Land Registration Bill [Lords]

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Mr. Burnett: I am not here as an apologist for the legal profession, but I hope that the hon. Gentleman will agree that if there is the slightest suspicion that the solicitor who has done the conveyancing in the circumstances that he has adumbrated has been the cause of a problem, it is incumbent upon him to withdraw from the case, and so should his firm.

Mr. Barnes: I find that comment very fruitful. I shall make use of it in connection with a case that I am pursuing, which is well down the road and in which I have put arguments of that type. Hearing such things from an hon. Member who has a legal background is important.

Mr. Burnett: I do not know whether it will help the hon. Gentleman to know that in the circumstances that I set out, to which he is alluding, there would be a conflict of interest. Any solicitor proceeding on the basis of a conflict of interest would be in serious breach of the rules of his profession.

Mr. Barnes: The case that I mentioned is being pursued on exactly the grounds that I have advised my constituents to pursue. However, it will be valuable for me to be able to quote the extra point that has been made.

Because of the problems that I have illustrated, I am pleased to see provisions in the Bill for a new, independent judicial officer. Such a person might be able to play a role in such cases that would obviate the problem of matters reaching a stage that necessitates going to court. If that makes matters simpler and more effective in terms of land registration, it is welcome, although we shall have to look at specific items as we proceed.

10.32 am

Mr. Adrian Sanders (Torbay): I welcome you to the chair, Mr. Hancock. This is the first time that I have served under your chairmanship.

I want to talk about the parts of the Bill that are not there, rather than what is there. It is a complex Bill and a lot of work has gone into it, but there is a glaring omission. It fails to address the fact that the land registrar and his immediate predecessors say that some 2 million land titles, out of a potential total of around 22 million, are unregistered. According to the last estimate made by a land registrar in 1992, those 2 million unregistered titles might cover as much as 50 per cent., and probably not less than 30 per cent., of the acreage of England and Wales. That is an incredible amount of land that is not registered.

My near neighbour, my hon. Friend the Member for Torridge and West Devon (Mr. Burnett), declared a property holding that is minute compared with the size of his constituency, which is the second largest in England. I must declare a small land holding in my constituency. I suspect that, given that it is in a small urban area, my holding is significantly greater in percentage terms than that of my hon. Friend.

The history of land registration is important when considering the Bill. Attempts to establish a universal Land Registry for England and Wales began in 1862. That attempt failed. The intimate history of the ensuing years is hidden in the midst of history or buried in now undiscoverable files. However, we know that only 650 titles had been registered in 13 years, a rate of 50 a year from a total estimated 5 million land titles in the country at the time.

In 1875, a new Act was passed, with even more lamentable results. According to the official Land Registry history, the Act proved to be an even more dismal failure than its predecessor. In the three and a half years of the Act's operation, only 28 titles were registered, so the rate had decreased from 50 to fewer than seven a year.

I want to touch on a single obscure fact that should be central to our deliberations. In 1872, before the 1875 Act, the House heard a request and acted on the creation of what was known as a new Domesday. That was a complete record of all land owned, not merely in England and Wales, but in Scotland and Ireland too. That record, which commenced in February 1872, was completed in 1873 for Scotland, a year later for England and Wales and two years later for Ireland. That was done without the benefit of lawyers, satellite photographs or computers, but with quill pens and ink. In the return of owners of land, the Victorians created an embryonic Land Registry that was more than 90 per cent. accurate and more than 90 per cent. complete. We should pause to wonder why, 129 years later, we have what amounts to half a Land Registry for England and Wales.

In 1925, without a debate in either House, the Land Registration Act 1925 set up what we now know as the Land Registry of England and Wales. Between 1925 and 1990, a period of 65 years, the new Land Registry managed to achieve, at most, half that which had been achieved by the return of owners of land in four years from 1872. The modern Land Registry reached its present state of incompleteness on a rolling basis and on what is now an unacceptable principle; that registration should occur only when a transaction in land takes place. By 1990, 60 years after the Land Registry started work, mandatory registration of land, even on such a restricted basis, applied only to some parts of the country. The Victorian return of owners of land was created on the principle that we should now impose—that those who own land must disclose and register it.

