HC Deb 03 March 1886 vol 302 cc1842-9

Order for Second Reading read.


in rising to move that the Bill be now read a second time, said: This is a very simple measure. It consists mainly of a single clause, the object of which is to require banking and trading Companies and Associations to keep a register of the unclaimed stock, the unclaimed shares, debentures, and deposits which they may hold, and that the register shall be open to the inspection of all persons interested, during reasonable hours, on payment of a reasonable fee the House will see that I do not propose, on the one hand, to interfere with the business of individuals at all; nor, on the other hand, do I propose any interference with those Departments of the Government which are concerned with unclaimed stock. There are three Departments of the Government to which the principles of this Bill would apply, and to which, to some extent, they are already applied; and perhaps the House will permit me, in illustration of the plan I propose, to refer briefly to those Departments. The first and most important of these is the Chancery Fund. The fund standing in the Court of Chancery is subject to special regulations made by the Lord Chancellor; and, under these regulations, a list of unclaimed sums is practically published once in every three years. I regret to say that the infor- mation so conveyed to the public is not perhaps so full and exhaustive as it might be, and the consequence is that, in some cases, a number of persons make a profitable living out of the mystery which still surrounds these great unclaimed funds. There is, no doubt, considerable room for improvement in the system; but I do not mean to include it in the scope of this Bill. I merely cite what is already done as a precedent and a justification for what I propose to do with regard to private Companies. Another Department of the Government which is also concerned in the principle of this Bill is the National Debt. The provisions regarding the National Debt are exactly those I propose in the present case. By the National Debt Act of 1870, all stock on which dividend has been unclaimed for 10 years is transferred in the books of the Bank of England to the National Debt Commissioners, and immediately afterwards a list is made of the stocks so transferred, which is open to the inspection of the public. That is exactly what I propose to do in regard to private Companies. The third Government Department which is concerned in this proposal, and with which I do not propose to interfere, is the Post Office. There is, no doubt, a considerable amount of money in unclaimed Post Office orders. How the Post Office deals with these I have not been able to find out, for I understand no publication of them is made; but I have been informed by a Post Office official that part of the money, at all events, is used in paying the premiums of insurance policies of the Office. That, no doubt, is an admirable purpose to apply it to; but I have been unable to find out whether the Government make any attempt to hand over these funds to the real owners. I still, however, would like to do so. As I have already said, I shall not propose to meddle with any Government Business; but I confine myself entirely to the case of private associations holding funds under various denominations, the owners of which are not at the moment known. There are two considerations which I venture to urge in support of the principle of the Bill. The first is that there is unquestionably a certain amount of money standing, particularly in banking Companies, but also in trading and other Companies of every kind, the ownership of which has ceased for the moment, the real owners not knowing that the funds are there. I do not for a moment suggest that there is any very enormous amount of money so unclaimed, but some there must be; and so long as no provision is made for the real owners finding out that the money is there, so long must there be a certain amount of injustice. And, what is more important, there will also be a disproportionate feeling in the public mind that this injustice exists. Since this Bill was introduced I have had a considerable amount of correspondence with persons interested in it; and the correspondence goes to convince me that, whatever may be the amount of money which would be affected by the Bill, the amount of feeling which would be affected by it is very considerable indeed. But, in the second place—and I think this is the more important consideration—the amount of mystery and ignorance surrounding this subject is such as to give a profitable livelihood to a class of adventurers who should have no encouragement. These persons find it so profitable to prey upon the cupidity and ignorance of the public in this matter that, in order to do it the more effectively; they can afford to advertise themselves extensively in very expensive newspapers all over the country. One advertisement, which I see almost every day, headed "Enormous fortunes," is now appearing in the newspapers of the country; and in it is stated that £97,500,000 is now lying unclaimed in the Court of Chancery waiting for owners. And then there is given what professes to be a list of persons interested in these enormous sums—a list of which, I suppose, contains every conceivable name—and the people bearing these names are invited to apply to the advertisers for further information. What further information they can give I do not know; but I know from inquiry at the office of the Paymaster General that instead of £97,000,000 lying unclaimed in Chancery, as they announce, there is not more than £1,000,000, the real ownership of which is not known. One of the great and good results of the proposed measure would be that the adventurers who are now preying in this way on the ignorance of the people will have their proceedings brought, to some extent at all events, to an end. A remarkable story found its way into the newspapers a week ago, to the effect that a labourer of the name of Robson, whose place of abode was given as Hexham, bad succeeded, through one of these agencies, in getting out of the Chancery Fund a fortune of £2,50,000. That is a very old and familiar paragraph—a sort of family friend of newspapers. I believe that it appeared 20 or 30 years ago, probably earlier; and why the newspapers did not recognize its age I cannot really imagine. I should like to recount a slight personal experience of my own. Some time ago I was in the United States of America, and there my professional aid was several times solicited on behalf of claims to what is well known as the Lawrence Townley estate. That estate, as it exists in the imagination of the American people, consists of £100,000,000, part of which is represented by land in England, and part by gold lying in the Bank. The estate has been lying vacant for 100 years, and there are very few people in the United States who do not suppose that, somehow or other, they have a claim on it. The claimants, indeed, are so numerous that, in order to relieve the burden of fighting their claims, they have formed a Limited Liability Company, which has been in existence for a good many years. The Company has Directors, and, of course, it has lawyers; but, although it has more than once levied assessments, as yet I have not been able to find that it has paid any dividend. These are examples of the myths which arise from facts being kept secret which I wish to he disclosed. I have been told that one of the effects of this Bill will be to disclose unclaimed stocks, which have been allowed to remain unclaimed, because they have belonged to traders who have passed through the Bankruptcy Court. I do not know whether that is so or not; but if it is so, that is an additional reason why the system I propose should be adopted by the House the Bill, I am glad to say, is unopposed. I have not heard any imputation upon the soundness of the principle it contains; but I may say that the Homo Secretary had occasion to discuss the question during his recent contest in Edinburgh, and, to my great surprise, I find he speaks of the principle as being not a very sound one, but as partaking of the character of grand motherly legislation. I am as much, if not more, opposed to grandmotherly legislation as the right hon. Gentleman; but all I propose to do is to extend a little further one of the clauses of the Companies Act of 1862,; and make the register, which it is the duty of the Companies to keep, include the shares, debentures, and deposits whose owners have not turned up for a certain number of years, and how that can be open to the objection of grandmotherly legislation I am entirely at a loss I to conceive. It may be that the proposal the right hon. Gentleman discussed in Edinburgh was of a different nature from that which I have been explaining. My Bill requires Companies to do for their unclaimed debts that which Government does for their unclaimed debts, and which Companies themselves have had to do with reference to their ordinary share capital under the Act of Parliament by which they are constituted. I trust the Bill, of which I now move the second reading, will receive the approval of the House.

