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That the committee have power to adjourn from place to place within the United Kingdom, and to institutions of the Council of Europe outside the United Kingdom no more than four times in any calendar year;
The Law Commission, whose work--in a special joint project with the Land Registry--has led to this Bill, considers it the single largest project of law reform which it has ever undertaken. It is also one of the finest. For me it is a privilege to bring it before this House.
The Bill will have a direct impact on the lives of the millions of people who buy and sell property in England and Wales each year. It represents the culmination of the long process through which land registration has become the primary means of recording and guaranteeing title to land in England and Wales. It also marks a new departure, providing a framework for electronic conveyancing which, through comparatively minor alterations in the law, will change the way in which conveyancing services are provided and make a major contribution to the Government's determination to improve the house buying process.
The Bill will wholly replace the Land Registration Act 1925. It will lead to more land and more interests in land being protected by registration. Some valuable interests will for the first time be registrable voluntarily. The scope of compulsory registration will also be increased, in particular by bringing most leases, and therefore most commercial property transactions, within its reach. Commercial conveyancing must now use the cumbersome and complex unregistered law, and is excluded from the benefits and protections of registration, now and as they will be developed by the Bill. Extending registration will also enable the registry to improve the transparency of the property market by
For the first time, all land belonging to the Crown will become registrable, including land underlying territorial waters. What the register tells us about the land will be extended and improved, most notably by reducing the number and scope of interests which can impose burdens without appearing on the register. The benefits of the registered system will be extended. The procedures protecting the rights of third parties over land will be simplified and strengthened. The protection which registration offers to registered owners against squatters will be improved.
Those reforms and improvements alone would represent a formidable achievement. But in a few clauses, the Bill will also hugely increase the attractions of registration. It will open the way for radical changes in the way in which the formal documents required in conveyancing are prepared, in the quality and speed of the services which conveyancers are able to provide, and in the relationship between conveyancers and the Land Registry. That process will complete an IT evolution in which the Land Registry has been engaged for over a decade.
All registered titles and all the millions of supporting documents will be in computerised form by the end of 2003. Since 1992, the registry's customers have become increasingly used to on-line services. The registry now deals with approximately 400,000 transactions every month in this way. The latest significant development will come in the autumn, when the new National Land Information Service will provide a single electronic point of access to almost all the information, from a wide variety of sources, which conveyancers need.
The Bill will crown those developments by making it possible to execute and deliver the formal documents effecting dispositions of land or interests in land by electronic means. For buyers, that means transactions which are quicker, cheaper, and so less stressful.
Those two themes, of improving the register and developing electronic conveyancing, produce a single fundamental objective for the Bill; that is, that the register should be as complete and accurate a reflection of the state of the title of the land at any given time as is reasonably practical, so that it is possible to investigate title to land on-line, with the absolute minimum of additional inquiries and inspections.
Part 1 continues the register of titles. The main measures to improve the inclusiveness and comprehensiveness of the register are in Parts 2 and 3, dealing with the first entry of land, or an interest in land, on to the register, and with subsequent transactions, respectively. Together they tackle the problem that the Land Registry is currently not complete, either geographically or in terms of the interests it records.
Overriding interests are a problematic aspect of the current law. They bind any person who acquires an interest in registered land, whether on first registration or on a subsequent registrable disposition, but do not need to be--and in some cases cannot be--registered. They cover a significant range of interests, including many easements, leases granted for 21 years or less, and an array of other interests such as manorial rights, which may be both obscure and onerous. They are a serious obstacle to the objective of making the register as complete a record of the title as can be.
The Bill reshapes the law, seeking to restrict such interests as far as possible, in relation to first registration, and to subsequent dealings with the land. Interests should override only when it is unreasonable to expect them to be protected in the register. Such interests are defined more narrowly in the Bill. Others are excluded. Some of the more obscure interests will cease to be automatically protected if not registered within 10 years.
Part 3 deals with land which is already on the register. It lists the transactions with registered land which transfer or create a legal estate and which should be completed by registration. As with first registration, a new requirement to register leases granted for more than seven years is introduced, with a power to reduce that period still further. Parts 4, 5 and 6 improve and strengthen the procedures of registration.
Part 7 makes provision for some important special cases for registration. The most novel relate to Crown lands, enabling the Crown to register all of its land, so that all of it has the benefits of appearing in the register.
Part 8 of the Bill is one of the shortest parts, but is undoubtedly the one which will effect the greatest changes. The Bill does not, and should not, aim to set out in detail how full electronic conveyancing should work. Instead, it provides a framework for a system which will meet the needs of customers, conveyancers and the registry; but which will be capable of being adapted and modernised quickly as electronic conveyancing and electronic commerce generally develop.
