HC Deb 23 November 1966 vol 736 cc1501-24

8.40 p.m.

Mr. Graham Page (Crosby)

I beg to move Amendment No. 1, in page 1, line 12, after '(2)', to insert: 'For a period of five years from the commencement of this Act'. Subsection (2), to which this is an Amendment, seeks to abolish the present freedom to register land which is outside a compulsory registration area and to limit such registration to cases in which the Chief Land Registrar specifies that there is some particular reason for the registration to be accepted. That suspension of voluntary registration except by permission of the Registrar is to be permanent. There is no limitation on the period during which the Clause is to apply and it will therefore apply until Parliament sees fit to repeal the provision. The Amendment seeks to make it temporary and to return after a period of five years to the present very valuable service which Her Majesty's Land Registry performs in accepting the voluntary registration of land.

Perhaps I should explain, for the purposes of the record if not to remind hon. Members, that the compulsory areas do not cover anything like the whole country. Almost all Greater London is registered land, as are the counties of Berkshire, Kent and Surrey, most of Sussex, with the coastal county boroughs of that county, in the Midlands, a large part of Warwickshire with Coventry and Oxford and Reading, 10 county boroughs and 11 county districts in Lancashire and, of course, the City of Manchester, three county boroughs in Cheshire, Huddersfield and, the latest addition, Durham. That may sound a fairly formidable list of compulsory registration areas, but it still leaves a great deal of the country not subject to compulsory registration.

Perhaps I should explain what I mean by compulsory registration. In the areas which I have mentioned as being areas of compulsory registration, every con- veyance of the sale of freehold property, every lease for 40 years or more and every assignment of a lease which has 40 years or more to run, must be registered By that gradual process of registering the first of those transactions to occur after the date upon which an area is declared to be a compulsory registration area, all of the land in the area eventually receives a registered title and a land certificate behind which no purchaser or lessee need investigate, one document instead of at least 30 years of documents, as have to be investigated when the land is unregistered land.

Under the existing law, anyone anywhere in the country other than in a compulsory registration area can obtain the same benefits as those who are in a compulsory registration area by voluntarily submitting his documents of title to the Land Registry and asking that they be accepted as a registered title and that his land be registered and that a land certificate be issued to him in place of his other documents of title.

8.45 p.m.

There will be substantial advantages in such registration. Not the least is a reduction in the costs of future transactions with that property—not, I admit, a very substantial reduction, but at least some saving for those dealing with the property. There should be and can be a saving in time in transactions with registered property, and those of us who practise know that there are a lot of improvements which could be made, but even as registration stands it is a very great benefit to the public.

One sees no other way of reducing the cost and time of conveyancing than to extend and improve registration of land. The popularity for registration was clearly shown by figures quoted by the hon. Gentleman the Member for Bolton, West (Mr. Oakes) on the Second Reading. He said, quoting figures given in a Written Answer to a Question put to the right hon. and learned Gentleman the Attorney-General: … in 1955 in such areas— that is, in areas of voluntary registration— there were 3,202 applications for voluntary registration of title. In 1960 there were 9,050 and in 1965, the last year for which records are available, there were 16,879."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, Second Reading Committee, 27th July, 1966; c. 13.] Those figures show a popularity and phenomenal increase in the number of applications for voluntary registration and acceptances of those applications. By Clause 1(2) of the Bill those will be very substantially reduced. Even if the Chief Land Registrar accepts a number of applications in exceptional circumstances, there will still be a very considerable curtailment of this benefit which the public is receiving.

The hon. and learned Gentleman the Solicitor-General explained, in Committee, in what cases and under what circumstances the Chief Land Registrar intended to allow voluntary registration under the power given to him by Clause 1(2) of the Bill. He said: The Chief Land Registrar intends to allow voluntary registration of estates comprising at least 20 houses, flats, plots or maisonettes. That is a substantial concession and is the sort of case in which voluntary registration is of great benefit.

The Solicitor-General hedged this round with a lot of special considerations which must apply to such applications. Four special considerations were that before the Chief Land Registrar would accept any such application there must be planning permission, the applicant must intend to sell the freehold at once to individual purchasers, he must provide a layout plan, and he must give an undertaking that all of his transfers or leases of the properties would be in an approved standard form.

That was one type of case in which the Chief Land Registrar would accept an application. The second type of case—and I quote now from column 18 of the Committee's sitting of 16th November—was that the Chief Land Registrar … proposes to accept applicants in respect of property the title deeds of which were destroyed by enemy action during the Second World War. Should any other national disaster occur he will accept applications in precisely the same way."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, Standing Committee G, 16th November, 1966; c. 17–18.] So we know of only two occasions on which the Chief Land Registrar is likely to exercise his discretion under subsection (2) of Clause 1—the case of the 20 plots or more, and the case of the lost title deeds by reason of some national disaster.

