HC Deb 19 May 1971 vol 817 cc1465-88

10.30 a.m.

The Solicitor-General (Sir Geoffrey Howe)

I beg to move, That if the proceedings on the Land Registration and Land Charges Bill [Lords] are not completed at this day's Sitting the Committee do meet on Wednesday next at half-past Ten o'clock. I move the Motion from an abundance of caution, and not with an anxious expectation that it will be necessary.

Question put and agreed to.

10.31 a.m.

The Solicitor-General

I beg to move, That the Chairman do now report to the House that the Committee recommend that the Land Registration and Land Charges Bill [Lords] ought to be read a Second time. The object of the Bill is to bring about some improvements in the system of registration of land charges and land

registration to enable the Land Registry to provide a better service for those who use it. They include, directly or indirectly, at some time or another, most of the citizens of this country. The Bill does not propose any major changes in the system of land registration. Apart from what can be described as some narrow and technical tidying-up amendments to the existing law, the Bill contains two more substantial changes of more general interest.

First of all in Part I, which deals with registration of title, it sets out to simplify the task of the Chief Land Registrar in relation to what is becoming known as "souvenir" land. Members of the Committee may know that a trade has grown up in recent years in order to please tourists mainly from North America and sometimes to please those North Americans who still live over there, whereby they are able to purchase a "square foot of Old England" for a comparatively modest sum. This trade has been developing over the last four or five years, and some enterprising people have been disposing of these square feet of old England for a price which seems to range between about 4 dollars and 10 dollars per square foot. I believe this is rather comparable with the trade which takes place in London smog, which one can buy in jars sometimes at North American airports.

Mr. S. C. Silkin


The Solicitor-General

I hasten to add that it is unregistered London smog. On a modest scale, I suppose it helps the balance of payments and it gladdens the hearts of our continental cousins and enables them to obtain a splendidly medieval looking deed of title, which, no doubt, they display at some appropriate place in their homes.

One can see that this trade poses problems for the whole business of land registration. I have been told that one acre of prospective "souvenir" land produces 43,560 sq. ft. of old England to be disposed of on that scale. It is apparent that if land transactions of that kind have to be registered in the ordinary way an almost impossible burden is imposed upon the Land Registry. There are about 10 places where this kind of transaction is now taking place, and there are probably more than 1 million plots in the pipeline to be handled in this way. If the turnover is in relation to about one-tenth or one-eighth of that stock, so that 125,000 sq. ft. of old England are being disposed of across the Atlantic, that would involve about one and a half times the total turnover of the Land Registry in order to secure registration of these transactions. Obviously, that would threaten to swamp the normal service, so the view has been taken that it is unnecessary to provide the full kit of land registration for such transactions.

So Clause 4 of the Bill provides for such plots to be disposed of, in effect, by means of unregistered conveyances. It enables the Lord Chancellor to make rules allowing the Chief Land Registrar to designate pieces of land being disposed of in this way as subject to a souvenir land scheme and thereafter to make regu- lations to exempt the Land Registry from the ordinary obligations which have to be fulfilled normally in relation to registered land. The kind of land to be dealt with in that way is defined in Clause 4(5): 'souvenir plot' means any piece of land which, being of inconsiderable size and little or no practical utility, is unlikely to be wanted in isolation except for the sake of pure ownership or for sentimental reasons or commemorative purposes. Some of the advertisers of this property have suggested that, at a pinch, it might be used by energetic pole squatters able to post themselves within the confines of a square foot or two. I suppose it might also be used for the display of—

Mr. Julius Silverman

Presumably they will have to commit trespass in order to get to that plot?

The Solicitor-General

That point has been considered, because the conveyance normally carries with a right of way over the adjoining plots, so there is a kind of mutual easement towards the pole squatting station.

Subject to other restrictions of the Town and Country Planning Acts, I suppose it might also be used for the flying of the American flag. No doubt the technical trespass into somebody else's air space would be overlooked on a windy day.

Mr. S. C. Silkin

The Solicitor-General mentioned other planning restrictions, and I wonder whether one needs planning permission for pole squatting.

The Solicitor-General

I dare say I should refer to the hon. and learned Member for advice on that. I am not familiar with the exact provisions of the town and country planning legislation dealing with pole squatting. Anything I say should not be taken as constituting a Governmental licence to pole squat on souvenir land. I need notice of that question.

