§ Wednesday 23rd January 1974
§ [SIR RONALD RUSSELL in the Chair]
|The Committee consisted of the following Members:|
|Allason, Mr. James (Hemel Hempstead)||Fowler, Mr. Norman (Nottingham, South)|
|Archer, Mr. Peter (Rowley Regis and Tipton)|
|Fox, Mr. Marcus (Shipley)|
|Ashton, Mr. Joe (Bassetlaw)||Green, Mr. Alan (Preston, South)|
|Atkinson, Mr. Norman (Tottenham)||Harper, Mr. Joseph (Pontefract)|
|Awdry, Mr. Daniel (Chippenham)||Hughes, Mr. Mark (Durham)|
|Bell, Mr. Ronald (Buckinghamshire, South)||Jones, Sir Elwyn (West Ham, South)|
|Monks, Mrs. Connie (Chorley)|
|Blenkinsop, Mr. Arthur (South Shields)||Owen, Mr. Idris (Stockport, North)|
|Clark, Mr. William (Surrey, East)||Silkin, Mr. S. C. (Dulwich)|
|Douglas-Mann, Mr. Bruce (Kensington, North)||The Solicitor-General (Sir Michael Havers)|
|Fidler, Mr. Michael (Bury and Radcliffe)|
That if the proceedings on the Land Registry Bill [Lords] are not completed at this day's sitting, the Committee do meet on Wednesday next at half-past Ten o'clock.—[The Solicitor-General.]
§ 10.30 a.m.
§ The Solicitor-General (Sir Michael Havers)
I beg to move,That the Chairman do now report to the House that the Committee recommend that the Land Registry Bill [Lords] ought to be read a second time.I hope I shall not be put in the position I was in the House yesterday when objection was taken to a lawyer moving the Solicitors (Amendment) Bill. I wish, as a lawyer dealing with the Land Registry Bill, that I knew something about conveyancing. I must confess to the Committee that that is a subject upon which my knowledge is absolutely nil.
The effect of the Bill is to convert the Land Registry, which until now has been a Government Department, into a public authority outside the Government service.
I can at once reassure the Committee on two points. First, the changes effected by the Bill are organisational only. The 1822 system of land registration remains substantially unaltered, and so no one need fear that he must learn a lot of new law. Secondly, the Bill implies no criticism of the present organisation. Land registry is efficiently run and will continue to be well run in future within the new framework which is created by the Bill. The Government believe that these organisational changes and the new management framework will make the Land Registry better able to fulfil its functions in administering the land registration system, and in particular to proceed with its programme of expansion.
The essential feature of the new organisation is that the Land Registry will become an independent, self-financing public body subject to ministerial control over its broad policy but not in its day-to-day work. This approach is consistent with our general view that Government should not perform directly those functions or provide those services which can be performed or provided as well, or better, by a body not subject to detailed ministerial control. In our view, there is no reason why a Minister rather than a board should be directly responsible for the day-to-day management of land registry, although it is right that Ministers should control such 1823 matters as the pace at which the compulsory areas are extended and the level of fees charged to the public. This is provided for in the Bill.
These arguments of principle, which we consider are sound in themselves, are strongly reinforced in this context by practical considerations. It is a melancholy fact that, although universal registration of title is now generally accepted as a proper aim, slightly over half the population of England and Wales lives in areas where registration of title is not available. To remind the Committee why this is so, 112 years after the Land Registry Act 1862, it is necessary for me briefly to deal with the history.
The 1862 Act was too rigid since it aimed at registration of perfect titles to areas of land precisely defined. It was replaced in 1875 by a new system substantially the same as that now in force whereby the Registrar had a wide discretion as to the titles he might accept and the land was described by reference to general boundaries. Under the 1875 Act regisiration was at first purely voluntary, but in 1897 the principle of compulsory registration was introduced whereby county councils could apply for an Order in Council making registration compulsory on sale in that area.
The 1925 property legislation included a new Land Registration Act which is still the principal statute. Although mainly consolidating, it included some new principles, of which one was that the Government could itself take the initiative in designating an area of compulsory registration. But since the case for registration of title was still being argued, there was a delay of 10 years before the Government could use that power in order to see whether the rest of the 1925 legislation, as was claimed, had so simplified unregistered conveyancing that it was unnecessary to extend the registration system. At the end of this trial period, the Government designated Middlesex and Croydon as compulsory areas and would have brought in Surrey but for the outbreak of war. The Surrey order was not made until 1951 and it was challenged by three local law societies which had a statutory right to call for a public inquiry. That inquiry was conducted by Mr. Neville Gray, KC, who, after hearing 1824 arguments from both sides, recommended that the order be confirmed. Registration was shown to his satisfaction to have substantial advantages of simplicity and cheapness, as well as the security provided by the State guarantee, which are of particular value to the purchasers of small plots of land. The Gray Report virtually concluded the debate and the advantages of registration have been accepted ever since without serious dispute. The problem has been to extend the system.
Between 1952 and 1964 registration was extended by request to Kent, Berkshire and 11 county boroughs, but by 1964 it still covered only 14 million people. On 11th August 1964 the then Lord Chancellor, Lord Dilhorne, announced a carefully planned expansion programme, which became known as the "eight-year plan", for extending the system to all built-up areas, with a total of 40 million inhabitants by April 1973. I gladly acknowledge that Lord Gardiner enthusiastically took up that programme when he succeeded Lord Dilhorne and for a time all went well. But in 1968 the manpower restrictions introduced throughout the Civil Service by the Labour Government brought the programme to a virtual standstill from which it has never recovered.
In fact, by April 1973 the compulsory areas still covered only 22 million people, which means that the eight years had brought in only 8 million and not 26 million as planned. Under Orders in Council recently made, largely to round off some of the revised local government areas, another 2 million people will be brought into the system by March of this year. That will bring the total to 24 million out of a population of about 49 million. But the prospects of further expansion will be bleak if we do not make the reorganisation proposed in the Bill.
I do not think that any party can make political capital out of this situation. The Labour Government halted the eight-year programme as a result of manpower restrictions, but equally we have been unable to revive it. The fact is that, so long as the Land Registry remains part of central Government, it will continue to be affected by economic and other factors which apply to the functions of Government but which are, in truth, irrelevant 1825 to a body which provides services to the public, as the Land Registry does. That is why I say that considerations of principle lead to the conclusion that the Land Registry ought to be hived off and the need to expand the system makes this a matter of considerable importance from the practical point of view.
§ Mr. S. C. Silkin
Is the summary of that argument that everything can go forward nicely as long as it is out of the clutches of the Treasury?
§ The Solicitor-General
History has shown that, although since 1964 both Labour and Conservative Governments were anxious that this should be extended, since 1967 neither administration has been able to do what it wanted because of the restrictions upon Civil Service manpower.
§ Mr. Norman Atkinson
What are the figures at the moment? I understand from the Bill that a total staff of about 5,000 is anticipated. What are the present figures, and what increases may we expect?
§ The Solicitor-General
The present figure is 4,973. By how many the staff would have to be extended will depend on how much work is brought in. It will be a matter of recruitment and ability to move ahead as one wants.
§ Mr. Atkinson
It would seem that 23 men are now to solve the problem of the Land Registry. What the Government are proposing is to sign up 23 people to bring the figure up to 5,000. That presumably is the basis of Tory policy.
§ The Solicitor-General
By the time the programme is fully under way, it is expected that a further 2,500 men will be required to implement the extension.
§ The Solicitor-General
No. The Bill deals with what is required at the moment, but as the programme advances the figure will be increased.
Before turning to the details of the Bill, I should like to mention briefly its effect on the customers and on the staff of the Registry. I do not believe that the customer would be adversely affected in any way. The State guarantee, which is an important part of the present system, will remain undiminished, though it will 1826 be provided in future by a public authority backed by Government finance, as the Bill provides, instead of by the Government. Its value will remain unimpaired. The public will, therefore, lose nothing under the Bill but will gain the advantages of an expanded system in those areas where compulsory registration still does not apply.
The staff have naturally been concerned to know what their position will be in future. It has been carefully explained to them. The Committee might like to be reassured about this. All staff at present serving with the Land Registry will be transferred to the new organisation on the appointed day. They will cease to be civil servants, but we are prepared to guarantee that the terms of employment offered will be the terms on which staff were serving on the day before transfer. Moreover, it is the Government's intention that after the change Civil Service terms and conditions should continue to apply to the staff concerned so that there will be freedom of transfer between the Land Registry and Government Departments. The staff of the Land Registry will continue to belong to the Civil Service Superannuation Scheme and all the new conditions of service and pay agreed for civil servants will apply automatically to them.
The arrangements necessary to bring all this about are under discussion with the staff side.
I now deal briefly with the Bill. Clauses 1 and 2 describe the structure of the new authority which is to conduct the business of land registration in conjunction with the Chief Land Registrar. There will be a board of about eight members, including the chairman. Full-time working members of the board will initially be drawn from the senior members of the present management and in future members of the staff will no doubt be promoted to it. This must necessarily be so in a technical organisation of this kind which requires experience and expertise on the board.