These do not take into account the sort of case in which voluntary registration has been so beneficial to the person who is dealing with land. I think particularly of what we know as the sick titles, where one finds a defect in the title. It may be a defect which has little practical importance but which may cause grave difficulty in dealing with the land in future. A submission of a sick title to the Land Registrar, the investigation of that title by the officials of the Land Registry, and issue of the land certificate, if they are satisfied that the defect is immaterial or it is proved not to be of great importance, is of great benefit in future.

The cases mentioned by the Solicitor-General do not cover local authority development. Indeed, many local authorities have urged upon hon. Members on this side of the House—and, I am sure, upon the Government—the need to obtain some assurance that the Chief Land Registrar will accept voluntary applications for registration from local authorities who are in the course of collecting a number of titles together in order to make an area of development.

The cases given by the Solicitor-General do not cover the very common type of application of the addition of an unregistered title to registered land where it would make a single property—the registered dwelling-house, for example, where the owner buys a bit more added on to his garden, or perhaps a little bit to build a garage, or something of that sort, and he often finds he has bought unregistered land where the dwelling-house is registered land. It is convenient that all should be in the one title. This would be accepted in future by the Registrar; so Clause 1, subsection (2), is depriving the public of a service.

The reason given is that it is desired to proceed as rapidly as possible with compulsory registration of all built-up areas, and it is hoped that compulsory registration of built-up areas in the country will be achieved by 1973. It is said that this cannot be done if the staff of the Land Registrar is diverted to consider voluntary applications in areas which are not compulsory areas.

In 1964, the then Conservative Government announced this programme of extending compulsory registration to all built-up areas by 1973, and, at that time, the then Government saw no reason to restrict any of the existing services by the Land Registrar—certainly not to restrict the applications for voluntary registration. I think that I am right in saying that since that announcement in 1964, the programme has been going faster than scheduled. There is no lag in the sort of schedule laid out for compulsory registration of all built-up areas by 1973. Therefore, at this moment there can be no reason, from the past history of this programme, to restrict the services offered by the Land Registrar.

The only reason I can see is that the present Government's rather grandiose schemes, such as the Land Commission, and the very substantial increase in the number of professional men in the ordinary Government Department, will prevent recruitment to the Land Registry to enable the extension of its work. This absorption of the professional man—particularly the man concerned with property, whether the lawyer, the valuer, or the surveyor—in new Government appointments is a very serious development. There is a sort of brain drain from private practice and the established services of proved worth, such as the Land Registry, into new and, in many cases, not such beneficial service.

If the service of voluntary registration is to be suspended, I most sincerely and earnestly urge that it should be a temporary suspension; that the position should be investigated after a period of years—and a generous period is five years—to see whether the service can be fully restored. The provision of subsection (2) of Clause 1 should be limited to five years.

Mr. W. O. J. Robinson (Walthamstow, East)

First, I express my appreciation—and, I am sure, that of all hon. Members—of the very clear and concise description of the system of land registration which the hon. Member for Crosby (Mr. Graham Page) has given us. We all and particularly all those concerned with this matter professionally, welcome the intention to extend the compulsory registration system throughout the country as rapidly as possible.

I appreciate the views of the hon. Member for Crosby on the inhibition of individual applications for registration, but we must weigh in the balance what is likely to be to the best advantage, and it is generally recognised that the Land Registry will have a blitz in this respect so as to effect compulsory registration as quickly as possible. That being so, I think that the work of the Land Registry would be likely to be hampered if individual applications had to be dealt with piecemeal.

I wonder to what extent undue hardship will be caused by the prohibition of individual applications? Are there any statistics available of the number of individual applications for registration that are outside the classes which the Chief Land Registrar is likely to approve in any event? I hope, in particular, that the Chief Land Registrar will not be too restrictive in his decision as to the classes of cases that will be dealt with; and that there will be close consultation with the professions, through the Law Society or other appropriate organisation, on the limitations on making applications.

The main task must be more predominantly in the interests of the public, and if, as the hon. Member said, this work is ahead of, or is likely to be ahead of schedule there might even be a danger in putting on a time limit. I am sure that the Chief Land Registrar and the Land Registry will not desire to inhibit individual applications when the need for doing so no longer exists. I am confident that if the work were progressing in such a way that it could be said that the end was in sight, the Chief Land Registrar would indicate to the Government that it was possible once again to relax the restriction. It is far better that we should give the green light to go ahead with compulsory registration rather than dealing with individual applications, particularly when, I think it unlikely that considerable hardship might be inflicted in any large number of cases.

9.0 p.m.

