§ Order rend, for resuming Adjourned Debate on Question [30th May], "That the Bill be now read a second time,"
§ Question again proposed.
§ Debate resumed.
§ SIR JAMES FERGUSSON
said, it might appear presumptuous in a layman to ask the postponement of a measure dealing with so technical a subject; but if the House would grant him a few minutes attention, he thought he could show that the question was not one which required a legal mind, but one which came clearly within the comprehension of every one. The Bill was introduced at a comparatively late period of the Session, and it was not till about ten days since that the Lord Advocate made an extended statement of its scope and objects; he thought, therefore, it would be right that they should have longer time for its consideration. He now asked the House whether, by the light of the Lord Advocate's statement, there was any ground for introducing such sudden find sweeping changes? According to the learned Lord Advocate, one of the great; advantages that would accrue from the abolition of the double registers would be the abolition of a double search, and that different kinds of economy would be accomplished by certain changes in the different classes of deeds in the record. The learned Lord Advocate remarked particularly on the improvements that would be effected by one general register, and the saving of expense in searching; and declared that in proposing the measure he was not consulting the interests of any exclusive body of petitioners, but that, in fact, the proposal emanated from a large and important body in Glasgow, and that Edinburgh was interested in only a secondary degree. He wound up his clear and candid statement by saying that his object was, that dealers in land, whether buyers or sellers, should have a good and clear 1486 title at the least possible expense. If the Bill of the right hon. Gentleman accomplished that object, it would be hailed with gratitude by the whole country. There was no object so desirable as the cheap and ready transfer of land. But if some of the things proposed in this Bill were beneficial, it was utterly unnecessary to accompany these proposals by a wide and sweeping change, not called for by any complaint, and which, he believed, would in many respects entail greater inconvenience and expense than had hitherto been experienced. The first merit which the learned Lord Advocate claimed for his measure was the abolition of the double search; but the House ought to know that the necessity of a double search arose from the abuse of the general register, and that were the general register only employed for the purpose for which it was originally designed, there would be no necessity for the double search. Were deeds affecting property in one county recorded only in the particular register belonging to that county, there would he no double search, and it would only be in the case of composite deeds that a double search would be necessary. But it had become the practice to register ordinary deeds in the general register, and hence the necessity of a double search. No one doubted that entailed large expense and inconvenience, and that any Bill which did away with that necessity would he acceptable; and it must be distinctly understood that those who opposed the Bill did not object to the abolition of the double search. But in order to do away with the double search, why was it necessary that the local registers should be removed from the places where they had been kept for two centuries? There was no allegation or complaint as to the manner in which these records had been kept. As to the economy of the scheme, the hon. and learned Lord Advocate pointed out that there were twenty different registries in different parts of Scotland, and that it would be much cheaper to have one staff, by whom the work could be efficiently done. But, in the first place, it was well known that the keepers of the particular registers did not give the whole of their business to the keeping of records—that they usually held other offices, and that but a small portion of their time was required to perform the duties of that office. One man could not perform the duties of the whole of those twenty keepers of records, and, therefore, if one great office were established 1487 in Edinburgh, the change must therefore Involve a great increase of staff. It was impossible that one keeper of registries could be conversant with the separate details of the register which the Bill proposed should be kept in Edinburgh. Local knowledge was of the greatest importance for thin business; and it was impossible that the officials of the Register House could be possessed with the same knowledge as the particular registrars. The commissioners themselves who recommended the change pointed nut that it could only be made very gradually on account of the enormous staff that would be required. Present fees must be reduced; but the Lord Advocate evidently anticipated an increase in the expense for a time, because it was proposed that the fees should remain at their present scale for two years. Then if the pay of the registrars and other officers was not found sufficient, they were to be paid by salary; that was, the Bill rendered it competent for the Government—that was, in fact, the Lord Advocate—to raise the salaries of the officers to any amount they could persuade Parliament was proper. He must say he could not see the economy of that arrangement. Then he was told that in numerous petitions which had been sent to that House that considerable delay and inconvenience might arise in the transmission of deeds to Edinburgh. He was also told that deeds were not registered so rapidly in Edinburgh as at the burghal and county registers, and therefore it was not surprising that the county agents should entertain some doubts as to the expedition with which their deeds will he registered in Edinburgh. It was not intended to remove the local registers from burghs on account of the necessity of local knowledge; but surely local knowledge was as necessary in the case of the county as of the burgh registers. Undoubtedly it would be an improvement to have only two books of registers, instead of six, as now existed. But why was the principle not carried further, and one book be kept for the register- of the possession and of the incumbrances affecting the property? That would be a reform of a very simple kind? He believed also that there would be a great inconvenience and delay arising from the transmission of deeds to Edinburgh, for at the general registry deeds were kept longer than at the local registries; and that delay would be a matter of considerable importance. He was informed that it was no uncommon occurrence for persons to register their 1488 deeds where they could have them returned the quickest; in addition to which many of the agents desired to witness the process personally, so that it was hardly necessary to point out that in ninny cases great delay would ensue if the deeds must be registered at Edinburgh. The abridgment of the indices proposed by the Bill formed a most excellent feature in the measure, but it was necessary that the abridgment should be as simple and accessible as possible, and he did not see what was to prevent their meeting that requirement in the particular registers, as at Edinburgh. The Bill did not touch the registers in boroughs, and it was urged as a reason that there was a necessity for local knowledge; but that local knowledge was surely as important in the counties as it was in the boroughs, and he believed, therefore, that the real reason was