Personal Finance: Carpetbaggers beware!

The Government wants your building society windfall to go to charity.

ARE WE about to see the greatest charity bonanza the UK has ever known? It could well happen, if the Treasury gets its way. Ministers are thought likely to recommend that anyone opening a new building society account should be required to sign over to charity any windfall that may follow the society's decision to demutualise.

The move is aimed at defeating "carpetbagging", the practice of becoming a member in the hope of grabbing free shares. Melanie Johnson, the Economic Secretary to the Treasury, is due to respond to a select committee report on demutualisation soon. She is expected to reject changes to building society law in favour of the windfall proposal.

The benefits to charity could be huge - Nationwide, the UK's largest remaining society, has already adopted a similar policy and some estimates suggest that up to pounds 2bn of its value is signed over to charity. The total from other societies could eventually double that amount.

However, Skipton Building Society has raised legal doubts about the plans. The society rejected this idea as part of its own anti-carpetbagger strategy over fears that the move could be open to legal challenge.

Mark Smitheringale, a Skipton spokesman, says: "The advice we've received has been that the legality of such schemes is probably not watertight. If it comes to a test case, it could be extremely interesting. Potentially, it's an absolute minefield." One Skipton insider says the society's fear was that any Skipton member who signed away his rights but later challenged the arrangement in court might well win.

Nationwide already insists that new members sign over their rights to any windfalls to the Nationwide Foundation, which donates about pounds 2m every year to charities such as Shelter and Breast Cancer Care.

Jeremy del Strother, the communications director at Nationwide, says: "We went to great lengths to ensure that we got the highest level of advice. We were very confident we'd come up with something that was very robust."

Lise Bulloch, of Britannia, another society with its own charitable scheme, adds: "We wouldn't have launched it if we thought it was not going to stand up in court."

Even so, other mutual societies object to the Treasury's idea because it would create two tiers of society members - existing members who qualified for windfall rights and new ones who did not.

James Evans, at Bradford & Bingley, says: "It's something we considered. We looked into it, and we decided not to do it. We want to keep one tier of membership."

John Gully, head of corporate communications at Portman Building Society, would rather see the Government raise the hurdle which all windfall campaigners must clear through statutory changes to the building societies' voting rules.

At the moment, most societies demand that 75 per cent of savers and 50 per cent of borrowers support conversion and that at least half the qualified members turn out to vote before a change can go through. Mr Gully would rather 75 per cent of both savers and borrowers required.

He says: "That would be beneficial for the industry in the long-term, rather than the short-termism which the Treasury is suggesting."

Mr del Strother says of the Treasury proposal: "I'm not sure I'd like to see it as a mandatory requirement because different organisations have different needs. Some of the small regional and local societies, for example, have achieved the same effect of deterring speculators by restricting new account opening to local people. Some have introduced high opening balances."

Nationwide's new account applications have fallen from 3,000 a day at the height of windfall mania to about 500 a day now. Skipton, which relied instead on increasing its minimum opening balance to as much as pounds 5,000, has seen applications fall from a peak of 40,000 accounts per month to about 8,000.

HOW THE TOP FIVE MUTUALS

FIGHT THE CARPETBAGGERS

1) Nationwide

New members must surrender windfall rights to charity.

2) Bradford & Bingley

New members accepted for deposit accounts only. Minimum deposit pounds 500

3) Britannia

New savings members must give up windfall rights to charity

4) Yorkshire

New members must surrender windfall rights to charity.

5) Portman

Postal applications from outside the South of England must make an initial deposit of at least pounds 1,000.

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