Mr. Oscar Murton (Poole)

I have listened with great interest to what the hon. Member for Walthamstow, East (Mr. W. O. J. Robinson) has just said. It was very constructive. I should, however, draw attention to the fact that it is somewhat frustrating to the profession, of which, I am sorry to say, I am not a member, that its members should find themselves inhibited and unable to deal with voluntary registration where it has previously been undertaken.

I said in Committee that this problem did not arise in the area which I had the honour to represent because most of the land had devolved from one family, who were great landowners, and they had the prescience to register voluntarily at the time when the land was sold. There are, however, other areas where that is not the case. My hon. Friend the Member for Crosby (Mr. Graham Page) mentioned this to me before the debate began and I have had experience of it myself.

Solicitors have come to me in my constituency and said, "This is most extraordinary. The Conservative Government, in 1964, announced a programme. Now, the present Government are going back on it. They have produced all manner of excuses and reasons concerned with shortage of staff and difficulty with Ordnance Survey about why the programme cannot be put into effect."

The proposal put forward by my hon. Friend the Member for Crosby in his Amendment would go some way towards trying to force open the door a little so that if the Government find that the restrictions which they are rather pessimistically imposing are onerous, they might relent; whereas the matter in which the Bill is drafted there is apparently no means of relenting.

I must also draw attention to the great problem which will be faced by local authorities, particularly in urban areas, where they have to acquire land for housing programmes and where they may in the course of events offer the land again for resale. They will have the frightful burden of deducting separate titles in many cases where the history of the land may well go back 30 years or more.

On 24th May, in another place, the Lord Chancellor set out the problem concerning voluntary registration from the viewpoint of dealing with local authorities who might ask for it. In listing the categories of voluntary registration, he said that 39 per cent. were single-owner-owner-occupied houses, for which he could not give any undertaking that the Chief Land Registrar would be able to accept voluntary registration. He went on to say, however, that 17½ per cent. was building land for development and a further 16 per cent. was land acquired for investment and redevelopment. Going down the scale, he said that 10 per cent. was single plots and 6 per cent. was land owned for commercial or industrial purposes.

The two principal figures which I have mentioned—17½ per cent. in respect of building land for development and 16 per cent. for land acquired for investment and redevelopment—add up to a little over 33⅓ per cent. Had the Government been a little more flexible, there might have been cause for relaxation in this case. I hope that at a later stage it will be possible to draw attention again to some of the shortcomings which, we feel, have caused this rather distressing circumstance to arise.

Meanwhile, I commend the Amendment of my hon. Friend the Member for Crosby and I hope that the House will support what I consider to be an eminently suitable arrangement.

Mr. Gordon Oakes (Bolton, West)

Although the hon. Member for Crosby (Mr. Graham Page) and I found much in common in the Second Reading Committee on the Bill, it was material in common relating to the exceptions that the Chief Land Registrar should grant irrespective of subsection (2) of Clause 1.

I am surprised that the hon. Member and his hon. Friends have put down this limitation of time to five years. The hon. Member well knows that the purpose of Clause 1(2) is not wilfully to deprive people in compulsory areas of the right to register their titles. The reason was given by my hon. and learned Friend the Solicitor-General in Committee. It was because we wished to keep to the timetable of extending compulsory registration to all urban areas by 1973, and to rural areas as well by 1980. To continue voluntary registration in areas outside compulsory areas may well impede that progress considerably.

Hon. Gentlemen opposite voted for the Second Reading of the Bill, and this is its main Clause. I would remind them that, on their estimate of time taken over from their Government by our own, 1973 is the target year for urban areas. If the Amendment were accepted, the Bill would come to an end in 1971. In the middle of the very first phase of introducing compulsory registration, either another Bill would have to be passed by the House, or the Chief Land Registrar once again would be faced with the problem of having his time impeded by applications coming from voluntary areas. That would only be in the first phase. After 1973, there is the second phase to 1980 which takes in the rural and less densely populated areas.

To bring in this time limit goes to the very root of the purpose of Clause 1(2); indeed, it goes to the root of the Act, which hon. Gentlemen opposite voted for on Second Reading. I am sure that my hon. and learned Friend will resist the Amendment, which would cause nothing but difficulty for the Chief Land Registrar and his staff in 1971.

The hon. Member for Crosby has raised before the difficulty which is caused, he says, by the Land Commission Bill. I am certain that he and his hon. Friends realise that one of the biggest problems is that, before we introduce compulsory registration of title to an area, there must be an up-to-date Ordnance Survey of the area. It is upon the Ordnance Survey that much of the work of the Land Registry depends. That is one of the principal difficulties of bringing in voluntary titles in areas where an up-to-date Ordnance Survey very often has not taken place, and that is what is taking up the time of the Land Registry.

I hope that my hon. and learned Friend will resist this somewhat surprising Amendment from the hon. Member for Crosby.

