All 1 Baroness Watkins of Tavistock contributions to the Dormant Assets Act 2022

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Wed 26th May 2021
Dormant Assets Bill [HL]
Lords Chamber

2nd reading & 2nd reading

Dormant Assets Bill [HL]

Baroness Watkins of Tavistock Excerpts
2nd reading
Wednesday 26th May 2021

(3 years ago)

Lords Chamber
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Baroness Barker Portrait Baroness Barker (LD)
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My Lords, I draw attention to the fact that I am an officer of the All-Party Group on Social Enterprise. I thank the Minister for the helpful way in which she introduced the Bill and for the briefings that she and her officials gave to noble Lords recently.

It is good that this Bill is starting its passage through Parliament in this House, because on one level it is impossible to object to it. The use of dormant assets—long forgotten, probably not missed and therefore not urgently needed—being redistributed to places where they are needed and can be used is something with which it is impossible to disagree. Moreover, the Bill builds on approximately a decade of experience of financial institutions transferring dormant cash assets to the Reclaim Fund Ltd for disbursal by four funds appointed in each of the nations of the United Kingdom. It is estimated by them and the Government that if we go ahead with the Bill, a further £2 billion-worth of other assets could be released.

However, there are some assumptions behind the Bill that the House should look at before we give the Government the freedom to go ahead. Some elements of how the scheme is currently working are not thoroughly explained. It is our duty, before we give Ministers the Henry VIII powers that they are asking for in this Bill, to ensure that we are satisfied that each of the Bill’s component parts is working to maximum effect and cannot be more efficiently and effectively undertaken by other people.

It is right to bear in mind that this is a limited source of money set out for a limited purpose. Throughout the debate, we will hear lots of suggestions of ways in which it should be extended, but this will never be a source of long-term sustainable funding for voluntary organisations or social enterprises. It is a one-off and therefore it has to be targeted. I like the focus on financial inclusion and the idea of transferring assets between generations in a targeted way, but we need to ask ourselves, and particularly to ask the Government, exactly how well the scheme has worked in the past.

Although the headline figures in the briefings that we have been given are compelling, we do not, for example, know the costs to industry, to the relief fund or to the distributors, nor do we know important things such as the quantum of the assets put into the recovery fund or the frequency with which they are put into it, only for them then to be rightly reclaimed by somebody who turns up and having to be returned to the institution. We should have that kind of information at our disposal before we move on to more complex assets. I leave it to other noble Lords, including those on these Benches, to talk about the much more complex difficulty of bringing in assets that cannot easily be crystallised because they are not in cash.

The Government have an obligation to bring this sort of detail to Parliament, so that we can avoid the temptation to use this as a fallback or piggyback fund for government when times are tough. The Government did themselves no favours last year when, in the first lockdown, the sector said that it could see that it would lose £4 billion of funding. The Government responded with £750 million of funding, £150 million of which was taken from these sources and thrown into a pot. They really need to think about that.

We are now 10 years on. We know now that one of the most pressing needs of poor communities is access to resources. There is no indication in the Bill of a responsibility to make sure that the voluntary sector bodies carrying out this work on financial inclusion will themselves be sufficiently viable for a number of years. That is missing. One of the problems is that we have relied, yet again, on the National Lottery as the distributing body in England, but this has never been part of what it does. I want to see us looking into how to get greater flow from this source into social enterprises. I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Blunkett, that, right now, there is a desperate need in communities for a source of capital to get viable social enterprises off the ground so that they can create employment. I therefore ask the Minister to make sure in her consultation that those bodies are included as a matter of right.

Finally, I am never a fan of Henry VIII powers in principle, and certainly not when there is not much obligation on Ministers to come back and report to Parliament. If we are going to let this Bill go through—and inevitably we will—I think that Members of your Lordships’ House should ask for a greater degree of reporting than the five-year post-legislative scrutiny given to the 2008 Bill that is responsible for this. We should ask them to come back with much greater detail about the costs and operations of the scheme and its benefits.

We are talking of billions of pounds, but the one thing missing in all that I have read on this is any estimate of the impact that this funding has had in communities, against the objectives set for it. It would be remiss of us to go ahead with this scheme if we do not even ask the question that would be asked of any little charity that applied for any funding: how is it going to demonstrate that it is making the difference that it says it will? With those caveats, I look forward to some detailed work on the Bill, which I am sure deserves to pass, but perhaps not in the form that is before us today.

Baroness Watkins of Tavistock Portrait The Deputy Chairman of Committees (Baroness Watkins of Tavistock) (CB)
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The noble and learned Lord, Lord Mackay of Clashfern, has withdrawn, so I call the noble Baroness, Lady Wheatcroft.

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Lord Vaizey of Didcot Portrait Lord Vaizey of Didcot (Con)
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My Lords, since I was introduced to your Lordships’ House in September I have been given many opportunities, but I did not realise that I would have the wonderful opportunity to follow my noble friend Lady Fleet and to sing her virtues, although after her maiden speech I feel I should now praise her in 24 different languages on the basis of her distinguished ancestor.