The Land Registry has now begun an intensive campaign of consultation with conveyancers, and with all the other people involved in buying and selling property. That is necessary because conveyancers themselves must work with the systems. They must therefore not only meet the registry's requirements, but those of a modern conveyancing practice. Conveyancers will be authorised to make direct changes in the register itself. The use of special computer systems to prepare documents will itself be
Documents will also be approved and take effect simultaneously. The new arrangements will wholly eliminate the delay which now inevitably occurs between the conveyancer sending paper documents to the registry and their entry in the register, and the problems that delay creates.
Electronic conveyancing will also foster the development of a system of electronic fund transfer that will help those involved to tackle the problems of delay and uncertainty in that part of the process. Legislative provision for that system is not necessary.
The introduction of electronic conveyancing will be progressive, starting with the simpler conveyancing transactions, and adding more complex ones as conveyancers become used to the network. The Bill provides, however, a power for its use eventually to be made compulsory for some or all transactions, because some of the advantages of electronic conveyancing will only be maximised when conveyancing is exclusively electronic.
The example which is perhaps of most immediate interest to home buyers and sellers will be that an electronic network for land registration would make chains of transactions transparent, identifying which participants are falling behind the rest so that they can be encouraged to catch up. Chain delays produce much of the slowness and stressfulness now inherent in house buying. Anything which reduces that must obviously be welcome. Equally obviously, if only one transaction in a chain is being managed on paper rather than electronically, the transparency is muddied and the advantages of the new capacity diminished.
There are therefore real practical advantages in making electronic conveyancing universal. That cannot be a realistic option until it has become the usual method of registered conveyancing. The Bill requires the Lord Chancellor to consult before making electronic conveyancing compulsory, and I would wish to do so on a very wide basis. The Land Registry must ensure that those who wish to undertake their own conveyancing without employing a solicitor or licensed conveyancer are able to undertake transactions in electronic form.
Part 9 extends the protection against adverse possession given to owners by registration. The principle should be that where title is registered the basis of title should primarily be the fact of registration. Currently title rests ultimately on possession. Put at its shortest, anyone who takes possession of land acquires a possessory title. If that individual holds on to it for the length of the relevant limitation period, currently 12 years, he cannot be shifted. That may be appropriate within the inherently relative titles of unregistered conveyancing but seriously undermines the certainty which registration aims to provide.
The current law has undoubtedly given rise to a number of abuses and straightforward land theft. It does, however, enable some of the problems that occur with land to be managed. The public interest benefits if land held by an owner who takes no interest in it can be returned to economic use. Even within the registered system there is scope for reasonable doubt as to where boundaries lie. For example, it is by no means uncommon for the fences and other partitions in a newly developed estate to be put up in places which differ from those shown on the register. Due account has to be taken of those who have perfectly reasonably occupied and spent money on land which they thought was theirs. Part 9 sets out a package which balances the competing interests involved.
Parts 10 and 11 complete the provisions relating to the administration of the Land Registry. The most significant change from the current arrangements is the establishment of a new and independent judicial officer to determine registration disputes between individuals ensuring that the arrangements are wholly compliant with the European Convention on Human Rights. Part 12 of the Bill contains a number of miscellaneous and general provisions to ensure the effective operation of the Bill.
I began by referring to the scale of the project which the Law Commission and the Land Registry had undertaken. Their proposals were considerably refined and improved in the light of the responses to the major consultation paper published in 1998 and in the discussions and seminars which followed. They represent an achievement of the highest order. It is only right to place on record my gratitude for that achievement to the Law Commissioner responsible for it, Mr Charles Harpum, whose period at the commission has recently concluded, and the distinguished parliamentary counsel seconded to the commission with whom Mr Harpum has worked throughout.
Along with the Commonhold and Leasehold Reform Bill, the Bill forms part of a comprehensive programme for the delivery of a thoroughgoing modernisation in registration law and in conveyancing services. It is the best kind of law reform: clarifying principles, reforming practices and making the law simpler and more accessible. But above all this is a practical Bill. It will make home buying and selling quicker, simpler and cheaper and will make a real difference to people's lives.
I have praised the quality of the Bill and the work of the Law Commission and Land Registry that lies behind it. In doing so, I do not imply that the Bill is beyond improvement. We on the Government side will welcome and consider with an open mind any recommendations by way of amendment or otherwise that are made for the improvement of this high quality Bill.
The Earl of Caithness: My Lords, we have come to expect nothing less than a clear exposition of a Bill by the noble and learned Lord the Lord Chancellor. Today is no exception. We must all be grateful for the clear way in which he took us through this useful measure. I give the Bill a warm welcome.