Some part-time members from outside, to represent the public interest and the professions, will also be provided. Not more than one of those is expected to be a solicitor.
The Chief Land Registrar is to be ex officio the chairman. This again seems to us inevitable in view of the technical 1827 nature of the work, which requires an experienced lawyer to be in charge. It has always been the position up to now that the Chief Land Registrar has been in sole charge and responsible to the Lord Chancellor for the conduct of business, and a legally qualified chairman will still be required.
§ Mr. Ronald Bell
To whom will the chairman be responsible from a parliamentary point of view? Now that the Post Office, for example, is a public corporation it is not possible for us to ask questions about its day-to-day management.
§ The Solicitor-General
He will be the chairman of a public body but there will be the over-riding ministerial control exercised by the Lord Chancellor.
§ Clause 3 transfers the function of conducting the business of the Land Registry, including the Land Charges and Agricultural Credits departments, to the new authority on the appointed day. Clause 4 sets out the powers and duties of the new authority.
§ Mr. Silkin
I wonder whether the hon. and learned Gentleman would help me a little further on the reply that he gave to his hon. and learned Friend, the Member for Buckinghamshire, South (Mr. Ronald Bell).
Does his reply mean that it will be possible to table questions for answer by the Attorney-General on the administration of the body in its new form, or will such questions be out of order?
§ The Solicitor-General
I should like a little time to consider that. Under the present system, whereby the Lord Chancellor has ministerial responsibility, the Law Officers act as his agent. But I will confirm that later if I may. My experience in the House is very short, but it would seem that the usual ministerial responsibility of Law Officers as agents of the Lord Chancellor would apply and questions could be asked.
§ Mr. Idris Owen
Can my hon. and learned Friend tell us what questions have been asked in the House about the Land Registry? I cannot recall any.
§ The Solicitor-General
I know of none.
1828 Subsection (1)(c) of Clause 4 provides for a code of practice so that some matters of detail can be removed from the ambit of the Rule Committee and dealt with by the board. Subsection (3) enables the registers to be inspected for the purposes of investigating or prosecuting criminal offences or recovering the proceeds of crime.
§ Mr. Ronald Bell
Surely there will be no parliamentary control because it will not be possible to ask questions. On another point, my hon. and learned Friend said something about the work being limited by the restrictions on the growth of the Civil Service. Will the matter be dealt with by retaining these people but ceasing to classify them as civil servants?
§ The Solicitor-General
No, that is not so. It is the policy of the Government that departments which, in particular, can be self-supporting and are not a drain upon the State should be made public authorities rather than be organs of Government, which is unnecessary.
The general question of the privacy of the register has recently aroused some discussion. It was raised in the debate on the Bill in another place. Members of this House have expressed concern from time to time about the problems of discovering the owner of property in connection with criminal proceedings or the enforcement of repairing covenants in a lease. A Private Member's Bill has been introduced by the right hon. Member for Vauxhall (Mr. Strauss) on this subject, although we do not know precisely what it will contain.
To open the register completely to all and sundry would be a controversial step which I cannot recommend to the House. Many people would object to the financial details of their transaction, such as the price paid, the amount of mortgage, the figure of rent, as well as the existence of cautions and other restrictions, being freely available to the public.
The Law Commission is examining the matter in its general work on the land registration system and any substantial change should await their report.
We have thought it right, however, to deal with the problems connected with the criminal law in subsection (3) of Clause 4 and I shall be introducing a 1829 new Clause in Committee to enable the name and address of the registered proprietor of a registered title to be furnished by the Registry on receipt of an application in the prescribed form, accompanied, as is inevitable, by the prescribed fee. I think this will cover the practical problems of tenants and others who wish to find out the ownership of land, and it is as far as I can advise hon. Members to go at present.
§ Clause 5 provides for the appointment and qualification of the Chief Land Registrar and his deputy.
§ Clause 6 reserves to the Chief Land Registrar his judicial functions and enables him to give the authority directions of a technical nature as to the examination of title and the keeping of the registers.
§ Clauses 7 and 8 give the Lord Chancellor the degree of ministerial control which is required in that he may give directions on policy matters and he is to receive an annual report which is to be laid before Parliament.
§ Clauses 9 to 15 contain financial provisions of the usual kind. The Land Registry is to break even on its revenue account and to comply with other directions it may receive in respect of its financial target.
§ Under Clause 10 the authority assumes an initial debt in respect of property and liabilities which it will take over from the Crown.
§ Clause 11 gives the necessary borrowing powers.
§ Clause 12 enables the Lord Chancellor, with the approval of the Treasury, to give directions about the application of surplus revenue. He can require any surplus to be paid to the Crown, but I emphasise that this power is there only in case it should be needed. It is no part of our purpose that the Land Registry should become a profit-making body for the benefit of the Crown.
§ Clause 13 enables the Treasury to guarantee the authority's borrowing. Clause 14 requires the authority's accounts to be submitted to the Comptroller and Auditor General and laid before Parliament. Clause 15 requires the fee-making power, which will continue to be exercised by the Lord Chancellor with appropriate advice, to be used so as to give the Land Registry the 1830 revenue which it will need, and covers other points of detail.
§ Those are the financial provisions which can be discussed if necessary in detail in Committee. In essence, they require the Land Registry to be self-supporting from its fee income, but to receive the financial backing of the Treasury if need be.
§ The remaining clauses are miscellaneous and supplemental. Schedules 1 to 4 contain detailed provisions as to the membership and staff of the authority, the transitional provisions which are necessary, and adaptation and amendment of existing legislation and repeals, as required.
§ I commend the Bill to the Committee.
§ Mr. Michael Fidler
As, to all intents and purposes, the Land Registry will operate and carry out the same functions as before, am I correct in thinking that what has given rise to the exercise is the feeling that manpower cannot be acquired by Government Departments but is more freely available in the private sector? If I am, on what basis is that theory put forward? If the only purpose is to make a distinction without a difference, can my hon. and learned Friend say what effective improvements will be made as a consequence of the Bill?
§ The Solicitor-General
The principal purpose—and this is in accordance with the Government's philosophy—is that the Government should not perform directly those functions or provide those services which can be provided equally well, or better, by a body not subject to detailed ministerial control. It can be argued that there is no reason why a Minister rather than a board should be directly responsible for the day-to-day control of a body such as this.
§ 10.55 p.m.
§ Sir Elwyn Jones
The Opposition naturally favour extending compulsory land registration throughout the country, particularly in built-up areas. We think it deplorable—and I am glad that the Government take the same view—that less than half the land in the country is registered taking a population basis, and less than 10 per cent. taking an area basis. We recognise the advantages of land registration in its simplicity and 1831 comparative cheapness and of the Government guarantee to the registered title that it carries.
I confess that it was consideration of the benefit of extending compulsory land registration, and perhaps an over-innocent expectation that the Bill would advance that purpose, which led me to agree, if somewhat reluctantly, that the Bill should go through the Second Reading procedure. Having heard the Solicitor-General, I am not persuaded of the purpose and value of this new machinery.
I cannot help observing that the Government are victims of the same political demonology from which the previous administration suffered, namely, the menace of too many civil servants. It would seem that this is nothing but a large camouflage operation and it will, of course, give a glorious five minutes to the Minister for the Civil Service, who will be able to announce a dramatic reduction in the number of civil servants by nearly 5,000. What a glorious day it will be. Therefore, one cannot help detecting in the Bill a shadow of that remarkable and so curiously described document "The Better Tomorrow" which was the great statement of Government policy at the last election.
The machinery that is proposed will create a new authority. We are told that the change is merely organisational. Therefore, is the purpose of the change merely to make a bow in the direction of the political demonology that I have mentioned, and is it an ideological exercise in the operation of the hiving-off principle? We would like the Government to come clean on the purposes of the Bill. The important and critical matter which we wish to be informed about is, will it result in a rapid extension of compulsory land registration?
We are told by the Solicitor-General that the Land Registry is efficiently run at the moment, and the noble Lord the Lord Chancellor said the same in a debate in another place. As one hon. Member has pointed out, we are not aware that many questions have been raised in the House about its operations. Indeed, as the hon. and learned Gentleman has indicated, I do not know of one. Therefore, apparently, the fault does not lie in the organisational structure or the 1832 competence of those who presently run the Land Registry.
The suspicion, therefore, grows rapidly that this is a sham and hollow exercise and we shall want some reassurance about it before the end of the debate. From the point of view of the public, and of Members of Parliament, the new setup will diminish the capacity of Parliament to influence that which takes place at present within the ambit of the Land Registry. That somewhat disturbing result comes about because it is always much more difficult to table questions effectively about the activities of a board, even though there is overall alleged ministerial control. One precise and specific respect in which the public and the Member of Parliament will be worse off is that no longer will the ombudsman machinery be available to examine complaints of maladministration by the new structure.