that the boroughs were too strong to make such an attempt upon them. It was no doubt intended by the Bill to make an improvement by having only two books of registry instead of six as at present; but why did the Bill not go further, and provide for one book only, so that the registry of seisin might be accompanied with a statement of the charges with which the estate was burdened? One important fact to which he desired to call the attention of the House was, that the change was not asked for by the country. No petitions had been presented upon the subject before the introduction of the measure, and only three since, and the petitioners included members of every class who would be affected by the Bill. All had complained of the great inconvenience which would result from the passing of the measure. The best test of the feeling of the country upon the subject was to ascertain the method generally followed in the registration of deeds. Hitherto the people had had the option of registering their deeds cither in their counties or in Edinburgh. It appeared, upon examination, that out of 14,405 deeds registered annually, only 3,244 had been registered at Edinburgh. That number did not include the 2,000 deeds which referred to property in the metropolitan counties, but it did include those registered by Edinburgh agents though referring to distant properties. Those figures proved that the proposed change would not suit the custom or inclination of those interested in the matter. He did not come before the House as the champion of vested interests. He represented what they would all acknowledge 1489 to be important local interests as opposed to centralization. As regarded Scotland, for some years past all legislation had tended to concentrate business in the direction of Edinburgh. That he believed to be unnecessary and undesirable, and it behoved them to set their faces against such a course, and to insist that local business should be transacted locally. It had been said that an inconvenience occurred in reference to composite deeds, in consequence of the necessity of a double search. Seeing that those deeds only numbered 250 out of the 14,405 registered annually, he did not believe that any special legislation on their account was necessary. No more trouble was caused, however, than would still be the case under the new measure, in deeds relating to property, part of which was in a borough, and another part in the county. He asked English hon. Members what would be the general feeling if it were attempted to remove all the conveyancing business of the country to London. Such a course would, no doubt, be a very good thing for London lawyers, but the inconvenience which the country would experience in consequence would be very great. His opinion was that the reason why boroughs were not affected by the Bill was that the boroughs were too powerful to be interfered with at present; but if the county business were allowed to be taken to Edinburgh, that of the boroughs would soon follow. He maintained that the Bill had been introduced at a period of the Session which was not favourable to its due consideration. The Commissioners themselves recommended that no measure affecting the subject should be hastily introduced. They did not suggest that the present system should be entirely changed in one year, on account of the confusion which would ensue, but recommended that any alteration should be introduced gradually, and that, in the first instance only, some of the smaller registries should be transferred to Edinburgh, whilst by the Bill now before the House, it was proposed in one year to abolish all the registries of seisins. He thought that he had shown reasonable grounds for the Amendment to the Motion, which he now ventured to submit, that this Bill be read a second time that day three months.
§ MR. BAXTER
seconded the Amendment, and said that the hon. Baronet (Sir James Fergusson) had pointed out so clearly and distinctly the reason why the Bill ought to be rejected, that he did not 1490 think it was necessary to trouble the House with a re-statement of the case. But he must say that the manner in which this Bill had been pressed forward supplied a most singular commentary upon the speech of his right hon. and learned Friend the Lord Advocate, the other night, with regard to the admirable way in which Scotch business was conducted in the House. English Members were continually told that the representatives of Scotland were in the habit of meeting privately to consider measures affecting that part of the United Kingdom, and that by this course they were enabled to prevent the occurrence of debates in the House, except upon questions that involved important political considerations, upon which such harmony could not be maintained. He had often thought, and it was as well that English Members should know it, and that the people of Scotland should know it, that there was a considerable amount of misapprehension abroad on this subject, and that here to-night they had a remarkable example of it. What he wished to state was this—for he felt rather aggrieved at the treatment which the representatives and people of Scotland had met with on the subject — that the representatives of Scotland had been assembled by the Lord Advocate to consider this very Bill, and would the House believe it when he said, that not a single Member present could be found to support the measure except his hon. Friend the Member for Edinburgh (Mr. Black), who, of course, was bound to do so, because this was, in fact, one of those centralizing measures which were every now and then introduced for the benefit of the lawyers of Edinburgh. He had heard it frequently said that Scotland was governed and overridden by lawyers, and he could not help suspecting that the Lord Advocate was sometimes driven to bring forward measures against his own conviction by the pressure which was brought to bear upon him from that quarter. He was strengthened in that conviction by the fact that, although the Members who met the other day in New Street. Spring Gardens, were opposed to the Bill, the Lord Advocate nevertheless felt obliged to go on with it in consequence of the pressure put on him by place-hunting lawyers. What was this Bill about which there was such desperate hurry, and which was in reality being forced through the House. His hon. and gallant Friend (Sir James Fergusson) had stated the 1491 main objections to the details of the measure. For 250 years Scotland had had a system of registration of deeds, which upon the whole had worked remarkably well, and was exceedingly popular and highly prized by the people. He agreed with the hon. and gallant Baronet that the system was not perfect, and that it was susceptible of many improvements. The supporters and the opponents of the Bill were equally agreed in objecting to the double system of registration, and desired to simplify and improve it; but the opponents of the measure desired to do it in a different way from that which was proposed by the Lord Advocate, for they wished to get rid of the general register in Edinburgh, in which only 3,000 deeds were recorded, and improve the local registers, which were so popular that upwards of 14,000 writs were recorded in them. His hon. and gallant Friend (Sir James Fergusson) had omitted to state this further fact—that not only had these local registers been more popular in past times, but they were becoming more so every day; for if they looked back ten or twelve years they would find that whilst the increase in the local registers was 70 per cent, the increase of the