§ 8.22 p.m.
§ Lord Templeman
My Lords, I beg to move that the Bill be now read a second time. Nine hundred years ago land in England was registered in the Domesday Book. At that time there was no coyness about the ownership of land. For the next few hundred years there was no secrecy about the ownership of land. When a purchaser bought a piece of land, he was taken on to the land in the presence of witnesses and the vendor handed him a twig by way of a symbol and said to him, rather charmingly: "Enter this land and God give you joy". Copyhold land was conveyed by surrender and admittance carried out in open court before the Lord of the Manor or his steward.
Then, I am sorry to say, the lawyers got to work and invented secret written conveyances. The object of that was not to hide the ownership of land from one's neighbours, but to hide it from the king, who thereby was disabled of recovering the feudal dues and taxes which otherwise he could have recovered under the old-fashioned method of conveyancing.
Once land became transferable by secret documents, then we had to build up the whole of the paraphernalia of proving title. It is not possible to assume that because man is living in a house he is therefore the owner. When one wants to buy from him, under unregistered conveyancing, he will produce a whole mass of documents, some of them 50 years old, to prove his title. Title was traced through each document, each death, each will until finally—staggering at the end—a skilful solicitor could advise the purchaser that there was a good title.
That was expensive and cumbersome and in 1862 the Land Registry Act was passed. The object of the Act, as expressed in the preamble, was:To give certainty to the title to real estate and to facilitate the proof thereof and also to render dealings with land more simple and economic".The system is simply that the Land Registry has a register on which is entered the owner of a particular piece of land. On it is also registered any mortgage which is executed and any restrictive covenants which 681 affect the land. If one wants to know whether the vendor really owns the land, one simply goes along to the register and looks. All the old conveyancing documents can he thrown away or sent off to the archives.
In 1862 the registration of land in its simplified form was voluntary, and, as by that time unregistered land was conveyed secretly, in order to encourage volunteers to come along and register their land, Section 15 of the Act provided that the register should only be opened to inspection by the registered owner or under an order of the court.
Land registration became compulsory in 1925 under the Land Registration Act, but the work of registering the titles was immense and was interrupted by the war. Even now the registration of titles has only reached about 70 or 80 per cent. though I am glad to say that it is planned that complete registration will be finished by about the end of the century. The Land Registry is the government department which keeps all these records. When it has a record it issues a certificate of title which describes the land, indicates its boundaries and gives the names and addresses of the owners.
As registration of title has become the rule rather than the exception, secrecy, whose justification lay in the fact that unregistered conveyancing was necessarily secret, has become out of date. The secrecy which was imposed by Section 112 of the Land Registration Act 1925 has led to a number of serious difficulties. The worst example of that is the absent landlord who manages his property through agents and conceals his identity. The tenant may wish to serve a notice on his landlord to carry out repairs and the local authority may wish to serve a notice on the landlord to fulfil his statutory obligations. Under the Land Registration Act 1925, no tenant or local authority is entitled to inspect the register to find out who owns the land. There have been statutory inroads into this, but it is the worst example of secrecy, as is usual, becoming a cloak for fraud and malpractice.
There are other difficulties. I heard only today of counsel advising an owner of land who is having a dispute with his neighbour about boundaries. There was a great deal of correspondence and argument and the neighbour flatly refused to disclose his title deeds. The result is that the argument will continue until someone issues a writ and the matter is then clarified. However, if there was no secrecy, one could go along to the Land Registry and see the boundaries of title and the name of the owner.
There are other difficulties. For example, one owner has a party wall and finds that it harbours dry rot. He cannot do much about it without the knowledge of his neighbour. The neighbouring owner has let the property and the tenant is awkward. There is then real difficulty in discovering the exact position with regard to the property next door. The tenant of a flat may wish to know, not only who owns his property, because that may have come about as a result of leases and sub-leases, but who owns the block of flats and who is responsible for, for example, repairs to the roof.
682 There are other people who are interested in ownership. People may wish to know if there is a right of way and who is the owner responsible for it. The problem has been apparent for a number of years. The Law Commission was asked to investigate the matter, which it did with its usual thoroughness. It sent out 50,000 copies of a pamphlet asking, "What do you think about opening the register?" I am bound to say that the majority of people never bothered to reply—they could not care whether or not the register was opened. However, the great preponderance of opinion among those who did reply was in favour of the register being opened.