MR. J. WILSON, (Edinburgh, Central)

in seconding the Motion, said, he thought the end aimed at was extremely laudable, and that the machinery by which the Bill proposed to carry out its object was extremely simple. He agreed with the hon. Member in saying that the amount of unclaimed deposits supposed to be lying in the banks was very much exaggerated in the public mind; but be that as it might, it appeared to him right and proper that the amount should be known, and a periodical publication in the manner indicated would greatly alleviate anxiety, and give information when required. He hoped that the House would assent to the second reading of the Bill without further discussion.

Motion made, and Question proposed, "That the Bill be now read a second time."—(Mr. Edmund Robertson.)


said, ho thought the; penalties imposed by the Bill were enormous. Therefore the House would; do well to pause before assenting to the second reading of the Bill, which, in his opinion, if brought into practical operation, instead of decreasing, would increase the opportunities for levying black-mail.


said, he could not speak with much authority regarding the Bill; but there were defects in the operative clauses which were apparently of a very serious nature, and with regard to which, at any fate, the Government were anxious to have some time to answer what course they ought to pursue. In the fourth line of the 2nd clause unclaimed stock, shares, debentures, and deposits, were spoken of; but no reference was made to dividends. A man might have a right to dividends, and he did not see how they could include the four classes of property enumerated in the Bill, and omit all reference to dividends. Then, again, there was the objection which had been referred to, that it was provided that the register was to be open to the inspection of all persons, and that that inspection was not to be limited to persons interested in any way. That seemed to him to present a very serious objection; because this unlimited opening of the registers would open the door to every sort of adventurers, who might desire to use the information for ulterior objects of their own. However, he felt he could not speak with sufficient authority on the subject to assume the responsibility, on behalf of the Government, of resisting the Bill. If, however, the second reading was agreed to, he must ask that any further proceedings might be deferred until such time as the Government could consider what course they would take.


said, he thought there was much force in what had fallen from the hon. Member for East Sussex (Mr. Gregory) in considering that the Bill was open to considerable objection, and that the very objects the hon. Member had in view would be imperilled if it passed; whilst it would inflict a hardship on Companies, in rendering them liable to heavy penalties without notice. The Bill gave persons who had no connection whatever with a Company the right of inspection of the proposed register at a nominal fee, which he thought was too low. Again, the penalty of £2 a-day was very high. If the Directors of a Company were unaware of this Bill, and omitted to keep such a separate register, the Company would find itself liable to a very heavy fine for an offence of which it was quite unconscious. He did not like to do anything that would seem ungracious in the matter, and if it were the feeling of the House to pass the second reading he would not object; but he hoped if the second reading was passed that ample time would be given to consider the Bill further, and that he should receive some assurance from the hon. Member that he would reconsider those points in Committee.


said, he was of opinion that the Bill should not be allowed to pass a second reading, and regretted that none of the Law Officers of the Government were present to give their views regarding it. If carried into law, its provisions would lead to a set of adventurers going the round, and finding out the names in which unclaimed dividends or stocks stood, and the number of advertisements for claimants would be increased rather than diminished.


in supporting the second reading, said, reference had been made to the hardship of Companies having to keep these registers declaring the property which was in their hands and which did not belong to them; but it was a much greater hardship that the persons entitled to such property should be without the means of discovering it. Not only that, but if it would be a very arduous task for Companies to keep a register of such shares—they must have a large amount of property in their hands without an owner. There ought to be some way by which these Companies should be bound to make public the amount of property they had in their hands, and the owners of which could not be found; and the Bill dealt, to a certain extent, with that great difficulty. He should like to see the Bill go a great deal further. It seemed to him that if a Railway Company was notable to find out to whom dividends should be paid that ought to be published yearly in the accounts of the Railway Company. If the Bill was read a second time, he would, in Committee, introduce a clause providing that wherever the person to whom dividends were due could not be found there should be a year-by-year register, in which these unclaimed dividends should appear. All reason was in favour of some such scheme as that, though there might be some alterations in Committee. He was obliged to his hon. Friend who had introduced the Bill for having brought forward a great public grievance. He hoped the House would accept it; in his idea it had only one defect, that it did not go far enough.

Question put.

The House divided:—Ayes 107; Noes 88: Majority 19.—(Div. List, No. 15.)

Bill read a second time, and committed for Tuesday next.