general register was only 30 per cent; thus clearly proving that, at the present moment, the local registers were the favourite registers of the country. He came now to the question of expense. His right hon. and learned Friend, the Lord Advocate, recommended the Bill to the House upon the ground of economy; but if this were a measure of economy, he must say that it was the first example of a measure of the sort having emanated from the Edinburgh lawyers. He took the 23rd Clause of the Bill, and he should be glad if some English Member who took an interest in the Civil Service Estimates and matters of finance, would pay attention to that clause. Clause 23 provided—It shall be lawful for the Lords Commissioners of Her Majesty's Treasury, upon the application of the Lord Clerk Register, to regulate from time to time the offices of the general register of sasines, and of the general register of hornings, inhibitions, and adjudications under this Act, and to sanction such increased establishment of deputies, assistants, clerks, or other officers, as may be necessary for the purposes hereof, and to fix the salaries and remuneration to be allowed to the officers of the said departments respectively; and such salaries and remuneration shall be payable out of the fees to be drawn in said departments respectively, or"—let the House observe—"out of any other funds to be provided by Parliament for that purpose.1492 Now, he entertained a shrewd suspicion, and he believed it would come out in the end, that if this Bill were passed into law, they would be called on to provide for a good many of these officers, and that the expense of the proposed system would be considerably greater than that of the present. If the right hon. and learned Gentleman were really anxious to introduce economical reforms in Scotland, let him begin elsewhere. Let him begin by reducing the number of Judges in the Court of Session. Let him abolish the system of double sheriffships; both of which were subjects that, if discussed in this House, would be found not to stand investigation for a single hour, and upon which it was his intention at some future and not distant time to take the opinion of the House. The fact was that the Lord Advocate dared not introduce measures in favour of the principles of financial economy of that kind, because they would be unpopular among his professional brethren in Edinburgh, and might place him in an uncomfortable and unpleasant position. Looking at the clause he had read to the House, and the additional work that must of necessity be thrown upon the General Register Office in Edinburgh, he believed that so far from being a measure to promote economy, it would in the end lead to a greatly increased expenditure. His hon. and gallant Friend (Sir James Fergusson) had observed that by abolishing the general register the search would be more economically and quite as easily conducted in the local registers, and there was no doubt that it was the desire of the people in the localities that this should be so. A number of gentlemen who took an interest in this matter had proposed a scheme of their own to the Lord Advocate, and he thought it was only reasonable and fair that the House should have both schemes before them, and that they should not be called upon to sanction this Bill until they had had the opportunity of considering the provisions of each. But the Lord Advocate would not consent to wait, although many Scotch Members interested in other important measures—the Rivers Pollution Bill, for instance—were compelled to wait. He could not help suspecting then that there were some places to be created under the present measure, and that this was the real reason for hurrying it forward. Where was the necessity for pushing on the Bill at this time of the Session? Already they had waited ten years for the measure, and it had never 1493 before been discussed in the House. The right hon. and learned Gentleman might have brought in a Bill years ago, but he did not; and they were now called upon in the month of June—a few weeks before the Session came to a close — to decide hastily upon the subject, he trusted the right hon. and learned Gentleman would not press the Bill further this Session. The representatives of Scotland were generally very docile; but surely that was the very reason why they might ask that a proposal which was objected to by a large majority of them, and which had excited a strong feeling of opposition in Scotland should not be persisted with until the House and the country had had time and opportunity to consider the other scheme.
§ Amendment proposed, to leave out the word "now," and at the end of the Question to add the words "upon this day three months."—(Sir James Fergusson.)
§ Question proposed, "That the word 'now' stand part of the Question."
§ COLONEL SYKES
said, he had presented a Petition to the House from the Society of Advocates in Aberdeen, a body of gentlemen who, from their experience and position, were quite as competent to form a judgment upon the subject as any body of lawyers in Edinburgh, and they were decidedly opposed to the Bill. The people of Scotland desired to have facilities for registration locally, and without going to Edinburgh. If there were no other objection to the Bill, there was this most conclusive one, that it proposed to take from local bodies the management of their own affairs, and establish a system of centralization in its stead.
§ MR. AYTOUN
said, he did not wish to offer any opinion with regard to the merits of the Bill, but simply to urge that he did not think the House was in a position to legislate upon the subject, and that, if it attempted to do so, it might be legislating in the dark. All he knew was that it was very desirable to cheapen and facilitate the transfer of land—so far he agreed with the Lord Advocate; but that his right hon. and learned Friend's plan would have that effect he had heard nothing to induce him to believe. He should like to know why this measure was not brought forward at a period of the Session when it might have been discussed at the county meetings in Scotland, so that Members like himself, 1494 who were not well informed on the subject, might have had the opportunity of hearing the opinions of their constituents upon it. If a measure of this kind could not have been brought forward a little earlier, it might be postponed till next Session, when they would have the means of ascertaining all those facts, without which it would be idle to attempt to arrive at a judgment on the subject. They were told it was expedient that the county registers should be abolished, and that there should be one register in burghs. If there existed such an anxiety to cheapen the transfer of land, that might be effected by lowering the fees on registry, one half of which, he understood, went to the Exchequer. He was informed that the fees paid to the registrar were in some cases greater than all the other expenses; and he thought that legislation to cheapen the transfer of land ought to begin there. He had heard it said that the opposition to the present Bill was an agitation got up by the county registrars and the lawyers in the country districts. He was sorry that such an imputation should be made, as it gave rise to the counter imputation that the present Bill was got up by the lawyers of Edinburgh. He, however, did not wish to attribute any unworthy motives to any person. All he said was, that he did not possess any knowledge of the subject, and thought it would be better to postpone the farther consideration of the Bill until next Session.
