Clause 1 - The dormant assets scheme: overview

Dormant Assets Bill [Lords] – in a Public Bill Committee am 9:25 am ar 11 Ionawr 2022.

Danfonwch hysbysiad imi am ddadleuon fel hyn

Question proposed, That the clause stand part of the Bill.

Photo of Nigel Huddleston Nigel Huddleston The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship for the first time, Ms Ghani. I am sure you will keep us all in order.

I thank colleagues on both sides of the Chamber, and indeed in the other place, for the co-operative and constructive way in which we have proceeded so far with the Bill. There is broad support across the House for the Bill, and although there are some areas of disagreement, I am aware that they tend to be on details of implementation, rather than on the substance, purpose or intent of the Bill. To that extent, I will commit to moving at speed on the non-controversial parts of the Bill while ensuring that there is opportunity for discussion. Indeed, hopefully I will be able to address colleagues’ questions and concerns, some of which I am aware of already. I am sure that others will come up during the course of our discussions.

Clause 1 provides an overview of the operation of the scheme, which enables eligible participants to transfer money from dormant assets to an authorised reclaim fund. Having determined how much it must retain in order to meet any future reclaims, the reclaim fund distributes the surplus to the national lottery community fund, in accordance with part 1 of the Dormant Bank and Building Society Accounts Act 2008. The clause confirms that the scheme will be expanded as a whole, encompassing the new assets alongside bank and building society accounts while ensuring that this does not affect the continued operation of the provisions in the 2008 Act.

Subsection (3) sets out the main features of the dormant asset scheme, which mirror those specified in the 2008 Act. For example, beneficial owners can always reclaim the full amount owed to them. Participants transfer the dormant money to the reclaim fund, and owners therefore engage with participants, rather than the reclaim fund, in order to make a reclaim. The clause also confirms that relevant activities can be undertaken by anyone acting on the institution’s behalf. For example, an insurance provider can outsource tracing exercises to a tracing agency working to find the owner on its behalf.

Photo of Alex Davies-Jones Alex Davies-Jones Shadow Minister (Digital, Culture, Media and Sport), Shadow Minister (Tech, Gambling and the Digital Economy)

I am grateful to be able to respond to this important Bill on behalf of the Opposition, alongside my hon. Friend the Member for Manchester, Withington.

I remind colleagues that it was a Labour Government who in 2007 first brought forward two consultations into unclaimed assets residing in banks and building societies. This led to subsequent legislation that would allow for the release of these assets after efforts were made to find their owners. The scheme was first established in 2008 by Labour through the Dormant Bank and Building Society Accounts Act 2008. The scheme has proved to be a huge success, with around £745 million being distributed to good causes across the UK, with funding for the devolved nations being distributed through the Barnett formula.

Currently, 24 banks and building societies participate in the scheme. It was always intended that the dormant assets scheme would broaden the financial products to which the legislation applies. Although the Bill makes some progress and Labour supports the need for consultation, we urge the scheme to go 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.

Labour supports the measures to ensure that all efforts are made to identify asset owners before moving on to the more robust Reclaim Fund Ltd—a public body. The independence of the fund demonstrates confidence in the process, and Labour supports this framework. However, we believe that more can be done to tighten timelines around consultation during the next stages of the Bill, and that greater scrutiny can be brought to assess the rigor of the Reclaim Fund Ltd to prevent it going into any deficit. Robust financial modelling set up under Labour has protected the fund so far, but it must be kept under review.

Labour believes that a community wealth fund should be able to benefit from the fund. Labour is also grateful for the proposed new section 18A in clause 29. This important provision will enable dormant assets to go on to create community wealth funds. These funds are able to make grants and other payments to support the provision of social infrastructure to further the wellbeing of communities suffering from high levels of deprivation. Community wealth funds are integral to levelling up, and the potential for funds generated through dormant assets to transform lives is huge.

The most deprived areas across the country often have the worst third sector infrastructure, and proposed new section 18A in clause 29 paves the way for increased governance and organisation too. Labour believes that the principles of the Bill and the 2008 Act are too broad to provide such a framework without proposed new section 18A and that the principle needs to be framed in primary legislation. We do not need further pilots of consultations, as there are already 150 projects at various stages of development. These projects will continue to be evaluated, whereas clause 29 brings forward the opportunity to pour investment into funds centred around social transformation. I know that many colleagues feel passionately about the benefits that these funds can bring to their constituencies, and hopefully we will hear some of these contributions later. In the meantime I urge the Government to support clause 29, which is absolutely central to their levelling-up agenda.