First, I must declare my interest as a surveyor. I declare the interests of all my various friends who are surveyors or property developers and those who have an interest in land as farmers or estate owners. I hereby declare any other interests that could be remotely connected to my interest in land and property. I hope I have covered that point.
I totally agree with the noble and learned Lord the Lord Chancellor that the Bill will be a major benefit to all those involved either professionally, as I am, in the buying and selling of commercial and residential property, or those who are the clients buying and selling their properties through agents. The Bill will undoubtedly speed up that process and is a constructive way to improve it. The Bill is much more constructive than the seriously flawed Homes Bill, which I am glad to say did not reach the statute book in the last Session. That Bill had some good points. However, had it been enacted, the situation would have been made considerably worse.
The noble and learned Lord the Lord Chancellor said that the Bill really covered two points: that is; the modernisation of the system of land registration--about 80 per cent of the land in England and Wales is already registered--and the introduction of electronic conveyancing. Before continuing, I, too, add my thanks to the Land Registry. I have benefited from its good offices for the past 30 years, ever since I have been in property. One has come to expect a high standard from it and I do not think that I have ever been let down. The Land Registry has been extremely helpful and the solicitors whom one has used have undoubtedly benefited too.
The noble and learned Lord the Lord Chancellor skipped over Clause 4, which is perhaps one of the most controversial clauses in the Bill, and refers to leases. A lease will now be compulsorily registrable if it is over seven years rather than if it is over 21 years. That is a fundamental change. There will be more bureaucracy and much extra work for those who benefit from such leases. Much extra cost will be involved. There will be more registration and that will open the scope for more areas.
That must be balanced against what the noble and learned Lord described as the need for greater transparency. I agree with that. The move is in the right direction but is by no means universally welcomed outside. The noble and learned Lord also referred to a trigger mechanism whereby the seven-year period could be reduced. If it is reduced to, say, three years, a number of agricultural tenancies could be brought within the ambit of the Bill. That will produce a great deal of extra work and complication for people in the agricultural sector. Much of the agricultural conveyancing and the leases are based on Ordnance Survey maps.
I welcome the appointment of the adjudicator. It is a novel and sensible idea. However, will the adjudicator decide the boundary disputes? If there is a boundary dispute in the Land Registry--if the two sides are firmly opposed and whatever mechanism is in place fails to resolve the matter--will the adjudicator determine it?
The next important point relates to Part 8, which deals with electronic conveyancing. I reiterate my welcome for it but would like to know the timescale for its introduction. I was pleased to hear what the noble and learned Lord had to say, but the two schemes run in parallel. We are all used to the existing paper scheme and are increasingly becoming used to the electronic means. However, in order that there is complete fairness and no social exclusion for those who do not benefit from the e-commerce world, I hope that there will be a considerable period of overlap so that the two schemes can run in tandem.
Will the Government consider running a pilot project? There was a pilot project of the seller's pack, provided for in the Homes Bill, in Bristol. I criticised it because I did not believe that it was a good pilot project. The Government have carried out far better ones and I wonder whether, in case there are unforeseen glitches, a pilot scheme might be a good way forward. However, I agree that the legislation is the right way forward and that at the end of the day we should be using e-conveyancing and nothing else.
Also in relation to electronic conveyancing, there is no reference in the Bill to online auctioneering. That is an important issue for surveyors and I wonder how the Government propose to deal with it. We shall all be concerned to ensure that the appropriate security and authenticity measures are in place as regards electronic conveyancing and that false documents do not appear in the register.
My final point of concern relates to the Ordnance Survey maps which have always played an important part in transactions. We have always been able to rely on the maps which are attached to leases and conveyances. Will that be the case in the future? How will we work with the Ordnance Survey maps and the e-conveyancing?
The noble and learned Lord spoke of trying to speed up the process of house buying and referred to the question of chains. I agree that greater transparency of leases and conveyances by electronic means will achieve that. However, much of the slowness is due to the fact that people who are in chains are not honest about it. People have come to me and said, "I have sold my house", but they have not done so. They believe that they have and that they are cash purchasers, but they have sold it subject to contract or it is merely under offer. They are in a chain and perhaps have been told by the people buying their property that they too are cash buyers. A little more honesty would speed up the process.
Baroness Cohen of Pimlico: My Lords, I, too, am grateful for the noble and learned Lord's clear exposition of the Bill. In supporting it, I need to declare not exactly an interest in the terms your Lordships' House was debating yesterday but perhaps a particular axe which I am grinding. I was once a practising solicitor and now I am a mother trying to support two children in their 20s through the purchase of flats and houses of their own. I welcome the Bill, but then I would welcome anything which made the horrors of buying property easier. I know that the sellers' lot will also be eased but I am naturally somewhat obsessed by the problems of the buyers.