In paragraph 42 of Schedule 3 there is a provision which states:Schedule 2 to the Parliamentary Commissioner Act 1967 (which specifies the government departments and other authorities subject to investigation under that Act) shall be amended by omitting the words 'Land Registry'.Thus the valuable weapon that the machinery of the Parliamentary Commissioner presently gives Members of Parliament as watchdogs of the individual citizen's need for protection against maladministration will disappear. With respect to the Solicitor-General, we shall need more convincing evidence of the value of that which is to be gained, balanced against that which is to be lost, by this new machinery before we give the Bill a fair wind.
Referring to the structure of the authority, we have been informed, rightly, that the Chief Land Registrar will be a lawyer. What will be the qualifications of the other members? If this structure is to go through I can understand that those who presently run it should provide the major management. Is it intended that there should be any outside representatives in this new authority? The Committee is entitled to know the proposed qualifications for membership.
The Solicitor-General touched upon a matter which concerns us greatly on this side of the Committee, namely, the omission of any provision to make the 1833 registers open to public inspection. Practically the whole world makes no secret about who owns the land—and "the whole world" in this observation includes Scotland, Northern Ireland and, by an historic idiosyncrasy, Yorkshire, because not only of the enlightenment of the people of Yorkshire but the happy survival and accident of the Yorkshire Deeds Registry. Even the enlightened Principality of Wales does not make it possible for local authorities, the police, and such bodies as housing trusts and amenity societies anxious to know who is responsible for proposed skulduggery and who has been responsible for it in the past. The tenant often does not know who his landlord is—some shadowy name of a subsidiary company masquerading and concealing itself under a number of surnames with no means of identification.
This state of affairs is intolerable and the Opposition believe that it should be remedied. If the Government's answer is, "We are waiting for the report of the Law Commission", our reply is there is not all that urgency over this organisational change, which could wait until the Law Commission reported. But the Law Commission has already produced a most interesting working paper in which alternative proposals are made, but where the message seems to be clear.
As I have said, the register is open to public inspection within these islands, namely, in Scotland. Often in matters of this kind Scotland is far ahead of us in the protection that it gives. We found a long time ago, that the people of Scotland have enjoyed better protection than the rest of the British Isles for a very long time. There is no evidence that it has caused grave difficulty in development in Scotland or any sense of outrage by those who are owners of the land. Indeed, it has made possible the exposure of land ownership questions in Scotland—and a jolly good thing too!
The fact that local authorities often have desperate problems in discovering who owns the property in their area is intolerable. In my constituency in West Ham, partly because of the blitz but also because of this problem, the local authorities had considerable difficulty in discovering who owned the land, with a view to their taking over and compulsorily developing it. Strange strategems 1834 have to be embarked upon in order to discover who the landlord is and to smoke out his identity. The Opposition consider that that position should be remedied forthwith.
I understand that the Bill proposed by my right hon. Friend the Member for Vauxhall (Mr. Strauss) is not to be given the blessing of the Government.
§ Sir E. Jones
He may not have seen it, but I have been shown correspondence indicating that the Minister directly concerned does not seem disposed to give the scheme his support. We have had no indication from the hon. and learned Gentleman that the Government at this stage are prepared to do that which, when the public know about this, there will be an increasing demand to be done.
So much for the position of local authorities. Bodies like housing trusts similarly have difficulty. I understand that bodies like the Friends of the Lake District who would like to discuss the matter reasonably with the relevant owners cannot do so because they cannot find out who they are.
The position of the tenant is also intolerable. It is easy to discover who are the occupiers of premises because they are rated, but it is difficult for the tenant to find out who the landlord is. I should like to see more precision.
§ Sir E. Jones
Yes, but he cannot obtain the information. The Lord Chancellor said in another place that there is to be a provision in the Housing and Planning Bill to put this matter beyond doubt and to enable the tenant to have that information. I should like the hon. and learned Gentleman to tell us when that Bill is to see the light of day. He need not tell us today, but we should like to know precisely what the proposal is in regard to what my hon. Friend has called the tenant's right to know who his landlord is.
The next matter to which I should like to refer is the financial provision in the Bill to which the hon. and learned Gentleman made brief reference. I have read 1835 with fascination the provision under which surplus revenue is to be paid to the Lord Chancellor. I thought, "Splendid ! Now we shall have a considerable fund available for the needs of the administration of justice in this country." I thought that this would be a rich source of finance which could be used to improve the courts, to extend legal aid and to do all sorts of other desirable things. But the profit is to go back to the maw of the Treasury.
We have had an assurance that the Land Registry is not intended to be a profit-making organisation. The vast increase in the price of land and the galloping inflation resulting from property speculation which has been an outstanding feature of our social life in the last three years has resulted in millions of pounds of profit being made, and the sole assurance we have is that hereafter it is not intended to be a profit-making body.
We should like to know more about the principles on which the new public authority is to operate. Is it to keep fees down at a fairly balanced level to ensure that profit-making does not arise? If there is to be profit-making, may we know a little more about the purposes to which the profits are to be put?
There are many matters which we shall want to canvass in Committee. Finally, I should like to ventilate the concern which I understand has been expressed by those presently employed in the Land Registry as to the effect of the changes on their prospects and prospects for promotion. Certain undertakings were given by the Lord Chancellor on Second Reading. There was a refusal to accept a proposal in another place that the undertakings so given should be embodied in the Bill. I think the Committee would like to know the nature of the representations that have been made to the Government from the staff side and what response has been given to the anxieties which I understand are still felt among certain members of the staff.
We are deeply suspicious about the true purpose of the Bill and its usefulness, and we shall need a lot of reassuring before we give it our full and enthusiastic support.
§ 11.13 a.m.
§ Mr. Ronald Bell
I was not able to follow the right hon. and learned Member for West Ham, South (Sir Elwyn Jones) in that part of his speech which referred to the charges. I should be sorry if the Land Registry were to make any appreciable profit. One of the troubles with which it is faced is that the gap between the cost of transferring registered land and transferring unregistered land is closing.
An important merit of the land registration procedure was its offer of cheapness in the conveyance of land to the people concerned, because the transfer of land in this country, and possibly elsewhere, is extremely expensive. For the average member of the public it must seem almost an unduly expensive operation. There is a risk, when land prices have risen, that the State, not in its taxing capacity but in its administrative capacity, will join in the inflation and say, "This bit of land is changing hands at £80,000. A land registration fee of so much is chicken feed ; it ought to be more". If there is to be any arrogation to the State of the profits or proceeds of land transactions, it should be done through the taxation machinery of the State. I am sure that the right hon. and learned Member for West Ham, South agrees with me about that.
I do not want to digress into matters which are not narrowly concerned with the subject we are debating, but my experience is that speculation has nothing to do with the level of land prices ; it is the law of supply and demand, and inflation.
What concerns me in the Bill is not the desire to extend land registration, which I support. Indeed, one of the disappointments about land registration is not merely the gradual growth of cost, but the fact that there are too many registers, the system is becoming too complicated, and there are too many chinks. It would be nice if, in the case of registered land, one could ignore the previous bonuses, assurances, and so on, and say that either something is on the register or it simply does not exist as a legally enforceable matter. Unfortunately, that is not the position. We should have a look at this sometime, be more rigorous and simplify it, saying that anything not 1837 registered is just not there. Then one would be able to rely on the register. One could pay one's fee and be told that there are burdens on the land, and that is all. But that is not the present position. Therefore, I favour the extension of land registration in every way.
However, the Bill causes me a good deal of anxiety. The Land Registry is functioning efficiently. There are slight delays, and one accepts certain delays nowadays because of the shortage of manpower, the reasons for which are political, and which I shall not go into. Yet the Bill is presented to us primarily on the principle that where something can be done outside the organisation of the State it should not be done in a manner subject to the detailed control of the Minister.
Does that mean that the Lord Chancellor is worried about his own effect on the Land Registry or about possible interference by a successor? Or does it mean that the staff of the Lord Chancellor's Department are worried about the Lord Chancellor's intervention in the running of the Land Registry? Of course, this is nonsense.
§ Mr. Silkin
The hon. and learned Gentleman put a number of possibilities and alternatives, but he left out the possibility that the Lord Chancellor is concerned about his influence on his Cabinet colleagues.
§ Mr. Bell
I do not think that is one of the troubles. I do not think that ministerial intervention in the Land Registry is any problem, ever has been, or ever will be. The point is that the Lord Chancellor and perhaps his advisers would like to expand land registration more quickly than they have been able to do because of the restrictions on public service manpower.
With respect to the right hon. and learned Member for West Ham, South, it is not only in one Conservative manifesto that anxiety has been expressed about the growth of the Civil Service. That is a fairly common feature of politics, especially at present. When it is suggested that the staff of the Land Registry should be increased by at least 50 per cent.—probably by about 5,000 to 8,000—it is a difficult proposition.
Therefore, the purpose of the Bill is to reclassify the present Registry staff, who 1838 are civil servants. We may have a reduction of 5,000 in the numbers of civil servants, which is very gratifying, but we will have increased the staff in the public service—which is a different thing—and we get on with our land registration.
I would prefer that we were told that, national difficulties or not, it is desirable in the public interest to increase the rate of land registration and that will mean more people and more civil servants. I would consider that on its merits. Probably I would be in favour of it and would say, "There it is ; it means more civil servants". But the business, which has been going on for some time, of reclassifying departments of State as public corporations and striking their staff out of the list of civil servants is nonsense and it has gone too far.