Labour firmly believes that further scrutiny of the Reclaim Fund Ltd is vital if we are to ensure that assets are used for good causes. New clause 1 is central to ensuring proper scrutiny and calls on the Secretary of State to report to Parliament annually. New clause 2 has the potential to improve how funds are reviewed and distributed to good causes, a move that could see more funding made available to the causes that need it most.

Finally, I am sure that Members will share my thanks to the organisations that have shown their support and have been pivotal in taking the Reclaim Fund Ltd forward. The same sentiments go for those participating in the dormant assets scheme. Their contributions and engagement have ensured that the fund has been made available to a huge range of good causes. Labour has always supported moves to multiply the fund’s benefits and will continue to do so as the Bill progresses.

Photo of Nusrat Ghani Nusrat Ghani Ceidwadwyr, Wealden

Order. May I just point out that you must speak to the clause that we are debating at any particular time? Mr Grant, you indicated that you wished to speak.

Photo of Peter Grant Peter Grant Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Europe), Shadow SNP Deputy Spokesperson (Treasury - Chief Secretary)

It is a pleasure to see you back in the Chair again, Ms Ghani. There is a saying that we would all do well to remember every day of our political lives; it is amazing what we can achieve if nobody cares who gets the credit. I do not hesitate to give credit to a Conservative Government, who I will often oppose vigorously, for improving what was already a good piece of legislation introduced by a former Labour Government.

Some 20 or 25 years ago, a young SNP councillor and local GP in my home town of Glenrothes picked up on this issue through the work she was doing with constituents and patients—in particular with the families of recently deceased patients. She started pestering all the banks and buildings societies in Glenrothes. Crucially, she started asking officials at Fife Council what they could do about it. It may be a complete coincidence that it was a Labour MP, as Chancellor and then as Prime Minister, who eventually took those concerns and sorted them out on the statute book, because it was Gordon Brown who, as Prime Minister, effectively drove this legislation through. It may be a complete coincidence; it may be that that young SNP councillor and GP had nothing to do with it, but given that I have been married to her for the best part of 40 years, Members may forgive me for saying she had part of the credit.

As I said, the 2008 Act was a good piece of legislation, and the Bill carries out welcome improvements and extensions. We have to realise that the days when most people kept most of their money in a bank account have gone. Even people who do not have significant amounts of money to their name will sometimes spread it over a number of different kinds of places. That means that if someone cannot be traced for whatever reason, it is important that any assets that they had are used for a good cause—if the original owner has no purpose for them.

Probably the biggest administrative burden in the Bill comes from the fact that we have to recognise that this money still belongs to somebody. We might not know if they are alive or dead. We might have no idea where they are. But they have to be allowed at any time to come back and reclaim what is theirs. Some of the quite complicated requirements that are put on the funds will sometimes be a nuisance to administrators of the fund, but they are important because this is not money that has been seized or forfeited due to any wrongdoing. It is money that legally and morally still belongs to someone else.

It is appropriate for Parliament to legislate to attempt to use that money for a good cause if all indications are that the person who originally owned it has no further interest in it. On that basis, I will have a few brief comments to make on particular parts of the Bill, but I welcome it and hope it will be given a speedy passage in its remaining stages.

Photo of Nigel Huddleston Nigel Huddleston The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport

I will briefly respond. The hon. Members make some important points about why there is such broad support for the Bill. It is because it has such a fundamental impact on improving people’s lives across the country on a day-to-day basis. It is therefore very important, and it is not surprising that it has such support.

It is good to hear from the hon. Member for Glenrothes about not only the political support, but the emotional support that exists for various reasons. He raises an important point about the Bill’s fundamental underlying principles, of reuniting and repatriating the money first and foremost to owners—the principle of always being able to reclaim the money; of course, it is a voluntary scheme and we therefore thank the participants—and of additionality. Those core principles are still pervasive throughout the Bill.

Question put and agreed to.

Clause 1 accordingly ordered to stand part of the Bill.