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Mr. Fisher : Of course we welcome a repentant sinner like the Minister. In view of his kind remarks about consultation, will he join me in congratulating the 7,000-plus people who wrote to him about his proposals, all of whom criticised vehemently what he proposed in the Green Paper? Without their criticism, he would not be backing off in the way that he is today. Will he explain to the House how he arrived at the period of half an hour that he considers to be adequate time for reference work? Will he reconsider that, and admit that it was plucked out of the air and bears no relation to the sense of what was put to him by my hon. Friends or by his Back Benchers? At the risk of rubbing his nose in it, may I ask the Minister to confirm that the six powers he itemised are all available under the 1964 Act, with perhaps some ambiguity about damage to books? Not a single one of those six powers is new. I repeat that this is a welcome climbdown. It is deeply humiliating for the Minister that he has had to accept that all so-called radical proposals in the Green Paper are not worth a row of beans.
Mr. Luce : I have seldom heard such absolute nonsense from the hon. Gentleman. He must be desperate about something ; I cannot make out what it is. I am very pleased that the broad proposals that I put forward in the Green Paper have been generally accepted. Only two proposals--the premium book service and one other--have been dropped. I have produced one or two variations. The whole point of the Green Paper was discussion. The bulk of the Green Paper in one form or another has been implemented. There are areas under the 1964 Act where it was not possible to charge, for example, for the reservation of books or for damage. The hon. Gentleman is either deliberately distorting the position or else he has not done his homework.
Mr. Keith Vaz (Leicester, East) : I beg to ask leave to move the Adjournment of the House, under Standing Order No. 20, for the purpose of discussing a specific and important matter that should have urgent consideration, namely,
"the announcement by Leicestershire health authority of the closure of seven hospitals in the area."
This morning, I and hundreds of others, including small children born in these hospitals, attended the offices of Leicestershire health authority. At its meeting, the authority recommended the closure of seven hospitals in Leicestershire, the partial closure of another and the removal of general practitioner maternity beds from three others.
The decision of the health authority was taken in complete disregard of the wishes of the local people, thousands of whom signed petitions and wrote letters of support for the excellent work of these hospitals. The health authority has acted in an arrogant, irresponsible and undemocratic way. It has shown itself to be utterly inflexible when confronted with legitimate arguments. It has cast aside the anxieties and concern of the consumers of the Health Service, the very people it purports to serve.
I have written to the Secretary of State for Health and asked him to intervene. I urge him to do so. Closing down is not opting out. Closing down does not give people more choice ; it does not give people a better or a more responsive service. It means no service at all. Ending the maternity and geriatric services will put an enormous strain on community services and on ambulances. It will reduce choice and will result in job losses. It will put pressure on mothers who will be literally in labour.
The National Health Service is of great concern to me as a member of the National Union of Public Employees and it is also the concern of my constituents. We cannot reassure people that the NHS is to flourish and survive by destroying it bit by bit. Even at this late stage, the health authority must demand extra cash from the Government, especially as one hospital recommended for closure is Blaby hospital, which is in the constituency of the Chancellor of the Exchequer.
After the recent air disaster at Kegworth in Leicestershire, Ministers were quick to congratulate the hospitals and emergency services in the county. The congratulations were richly deserved. Now the Government have a chance to match their good words with good deeds. The people of Leicestershire deserve a first-class health service which is open to all, giving better services and not taking them away.
I ask that leave be given to adjourn the House so that we can discuss fully the future of the Health Service in Leicestershire following this appalling decision.
Mr. Speaker : The hon. Gentleman asks leave to move the Adjournment of the House, under Standing Order No. 20, for the purpose of discussing a specific and important matter that he believes should have urgent consideration, namely,
"the announcement by Leicestershire health authority of the closure of seven hospitals in the area."
As the House knows, I have to take into account the requirements of the Standing Order and to announce my decision without giving reasons to the House. I listened
Column 997with care to what the hon. Member said. As he knows, my sole duty in considering his application is to decide whether it should be given priority over business already set down for this evening or for tomorrow. I regret that the matter he has raised does not meet the requirements of the Standing Order, and I therefore cannot submit his application to the House.
Now I will take the points of order. I already had notice of one. Mr. Holt.