As my noble friend indicated, and as the noble Lord, Lord Adonis, pointed out, she has an immensely distinguished career both in the media and in the arts. She was deputy editor of the Daily Telegraph and the Daily Mail before becoming a campaigning editor of the Evening Standard and helping to secure two great adornments to this country: the London Olympics and our current Prime Minister. When I dabbled in freelance journalism, I occasionally sat at her feet writing the odd editorial under her instruction, but she and I worked most closely together when I was lucky enough to be Minister for Culture when she was taking up prominent roles in the arts, as chair of Arts Council London for almost 10 years and as a senior adviser to the then London mayor, now the Prime Minister. She set up the London Music Fund, which was originally called the mayor’s music fund, but it should really have been called the Wadley music fund. It has delivered more than 500 music scholarships for young musicians in London. Her latest work on the music curriculum has also been incredibly important. I wholeheartedly second what she said about how important music education is for young people, not just to give them a love for and appreciation of music but to give them some of the skills and qualities one needs to succeed in wider life.

My noble friend served as a distinguished board member of the Yehudi Menuhin School and is now on the council of the Royal College of Music, chaired by my noble friend Lord Black of Brentwood. I can say only, as I have said before in this House, that it is a wonderful privilege to serve here with so many experienced and distinguished people, but to have my noble friend join our ranks and bring her expertise in culture is a particular pleasure to me.

I turn to the substance of the Bill. I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Blunkett, for reminding the House of the important role played by the noble Lord, Lord Field of Birkenhead—mainly on a personal basis, as I have known him all my life as a close family friend. It is a great testament to the success of the scheme that it has been broadly uncontroversial, very much welcomed and has channelled many hundreds of millions of pounds to good causes. I echo the noble Lord, Lord Adonis: it is hard to think of any reason to oppose the Bill, although there may be opportunities to improve some of its detail. Nobody can oppose the need to extend the remit of the dormant assets scheme to insurance and pension products and potentially to unlock a further £2 billion for good causes.

I take on board the remarks of the noble Baroness, Lady Barker: it would be interesting to know what one could learn from how the dormant assets scheme has been working in the past decade or so and how effectively the money has been used. Partly on a financial basis, I should be intrigued to know—I may be going a bit off piste here—whether we can learn anything about what type of financial assets are unclaimed and why. I think this will become rarer as we move into a digital age. Noble Lords have mentioned the digital dashboard. As more and more of us manage our finances online, there will be no need to write to our insurers to tell them that our address has changed, because our digital address should, broadly speaking, remain the same.

I was also musing, because I am obviously thinking ahead to my speech on public service broadcasting in tomorrow’s debate, that some of the great causes that the dormant assets scheme has supported so far are exactly the kind of programme that the BBC should be making, so I think we can elide the dormant assets scheme with the future of the BBC.

I want to use this opportunity to raise one specific point that has been a hobby-horse of mine for several years, and I think I may have played a tiny role in nudging things along. As I do not tell need to tell your Lordships, because you all know what I am about to say, I am talking about the National Fund, which is on everyone’s lips. The National Fund was started by a man called Gaspard Farrer in 1928. He was a member of the distinguished Farrer family, the solicitors, but he was a partner at Barings Bank, and he gave half a million pounds to the National Fund, intending it to pay off the national debt. That half a million pounds attracted a few other public subscriptions, and it was then promptly forgotten about, although I think it was managed for years by Barings Bank, which probably claimed useful fees from it. It was actually managed extremely well, because in 2019, before the stock market boom, it was worth £519 million.

We have had one dormant assets Bill in the past decade which has unlocked about £700 million or £800 million. We now have a Dormant Assets Bill which might unlock £2 billion, but we do not have a National Fund Bill, which at one stroke could unlock £519 million, which I know that my noble friend Lady Fleet and I would deploy very effectively to support the arts and music.

What on earth are the Government going to do about the National Fund? At the moment, its future is the subject of a modern-day Dickens novel as it grinds slowly through the courts. I lobbied the Attorney-General, he forgot about it. I lobbied him again, he forgot about it. He finally went to court. At a court hearing at the end of last year, the High Court judge decided that the National Fund could potentially be wound up and its funds deployed to causes other than the national debt. He concluded that because the National Fund represents 0.03% of the national debt, despite the excellent management of Barings and others, it was highly unlikely to achieve its purpose of paying off the national debt, which I think is now £2 trillion. It has even been spotted by the Prime Minister’s former private secretary, Danny Kruger, now a distinguished Member of Parliament, who in a recent report on community service asked why we cannot deploy the National Fund.

I am afraid that I have slightly hijacked the debate on the Dormant Assets Bill to once again bring the National Fund to the Government’s attention. I know that there is no more able and effective Minister than my noble friend on the Front Bench this afternoon to grab this issue, run with it and bring forward appropriate government amendments in Committee to unlock the National Fund and, at a stroke, double the assets available to good causes.

Baroness Watkins of Tavistock Portrait The Deputy Speaker (Baroness Watkins of Tavistock) (CB)
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My Lords, I am aware that, due to the reduced capacity of the Chamber, many people were not here earlier, when the normal rules for the current situation were read out. I remind Members in the Chamber that all Members are expected to respect social distancing, as everybody is doing, but also to wear face coverings while in the Chamber, except when standing to speak—unless, of course, they are medically exempt.