HL Deb 24 May 1966 vol 274 cc1295-309

4.38 p.m.

Order of the Day for the Second Reading read.


My Lords, I beg to move that this Bill be now read a second time. As your Lordships know, without registration of title to land the ordinary solicitor for the purchaser has to ascertain whether his client has a good title for at least the last 30 years. This means going back through all the abstracts of title and necessarily costs a good deal of money. With registration of title to land, once the title is registered anyone can safely acquire a registered title. If it should turn out that there is a mistake in the Register there is a fund which compensates him. Forty-one years ago, when the Act was passed, opinions were rather more divided than they are now about the value of compulsory registration of title, but to-day everyone would, I think, agree that it has proved its worth as a means by which transfers of title of land may be expedited, simplified and cheapened.

In August, 1964, the noble and learned Viscount, Lord Dilhorne, announced a programme to extend the system of compulsory registration of title to land to all built up areas of England and Wales within eight years. I stated last year that the then Government approved and adopted that plan. It will take a good deal of planning and impose a considerable strain on the resources of the Land Registry. It means that they must increase their staff by about 15 per cent. per annum, and, allowing for wastage, this means in practice about 30 per cent. per annum. They have to acquire premises in which to open new district offices, and the whole programme has to be phased to fit in with these growing resources and with the development of the district land registries.

Then it was found that in practice there was another difficulty. The registration of title requires an up-to-date ordnance survey map, but the Ordnance Survey Department's plans did not include the completion of their work for the country as a whole until the end of the century. But, with the help which I have received from my right honourable friend the Minister of Land and Natural Resources and also the Treasury, their programme has been entirely altered and expedited to fit in with this eight-year crash programme to extend compulsory registration of title to all built-up areas within what will now be the next seven years, and the whole of the rest of the country within a further seven years. The object of this Bill, therefore, is to assist to implement the plan of the noble and learned Viscount, Lord Dilhorne, because one or two difficulties have been found to arise, apart from the difficulty to which I have already referred of the reorganisation of the plans of the Ordnance Survey Department.

The object of Clause 1(1) is to clear away complicated procedural requirements. In 1925, as I have said, there was some doubt among conveyancers as to whether registered title would be a good thing or not, and therefore it was provided that registration could not become compulsory in any county without a lot of paraphernalia. There had to be a resolution by the county council for which not less than two-thirds of the members were present and voted, or, if the council did not agree and the Minister wanted to do it, then, if there was an objection, six month's notice had to be given. Moreover, if anybody wanted it there had to be a public inquiry. At the present time I think this is unnecessary.

Subsection (2) of Section 120 of the Act contains what I have referred to as the "paraphernalia". Both the Law Society and the various associations of the local authorities agree that these requirements are now quite out of date, because everybody is in favour of extending compulsory registration to the whole country as quickly as possible. Paragraph (a) of subsection (1) therefore removes these prior conditions so as to enable new areas of compulsory registration to come into being by a simple Order in Council. Of course the Land Registry, in phasing their programme for extension, will still consult the county councils and other local authorities well in advance. That goes without saying. It will obviously be necessary to give them prior notice and warning.

Subsection (2) of Clause 1 is intended to meet a further difficulty. At the present time in areas which are not subject to compulsory registration there can still be voluntary registration which the registrar is compelled to accept. If this were continued unchanged it would conceivably impede the general extension of land registration throughout the country, because these voluntary registrations are often awkward questions of title; senior staff have to be despatched to deal with them and special ordnance survey maps have to be made to cover the particular case in question. It is haphazard. In these circumstances we propose that voluntary registration shall not be entertained except in such classes of case as the Chief Land Registrar may signify that he is prepared to accept. That provides a flexible system. The Chief Land Registrar will from time to time publish lists in the legal press of categories of cases which he is prepared to entertain. If, for example, in a county in which compulsory registration does not at present exist there is going to be a building estate of 50 houses, the sensible thing no doubt is to register the title from the start, and that he will do. But it may be possible to extend the categories which he would register in the light of the development of the eight-year plan. In any event, he would be able to deal with emergency applications—for example, such as became necessary when the East Coast towns were flooded some years ago and a large number of title deeds were lost.