The introduction of registration was a giant blessing. I can remember as a young solicitor dealing with titles which were not registered. Indeed, in reading the Explanatory Notes to the Bill, I was surprised to discover that registration finally became compulsory over the whole of England and Wales only in 1990. The final extension to Crown property and to the various interests which can be registered are most welcome.
To be able to work electronically to examine titles and to record interests in land will be a huge blessing for solicitors and conveyancers and therefore a great help to the general house-buying public. Indeed, it will be possible to make the fullest use of the system only when it is compulsory to deal electronically. I well remember how long it took us and how totally incompetent we were in the 1960s when we met an unregistered title. We had all forgotten how to deal with it and it took for ever. I imagine that tomorrow's solicitors will be brought up with electronic conveyancing and will be equally disabled if they come across a title which requires them to revert to bits of paper.
Welcome though the Bill is, it seems to address a bit of the system which does not work too badly already and does not address the bits of the system which work atrociously. The Land Registry is the least of the troubles which beset those selling or buying property. What we need and what I hope we will get is a reform of the whole ghastly process. The Bill we need and seem to have lost is that which introduces a compulsory seller's package. It seems to me that at present people can decide to place their property, complete with leaking roof, dodgy tenancy, two bathrooms and a conservatory installed without benefit of planning permission, on the market. They then meet with outrage or distress according to temperament--and weeks of delay no matter what their temperament--to gentle demands for proof of compliance with London building Acts, letters from tenants confirming that they are indeed leaving or proof that the person whose name is on the title but who is not signing the contract really died many years ago.
I do not want to sound too virtuous. Three years ago we sold a house after living there for 20 years and from time to time converting bits of it. We, too, were pretty slow and incompetent about the whole process of getting the papers in order. If we had known that that would be required of us, we would, to the greater ease of doing business and the reduction of tension, have done so before putting the property on the market.
Lord Harrison: My Lords, like my noble friend Lady Cohen of Pimlico I am a very strong supporter of the principle of a seller's package. Perhaps noble Lords can be provided with some illumination as to what has happened to it.
Like the noble Earl, Lord Caithness, I warmly welcome the Land Registration Bill. Although I have no professional knowledge of the issues involved, like the vast majority of the population I am affected by land registration as both a house owner and former user of commercial offices in the fair city of Chester. In passing, my noble and learned friend the Lord Chancellor may be interested to know that the new law courts in the heart of that city have been built, and are blooming, on the site of a former amphitheatre. A photograph of those courts is quietly tucked away on page 9 of this week's Chester Chronicle. I wholly absolve my noble and learned friend of any blame for the local and national controversy, but I speculate as to what Roman law might have said about the registration of land devoted to a Roman amphitheatre on which law courts are built. Whatever the case, I can assure my noble and learned friend a warm and friendly reception if and when he comes to Chester to view his commission.
It is said that buying one's own house is the second most important decision that one makes in life. I can well believe it. The news today that house prices rose by 1.9 per cent in the past month, so that the average cost of a house now stands at £90,000, demonstrates the continuing financial importance of such a decision to people and their families in modern Britain. A proper, transparent and easy-to-use system of land registration is vital to maintain a healthy housing market. Similarly, the commercial life of our country is underpinned by an efficient system of land registration which promotes, or at least does not inhibit, commercial decisions involving property and helps to develop British business.
At the heart of the Bill is the promotion of electronic conveyancing which it is hoped will cover the whole process of property transactions. For too long conveyancing has been cobwebbed in a Dickensian world of scratching pens on yellowing parchment. It is time to modernise. Again in passing, I note today's
This Bill cuts red tape and ensures that the transacting of property among the 14 million freehold and 3 million leasehold owners in England and Wales is simplified, rendered transparent and made more comprehensive by providing a more complete record of land than hitherto. As my noble and learned friend has pointed out, electronic conveyancing will, for example, enable the registration of an interest, right or disposition to be implemented simultaneously, thereby closing the so-called "registration gap". This front-loading of the role of the Land Registry should ensure that the conveyancing process is made more accurate and efficient. Undoubtedly, it will enormously reduce the current punishing 50 per cent of applications to the Land Registry which must be remitted because of error-ridden submission.
With the flux of time the Land Registration Act 1925 has become outdated and, not surprisingly, unfit for our modern, electronic age. I congratulate the Government on following up and modifying the proposals set out in the Law Commission's and Land Registry's consultative document Land Registration for the 21st Century published in 1998. With this Bill the Government are following their election pledge to deliver top quality modern services.
