Government targets new unclaimed assets sources with commission chaired by Nick O'Donohoe

Some believe the Dormant Assets Commission could tap into as much as £20bn

Nick O'Donohoe: chair of the new commission
Nick O'Donohoe: chair of the new commission

The Dormant Assets Commission, announced by the government at the end of last year, has been tasked with identifying new sources of unclaimed assets for use in the charity sector. It will use only assets, such as stock, shares, pensions, bonds and insurance products, that have laid dormant for 15 years or more.

Assets can fall dormant for a variety of reasons. According to the credit monitoring service Experian, which runs an unclaimed assets register, death, illegal activity, a change of name or a change of address are the major reasons why all activity relating to an asset can cease.

Jill Waters, retail director of the Treasury-backed savings organisation NS&I, says dormancy can also occur because a product that lasts for a certain amount of time is converted into a new product at the end of the original contract period. If such an asset has been used rarely, or is intended as a "rainy day" fund, people forget about it and might not notify the holding company of, say, a change of address.

Comparisons are likely to be drawn with the Commission on Unclaimed Assets, which was headed by Sir Ronald Cohen between 2005 and 2007, and the subsequent dormant accounts scheme. Cohen tells Third Sector he is a "great proponent" of the new commission and the decision to use dormant accounts and assets for social good, rather than government funding.

Details of how the new commission will operate have not yet been announced, but Cohen says the appointment as its chair of Nick O'Donohoe, the former head of Big Society Capital, will ensure that any lessons learned from the original commission are incorporated into the new scheme. If the new commission follows the methods used in the original scheme, Cohen says, it could probably make use of the powers in the same legislation - the Dormant Bank and Building Society Accounts Act 2008.

It took about 18 months for the banks and building societies to complete attempts to contact all the account holders in the dormant accounts scheme. All dormant asset owners have a legal right to reclaim their property and do occasionally come forward. The free service, run by the NS&I, the British Bankers' Association and the Building Societies Association, is just one of the schemes that help reconnect people with lost assets.

The original commission got around this problem by ensuring that Reclaim Fund Ltd, set up to hold dormant assets before distributing them to good causes, always holds something in reserve, currently £267m. This means anyone who tries to claim assets can be paid back if necessary.

The original dormant assets scheme, supported by the banking sector, raised about £700m. The government believes the new commission could raise £1bn. Experian's website goes further and estimates that between £15bn and £20bn of unclaimed assets might exist.

Cohen thinks £1bn is a conservative target, especially if dormant pension funds and insurance policies are included. "If you'd said to me in 2005 that 10 years later Big Society Capital would have three years under its belt, funding more than 30 impact investment managers with £500m, I would have signed on the dotted line at once," he says. "I think it is fantastic progress, and the way forward is extremely exciting."

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