HC Deb 22 February 1886 vol 302 cc996-1006

Order for Second Reading read.


Perhaps the House will allow me to explain, in a sentence or two, why this Bill has been brought in, and why it is necessary to pass it without delay. The House is aware—or these Members who were in the last Parliament will be aware— that during the past four or five years there have been discussions in this House with reference to the cost of working the Land Registry Act in England. Year after year Members have expressed the strongest disapprobation of the large amount of expenditure the working of the Registry has entailed, although they have not been able to protest successfully against the position of affairs. Last summer, when the Estimates were being passed through the House, the question was raised again, strong objection being taken to the costs of the Office. I may tell the House that at that time there were in the Office a Registrar receiving a salary of £2,500, and an Assistant Registrar receiving £1,500, and various subordinate officials, the total cost being nearly £6,000. It was explained to the Committee by the then Secretary to the Treasury (Sir Henry Holland) that it was a very difficult thing to deal with an official who had been taken out of the practice of his Profession, and who had filled the Office of Registrar for the long period that Mr. Follett had filled. A pledge was given by the then Secretary to the Treasury, which was supported by the then Home Secretary, that, in the event of the Office of Registrar becoming vacant, the Government would not fill it up without affording the House a previous opportunity of expressing an opinion as to the desirability of continuing the expenditure. I was then sitting on the opposite side of the House. We accepted that pledge; and when a vacancy occurred I believe the right hon. Gentleman, then the Chancellor of the Exchequer, the present Leader of the Opposition (Sir Michael Hicks-Beach), stated, in reply to an inquiry addressed to him, that the Government would not fill up the vacancy. But while the pledge was being thus honourably fulfilled a legal difficulty arose with reference to carrying on the business of the Office. The then Lord Chancellor (Lord Halsbury) found it absolutely necessary that someone should be authorized by Parliament to discharge the duties of Registrar. He then introduced the Bill I am now asking the House to read a second time in the House of Commons, by which it was provided that the Lord Chancellor should empower the Assistant Registrar during the vacancy in the Office to perform all the acts, and discharge all the duties, of the Registrar. That Bill was passed rapidly through all its stages in the other House, and then the change in the Government occurred. The present Lord Chancellor has taken the matter up, and has communicated with me in regard to it. I will read to the House what he says, He says— Matters are at a dead-lock, and it is of absolute importance that this Bill should be passed without delay. The House will see there are certain duties—duties of an almost perfunctory character, or, at all events, of a Minis- terial character—the very essence of which are the signature or authorization of the Registrar for the time being; and what the Government propose is that the Assistant Registrar should be empowered, without increased remuneration, to discharge these duties until the House has had an opportunity of considering what shall be the future constitution and expenditure of the Office. I have a paper before me which I will not trouble the House with; but I can assure the House, from its contents, that there are a great many matters of great concern which are now at a standstill, and which, if they are not dealt with in some such way as that proposed by the Bill, will lead to a great deal of public as well as private inconvenience. The longer the passing of this Bill is delayed the greater will be the inconvenience. I hope the House will give the measure a second reading. I now beg to move the second reading.

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


As the hon. Gentleman has referred to me, I may, perhaps, say that I heartily join in what ho has said as to the importance of agreeing to the second reading of the Bill. After the pledge the hon. Member has referred to was given by me to the Committee, we, of course, set to work at the Treasury to deal with the matter. Sir Henry Thring, Mr. Mowatt and I had a meeting at the Land Registry Office, and made an inquiry into the work of the Department. We went through the books, and I am justified in saying that we thought that a considerable saving might be effected. I desire here to say that Mr. Follett did all the work he was required to do by the Act; but now that a vacancy has occurred the pledge which I gave that the Office should not be filled up has been fulfilled. It is necessary that some of the work Mr. Follett used to do, should be performed at once—work such as the signing of certain securities, which can only be done by the Chief Registrar. Cases have been brought under my notice in which business has been entirely suspended owing to there being no one to sign these securities. In these circumstances I trust the House will not object to the second reading of the Bill.