I pass to a number of specific points on the Bill. First, as to short leases the Bill requires leases of fewer than 21, but more than seven, years to be compulsorily registered. The Government hold out the prospect of extending in due course the law to leases of fixed terms of three years or more. I listened very carefully to the observations on this matter by the noble Earl, Lord Caithness. Perhaps we can have an explanation as to why we should not proceed further at this stage. Why is there no compulsory registration of leases of three years under the present Bill?
Secondly, the Bill proposes to rationalise but not abolish the number of applicable overriding interests. It is further suggested that the Bill would encourage registration of known overriding interests, but why should there not be an obligation to register such interests? Surely, that is in the best interests of transparency and the avoidance of unwelcome discoveries during the process of any transaction.
Thirdly, it is suggested that the improvement in the conditions and system of registration will encourage the creation of a situation in which all land is publicly registered, thereby doing away with the current bifurcation of registered/unregistered land. Since this is a long-standing public policy objective of the Government, why not do it now, or at least set a limit of, say, 10 years for the registration of all land?
Fourthly, the notes to the Bill foresee the introduction of electronic registration as being incremental, with the entire process being completed by 2010. Why is there a delay? Nine years seems an age away. Cannot it be telescoped?
Fifthly, as to adverse possession I have heard the criticism that the Bill favours big landowners and discriminates against squatters, especially those who purportedly perform the worthy job of utilising assets which are otherwise often neglected by absent landlords. We face the problem of the land's natural assets being squandered or neglected, but surely the solution is not squatters. Do the Government have other ideas about tackling this problem, which I accept may be beyond the ambit of the Bill?
Finally, the Bill applies to England and Wales, but it would be interesting to know to what degree it is compatible with the practice in Scotland and Northern Ireland. I also refer to the European Union. Noble Lords will recall that at the Lisbon summit the Prime Minister was involved in the move to encourage electronic communication technology as part and parcel of forming a modern, single European market. I hope that the process of moving to electronic commerce will help in that respect. However, I looked at the document drawn up jointly by HM Land Registry and the Law Commission in 1998. The only reference to Europe that I could find in that document was the European Convention on Human Rights. We are talking about a modern world in which there is free movement of citizens and workers. We want to encourage the creation of a single market and make sure that it works. I believe that each requires an efficient and transparent system of land registration throughout the European Union. The European Union has no jurisdiction in this matter, but I would have thought that a nod in the direction of ensuring that there is some compatibility between the practices in the United Kingdom and those in the European Union would be helpful in the desirable process of making the single market work and facilitating the free movement of citizens and workers.
Lord Dixon-Smith: My Lords, I, too, am happy to join in the general welcome for the Bill. I agree generally with everything that has been said so far. I am particularly grateful to the noble and learned Lord the Lord Chancellor for his clear exposition of the totality of the package. I am also grateful to the noble and learned Lord for an additional reason, since I must assume that he had the responsibility for briefing the counsel who drafted the Bill. Early in my reading I was pleased to find in paragraph 20 of the Explanatory Notes the expression:
My concern was also raised at the start of the Explanatory Notes. The notes discuss the origins of the Bill and the work done by the Law Commission and HM Land Registry joint study. Again the noble and learned Lord the Lord Chancellor fully set out that matter. There is no question that the Bill--the result of that work--is very worthwhile. The Explanatory Notes go on to state:
Unlike the Homes Bill, which has been mentioned indirectly and on which the relevant professions that deal with property transactions were extremely divided, it is pleasing to report from my contacts with those professions that there is a general welcome for the Bill. That is quite unusual.
However, there are points of concern. In particular, concern has been raised about the access to and security of electronic information. I illustrate that concern by a tale from my past. Many years ago I was nominally responsible for the mainframe computer in County Hall. The manufacturer who had supplied it came to us one day and said that he wanted to bring some Italians to see the installation because they were thinking of buying this wonderful piece of equipment. Five swarthy men with sharply cut suits, which appeared to be somewhat loose below the shoulder, arrived. The manufacturer was present. There was a
We need to recognise that if knowledge and information are power, there is potential for abuse. I am quite sure that the noble Baroness in winding-up will assure me that sufficient safeguards will be in place so that the kind of abuse implied by that question cannot take place. But it is a very important matter.
The Bill provides for regulations. The noble and learned Lord the Lord Chancellor has explained exactly why that is so. The noble and learned Lord also dealt with the question of rules which will be required to make the system work, and work well. I am not sure about the status of the rules and whether they will be introduced in the form of regulations on which we have a modicum of influence or whether, as the Bill says, the rules will be "laid before Parliament". Therefore, rather like someone going around a museum we can look at them but we cannot touch them. It is important. So much of the detail of modern legislation is dealt with by secondary legislation. I am not sure what the status is of the rules within the context of secondary legislation. Again I ask the noble Baroness in winding-up to put my mind at rest and clarify that particular situation.
