HC Deb 15 February 1995 vol 254 cc1011-2

4.4 pm

Mr. Bill Walker (Tayside, North)

I beg to move, That leave be given to bring in a Bill to make prepayment of the appropriate statutory fees a condition of acceptance of writs for recording in the Register of Sasines and of applications for registration in the Land Register of Scotland.

The Bill is neither controversial nor topical. To those not involved in conveyancing in Scotland, it would not be unfair to describe it as rather dull. However, the minor changes to existing legislation which I wish to introduce in the Bill are important to the Keeper of the Registers of Scotland, supported by the Law Society of Scotland, and enjoy all-party support from Scottish parties in the House.

The Bill would enable the Keeper of the Registers of Scotland to move from post-payment to pre-payment of fees for the recording of writs in the register of sasines and for the registration of applications in the land register. It would also provide for the keeper to reject applications for registration in the land register and writs for recording in the register of sasines if those were not accompanied by the appropriate fee. That would be achieved by a short and uncontroversial two-clause Bill.

I do not wish to detain the House by going into great detail about the proposed change. However, it might assist fellow hon. Members, particularly those from south of the border, if I say a few words about Registers of Scotland, the land registration system in place there and the reasons for the proposed change.

In many ways, Registers of Scotland mirrors Her Majesty's Land Registry in England and Wales in being responsible for land registration matters. In Scotland, however, there are two main registers that cover rights and land. The register of sasines dates from the 17th century and records deeds affecting property in Scotland. For more than three centuries, the register of sasines has provided the chief security for title to land in Scotland. It is now being replaced by the land register, which is a state-guaranteed, map-based register of title to land.

The land register became operational in 1981, and Registers of Scotland, in a recent response to the 46th report of the Committee of Public Accounts, has committed itself to completing the extension of the land register to cover the whole of Scotland by no later than 2003. To achieve that challenging extension programme, Registers of Scotland is pursuing a number of initiatives to improve the efficiency of the Department and the service that it provides to its customers. Those initiatives include a move to trading fund status from April 1996, which would bring it into line with HM Land Registry, which has operated as a trading fund since April 1993. Trading fund status will greatly assist Registers of Scotland in planning the necessary finances for extending the land register by giving it additional financial flexibility. Although that will undoubtedly help the Keeper of the Registers of Scotland, the keeper is currently faced with another financial difficulty, which is what my Bill seeks to resolve.

The current system of invoicing customers, who are mainly solicitors, after the work on registration or recording has been completed, is both time consuming and expensive in pursuing outstanding fees. That has been particularly so in recent years when the level of outstanding fees has risen significantly. Despite a number of attempts to chase up outstanding debts by Registers of Scotland with assistance from the Law Society of Scotland, some £4.7 million in fees was owed at the end of 1994 to Registers of Scotland, of which some £1.9 million or 40 per cent. was outstanding by at least four months. On a turnover of £30 million a year, that level of outstanding debt is considered to be no longer acceptable by the keeper. He is supported in his view by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Scotland and the Law Society of Scotland.

A move to pre-payment of fees is seen as the solution by all parties. Not only would that deal with the outstanding debt problem, but it would assist the cash flow of Registers of Scotland, enabling it to make savings of about £500,000 per annum on the collection of fees. It would also bring Scotland into line with England and Wales. I emphasise that that would not the effect the level of fees charged by Registers of Scotland. There are, therefore, no adverse cost implications for solicitors or purchasers of property, including house buyers. As a result, the proposed change should not be in any way controversial. The Law Society of Scotland has already confirmed that solicitors are content for the change to be made.

The problem is that the keeper cannot affect that change without existing legislation being amended. Section 6 of the Land Writs Registration (Scotland) Act 1868 provides inter alia that payment of fees for recording writs in the register of sasines should take place after recording. There is no similar restriction in the Land Registration (Scotland) Act 1979, but the keeper would not have the power to reject an application for registration on the land register without an amendment to section 4 of that Act. My Bill therefore provides for the necessary amendments to be made to those two Acts to enable pre-payment and to allow the keeper to reject writs for recording in the register of sasines or applications for registration in the land register when not accompanied by the appropriate fee.

The Bill will also make a minor consequential change by removing the process of notifying that a recorded writ was for ready for delivery in exchange for the fee, which would flow from the change to post-payment to pre-payment.

The Bill is short, non-controversial and narrowly focused, but it important to those concerned. I commend it to the House.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill ordered to be brought in by Mr. Bill Walker, Mr. Allan Stewart, Mr. Norman Hogg, Mr. Menzies Campbell, Mrs. Margaret Ewing, Mr. Phil Gallie and Mr. Raymond S. Robertson.