Mr. Richard Holt (Langbaurgh) : On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. I ask for your indulgence. Perhaps you can guide me. If you look at Question No. 99 on the Order Paper for today, you will see that it stands in my name and begins :
"To ask the Secretary of State for the Home Department". The question which I tabled was to the Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs. The Foreign Office decided to transfer the question to the Home Office. I cannot understand how the Home Secretary, with all the wisdom he has, can answer a question about the activities of the Foreign Secretary. Surely that is the responsibility of the Foreign Secretary. There must be a mechanism which enables Back Benchers to ask a question about the activities of the Foreign Secretary without having it transferred.
I raise the matter with you, Mr. Speaker, because I intend to table the same question for the next cycle. I ask you to note Question No. 12, which relates to Israel, Question No. 88, which relates to Zambia and, more particularly, Question No. 56, which relates to Gibraltar. The Isle of Man, for which the Home Secretary answers in the House of Commons, is a Crown colony. I cannot see how the Home Secretary can answer when I asked when the Foreign Secretary last met members of the Manx Government.
Mr. Speaker : I understand the hon. Gentleman's perplexity. I cannot give him an answer. Perhaps he should wait for the answer to the question, when all may be revealed. I cannot go further than that.
Mr. Greg Knight (Derby, North) : On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. My point of order relates to Foreign Office questions. I am sure you will have observed, Mr. Speaker, that a total of no fewer than eight questions were not asked or were withdrawn today. Not only is this infuriating to those who are unsuccessful in the ballot for questions and who hope to catch your eye to ask a supplementary, but it is a discourtesy to the House and to you, Mr. Speaker.
Is there not a case for the House to look at this and perhaps debarring an offending Member from tabling any further questions for a period? If you tell me, Mr. Speaker, that that is not the matter for you, will you in any event express your displeasure at this growing practice?
Mr. Speaker : The hon. Gentleman is right to draw attention to hon. Members who have not alerted the Chair to the fact that they cannot be present at Question Time. Some right hon. and hon. Members do, of course, have perfectly good reasons for not being present and three hon. Members told me of their inability to be present this afternoon. However, it is distressing for hon. Members who are not called on one question, but who hope to be called on another which is broadly similar, to miss their opportunity because another hon. Member is not present. I say again to the House that, if hon. Members cannot be present, they should always let the Chair know.
Mr. Jimmy Wray, supported by Ms. Joan Ruddock, Mrs. Maria Fyfe, Ms. Harriet Harman, Ms. Clare Short,
Column 999Mrs. Alice Mahon, Mr. Alfred Morris, Mr. Eddie Loyden, Mr. Jimmy Hood, Mr. Don Dixon, Dr. Lewis Moonie and Mr. Alan Meale, presented a Bill to establish a body known as the National Cervical Cancer Service, which will be responsible within the National Health Service for managing a national system for making cervical cancer tests available once every three years to all women aged between 20 and 65 years, and for supervising the provision of treatment for cervical cancer ; to provide for the making of tests by doctors acceptable to the women concerned ; to provide through the National Cervical Cancer Service for action to make women aware of the need for such tests ; and for purposes connected therewith : And the same was read the First time ; and ordered to be read a Second time tomorrow and to be printed. [Bill 68.]
Motion made, and Question put,
That the draft European Parliamentary Constituencies (Wales) (Miscellaneous Changes) Order 1988 be referred to a Standing Committee on Statutory Instruments, &c.-- [Mr. Maclean.]
Not less than 20 Members having risen in their places and signified their objection thereto, Mr. Speaker-- declared that the Noes had it, pursuant to Standing Order No. 101 (Standing Committees on Instruments, &c.).
That leave be given to bring in a Bill to enable Her Majesty's Land Registry to gain agency status ; to thereby improve the flexibility with which is uses externally generated funds for fees ; to improve its accountability to consumers ; to make its fees more responsive to customers' demands ; to provide guarantees of service ; and to reduce the present case backlog.
This is an important subject which had the attention of the Public Accounts Committee in July of last year, a report from the Auditor-General in 1987 and an Adjournment debate initiated by my hon. Friend the Member for Mid- Staffordshire (Mr. Heddle) in 1987 ; and it was, of course, dealt with at some length by the Farrand committee on conveyancing in 1985.