There is one final aspect of the matter that is worth touching on. As the noble and learned Lord the Lord Chancellor said in his introduction, part of the purpose of this legislation is to give clear and accurate information as to prices. That is one thing; and that is fine. However, I am concerned about the use to which that information might be put. If one thinks of the property business as a market, it is not a market in the conventional sense in which stocks and shares are constantly traded backwards and forwards in a market. Nor is it a market in the sense of commodities which are constantly traded backwards and forwards over very short timescales. The housing market is very slow. Knowledge of what a potential vendor might have paid for his property three, five or 10 years ago might influence the price that one is prepared to offer. Equally, if one is a vendor and happens to know that one's potential purchaser has just sold his property and for how much money, that might influence one's decision as to price.
We need to be aware of those matters. Perhaps it would be appropriate if prices were on a separate register from the registration of the land so that they were not automatically collated. Perhaps it would also be appropriate if price information could drop off the
I am happy to add my welcome to the Bill. I am sorry if I have introduced what appears to be the only slightly carping tone to the debate but I think that the matters I have raised are important. This is a welcome Bill but I am just a little concerned that we are, to use a racing phrase, rushing our fences just a little.
Baroness Crawley: My Lords, I, too, welcome the Bill before us this afternoon because, as my noble and learned friend the Lord Chancellor said, it provides a truly modern basis for land registration in the 21st century in England and Wales and will implement the single largest item of law reform ever undertaken by the Law Commission.
The Bill will make it possible to conduct investigations into the ownership of land and the registered rights affecting that land almost entirely online. That makes it revolutionary. As Sara McConnell said in her excellent piece in the Sunday Telegraph of 25th March:
This is a good news story for millions of British people who are frustrated, stressed out and fed up to the back teeth with the delays and obfuscation of much of the present system. If we look at the Bill's potential for improving conveyancing and enabling electronic conveyancing to be fully realised, we see that such a step would affect almost 70 per cent of the population of England and Wales who live in owner-occupied accommodation and would improve the progress of the 1 million-plus residential sales that are registered at Her Majesty's Land Registry each year. Electronic conveyancing could dramatically accelerate the present long-winded house buying process. It could cut costs and reduce the number of deals that fail before exchange of contracts. At the moment, one in four fails to complete.
As I see it, the Bill should not only improve conveyancing but should improve the law, making it clearer and simpler, enabling people to understand their rights and their responsibilities, with less recourse to expensive legal advice. It is designed to incorporate the best of the present system while removing the flaws, uncertainties and anomalies that have developed in the past 76 years. The last Land
It is also hoped that the Bill will improve the quality of registered title, making title to registered land better than title to unregistered land--we heard of the problems with unregistered title faced by the noble Baroness, Lady Cohen, as a young solicitor--thus encouraging registration and bringing much information about land ownership into the public domain.
For those fearful that more information being brought on to the register and into the public domain would reduce commercial confidentiality and perhaps lead to abuse, as mentioned by the noble Lord, Lord Dixon-Smith, I would assume that the data protection legislation and the freedom of information principles will apply. Perhaps that could be confirmed when my noble friend Lady Scotland comes to sum up.
In conclusion, the promotion of housing choice, faster and cheaper conveyancing and making it easier for people to buy and sell homes is a strong ambition of my party in government. I look forward to seeing the Bill go a long way towards realising that ambition.
Lord Goodhart: My Lords, this has been a short debate. All the Back-Bench speakers have been commendably brief and to the point. I hope that I shall be at least reasonably brief and reasonably to the point as well. I am particularly pleased that it has been a short debate because it will enable me to attend a dinner in Lincoln's Inn tonight to celebrate the 90th birthday of the noble and learned Lord, Lord Brightman, who was present in the Chamber at an earlier stage of the debate.
As I am going to be almost entirely positive about the Bill itself, perhaps I may start with one negative comment. The point has already been raised by the noble Lord, Lord Dixon-Smith. The Law Commission report on which the Bill is based is not being published until 10th July--a week today. That has caused a considerable problem with the preparation of speeches for Second Reading. Worse than that, the Committee stage starts on 17th July, which means that amendments are supposed to be put down by Friday 13th July. That will be extremely difficult, particularly in the case of a highly technical Bill such as this, where we are heavily reliant on briefing by experts. It is true that we now have the Bill itself and the Explanatory Notes, but the report will be extremely important in explaining the reasoning behind the Law Commission's proposals. I have no intention of boycotting the Committee stage but it may well be that a substantial number of amendments will be put down for Report which will not have been tested by debates at the Committee stage.