The Committee will appreciate that this is a practical, sensible reform to deal with one of these unforeseen but not disreputable trades which have developed in recent times.

The other provisions in Part I are modest. Clause 1 deals with the continued existence of the special insurance fund. Registered titles are guaranteed through the registration system. The special insurance fund exists to meet any liabilities which might arise under that guarantee. It has only a very modest sum in it. It costs a certain amount of money to administer, and the proposal is that the special fund should be abolished and that liability to meet the guarantee should be transferred to public funds. So no difference takes place. The same guarantee and rights of indemnity will exist, but it will be more simply administered without the continued existence of the special fund. Questions arising about that will still be determined by the court, and that is the effect of Clause 2.

Clause 3 makes a small and beneficent change bringing existing law into line with existing practice which overlooks one legal snag. At present it is possible for a person to be denied indemnity when he claims it in respect of a registered land transaction if an act of his contributed to the loss in respect of which he claims indemnity, even if that act was wholly blameless. That is the effect of parallel case law. In practice, it is not implemented, but Clause 3 brings the law into line with sensible practice by saying that a person can only lose his claim for indemnity if he is in some way blameworthy by reason of fraud or lack of proper care on his part.

Mr. Silverman

Or by the person from whom he derives title?

The Solicitor-General

Yes, I think that is right. Previously any error, whether on his part or on the part of the person from whom he is obtaining title, would have disqualified him. The Clause merely reduces the quality of the disqualifying act.

Mr. Silverman

I wonder if the Solicitor-General would explain Clause 3(1). It says: …where the applicant himself or, in certain circumstances, a person from whom he derives title… Could he tell us something about these "certain circumstances" in which the innocent party, who may derive title from somebody who has behaved fraudulently or grossly negligently, can lose his indemnity?

The Solicitor-General

Perhaps I may have notice of that question. The point is that the law on that point is not being changed. There are certain circumstances and, given time, I dare say I can produce an example which might not be wholly inaccurate. What is being done here is a benevolent change in the sense of saying that where, under existing law, an innocent fault, either of the claimant or of the person from whom he secured title, would disqualify him, the innocent fault shall not do so hereafter; it must be shown to be due to fraud or negligence. I shall certainly look at the point raised by the hon. Member and see if I can give him an explanation of it.

Mr. Bruce Douglas-Mann

In Section 83(5) of the. Land Registration Act, 1925, there is no reference to lack of proper care. Am I not correct in thinking that the main effect of this Amendment is, in fact, to deprive of the right to an indemnity a person who derives title who himself, or his predecessor in title, has been negligent, whereas at present he only loses indemnity if he, or his predecessor in title, has been fraudulent?

The Solicitor-General

The position, as I understand it, is that existing loss takes place where there has been an act, neglect or default. Not, I think, on these provisions, but on parallel provisions, it has been held that the phrase, "act, neglect or default" does not require any lack of proper care to be shown; so that the effect of this is to make clear that a mere omission or default without any lack of proper care is not any longer sufficient to deprive the claimant of indemnity. That is certainly the definition of it, and if the hon. Member wishes to draw my attention to some fault in drafting perhaps he can do so when he makes his own contribution to the debate, and we can have a look at it.

That, I think, is the last of the changes made by Part I with effect to land registration.

Part II makes certain changes in respect of the registration of land charges. A number of those are comparatively modest and technical. The principal change effected by Part II is that effected by Clauses 5 to 8 and Clause 11, namely, the change designed to allow the Registry of Land Charges to be computerised, so that it will become more efficient as a means of service, will be less expensive, and will require less staff to man it.

The basic changes made by Clause 5, in order to allow this computerisation, are that the index need no longer be kept in alphabetical order; it can be kept in a way more convenient to the computer to handle, because, for some reason which I cannot pretend to explain to the Committee, computers do not work alphabetically, or, even if they can work alphabetically, they prefer not to.

The second change is that the right, which now exists, of any individual to make a personal search of the index is being discontinued, because it is, plainly, not possible for the public actually to handle the tapes or other equipment on which the data are stored.

In place of that—and this is the third change—Clause 5 enables someone who wishes to make a search to request this, and to secure the result of such a search by telephone or by Telex; the result of the search being subsequently confirmed by a printed certificate confirming what the answer was. In addition, it facilitates the use of credit accounting in respect of inquiries and searches made in the Land Charges Registry.