In my intervention, I mentioned the Post Office being turned into a public corporation because both sides of the House agreed that it was a fine thing. I think that pretty well all of us on both sides now realise that it was a bad thing. One can no longer ask questions in the House about the day-to-day management of either the postal or the telecommunications service. Of course, there is a general overriding ministerial responsibility in the Minister of Posts and Telecommunications and we are told that here there will continue to be a general ministerial responsibility in the Lord Chancellor in this respect ; but a general ministerial responsibility which cannot be questioned in Parliament is not one of the most useful of our public institutions.
My hon. Friend the Member for Stockport, North (Mr. Idris Owen) asked how often questions relating to the Land Registry appear on the Order Paper. It is not correct to say that they never appear, but they do not often appear. But by removing them from the sphere of the Civil Service one expressly disconnects the competence of the Parliamentary Commissioner, and one has to watch how these matters develop when they are no longer subject to parliamentary scrutiny.
Under the charging provisions in the Schedule, there is power for the Lord Chancellor not merely to increase charges by statutory instrument, I assume subject to annulment by Prayer—I would like to know about that—but to give power to 1839 the registering authorities to vary the charges, not by statutory instrument, but by powers delegated under a statutory instrument.
I have never liked, nor has the House, the delegation of powers under statutory instruments, particularly in the matter of charging. If one is to have this kind of delegation and one is to float the matter financially and even make provision about what happens to the profit, some form of parliamentary scrutiny of the operation is desirable. Perhaps I am making heavy weather of these points on a Bill of this kind because we are concerned with a very small department. It deals with a relatively small but technical function of the State, but we are asked to accept the Bill.
I regard the Bill as one of those unnecessary Bills which clutter up the parliamentary timetable and are introduced for ulterior motives, though not in any bad sense. People always think that they are doing what is best in the public interest. But such Bills disconnect Parliament and disconnect political criticism about growth of the staff. That is not a good thing. I am unenthusiastic about the Bill, but how far my unenthusiasm takes me will depend on what my hon. and learned Friend the Solicitor-General says.
§ 11.28 a.m.
§ Mr. Norman Atkinson
As do many other hon. Members, I agree in principle with land registration and I accept what is contained in the Bill. However, I reject the purpose of the Bill and I am totally opposed to the hiving-off process that it envisages, and so I shall vote against it. I believe that it is a first step in taking from the Civil Service an organisation to minimise accountability of land registration.
The second step envisaged by the Government, in keeping with their philosophy and attitude towards political structures, is to appoint either Harry Hyams or Billy Butlin as chairman of the board. That is another stage in the process of the diminution of the Civil Service as a central State organisation. As I am totally opposed to the principle of hiving-off in this way, unless my hon. and learned Friend can put forward convincing arguments to show why the Opposition should support the Bill, thus creating 1840 a rod for our own backs, we should oppose the whole principle of the hiving-off of this service.
One understands the attitude of the hon. and learned Member for Buckinghamshire, South (Mr. Ronald Bell): here is a mathematical gain in the sense of reducing the Civil Service by 5,000 and creating a new service in the future of 7,500 people not directly employed by the State. One presumes that it is politically advantageous to do that as part of the argument that the Conservative Party stands for a reduced Civil Service. That was one of the Tories' commitments at the last General Election and this is therefore part of the process of carrying out one of their electoral promises. I do not know what other electoral promises they have implemented, but this is certainly one that they may intend to meet.
In principle I agree with the hon. and learned Member that anything that is not in the registry, is not there. If that principle could be established, that would be a tremendous step forward in the whole business of conveyancing. I believe that it is an objective which the Labour Party, when returned to Government, very soon now, will adopt as one of its priorities.
But what mainly concerns us is the whole purpose of the organisational change envisaged in the Bill. It is a move to which I am fundamentally opposed. There are many reasons why that opposition has been made clear from time to time, but certainly the process of taking away from the Civil Service should be resisted.
I also have doubts about the functions of the Lord Chancellor as a non-elected person. I am opposed in principle to people being members of a Cabinet when they have not been elected and are therefore not answerable to the people. It is a part-time democracy if we have a political system in which people are appointed members of a collective, democratic, decision-making body. We detract from the principle of democracy by having non-elected people in the Cabinet responsible for collective decisions.
I also agree with the hon. and learned Member for Buckinghamshire, South when he objects to delegated legislation 1841 of the kind we now see. It is an obnoxious way of doing things and as Members of Parliament we should be concerned. Too little attention is paid to many of these orders—thousands of them in the course of a Parliament—that go through without any attention whatsoever, delegating massive authority to non-elected people.
I realise that one of the weaknesses of the Labour administration was to bog down the parliamentary machine by being perhaps over-conscious about democratic practice. There are limits to what can be done in Parliament. I hope that when the time comes, we shall not repeat the mistakes of the 1964–70 Government in the sense, as one of my right hon. Friends said, that we then could operate morning, afternoon and night—go round the clock if necessary—to use the parliamentary machine and ensure that full democratic attention was given to all matters. I do not believe that the parliamentary machine could stand such a burden: it is not built for it. Members of Parliament cannot, night after night, operate round the clock as we were doing at one period of the Labour Government.
It could be said that arithmetically we got through a lot of business and took many decisions, but the quality of those decisions was suspect as a result of asking Members to get into a kind of clockwork orange and keep going night after night in order to push through this tube called Parliament all this legislation delegating authority to act. Mistakes occur in that way. But, having said that as my qualification for the principle I have tried to establish, I must add that the business of hiving-off functions of this kind away from the State machine is to be deplored and is, in the end, a diminution of democratic practice.
I want to go the other way. I want to hive-on these sorts of functions, because I believe that they are an essential part of the fabric of our government. I want to increase the democratic content of our way of doing things. In principle, part of our philosophy is to add rather than subtract from the State machine, laudable as is the principle of extending land registration. But my opposition to the Bill is not against that purpose, but against the idea of detracting 1842 from the responsibility of Parliament and an elected Minister.
Secondly, will it be any cheaper in the end? By extending the service in this way, will there be less cost involved to a person conveyancing land? I made some inquiries earlier about the numbers of house sales involving land conveyancing that are dealt with each year. I am told that, on average, it is about 600,000 a year. That is, I believe, the bread and butter of the solicitors' business. They underwrite their profession by deals of this sort.
How accurate that figure is, I do not know, but, obviously, if there is to be any extension of the percentage of owner-occupied houses—now approximately 50 per cent.—and if there is to be greater flexibility of movement about the country, a return to our nomadic heritage so that people move around more than now, conveyancing will attract much more business and the figure of 600,000 will be increased. But will conveyancing be cheaper? I see nothing on the horizon to suggest that solicitors will reduce their charges as a result of the Bill.
Thus, part of the opposition to this sort of structure and the ideas set out once again in the Bill is that there does not seem to be any benefit to the owner-occupier involved in conveyancing. In my view, the Labour Party will have to consider the whole principle of log-book registration of property. I know that solicitors would howl in protest and would probably march to Parliament to stop anything like that ; or they might go on strike—there are so many solicitors in this place that if they went on strike, Parliament could not function!
But there is no doubt that we have seriously to take up the idea of a logbook technique so that we can extend do-it-yourself registration and conveyancing, simplifying the procedure and reducing the expense when selling a house or land. We should make that process easier. I am a great advocate of do-it-yourself conveyancing, and I believe that the Land Registry organisation envisaged in the Bill should be designed to make that possible.
One of the objects of the Labour movement over the years has been to bring about easy conveyancing of property. I return to the principle stated by the hon. 1843 and learned Member for Buckinghamshire, South, namely, that anything not registered is not there. That is the first step towards the creation of a log-book technique for the registration and conveyancing of property. That is the way it should be done to make it much easier, because if we say that one of the jobs in our new society will be to enable people to move from one place in the country to another, and allow them to move much more easily in order that we can have a flexible job exchange and more mobility in the community, we must at the same time ensure that there are not problems about the ownership of houses.
If the Conservative Party is an advocate of a property-owning democracy it should make sure that society is adequately equipped to enable that kind of philosophy to be applied. When the Tories speak of mobility in society, that part of their argument is a sham for they have failed to provide the equipment whereby people can easily move and communicate around the country. That is another of the political principles involved.
Public inspection is essential. A cardinal principle must be enabling people to see what is happening about the registration of land and to know what are the obligations in connection with that land.
One of the admirable features of the registration of rents, for instance, is that in principle rents are open to inspection. A person should be able to see what are comparable rents for properties similar to his home. It is a principle of democracy. If one is talking about property-owning as part of a developing democracy, it is essential that there should be maximum knowledge available to every member of the community, on an equal basis about what is happening with that property. Public inspection is, therefore, a cardinal principal which must be clearly spelled out if we are to read into the whole subject of land registry the sorts of advances that we are asked to believe to have been made.
Finally, I come to what I regard as my most important point, for it concerns the future of the Labour Party and its attitude towards land registration. I am an advocate of the public ownership of all land. That may be Utopian at the moment. The step may be too big, the 1844 river to cross too wide for the size of boats we now have. I believe, however, that we can get very near it.