Nobody dislikes the idea of curtailing freedom to register more than I do, but the important thing is to ensure that compulsory registration of title is extended to the whole country as quickly as possible, with all the benefits of certainty and cheapness that it brings. Those really are the two objects of the Bill: to enable compulsory registration of title to be extended in an orderly, phased programme over the next seven years, and to restrict meanwhile some of the voluntary registrations which could otherwise take place.

Advantage has been taken of the Bill to make one or two minor changes largely arising out of anomalies found in the Act. These are the subject matter of subsections (3) and (4) of Clause 1. In subsection (3) it is made clear that payment of compensation can be made where the only loss suffered by the claimant has been in legal costs and expenses. This compensation may be provided where an inaccurate title has been registered, and anybody who is damaged is then compensated out of a fund, for which trustees are responsible, the fund being provided by a small fee paid by everybody who uses the Registry.

This particular difficulty arises because section 83(8) of the 1925 Act says: In granting any indemnity the registrar may have regard to any costs and expenses properly incurred in relation to the matter and may add the same to the amount of the indemnity money which would otherwise be payable. This, on an ordinary reading of it, says that if somebody is being paid compensation, you can add to it any legal costs or expenses incurred. But very often the lawyer's costs and expenses are the only damage which he suffered, and the section, as it at present stands, appears to mean that costs and expenses cannot be paid alone unless some other sum is being paid at the same time. That is the reason that subsection (3) provides that costs and expenses can be paid, even though no other sum is being paid at the same time.

Subsection (4) provides that an indemnity will no longer be payable to an applicant where his loss arises through any act, neglect or fault of his. At the present time, for some reason I have not been able to discover, he can be refused only where he has been guilty of fraud. It seems quite wrong that the Indemnity Fund should have to meet consequences which were caused by the claimant's own fault—for example, through failure to disclose an incumbrance which subsequently has to be entered on the Register, or where he submits an inaccurate plan, with the result that too much or too little land is included in the registered title. The Indemnity Fund is formed from the fees charged by the Land Registry, and it is my wish that these fees be kept as low as possible. I do not know why refusal came to be limited in the Act to fraud.

The words "act, neglect or default" were originally in the Land Transfer Act 1897, Section 7(3) of which provided A person shall not be entitled to an indemnity for any loss where he has caused or substantially contributed to the loss by his act, neglect or default. It seems to have been an error that that was not carried forward into the 1925 Act.

Clause 2 deals merely with the citation, construction and commencement of the Bill, and I need not detain your Lordships further upon it. My noble friend Lord Arwyn has asked me whether the Bill can be extended to mineral rights. Presumably he would like to see their registration also made compulsory. Applications are sometimes made for the registration of mineral rights. They are usually most difficult, and I think that my noble friend's proposal would really mean transferring to the Chief Land Registrar all the difficulties which the mining and quarrying industry now has. But whether or not that be so, I am advised that such an Amendment would be outside the Long Title of the Bill, and certainly outside its scope. As the object of the Bill is to simplify the tasks of the Land Registry so as to help them complete the eight-year plan, it would be entirely contrary to the Government's policy to extend the Bill in that way, even if it were possible. My Lords, I commend the Bill to your Lordships, and beg to move accordingly.

Moved, that the Bill be now read 2a.—(The Lord Chancellor.)

4.54 p.m.


My Lords, considering the source from which this Bill appears to have emanated, and the noble and learned Lord's generosity in attributing it to my noble friend Lord Dilhorne, I do not suppose that anybody from these Benches will wish to object to it, the more so because it seems, to me at least, to be a most sensible measure.

