normally keep an eye open for a consultation —the wide range of social enterprises and charities that go out to various communities, particularly deprived communities. Those communities tend to be the least alert to the fact that there is a government consultation happening or to knowing how to respond to it.

Then there is Parliament. Most of us understand that secondary legislation is not worth the paper it is written on in terms of getting parliamentary opinion or any potential for amendment, so it is important that the relevant committees of Parliament are engaged with something as significant as this. I press the Minister: we understand that he has moved some way, but we need quality. The style is perhaps there but there is no quality or content behind it to give us full reassurance. If he will not accept Amendments 4 and 5, can he at least give us a verbal assurance of the kind of quality that we want within the consultation itself?

Photo of Lord Hodgson of Astley Abbotts Lord Hodgson of Astley Abbotts Chair, Secondary Legislation Scrutiny Committee, Chair, Secondary Legislation Scrutiny Committee

My Lords, I have put my name to Amendment 5 in the name of the noble Baroness, Lady Lister. I was reassured by my noble friend’s introductory speech and the deal that has been hacked out between him and the noble Lord, Lord Bassam of Brighton. The noble Baroness, Lady Kramer, has, in part, shot my fox because I wanted to talk about the usual suspects, which she referred to. That is the danger, although I say to the signatories to Amendment 4 that it looks to me like a pretty good list of usual suspects in that amendment. I was not sure that we were not just going back down the track that we were trying to avoid going down.

My reason for supporting the amendment in the name of the noble Baroness, Lady Lister, was to make sure that we would make a big effort to get down to the smaller organisations, which often had unique insights into the problems of a particular area. From my point of view, I rather doubt whether that goes well into legislation, but it is the sort of area where a good strong ministerial Statement, given on the Floor, would reassure a lot of us that there will be words that we can go back to if the consultation does not reach as far, as deep and as wide as some of us think it should.

Photo of Lord Parkinson of Whitley Bay Lord Parkinson of Whitley Bay Lord in Waiting (HM Household) (Whip), The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport

My Lords, I thank noble Lords for their recognition of the action the Government have taken on this, even if it is conditional at the outset. I am grateful to the noble Baronesses, Lady Kramer, Lady Merron and Lady Lister of Burtersett, for the important issues they have raised in tabling Amendment 4. I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Lister, my noble friend Lord Hodgson, and the noble Lord, Lord Blunkett, for Amendment 5.

We have had a good debate, both in Committee and again today, and I welcome the support shown for securing the widest possible input into determining the future spending priorities for England. I share the desire raised by noble Lords to ensure that the public, beneficiaries, both Houses of Parliament, social enterprises and charities can have their say on the future focus of dormant assets funding; although I disagree about the means and submit that Amendment 3 is a better way to achieve this, we all share the same intent.

As my noble friend and predecessor Lady Barran outlined in Committee, it is our position that everybody who is interested, rather than a collection of predetermined or specified stakeholders, should be consulted. That is why we have chosen to take the broadest approach available in Amendment 3, and why we believe that Amendment 4 is not as inclusive.

Dormant assets funding is not government money; it originates from individuals who have lost or forgotten about their asset and is voluntarily transferred into the scheme by responsible industry participants who, despite their best efforts, have not been able to reunite those moneys with their owners. The scheme is a unique example of collaboration between the public, private and civil society sectors, responding to the imperative to put forgotten money to better use, rather than letting it gather dust in inactive accounts. Because of the wide range of organisations and individuals that are potentially affected by the scheme, we want to avoid at all costs making further specifications in this clause which could imply that certain groups are more important than others that it might be equally appropriate to consult.

The government amendment is sufficiently broad and, in line with common practice, parliamentary committees will continue to be able to consider relevant issues as they see fit in the future. That is why we do not think it is appropriate or necessary explicitly to name parliamentary committees as a consultee. However, we are happy to commit on the record to engaging with relevant and interested parliamentary committees for the first consultation.