What we can do is to minimise the gains created by speculation by changing a few simple rules. I believe the Labour Party will have to produce a Land Registry Bill in much more complicated style and with much greater depth in principle than this. That Bill would attempt to change the nature and character of our society, and therefore a different Bill would be necessary
As part of the instrument of change, however, I believe that Land Registry will be an essential part of the process. By that, I mean that in the Land Registry must be some information about planning practice. If we are arguing now for a system of planning registration, together with land registration, those things must be brought together to make feasible the policy that we advocate.
I am honoured to be alongside my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Dulwich (Mr. S. C. Silkin), whose family has long been associated with these exciting ideas of trying to take capital gain out of land change. They have related land and its ownership to progressive development of our ideas for our kind of society.
The Labour Party would want to do two things. First, it would want to register ownership of land. It would want to keep to the principle that anything not registered, is not there, but it would want to apply that principle to the whole subject of planning and what a local authority would want to do with that land within the foreseeable future beyond its registration.
Secondly, if our rolling programme, as envisaged by the Labour Party to minimise the capital gains involved in land transfer and development, is to be carried out, we must make it obligatory upon society to register intention to change the use of the land, or to change the shape of the property occupying the land.
Putting those two together, we need a different organisation. Part of the problem is the myriad administrative hotchpotch, particularly in London where there are a mass of contradictory organisations all trying to function without letting each other know what they are doing.
1845 Our society has become so complicated that it takes legal minds many hours to sort out some of the complexities. There are so many conflicting interests involved today in land use, property, planning and so forth, that they protract the whole process of change over too long a period. In order to simplify the procedure and give maximum benefit to the people, it is necessary to co-ordinate the process. I believe that registration is one way of doing that.
Those are my objections to the Bill. Those are some thoughts as to the political significance of what is being done right now. For the reasons that I have set out, I hope that my hon. Friends will oppose the Bill in order that we can claim continuity when the time comes to introduce our own legislation. We believe that all organisations of this kind should be directly responsible to the Ministers concerned ; they should be part of the parliamentary method, and what the Government envisage here is something which is extra-mural in that sense. It is outside the parliamentary method, and for that reason I am opposed to it.
§ 11.47 a.m.
§ Mr. James Allason
I am rather puzzled by the political philosophy of the Member for Tottenham (Mr. Atkinson). He wanted to add to the State machine in order to achieve democratic control, but the democratic control approved by the Labour Party is usually democratic control where they are in power. When another party is in power and passes a law that is objectionable to it, the Labour Party says, "It is perfectly reasonable to disobey that law".
We have had frequent instances of the Opposition supporting those who are breaking the law on the ground that it is a law of which they do not approve. We must assume, therefore, that what is wanted is democratic control, so long as it is the sort of democratic control of which the hon. Gentleman approves.
I wonder what the hon. Gentleman means. Is he suggesting that all nationalised industries should come under democratic control, that they should be brought back under the control of Parliament, even at the expense of Members walking through the lobbies all through the night? It may be that he wants that, but I must 1846 say I find the thought an absolute nightmare.
§ Mr. Atkinson
I am suggesting that in principle it should be within the control of the parliamentary method. I am not saying that day-to-day administration and administrative detail should be under the control of this place ; I am saying there should be some parliamentary accountability of a different kind from that which now exists.
§ Mr. Allason
The hon. Member is working himself round remarkably close to the Bill that we have. I understand that it proposes parliamentary accountability in general, but not over detailed matters, just as happens in nationalised industries.
I issue a warning about log-book registrations. I emphasise that I am not a lawyer, but all Members of Parliament have experience of the difficulties that arise in conveyancing. It is not a simple matter of saying, "There is a square of land, and it belongs to A. All we have to do is to transfer it to B and to make an entry on a log-book". There are such things as restrictive covenants.
Then there is the matter of searches. We all know the agonies that occur when it turns out that searches have been inadequate, when a local authority suddenly comes up with new plans which technically it did not have an obligation to disclose at the time the searches were made. Sometimes, of course, searches are not made adequately.
Then there is the problem of new estates. Usually there is a specification of a new estate, and somebody purchasing property on a new estate is entitled to expect that the rest of the estate will be developed as the original specification says. Yet, there are instances of an increase in density which becomes intensely annoying. In all these matters a purchaser requires proper legal advice and it is dangerous to think that one can do it oneself.
I had an example recently. To his horror, a constituent found that he did not own the end of his front path where it led out on to the pavement. It was part of the land belonging to someone else. When the estate was laid out, it was thought that that land would be public land. However, there was then 1847 a change of plan and the portion in question was handed over to somebody else's garden. Now, my constituent has had a fence put across his front entrance and the developer has had to provide him with an entirely different front entrance. His lovely paving-stones have disappeared and a thoroughly unsatisfactory situation has arisen. It arose though a mistake in conveyancing. His solicitor did not come along and check on the ground whether his front path crossed somebody else's land.
There are immense difficulties. Conveyancing is necessary, but conveyancing supported by good land registration must be much simpler. I strongly support any proposal that will accelerate the introduction of compulsory registration throughout the whole country.
It is of great importance that the tenant, local authority and others have the right to know who the landlord is, but I doubt whether this Bill is the right way of extending that right. At present there is a requirement in a weekly rent book to show the name and address of the person responsible for the property to whom the rent is paid, but who may not be owner. But that applies only to rent books, and rent books are required only for a weekly tenancy. For monthly tenancies there is still no practical way by which a tenant can discover the person responsibile for the condition of the property. He may not do so as of right.
That is a reform that I want, but I believe that the Housing and Planning Bill will be the best place to introduce it. The landlord, the owner of the land, the freeholder, someone with a long leasehold, who will be registered in the land registry, is not necessarily the person who is at fault in not keeping premises in good condition.
§ Mr. Silkin
I wonder whether the hon. Gentleman has had the sort of experience in his constituency that I have had often in mine. The tenant says that he has just been told that there has been a change of landlord. In other words, the agent or the new landlord has written to say that the rent must be paid to him now. The tenant may or may not have a theoretical right to find out, but often it is virtually impossible for him to find 1848 out whether he ought to obey that instruction.
§ Mr. Allason
Happily, it does not happen very often in my constituency. My experience of this problem was gained on the Kensington Council, where it was a considerable problem.
I should be grateful if my right hon. and learned Friend could tell us the effect of an amendment giving the right to any member of the public to inspect the registry and dealing with my suspicions that it would not solve the problem. It is an open secret that the Housing and Planning Bill is about to appear and I believe that it will be the best place to introduce this necessary reform.
§ 11.58 a.m.
Mr. Mark Hughes
I suppose it would be fair to say that the history of land registration in this country, excluding curios like the Domesday Book, begins with the Select Committee of 1846 in the other place. It came to the conclusion that there were unnecessary burdens in transferring land and recommended as a remedy the institution of a register of all deeds.
The Royal Commission, which started sitting in 1854 and reported in May, 1857, similarly examined how the register should best be operated. It was the unanimous view of that Royal Commission that it had to be a part of central government, a government function, not some private or public board, or a commission, as with the Customs and Excise, but a direct part of government that should operate this register.
As was pointed out earlier today, the first two Acts were in 1862 and 1875. In 1875, Lord Selborne said of the whole process that we are considering in the Bill, that which made registration compulsory and irrevocable was the proper instrument and machinery for introducing a general reconstruction and reform, gradual and progressive, into the whole system of land titles and land transfers. That was 99 years and 13 months ago to the day, and we do not have it yet. We still have not approached the concept of compulsory irrevocable registration leading to a general reconstruction and reform, gradual and progressive, to the whole system of land titles and land transfers. Nothing in the Bill leads me to 1849 believe that it will expedite the achievement of that objective.
The Land Registry in 1886 fell into one of its periodic hard times because Lord Halsbury, the then Lord Chancellor had to introduce a Land Registry Bill in great haste for the quaint reason that in consequence of the death of Mr. Brent Spencer Follet, QC, who had for some years been Chief Registrar for the Land Registry Office, because no provision had been made in the Acts which constituted the office for the duties of the registrar to be performed by anybody else. Parliament had set up the office and created a land registrar, but once he died there was some difficulty because all its functions died with him. Parliament therefore had to rush through an immediate resuscitatory measure, and it was in the debate on this occasion that the Attorney-General, Charles Russell, saidI speak the opinion of the profession when I say that from beginning to end these two Acts (1862 and 1875) were signal failures—that they have cost this country a great deal more money than they are worth and that they have done little better than to establish one or two not unimportant sinecures.
That is a little vignette of the problems of land registration, and, as my hon. Friend said, so it has gone on to this very day—pious hopes, genuinely meant, sincerly believed, but never carried out.
One would have thought that with the Grey Report of 1951 the arguments as to the benefits to be achieved by compulsory registration were finished and clearly when he introduced the Bill in another place the noble Lord, the Lord Chancellor made no question of his own personal commitment to the expansion of land registration.
