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7 Nov 2007 : Column 244

It might be appropriate if I repeated at this point some advice that the Land Registry gives to property owners. Every proprietor of registered land must give the Land Registry at least one address to be entered on the register. That is the address to which the Land Registry will send any communications that it needs to send to the owner. It is important that that address is one at which the owner will receive the communications, and that that address is kept up to date as an address at which such communications can be received. That is crucial in helping to prevent fraud. Owners who so wish can have up to three such addresses on the register, one of which can be an e-mail address.

As we know, there has been recent public and media concern about the public availability of information from the Land Registry over the internet. Particular concern has been expressed about the availability in that way of copies of mortgages, which have on them the signature of the owner, and in some cases the mortgage account number or amount borrowed. The Ministry of Justice recognised that concern in a statement issued jointly with the Land Registry on 13 August. The public availability of Land Registry information was debated in Parliament as long ago as the late 1980s, and the register has been open since December 1990. The Land Registration Act 2002, which took effect in October 2003, extended the open register by making copies of mortgage deeds and leases available in addition to the register of title itself and other relevant documents. That was the subject of widespread public consultation at the time and was debated extensively in Parliament.

It is important that the public have a legal right to inspect the register of any title, and any documents that are filed in the Land Registry in relation to any title. There are a number of reasons for that. The open register assists the buying and selling of houses and land and other transactions with land. It assists business and commerce. It enables anyone to find out who owns a piece of land, which can be invaluable in, for example, cases of nuisance or neighbour disputes. It can itself be a safeguard against fraud, because it is transparent: no one can represent themselves as owning a property that is registered to someone else. In many other countries in the European Union and beyond, land registers have been open for much longer than they have been in England and Wales. In fact, an open register is the norm in countries with a land registration system.

There are a number of ways in which information can be obtained from the Land Registry. For instance, a written application can be made by post or in person at a Land Registry office, and information is available through Land Register Online, which was launched in 2005. The service has proved very popular with the public, and it supports the Government’s aim of making public information available electronically. However, owing to concerns that have been expressed about the availability of documents online—particularly the fear that it may have the potential to facilitate fraud—the Land Registry conducted a review. As part of that review, it engaged in discussions with the Home Office, the Information Commissioner’s Office and the Council of Mortgage Lenders. I hope that, despite what he said in his opening remarks, the right hon. Gentleman now recognises that the process has been continuing for some time.

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The outcome of the review was the Land Registry’s decision to remove all documents from the Land Register Online service. The decision was put into effect at midnight on Monday, since when it has not been possible to view documents online in that way. As a result documents will be less readily available, and the Land Registry will have clearer audit trails to people who request the information. The documents will continue to be available through other means—for example, a written application made by post or in person at a Land Registry office—and will be available to solicitors and other registered business users who use the Land Registry Direct service.

The right hon. Gentleman asked questions about the police approach to frauds of this kind. As he knows,
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that is a matter for the Home Office rather than the Ministry of Justice, but I will ensure that my right hon. and hon. Friends at the Home Office are aware of his concerns, and will ask them to respond directly to him.

As I have said, I will write to the right hon. Gentleman about the signatures, and the redaction of them and other documents.

I have gone through the process at some length. I recognise the right hon. Gentleman’s concerns, as does the Land Registry, and I hope that what I have said this evening has gone a long way towards reassuring him and his constituent.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at thirteen minutes to Seven o’clock.

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