§ MR. MURE
said, he should certainly feel it his duty to support the second reading of the Bill. It was said that the House was not in a condition to enter on so difficult and important a measure; but when would it be in a condition to enter on it? It was not a new subject. So far from the scheme having originated with the Edinburgh lawyers, it originated with the professional gentlemen of Glasgow. So far back as the year 1850, there was a report deliberately prepared by the procurators of Glasgow recommending the very change which was now proposed. That report was printed and circulated in Scotland among the different legal bodies there, and the proposal was deliberately considered by the procurators of Edinburgh; and in 1858, this same proposal having been considered by the practitioners of the Supreme Court of Scotland, met with their approval. Since then, in order to test the soundness of the views taken by these various legal bodies, commissioners were appointed by 1495 his right hon. Friend to consider the question. These commissioners were not English lawyers, but one of them was a most distinguished advocate of Glasgow—Mr. Bannatyne—and conjoined with him was a gentleman of equal eminence in Edinburgh. These gentlemen, after an anxious investigation all over Scotland, and conferring with the local commissioners in the different towns, agreed upon the plan embodied in this Bill; and as far as he knew, the Bill had not met with opposition from any large body in Scotland. That was a sufficient answer to the observation that they were not in a condition to deal with the question, because that report had been printed for about a year, and had been accessible to every Member of the House. Another objection as to matter of time was, that it was rather late in the Session. He did not think there was much weight in that objection. If no measure of that kind were to be proceeded with unless it were introduced a certain time before the 30th of April, it would be almost stopping legislation altogether. But if the county meetings had not had the Bill before them there was this to be said in its favour, that only three petitions had been presented against it. There was nothing to prevent their calling special meetings to consider it. There had been special meetings in reference to the Valuation and other Bills, but not a word had been said against this. The Bill was substantially a good one, and ought to have a favourable reception from the House. Its main object was to get rid of the system of double search. The fact of there being both a general and a local register involved the necessity of searching both. That caused considerable expense—he believed about £15—and that expense was not regulated by the value of the property, but the expense was the same whether the consideration for the transfer was £150 or £100,000. So serious and so heavy was this expense that the commissioners in their report stated that, in many districts where the property transferred was small, the parties, in order to save expense, ran the risk of taking the transfer without a search, and trusted to the honour of the agent employed that there was no incutnbrance on his property. Therefore he said that so far as the saving of the double search went, this Bill was an improvement which would not be questioned, and which should be effected as soon as possible. The two gentlemen who were appointed to consider this ques- 1496 tion made a very elaborate report. They said that if the plan they recommended were carried out, there would be a saving in the ordinary administration of the registrar's department of about £7,000 a year to the public. Well, that being the state of the case, what objection was there to going into Committee on this Bill? The time at which the local registers would be extinguished could be settled in Committee. Well, then, the objections raised were in the first place that this was part of what was called the system of centralization. Now it was a sufficient answer to that to say, that this scheme originated at Glasgow, and was recommended by Mr. Bannatyne, who was a Glasgow procurator. But further than that, the commissioners had no hesitation in recommending this centralization as the only way in which they could improve the present system of registration. It was said thst this centralization was part of a system, which had been introduced a great deal too much of late into Scotch legislation. He was not aware that there had been that great tendency to centralization. Looking at the present facilities of postal communication and of travelling by railway, he did not think there was a Member of that House who would say that there would be inconvenience in having one general registry. In 1617, when the means of communication was quite different, it was necessary to have district registries, and his hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Ayrshire quite misapprehended the matter when he said the general register had crept in by some improper practice. The words of the Act of Parliament were clear, that there should be a general and a local register. He found from the Report that, in regard to registration of deeds in Ireland, the central control was in Dublin; and in 1827, when it was proposed to have a registration of deeds in England, it was recommended that London should be the place. It was said that a risk of delay would probably occur in the transfer of the deeds from the particular county to the city of Edinburgh for registration. Now he thought that that objection was already met by the actual facts. It was stated distinctly by the officials connected with those matters, that there had never yet been known an instance of deeds having been lost; and they went further in saying that at all events, as far as the county of Ayr and other counties were concerned, four-fifths of the deeds sent for registration were transmitted, not 1497 by a special messenger, but by the ordinary post. With these facts before them, he did not think that this Bill was fairly open to the charge of risking the safety of those deeds. Well, another objection was, that the measure would interfere with the local practitioners and authorities. The report, however, of Mr. Bannatyne, from Glasgow, and another gentleman from Edinburgh, distinctly showed that the Bill would not interfere in any way with the emoluments of the local agents or authorities. It appeared to him that there was nothing in the Bill which could interfere so as to place the local commissioners in an invidious position. The local practitioners at present sent up their deeds for registration without the interposition of agents on the spot. Why could they not do the same thing in respect to the registration of deeds that would take place in Edinburgh only? If any other scheme was suggested by persons competent to deal with this question—a scheme that would present as effective and economical a system of registration—he, for one, would be most willing to give it the most attentive consideration. It appeared by the Report of the two gentlemen to whom he had already referred, that two plans had been suggested and brought under their consideration with a view of improving the existing system, while preserving the principle of local registration. Having, however, heard all the details of these two plans, Mr. Bannatyne and his learned colleagues deliberately decided against them. One of those plans was that the register should be made up in the county town, and thence sent to the general office in Edinburgh for preservation. Now, the moment they sent up the deeds to Edinburgh for preservation, they would involve themselves in the difficulty of a double search. He had taken the opportunity of inquiring of those gentlemen alluded to as to the feasibility of this plan, and the answer they always gave was that the thing could not be done. He heard it said that the registration should not only be made perfect in itself, but that it should be made for public preservation. Now, that would leave the matter of the double search just where it was, and for this reason—the registration was for the last forty-one years. The books were sent up to the Register Office, and the search must go back for a period of forty years. Leaving the registration of the last forty years in Edinburgh, and beginning the new registration in the county, there must neces- 1498 sarily be a double search for the next thirty-nine years. It was for the House to say, whether a subject which had received such patient consideration by the two learned gentlemen so often alluded to, who had reported favourably of the present measure, whether it was one that ought to be postponed until the next year. It appeared to him that the Bill was really open to no objections which might not be better discussed and arranged in Committee. They were all agreed that there was a grievance to be got rid of. They must be equally convinced that the plan under consideration had been deliberately adopted by the various bodies interested in the question, and that it had been specially recommended by a Commission. For those reasons he did not see upon what reasonable grounds they could delay the Bill for three months, or, in reality, to another Session of Parliament.