But we then get, as the great defence of the Bill, the statements of Lord Gardiner in 1968 when he was Lord Chancellor. The reasons, according to him, for the slowing down of the whole process of land registration, and here I quote the Lord Chancellor in the debate on Second Reading in the other place, were:The answer is to be found in the HANSARD of this House of July 31 1968 … I want to hasten to say that I put no blame 1850 on the noble and learned Lord. The 8-year plan was, however, laid to rest by the noble and learned Lord, in spite of the protests from the Liberal Party and my own. The reason given by the noble and learned Lord was the need not to increase the number of civil servants and therefore Government expenditure."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, House of Lords, 20th November 1973 ; Vol. 346, c. 908.]This leads one to suppose that either the Treasury and the Cabinet are so obtuse as to believe that a diminution of civil servants, when they are self-financing, is a benefit to this country by changing the name, or that an increase is a disaster when they are self-financed.
It may be that in earlier times it was the problems of the legal profession that caused difficulties for land registration, but we are now told that the difficulty resides in the Treasury and in the Cabinet, which to my mind assumes a degree of idiocy in both those places which I would find, despite strong evidence to the contrary, difficult to accept in toto. We are told that the barriers to expansion are to be removed by the Bill, a thought which I find has no credibility at all.
We are told also that it is part of the policy of the Government to hive off self-sufficient organisations. One of the first Committees on which I sat as a new Member considered a Bill concerned with hiving off from the National Coal Board. I would be the last to impede the Coal Board hiving off its salmon fisheries.
It does not seem to me that the ownership of fishing rights is what we nationalised the coal industry for, but highly profitable they were and off they went.
Similarly, I would object strongly to the recent hiving off of the brickworks. For the information of the Committee, I may say that there is one area where overtime is banned by the NUM. The NCB is not the employer—it is now a private brickworks company—and the company has privately offered employees a wage increase far in excess of phase 3, and yet overtime is still banned because, union-wise, the men are still not allowing themselves to be hived off.
The Government now say, "We hive it off because it is part of our policy 1851 to remove from formal public activity into a slightly less formal procedure, and as such this would help." On both those arguments, with great deference to all that has been said this morning, the noble Lord, Lord Gardiner summed the whole thing up:It is a silly Bill ; it is a Bill the logical basis of which does not carry any weight.Let us consider the profit and loss account of the Land Registry over recent years. In 1966–67, it made a loss of some £19,000 ; in 1967–68, a further loss of £17,000. By 1969–70, the loss rose to £483,000. In 1970–71, it was £908,000. Clearly, something was amiss. The fees, if it were a commercial organisation, were too low. Therefore, up went the fees, so that in 1971–72, from a loss of £908,000 in the previous year, it showed a profit of £2,300,000.
In 1972–73, the profit rose to £6 million, which, on a rough calculation of a labour force of 5,000, means that the value added over and above his own salary by every member of the Land Registry was £1,000. That is the staff's contribution to the Consolidated Fund by their labours over and above the income tax and the contributions that all of us make. Every member of the Land Registry staff contributed £1,000 to the Consolidated Fund.
§ Mr. Ronald Bell
The phrase "value added" struck me as rather odd. It is "value extracted", because a monopoly is being operated.
As I have always held that the phrase is equally inappropriate for the tax recently introduced, I would accept that it should be called the value extracted tax, too.
In June of last year, the fees were reduced, and I should like to know whether the 20 per cent. reduction in fees then announced will result in a lower profit and, if so, how much lower profit is expected for the financial year ending in April. Here is a clear sign that this is a body where the settlement and determination of fees alone determines how much profit or loss is made. If we are concerned with making compulsory land registration more effective, to saddle its users with an excess profit of £6 million is to extract from them more than anyone should decently ask.
1852 Let us now turn to certain more detailed points of the Bill. I noted with interest that, with one word omitted, the Solicitor-General, introducing the Bill today, quoted the precise agreed formula which had been made in the other place regarding the staff side. I ask him to check whether the omission of the definite article in that statement, which I shall now draw to his attention, was intentional or accidental. In the statement in the other place the Lord Chancellor said:They will cease to be civil servants, but we are prepared to guarantee that the terms of employment offered will be the terms on which the staff were serving on the day before the transfer."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, House of Lords, 20th November 1973 ; Vol. 346, c. 911.]In his statement to the Committee this morning, while the whole of the rest of the passage is identical, the Solicitor-General omitted the word "the" before "staff".
I accept that it is a fine point as to whether it is the terms "staff were serving" or "the staff were serving", but if "the" is omitted, the fear of redundancy creeps in, however narrow the difference. The guarantee by the Lord Chancellor in the other place was that it would be the terms on which "the" staff were serving, whereas the guarantee in this place, in all other respects identical, omitted the word "the".
§ The Solicitor-General
There is nothing sinister about this. The obligation as stated by me is exactly the same as the obligation stated by the Lord Chancellor. All members of the staff will be entitled to those guarantees.
I am obliged for that assurance.
What was not mentioned was that the staff side is resolutely opposed to the whole of the Bill. For instance, 75 per cent. of the 900 members of one association have indicated that they do not wish to be hived off. As it happens, the chairman of the staff side is a constituent of mine working at the Durham District Land Registry. The membership of the CPSA are 60:40 opposed to the whole concept of hiving off, and I say that as a constituency Member from a special development area where Civil Service jobs are a most high prized and desirable addition to the spectrum available for employment.
1853 I turn now to the problems that the Bill will create for the immediate areas of Durham City. At the moment, young persons wishing to go into the public service may be offered the security of full Civil Service membership, including transfers and so forth, by going into the National Savings Certificate Division in Durham. The alternative is that they go to the Land Registry which is in the same city.
But if they chose to enter the Land Registry, their promotional prospects are diminished. They are up a narrow creek, however idyllic that creek may be, for they see no real prospect of transferring out of the Land Registry into main stream or other areas of the Civil Service, whereas, if they go into the National Savings Certificate Division, with equal qualifications, they see their horizons potentially wider. One of the risks, not only in London at the small headquarters staff of the Land Registry, but at the various district registry offices, is that, when competing for highly qualified staff with the main path of the Civil Service, this artificial hiving-off carries with it a significant disadvantage in terms of the staff's ability to transfer within the Civil Service.
As suggested, it is perfectly acceptable that they shall have the new conditions of service and pay agreed for the Civil Service, but what they do not have is the right of transferring out. To the best of my knowledge, they do not have the right to ask to transfer out before they are hived-off. They may have their employer changed before hiving-off, or at hiving-off, without the guarantee of transfer. If I am in error on this, my constituents would be most pleased to discover that they have the right to leave the Land Registry before it ceases to be an element in the Civil Service.
§ The Solicitor-General
May I again set the hon. Member's mind at rest? That, indeed, was the great anxiety, but as it is set out in the statement, the right of transfer has been preserved and maintained.
But what is made clear is that current staff have the right of transfer, but that new entrants do not have the same guaranteed right. There is the problem that new recruits entering the service at a future date have no such guarantee of transfers, I should have made that clear.
§ The Solicitor-General
The same guarantee will apply not only to those employed on the appointed day, but to all those who join afterwards.
I am most grateful for that guarantee, which will please many constituents.
There was, as the Solicitor-General well knows, some discussion as to whether the Chief Land Registrar needed to be a legally qualified person. It can be argued that as 80 per cent. plus of his work load is administrative, and when he becomes the chairman of an independent board that element may well be a much more significant part, the argument that he needs to be legally qualified becomes rather finer.
I have never heard it argued in the case of other independent boards, such as the British Airways Board, that the chairman of that board needs to be a qualified airline pilot, nor, in order to qualify to become chairman of the Coal Board, that one needs to be a mining engineer. Yet, in this case, whatever the recommendations and representations of the Fulton Committee, if two persons enter the Civil Service in the Land Registry, one of them with a double-first in mods and greats and the other with a fourth in law, the man with a fourth in law—[Hon. Members: "A fourth?"] Yes—at Oxford still? Oh, have they changed it?
As one who escaped it but narrowly, I would have said that if one takes a person with a poor degree in law, but he is legally qualified, and one takes the most brilliant and academic product of this country and both enter the Land Registry, for the one there is no possibilty whatever of his becoming the head of his department, and Fulton and all the recommendations on the Civil Service have argued consistently that there should be the opportunity for the Field Marshal's baton to be in every new recruit's satchel.
§ Mr. Atkinson
Is it not more pernicious that in the House itself there are these curious traditions, in the sense that those on the Front Bench and those in the Cabinet who are performing administrative political law jobs are of necessity legally trained? Indeed, there is no reason why the Attorney-General should 1855 practice in the courts, but in fact it is always accepted that the Attorney-General is a barrister and there is no reason why that should be so.
Indeed, if we had engineers or fitters——
§ Mr. Atkinson
I do not think so, Sir Ronald. It is extremely relevant. This tradition goes through the whole function of Parliament and all that goes with it. In every instance of people of limited quality being in these jobs, we should consider the matter.
§ Sir Elwyn Jones
Would my hon. Friend allow me to join this friendly exchange? By the same token, would my hon. Friend agreed that an Attorney-General would be suitable for appointment as an engineer-fitter?