The purpose of my Bill is first to give greater flexibility and freedom of management to the Land Registry by giving it agency status, so that it can better deal with the huge number of applications that it receives, which on present evidence appears likely to be sustained. Secondly, it is to make the fee-charging system more responsive to the changes in the property market, eliminating the £103 million Treasury surplus which has been generated over the past 10 years, and giving customers better value for money.
Thirdly, the Bill will increase the registry's delegating ability to recruit staff according to local needs and to retain them to increase the calibre of staff and thereby to improve the turnaround of work, much of which is complex. Fourthly, given the fact that even on an agency basis it will constitute a statutory monopoly, the Bill will set down a framework for outside standards for speed and quality of customer service and a rate of return on the registry's financial assets.
In the past 125 years, the Land Registry has made it its business to register land and thus to give certainty to the title of real estate and changes in it. In a qualitative sense, it does that well. It has at present on the register 11.8 million of 20 million estimated titles. Last year, there were only 231 indemnity claims, totalling £226,000. It carries out those functions from about 16 full offices, with 9,300 staff, which is an increase of 2,000 in the past three years.
The registry's registration work is divided basically into two areas. First are the pre-contract and pre-completion inquiries from solicitors, which check on the validity of title. There were 5.2 million of those last year, which was an 85 per cent. increase over the past three years. At present, 90 per cent. of those inquiries are dealt with within four days, and they represent about 30 per cent. of the Land Registry's work. The other 70 per cent. of its work, which causes serious concern to the house building industry and to home owners generally, is the treatment of substantive applications to register for the first time or to change registration when properties are sold. Since 1982, the boom in house building, the sale of council houses, inner-city regeneration and the securitisation of mortgages have meant that these applications have more than doubled on an annual basis from 1.2 million to 2.8 million last year--and the number is still rising.
Surpluses averaging £10 million a year have been made from this increasing business. Inevitable manpower constraints have seen staff increased in that period by 50 per cent.--from 6,000 to 9,000--against the doubling of the business.
Column 1001There have been three results of that. First, the backlog of work has increased to the extent that it damages the productivity improvements needed to make inroads into past backlogs. The Public Accounts Committee heard from the Land Registry last year that there were 900,000--itself a record--outstanding substantive applications. I am told that there are now 1.147 million outstanding applications. As a result, although productivity is improving by 2 per cent. a year, it has not yet reached the levels achieved in 1982-83.
Secondly, that will result in delays in getting registration through, which holds up the completion of land sales. On Land Registry figures, the time taken for first registration is 35 weeks, against a 14-week target, and for other registrations it is 33 weeks. That causes delays and increased costs to builders and vendors--many of whom have to take out bridging loans. It has a detrimental effect on house prices, restricts the mobility of labour and, in many cases, causes considerable personal anguish.
The upshot is that the public are still providing the Land Registry with a substantial surplus every year, but are receiving a service which is unsatisfactory, at least in its speed of response, and one which does not look as though it is getting any better.
It is only fair to say that the Land Registry, assisted by the Government, has been making efforts to counteract these problems. It has introduced a £25 million computerisation programme ; it has opened new offices--two more were opened last year--it has reduced and rationalised its fee structure--there was a fee change only last year--and it has tried to assist house builders by introducing development title certificates, which speed up new registrations where there are multiple applications from house builders. So far, however, those have only produced the prospect of improvement. I believe, as do many people in the Land Registry, that it is constrained by a number of factors. First, it is unable to put its surpluses to effective use. Although, in April last year, it was freed from gross running cost control by the Treasury, it is still subject to annuality. It is not, therefore, able to carry over its surpluses or effectively its spending plans between years rather than within years. Secondly, it feels constrained by Civil Service rules on pay and recruitment, especially for senior staff. Professional entrants, and especially people on professional and executive grades, cannot be recruited locally, but must be recruited through the Civil Service Commission, which leads to delay. As a result there is a 40 per cent. under-establishment in executive and professional grades. I am told, too, that there are only 100 qualified solicitors among the 9,000 people working in the service.