The Law Commission also made inquiries abroad. It found, and I quote from its report, that:in almost every other country in the world registers of title or of land are fully open to public inspection. Lawyers in these countries find it hard to understand why we retain a private register in this country since the advantages of an open one are to them so obvious".In this country it is possible to go to Somerset House and collect a copy of the will of any deceased testator and find out that he has left his second best bed to his wife and cut off his eldest son with a shilling; it is possible to inspect the register of the ownership of shares in public companies; but it is not possible to inspect the register of titles to land. For my part, I fail to understand how anyone can be ashamed of the knowledge that he owns a piece of land, large or small.
In its Report No. 148, dated 27th February 1985, the Law Commission, having made all these thorough investigations, recommended that the Land Registry should be open to public inspection and annexed to its report the draft Bill which, subject to slight modifications, is the Bill now before the House.
A suggestion has been made—I believe the noble Lord, Lord Coleraine, is to repeat it—that it might he possible partially to open the register; that is, to open it to certain classes of people. That raises practical objections; first, there is the difficulty of defining who should be allowed to inspect the register and who should not, and, secondly, there is difficulty for the registrar and his officials. When someone asks politely to inspect the title to find out who owns, say, 156 Acacia Avenue, the Land Registry official would have to say, "You must prove to us that you fall into one of the categories of person entitled to inspect." The Law Commission came to the conclusion that there was no reason why the registry should not be generally opened so that the registrar would have no difficulties.
The Bill has been welcomed by my noble and learned friend Lord Hailsham of Saint Marylebone, by my noble and learned friend on the Appellate Committee, and particularly by my noble and learned friend Lord Brightman, who has experience in conveyancing and trusts of over 50 years. The House will await with interest the views of the Lord Chancellor, but I remind him and the House that in Scotland a deeds register has been open to public inspection since the 17th century. As usual, it appears that Scottish law is about 250 years ahead of English law and, again as usual, we are now making strenuous efforts to catch up.
683 The opposition to the opening of the register is largely based on the view that to open it would be an invasion of privacy. That, in itself, may be due to some misapprehension. Although, as I have said, the register gives details of conveyancing, ownership and mortgage, it does not show the price paid for a property or the amount raised on mortgage. It would be embarrassing for a vendor who purchased at £50,000 to have a potential purchaser jibbing at a price of £70,000 because he found that the property had been bought cheaply. One can understand that no owner of property wishes it to be known that he has mortgaged it to the hilt. However, there is no great stigma in having it known that one has mortgaged a property. It is perfectly simple to do and everybody does it, partly to get the benefit of the generous tax allowance and partly because very few people can put up £150,000 in pound notes for a three-bedroomed house. Therefore, to reveal the fact that a house has been mortgaged is not, to my mind, an invasion of the privacy of an owner.
The ownership of land can no longer be confidential. Ownership of land brings obligations as well as rights. Many people apart from the owner are interested in land. The state is interested. The Forestry Commission is interested. Everyone concerned with town planning is interested. Neighbours are interested. Tenants are interested. Even a trespasser might be interested. One cannot isolate a piece of land in the middle of England and, for no good reason, simply cloak its ownership and say that no one should be entitled to know the name of the man who owns it.
With that introduction, I now deal briefly with the Bill. Clause 1 abolishes the restrictions on inspection of the register and enables any person to inspect and make copies of entries on the register. Your Lordships will observe that the right is made conditional on payment of a fee. That fee will be fixed by the Land Registry. That has two consequences. First, payment of a fee will prevent any frivolous inspection. In practice, if a person has to pay in order to search for each title only those people who have a genuine interest in ascertaining the name of the owner will, bother to search the register. Secondly, the imposition of a fee—and I am sure this will appeal to Her Majesty's Government—will mean that no additional cost will fall on the taxpayer. The registrar will naturally assess a fee which will cover the cost of opening and showing the register and giving copies to inquirers.
Subsection (2) and Clause 3 are consequential and get rid of some minor amendments to Section 112 of the Land Registration Act which already exist.