I am sorry to appear here to say that I cannot concur in the view taken by my hon. Friend on this side of the House (Mr. H. H. Fowler), and by my right hon. Friend on the other side (Sir Henry Holland). I fail to see that because it is necessary that a particular Office should be carried on that, therefore, public faith with a public servant should be broken—and that is what the Government are proposing in pressing on this Bill. The late Government stood in no such position. They acted honourably with their servants, because the position of matters was then this. When the Marquess of Salisbury was in Office the position was this. The late Lord Chancellor had prepared (ready for bringing in) a Bill for the establishment of a new system of Land Transfer and Registry—I am repeating a public statement publicly made. From that it would appear that that Bill was ready to be brought forward in the House of Lords almost immediately; and pending the bringing forward of that matter, which was a matter almost of days, no one complained—I am quite sure the Assistant Registrar of the Land Registry Office would not complain—of the Assistant Registrar being required to perform the duties of Chief Registrar on the same footing as he was carrying on his own duties. But what does the present Government propose to do? They propose to put it in the power of the Lord Chancellor to require the Assistant Registrar to carry on the business of the Registrar's Office, in addition to what he undertook to do when he was appointed, for the same amount paid him when he originally accepted his Office, and to go on doing for an indefinite time all the duties for which the late Mr. Follett was paid the sum of £2,500 a-year. The hon. Gentleman's statement, I maintain, proves a great deal too much. My hon. Friend, I suppose, like myself, knew Mr. Follett very well. Does he mean to tell us that Mr. Follett was a man who would have taken £2,500 a-year for doing nothing? [Laughter.] Hon. Gentlemen laugh, I find I am in a hot-bed of economy here. Does the House know what Mr. Follett did, and what the Office has been doing? The Office has been in existence 25 years, and during that period has registered over 3,000 titles. [Laughter.] I am afraid, from the laughter of hon. Gentlemen, that they do not know what this implies. If my hon. Friends around me were hon. and learned also, they would know that it implies a great deal of labour, and the exercise of a great deal of conveyancing skill, and that the man who earns £1,500 a-year in this way would be able to earn a great deal more at the Bar if engaged in a similar vocation. But this is not all. These 3,000 titles are irrespective of a very large number of titles —possibly many more than that—which have been looked into, and which have not been passed on account of irregularities of title. All this work has to be most carefully performed. I have tested the matter in another way, which will, perhaps, come home more to the minds of my hon. and economical Friends. The value of the estates of which the titles have been registered is between £6,000,000 and £7,000,000. And that is not all. In addition to that there have been between £7,000,000 and £8,000,000 of mortgage debentures dealt with in that Office. All this has involved an immense deal of inquiry into titles, and an immense deal of work. When the hon. Gentleman speaks of the staff of the Office—I think he spoke of the various supernumerary officials in the Registration Office—I would inform him that these officials are two clerks and a law stationer; so that, in fact, the whole of the real business of this Office devolves upon the Registrar and Assistant Registrar. The Assistant Registrar took his office 24 years ago, and the salary he was paid then and has been paid since has been £1,500 a-year. He was when appointed—and here I mention a matter which must be within the knowledge of many hon. and learned Members here, as it certainly is within my own—a gentleman of large knowledge and experience of conveyancing. He has been the working spirit of the Office, has drafted all the rules; and, in fact, the Office has mainly rested on his shoulders—of course, under the supervision of Mr. Follett. I say that a gentleman who has sacrificed his career to enter into an Office of that kind should be dealt with fairly; good faith should be kept with him; and if he should be asked to carry on more onerous duties—for the ultimate responsibility rested on Mr. Follett —I maintain it is neither just nor fair that he should be asked to carry them on for an indefinite time at a remuneration that was fixed when he was in the position of a subordinate. I am not going to suggest, though the idea may have crossed hon. Members' minds, that the labeurer is worthy of his hire; but I must say that if you agree to pay one salary for one class of work, and you put on the shoulders of the man who receives it another and more onerous class of work, the fact should be taken into consideration in relation to salary. My hon. Friend, I am sure, does not want to do an injustice. As I am anxious to give him an opportunity of avoiding that, and to enable him to further consider the matter I will move the adjournment of the debate.


I beg to second the Motion.

Motion made, and Question proposed, "That the Debate be now adjourned."—(Mr. Ince.)