I am glad that both my hon. Friend and right hon. and learned Friend have offered assistance with this difficult point.
Clearly, one appreciates the arguments for the head of this new hived-off affair being legally qualified. Having read the debates in the other place carefully, I am not satisfied, however, that is is an absolute necessity that has to be written in by statute. Therefore, when we get to Committee, I shall wish to delete that element from Clause 5(3) which says:… unless he is either a barrister or solicitor of not less than ten years standing.I would accept that in the normal run of events it would be probable that the Chief Land Registrar would be a qualified barrister or solicitor. To write into statute, however, that he must inevitably be is to disenfranchise from promotion persons who may be extraordinarily worthy of the highest office in that sphere.
I also press the argument that on the board there should be a sufficient number of lay outsiders, and that among the customers of a well organised Land Registry are not just solicitors, but members the general public and planning 1856 authorities, who have a need to be represented if one if to hive off this function at all, which I would dispute. Clearly, the need for effective outside representation on the board is considerable.
As a member of the Select Committee on the ombudsman, may I record in this Committee my disquiet that, whereas in the case of the proposals to establish a Health Service Commission or a Commissioner for Local Government, the Ministers concerned have seen fit, through their senior civil servants, to inform the Select Committee on the ombudsman, there has been no such information on this occasion. The first the Select Committee knew about it when the Bill had gone to the other place and then come here, was when we saw it in the schedule.
It may be that few cases of maladministration in the workings of the Land Registry, are brought to the attention of the Parliamentary Commissioner, but that is not a reason in itself why the Select Committee should be treated somewhat cavalierly. It certainly leads one to have misgivings as to the benefits to be derived from removing the Land Registry from the ombudsman's oversight.
No doubt, technically, because they cease to be civil servants, the staff escape his net, but to diminish his office by this procedure serves no useful purpose. It does not allay the public fear of maladministration, and nothing in the Bill replaces the security against maladministration that the presence of the ombudsman has previously provided.
As we have always accepted on that Select Committee, it may well be that is precisely those Departments which have the fewest complaints against them where the ombudsman's existence is at its most effective. He should only come in when his existence has been forgotten. If they are working and avoiding maladministration, no cases will go to him. However, if the ombudsman is removed, as is envisaged by the Bill, that pressure will be removed, too. I would therefore echo all that has been said about the need for open inspection by all—not just the Director of Public Prosecutions.
I turn now to certain areas of the initial debt, the funding and the financing of the proposed new board. First, the initial cost of the Land Registry building. The original cost in the first decade or 1857 so of this century was some £250,000 paid for out of the fees of the users of the Land Registry, not paid by Crown money, in the sense now that we are hiving off, but by the fees accruing to the Land Registry. Whatever its value today—the Land Registry actually occupies only a small part of—it is being removed from their ownership, with no compensation, and instead the Government in their bounty are asking the Land Registry to pay £150,000 a year rent.
The property that it built out of its moneys is now taken from it, without compensation. I am sure that there will be some of my hon. Friends who will note that de-nationalisation without compensation is practised by the Government. They take an asset from a corporate body and they do not pay for it ; instead, they charge the body rent for that which is its own. The total debt provided for is some £10 million, with a further £5 million borrowing rights.
I return to the problem of the Durham District Land Registry. At the moment it exists in a half-renovated 18th-century house and 17 Nissen huts. It needs—and plans are well advanced—a new building for which it has the site. The Hardman Report on the Dispersal of the Civil Service, in the totals, adds in the expansion of Durham, which can only be achieved with a new building. One fears that on the slender funding of £10 million to £15 million as the capital value, there will not be the moneys available to enable the physical expansion of the resource base, not just the personnel, to be carried out. If the Government undercapitalise the Land Registry to the degree which I suspect they are now doing, they will be vitiating their own avowed intention on the Bill. If the Land Registry does not have the capital to build new offices, how can it expand, because it has not got the space to expand anywhere else?
Clearly, the provision whereby any accruing surpluses are paid on a one-way ticket into the Consolidated Fund means that the ability of the Land Registry in its new form to build up credit balances for new building purposes will be limited. Apparently, it may not save its money for two or three years to finance the necessary building which its expansion would require. As I understand it, the Lord Chancellor requires it to transfer 1858 the money to the Consolidated Fund. It seems to me that unless I receive much stronger information on how this capital funding is envisaged, on this ground alone I shall be reluctant to support the Bill.
Therefore, in order not to delay the Committee further, on general grounds, as a hiving-off measure, it is a phoney. It does not really change the nature of the job ; it simply changes the name associated with the job. It is a dirty phoney, because it still leaves the Lord Chancellor with power of a sort, while depriving Parliament of such few powers as it has. It does not serve its avowed intention of assisting the expansion of land registration. It may well, because of its financial and other provisions, diminish rather than strengthen that desirable end. For that reason, I will support my hon. Friend who opposes the Bill.
§ 12.30 p.m.
§ Mrs. Connie Monks
I support compulsory land registration in principle because, as a member of a local authority, I am well aware of the difficulties that arise in finding out who owns land. Also, as my constituency is part of the central Lancashire new town, we are having special difficulties in that connection.
I have seen instances of officers building up empires in other spheres, particularly since the reorganisation of local government, and I would not like to see that happen in the proposed new set-up. That is why I have certain doubts about the suggestions in the Bill. However, I support it in principle.
§ 12.31 p.m.
§ Mr. S. C. Silkin
This has been a very interesting, valuable and important debate with particularly useful contributions from my hon. Friend the Member for Durham (Mr. Mark Hughes) and the lion, and learned Member for Buckinghamshire, South (Mr. Ronald Bell).
When making our decision about what to do at the end of the morning, we should look at what we are being invited to do and fully understand it. In that sense, important as the decision may be in relation to the Bill, it has a rather wider implication. The motion before the Committee is that the Committee should recommend to the House that the Bill should be read a second time.
1859 In other words, in effect, it recommends to the House that it is not necessary for the House as a whole to debate the matters contained in the Bill as they are sufficiently non-controversial and sufficiently welcome.
What we are doing, therefore, is saying, not whether we support or do not support the Bill, but whether we think an airing before a Committee of this kind is adequate or whether there are matters which should be raised, either here, in the course of the debate or in the other place, which justify the view that the House should have the opportunity of debating it. It is in that sense that we should consider the matter.
The Opposition do not object to the Bill coming before a Second Reading Committee. I hope that the Solicitor-General will recognise that important points have been made regarding the Bill to which he should give consideration, not only in the sense of Committee points that can be dealt with later, but in the general sense that, having heard them, are the Government still of the opinion that this Bill should pass on the basis of the recommendation in the motion or are they of the opinion that the House should have an opportunity to debate it?
Having read what was said in the other place, and having heard what has been said here, it is clear, to me at any rate, that the purpose of the Bill is to remove a political restraint upon the expansion of land registration, which all of us agree should, as a principle, be expanded rapidly. The Bill is brought forward on the basis that if the political retraint which now exists is removed it will enable land registration to proceed at a quicker pace because there will be an organisation—not very different from the organisation that exists—with staff conditions which will make the staff, to all intents and purposes, still members of the Civil Service, both those who are there now and those who will come in the future, but because it will be an independent body, its difficulties in raising personnel to enable it to stand land registration as had been hoped will disappear.
It is a remarkable argument, perhaps even more remarkable when one considers 1860 that it comes from the Lord Chancellor, who, as the great, strong man of the previous Conservative Government, was given enormous powers to deal with the situation in the North-East. That, of course, was before he became Lord Chancellor. It was thought that he, through his personal influence and authority, would be able to get things moving in a very depressed area. Now he is Lord Chancellor, and though the hon. and learned Member for Buckinghamshire, South (Mr. Ronald Bell) demurred on a point that I put to him about a possible reason for this Bill, namely, the Lord Chancellor's inability to persuade his colleagues in the Cabinet that is precisely the reason given by the Lord Chancellor for his predecessor having to impose a stop or slowdown in the financial circumstances of 1968.
We are told that the justification for the Bill is that, though the Lord Chancellor will continue to guide policy and though in this place the Attorney-General and the Solicitor-General will be able to be questioned, not about the day-to-day running, but about the general policy, though he will have control over financial matters, and though the staff will be in precisely the same position as if they were civil servants, none the less by hiving it off to a body which is nominally independent, all manpower problems which arose when it was part of the Civil Service Department will disappear. If that concept is right, it is a terrible confession of weakness on the part of any Government, and certainly on the part of any Lord Chancellor, if we have to accept that in order to get an extra 2,500 staff, we have to go through the procedure of taking the staff nominally outside the Civil Service. It is remarkable.
The Opposition, and I am sure the hon. and learned Member for Buckinghamshire, South, want to be assured that that analysis of the basic reason for the Bill is false, and that there are other more important factors contained in the Bill. If the sole factor of importance is the removal from the Lord Chancellor of a political embarrassment to the expansion that we all desire, I suggest that that matter should be debated by the House as a general principle, rather than on a Bill in which the problem arises.