The Solicitor-General (Sir Dingle Foot)

The hon. Member for Crosby (Mr. Graham Page) and the hon. Member for Poole (Mr. Murton) were pushing at an open door when they addressed the House on the advantages of voluntary registration to the individuals concerned. No one doubts it, and no one doubts that, in itself, voluntary registration is a beneficial process for all concerned.

As has been explained fully in the debate on Second Reading and in Committee two days ago, we are dealing here with priorities. As my hon. Friends the Member for Bolton, West (Mr. Oakes) and Walthamstow, East (Mr. W. O. J. Robinson) have both made very clear, and as has been stated again and again, the aim of this Bill is to make universal the system of compulsory registration, and that is an aim which commands the assent of hon. Members of all political parties in the House.

What we aim to do is to extend compulsory registration of title to land to all built up areas in England and Wales by mid-1973, and to the remaining urban and rural areas by 1980. What is entirely clear to us, and what we must ask the House to accept, is that if that is to be accomplished, without putting a quite insupportable burden on the Land Registry and on the Ordnance Survey staff, it cannot be done unless there is some limitation on voluntary registrations. We have not cut out voluntary registrations. I described in some detail—and the hon. Member for Crosby has repeated what I said—the circumstances in which the Chief Land Registrar will be ready to accept applications for voluntary registration.

If the Amendment were accepted, it would mean that from 1971 or 1972 until 1980 the Land Registry and the Ordnance Survey would get no relief from voluntary applications. We would in effect be defeating the main purpose of the Bill, and therefore, in spite of the persuasive way in which the case has been presented by both hon. Gentlemen opposite, I must ask the House to resist the Amendment.

Amendment negatived.

Mr. Graham Page

I beg to move Amendment No. 2, in line 12, to leave out 'and 8' and to insert '8 and 81'.

We have discussed the effect of subsection (2) of Clause 1, that it is to restrict the applications in connection with voluntary registrations, that is to say, application for registration in areas which are not compulsory registration areas. The short point of the Amendment is that it offers to the Solicitor-General another application which usually seems to me to be quite purposeless which might be restricted if he is obliged to restrict application for registration.

Section 81 of the Land Registration Act, 1925, makes provision for an application for removal of land from the register. This of course can only happen in an area which is not an area of compulsory registration. One cannot remove land from the register in such a case but where there is no compulsion on registration, when land has been registered it can, under Section 81 of the 1925 Act, be removed.

I cannot understand why anyone should want to remove a property from the register. Why should he take up the time of the registry in that way, when the staff can be much better employed on accepting applications for registration of property? I think that we can do without this Clause if we are really trying to economise on the time of the staff.

The Solicitor-General

I have rather more sympathy with this Amendment than I had with the last one, but I do not really think that it is necessary to the Bill. Section 81 of the 1925 Act is a rather peculiar provision, as I am sure the hon. Gentleman will agree, and I share his bewilderment that anyone should want, so to speak, to remove property from registration once it has been established. Indeed, applications under Section 81 are now becoming exceedingly rare, but this Section was introduced in 1925 when people were still suspicious of registration, and it was at that time that we had had to hedge compulsory registration about with various safeguards.

We had to get the consent of the county council. If it were called for, there had to be a public inquiry. Experience has shown those safeguards to be unnecessary, and by general consent we are getting rid of them in the Bill. Section 81 applications are almost unknown and they will come to an end completely when we have universal compulsory registration, but so long as we keep areas of voluntary registration we do not see any particular reason to remove this option if any one wants to exercise it.

Therefore, although I do not feel particularly strongly about the Amendment, on balance my advice to the House would be to reject it.

Amendment negatived.

9.15 p.m.

Mr. Graham Page

I beg to move Amendment No. 3, in page 1, line 14, to leave out from 'shall' to end of line 19 and to insert: 'be accompanied by—

  1. (a) a draft land certificate or charge certificate (as the case may be) prepared by the solicitor, representing the applicant, in duplicate in the prescribed form and setting out the estate or interest of the applicant in the property which is the subject of the application and all matters relevant thereto which would be set out in a certificate issued under section 63 of the said Act; and
  2. 1512
  3. (b) a statutory declaration by the said solicitor in the prescribed form certifying that the said draft truly sets out the estate or interest of the applicant in the said property and all matters relevant as aforesaid;
and the registrar shall insert one of the duplicates of the said draft in an appropriate register without the obligation of examining it or investigating the title to the said property and one of the duplicates of the said draft marked with the date of receipt thereof and of the said statutory declaration in the registry and on and from date the land shall be registered land as defined in the said Act provided that at any time the registrar may issue a certificate under section 63 aforesaid in respect of the said land '. We have already fully discussed the purposes of subsection (2), namely, the restriction of voluntary applications for registration. The Amendment proposes not exactly an alternative but a supplement. If it were accepted the subsection would read: "Applications under sections 4 and 8 of the said Act (first registration of title) as respects land outside an area of compulsory registration shall be accompanied by"—and then the Amendment sets out two documents which should accompany it, namely, a draft land certificate and a statutory declaration, and goes on to say what would be the effect of the lodgment of those documents with the Registry, namely, that they will have the same effect as a land certificate. They would cause the land to become registered land for a period until the land certificate was issued by the Land Registry under Section 63 of the Act.