I should mention that Clause 3(2) as at present drafted provides that the Bill,shall come into force at the end of the period of one month beginning with the day on which it is passed.With 40 years' experience of conveyancing I know how much work there is in the Land Registry. I am full of admiration for the registrar, who has dragged conveyancing from the 19th into the 20th century. The registry is now, with great foresight, embarked on a programme of computerisation which will take conveyancing into the 21st century. With 684 computerisation, it will eventually be possible for any solicitor, with, of course, the consent of the Land Registry and payment of a fee, to ascertain the details of ownership and any restrictive covenants on a property merely by asking the right questions of the computer.
At the moment, as I understand it, the registrar fears that if the Bill comes into force immediately there will be extra cost and difficulty for his department. If the Bill finds acceptance among your Lordships, I suggest that the proper way to deal with that problem is to provide for the Act to come into force on a day to be fixed by the Lord Chancellor, or whoever is the most appropriate Minister. I hope that the Act will be brought into force within the next year or two, when the registrar has managed to solve his administrative difficulties and is satisfied that he can operate its provisions without undue difficulty. Subject to that change, which I shall ask leave to introduce in Committee, I beg to move.
§ Moved, That the Bill be now read a second time.—(Lord Templeman.)
§ 8.38 p.m.
§ Lord Coleraine
My Lords, I am pleased to give a very firm welcome to the Bill and to the concept of an open register making information regarding land ownership available to those who want it.
When I first read the Law Commission's report I had no firm feelings one way or the other about this matter except, perhaps, a feeling that here was yet another incursion into our privacy. However, if I had not been persuaded by the arguments of the report I would certainly have been persuaded by the presentation of the argument by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Templeman.
As the noble and learned Lord said, I have one issue to raise. Should the opening of the register enable everyone to inspect everything to be found there? Should the opening of the register be total or only partial? In its report the Law Commission firmly recommends total and unrestricted opening. The reason given by the Law Commission—and this will be my principal concern this evening—is that the Treasury would not permit the additional expense required if the opening of the register were to be partial. This is said to be the case even though the Land Registry is well able from its fee income to fund partial opening over and over again. I have myself again no very fixed or firm opinion on this question of partial opening. Nevertheless, I am far from convinced by the reasons given by the Law Commission and I think it is a pity that they have to assume the immutability of government public expenditure policy and that they did not express any clear opinion as to whether partial opening might be desirable in principle.
The arguments which justify the ending of secrecy about the ownership of land do not as clearly justify public access to other information which may be kept on the register. For example, in the report the National Consumer Council are quoted in paragraph 17 as being against the closed register. They stridently comment.The denial of public access to the Land Registry is a symptom of the obsession with unnecessary secrecy which pervades British society".685 Nevertheless, what the National Consumer Council appear to be concerned with is simply secrecy about the ownership of land as a general principle. They recognise that,the citizen has a strong interest in being able to conduct his family life in private".They continue:This does not extend to secrecy over the ownership of land".I think that that testimony leaves wide open the question whether there has to be total or only partial opening of the register
As an example of the sort of information that might be excluded from a general right of access, the Law Commission instance the charge over the matrimonial home which, in England and Wales at least, is given by statute to a spouse who otherwise has no formal estate or interest in the matrimonial home. The charge may be protected by registration on the charges register of the other spouse's registered title to the land. This is provided for by Sections 1 and 2 of the Matrimonial Homes Act 1983.
This matrimonial charge will normally be registered when the spouse without the legal estate starts to feel anxious about the marriage. That spouse, for good reason or bad, may not tell the other spouse about the registration. The Land Registry does not do so. The Land Registry's reason for not notifying the other spouse is in case by so doing they exacerbate a painful situation. By the same token, the difficulty seen by those who oppose a totally open register is that the spouses may still be living together and the first the other spouse may learn about the charge is when that spouse opens the morning papers or reads a letter from a candid friend.
