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That brings me neatly to my point about the way in which the new clause is framed. It does not do what Iand, I suspect, those who tabled itwould 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 bodys name, because it is a quarter of a century since I did such work. When that bodyI think that it is a court of some sortacceded
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 registerthat would, to some extent, deal with data protection issuesand 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.
Mr. Hoban: 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 the hon. Member for Taunton (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. Gentlemans 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.
Ian Pearson: 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 the hon. Member for Fareham (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.
Mr. Walker: 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.potentiallyof 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?
Ian Pearson: 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 the Member for Wolverhampton, South-West (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 www.mylostaccount.org.uk. The service is free; people tap in their basic informationname and current and previous addressesand 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. The hon. Member for Taunton (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.
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.
The hon. Member for Wolverhampton, South-West (Rob Marris) asked who were the magnificent seven who put their names to the new clause. I will run through them: my hon. Friend the Member for Twickenham (Dr. Cable), the right hon. Member for West Dunbartonshire (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.
Mr. Walker: 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?
Mr. Browne: 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.
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.
Rob Marris: 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?
Mr. Browne: No, because I do not have that information available. Ireland, for example, has a far smaller population than oursit is about 5, 6 or 7 per cent. the size of that of the UKso 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 Houses 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 registerit 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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