Land Registration Bill [Lords]

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Mr. Barnes rose—

Mr. Cash: I await with interest and bated breath the comments of the hon. Member for North-East Derbyshire. I know that he has concern about the clause, which he raised on Second Reading. I will reserve stating my position until after we have heard his comments.

Mr. Barnes: I have been rather caught out by our fast-moving proceedings. When I spoke in the debate on clause 11, I said that I would like to persuade the Minister to table appropriate amendments to clause 60, or that I might be minded to do so myself—there was still time then to table an amendment for today. I am in difficulty because I did not realise that I was a member of this Committee until yesterday and by then it was too late to table an unstarred amendment. That is why I said that I wanted the clause to be clarified.

The Minister said that there is scope for the Land Registry to provide clarification when a dispute arises about the exact position of a border. However, in some cases, people have purchased property around which there is a clear physical border and no dispute is apparent, only later to discover that the border does not tie in with the deeds. The boundary line in the plan may not be particularly precise or accurate, but there are cases when part of a property has not been included and it is clear that the area goes beyond the boundary. Sometimes, such disputes are not taken to the Land Registry, but are dealt with by the courts, although the registry may adopt a position that defends the owner.

I have a constituency case of that nature and the people involved feel aggrieved. I support their position. New land that was being marked out was owned by the builder who was building the house next door, which he was occupying even though it took over a portion of land that was clearly included in the deeds. Because the courts had ruled that the people had purchased what they saw rather than what was in the deeds, they were placed in an extremely difficult position, which has led to an on-going dispute. Under the law as it stands, they have lost the very element of land that was initially in their deeds, and they believe that the deeds should have had much greater standing. Although the case could be taken to court again on appeal, financial and other difficulties would arise.

12.40 pm

Sitting suspended.

12.50 pm

On resuming—

Mr. Cash: I have nothing to add to what I have already said. I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Clause 60 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clause 61 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Mr. Barnes: On a point of order, Mr. Illsley. I thank members of the Committee for agreeing to that suspension, which was granted to try to accommodate my concerns. I was not able to table an amendment, but it is helpful to have discussed the matter, and I hope to proceed by other methods.

The Chairman: Is it the Committee's wish that I invoke Standing Order No. 52 whereby, with the possibility that there will be no more Divisions, I put the question that a group of clauses stand part of the Bill?

Hon. Members: Yes.

Mr. Cash: On a point of order, Mr. Illsley. I was surprised that amendment No. 63 was not selected, as I had something to say about it. I am sure that there is a reason, but I should like to know what it is.

The Chairman: I am advised that the amendment was not selected because it was defective.

Mr. Cash: I am sorry to hear that. I was not aware of it—nor were those advising me. However, that is your decision, Mr. Illsley, and I shall have to take note of it.

The Chairman: Yes, because that is the sum total of information that I have about the amendment. I shall try to get further clarification in due course.

Clauses 62 to 65 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clause 66

Inspection of the registers etc

Mr. Cash: I beg to move amendment No. 55, in page 24, line 5, after 'document', insert 'other than a lease or charge'.

The Chairman: With this it will be convenient to take amendment No. 56, in clause 67, page 24, line 17, after 'document', insert 'other than a lease or charge'.

Mr. Cash: The object of the amendment is to restrict the availability of information that individuals may consider private or that companies may consider commercially confidential. Land Registry records have only been open to general inspection for less than 20 years. At the time that the change removing confidentiality was made, an undertaking was given to safeguard the privacy of people's private and commercial information by not disclosing the contents of leases and charges. There is good reason for that. However, I regret to say that the Government propose to remove those safeguards and to allow access to leases and mortgages, both residential and commercial.