The reason we have been given for the restriction of voluntary applications for registration is that there is insufficient staff to carry out both parts, namely, the extension of compulsory registration areas and the maintenance of the present system of voluntary registration. Therefore, the present system of voluntary registration has to some extent to be sacrificed. The Amendment proposes that a certificate given by a solicitor concerned in the transaction which it is sought to register shall temporarily take the place of a land certificate.

What happens now to an application for first registration is that the solicitor for the grantee—whether the purchaser, the lessee or the mortgagee—submits documents of title to the property and is obliged, in doing so, to disclose to the Land Registry a full and proper title, so that he has a proper land certificate, and the Registry is satisfied that his client has such a title as that which he applies to be registered. At the Land Registry, those documents are examined by officials and, eventually, the certificate is issued, setting out the property, the name of the proprietor, the nature of his interest in the land and any charges, restrictive covenants, easements or any other encumbrances on the property.

That document becomes the one document of title, with all the advantages which flow from that. In the Amendment, the proposal is a "do-it-yourself" registration—[Laughter.]—not a "do-it-yourself" conveyancing, but the solicitor would prepare the certificate in the form in which the Land Registry would normally issue a certificate and would make a statutory declaration that his draft certificate correctly shows the title to the property which he is asking should be accepted as registered.

Having made a statutory declaration of this sort, he would, of course, be criminally liable for any untruth in it. It is not unusual, in the administration of the law, for reliance to be placed upon the integrity of the solicitor. After all, his full title is that he is "a solicitor of the Supreme Court of Justice" and he owes a duty to the State in the administration of law and certainly in any transactions, whether litigation or other transactions, as well as to his client.

If he acts wrongly, his clients are insured, to a great extent, by the indemnity fund maintained by the Law Society. At present, of course, when he submits his client's document of title and applies for a land certificate and for the land to be treated as registered, his application is checked with great care by the officials of the Land Registry, but one would expect that, if there were any great faults in applications, they would occasionally be reflected in the land certificate which is issued.

If the solicitor failed to disclose certain defects in the title, the land certificate might still be issued without showing those defects and showing a clean title. One would expect that, if that had been happening over the years, there would have been a fairly substantial claim on the indemnity fund held by the Land Registry. The indemnity fund, I think, was instituted as long ago as 1897 under the Land Transfer Act, and pays compensation to any person whose title has to be rectified because of some error in the issue of the land certificate which causes damage to the proprietor of the land.

Claims against the Land Registry indemnity fund since 1897 total the small sum of £30,000. Under the present system, therefore, very little goes wrong. However, it could and would go wrong if the solicitor submitting the documents of title were to do so carelessly or if he were deliberately to fail to disclose matters; and it is on the integrity of the solicitor in submitting his documents of title that the Land Registry has been made to work so satisfactorily over the years.

The solicitors' profession has in the last two or three years been considering most seriously a form of log book conveyancing which would substitute a log book, rather like the log book for one's car, for the 30 years' documents of title which must now be produced. The Amendment would, as it were, marry those ideas with the Land Registry.

The land certificate is itself a form of log book to the property, but it has the endorsement by the Land Registry as having correct entries in it. If, to extend the benefits of registration to all built-up areas and if, by extending registration to those areas, it is necessary to contract the service of voluntary registration, I submit that something should be put in its place, and I therefore suggest this certification by the solicitor concerned in the transaction, but only so long as it is necessary ot restrict voluntary registration. As hon. Members will note, the Amendment provides that at any time the registrar can issue a proper land or charge certificate under Section 63, and not rely any further on the certificate from the solicitor.

I believe that, on the one hand, there would be a minimal risk to the public from such a form of temporary registration—relying on the certificate of the solicitor—while, on the other, we would have the great advantage of retaining the benefits of voluntary registration for a period of time, until the Land Registry has the staff to deal with them fully.

Mr. Oakes

To introduce a horticultural matter into what is a very dry legal debate, I suggest that we are in the process of pruning the Land Registry so that it may rapidly blossom forth in future. The hon. Member for Crosby (Mr. Graham Page), in the middle of this pruning operation, is attempting a grafting operation—grafting on to the Land Registry tree a plant of a very dissimilar nature.