What the Law Commission have to say about partial opening is in paragraph 17 of their report. It is that partial opening,would appear impracticable, as involving unacceptable administration and resource implications for HM Land Registry".The responses which were given to the Government Conveyancing Committee (the Farrand Committee) by the Chief Land Registrar, when questioned as to the disadvantages of an open register are clear. In paragraph 4.47 of the Farrand Committee's second report in 1985 on the general question whether an open Land Registry would be feasible the chief Land Registrar responded in terms which suggested that it would. He nevertheless had this important caveat to add:Additional fees for searches would be of no particular help to the Registry in the event of the work proving to be higher than envisaged. It cannot be emphasised too strongly either in this context or generally that the Registry's difficulties at the present time do not centre on the question of the level of finance available but on the fact that its manpower resources are strictly limited by the Government's policy to restrict civil service numbers".In paragraph 4.48 the Chief Land Registrar's response made it clear that this aspect of the Government's policy would definitely inhibit any partial opening of the register.
I believe that the position may have changed for the worse in this respect since 1985 and that today the Government's policy might inhibit even a total opening of the register. I understand that any change 686 at all in the right of access to information held by the Land Registry would have resource implications considerably greater than were contemplated by the Chief Land Registrar when he responded to the Farrand Committee.
A timely report from the National Audit Office entitled "Review of the Operations of HM Land Registry" and presented under the National Audit Act in July this year throws some light on the way the dead hand of the Treasury lies on the Land Registry. If I may quote from the overall conclusions of the report:The Land Registry exists to provide a service to users, and since it is, in effect, a statutory monopoly it is important that its activities should be conducted in an efficient manner at minimum cost to the public. As the report shows, the Registry has been successful in achieving target standards of service in terms of quality of work, and containing error rates, and has made successful efforts up to 1982–83 to raise efficiency, but largely because of the massive growth in its commitments and the limitations on staff numbers there have been areas of its activities where its efforts have since been frustrated, and where further efficiency improvements have been harder to secure, although some have been achieved in 1986–87. The productivity has been constrained by the increasing servicing of the accumulated backlog of casework and this too gives ground for concern, particularly if the position continues to deteriorate. At the same time as it faces these operational difficulties the Registry gathers substantial financial surpluses. If it was allowed to recruit additional staff and/or to reduce fees this would contribute substantially to the efficiency of land registration".I can say something as to the deterioration in the position. According to the Chief Land Registrar's annual reports, the time taken for completion of the first registration of a new title was 48 working days as at 1st April 1985, 73 working days as at 1st April 1986, 110 working days as at 1st April 1987. My information is that this situation is continuing to deteriorate into this year.
I can say something also about the surplus which the Land Registry has had unwillingly to accumulate. According to the National Audit Office Report, the approved surplus amounted to £84 million in March 1986. In the following year ending 31st March 1987 on a turnover of £124 million the registration of title department of the Land Registry had a surplus of £25 million. These are all fees paid by people who want to buy and sell land, and are generally considered to be part of the cost of conveyancing.
This milking of the public (for that is what we are considering) is not less than a public scandal, coming as it does in conjunction with the deteriorating service provided by the Land Registry.
The National Audit Office Report (in paragraph 2.10) had this to say about the financial arrangements affecting the Land Registry:Treasury recognises that demand led self-financing bodies such as Land Registry may be more sensibly funded and resourced outside the present system of financial controls. The Registry for its part considers that a change in funding arrangements which will ensure an effective registration service is a matter of priority. This is currently being examined by the Treasury and the Registry.I took the discussions referred to there as a hopeful sign that the Land Registry might be hived off, either as a public corporation or into the hands of private agencies, so that this rapidly growing service industry, now employing over 7,000, could play its part as an effective component of the market zeconomy.
687 My expectations must, however, be looked at in the cold light of the written reply given in yesterday's Hansard by my noble and learned friend the Lord Chancellor to a Question which I had put down for Written Answer.
I had asked whether the Land Registry was inhibited by government financial controls and whether proposals were under consideration which would enable market forces to determine the services provided to the public. My noble and learned friend's reply fell into two parts. First,The Treasury has recently approved a significant increase in the expenditure and manpower to be made available to enable HM Land Registry to meet its growing commitments".Secondly,Furthermore, discussions are being held with a view to ensuring that manpower resources can be adjusted more readily to reflect the level of activity prevailing from time to time in the conveyancing and mortgage markets".—[Official Report, 23/11/87; col. 530.]I should be grateful for both replies. Unfortunately, I take the view that the processes described amount to little more than tinkering with a bad system to enable the Land Registry to get and keep its head above water by the provision of a tightly controlled minimal service.