The Committee may like to be assured that all the material information which is to be made available in this different way is already on the existing Register and is already available to anyone who chooses, under the existing system, to make a personal search at the Registry. Indeed, the present system, once the applicant has located the matter about which he is inquiring in the index, entitles him then to be given the relevant volume of the Register so that he can browse on either side of it while obtaining that information. The computerised system allows the same information to be made available to the same people by a different method at lower cost and at greater convenience.

Part VII of the 1925 Act, the relevant Part, as modified by Clause 5, is set out in Schedule 1 to the Bill. That is in accordance with Clause 11.

There are two other matters which I ought to mention in which changes are being made under the second Part of the Bill. First, Clause 9. At the moment, in a transaction when title is first being registered, it is necessary to register on the Register some charges—for example, some restrictive covenants—twice; they have to be registered with the Land Charges Department, and then, quite shortly afterwards, when the title is first registered, they have to be registered on the Register of Title. Clause 9 eliminates the need in that kind of situation for the duality of registration, and makes some reduction in the cost and inconvenience of that.

Finally, Clause 14 repeals a number of obsolete, spent or out of date enactments.

The details of the Bill were described by my right hon. and noble Friend the Lord Chancellor as exceedingly complex, and I should endorse that. The intention and object of the exercise are clear. I hope that if any hon. Members wish to pose questions to me about details of it I may be given leave, if necessary, to answer them subsequently, because it is quite a difficult Measure to expound in detail. For those who are interested, as is perhaps right in a Second Reading Committee, the main object of the exercise, it is a moderately short and entirely beneficent Measure, which, I hope, will commend itself to the Committee.

10.48 a.m.

Mr. S. C. Silkin

The Committee will be grateful to the Solicitor-General for his clear explanation of the contents of the Bill. In so far as it may be difficult in some places for some of us to follow, I am quite sure that my hon. Friends the Members for Kensington, North (Mr. Douglas-Mann) and Birmingham, Aston (Mr. Julius Silverman), and the hon. Lady the Member for Preston, North (Miss Holt) in particular, will be able to enlighten both the Solicitor-General and myself, neither of whom, I think, is particularly experienced in this branch of the law.

In that context, I think the Solicitor-General rather softened the wording used by his noble Friend in another place. He said, not so much that the Bill is highly complex, but that it was almost entirely unintelligible. That is, perhaps, putting the matter unduly high, but undoubtedly it is not easy to follow, especially for those of us who are not particularly familiar with the kind of activity normally carried out in Lincoln's Inn.

The "souvenir plot" Clause seems a sensible provision. It might, perhaps, cause a certain amount of alarm and despondency to think that old England is being bought up square foot by square foot by those across the Atlantic. However, I imagine that if one made a calculation—and nobody could be more qualified to do that than the hon. Member for Northants, South (Mr. Arthur Jones)—it might be found that it would be a millennium or two before the whole of the United Kingdom would be owned by Americans.

Mr. Silverman

One million plots would occupy 20 acres.

Mr. Silkin

I am grateful and relieved to hear that. So long as the practice does not spread to the whole of the population of the world, perhaps we shall be relatively safe for some little time to come.

Undoubtedly the change in procedure will save a good deal of unnecessary administrative work in the Land Registry.

The Solicitor-General

Perhaps the hon. and learned Gentleman would like to consider my rough calculation founded upon a letter written to The Times. A gentleman who wrote on 3rd May, 1967, worked out that the entire United Kingdom sold at 4 dollars per square foot would realise £3,751,900,612,571. I would judge that that makes the total surface area about 900,000 million sq. ft., which is enough for him and his hon. Friends to be getting along with for some time yet.

Mr. Silkin

Of course, with the rate at which the value of money is falling under the present Government one does not know how long even that will last. However, I take the Solicitor-General's point. It only occurs to me that if there is a choice between the purchase of London smog and plots of land, it might perhaps be desirable for the Government to institute an advertising campaign in favour of London smog rather than plots of land.

The first Clause of the Bill is a sensible piece of nationalisation—perhaps not so cataclysmic as that of Rolls-Royce, but we welcome even the slightest move by the Government in favour of placing in public ownership those parts of the economy which are sensibly placed in public ownership rather than adhering to some outworn dogma.