Compulsory registration of land was started in London with the Land Transfer Act 1897. Compulsory registration was extended to the rest of the country on a rolling basis by the Land Registration Act 1925, though the rolling was extremely slow until the 1960s and, as the noble Baroness, Lady Cohen, pointed out, did not finish until 1990. But the advantages of compulsory registration are enormous.
However, the 1925 Act is now showing its age and it has become encrusted with barnacles. Undoubtedly it is time for a major overhaul. Furthermore, the prospect of electronic conveyancing opens up new opportunities for the speeding up of the sale of land. I should like to congratulate the Law Commission, and in particular Mr Charles Harpum, on what appears to have been a superb job. The Bill reforms the registration procedure and simplifies it considerably. Under the existing system various mechanisms are in place for limiting the powers of a registered owner to deal with the land. These are variously cautions, notices, restrictions and inhibitions. The new Bill simplifies these. It keeps notices and restrictions, but throws caution to the winds and abandons all inhibitions. Does this mean that, when the Bill is enacted, there will be Bacchanalian riots in the Land Registry--and can I have an invitation?
The Bill proposes a tightening of the rules for overriding interests; that is, interests in land which will bind purchase of the land even though it has not been entered on the register. That is undoubtedly welcome. Certainty is extremely important for land transactions and overriding interests have been a major source of uncertainty. The creation of new overriding interests by judicial decision has weakened the certainty of the 1925 Act. I welcome the proposal that some interests which are now overriding interests, but could be registered, will cease to be overriding unless they have been registered within a 10-year period.
I have to say that I am not sure what has happened to my old friend the liability attached to a particular piece of land to pay for repairs to the chancel of the parish church. That is an obscure and fortunately rare problem, but very unpleasant when it happens. It is true that a few weeks ago it was held by the Court of Appeal that that was contrary to the European Convention on Human Rights. I found that decision rather surprising and obviously it could be overturned
The proposal to require leases to be registered if the term of the lease is more than seven years rather than more than 21 years is desirable because it will increase the informative value of the register and ease the transfer of longer leases. I agree with the noble Earl, Lord Caithness, that a reduction in the minimum period for registrable leases to below seven years may be of more questionable value. That is obviously something which will have to be looked into if and when proposals are put forward so to do.
The 1925 Act was designed so as to minimise differences of substantive law between registered and unregistered land. I believe that that was the right decision to take at the time, but now that the great majority of land is registered, it is time to abandon that particular principle, which the Bill sets out to do. I therefore welcome the new system to be put in place under Clause 49 to allow an existing charge to be treated as security for a further advance.
The most important difference in substantive law is in relation to adverse possession. The Bill proposes new rules for adverse possession which will make it harder to acquire title by that means. Possessory title was very important in cases of unregistered conveyancing where the loss of title deeds or an uncertain description of the land might make long and undisputed occupation the only way of showing title. However, this does not apply to registered land. The new procedure for acquiring title by adverse possession under Schedule 6 is reasonable, although I should like to raise one or two points of detail when we reach the Committee stage. However, perhaps I may say that, contrary to what was said by the noble Lord, Lord Harrison, this change will help rather than hinder squatters because unless and until squatters in a particular building serve an application for title to that building under Schedule 6, the owner will not be under any pressure to remove them.
I greatly welcome the proposal for a new independent adjudicator to decide disputes under the Bill. I strongly support this development. I would prefer to see disputes dealt with by adjudicators rather than by the courts, but the question does arise whether an adjudicator will be given power under Clause 60 of the Bill to fix boundaries. It is desirable that he or she should have a power to do so. Indeed, from the notes that have been submitted to the Delegated Powers and Deregulation Committee, which will consider the Bill tomorrow morning, it appears to be the Government's intention that the adjudicator should be given that power. But it does not appear to have been included in the adjudicator's jurisdiction under Clause 106.
I welcome the provisions in Clause 124 widening the membership of the Rule Committee by the addition of representatives from the Council of Mortgage Lenders and the Council of Licensed Conveyancers. However, I should like to ask why there should not also be a representative from the Royal Institute of Chartered
Finally I turn to what in the long run will be the most important element in the Bill; that is, the framework for electronic conveyancing. Of course it is only a framework which will have to be fleshed out by future rules. I do not in any way object to that; it is the obvious and sensible way of dealing with issues as complicated, detailed and subject to periodic variation as these rules will need to be.