The provisions of the 1925 Act which are repealed by Clause 1(1) are indeed curious. But I think that the noble and learned Lord has made a slight error in attributing this matter to the 1925 legislation. I think he would be interested in this quotation: We are sometimes charged with want of speed as law reformers. But in truth such of us as desire reforms of this kind are often surprised that we cannot obtain more assistance in passing our measures from the lay classes who are oppressed by the uninformed procedure."—[Hansard (4th Series), Vol. 46, col. 1567; 4/3/1897] This was, in fact, part of the speech of the then Lord Chancellor, Lord Halsbury, on March 4, 1897, in your Lordships' House; and he was apologising for the necessity to put in most of the rigmarole which appeared in Section 20 of the Land Transfer Act of that year, which then became transposed into the 1925 Act, and now, in due course, comes before your Lordships to-day.

I am glad to hear that the County Councils' Association and the various other local authority bodies have been consulted about this, because although it would appear that the provisions are now unnecessary, they nevertheless had a theoretical stranglehold over the progress of this matter of land registration, and if they had had any strong feelings about it I think it would have been right to take these into account even to-day. But apparently all is well on that front. I think perhaps that the Council on Tribunals will not regret the demise of one type of inquiry, under Section 122, over which it would now have to have jurisdiction if this repeal were not made.

I have a certain amount of apprehension about the provisions of Clause 1(2), and it has not altogether been quieted by what the noble and learned Lord the Lord Chancellor has said. I appreciate that this is a matter of balance between the need, on the one hand, to concentrate the resources of the Land Registry on the compulsory side of its work, and, on the other, the need to deal with the emergency voluntary registrations which may come up from time to time. The noble and learned Lord gave us only one instance of the classes of these voluntary registrations which may be considered, after the passing of this Bill, by the Registrar. I think that the House might welcome any further amplifications he has of this matter, because, as he said, it is a somewhat serious step to restrict the right of purchasers of property and other landowners to have their land registered, even although it is not in a compulsory area. For instance, when I bought my house in Suffolk it so happened that my predecessor had lost one of the deeds that was required to make good title. The only method by which to get round this, in order to provide a good title, was to have the land registered. This was duly done. I wonder what sort of restrictions are going to be placed upon that type of voluntary registration. If the noble and learned Lord could tell us a little more about this I should be much obliged.

I should also like to ask him a littlemore about both the staff and the Ordnance Survey, both of which he mentioned and which I believe to be of vital importance—indeed I know they are. First of all, the noble and learned Lord mentioned the figure of 30 per cent. per annum recruitment. Is he satisfied that, with the shortage of professional people suitable to do this work, that sort of figure will in fact be met? Does he know, or is he reasonably confident, that the number of people required will come forward? If not, clearly, this programme simply will not get any further; or, at any rate, it will be much slowed down.

The second point I would raise with him concerns the Ordnance Survey. I saw that on July 12 last year the right honourable gentleman the Minister of Land and Natural Resources, in a Written Answer in another place, made a statement that a comprehensive review of the work and resources of the Ordnance Survey was being undertaken. Are the figure of eight years, for built-up areas, and the date 1980, for the whole of England and Wales, which the noble and learned Lord has given us to-day, the result of that review? If not, can he say when the result of that review will be available? And do the preliminary pieces of information which have come from it support the timetable that he has given the House to-day?

I cannot believe that anyone will doubt that the provision in Section 83(8) of the 1925 Act, which is amended by Clause 1(3), must have been a mistake. In the days of the 1925 legislation I do not believe that the consolidation procedure was entirely as it is to-day. It may be that the necessity for both this and the following subsection arose simply from some failure, perhaps on your Lordships' part, to look with care at the Bill when it was before Parliament. At any rate, I fully support the change in subsection (3). Having heard what the noble and learned Lord said about the change made in subsection (4), I think that this also should receive your Lordships' support.