The provisions of the second Part of the Bill are sensible in the light of the modern methods, the use of computers, and so on, which will come into being. Certainly we welcome them.

I should like to make two or three points in relation to the details of the Bill. I take heed of what the Solicitor-General said. I can assure him that, following the practice which I adopted in a previous Second Reading Committee, I shall not ask him to give a reply immediately. These are points which he might, perhaps, consider later, before the Standing Committee deals with the details of the Bill.

The first is a purely technical question which was referred to in the other place by my noble and learned Friend Lord Gardiner, whose service in office as a law reformer the Bill continues in principle. My noble and learned Friend referred to what is apparently described as the "Keeling schedule." I had not myself heard that description before. The name is one known to me only in a connection which does not seem to have a great deal to do with Acts of Parliament. As I understand it, the effect of a Keeling schedule is to enable those who read it to see at a glance, because of the use of heavy print and otherwise, what is inserted into an existing Act as being amended by a current Bill, and where omission has been made.

However, as my noble and learned Friend pointed out, it is rather strange that, whereas what is put in is clearly seen by virtue of the heavy print—one can see this in Schedule 1 to this Bill—what is omitted is for some reason indicated by dots only. It has been suggested that that might be indicated by italics, but there seem to have been grave administrative objections to that course up to now, although I do not quite know what they are. If italics are impossible, one would have thought that some other method, underlining, square brackets, or something of that kind, might be a possibility. It would certainly help one's understanding of the effect of the amendments if one could see at a glance both the words omitted and those inserted. Very often the effect of omitting words from previous legislation may be just as important as the effect of inserting words. I should be assisted if the Solicitor-General could give us some idea of whether consideration is being given to putting that anomaly right.

On the details of the Bill itself, the hon. and learned Gentleman referred to Clause 3 and to the change which, subject to the better judgment of my hon. Friend the Member for Kensington, North (Mr. Douglas-Mann) who raised the point in a Question, I think is for the better, in that as I understand it it narrows the field in which a person may be held not to be able to gain compensation in the case where there is some blame attached to the applicant himself, due I think not so much to the provisions of the previous legislation as to the judicial interpretation of it.

What I am at the moment unable to follow is why lack of proper care, that is to say, negligence on the part of the applicant or person from whom he derives titles, should still, apparently, totally debar him from obtaining compensation. In other fields, what is known as contributory negligence acts as a source of reduction of compensation, but here we seem to be going back to the old law as a result of which lack of proper care is a total bar. I wonder whether that is necessary or equitable, and I should be happy if the Government thought further about it.

The other matter which relates to compensation arises in relation to Clause 5, which seeks to amend Section 17 of the Land Charges Act, 1925, in the manner set out in the Keeling Schedule. Here I am indebted to a member of the solicitors' branch of the profession who knows much more than I about these matters for drawing my attention to a point which, on the face of it, seems to be worthy of consideration.

Clause 5(7) introduces a change which is not concerned solely with adapting the mechanics of registering and searching for land charges in preparation for the records to be put on a computer, a change which could affect the substantive rights of those entitled to the benefit of land charges. By virtue of that Clause, a new subsection (5A) is to be added to Section 17 of the Land Charges Act, 1925. The effect of Section 17 is to deal with official certificates of search, as the Solicitor-General reminded us, and the proposed new subsection would remove the liabilities of what is described as any officer, clerk, or person employed in the registry in the absence of liability for fraud, for any loss that might be suffered in one or other of two cases.

No point arises from that suffered by (b). That suffered by (a) concerns any discrepancy between the search of which the result is set out in a certificate…and the search which, according to the particulars given in the relevant requisition, was desired by the person who made the requisition". The wording there comes near to justifying the criticisms of the noble Lord, the Lord Chancellor.

As far as (a) is concerned, what emerges is that it is not the applicant for the search who is deprived of the right to compensation, but the person who is entitled to the benefit of a charge. The existing Section 17(3) provides that an official certificate of search shall be conclusive, affirmatively or negatively, as the case may be in favour of a purchaser or an intending purchaser of land. There is no change in that; nor do we suggest that there should be.

