HC Deb 25 May 1988 vol 134 cc349-50 4.45 pm
Mr. Malcolm Moss (Cambridgeshire, North-East)

I beg to move, That leave be given to bring in a Bill to expedite local authority searches and enquiries and for other purposes. There are two types of information which potential house purchasers require of local authorities. First, they need to search the land charges register; secondly, they need answers to additional inquiries. Local authorities have a statutory duty under the Local Land Charges Act 1975 to register local land charges. Everyone has a statutory right to inspect those registers at any time. The fee is set by the Lord Chancellor.

Additional inquiries are answered by voluntary agreement. There are 18 basic questions in all. Although the searches and the inquiries are technically quite separate, conveyancers usually apply for both together, and they are known collectively as the local searches. Before a purchaser commits himself to signing a contract, he needs answers to the questions contained in the local searches. Most building societies will not release mortgage money until they are satisfied that such searches and inquiries have been completed.

The problem of delays in completing those searches is not new. It was highlighted by the hon. Member for Great Grimsby (Mr. Mitchell) in his House Buyers Bill in 1983. However, it related only to the statutory search, and it was later dropped. The matter was also raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Staffordshire (Mr. Heddle), who I am delighted to see is present in the Chamber this afternoon, as someone who is continually vigilant in confronting the problems which face house buyers. My hon. Friend raised the matter in an Adjournment debate in February, when he produced statistical information contained in a report by the conveyancing standing committee of the Law Commission published last December. That report presented options and proposals for improving the system, and it invited comments by March of this year.

This month, the Woolwich building society also took up the question of delays and commissioned a survey in 37 towns and cities in England and Wales. That society's local branch managers were asked to obtain information from solicitors involved in conveyancing. Half of those interviewed responded that the service given by their local authorities is not very satisfactory. The delays revealed by the Woolwich survey averaged four weeks across the sample with the average going up to seven weeks in the metropolitan areas. It revealed a staggering 20 weeks in the London boroughs of Lambeth and Hackney. Most conveyancers in the survey expressed the view that a delay of one to two weeks is acceptable. The conveyancing standing committee suggested as accepable a delay of 10 days. It regards as reasonable a period that will not of itself cause any delay to routine conveyancing procedures.

Various reasons were given for delays. They included staff shortages and pressure of work. That may be true in certain local authorities where the housing activity of the past year or so has increased dramatically. Planning departments in my constituency are receiving twice the number of applications. Organisational difficulties were also mentioned, because the forms are often completed by different departments in different parts of the same building or in separate buildings. Another reason given for delay was fluctuating demand. District councils in my own constituency can turn around searches and inquiries in five to seven days. If it is possible there, why cannot other councils do the same?

Although delays are not universal and they vary in degree, the conveyancing standing committee of the Law Commission believes that the problem needs tackling immediately. The Bill seeks to speed up local authority searches now, and to encourage changes to simplify and streamline procedures for the future.

First, the Bill will seek to penalise local authorities that take more than 10 days to return the completed forms. If, after 10 days, they have not completed them, they will forfeit half the fee. If a further 10 days elapse and they still have not completed the forms, they will forfeit the whole fee. In addition, at that 20-day point, the house purchaser or his conveyancer will have a statutory right to instigate a personal search free of charge. A scheme of similar penalties was suggested by the hon. Member for Great Grimsby in 1983, and by my hon Friend the Member for Mid-Staffordshire in his Adjournment debate. It has also been put forward as an option by the conveyancing standing committee.

As a help in the longer term, my Bill seeks to promote computerisation of search procedures. The conveyancing standing committee thinks that that would be a medium-term solution for, say, five years. The Association of District Councils, however, considers that unduly pessimistic, pointing out that two authorities, Wigan and Portsmouth, are currently undergoing pilot schemes for computerisation, which should be on stream very soon. If it is successful, there is no reason why other local authorities cannot take it up fairly quickly.

House buyers and vendors alike are justifiably annoyed and upset, and their conveyancers are frustrated and irritated, when it takes an unreasonably long time to exchange contracts on a house. There is no doubt that such delays fuel the practice of gazumping. It is surely unacceptable that some local authorities offer the house-buying public a service that is at times so slow and erratic as to be rendered virtually useless. It is time that this unacceptable inefficiency was stopped.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill ordered to be brought in by Mr. Malcolm Moss, Mr. John Heddle, Mr. Tony Favell, Mr. Roger Knapman, Mr. Barry Field, Mr. Timothy Kirkhope, Mr. Irvine Patnick, Mr. Anthony Coombs, Miss Ann Widdecombe and Mr. Tim Boswell.