The services of the Land Registry are generally described as demand-led. That is a happy and perhaps soporific phrase promoting a sense of euphoria and well-being. But I do not think that "demand-led" in this context is a phrase full of good meaning. It does not mean that the Land Registry will be any more likely tomorrow than today to be able to provide its users with what they want. All it means is that the need for the present services provided by the Land Registry fluctuates with the activity of the conveyancing and mortgage markets. The most one can say is that the Government at last recognise that the Land Registry must be allowed to use the resources it already has to carry out its statutory functions. That is no big deal.
My noble and learned friend's Answer does not go nearly far enough. It does not lead me to think that the radical discussions referred to by the National Audit Office are getting on very well or are likely to reach fruition.
A new deal is needed. We need a Land Registry liberated from the Treasury and responsive to its users' needs. It is the users who should have the last word as to how Land Registry surpluses are to be applied, whether in further windfalls to the Consolidated Fund, in the provision or more and better services or in the reduction of fees. Any consideration of the Bill has, because of its resource implications, to take in the present and future financing of the Land Registry.
I apologise to the noble and learned Lord and to the House for taking up time to press this one point. I hope that when my noble and learned friend responds to the debate he will find it possible to explain how feasible the provision of an open register is, having regard to Treasury control of the Land Registry and to the other extraneous financial considerations.
§ 8.53 p.m.
§ Lord Silkin of Dulwich
My Lords, as long ago as 1857 it was reported that repeated but unsuccessful efforts had been made to establish public registration, something which had been constantly recommended by the ablest lawyers and statesmen. However, five years later the noble and learned Lord the Lord Chancellor, Lord Westbury, expressed the view that the objective had been defeated by the pedantic and narrow-minded interpretation of the judges. Those were his less severe criticisms of contemporary lawyers.
The clearly expressed intention of the legislature to restore publicity to land dealing was thus frustrated to the benefit of those who profited from secrecy. That frustration has continued to this very day, despite the greater liberality of judicial views. The adjectives used by Lord Westbury are, I hope, less justified today.
The consequence is that England and Wales are out of accord not only with almost every other country but even with Scotland and Ireland. The result is that only the proprietor and those authorised by him can inspect the documents contained in the register except where the court orders otherwise for a specific purpose or where some other narrowly defined exception exists.
The only serious objection in principle to the opening of the register is that it involves some invasion of privacy. Important as is the public interest in favour of the legitimate protection of privacy, it is not an overriding consideration. There has been a growing tendency towards openness in analogous areas such as planning applications, wills, births, deaths and marriages, fair rents, company shareholdings and many others. In other countries privacy related to landholding has not been regarded as a paramount consideration and that has not had disastrous consequences.
There is a good case for widespread openness in regard to land holding. It is strong where a person has an interest in the land, such as a tenant, or in nearby land, but it is more general than that. The ownership of land carries important social responsibilities. It is a matter of legitimate public concern, not least to ensure desirable development and to prevent the undesirable.
In practice, the existence of an open register would simplify house transfer and so reduce its cost. The Bill does not enable an inquirer to find out the amount of a mortgage or the amount paid since 1977 to purchase land. Those restrictions are understandable, but it is perhaps open to question whether it is necessary for the price paid to remain secret after some specified time, such as 15 years. The noble and learned Lord and the registry might care to give some thought to that point.
The noble Lord, Lord Coleraine, in the course of careful argument, referred to two matters. The first related to fees and the financial standing of the register. I have always understood—when I held the office of Attorney-General I followed this rule—that where fees are charged to the public for a service, they should not be used as a form of taxation. I always advised in that sense. If the facts given to us by the noble Lord are accurate, it would seem that the rule 689 has not been followed in this case. There may of course be statutory provisions which justify that course. We shall want to know more about it. To the extent that the saving of money from fees for services given has contributed to the worsening of those services, that is something about which we should know more. I am grateful to the noble Lord for drawing attention to the point.