Thirdly, because its incentives to improve productivity are cash-limited, the registry sometimes runs out of funds, which can be infinitely demoralising for staff. Fourthly, it is constrained by what the land registrar called the cumbersome nature of fee-making machinery. That means that the Treasury must be consulted, and the matter must then go through a rules committee on which is represented such bodies as the Law Society. That makes the progress extremely slow and non-responsive to the changes in a fast-changing market. The average time taken is about six months.
Column 1002Fifthly, the registry is constrained by a perception of an adequate level of service which is based upon the problems and backlog of the past five years, rather than the prompt service for which the public are paying. The chief land registrar admitted to the Public Accounts Committee that the 14-week target for first registration-- which has more than doubled in practice--was worse than the previous targets set by the Land Registry.
I believe that those problems can only be tackled by deep-seated changes, which my Bill is intended to introduce. The first change would be the introduction of agency status, which would improve managerial accountability, the freedom to manage, the ability to recruit staff of the right calibre and the ability to respond to local labour markets. I believe that that change would also improve staff morale, because staff turnover would fall.
The Bill would also improve the Land Registry's financial flexibility in two ways. First, it would allow the registry to invest its surpluses more quickly in the recruitment and retraining of staff. That would mean that there would be greater continuity in the staff between one year and the next. Secondly, the fees should more accurately reflect the state of the market. Therefore, the customer would get a better deal.
Although the Land Registry is a statutory monopoly, such changes must be buttressed by externally set performance indicators to measure response time, quality of service and even the repayment of fees in extreme circumstances. An externally set rate of return, either based on the registry's assets or its income, must be established to maintain its financial discipline.
Among the Government, the Law Society, the legal profession and home owners there is demand, and approval, for the pragmatic changes included in my Bill. Those changes will make registration and, therefore, house conveyancing much quicker. I hope that those changes will command the support of everyone in the House.
Mr. Bob Cryer (Bradford, South) : The hon. Member for Wyre Forest (Mr. Coombs) has set out the Land Registry's record of considerable success, even on his own terms. Any delays arising at the Land Registry derive from the huge increase in the work that it now undertakes. The hon. Gentleman has already said that the number of cases for registration of title have increased from 1.1 million to 2.8 million and that that figure is still rising.
From experience, everyone knows that any reorganisation will not reduce delays but almost certainly increase them until that reorganisation is complete. The hon. Gentleman has complained that surpluses cannot be carried forward, but the answer does not lie in agency status, in a change in the Treasury rules or through some statutory instrument introduced rapidly by the Government. If the Government had a mind to deal with the problem, it could be eliminated within a matter of hours.
The hon. Gentleman has accepted that the Land Registry has reduced its fees, but I am concerned that he believes that those fees should be more sensitive to the changes in property values. In recent years, however, property values have only gone up ; they have not come down. It is likely that the fees would also go up if one had an agency that was directed to make money.
Column 1003The second important feature about agency status is that it is the first step towards privatisation. The hon. Gentleman is concerned about accountability, but the Land Registry is accountable to the House. Privatisation would remove such accountability. Parliamentary questions may be asked about the Land Registry, but a study of the number of such questions asked shows that concern about it has diminished. Between June 1987 and June 1988, 52 parliamentary questions were asked, but from November 1988 only four questions have been asked. The hon. Gentleman has troubled to table only two questions. It is clear that his worries about the Land Registry have not produced, as one might suppose, a great swathe of parliamentary questions.
The Land Registry is essentially a service. I am aware that agency status has been granted to Her Majesty's Stationery Office and to Companies house, but to award such status to the Land Registry could lead to a worsening of terms and conditions of service, especially as there has been an influx of temporary employees to HMSO and Companies house. Such people could not, because of the lack of training, provide the efficient service and rapid response which the hon. Gentleman desires.
When agency status is established as a step towards privatisation, there is much fear, based on experience, that it will lead to an increase in charges. The Financial Times today states that statutory water companies plan to impose price rises of between 30 and 50 per cent. That has been announced as the privatisation legislation is being discussed in the House. It points out : "The Government's difficulty is that ministers have no legal powers to control their price increases".
Once the gas supply industry was privatised, its charges increased. We already know that electricity charges have been increased by 15 per cent. as a prelude to privatisation.