The effect of that may be described by an example. if Mr. A sells off part of the garden of his house to Mr. B as a building plot but, to preserve the value of the part retained, obtains from the purchaser a covenant that only one detached dwelling house will be built on the plot sold, he will normally register that covenant as a land charge and, assuming that that has been done, we assume further that Mr. B, the purchaser, sells to a development company which wants to put a block of flats on the plot, that is to say, to take action which would be a contravention of the covenant. If the development company asked for a search against Mr. B, and the official at the registry, dealing with the matter carelessly, omitted the entry of the restrictive covenant taken by Mr. A, the effect of Section 17(3), as I understand it, is that the development company will have claimed the land free of the covenant. As a result of that, Mr. A has lost the benefit of the covenant and he will have no means, other than the normal planning control, of preventing a block of flats from being built upon the land sold by him.

Under the existing law, that is to say, at common law, not statute law, he has a right in those circumstances to sue the official registry for damages, but the effect of the new subsection (5A) will be that, if its meaning is as believed, the right to sue the registry official will be taken away unless the action of the official is fraud. That, of course, depends upon the meaning the wording which I referred to, which is not by any means crystal clear. There seems to be considerable doubt whether, in those circumstances, the person whose charge has been overlooked will be left without a remedy against anyone. If it is right that the negligent official cannot be sued, presumably the only possible defendant is the Chief Land Registrar, because the Crown Proceedings Act makes it impossible to sue the Crown in those circumstances. But there is some doubt as to whether the Chief Land Registrar would be held liable.

The Court of Appeal has recently considered the liabilities imposed on registrars—admittedly in the context of local land registrars, but the principles would seem to he the same—under this Section in the case of the Ministry of Housing against Sharp, which was decided last year. In that case it was decided that the Registrar was not a guarantor of the accuracy of certificates issued in his registry; that is to say, his duty is one of reasonable care at the most, and not an absolute duty.

It was suggested by Lord Justice Salmon that a situation might arise in which computers produced inaccurate certificates without negligence on the part of anybody. But the matter goes further even than that, because there is some doubt as to whether the Registrar may not fall within the wording of the Amendment contained in the new subsection (5A). The Court of Appeal, or one of the learned Lord Justices, thought that the word "officer" in the existing section, which is subsection (4) of Section 17, included the Registrar, who is, I gather, of a different view, but if the first view is right, the Registrar would fall among those people whose acts are protected, so that their personal liability is removed.

If that is right, as a result of this provision, provided that its interpretation is wide enough to cover the kind of case that I have suggested, there would appear to be nobody liable. However, even if the Registrar is not an "officer", so that he would remain liable in relation to negligence, there would be no absolute liability. As I understand it, following the existing Law, it seems to me that there is a case for considering whether in those circumstances there ought not to be an absolute liability upon the Registrar, which would in effect be a liability upon the public purse, where a person, through no fault of his own, has been prejudiced as a result of some error, whether it be the unaccountable error of the computer, for which nobody can be blamed, or as a result of attachable blame under the rules of negligence to some person in the Registry.

If we are setting up this new mechanised, computerised system, there is a strong case for saying that all who suffer damage as a result of error of any kind arising from the activities of the computer ought to be fully compensated by the public purse as a result of that error. I hope that the Solicitor-General will recognise that that is a matter of considerable substance and importance, and that it will be carefully considered between now and the Committee stage. At that stage—I do not ask for an answer immediately—I hope that we will have either an Amendment to put the matter right, or else some very convincing explanation of why the Bill in its present form ought to be accepted.

Subject to those doubts and queries, rather than criticisms, the Opposition warmly welcome the Bill, which continues the path of law reform upon which my noble Friend had placed the vehicle of State, and upon which it was proceeding so rapidly and so smoothly up to 18th June, last.

11.14 a.m.

Mr. Douglas-Mann

My hon. and learned Friend the Member for Dulwich (Mr. S. C. Silkin) overestimates my knowledge of conveyancing, and I hope that my colleagues will be able to supplement it.

I certainly endorse what he said about Clause 3. If title has been derived from somebody whose solicitor was negligent, otherwise than by a disposition for valuable consideration, if that title has been registered, surely the Registry ought to be at least equally guilty with the negligent solicitor who accepted the title in the first place—whether or not the property has been passing down from generation to generation without having acquired a possessor in title.