I rise for the purpose of supporting the proposal of the hon. and learned Member for Islington (Mr. Ince), because I concur in the view he has expressed of this matter. I do not agree with the sincere and earnest desire of the right hon. Baronet the Member for Hampstead (Sir Henry Holland) to cut down expenses wherever it can be done——


I would point out to the hon. Member that the Question before the House is the adjournment of the debate, and that he cannot enter into a discussion of the Main Question.


On the Question of the adjournment I wish to say that my hon. Friend the Secretary to the Treasury (Mr. H. H. Fowler) has put before the House the reasons why this matter is urgent. It comes before the House on the recommendation of the late Lord Chancellor, backed up by the further recommendation of the present Lord Chancellor; and while I do not want to debate the Main Question I may be forgiven for pointing out that my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Islington (Mr. Ince) has not discussed this matter on its merits. He has moved the adjournment, but has suggested no reason why the merits of the measure have not been already sufficiently discussed. He has declared his objection to the Bill with perfect candour—namely, against making the gentleman who has hitherto been the Assistant Registrar responsible for the whole of the work of the Office without an adequate increase of remu- neration. I submit that the question is one the House is fully capable of dealing with at once. It has all the facts before it to enable it to deal with the subject, and I do not think the debate should be adjourned.


I hope the hon. and learned Member for Islington (Mr. Ince) is actuated by a desire to promote economy in this matter. He proposes that the Assistant Registrar, whose duties are of such a slight character——


I am sorry to interrupt the hon. Member; but I would remind him that the debate must now be confined to the Question of adjournment.


This is really a very urgent matter, because unless some Bill of this kind is passed it is very doubtful whether there is anyone to pass these titles, which may consequently become invalid.

Question put, and negatived.

Original Question again proposed.


I do not know that I should have risen to support this Bill if it had not been for the statement of the hon. Gentlemen the Secretary to the Treasury that it was intended to transfer the duties of the Registrar to the Assistant Registrar, without making any sort of addition to his salary. I do not mean to contend that it is necessary to proceed to appoint a Registrar at the salary paid to the late Registrar. That is not the view that I am prepared to submit to the House at all. I confess to some disappointment at seeing the way the Government are dealing with that to which the country has so long looked forward for cheapening the transfer of land—namely, a Land Registry. It does not seem to me that the system best calculated to improve the Land Registration is such economization as that now proposed—namely, a reduction of the staff to the lowest possible minimum. It seems to me there is great risk in reposing so much responsibility upon the Assistant Registrar, especially in view of the proposed reform in connection with the Land Transfer, if you look to the system of Registration as a means of perfecting and cheapening the transfer of land. That being so, I do not think we should run any risks of serious mistakes being made by the Land Registry which would tend to draw discredit on the Registry system. I must say I think the Secretary to the Treasury and the right hon. Baronet the Member for Hampstead (Sir Henry Holland) have underrated the work that will have to be done by the Assistant Registrar if this Bill passes. It has been said that the work of the Registrar is not merely Ministerial, but hardly more than—I do not recollect the exact words used—the work of a clerk, mere work of detail. That is an entire misapprehension. The work that has had to be done by the Registrar, in many instances, has been judicial work requiring legal training and knowledge, and entailing very great responsibility. It involves judicial work as to the effect of titles and putting them on the Register, and it is very onerous work, although it does not bring much public fame. There is not that honour about it which falls to the lot of men when they have to appear in public. Everything is done in the Office. A great deal of painstaking is involved, and a large amount of scientific knowledge is necessary to enable the Registrar to discharge his duties satisfactorily. With regard to the Assistant Registrar, he has been holding office for the last 24 years. I am told, and I have every reason to believe it to be the fact, that when he accepted the office he gave up very lucrative work. I ask, is it right, for the sake of cutting down the Estimates, to do this injustice? Is it fair to put on the shoulders of a man who has been a subordinate these responsible duties without increasing his remuneration? It has been said, and I know there is a curious notion prevailing, that there is nothing to do in connection with the Registry. It is true that, comparatively speaking, there have been very few titles registered; but it must be remembered that the titles registered have been accumulating for 24 years, and that there are now 3,000 on the Register. I would ask any Gentleman with any knowledge at all on the subject whether it is not a fact that when a title is once on the Register subsequent transactions under that title have to come under the supervision of the Registry Office to be dealt with by the gentleman who fills the post of Registrar? There are 3,000 titles registered, and all transactions in regard to these—transfers, mortgages, and other dealings—have to come under the Registry Office. There are a large number of mortgages which involve a great deal of work. I should not have risen to oppose the second reading of the Bill if it had not been stated that all this work is to be put on the Assistant Registrar without increasing his salary. If the Bill is read a second time, I shall certainly feel it necessary in Committee to move a clause by which it will become the duty of the Lord Chancellor or the Treasury, when they assign these additional duties to the Assistant Registrar, also to assign additional remuneration.