On the possibility of partial disclosure, that no doubt is a matter that we shall examine closely in Committee. My question is, why? What is the justification in modern times for partial disclosure as distinct from complete disclosure? It seems to me that there must be an overriding rule to cut out of the disclosure some part of what is contained—as no doubt there is in the case on the price of recent purchases and matters of that kind—to justify the provision in the legislation in that form. We shall be able to examine that matter in due course. I do not think it in any way impinges upon the concept of the Bill as a whole.
For the reasons I have given, we fully support the Bill. We are grateful to the noble and learned Lord, Lord Templeman, for accepting the burden of promoting it, as indeed we are to the Law Commission for its very well argued report.
§ 9 p.m.
§ The Lord Chancellor (Lord Mackay of Clashfern)
My Lords, I should like to begin by congratulating my noble and learned friend Lord Templeman on his initiative in bringing this Bill before the House and on his usual very persuasive advocacy in commending it to your Lordships. I should also like to express gratitude to the Law Commission for the valuable report which has given birth to this Bill. It carefully marshalled the arguments for and against an open register and firmly concluded that the balance of advantage lay with openness.
I am also grateful to the noble and learned Lord, Lord Silkin of Dulwich, for his support for the Bill and to my noble friend Lord Coleraine for his support, at least to the extent of supporting partial opening of the register. I hope that he will see that partial support might with advantage be turned into complete support for the principal provisions of the Bill. For my part, as a Scot, I am gratified that my noble and learned friend Lord Templeman should indicate so plainly that the course of history in Scotland is now being followed in England and Wales.
The Law Commission concluded that there would be significant advantages in an open register from the point of conveyancing simplification. Since the main purpose of registration of title is to make the transfer of land easier and less hazardous, that must be a very weighty consideration in favour of openness. The Law Commission also drew attention to the assistance which an open register would afford in identifying the ownership of land for other purposes such as preservation and development. At a time when we are so much concerned with our environment and the problems of homelessness and inner city decay this too must be a weighty 690 consideration. I am in no doubt that the Law Commission reached the right conclusions and that the principle of openness should prevail.
It may help if I attempt to set the Bill in a slightly wider context. It is a regrettable fact that the Land Registry is currently labouring under very great difficulties and that there are unacceptable delays in registration. These are a matter of great concern not only to the chief land registrar but also to myself. In the last financial year there was an extraordinary and quite unpredictable increase in activity in the conveyancing and mortgage market producing a rise of some 25 per cent. in the register's intake. A further increase of some 9 per cent. has occurred during the first half of the present financial year.
It should be emphasised that the present delays do not result from inefficiency, there having been a 3 per cent. improvement in the productivity of the land registrar's department last year. Great efforts are being made to remedy this situation. Substantial increases in staff numbers have been authorised, over 900 for the present financial year. These additional staff are being recruited and trained. New offices are being opened so that work can be moved from overburdened offices. Moreover, new practices and procedures are being introduced, including the implementation last autumn of a fully computerised system at the Plymouth District Land Registry. My noble and learned friend Lord Templeman has referred to this. The system is being introduced at Gloucester over the next few months and later in 1988 at Swansea. It is proposed to introduce it successively into the remaining offices over the next five or six years.
Unfortunately none of these steps will produce immediate or dramatic reductions in the delays that are being experienced. Meanwhile the registry is doing what it can to minimise the adverse effect on solicitors and their clients by concentrating their resources on time-sensitive applications relating to the provision of office copies and certificates of official search, the speedy processing of which is of the highest importance if conveyancing transactions are to proceed smoothly.
At the same time the programme for extending the areas of compulsory registration to cover the whole of England and Wales has continued, and additional staff has been made available specifically for this purpose. It has been a very long haul, as my noble and learned friend said, but I think we are now at last within sight of the goal. At present some 87 per cent. of the population of England and Wales live in areas of compulsory registration. Over the next few months the figure will rise to almost 90 per cent. and plans are well advanced to increase it to nearly 94 per cent. in the coming financial year. All being well the programme will be completed by 1990.
There is further cause for optimism. The Law Commission is now engaged in the final stages of its work on land registration. Its first report on land registration was published in 1983 and led to the Land Registration Act of 1986. The second report published in 1985 has given rise to the present Bill. The third report dealing with overriding interests, rectification, indemnity and minor interests was published earlier this year but without a draft Bill. This was because the commission was already 691 engaged on a complete overhaul and consolidation of the Land Registration Acts 1925 to 1986 which will incorporate the changes proposed in the latest report and also pick up the open register proposals. The land registration legislation passed in 1925 has after this lapse of time merited a thorough re-examination and the final results of the Law Commission's work are eagerly awaited.