I must say that when I first read it, and before I had heard the noble Lord's explanation, I wondered whether it was because there had been some undue run on the Land Registry's Indemnity Fund caused by people claiming indemnity although they themselves had been in the wrong, though not fraudulent, in causing the mistake to be made. It is a curious fact that this limitation to fraud occurs in Section 83 of the 1925 Act, whereas so far as rectification is concerned the whole matter is dealt with on the basis of act or default in Section 82. There have, of course, been some very complicated cases dealt with under Section 82, which tend to show that sometimes a very fine distinction is made by the courts on what it is that causes or substantially contributes to the mistake being made. This will be brought by subsection (4) into the question of claiming an indemnity.

I do not know whether the noble and learned Lord, the Lord Chancellor, has had an opportunity to look into the position, with the technical difficulties which sometimes may arise—perhaps when no map is produced at all; and when it was in fact the fault of the Land Registry themselves, or perhaps largely their fault, that caused the mistake—to see whether there may not be some hardship in this restriction of the right to indemnity. It does not appear to be so on the face of it, but there seem to be borderline cases in the courts. Although I would not expect the noble and learned Lord to give me an answer to-day, I wonder if he would kindly satisfy himself that no such dangers arise under this subsection. With those comments—and I hope that none of them will be taken as being in the least critical—I hope that the House will support the Bill and give it a Second Reading this afternoon.

5.2 p.m.


My Lords, my noble friend has said that, the origins of this Bill being what they are, no one is likely to be found in any quarter of your Lordships' House who would desire to oppose it. Certainly I have no intention to do so, and I have no desire to propose any modification in the Bill which is likely to impair its expedition or its usefulness. However, there is one matter on which I hope the noble and learned Lord on the Woolsack may be able to give me some assurance.

Under the present law, as has been pointed out, a landowner who desires to register his title may require the Land Registrar to register his land whether it is within an area where registration is compulsory or not. It is also possible for registration to be made compulsory within a county or a county borough at the instance of the county council or the county borough council. The local authorities recognise reasons why circumstances have made the curtailment of these powers to introduce compulsory registration necessary, and they accept that. But they are not by any means satisfied about the other change which the Bill will make. They regard with some apprehension the loss of the power to call for registration voluntarily—apart, of course, from the power which the Registrar has of specifying the classes.

The local authorities, and particularly the urban authorities, are very large purchasers of land to-day. They must acquire land for their housing programmes, for their development areas, and for the redevelopment of the central areas of their towns. These acquisitions are very often followed by re-sales to persons who have been given consent to re-develop. All this imposes upon the legal staffs of the local authorities a very great burden. It will add very considerably to that burden if they are required, as they may be under this Bill, to deduce a separate title in each individual case, both of the initial purchase and of the subsequent re-sale. Titles of urban properties are usually involved, ancient and often highly complicated. This Bill will make it necessary for the local authority to spell out what may be a long and complicated title, not only on the first acquisition, but on each of the subsequent acquisitions as well.

I very much hope that the noble and learned Lord the Lord Chancellor will be able to hold out the prospect of some relief in this direction. It is all very well to withdraw powers, as this Bill does, from the local authorities in order to relieve the burden upon the staffs of the Land Registry. I am sure that that in itself is a most excellent purpose. But the burden still remains—and it is in fact cast upon another no less burdened group of public officials, the legal staffs of the local authorities.

It would be out of place and inappropriate for me to appear to present this matter to the noble and learned Lord in the form of a bargain; I must be careful that I do not do that. But there can be no harm in my concluding my observations by reminding the noble and learned Lord that the local authorities will, in the interests of staff economies, surrender without protest the power which they now enjoy to compel registration in their areas. I hope the noble Lord the Lord Chancellor will be able to assure me that the Registrar will take that matter into consideration when he comes to prescribe the classes of persons who will be able to register their titles voluntarily. If the local authorities could be afforded that relief, it would be a very welcome relief to their legal staffs. Therefore, I hope the noble and learned Lord the Lord Chancellor will be able to give me some reassurance.

5.8 p.m.