§ MR. DUNLOP
most cordially thanked the Lord Advocate for having at last introduced a measure of this kind. At the same time, considering that the Government had taken ten years to consider the matter and prepare a definite scheme in the shape of the Bill before the House, he did not think they should grudge very much about granting the country as many months to consider it, as they had taken years. The matter had certainly been talked of in a general way for ten years, but in a vague, general, and uncertain way; and until it assumed the definite form of a Bill, people really did not give their attention to it. They had now a Bill proposed by the Government, and he was sure that in discussing it his right hon. and learned Friend would acquit him of any undue jealousy either of centralization or against Edinburgh lawyers, or of any want of sympathy with him in his desire — for which he gave him the fullest credit—to put the system of registration for Scotland on a footing more efficient than that which had been the admiration of the world at large. They were all agreed as to the necessity of getting rid of the double search. This might be accomplished in two ways—either by abolishing the general register, or by transferring the local registers to Edinburgh. The Lord Advocate proposed to transfer the local registers to Edinburgh. But the great preference in Scotland was in favour of the local registers. There was the option now, either to go to Edinburg or to the local registers; and it was 1499 found that only one-tenth of the whole went to Edinburgh, the large majority preferring the local registers. He did not mean to say that that preference alone ought to regulate the matter; but the strong conviction of the great mass of the people in Scotland being so largely in favour of the local registers, the House should consider carefully before they abolish a system which was viewed with so much favour. There was another point of great consequence. It was quite clear that if any change was made now, it ought to be a complete change, so that no further alteration would be required. When they were remodelling and re-organizing a system which had lasted for 200 years, they ought to remodel it in such a way that they should not he obliged to hammer and cooper upon it afterwards. The inevitable result of the change now proposed would be to make further legislation necessary. The Bill was framed on the principle that all burgh registers were to be preserved as local registers, and all county registers were to be taken to Edinburgh. One would fancy at first sight that this was founded on the greater convenience that parties dwelling in towns should have, in having their registration where their agents were, and where they would have every facility for recording their deeds. The deeds, it might be said, might as well be sent to Edinburgh by post as to a county town, while in the towns the inconvenience of sending them to Edinburgh was quite unnecessary. But the Bill did not carry out this principle. The burgh registers did not include the whole urban district. In the burgh of Glasgow, for instance, the extent of the town beyond the burgh was even larger than the extent of town within the burgh; and in that case, in the burghal part on the one side of the street, a person registering would not have the convenience of a local register; whereas a person on the other side of the street, being in the regality district, would be in a more favourable position. Clearly the distinction between the urban territory within the burgh and beyond the burgh could not be ultimately maintained — they must either bring back the urban territory beyond the burgh and give it a register with the burghal territory, or take it all to Edinburgh at once. This, and other questions of difficulty, he did not think had been considered at all by the Commissioners; and the Bill would undoubtedly establish a sys- 1500 tem which would leave some great questions to be settled at a future time. As to the merits of the two modes of registration, he did not disguise that he had no decided preference for the one over the other. Under the circumstances he had stated, he urged his right hon. and learned Friend most earnestly not to press this measure against the almost unanimous views of the Scotch Members, and the strong feeling of a very large class of the community in Scotland, without apparently any great object to be attained.
§ MR. CARNEGIE
said, it was very significant that the only voice that had yet been raised in favour of the Bill was that of the hon. and learned Member for Bute (Mr. Mure), a practising lawyer and ex-Lord Advocate. This was an instance of the self-conceit of the Edinburgh gentlemen who took upon themselves to speak in the name of all Scotland. The only check upon them was the existence of another city called Glasgow, which had a still larger population; and when it was found that some gentlemen in Glasgow were of opinion that these registers might be removed, the opportunity was eagerly seized, and a Commission was appointed, consisting of one Edinburgh and one Glasgow man, the rest of Scotland being entirely ignored. The Glasgow man was a gentleman who had distinctly enunciated his opinion upon the subject, and, therefore, while wishing to speak with all respect of the commissioners, and to give their report all the weight it was worth, he considered it simply valuable as recording the reasons on which two decidedly clever men supported their pet scheme. The sort of sneer with which the hon. Member for Bute spoke of the county meetings was quite of a piece with the general manner in which the proceedings in regard to this Bill had been conducted. He thought those meetings the most valuable checks upon the general principle of what might be called Edinburgh legislation; and perhaps it was convenient to bring in Bills of this kind at a time when the county meetings were not sitting. They had heard a good deal about the expense of the double search; but he believed that the expense arose solely from the extent of arrears in the indices at Edinburgh, and that they had been kept in arrears for the purpose of bringing discredit upon the present system.
