Mr. Cash: No doubt the Minister has observed that pressing an amendment to a Division tends to be accompanied by certain movement from another Committee Room. I have as many troops at my disposal as I am able to muster, and I am extremely grateful to them for turning up yet again.
I am afraid to say that I do not regard the Minister's response as sufficient. He looks suitably shocked, but we regard this matter as important. I mentioned that freedom of contract makes the United Kingdom an attractive place to do business, and although time will tell, we regard the provision as an unnecessary constraint. The Opposition must form judgments on such questions. The Minister nods his head sagely and I am grateful to him for that, but we still intend to press the amendment to a vote.
Question put, That the amendment be made:—
The Committee divided: Ayes 3, Noes 8.
Division No. 3]
Cash, Mr. William
Hoban, Mr. Mark
O'Brien, Mr. Stephen
Barnes, Mr Harry
Marsden, Mr Gordon
Sanders, Mr. Adrian
Stringer, Mr. Graham
Wills, Mr. Michael
Question accordingly negatived.
Clause 25 ordered to stand part of the Bill.
Protection of disponees
Mr. Cash: I beg to move amendment No. 25, in page 12, line 11, leave out ''seven'' and insert ''fourteen''.
Although it may be the objective to reflect limitations of owners' powers on the register, if a qualification is omitted from the register by mistake, it must be against public policy to legitimise dispositions that legislation has made void. There are restrictions on dispositions by local authorities and by charities. Subsection (3) appears to mean that someone could otherwise acquire a good title. The Bill seeks to protect people who take a transfer of registered land when it is apparently valid on the face of the register. While that is certainly useful, it must be against policy that it should overrule statutory restrictions imposed on particular landowners.
The register would normally reflect such restrictions, but in practice one has to deal with the cases in which that safeguard falls down. Restrictions are placed on certain disposals by charities, local authorities and registered social landlords. In those cases, we believe that it is extremely important that human error may be allowed for. In a nutshell, it is our view that is simply wrong to write off a qualification of an owner's powers on the register in the event that the registrar makes a mistake.
Mr. Wills: I am afraid that again I must resist this amendment. One of the overriding principles on which confidence in the land register is currently based is that the register is conclusive about an owner's powers. This contributes substantially to the ease with which the conveyancing process operates and benefits the economy as a whole. This will become even more important as the fundamental objective of the Bill is achieved. It must be possible to investigate title to land online, with the absolute minimum additional inquiries and inspections. Any limitations on the power of the owner to deal with the land or a charge must be the subject either of entries on the register or of limitations imposed by the Bill itself. That should be the case whether those limitations arise by agreement with third parties or by the imposition of statute.
If this amendment were made, however, people dealing with any title would need to consider what statutes might impose a limitation on the owner's powers, and then investigate to see if that is the case. That would in turn detract from the completeness and clarity of the register of title in a way that we find unacceptable. That is why the Government prefer the simplification of the existing law effected by the Bill.
Under the Bill, any limitation on the owner's powers can be recorded by restriction. This is often done in practice by the Registry automatically where it is apparent that statutory limitations apply. The purpose of these provisions is simply to protect the buyer of the land. They reflect the current law, we believe that they strike the right balance between the competing interests that can arise in such situations. They do not prevent the selling owner from being held to account for exceeding his or her authority, nor do they prevent an interested party from applying for a restriction to be entered as a precautionary measure. I hope that that explanation provides some comfort to the hon. Gentleman and that he can now withdraw the amendment.
Mr. Cash: In the light of what the Minister said, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.
Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.
Clause 26 ordered to stand part of the Bill.
Mr. Cash: On a point of order, Mr. Illsley. I have decided not to move amendment No. 29. For reasons related to what I said earlier, I do not intend to move any amendments to clauses until at least, at present reckoning, clause 55, and I may not do so to even later clauses. I therefore seek your guidance on a technicality, which I accept that you may not be able to avoid. Rather than repeat whether a clause is to be debated each time, I could tell you in advance that I do not intend to resist or move amendments to those clauses and we could deal with them in one fell swoop, thus making dramatic progress.