I expect the Minister to say that rules in this matter follow the policy that underlies the Freedom of Information Act 2000. The presumption is to supply a copy of the information unless it falls within the exceptions of commercial confidentiality and data protection. Will the Minister explain how a determination will be made to establish whether documents fall into that category? Will certification by a solicitor that the document is commercially confidential be sufficient, or does the Land Registry intend to make its own determination? It is understood that these matters will be discussed when the rules are discussed, but we would like some indication of the Government's thinking at this stage.

Mr. Wills: I agree with the hon. Member for Stone that the clause is important. It provides that, subject to any exceptions and provisions specified in the rules, anyone may inspect and make copies of the register of title together with any other documents either referred to in the register or kept in relation to an application affecting that register.

As the hon. Gentleman divined, the rules made under the clause will reflect the principles underlying the Freedom of Information Act 2000. Leases and charges will not be excluded automatically from the list of documents to which the public have a right of access, as they are under existing legislation. The presumption in the 2000 Act is that information will be supplied unless there is good reason for it to be withheld. There are two bases on which the register of information might be withheld under the exceptions stated in that Act. Following application of the Data Protection Act 1998, information may also be withheld on the grounds of personal or commercial sensitivity.

Land registration rules will clarify how the principles will be applied, but if leases were excluded as a class, better information on leases—our consultations show clearly that that is what businesses want—would be difficult or impossible to assemble. However, I assure the hon. Gentleman that rules are likely to provide for persons submitting documents to assert confidentiality in case of objection and an independent adjudicator or a court will decide between them. I hope that that will give him some comfort.

The amendments seek to reproduce the current position when leases and charges are automatically and permanently excluded, and that would not only be damaging to the greater transparency of the markets, but offend the principles on which the Freedom of Information Act 2000 is based.

The consultant who carried out the quinquennial review of the Land Registry's work reported that there was particular enthusiasm among users at the prospect of wider information on leasehold property shedding light on commercial property transactions and so creating a better and more competitive market.

The details of what will be released and what will be withheld will be subject to land registration rules. I remind the Committee that those rules will be subject to the scrutiny of the Rule Committee and Parliament. They will also be subject to widespread consultation with all those involved in conveyancing. That will ensure that the rules provide for the exclusion of appropriate documents, including leases and charges, from the public gaze in the way envisaged by the Freedom of Information Act. They may usefully describe how the Registry will identify documents as of a commercially sensitive nature.

I hope that those assurances will be adequate and that the hon. Gentleman will feel able to withdraw the amendment.

Mr. Cash: In the light of what the Minister said and bearing in mind the importance of the subject, which he acknowledges, and the degree of consultation that he has explained—I have no doubt that the matter will be returned to in consultation and in relation to whatever the Rule Committee proposes—I am prepared to withdraw the amendment.

Bearing in mind that the time is now 12.58 pm, you may find it convenient, Mr. Illsley, with the agreement of the Committee, to put the Questions on clauses 67 to 70 so that when we return this afternoon—

Mr. Wills: On Thursday.

Mr. Cash: There is all the more reason for doing so—if that is convenient.

I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Clause 66 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clauses 67 to 70 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

The Chairman: For the information of the Committee, we are not sitting this afternoon but will sit on Thursday morning.

For the benefit of the hon. Member for Stone, the defect in amendment No. 53 is the word ''two'' in the last line. Parliamentary counsel could not determine whether that word applied to schedule 6 or clause 62, which is the subject of the amendment.

It being One o'clock, The Chairman adjourned the Committee without Question put, pursuant to the Standing Order.

Adjourned till Thursday 13 December at half-past Nine o'clock. {**vert_rule**}

The following Members attended the Committee:
Illsley, Mr. Eric (Chairman)
Barnes, Mr.
Burnham, Mr.
Cash, Mr.
Dobbin, Jim
Doughty, Sue
Hoban, Mr.
Jones, Lynne
Joyce, Mr.
Marsden, Mr. Gordon
Mole, Mr.
Randall, Mr.
O'Brien, Mr. Stephen
Sanders, Mr.
Stringer, Mr.
Wills, Mr.

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Prepared 11 December 2001