§ SIR EDWARD COLEBROOKE
joined in the appeal to the Lord Advocate not to press his motion to a division in no hostile 1501 spirit, but because he thought the country required further time for the consideration of the measure. The Lord Advocate acceded to a suggestion of that nature at the meeting of Scotch Members, and he was surprised to find him in little more than a week afterwards moving the scond reading of the Bill. Great credit was due to the Government for grappling with the subject, for there were no doubt abuses in the present system of registration; but the subject was one that required the calm consideration of the country. After the strong testimony in favour of the local system, there ought to be some stronger argument than had hitherto been brought forward to overthrow it. The subject had never been properly considered. They had a most able Report of the Commissioners, but they had not the arguments on which it was founded, and no discussion had taken place throughout the country to enable them fully to see the bearings of the question. The question certainly was one that required consideration, and no injury would result from allowing it to stand over to another Session.
§ MR. CRAUFURD
said, it was remarkable only one voice had been raised in favour of the Bill, and that came from Edinburgh. He did not attribute motives to the lawyers of Edinburgh or any one else, but assumed that the opinions expressed on both sides were conscientious views as to what was most conducive to the welfare of the country. But the whole of the country was against the opinions expressed from Edinburgh, and he thought that fact was sufficient to call for a postponement of the Lord Advocate's plan. They wanted to get rid of a double search, and the Bill did not affect that object, it simply removed one set of registers from the county town in Edinburgh. It was said that the Bill would save £7,000 a year, but the real question was which was the best thing to do—to maintain two searches, removing twenty county registers to Edinburgh, or to do away with the borough register and leave the county registers as they were. He could see no advantage in removing the registers from the counties to Edinburgh. Well, it was said in Ireland it was done so, and that might be a good argument if they were establishing the registry for the first time in Scotland, but as it already existed and was working well, the feelings of the people of Scotland should be considered, and they were not in favour of the centralization. 1502 If the Lord Advocate had confidence in the principle of his measure, surely the more it was ventilated the more it would gain the support of the country. But, said the hon. and learned Gentleman, the more the Bill is delayed the more opposition it is likely to meet with. Surely there could not be a stronger argument against the Bill than this. The Lord Advocate told them that there was an excess of receipts of £5,000 over and above the requirements of the present system. This money went to the Consolidated Fund. Now, was it right or just that the people should be taxed for the sake of the Consolidated Fund? And then, with regard to another point, it was said that the second reading of this Bill might be carried, and it could be altered in Committee. He (Mr. Craufurd) objected to their doing anything of the kind. They objected to the Bill, and he contended that the second reading was the proper time to enter their protest against the Bill being proceeded with. In conclusion, he pressed upon the Lord Advocate the advisability of withdrawing the Bill, in deference to the wishes which had been so generally expressed by the Scotch Members.
§ MR. KINNAIRD
said, that as all the arguments had been one way it would be unnecessary for him to detain the House at any length, but he trusted that his right hon. and learned Friend the Lord Advocate would not press this measure on at present. The petitions against it were signed by ablest men in Scotland, and the Council of the Society of Solicitors, the Lord Advocate's own friends, had in a report presented to a meeting held on the 6th inst. referred to the limited time which had been allowed for the consideration of the measure. Public feeling in Scotland at the present time was decidedly opposed to the plan proposed by the right hon. Gentleman, though not to the object which he had in view—namely, the simplification of the registration system. He implored his right hon. and learned Friend to give more time for the consideration of the measure.
§ MR. E. P. BOUVERIE
regretted that the opposition to this Bill should have taken the form of imputations upon the motives of the hon. and learned Lord Advocate, whose only object could be to benefit the public. He did not think that it was at all conducive to the dignity of Scotch discussions in the House to have imputations cast upon hon. Gentlemen who might introduce measures for the public good. 1503 Every one knew the zeal of the Lord Advocate for the public weal and for the benefit of Scotland, and there was, therefore, no ground for imputing to him any desire to favour Edinburgh lawyers or to advance Edinburgh interests. A great deal had been said about centralization; but, to have a permanent system of local registration they must make it central, and therefore all the arguments on the subject fell to the ground. In his opinion this question was one which essentially affected the landed proprietors of Scotland, as the cost fell upon them; and it was agreed to on all hands that the existing system was not satisfactory, for it was neither, as simple nor as cheap as it could be made. The experience they had went to show that the existing system was thoroughly unsatisfactory; and therefore when the Report of the commissioners was in the hands of his hon. Friend the Lord Advocate—coming, as it did, from gentle-men capable of forming an opinion upon such an intricate question—-it became his duty to prepare a measure for the. consideration of Parliament. It was a misfortune that he was encumbered with so much hostility to his proposal; and he doubted very much whether that hostility would he lessened by the delay which was now sought at his hands, fiat still he thought the debate must have shown him that he had comparatively little choice in the matter, and therefore he (Mr. Bouverie) must concur with his colleagues from Scotland in inquiring whether it would not be wise to postpone the carrying out of this scheme, so that, by further consideration, he might be able to add another claim to the debt of gratitude due to him from his countrymen, by carrying into effect a cheap and efficient system of registering; Cities, in, Scotland.