My Lords, I do not wish to detain the House unnecessarily by emphasising points which have already been brought to your Lordships' attention. After having listened to the noble and learned Lord, I certainly do not wish to oppose the Bill in any way; but I should like to underline what Lord Ilford has just so eloquently and clearly enunciated, and that is the difficulty which may possibly beset local authorities under Clause 1(2). I am not sure, after listening to the Lord Chancellor, that he has not already covered this point, but I am sure that when he comes to sum up the debate he will be willing to say whether he can give the assurance which local authorities would like to have.

I need only say, as we all know, that when a local authority has embarked on a large-scale scheme of town redevelopment frequently a tangled web of legal titles has to be contended with, and it would be most helpful if they could feel that they could then apply and that that sort of case would be one of those specified as capable of being given particular attention under this Bill. It would, of course, be much appreciated if an assurance, to this effect could be given by the noble and learned Lord; that is to say, that such an application would not be barred as one which might receive particular attention and which would at least get sympathetic consideration—I almost said "favourable consideration", but I would not tie down the assurance in that way.

5.10 p.m.


My Lords, I am sorry not to have heard the beginning of the speech of the noble and learned Lord the Lord Chancellor in moving the Second Reading of this Bill. I understand that in the course of it he made reference to the part I played in initiating a scheme for the rapid progress of land registration. I must express my gratitude to him, and say again how sorry I was not to hear the beginning of what he said.

I was delighted to hear that it is now thought to be possible to extend this system of registration to all urban areas within seven years from now, and to the whole of the country within a further seven years. Speaking from memory, that is a remarkable improvement on the forecast made at the time when I first had to consider this position. It is a very curious thing that for years and years this system of land registration was not at all popular with local authorities, solicitors and many other people (and in my belief a very sound scheme), but in recent years the mood of the country has changed completely and to-day it is wanted everywhere as soon as possible. Of course, the Land Registry must have carefully trained staff. They carry a very great burden of responsibility, and unless they are extremely accurate it is bound to cause a great deal of trouble. I think they deserve to be congratulated upon being able to contemplate such a rapid extension of staff—and training of staff, as this must mean—as to be able to fulfil this task in so short a period.

I am sure the noble and learned Lord the Lord Chancellor regrets as much as we all do the necessity to restrict the right to voluntary registration, but to my mind that is a price which requires to be paid if we are to get registration over the whole of the country as soon as possible. I thought the plea of my noble friend Lord Ilford was a plea that that should happen as speedily as possible. But I am sure also that the Land Registrar will do what he can to meet voluntary applications for registration in the cases mentioned by the two noble Lords who have just spoken, so long as he can be sure that he will not, by so doing, delay the implementation of compulsory registration in urban areas and, later, over the whole of the country. I think it is inevitable, if compulsory registration is to proceed as quickly as I hope it will, that there must be some holding back of these voluntary applications for registration. But I have no doubt myself that they will be held back as little as possible.

I welcome this Bill which should facilitate the process and overcome some of the difficulties. I hope that it will be speedily enacted, and I hope, too, that when it is enacted it will be found possible in future years to accelerate still further the process of land registration, and so remove the doubts and fears felt by those who view with some degree of apprehension the temporary restriction of voluntary registration. I thank the noble and learned Lord the Lord Chancellor for what he has said, and I should like to pay my tribute to those who work in the Land Registry for the very valuable work they are performing.

5.14 p.m.


My Lords, this is by no means a Party Bill, and I am therefore glad to be able to support what has been submitted by the noble Lord, Lord Ilford, and the noble Lord, Lord Milverton, in accordance with what the Association of Municipal Corporations feel is desirable so far as this Bill is concerned. I do not intend to go over the arguments which have already been adduced for some flexibility in the Bill, in order to meet the somewhat exceptional position of local authorities in this matter of voluntary registration. I am sure that no one would wish to hamper or retard the work of local authorities in regard to town development. It is a great responsibility which has been placed upon them by the Government and, arising out of a long knowledge of the problems in connection with town development or redevelopment, responsible people in local government feel that this voluntary registration is absolutely necessary for them if their work is not to be hampered in the very near future.