I should like to say a word or two on the Main Question. The first Act which bears on this subject of the registration of titles was an Act passed in 1862, and was followed by the Act in question, which was passed in 1875, at the instance of the then Lord Chancellor, the late Earl Cairns. I speak in the hearing of a great many hon. and learned Friends, and I speak the opinion of the Profession, when I say that from beginning to end these two Acts were signal failures—that they have cost this country a great deal more money than they are worth, and that they have done little better than to establish one or two not unimportant sinecures. My hon. and learned Friend the Member for East Islington (Mr. Ince) used an expression which was a strong one to use, and which I think he entirely failed to justify. He accused the Government of a breach of faith, stating that when the late Government were in Office it had been their intention to bring in a general Bill to deal with the whole question of Land Transfer; and, as I understood him, to provide for the Deputy Registrar. That was intended to be a Bill much wider than this; in fact, there is little connection between the two matters; and I know of no pledge or promise as to the Deputy Registrar in relation to it. My hon. and learned Friend says—"Is it to be supposed that Mr. Follett would have taken £2,500 a-year for doing nothing?" In answer to that, I can only say that if the duty of receiving £2,500 a-year for doing little or nothing is cast upon a man, most men will find it a very difficult thing to refuse the burden. There is very little real work to do in the Office; and the advantage the com- munity has gained by it has been very slight. The case of the Deputy Registrar is this—that he has been for many years acting in his present capacity at a salary of £1,500; and it is suggested, or implied, that he had a right to look forward to some advancement. Well, I entirely deny the suggestion that his acceptance of the Deputy Registrarship implied that the Office of Registrar was to be kept up for his benefit in case of a vacancy where the needs of the public service did not require it. I deny that any public servant who accepts a position accepts it under any such implied promise. I should be inclined to say that the question now under discussion is not germane to the Bill. The course suggested by the hon. and learned Gentleman opposite (Mr. Ambrose) as to inserting a clause in the interest of the Deputy Registrar may or not be regular; but it certainly would be most irregular to attempt to stop the second reading by arguments which in no sense go to the merits of the Bill.


I do not wish to stand long between the House and a division, if there is to be one; because I am perfectly sure there will be but one result of the division. But I venture to say, as a man having some little knowledge of this Land Registry Office, that if there is one complete failure in connection with legal reform it is in connection with this Office. Several persons were appointed to positions in which they had very good salaries, and very little to do. Now, an opportunity is afforded us of making alterations by which we may reduce a thoroughly useless staff. To talk abeut3,000 cases being dealt with in 25 years requiring this staff is absurd—abeut 120 cases a-year, and two and a-half a-week. I undertake to say that any efficient and respectable firm of solicitors would transact the whole of this business for £1,000 a-year, and consider themselves exceedingly well paid. And yet we find the Deputy Registrar suggesting, through an hon. Member of this House, that he should have additional remuneration. The whole thing is absurd. I hope the House will, by a unanimous vote, show they quite appreciate the common sense of the Government in supporting this Bill.


Year after year we have been told that this Office is a sinecure, and now it is said it is not. What are the facts? Will the House allow me to quote what was said by Mr. Arthur Arnold last year, who did not overstate the case? That hon. Gentleman said— Within the past two half-years the number of new estates registered in this Office had been six—two in one half and four in the other; so that this fact came out—that the taxpayers of this country had to pay £1,000 for each now estate registered in this Office. Hon. Members would see at once what a scandalous, extravagant, and wasteful expenditure of money there was in this Department."—(3 Hansard, [299] 741.)

Original Question put, and agreed to.

Bill read a second time, and committed for To-morrow.

Forward to