§ MR. BLACK
Sir, I cannot pretend to be acquainted with the legal circumstances connected with this question. I can only say that if I were in the position of a seller or purchaser of property. I should like very well to have the opportunity of ascertaining readily and correctly whether there are or are not any burdens on the property; and it seems to me that it would be better for that purpose that there should be one general register in one particular place, which would give me the information I require, than that I should have to hunt for it in several different parts of the country. The proper place to go to for such 1504 a register is, I venture to think, the central office in Edinburgh. I am not speaking now as Member for Edinburgh. I do not care a farthing where the register is kept, whether it be in Edinburgh or in Glasgow or anywhere else, provided it be in one particular and accessible place, and that I should be relieved from the necessity of running from one place to another in order to obtain the information concerning the property. I am quite aware that considerable objection is entertained to this measure; but it is only natural that it should be so. I should like to know when there was ever a reform proposed in this House to which there was not some sort of opposition from persons who thought that their interests would be injuriously affected by it? In the present instance it is perfectly clear that the procurators and other members of the legal profession connected with the different counties imagine—and it is really a very small matter that they are afraid of—that their pecuniary interests will be somewhat affected by having the whole of the registers collected in one particular place. It is said that there are a great many petitioners against the Bill, and pat they come from twenty-four different quarters. I took-the trouble to look into the matter, and found that out of the twenty-four eighteen were from procurators. These persons imagine that they will lose a few pounds a year by the new system, and therefore are very strongly in favour of preserving the present system which is not at all for the interest of those who buy and sell land or houses. That has happened to this Bill which happens to every reform we have individual interests opposed to those of the community at large. Now we must recollect who these procurators are. They are law agents and very important men in the burghs. Members who intend to offer themselves for re-election at the next election no doubt have a notion that if they do not find grace in the eyes of the law agents in the different burghs, it will be a very dangerous thing for them. Therefore, I do not at all wonder that a number of our Scotch representatives should feel a little chary about showing themselves in favour of a Bill which they know is far from meeting the approval of a class of persons who exercise great weight in the return of Members to Parliament. The true question we have to consider is, what would be most for the benefit of those who have dealings in lands or heritages in Scotland? I think there can be no ques- 1505 tion that there would be great advantage in having a single and uniform register instead of two or three separate ones. It might not altogether suit the procurators, perhaps, but it would be a great advantage: to the parties to transactions in land. I find it stated in the petition of the Lord Provost, Magistrates, and Town Council; of Glasgow, that for years past a system of centralization has been going on in Scotland, by which it is sought to concentrate in Edinburgh, at the expense of the rest of the land, all offices and places of importance—which system the petitioners say they hold to be opposed to the principle and spirit of the Constitution. Now, that is just one of the clap-trap cries which men get up when they want to frighten the public. No doubt there are objections to excessive centralization; but I see no ground for supposing that centralization is, under all circumstances, of necessity a bad thing. Give a dog a bad name, says the proverb, and you may hang him at once, And here an attempt is made to fasten a bad name on centralization; but if it is for the benefit of the people, why should they not have it? I hope nobody will be alarmed by all this talk about centralization into opposing the Bill. I need not go into the matter further. I am satisfied that all the arguments raised against the. Bill could be refuted, and that its passing would be for the benefit of all who have dealings in property.
THE LORD ADVOCATE
Sir, the expense of conveyancing has long been a subject of complaint in Scotland among all who are concerned in land; and those who have considered the means of diminishing that expense have, on the whole, come to the conclusion that it is mainly caused by the state of the registration of lands. We have in Scotland the benefit of a very valuable system of registration of titles, but we have to pay for that by a very heavy amount of costs at every step and singe of the transfer of land. There is no doubt about that among all those most qualified to judge of the question. Until the Report of the Commissioners appeared, I am sure that there was in almost every quarter but one opinion on the subject, which was, that the reform of the registers was to be the main channel through which we were to reach economy in the transfer of land; and that the reform of the registers consisted chiefly in bringing them all into one place, under one system and authority, and according to a uniform principle. We have 1506 often been invited to grapple with this question. It is a very material one, not merely with regard to the expense of searches, but with regard to other reforms which may be engrafted on it. I hope the House will understand that we have not proceeded at all hurriedly in this matter. My hon. and learned Friend the Member for Greenock (Mr. Dunlop) says that we have been ten years at it. That is quite true. It is an ancient system, not to be rashly touched, and we deemed it only proper that the question should be allowed to ripen in the public mind. It has been ventilated from time to time for the last ten years. It is well known, I should think, to every one except the hon. Member for Montrose (Mr. Baxter), who seems to be supremely ignorant on this subject, that it was the lawyers, not of Edinburgh but of Glasgow, who first put the proposition of this Bill into a tangible shape. They brought it forward in 1856. The question was subsequently remitted to a Commission in 1860–1, and in 1864 we have proposed to carry into effect the recommendation of the Glasgow Procurators in 1856, and of the subsequent Commission, This is a most important reform for the landed interest. I am told that I have not given any estimate of its expense. Now, I am in a position to show, if it were necessary, that by this Bill a large economy would be at once effected. After the compensations run out, the surplus of the Register House would be about £16,000 a year, and that not only a reduction of fees, but a more economical system of working might be secured. I am not prepared to admit that the debate has altogether shown the real sense of the Scotch Members on the subject—I cannot think that—but we have not received the amount of support