That is important because land is the core economic resource in this country. Most bank lending is based on land assets. All domestic mortgage lending is based on the security of land. Transactions in land, domestic and commercial, probably represent the largest single sector of the economy. However, we learn that a significant proportion of the land is not registered at all. The Bill contains no proposal to remedy that defect, and the ultimate reason for that is the indulgence of Parliament. In effect, we have created two classes of citizens. Those who own land and must register it, mostly domestic home owners, and those who own land and do not have to register it, mostly larger, asset-rich landowners.

In that respect, I question the assertion that the Bill complies with the European convention on human rights. It is an unwritten principle of the British constitution, which precedes and underlies the convention, that all citizens are equal before the law, but in this respect, the law is unequal. It excuses the largest landowners in the country from registration on no logical or reasonable basis and enforces registration on the humble home owner. The Bill suspends a citizen's rights under article 8 to domestic privacy, but does not do so equitably. It grants an absolute right of privacy to one class of landowner but suspends it in the case of another. The Bill is fundamentally flawed in principle and in detail, as were its predecessors.

Mr. Cash: Should I infer from the hon. Gentleman's remarks that he will oppose the Bill with tenacity throughout its consideration in Committee on the grounds that he has raised?

Mr. Sanders: It is my intention to ensure that the Bill is amended to correct its defects.

Mr. Burnett: I hope that my hon. Friend will concede that all land registration rules and laws affect everyone, and that it is merely fortuitous and a fact of life that anyone, however rich or poor, who makes a voluntary disposition of unregistered land does not have to register it.

Mr. Sanders: My hon. Friend is correct but that does not take away from the fact that possibly 50 per cent. of land in this country is not registered and we have no right to find out who its owners are. That has massive implications for planning decisions, where economic activity takes place and where national projects can be sited. For example, one of the reasons we do not have a high-speed rail link to the channel tunnel is because we cannot establish who owns all the land between the coast and the capital.

As I said, the Bill is fundamentally flawed. The mobility of labour and capital are well established principles of the modern market economy, but a third principle has carefully been obscured in the UK—the mobility of the single largest resource in the economy, which is land. The mobility of land is as important as the mobility of capital and labour, and the Bill must do what it can to assist the mobilisation of land by ensuring its total registration. Let us not have half a job done where the Victorians, with their quill pens, did the job in less than four years. It is time to address the issue that the Victorian easily solved and to solve it as quickly as we can because it is vital to our economy that we should do so.

Mr. Burnett: I do not want to tax my hon. Friend's patience but, in 1872, when the Victorian register was produced, very few people owned land in England and Wales, and it was, therefore, a relatively simple process to draw up a register of ownership.

The Chairman: Order. I hope that we will not go into too much detail on that argument. Let us keep this row in the family. I suggest that we move on.

Mr. Sanders: We are seeing the traditional split between the radical liberal and the Whig element of the party, but we will not pursue that line of debate.

On an associated point—

Mr. Cash: I do not wish to intrude on private grief, but I must declare an interest as my family—John Bright—were the founders of the co-operative movement in Rochdale, so we are getting into deep trouble.

Mr. Sanders: I am a great fan of John Bright and I should quite like to have a cup of tea with the hon. Gentleman and talk through the enormous contribution that John Bright made.

I thought that the hon. Member for North-East Derbyshire (Mr. Barnes) was going to develop the associated point about the discrepancy between what the Ordnance Survey says about land and what the Land Registry says. That should be tackled outwith the subject of my speech.

We should include in the Bill the goal of completion of land registration and the completion of the Land Registry's records. We should set a date for it; one that would no longer leave us shamed by the achievements of Victorian clerks. Perhaps December 2003 or 2004 would be appropriate. The Bill is well capable of bearing such alteration since it is intended in principle to deal with the issue of unregistered land, but it does not do so, whether by recognising the extent of it, by recognising the fact that our ancestors remedied the problem in short order or by recognising the huge importance of the issue to the economy.

My hon. Friend the Member for Torridge and West Devon and you, Mr. Hancock, in another guise at a party conference, will know only too well the chorus of a song called ``The Land'':

    ``Why should we be beggars with a ballot in our hand, God gave the land for the people.''

If we cannot all share in the ownership of that land, can we not at least know who does, and on an equitable basis?

10.47 am

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