HC Deb 28 June 1910 vol 18 cc841-5

asked for leave to introduce a Bill to compel bankers to make periodical returns of all dormant balances and unclaimed securities in their hands. The apology I offer to the House in asking permission to intrude for a few moments on its attention at this stage is the fact that for some years past, on the eve of the introduction of the Budget, I have ventured to suggest to the Chancellor of the Exchequer certain sources of revenue which were available to him without in any way involving a fiscal revolution, and the reason why I ask permission to deal with this proposal in this way is this, that it of necessity involves special legislation, and therefore could not be included in the provisions of the Finance Bill without adopting the system of "tacking," against which everybody knows the Chancellor of the Exchequer and the Government have sternly set their faces. The object of this Bill, in a sentence, is this: To call upon the bankers of the United Kingdom to disclose at a date, which I suggest as in January next and at periodical dates, the amounts of dormant balances and unclaimed securities in their hands, these dormant balances and unclaimed securities being denned as balances with which the owners have in no way operated for a period of six years, and securities which have in no way been claimed; and, having disclosed them, it is proposed that at a subsequent date they should hand them over to a department or public trustee, to be held, first of all, in trust for the rightful owners, if they happen to turn up, and in the meantime for the benefit of the State. The theory of this Bill is this, that England, having been the home of bankers, the industry of banking having been carried on in this country for several centuries, it follows as a matter of course, quite apart from the question of ascertain-able fact, that in the course of that long period vast sums of money and vast securities have accumulated in the hands of bankers, the owners of which have been lost sight of, and the benefit of which is being held, therefore, by those bankers as their own property, with no effort being made to find, on the contrary every difficulty being placed in the way of finding, the rightful owner. On two previous occasions when I had the privilege of introducing this Bill I have been opposed by Gentlemen who had had special experience of banking, and in each case they assumed most erroneously that every banker holds such property as trustee for the owner as soon as ever the owner becomes known. I have not the opportunity under this procedure of dealing with these hon. Gentlemen, and I only desire to bring before the House this remarkable fact, that according to the law of the country as it stands to-day—the learned Solicitor-General (Sir Rufus Isaacs) is present and can correct me if I am wrong—a law based upon certain obsolete decisions, briefly the position is that after the expiration of six years, every penny and every security in the hands of bankers which has not been claimed become the bankers' property. That, I submit, is a state of things which this House ought not to permit to exist. I have in my possession, open to the examination, of the Chancellor of the Exchequer, if he cares to see them, 150 cases in which vast sums of money are now being held by bankers to which they have no moral claim whatever. I have already brought to the notice of the House the case of an old lady, which is well authenticated, though the hon. Member for Montgomery threw some doubt upon it last year. The old lady had £28,000 lodged in a joint-stock bank, and, being of eccentric habits, she regularly went to the bank year after year, and, having counted the notes and satisfied herself that the whole sum was there, turned and said to the manager, "Good morning," and nothing more was seen of her for twelve months. That went on for many years; but for the last seven years the old lady has not been seen, and the £28,000 is still lying in the bank, and except for the sources of information which I personally have no one would know of its existence. I have mentioned the tragical case which appeals to every Member of the House—that of the mother of one of the officers of the submarine which went down under such sad circumstances a few years ago. She assured me that before the boy died—and she gave evidence of it —he had put £400 or £500 in the bank as provision for her old age. She tramped London and the country and circularised the banks, asking them for information with regard to this £400 or £500. Without exception the reply was always the same— that they answered no questions and could not give any information. I may mention, among others, the case of one private bank which was recently removed to other premises. In taking away some old deed boxes deeds and securities of great value fell upon the ground. I could give evidence to the House that balances are passed on from year to year in private banks and remain in the possession of those banks. I could go on enumerating case after case until the House would weary. That there are cases in the experience of every Member is beyond question.

Only a day or two ago I had a letter from a gentleman who was once a Member of this House (Mr. Pritchard Morgan), in which he says that the Government would reap a fine harvest from these sums. He gives two instances which occurred to him personally. Fourteen years ago he went to Australia on business, where he had an account with the branch of a leading bank. Two or three years ago he received a letter stating that the branch had closed, and that a certain balance to his credit had been removed to another branch. He went to the head office in London and asked for the amount, and they claimed 1 per cent, for expenses, though the bank had had the interest on his money for many years. In 1900, he adds, he lost the seat which he had held some years previously. In that constituency he had opened an account with the local bank, and during the last election he returned there, and proceeded to open an account with the same bank for the expenses of the contest. He was informed that there was a considerable balance standing to his credit. He jocularly remarked, "If I had not made up my mind to contest the seat, probably I would never have heard of it." The bank official simply said, "Probably not."