House buyers who will use the services of the Land Registry perhaps once or twice in their lives need certainty and need to know that service is the priority rather than increased profits demanded by an agency as a step towards privatisation. Given the current situation, house owners and potential house owners need certainty and low charges above all else. In May 1988 the interest rate was 9.5 per cent. Since then those who have a £30,000 mortgage for 25 years have had to face a 32 per cent. rise in their mortgage repayments. In January, the interest rate was 13.75 per cent., which means that those with a £30,000 mortgage have seen their payments increase by £66.59. The repayments for those with an £80,000 mortgage held for 25 years have increased by 34 per cent., which is equivalent to £221.82. In those circumstances, we should make every endeavour to keep any additional charges that must be met on house sales to the absolute minimum. The hon. Gentleman has already demonstrated that the Land Registry has done that.
We do not want the reorganisation of the Land Registry, but we want its service expanded and developed. That should be done under the accountability that the House can provide. Therefore, I hope that the Bill will be opposed.
Question put, pursuant to Standing Order No. 19 (Motions for leave to bring in Bills and nomination of Select Committees at commencement of public business) :--
The House divided : Ayes 104, Noes 127.
Column 1004Division No. 85] [4.45 pm
Alison, Rt Hon Michael
Arnold, Jacques (Gravesham)
Ashdown, Rt Hon Paddy
Beith, A. J.
Bennett, Nicholas (Pembroke)
Bevan, David Gilroy
Blackburn, Dr John G.
Blaker, Rt Hon Sir Peter
Bowden, Gerald (Dulwich)
Boyson, Rt Hon Dr Sir Rhodes
Brown, Michael (Brigg & Cl't's)
Browne, John (Winchester)
Bruce, Malcolm (Gordon)
Buchanan-Smith, Rt Hon Alick
Campbell, Menzies (Fife NE)
Carlisle, John, (Luton N)
Clark, Sir W. (Croydon S)
Coombs, Anthony (Wyre F'rest)
Coombs, Simon (Swindon)
Emery, Sir Peter
Evans, David (Welwyn Hatf'd)
Fishburn, John Dudley
Forsythe, Clifford (Antrim S)
Fox, Sir Marcus
Glyn, Dr Alan
Goodhart, Sir Philip
Greenway, Harry (Ealing N)
Greenway, John (Ryedale)
Hicks, Mrs Maureen (Wolv' NE)
Hordern, Sir Peter
Hughes, Simon (Southwark)
Jones, Robert B (Herts W)
Kellett-Bowman, Dame Elaine
Knight, Dame Jill (Edgbaston)
Leigh, Edward (Gainsbor'gh)
Lloyd, Sir Ian (Havant)
Martin, David (Portsmouth S)
Michie, Mrs Ray (Arg'l & Bute)
Molyneaux, Rt Hon James
Monro, Sir Hector
Montgomery, Sir Fergus
Pattie, Rt Hon Sir Geoffrey
Raison, Rt Hon Timothy
Rhodes James, Robert
Shaw, David (Dover)
Shaw, Sir Giles (Pudsey)
Shaw, Sir Michael (Scarb')
Shepherd, Richard (Aldridge)
Skeet, Sir Trevor
Smith, Sir Dudley (Warwick)
Smith, Tim (Beaconsfield)
Steel, Rt Hon David
Stewart, Allan (Eastwood)
Stradling Thomas, Sir John
Taylor, Teddy (S'end E)
Townend, John (Bridlington)
Vaughan, Sir Gerard
Walker, Bill (T'side North)
Walters, Sir Dennis
Tellers for the Ayes :
Mr. John Bowis and
Mr. David Nicholson.
Adams, Allen (Paisley N)
Archer, Rt Hon Peter
Ashley, Rt Hon Jack
Barnes, Harry (Derbyshire NE)
Benn, Rt Hon Tony
Bennett, A. F. (D'nt'n & R'dish)
Brown, Nicholas (Newcastle E)
Brown, Ron (Edinburgh Leith)
Campbell, Ron (Blyth Valley)
Campbell-Savours, D. N.
Clarke, Tom (Monklands W)
Clwyd, Mrs Ann
Cook, Frank (Stockton N)
Davis, Terry (B'ham Hodge H'l)
Duffy, A. E. P.
Ewing, Harry (Falkirk E)
Ewing, Mrs Margaret (Moray)