The proposals in the Bill are in no way opposed by the Association of Municipal Corporations, and they feel that the Bill is moving in the right direction. If it were felt that rapidly and without any loss of time registration throughout the country would be accomplished, then obviously the problem would not arise. But it is quite clear from what the noble and learned Lord the Lord Chancellor has said, and from the provision in the Bill itself, that even with additional staff no one can expect a problem of this magnitude to be settled in a very brief time. However, I would urge and repeat that local authorities, with the wealth of their experience, ask this House and the Government to consider their exceptional position and give that flexibility which is absolutely necessary for them.

5.17 p.m.


My Lords, may I first thank your Lordships for the reception which this short Bill has had in all quarters of your Lordships' House? May I deal, first, with the point raised by the noble and learned Viscount, by the noble Lord, Lord Ilford, and the noble Lord, Lord Milverton, about local authorities. The Chief Land Registrar will certainly consult the local authorities first of all about his general programme. It is, as I understand it, his intention to make up his own mind as to the areas to which compulsory registration would be extended this year, next year and in 1968. Of course, if a particular county council, for example, has some special reason for wanting to be included one year rather than another, obviously he will consider that. If they all say, "We want to be done in the first two years", obviously he cannot complete a seven-year programme within two years.

Secondly, so far as local authorities are concerned, I should perhaps say that voluntary registration falls into the following categories: 39 per cent. are single-owner-occupied houses, and I am afraid I cannot give any undertaking that the Chief Land Registrar will be able to accept voluntary registration there; 17½ per cent. are building land for development; 16 per cent. are land acquired for investment and redevelopment; 10 per cent. are single plots, probably additions to a house or garden; 6 per cent. are land owned for commercial or industrial purposes; 5.4 per cent. are land owned by local authorities; 1.7 per cent. are agricultural land; 1.5 per cent. are shops and stores; 0.8 per cent. are land held by charities for religious purposes; 0.3 per cent. are breweries; 1 per cent. are unclassified.

The Chief Land Registrar proposes to accept voluntary registration applications where there is a development of a building estate of more than about 25 houses and plots, and comparable development of purpose-built flats. He may in those cases specify that plans will not be altered once the application is made, and that these estates should be specially surveyed. I am sure that he will bear in mind the special position of local authorities, certainly where development is to take place, and it may be possible to extend these categories in the light of the development of the eight-year plan. But, of course, as the noble and learned Viscount, Lord Dilhorne, pointed out, one cannot have things both ways. One cannot extend compulsory registration of title to all the built-up areas in the country within the next seven years and, at the same time, go on accepting all voluntary conveyances.

Then, I can assure the noble Viscount. Lord Colville of Culross, that I am told that the Ordnance Survey programme has been matched to fit the land registration programme, and that this is going well. Then he asked me whether there had been any undue run on the Indemnity Fund. That is not the case at all. The total amount paid out is relatively small. Speaking from memory, I think it is something like £20,000 during the whole time that the Fund has been in existence. This is simply a case of putting right what I think was an obvious mistake in the original Act, and I see no reason why the Amendment proposed should cause any hardship.

The noble Viscount also asked about staff, and asked me whether there was reasonable confidence that staff would come forward in view of the necessary considerable expansion to which I referred. In answer, I can only say, yes, so far the plan is going well. Of course, the Registrar, in choosing his sites for district offices, has particularly in mind sites where there are married women available, whether part-time or whole-time, because a great deal of this work is clerical work which staff of that kind can very well do. At the moment, what was originally an eight-year plan is going well and is slightly ahead of the programme. So that to date, certainly, there have been no difficulties as to staff. I think that covers the points which your Lordships have been good enough to raise, and I do not think there is any further matter I need deal with.

On Question, Bill read 2a, and committed to a Committee of the Whole House.