I have had one case in which a mother died leaving her four cottages at one place to one son and her four cottages at another place to another son. The solicitors acting for the estate got them muddled up, and there was subsequently a deed of gift, and it was a difficult matter to unscramble. If that defect had been accepted by the Registry, notwithstanding that there had been negligence by the predecessors of title and no disposition for value, the Land Registry should be liable to provide an indemnity, or at least a partial indemnity.

I also agree with my hon. and learned Friend about the liability of the Land Charges Registry in the event of its negligence. There is no provision, so far as I can see, in the Land Charges Act, 1925, for an indemnity fund, such as is set up in the Land Registration Act, and if the officials of the Registry are no longer to be liable in damages, who is liable for acts of negligence?

Finally, I should like to express my regret that when these changes are being made, we are not at the same time amalgamating the Registers at the Land Registry and the Land Charges Registry. Section 59 of the Land Registration Act, 1925, provides that various land charges which would be registered under the Land Charges Act, if the land is unregistered, can be protected in the case of registered land only by a notice, caution, or other prescribed entry.

If one has a judgment against somebody who owns land, or, more important, if a pending action, it is easy to register this pending action at the Land Charges Registry, but, unless one knows precisely what land he owns, and only a personal search of the index map will disclose whether he owns registered land, there is no way in which one can, by registration, give notice of a pending action in the case of registered land, unless one knows precisely what land the defendant owns. An amalgamation of these Registers, now that we are going on to computerisation, should not be too difficult, and it would ensure that registration in the one place was notified to people searching on the other.

Mr. Silkin

Has my hon. Friend observed that my noble Friend, Lord Gardiner, referred to this in another place and said that it was probable that registration of titles to land could never be done by computer. He went on to say that there were various reasons for that, although he did not spell out what they were, and I am not myself aware of them Perhaps, in due course, the Solicitor-General will be able to explain that.

Mr. Douglas-Mann

I can see that it is likely to be difficult to register land by computer, because the computer is not easily geared to registering contours, shapes and boundaries, but the computer can register charges against registered proprietors. I cannot see that that is an impossible task for a computer.

One cannot be safe when buying land from a company, because a charge created by a company must be registered with the company's registry within 21 days, and it becomes effective as from the date when it is made. Although, in theory, one is advised when one is taught conveyancing to do one's company registry search on the way to completion, one still has the risk that the charge is created within 21 days prior to the date of completion and one is fixed with it.

I can see no fundamental reason why companies should not be required to register prospective mortgages so as to ensure that a purchaser from the company will be protected by his priority notice or some provision whereby one can lodge a search. This should be at the Land Charges Registry; one should not have to make a multiplicity of searches. One can lodge a priority notice at the Land Charges Registry which will be registered at the company's registry if it is impracticable to amalgamate the two registers.

These are matters of omission which I regret—that we cannot get the register of charges at least on to one register instead of on to three registers as at present. Subject to those comments, I entirely endorse the views expressed by my hon. and learned Friend and welcome the Bill.

11.20 a.m.

Mr. Silverman

Like my hon. Friends, I welcome this modest Bill. Its effect is beneficient. Like my colleagues, I am not a practitioner in this branch of the law, and I want to pose one or two questions rather than express opinions. The Solicitor-General may be able to deal with these points now, or prefer to leave them until a later stage.

I have already asked a question about the words "in certain circumstances" in Clause 3. What are the circumstances in which a person deriving a title from somebody else and who is himself entirely innocent loses protection and loses indemnity in case of fraud, or the lack of care by the original applicant? It may be that this matter was dealt with in paragraph (a): Where the applicant or a person from whom he derives title (otherwise than under a disposition for valuable consideration which is registered or protected on the register). Are these the only circumstances in which the innocent person who derives title from the person who committed the fraud, or who has been guilty of insufficient care, is deprived of indemnity? If so, we ought to say so, rather than use the words "in certain circumstances". There is no reason why that should not be specifically spelt out.

If it is not so, we ought to know at some stage what are the other circumstances in which a person can be deprived of his right to indemnity. The Committee would probably like further information as to what sort of circumstances would constitute lack of proper care which would deprive an applicant or his successors from indemnity.

11.22 a.m.