I hope that I have given your Lordships sufficient indication that in spite of the present difficulties the next few years will be important in the history of land registration in England and Wales. I am convinced that an open register has an important part to play in all this. It would be a significant step towards the full realisation of the computerisation programme, it would link in with the completion of the extension programme and it would harmonise with a new, modern legislative framework for land registration.
I was grateful to my noble and learned friend Lord Templeman for indicating his intention to put down an amendment providing for commencement on an appointed day, because the question of timing is indeed important. The opening of the register will certainly make considerable demands on the Land Registry's resources, in particular in the early stages. It is vital that the registry should be fully prepared. If the effect of opening the register were to make the current delays in registration still worse, it would be counterproductive. Moreover implementation of the Law Commission's proposals would require the making of new rules and this is bound to take some time.
The Government have been considering all these aspects in the period since the publication of the Law Commission's report. Although the principle of an open register presents many attractions, particularly in respect of simplifying conveyancing and improving land use, it was felt that this was a decision which should not be rushed. By bringing forward this Bill my noble and learned friend has provided the opportunity for a full discussion of the issues, for which I am grateful.
I now turn briefly to the speech of my noble friend Lord Coleraine. He suggested that the arguments in favour of a partial opening of the register have been precluded by resource considerations. It would be fairer to say that a partial opening, which would involve great administrative inconvenience, might hardly be worth the trouble and expense, no matter what the registry's funding arrangements were.
It is sometimes suggested, for example, that the charges register should be excluded from public access. But the Law Commission pointed out that this would exclude not only references to mortgages but also to vital information relating to leases, restrictive covenants and to other deeds of that kind. It should perhaps be remembered that with unregistered land the land charges register is open to inspection. It should also be remembered that the charges register, although it contains particulars of mortgages, does not record the amount, nor does it follow from the Law Commission's report that copy leases and charges held at the registry should automatically be made available for inspection.
As he mentioned, my noble friend Lord Coleraine has recently asked me a Question for Written Answer 692 on the subject of the registry's funding arrangements. The answer which I gave on Monday was:The Treasury has recently approved a significant increase in the expenditure and manpower…discussions [are continuing] with a view to ensuring that manpower resources can be adjusted more readily to reflect the level of activity prevailing from time to time in the conveyancing and mortgage markets".—[Official Report, 23/11/87; col. 530.]I hope that this provides my noble friend with some encouragement.
Perhaps I should also take this opportunity of saying—since the matter was alluded to by my noble friend in his Question and has been the subject of some ill-informed speculation—that the Government have no plans for privatising the Land Registry. I believe that the present arrangements, with the flexibility that has been introduced, give the Land Registry an appropriate financial framework in which to provide a proper service to the public.
To return to my main theme, I entirely applaud the Bill proposed by my noble and learned friend Lord Templeman. I trust that, as he mentioned the considerations of timing, which weigh with me, the Bill as considered by your Lordships eventually in Committee will have a safe passage. I agree with my noble and learned friend in commending the Bill to the House.
§ 9.12 p.m.
§ Lord Templeman
My Lords, I am grateful for the weighty and unanimous support accorded to the Bill. I know that the Law Commission will be gratified that its very long and careful investigations and report have found favour so far with your Lordships. I am particularly grateful for the support of my noble and learned friend the Lord Chancellor, speaking for the Administration, and my noble and learned friend Lord Silkin of Dulwich, speaking for the Labour Party. I hope that the weight of that support will speed the Bill not only through this House but also through another place.
The debate has given an opportunity for questions to be asked and for the searchlight to illuminate the work of the Land Registry and its relationship with the Treasury. I am sure that my noble and learned friend on the Woolsack will not mind the questions being asked, for it is right and proper that we should consider all aspects of the Land Registry and its relationship with the Treasury. Although that debate came in rather on a side-wind I make no complaint and I am sure that noble Lords will have been edified by the discussion that has taken place.
§ On Question, Bill read a second time, and committed to a Committee of the Whole House.