we were entitled to expect. Have the landed proprietors come forward to help us? How have my hon. Friends assisted us? Even the hon. Member for Dumbartonshire (Mr. Smollett) is not in his place. The hon. Gentleman challenged me to grapple with large questions, who taunted me with bringing in Bills for fish not men, and with the lateness of the hour at which Scotch business is brought on. But now, when we have a night to ourselves for the discussion of Scotch business, when a very important Bill is brought forward at an early hour—and that Bill relates to land not fish—the hon. Member allows me to be torn to pieces by his hon. Friends behind me and 1507 is not here to raise his voice to my assistance. It is true, as has been said, that we hand a meeting of Scotch Members on this question. They were not friendly to the Bill; not because they had formed a decided opinion on the matter, but because strong representations had been made to them against it. I was quite aware that representations would be made against it. There was a whisper last year of such a Bill being introduced, and at once strong representations began to be made against it. For the last six years the appointments to the office of keeper of the registers in the counties have borne a clause that if it should happen that the registers were taken to Edinburgh the holders of such offices should not be entitled to compensation. There has therefore, been distinct and ample warning to the country on the matter. I do not impute that this is a mere pecuniary question to the opponents of the Bill. There is a kind of esprit de corps in the counties, and they are unwilling to part with prestige of the ancient registers. That is only natural. It is an element that necessarily arises. It is an element which has arisen in England in regard to the propose system of registers; and it is an element with which we must deal if we want to carry out an efficient reform. I cannot say that I felt confident about carrying this Bill when I introduced it; but I was anxious in the first instance to bring the matter to a point and see what were the difficulties which weighed against my proposal. We have had a discussion to-night which has served that purpose. The hon. and gallant Member for Ayr (Sir James Fergusson) has studied the subject carefully, and expressed his views with clearness and ability. I listened to his speech, I must say, with great pleasure. The hon. and learned Member for Greenock (Mr. Dunlop) has also made some suggestions which derive value from his experience, and the long consideration he has given to the matter. I expected, however, more vigorous support from my hon. and learned Friend. As to my hon. Friend the Member for Montrose (Mr. Baxter), I cannot congratulate him on the appearance he has made to-night. That an hon. Gentleman of his position in the House should come forward on a matter of this kind, proposed in accordance with the opinions of men who, in respect of learning, experience, and integrity stand as high as any in Scotland, and should charge us with 1508 bringing in a Bill (which he ought to have known was first suggested by the procurators of Glasgow) for the purpose of benefiting the lawyers Edinburgh — I say I much regret that he should have done so. I wish he only knew the feeling with which I heard his words. I am not in the least afraid that any man whose opinion I value will for a moment give credence to the hon. Member's assertions. I must say, however, I am somewhat surprised that any one of the Scotch Members, who generally express themselves with moderation and good feeling, should have given vent to such paltry criticism. This is not a measure for the lawyers of Edinburgh. It is a measure for the landed interest. If it be inferior to any other scheme for the accomplishment of the same object, let the hon. Member for Montrose or any other submit a better proposal, and defend it on philosophical and logical grounds instead of appealing to feelings of the least elevated kind that can be roused. I shall be very gland to give his proposition fair consideration. When charges of this of this sort are levelled against the Edinburgh lawyers, and when it is said that no practising advocate will bring in a Bill for and economical reform of the legal system, it ought to be known that thirty years ago offices to the extent of £60,000 a year were abolished in Scotland at the instance of Edinburgh lawyers. This, however, is all beside the question. It is admitted on all hands that a reform is required. It is admitted on all hands that the system of the old registers requires amendment, and that the amendment should be in the direction of abolishing the double registers. That being agreed, the second reading of this Bill seemed to me a matter of course. The only question that remains is whether you should do away with the local registers and collect them all at Edinburgh, or whether you should keep the registers in the counties and abolish the general office in Edinburgh. Our proposal is that, instead of a score of local registers, you should have a single central one. The expense to the landed proprietors of these local registers is immense. The fees in Glasgow amount to £5,000 a year; in Forfarshire to £1,100; in Aberdeen to £800; and the total comes to £12,000 a year. On the other hand, the chief registrar in Edinburgh would have only £1,000 a year salary, and there would generally be a great saving. Of course, if you increase the staff of the local offices, you must 1509 incur an increased expenditure. But even if you keep up the local registers, you cannot abolish the General Register Office altogether. It will still be required for the old registers, and for those of the three Lothian—as well as for the registration of adjudications, hornings, &c. If you want a thorough effectual reform, I can only say it is utterly impossible to accomplish it with twenty different offices, without control, without a uniform principle, and distributed throughout the country. You must have a uniform system, and a complete arrangement for indexing. It was proposed in 1863 that the local registers should be abolished, and that Edinburgh should be made the central office, but that Glasgow should be allowed to retain its register as an exception to the rule. Several of the most distinguished members of the procurators of Glasgow, from whom that proposal emanated, dissented on the ground that it would be incompatible with a uniform national system, and that the facilities for searching would be lessened and the expense increased if so many of thte registers were to be kept in Edinburgh and so many in Glasgow. I have thought it right to make these remarks in vindication of rive course I have taken; but it cannot be disguised that the measure receives but little support from the representatives of Scotland, and as I am usually favoured with their cordial and kindly co-operation, I feel bound, in spite of my own strong feelings on the matter, to defer to their opinion. I have therefore come to the conclusion that the Bill had better be withdrawn in the meantime, and I hope that when we next return to the question we shall consider it on its merits, apart from personal or professional insinuations.
§ Amendment and Motion, by leave, withdrawn.
§ Bill withdrawn.