This law, which I have explained again and again, prevails in most of our Colonies and in most civilised countries. In Australia, in the very first year the law was in operation, upwards of £100,000 was handed over. I have here a volume containing last year's Return for Canada. The hon. Member for Montgomery looks with curiosity on that book, which contains nearly a thousand pages. Unclaimed balances in the banks of countries like Canada are not of such volume as is the case with old established banks in London and the United Kingdom. I was rather impelled to bring this matter forward today, because in a recent Report of the Public Accounts Committee to this House I find this paragraph under the heading "Mafeking Siege Notes":— Included in the amount of the balances unsupported by adequate accounts is a sum of £4,590, recovered in the following exceptional circumstances from the Standard Bank of South Africa. During the siege of Mafeking the supply of cash in the town ran short, and the Commanding Officer created a paper currency redeemable at the Mafeking branch of the bank on the restoration of civil law, of which notes and coupons to the value of £5,228 were issued. But after the relief of the town the notes and coupons were extensively bought as mementoes of the siege, and the paper presented for payment only amounted to £638, leaving a balance of £4,590 outstanding. Although civil law was resumed in 1902, no steps were taken to obtain an account of the actual sums paid by the bank until January, 1908, when the Paymaster brought the matter to the notice of the chief accountant of the South African Command, and negotiations were opened which resulted in the bank repaying the whole amount of the outstanding currencies. I do say to the House, in all seriousness, that this is a matter which really ought to receive attention. It is not a party matter. The Bill was read a first time on the two previous occasions by majorities of something like three or four to one, representing all sections of the House. I ask Members to give the First Reading to the Bill with the sole object, having obtained facilities for the Second Reading, of securing some Committee to inquire into the whole subject, and I believe that the result of such an inquiry would be a great surprise to the country and a veritable godsend to the Exchequer.

Sir J. D. REES

Whatever may be the case in regard to Canada, I think the hon. Member is entirely mistaken in supposing that there are very large unclaimed balances in the banks of this country. I believe that to be entirely contrary to the fact, and the hon. Member himself is entirely unable to produce the slightest proof that there are. Again he has introduced the old lady who regularly appeared year after year at the bank to see about her £28,000, and now we learn that she has not been there for seven years. Most likely the old lady may turn up again, she may revert to" her old habits, and meanwhile the bank will keep the balance, and will not inform Ministers and others about the private affairs of their clients. I know to what bank the hon. Gentleman refers when he speaks of the removal of boxes from one place to another, and of valuable securities and jewels that kept falling on to the pavement of the Strand. I believe that all this is an absolute myth, and not nearly so well substantiated as the discovery of the mountain of gold in British Columbia.

4.0 P.M.

The hon. Member instanced a case, and I was surprised he picked it out, of a man who died under tragic circumstances in the performance of his duty, because, except for the pathetic note, it is entirely apart from the object of the Bill. He told us that the man died, and that no money was found in any bank. That is easily explained by the fact that the man had left no money, and there is no criticism against the bank on that account. The hon. Member also told us he could give case after case, but he only repeated this year the cases he gave last year so that the House will see the class of case which he is able to put before it. I submit that the banks of this country exceedingly well perform their duties because they hold on to their clients' property. That is the right thing for a bank to do, and not to hand it over to anybody in the world except the client. As soon as information got out the Chancellor of the Exchequer or others would come and put a tax on, and that is not the object of the banker. It is not his object to facilitate taxation, or to help any public officials, or any other persons in the world but his clients. I submit that the banks do well to perform that duty, and that there is no need to have this Bill.

Bill ordered to be brought in by Mr. Bottomley, Mr. Hemmerde, Sir Henry Dalziel, Mr. John Ward, Mr. Llewellyn Williams, Mr. O'Grady, Mr. Bowerman, Mr. Martin, Mr. Fenwick, Mr. Atherley-Jones, Mr. Condon, and Mr. Belloc. Presented accordingly, and read the first time; to be read a second time upon Monday next.