HL Deb 11 March 1971 vol 316 cc229-34

5.54 p.m.


My Lords, I rise to propose the Second Reading of the Land Registration and Land Charges Bill. It is mercifully short, miscellaneous in its provision and, I hope, useful without being controversial. Unfortunately it is also highly technical and almost entirely unintelligible. But I will do my best to explain it in simple language.

Clauses 1 and 2 are basically financial in their purpose. Under the growing—alas! much too slowly growing—system of land registration introduced into this country by the Land Transfer and Land Registration Acts, the title to land which is registered is guaranteed by the Government. That is, if the title afterwards proves defective the Government provide a money indemnity. In accordance with the thinking of the time the payments of indemnity were made out of a fund earmarked for the purpose. I think this thinking is now universally regarded as outmoded, and the method adopted uneconomical. The present value of the fund is only about £10,000, but it can be replenished from time to time out of the Consolidated Fund. Its management wastes an unreasonable amount of man-hours, and the objective is to abolish it. The rights of the public to indemnity will not be affected by Clauses 1 and 2, but the fund is abolished. Indemnity claims will be handled by the Chief Land Registrar, and payments made directly out of the Land Registry Vote. Disputed claims will continue to be decided by the Court.

Clause 3 removes a small injustice which has been created by judicial interpretation. Section 83 of the Land Registration Act 1925 excludes the right to indemnity in cases where the applicant has caused or contributed to the loss by his own act. The effect of judicial decisions is that this exclusion may extend to quite innocent acts, although in practice extra-statutory administrative practice allows indemnity where the causation is in fact innocent. This practice is now given statutory recognition by Clause 3.

Clause 4 removes a minor nuisance from the troubled life of the Chief Land Registrar. A curious practice has grown up in recent years of selling what are called souvenir plots of land to purchasers who, for sentimental or romatic reasons, wish to own a few square feet of English earth. These plots may be no more than a few square yards, or even smaller. This is innocent enough in itself, and it is even beneficial if and when it makes a modest contribution to our balance of payments. But it causes a quite disproportionate amount of trouble, and in practice the Land Registrary would not accept souvenir plots, although their refusal to do so might be questioned on legal grounds.

To make the Land Registry investigate each title and issue a separate certificate in respect of each tiny plot would call for a totally unjustifiable increase in the Registry's manpower resources, or else divert existing manpower resources from the much more useful work of extending the land registration system. If the existing staff were employed on this work the extension of the system throughout England and Wales would be seriously retarded. Clause 4 operates to bless souvenir buyers by enabling them in areas of compulsory registration to obtain sound titles to their plots by unregistered conveyancing procedures, thus preserving a harmless practice without clogging the administrative machinery.

Clauses 5 to 8 and Clause 11 herald the advent of the computer into the indexing of the registers and are to be welcomed as part of the white heat of the technological revolution. Clause 5 removes the need for alphabetical indexing, authorises request and search by telephone and teleprinter, and enables search fees to be paid by credit account. The effect of the Amendment on the principal Act can be seen by the Keeling Schedule introduced by Clause 11. Clause 6 provides for the use of office copies as evidence. Clauses 7 and 8 are either technical or consequential. Clause 9 is designed to relieve solicitors from a minor irritant caused by the necessity to register certain land charges under the Land Charges Act immediately before they are carried on to the register of title under the Land Registration Act. I understand that the Law Society will give some thanks for this small relief. In its present form the scope of the clause is too wide, and I have in mind some short technical Amendments to deal with this defect, with which I need not trouble the House at this stage. Clauses 12 to 15 inclusive are consequential or technical.

The Bill does not apply to Scotland or Northern Ireland. The Bill commences with the passage of the Bill, except for some of the provisions relating to the abolition of the Insurance Fund, and the land charges computer, which require preliminary administrative action. These will be brought into operation by statutory instrument. I beg to move.

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

6.0 p.m.


My Lords, the House will be grateful to the noble and learned Lord the Lord Chancellor for his lucid explanation of this very technical Bill. It is another law reform Bill. I conceive it to be part of my duty from time to time to remind the noble and learned Lord the Lord Chancellor that some Act which has received the Royal Assent some time previously is not yet in force, or that the Government ought really to make up their minds about one or two recent Reports from the Law Commission or other Committees. But I should be less than fair if I did not say that, so far as responsibility is in the hands of the noble and learned Lord the Lord Chancellor, this Government are doing very well in law reform. I cannot think, offhand, of anything else that they are doing well in, but I think they are doing well with law reform. I only wish the noble and learned Lord were responsible for the whole of our law, and then we could really press on. Where we are falling behind in law reform is in those Ministries which arrogate certain branches of the law to themselves.

The noble and learned Lord has said that this subject is highly technical. It concerns the Land Registry. I have known for some time about this position about the indemnity fund, the insurance fund. It has not been satisfactory. It causes a great deal of unnecessary administration, which costs time and staff, and the proposed solution is one that has my wholehearted approval. I am also delighted that souvenir land has been dealt with, because I know personally what a nuisance this was being to the learned Registrar. It really is a lot of nonsense, simply in order that somebody in America who buys two square feet of field in Kent can then talk about, "My English property in the county where my family came from". Somebody is making a good deal of money out of it. As the noble and learned Lord intimated, that may be good for exports; but it has been, I know, an awful nuisance to the Registrar when the Registry did not want these tiny bits of land registered. This provision will deal with that situation.

Then the computer has arrived. As I understand the position, it is probable that registration of title to land can never be done by computer. There are various reasons for that. Land charges registry, however, can be done by computer. This is estimated to save a staff of 150 and is obviously the right thing to do. I will not at this hour trouble your Lordships with any of the details on this part of the Bill.

I give a welcome to the Keeling Schedule, while asking the noble and learned Lord a question, to which I do not expect any answer this afternoon. Mr. Keeling's idea was a very good one: that, instead of having to look all round a Bill which says that section so-and-so is in future to read so-and-so, and trying to find out what it all amounts to, if there were a substantial number of amendments to some existing Act we could set them out in the Schedule so that the legislators would have to look only at the Schedule to see exactly what it was proposed to do. If that had been properly done, there would be shown in thick type what it was intended to put in, and in italics the things it was intended to leave out. The Parliamentary draftsmen produce Keeling Schedules from time to time—and I always think they are very useful—and include in thick type the things which Parliament is being asked to put into legislation, but, for a technical reason which I have never been able to accept, they decline to put in in italics the things which Parliament is being asked to take out of an Act. I have never believed that there can be any good reason for this attitude, but the highest concession I have ever been able to obtain was that they put in dots to indicate that something had been left out—but, of course, that does not indicate what is being omitted.

So, if one takes a simple example in this Bill one sees in the Keeling Schedule: 16.—(1) Any person may search in any register … kept in pursuance of this Act on paying the prescribed fee. One then has to look at Clause 5(2) to find out that what is being left out are the words "an index". It would save trouble, I should have thought, if what it is proposed to leave out were put into the Keeling Schedule in italics. But, as I have said, I do not expect the noble and learned Lord on the Woolsack, without notice, to answer that question to-night. My Lords, I applaud this further example of the interest of the noble and learned Lord, which I know he does take, in law reform; and I am sure that this legislation will give the Land Registrar a happier Easter.

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