The Chairman: I have taken advice on the point raised by the hon. Member for Stone, and—unfortunately for me—I am required to put the Question on every clause in the event that an hon. Member wants to speak in a clause stand part debate. I must therefore continue, but I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his suggestion.
The Chairman proceeded to put the Questions on clauses.
Clauses 27 to 59 ordered to stand part of the Bill.
Mr. Cash: I beg to move amendment No. 52, in page 22, line 7, leave out ''may'' and insert ''shall''.
Congratulations, Mr. Illsley, on that marathon run. I am amazed that you managed to remember the words as well as you did. It is a bit like reciting ''The Rime of the Ancient Mariner''. I hope that the Clerks and others and the Minister will take note of the point that I have tried to make: in the absence of any sense of dissension in a Committee of this kind, having to go through such a marathon to no useful purpose seems an unbelievable waste of time and breath. That is all part of my continuing interest in improving the procedures of the House and its Committees. Wearing my hat as shadow Attorney-General, I am entitled to make that point. I am sure that the Minister will agree, and that my point will be noted down and referred to the appropriate sources, such as the Leader of the House.
The amendment concerns rules for fixing boundaries. Those are well established, but little used. There should be no doubt that that facility will continue. The overwhelming majority of property boundaries shown on Land Registry plans are subject to the general boundaries rule—in other words, they are approximate. That flexibility is valuable. At least one state in the United States abandoned registration of title early in the 20th century because fixing precise boundaries was found to be impractical.
Remembering any of the great films with John Wayne and the others that we can all recall from the '50s and '60s—at least, those of us who were around at the time can—I would think that it was extremely difficult in the United States to establish where boundaries were. It seems that they kept on being pulled down and re-erected, and an awful lot of people got shot in the intervening period. We are rather more peaceable about such matters over here, although I suspect that there are some people not very far from here who have grave reservations about the system.
The procedure for fixing boundaries—that is, guaranteeing what is shown on Land Registry plans—is well established and sometimes very useful. It is therefore important that it remain. The Law Society proposes that there should be a duty to make rules for that purpose rather than it being discretionary. The Land Registry quinquennial report says that fixed boundaries may become more common, especially where adverse possession proceedings succeed in boundary cases.
Mr. Wills: This is an important subject. As my hon. Friend the Member for North-East Derbyshire has already inferred, it often causes considerable concern. I hope that my remarks will reassure him as well as the hon. Member for Stone.
Powers in clause 60 allow rules to be made governing the determination of a fixed boundary. It might be helpful if I remind the Committee that the boundaries marked on registry plans are general ones, mapped to obvious landmarks. They are not precisely determined and an application to the registrar is necessary for a definitive answer to be given on where the boundaries lie between two properties.
The procedure is used comparatively infrequently and inevitably requires an application to the registrar and the work that that involves. Applications are often opposed and the general feeling may be that there is no need to invoke the procedure unless there is a specific problem to be dealt with. The report behind the Bill states that that may well change, since improved computer-based mapping techniques may enable a rather cheaper firm boundary to be constructed.
Effective provision by rule is already essential and will remain so, but that is not an argument for the amendment. The style of drafting adopted throughout the Bill and the general practice for conferring power to make rules are designed to make it possible for rules to cover certain items, but not to require them to be made for any specific purpose. It is the correct approach to give the Lord Chancellor maximum flexibility to adapt the rules as the registry embarks on major changes to electronic conveyancing. Rules covering that area and other elements of land registration will be approved by the Rule Committee and will, following a Government amendment, be subject to the negative resolution procedure. There will be much scrutiny of what they contain, and gaps can be pointed out during that process.
A technical, if rather cautious, point against the amendment is that stipulating what the rules must contain would raise the argument that the condition had not been met, and raise the question of validity if the pre-condition had not been met. That would be highly undesirable and unnecessary in the context of the clause, given the degree of scrutiny that the rules will receive. I reassure the hon. Member for Stone that the intention is to make rules that deal with all of the headings set out in the clause. However, we should not place an artificial limitation on the registry's ability to adapt its procedures in appropriate ways that we cannot yet envisage. In light of that reassurance, I hope that the hon. Gentleman will withdraw the amendment.