As the hon. Member for Crosby knows, the log book scheme is not entirely accepted by the profession or by the Law Society, although he and I may find considerable merit in a scheme for cheapening the process of conveyancing. However, to take that scheme and try to impose it in this type of Measure—remembering that it would deal only with those areas of voluntary registration—would give a bad start in life to what I believe is fundamentally a good scheme of conveyancing unregistered, as distinct from registered, land.

This Amendment also conflicts with the objects of the Bill. The hon. Member for Crosby referred to another register. That other register would have to be set up at the Land Registry to deal with part of the documents when a solicitor sent a draft certificate with the statutory declarations. This would mean even more work for the Land Registry instead of less.

9.30 p.m.

Mr. Graham Page

I obviously have not explained sufficiently. There is no obligation to examine or investigate the title. What is meant by another register is merely slipping the certificate in some sort of folder and sending an acknowledgment for it.

Mr. Oakes

I accept that, but later the Amendment says: from date I presume that means, "from that date"— the land shall be registered land as defined in the said Act. We come up against a series of difficulties. If it is registered land, a State guarantee will have to be given to that title under the terms of the 1925 Land Registration Act.

Even if this Amendment were accepted, under the principal Act the Land Registry will still have to examine the title. We would have achieved nothing at all but have merely burdened the Registrar with a new form of conveyancing to which he is not used to and which the profession is not used to in a Bill designed to speed things up at the Registry. I hope, indeed I am sure, that my hon. and learned Friend will reject this Amendment.

Mr. W. O. J. Robinson

I was intrigued and very interested by what I am sure was intended to be a helpful suggestion made by the hon. Member for Crosby (Mr. Graham Page). Those of us in the profession immediately recognised the similarity between this Amendment and what the hon. Member described as the log book scheme. I echo what my hon. Friend the Member for Bolton, West (Mr. Oakes) said about the scheme being viewed with mixed feelings. This proposal would make confusion worse confounded.

One of the values of the land registration scheme is that there is a State guarantee of title. I accept that if the title were examined and a certificate issued by a solicitor that could be relied upon to an extent, but it would not be, and could not be, a State-guaranteed title. If the Amendment were accepted we would have three types of conveyancing, the registered land scheme as existing, unregistered conveyancing, and a mixture of both—what one could describe as solicitor's registered land. This would not help in the major problem of leading to the complete registration which we all desire.

I am also interested in the mechanics of the arrangement. I understand that the solicitor would send to the Registry two copies of a draft land certificate, but at no time would it become anything but a draft. What sort of conveyancing would go on after the first transaction on a draft certificate? If we submit an application to the Land Registry, we get a land certificate which we present when there is a subsequent transaction, but in this case there would be two drafts, one in the file, as the hon. Member said, and one in the Registry. There would be no power to make the Registry return any document to any solicitor which he could produce.

Mr. Graham Page

I obviously have not made it clear. Duplicates would he provided, one of which would be placed in the register at the Land Registry and the other of which would be returned to the solicitor endorsed with an acknowledgement of receipt by the Land Registry.

Mr. Robinson

As I read it, the Amendment does not say that. It says: 'the registrar shall insert one of the duplicates … in an appropriate register … and one of the duplicates of the said draft marked with the date of receipt thereof and of the said statutory declaration in the registry … ' It does not say that a copy is to be returned to the solicitor. According to the Amendment, both are to be retained in the Registry. The solicitor must have in his possession something which is authenticated by the Land Registry as having been accepted.

When this draft transfer is put in the Registry, what happens if the property is sold a month later? What sort of documents do we use? Do we use a conveyance in the unregistered way or do we use a transfer form? If we submit that transfer to the Land Registry, what does the Registry do? Does it examine the draft certificate? Does it convert it into an official ordinary land certificate as we know it? Or what does the Registry do? The confusion existing at Lincoln's Inn and other district registeries would have to be seen to be believed.

I have studied the Amendment. The hon. Member for Crosby has spoiled the case he argued. If the Amendment were accepted, we should omit from the Clause as at present drafted any right to submit an application to the Registrar for normal registration even in the special classes which are in the Clause. If the Amendment were accepted, it would not be possible for a solicitor in any event in a voluntary registration area to submit any application for registration. He could only adopt this mvsterious, and I think untidy, draft certificate.

Mr. Graham Page

May I make it quite clear to the hon. Gentleman. I regret that something has been missed out of the Amendment. I do not know whether it is because of my bad writing. The intention was that one of these duplicates should be returned to the solicitor who submits it so that he has a land certificate, in just the same way as he would have a land certificate from the Registry.

Mr. Robinson

I accept that, but I can only take the Amendment as it is printed. My point at the end was the rather different one that, if the Amendment were accepted, it would not then be possible for any application for the registration of land in a non-compulsory area to be accepted by the Registrar, because the words which at present permit of applications within the limited class would be omitted. If that is what the hon. Gentleman wants, so be it.