The Solicitor-General

By leave of the Committee I begin by rejecting as without foundation the suggestion by the hon. and learned Member for Dulwich (Mr. S. C. Silkin) that the change embodied in Clause 1 represents an acceptance of the policy of nationalisation—far from it. The insurance fund is already a statutory fund in the public sector and backed by the Consolidated Fund. All that is happening is that as part of the Government's wide-ranging review of the machinery of government, this small corner of that machinery is being rationalised and modernised, as one would expect from the present Government. I reject entirely the somewhat narrow attempt by the hon. and learned Member to make a political point out of the Bill.

The hon. Member for Kensington, North (Mr. Douglas-Mann) asked a number of questions—which and I make no complaint—went outside the scope of the Bill. It plainly provides a useful occasion for some of those questions to be raised, because the Bill is concerned only with the comparatively modest range of changes that it sets out to achieve.

The hon. Member asked whether there was not a case for amalgamation of the two registers in whole or in part. He may have overlooked the fact that that subject was considered by the Law Commission in Report No. 18, and a solution of that kind was rejected as not being feasible. The whole question of registration of title is, however, still under consideration by the Law Commission, and, no doubt, his other observations will be borne in mind, together with the suggestions of other hon. Members.

As hon. Members have said, there are substantial practical difficulties about computerisation of the other half of the Land Registry, registration of titles. Something of the kind has been attempted in Scandinavia; the costs of the programme are escalating dramatically and it is not necessarily fulfilling its objectives. However, I can say that a study of the feasibility of computerising some aspects of the registration of title is now being set in hand. It looks as though this is something with which we should make haste slowly, perhaps profiting by the mistakes of others.

I can take the knowledge of the hon. and learned Member for Dulwich about the Keeling Schedule a litte further. Mr. Keeling suggested the adoption of Keeling schedules in 1938, but who Mr. Keeling was I am not certain, except that he seems to have been a sensible man.

The idea of setting out a Schedule not only containing a Clause as amended, but also containing the words omitted, so as to enable Parliamentarians and others to see exactly what they are doing, was canvassed by the noble lord, Lord Gardiner in another place. Since then it has been closely examined by my noble Friend the Lord Chancellor and it has occurred to me, in this and other contexts, to consider whether one could not make the Keeling schedule more intelligible by adoption of the device which he suggested.

Both the Lord Chancellor and I have been somewhat impressed by the arguments against doing what is suggested. One can see the way this is done in other Legislatures, and, if the phrase may be forgiven, one has a schedule setting out in three different types of print, or in square brackets. or without square brackets, that which was, that which is and that which is to be. It begins to look like a dog's breakfast and becomes very difficult to understand. I have seen some examples from other Legislatures. The use of italics is precluded by the fact that they mean something else. Resolutions and Clauses dealing with matters of finance are printed in that way, and if one wanted a Bill to reach the Statute Book in that form, so that those who had to work with it thereafter could see what is and what will be, and not what was, it would be necessary to provide some machinery for repealing the words which were on their way out when the Bill had its Third Reading in the second of the two Houses. That would involve a great deal of work in drafting the necessary repeal provisions. The practical difficulties might be overcome, but a document set out in that way would be unattractive and might make it less useful than appears at first sight.

I am still attracted by an alternative, namely, setting out the explanatory notes on facing pages in relation to Clauses, as is done in the annexes to Law Commission Reports. It is done in other Measures, too, but that is a different question. The point has been looked at closely since it arose in another place.

On Clause 3, the hon. Member for Kensington, North and the hon. and learned Member for Dulwich raised the question whether it is right for lack of care to be an absolute bar to indemnity. It has been so since about 1897, which may be a good reason for saying that it should be looked at. The point will be looked at by the Law Commission in the context of its general review.

Mr. Douglas-Mann

The Solicitor-General may be incorrect in saying that it has been so since 1897. Section 83(5) of the Land Registration Act, 1925, excluded entitlement to indemnity where the applicant or his predecessor in title had been guilty of fraud. Negligence was introduced in the 1966 Act.

The Solicitor-General

For the benefit of those hon. Members who may be interested in the statutory history, the words were in in 1897. They went out in 1925, and came back again in 1966. Quite why, I cannot explain.

The effect of Clause 3 is to make the law more benevolent than it has been. The points raised by hon. Members will be looked at.

The hon. and learned Member for Dulwich and the hon. Member for Birmingham, Aston (Mr. Julius Silverman) raised a point on Clause 5(7). The effect of that Clause is not intended to be as wide as the wording may suggest. It is not intended to make any claims as to general liability or non-liability of the Registry or its officials for any error. That arises not by virtue of any statutory guarantee, but as a matter of common law liability. The question of whether that fundamental concept can be changed can be looked at in the wider review. No change in the fundamental concept is here embodied.