I must leave the Solicitor-General sufficient time to answer not only the 1861 major question of principle I have put to him but also a number of detailed matters which have been raised. However, in view of the evident importance of the manpower problem in the decision to bring forward the Bill, there may unhappily, from the political point of view, be some truth in the belief that it is difficult for a Lord Chancellor, however powerful a figure, to persuade his Treasury colleagues that he should have more money in times of restraint on expenditure, and that this is a device which may avoid that difficulty. I am not convinced that it will, but let us sup-post that it will.
On the other side of the manpower question my hon. Friend the Member for Durham raised an important matter. Are we by hiving-off this organisation and making it a separate organisation, even though connections will remain with Government machinery, making it more difficult to recruit the right type of manpower, so that on balance, while there may be one consideration which makes it easier, there will be others which make it more difficult? The staff of the Land Registry ought to have an opportunity of expressing their views—unless they have already done so—and their doubts ought to be clearly answered.
I should like to deal with the question of openness. I recognise that there may be difficulties in ensuring that all the facts about a piece of land are available to any comer. We should carefully consider—perhaps in Committee—what should be open and what should not. I shall not go into that matter at this stage. I see no difficulty in this or any other Bill of segregating the matters which should be open from the matters in intermediate areas which should not be open That could be done and it would be a great help.
My right hon. and learned Friend the Member for West Ham, South (Sir Elwyn Jones) mentioned the difficulties of tenants and local authorities. From my experience, both as counsel and as a Member of Parliament, local authorities have great difficulty in establishing the ownership of a passageway or a small piece of land which seems to have left someone's ownership, but which often has become a nuisance, and in respect of which they are unable to take rapid action simply because they cannot find 1862 out who the owner is. I have had several instances of that problem in my constituency. I hope that that situation will be looked at by whoever is considering the question of openness.
The new spirit of openness shown by the Government, however inadequate we may consider it to be, in relation to companies could be transferred to this subject.
§ Mr. Silkin
I will leave the matter of land registration to the Solicitor-General. No doubt it is one of the matters he wants to answer. I do not want to take up time inadequately answering it for him.
I am not convinced that this subject is so non-controversial and matters raised in the debate are unimportant that the normal duty of the House of debating Bills should not be discharged. Perhaps the Solicitor-General can persuade me that I am wrong.
§ 12.48 p.m.
§ The Solicitor-General
This has been a useful and interesting debate in which two major issues have been raised. First, will the manpower situation be improved? It plainly will, because any Government restriction upon limitation of manpower will disappear if the Bill is passed.
However, there is also the fundamental philosophy, set out in the White Paper on the Reorganisation of Central Government, under which the tests to be applied are: is the work sufficiently commercial to enable the organisation to be regarded as wholly or largely self-supporting ; do its responsibilities involve any degree of policy-making ; and do its responsibilities involve any discretionary authority of a kind which might affect the liberty or rights of the citizen? If those tests can be answered in the way that I suggest they can in this case, the Government's philosophy is that that organisation should stand on its own feet outside the Government.
The right hon. and learned Member for West Ham, South (Sir Elwyn Jones) asked whether passing the Bill would rapidly result in the extension of the Land Registry. Once the Land Registry is 1863 free of its existing manpower restrictions, it should be able to recruit staff—and it is satisfied that it will—for expansion without any great difficulty.
The programme, therefore, is as follows. Wilthin the five years following the passing of the Bill it is expected that all built-up areas will be covered by compulsory registration, and in the three years following that it is expected that there will be universal compulsory registration. It is a considerable improvement. This is what hon. Members and people outside desire, and I hope that by arranging matters in this way their desire can be fulfilled.
I have taken on board the point about the ombudsman, and I assure the Committee that I do not have a closed mind about it. This matter can no doubt be considered in detail in Committee.
Concerning the qualification of the lay members, I heard with interest the suggestions by the hon. Member for Durham (Mr. Mark Hughes). A number of classes of people, from local authorities, building societies or elsewhere, have been suggested and I welcome such suggestions for discussion in Committee. If hon. Members would be good enough to write earlier, their suggestions would be considered, because it is very important that the lay members should be representative of public and consumer interest.
With regard to profit-making, it is intended that the fees charged should cover the proper cost of the efficient service to the public and no more.
Although I may be slightly out of order, may I deal with the matter about funding raised by the hon. Member for Durham. Clause 9(4) enables the Lord Chancellor and the Registry to decide on the establishment of such reserves as are necessary for requirements, and Clause 12(2) is a long stop to prevent the retention of excess money in the Registry's accounts. However, I sympathise with the point which he made. There must be some building up of the capital account for the situation which he envisaged.
I hope I have sufficiently dealt with matters raised earlier in an intervention by my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Buckinghamshire, South (Mr. Ronald Bell). The ordinary day-to-day matters which would be removed from 1864 parliamentary scrutiny do not, in our view, involve any exercise of discretion in the ordinary conduct of business. The main issues—for example, what the fees should be, how quickly an extension of compulsory registration should take place, and what should be the reserve fund which the Registry keeps—will still be under the direction of the Lord Chancellor and therefore open to question here.
What has been said about delegated fees does not relate to the normal fees to be charged to the customer so far as the ad valorem fees are concerned. The fees in question are those which are necessary for photo copying, and so on. Delegated powers to assess only those minor fees will be given to the members of the Land Registry.
§ Mr. Ronald Bell
Will the orders made by the Lord Chancellor be subject to the negative procedure in the House of Commons?
§ The Solicitor-General
The hon. Member for Tottenham (Mr. Atkinson) expressed the view one would expect from him. He is totally opposed to any hiving off and would therefore oppose the Bill. He might like to reconsider the slightly contrary view which he also takes—"Anything not registered is not there". That could not be done because one would have a form of compulsory takeover of land that was not there.
If compulsory registration were applied to the whole of England and Wales as soon as possible—and this is, in our view, the best method of doing it—then there will be no land left which is not in the Registry. We hope that this will be the most effective way.
The hon. Member for Tottenham also spoke of the risk of having Billy Butlin as chairman of the board. If we leave the Bill as it is, Billy Butlin cannot be chairman. If we alter the Bill as the hon. Member for Durham suggests, I suppose Billy Butlin or his successor could be. That is one of the advantages of keeping the process in legal channels.
The hon. Gentleman also raised the matter of costs. I have the figures, but I will not weary the Committee with them now. I assure the hon. Gentleman that the reduction in cost which would follow is remarkable. The figures we have relate 1865 to the period when there were scale fees for conveyancing, but the reduction is remarkable on the sale of a registered titled house.
My hon. Friend the Member for Hemel Hempstead (Mr. Allason)——
§ Mr. Atkinson
On a point of compulsory registration of landowners' names and identity, is that not the case at the moment?
§ The Solicitor-General
No. I was dealing with an entirely different point in connection with costs.
The amendment I intend to move in Committee will propose that the name and address of the proprietor should be disclosed to anybody who makes application. It is true that it will only be the name and address of the proprietor of land or property. Perhaps my hon. Friend the Member for Hemel Hempstead will be patient for a few days longer to see whether any other developments arise.
|Division No. 1.]||AYES|
|Allason, James (Hemel Hempstead)||Fowler, Norman||Monks, Mrs. Connie|
|Awdry, Daniel||Fox, Marcus||Owen, Idris (Stockport, N.)|
|Fidler, Michael||Havers, Sir Michael|
|Atkinson, Norman||Hughes, Mark (Durham)||Silkin, Hn. S. C. (Dulwich)|
|Harper, Joseph||Jones, Rt. Hn. Sir Elwyn (W. Ham, S.)|
§ Question accordingly agreed to.
§ The Solicitor-General
It is my privilege and pleasure to express on behalf of the Committee our gratitude to you Sir Ronald, for your courtesy and conciseness in the conduct of our proceedings which have enabled us to complete
|The following Members attended the Committee.|
|Russell, Sir Ronald (Chairman)||Harper, Mr.|
|Allason, Mr.||Hughes, Mr. Mark|
|Atkinson, Mr.||Jones, Sir Elwyn|
|Awdry, Mr.||Monks, Mrs.|
|Bell, Mr. Ronald||Owen, Mr. Idris|
|Fidler, Mr.||Silkin, Mr. S. C.|
|Fowler, Mr.||Solicitor-General, The|
§ The hon. Member for Durham made a thoughtful and constructive speech which was very helpful. The delay in 1968 was explained by the then Lord Chancellor as arising from a Government decision not to increase the number of civil servants, and therefore no extension of compulsory areas of registration could follow. That has bedevilled us ever since, which ever party has been in power.
§ The Solicitor-General
Yes, the same old demonology! Concerning present fees, the result of the reduction would be to reduce profits by £4 million in the current year.
I hope that those answers are sufficient in view of the time available today, and I accordingly invite the Committee to make the necessary recommendation.
§ Question put:
§ The Committee divided: Ayes 8, Noes 5.
§ them in one morning. We are grateful to you.
§ Sir Elwyn Jones
May I endorse and reciprocate those expressions of gratitude and admiration, Sir Ronald?
§ The Committee rose at One o'clock.