Mr. Murton

I never cease to admire the talent of my hon. Friend the Member for Crosby (Mr. Graham Page), nor his great ingenuity in dealing with these problems. Those on the Government Front Bench should be grateful to my hon. Friend for attempting to get them out of a difficulty. I would neither presume nor dare to involve myself in technical arguments on the Amendment, because considerable heat of a friendly nature has already been generated, partly because there are words missing. It would not have made much difference to me if the words had been there, because of my lack of knowledge of the Clause from a professional point of view.

As a layman, possibly a simple one, may I point out that the system as proposed by my hon. Friend could be of great value if only it could be accepted by the Solicitor-General. As I understand it, the problem is in the Ordnance Survey. If that problem could be put on one side, I do not think that the same problem would exist in the office of the Chief Land Registrar. In another place the question of staff was raised. The Lord Chancellor admitted that there was the possibility that women could be recruited and used in the Chief Land Registrar's office.

If we put on one side the problems of the Ordance Survey, the shortage of skilled staff, the difficulty of drawing large-scale plans, and all the problems giving rise to the troubles we are now discussing and we concentrate on the Land Registrar and on getting him the staff he needs, I cannot see why this helpful Amendment should not commend itself to the Government. For what it is worth, I, as a pure—I hope—unprofessional Member, support it.

Mr. James Allason (Hemel Hempstead)

My hon. Friend the Member for Poole (Mr. Murton) has put his finger on the spot. He speaks with great knowledge of the Ordance Survey. No doubt, it is under pressure, and this useful and imaginative proposal by my hon. Friend the Member for Crosby (Mr. Graham Page) would avoid the difficulties of the Ordnance Survey.

In thinking of the difficulty for officials in the Land Registry, we should direct our minds to the consumer's needs. Speaking as a layman and as a possible, though very occasional, consumer, I think it necessary that one should be able to register a house if one wants to do so. If this gives trouble to solicitors and to the Land Registry, that is just too bad. They really ought to try to meet the convenience of the customer.

There is a real need for voluntary registration to continue. My hon. Friend has made a proposal which would allow it to continue right through the years until we have full compulsory registration. If the Solicitor-General is so worried about the 1970s, he need not trouble too much about that because he will not have responsibility then.

The Solicitor-General

I am sorry that for the third time this evening, I must disappoint hon. Members opposite. I could not possibly advise the House to accept the Amendment. The reasons for rejecting it have been very forcibly put by my hon. Friends the Members for Bolton, West (Mr. Oakes) and for Walthamstow, East (Mr. W. O. J. Robinson), and I adopt their arguments.

The hon. Member for Crosby (Mr. Graham Page) referred to log-book conveyancing. As he said, a proposal of this kind has been widely canvassed in the solicitor's profession. It is rather similar to a scheme propounded by the Law Society in June, 1965, which, I think, was called the Title Certificate Scheme, under which solicitors were to certify that the applicant had a title to the property subject to certain party rights as stated. That scheme was circulated for comment to all solicitors. I am informed that the profession appeared to be considerably divided on its merits, but, before the Law Society was in a position fully to assess the reaction of the whole profession, the Lord Chancellor informed the president of the Law Society, in December 1965, that the Government had decided not to adopt any scheme of this kind because they were convinced that it would not meet their main objective of reducing the cost of house purchase.

The Law Society's scheme had considerable advantages over the scheme proposed in the Amendment because it required both solicitor for vendor and solicitor for purchaser to certify the title. Under the Amendment, on the other hand, it is only the solicitor for the applicant who is to certify. Moreover, realising that the scheme would depend upon the reliability of the certificate, the Law Society in its proposal envisaged a global insurance scheme to insure future owners against inaccurate certificates. It does not appear that any such insurance is contemplated in the Amendment.

9.45 p.m.

If the Amendment were adopted, it would have a similar effect to the two others discussed tonight. It would defeat one of the principal objectives of the Bill, which, for reasons explained at every stage of the Bill, is to restrict the right to register land in non-compulsory areas. I have already said that we have to consider our priorities in this matter.

In addition, the general effect would be to render nugatory most or all of the land registration system. Under that system, the Land Registry makes one final and authoritative examination of title in place of the constantly repeated and relatively expensive and sometimes inconclusive investigation of a large number of title deeds every time a transaction takes place. As a result of this examination, the Land Registry forms a simple register containing the name of the owner, short particulars in standard form of such mortgages, restrictive covenants, third party rights and other burdens which affect the land.

The land itself is identified by reference to a plan of scientific accuracy based on the ordnance map. During this process of examination by the Land Registry, many existing defects of title which, in unregistered conveyances, are the subject of tiresome recurrences are permanently cured. But the accuracy of the register is backed by an insurance fund of a nominal value of £100,000, so that any person suffering loss owing to a mistake in the register is entitled to be indemnified.