Hon. Members who look at Clause 5 may find this difficult to believe, but subsection (7) says that if one asks a computer a question on the telephone, and one gets back from the computer a printed out certificate telling one the answer to the question, it is one's own responsibility to ensure that the computer has asked the question one asked it to answer. That is all. There is no other variation. It may turn out that the computer misunderstood, or, more probably, that the human being who fed the computer the question gave it the wrong question. One must be sure that one gets the answer to the question one originally put in.

Mr. Silverman

There is nothing about computers.

The Solicitor-General

No, but a certificate issued under the subsection would be printed out by the computer, recording the information in answer to the question put to it. As I understand it, one would telephone to the Registry and make an inquiry about a given piece of land or a given charge; someone there would feed it in to the computer; the computer would produce a visual answer to be given over the telephone there and then; that would be recorded in the certificate. The certificate is the final evidence of what is in the Register. The questioner would have to check that the certificate issued under the subsection answered the question which had been put—that the search of which the result is set out in the certificate is the same as the search which, according to the particulars given in the relevant requisition was desired".

Mr. Silverman

Suppose one asked the right question but still had the wrong answer? Is there any indemnity, or any liability, on the questioner?

The Solicitor-General

Suppose one asked the right question, one must satisfy oneself that the right question was taken on the board. When the certificate comes back, setting out the questions one asked and the answers obtained, one must make sure that the question put was the question fed into the machine. If the question was the question one wanted put, and through some error or negligence at the Registry one were given the wrong answer, a variety of possible situations could apply. I would rather answer the hon. Member in correspondence. I can think of the answers to some possibilities, but not all. Up to this point, we are clear that the Clause is making only a modest change in the law. The questioner must be sure that the right question was fed in and that the answer was given to the right question.

Mr. Douglas-Mann

Perhaps the Solicitor-General could have another look at this before we get to the Standing Committee. One may lodge a search against a name and a piece of land, and get back the answer that there are no subsisting entries. There is no way in which to check an answer "no subsisting entries" to see whether that relates to the right person or the right piece of land.

The Solicitor-General

One can check—and this is the point—that the certificate which records the answer "no subsisting entries" also records that it asked the question one wanted it to ask in relation to a particular piece of land or a particular name. That is what it is intended to say. It is what it says. It can be looked at later.

Mr. S. C. Silkin

The Solicitor-General may now have answered what I intended to put to him. I accept that that was the intention of the Government in adopting this form of words, and the intention of the draftsmen in trying to give effect to that. The words themselves are not crystal clear, and other interpretations are possible. My correspondent who gave rise to the query on this took the view that a different interpretation is conceivable. He is a practising solicitor with great experience in these matters. If it is so, I hope the Solicitor-General will look at the wording and make absolutely sure that no court can construe it as having other than the meaning intended.

The Solicitor-General

That will certainly be done. Perhaps the hon. and learned Member for Dulwich can let me have his correspondence.

We seem to have reached Standing Committee rather than Second Reading Committee points, and I have no wish to take up any more of the time of the Committee. I commend the Bill.

Question put and agreed to.

Ordered, That the Chairman do now report to the House that the Committee recommend that the Law Registration and Land Charges Bill [Lords] ought to be read a Second time.

The Solicitor-General

Permit me to express to you, Captain Elliot, the thanks of the Committee for presiding over the proceedings, which have not taken too long, and for seeing that we behaved ourselves with reasonable order.

Mr. S. C. Silkin

On behalf of the Opposition I associate myself with that, Captain Elliot, and hope that you have not been unduly troubled by the morning's work.

The Chairman

Thank you.

Committee rose at twenty-two minutes to Twelve o'clock.

Elliot, Captain W. (Chairman) Jones, Mr. Arthur
Allason, Mr. Leadbitter, Mr.
Douglas-Mann, Mr. Monks, Mrs.
Fell, Mr. Silkin, Mr. S. C.
Fisher, Mr. Nigel Silverman, Mr. Julius
Fitch, Mr. Solicitor-General, The
Gorst, Mr. Speed, Mr.
Holt, Miss Wells, Mr. William