As noble Lords have highlighted, the social and environmental focus of the English portion is a significant and important question. The Government agree that the consultation must be open for a proportionate amount of time to allow for considered and good-quality responses. That is why I am happy to place on the record our commitment that the first consultation under this section will last for at least 12 weeks. I am grateful to the noble Baroness, Lady Lister, and others for their appreciation of that.

I also reassure noble Lords that our intention is to consult widely, taking care to welcome local community voices into the discussion to ensure that we capture as many views as we can, as the noble Baroness, Lady Kramer, my noble friend Lord Hodgson and others rightly pressed.

The Government will continue to consider the most appropriate length of future consultations, in line with Cabinet Office guidance. I hope that our previous conduct in this area has proven we take that seriously and are committed to ensuring fair and open consultations on the dormant assets scheme. The 2020 consultation on its expansion, for example, was extended from 12 to 21 weeks, as requested by voices in the industry in response to the Covid-19 pandemic, to ensure that everybody had the time to contribute meaningfully. I am pleased to say that that was very successful: we received 89 responses, representing over 500 organisations and individuals, which informed the development of this legislation. Given the range of interested parties involved and the complexity of the policy area, we will always ensure that a proportionate length of time is provided for consultation. In order to preserve the integrity and protect the impact of the scheme, we also do not anticipate changing the causes regularly.

The consultation would seek views on what social or environmental causes should be supported with dormant assets funding in England. However, we do not think it is appropriate to specify the scope and content of the consultation in primary legislation, including the extent to which the scheme is meeting some of its underlying policy objectives or what additional assets or operational changes would improve its performance. We believe it would be most appropriate and effective to consider those as part of Amendment 7. We therefore do not support combining aspects of this equally important work with the duty to consult, particularly as the latter relates only to England.

Our commitment to an open, fair and inclusive consultation is also the reason why we cannot accept Amendment 5, from the noble Baroness, Lady Lister, which seeks to require the Government to consult on community wealth funds every time an order on English expenditure is considered. I am conscious that we went into a more detailed discussion of the community wealth fund model in our debate on Amendment 1. Even if I did not convince your Lordships’ House not to support that amendment, I hope I convinced noble Lords that the Government are by no means against the proposals for community wealth funds but maintain that putting them in the Bill, and in the case of this amendment legislating for them to be consulted on every time an order was considered, would be inappropriate.

Photo of Baroness Lister of Burtersett Baroness Lister of Burtersett Labour

I am conscious that the Minister has said “every time” every time. Could he give the commitment on the record that the noble Lord, Lord Hodgson, was looking for: that the first time—that is, in the first consultation—the Government will give serious consideration to including a reference to community wealth funds and an explanation of what they are?

Photo of Lord Parkinson of Whitley Bay Lord Parkinson of Whitley Bay Lord in Waiting (HM Household) (Whip), The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport

The noble Baroness has anticipated my next remarks: I was going to reiterate the commitment given by my noble friend Lady Barran in Committee that the Government will consider including community wealth funds in the first consultation launched under Clause 29. I have already noted that the Government are considering the community wealth fund model as part of the wider development of the levelling-up White Paper. As the work on that is ongoing, now is not the right time to commit to any particular source of funding to be associated with the proposals, but we will continue to look into this matter. As I committed earlier today, the Government will ensure that the consultation provides the opportunity for people to respond with their view, including advocates of community wealth funds and those who think that is their preferred course of action.

For these reasons, the Government feel that our amendments to bolster the consultation requirements and to introduce a separate review and reporting requirement better accomplish our joint aspiration to secure the scheme’s success. I believe that Amendment 3, which I am pleased to say has cross-party support, strengthens the Bill and addresses the House’s desire that any consultation on the use of future dormant assets funding in England must not be restricted to a limited number of perspectives.

In the light of that, I hope the noble Baronesses, Lady Kramer and Lady Lister, will be content with what we have proposed in our amendments and the assurances that I have given today and so may be minded not to press their amendments. With thanks again to the noble Lord, Lord Bassam, for putting his name to it, I commend Amendment 3 to the House.

Amendment 3 agreed.

Amendments 4 and 5 not moved.