It follows that the Land Registry is, in effect, an insurer of deeds and, once title to land has been registered, any purchaser can at once safely accept the title and the risks which exist in unregistered titles being imperfect are removed. At present, owing to the defects which exist in unregistered titles, the Chief Land Registrar is obliged to make a wide variety of inquiries of the solicitors applying for first registration in about 25 per cent. of all applications. Even so, numerous technical defects of title are deliberately ignored by him.

In addition, the identifying of the land is uncertain in many instances because some 12 per cent. of all plans of unregistered deeds are seriously defective. If these defects were not cured at the time of first registration, they would necessarily lead to disputes. The proposal in the Amendment completely ignores the question of what kind of draft certificate a solicitor would provide in those cases where he knew a title to be a defective one and makes no provision for identification of the land nor for the provision of a plan. Even if a plan is contemplated here, the experience of the Land Registry suggests that a significant percentage of plans will be inaccurate or misleading, for the simple reason that there are no mapping draftsmen in solicitors' offices.

Mr. Graham Page

This is a most peculiar argument. What on earth does the hon. and learned Gentleman think is done with ordinary deeds in solicitors' offices? Plans have to be prepared every day—dozens of them—in these offices and have to be relied on in future by people dealing with property.

The Solicitor-General

Certainly, when one has a system of registration it is vital that one should accurately identify the land. That is something that is done in the Land Registry and which would not be done in any other way, at any rate in a very large number of cases. This is one of the objections to the Amendment.

The Amendment goes on to propose that a certificate should be inserted in an appropriate register without the obligation of examining it or investigating the title to the property concerned. If land and charge certificates were issued without such investigation, previous experience shows that a large proportion of them would contain errors and would thus be valueless, leading to numerous claims upon the Land Registry Insurance Fund. The Registrar would then feel obliged to investigate all titles submitted to him, as hitherto, not only to safeguard the insurance fund but also to ensure that the owner received a land or charge certificate which accurately described his plan and the obligations to which he was subject.

I hope that I have said enough to show that this proposal, ingenious as it is, is open to great practical objections. It would lead to confusion in many cases and, like the other Amendments, would largely defeat the purpose of the Bill, and I therefore ask the House to reject it.

Amendment negatived.

Motion made, and Question proposed, That the Bill be now read the Third time.—[Queen's consent, on behalf of the Crown, signified]

9.51 p.m.

Mr. Graham Page

I do not think that we can let the Bill go without a short debate on Third Reading. We have had at any rate some interesting discussion in Committee and on Report, and although I regret that the Bill does not contain what we proposed at those stages it does contain one or two useful provisions.

Clause I makes a reasonable reform in land registry law. The procedure whereby one ensured the concurrence of the county council to registration in its area is now quite out of date. Originally, when the 1925 Act first came into operation, one had to educate and persuade local authorities and local law societies to accept registration in their areas. As the hon. Member for Bolton, West (Mr. Oakes) said, at present 15 counties and 28 county boroughs are queuing up for registration, so there is no need for any procedure to encourage local authorities or local law societies to want registration in their areas. Plenty of areas are crying out for it and Clause 1(1) is undoubtedly a useful tidying up and speeding up of land registration procedure.

Subsections (3) and (4) of Clause 1 relate to the indemnity fund. They, too, are useful tidying-up provisions which have not caused any great concern either to the Registry or to the public. The indemnity has not been called on to any great extent and it is most interesting that only such a small sum has been paid out of the indemnity fund over a period of nearly 70 years, only £30,000. I do not know that these changes will make any alteration in that, but they make the situation tidier.

It is to Clause 1(2) that we have objected throughout the stages of the Bill. However one argues it, this is undoubtedly a retrogressive step which takes away a service which the Land Registry is at present providing and which is very popular with those who have to deal with land. It will increase the cost of conveyancing in many cases where voluntary registration would have been, but cannot now be, used. I would have thought that the extension of compulsory registration could have proceeded according to the programme which was laid down by the Conservative Government in 1964 and that the Registry could also have continued to maintain its service of voluntary registration. To that extent we regret the inclusion of this provision, although the Bill contains other and beneficial measures.

9.55 p.m.

Mr. Murton

I do not wish to delay the House unduly over this matter which has been thoroughly ventilated. I would ask the hon. and learned Gentleman to convey to his right hon. Friend the Minister of Land and Natural Resources my belief that something should be done in the way of practical mechanics to obtain the necessary staff in the Ordnance Survey. Work previously done by hand could be done by machines. I cannot believe that the manpower does not exist for this work, even though there is rapid development of building. Much as we deplore this present curtailment of voluntary registration, if a recruitment programme was carried out the job could be done without all the difficulties about which we have heard.

Bill accordingly read the Third time and passed, with an Amendment.