I believe that these changes offer a real chance to speed up and simplify conveyancing and to reduce costs. I have always thought that electronic conveyancing would be a better way forward than the seller's pack provisions set out in Part I of the Homes Bill. I am afraid that I do not agree with the noble Baroness, Lady Cohen, that the seller's pack--or at least in the form in which it appeared in that Bill--was a good idea. Now that Part II of the Homes Bill has been reintroduced as a separate homelessness measure in the other place, can the noble and learned Lord the Lord Chancellor confirm that Part I has been consigned to the dustbin?
Undoubtedly electronic conveyancing will need careful study. The Law Society has concerns about the authentication of documents by agents under Clause 91. Furthermore, I know that the RICS also has concerns about the security of e-conveyancing. Overall, however, the Bill plainly represents a major step forward which, I believe, could be of real benefit to everyone in the property market, in particular to ordinary people who are buying and selling their homes. For that reason, I have great pleasure in giving the Bill a warm welcome.
Lord Kingsland: My Lords, first, I should like to apologise to the noble and learned Lord the Lord Chancellor for not being present to hear the opening passages of his speech. So mesmerised was my television screen by the answers given by the noble Lord, Lord Filkin, to the third Starred Question that it totally failed to move on to the fourth Question, let alone to turn to the dulcet tones of the noble and learned Lord. That should serve as a warning to those of us tempted to throw ourselves entirely on the mercy of electronic means.
Nevertheless, from the Opposition Benches I warmly welcome this Bill. In particular, I should like to congratulate the noble and learned Lord on bringing forward a Law Commission proposal. I know that he is keen to take every opportunity to do so and I hope that this will not be the last such Bill in this parliamentary Session. I should also like to congratulate, as have several other noble Lords, Mr Charles Harpum, together with the parliamentary draftsmen involved, on what has been a remarkable achievement. Any hesitations that I am about to express about the Bill should be seen in that overall context.
Residential property is the single most important asset held by the majority of the citizens of this country. Our predominating preoccupation therefore is with the security of transactions, in general, and, in particular, with the dangers or risks of tampering with electronic signatures. In that context, I should like to ask a number of questions.
How can these signatures be kept secure? If a so-called smartcard is stolen, can it be used by a thief? How can the user be confident that the certifying authority's certification is genuine and not the creation of a hacker? Who certifies the certifying authority? Is there a risk of impersonation to obtain certification for signatures? Is it possible to prevent the time of signature of a contract being tampered with?
I say at once that I do not expect the noble Baroness to answer all these questions in her closing speech. But, nevertheless, I submit that they are important questions. I hope that at least in the course of the committee stage we can return to them for some reassurance.
As a number of noble Lords have said, in particular my noble friend Lord Dixon-Smith, the Bill abounds with rule-making powers. My noble friend said that the Bill was much easier to understand, but I suspect that there is much more to the Bill than is on its face. Indeed, your Lordships can open the Bill at almost any page and find a rule-making power. Even Clause 1 of the Bill has a rule-making power.
I wonder whether this is at the insistence of Ministers or of parliamentary draftsmen, or are these rule-making powers a function of the fact that, although we have had the Quinquennial Review, the plan that will flow from that review is not yet complete? These perhaps are also questions that the noble Baroness may be tempted to address, either later today or in the course of the Committee stage.
It appears to us that in some circumstances such rules could restrict, or even extinguish, the very rights granted. Consider, for example, Clauses 66 and 73, which refer to rights expressed to be "subject to rules". Here the rule-making power does not merely regulate the manner in which the rights are to be exercised; it makes the right itself subject to the rules. The rules restrict, or appear to restrict, the right.
Moreover, there are some rule-making provisions which are, in my submission, inexcusable. In Clause 89, for example, it is provided that rules may make provision for enactments relating to settlements under the Settled Land Act 1925. Why on earth cannot such rules appear on the face of the Bill? We all know what they will contain.
There are also some puzzling anomalies in the Bill. For example, Schedule 1 deals with unregistered interests which override first registration. On first registration, almost all occupiers' rights, easements and profits a prendre are binding. Schedule 3 deals with unregistered interests which override registered dispositions.
Thus a right which survives first registration can be overridden by an immediate disposition, which will, on the face of it, inevitably defeat the purpose of the special treatment of occupiers on first registration.
The existing law, by contrast, is clear. It has been considered most recently in Williams & Glyns Bank v. Boland and City of London Building Society v. Flegg. We cannot understand why it has been necessary to introduce a new provision which itself does not deal with the usual issue that arises.
The Bill also creates surprising differences between the law relating to registered land and unregistered land. Part 9 and Schedule 6 to the Bill introduce a new regime for dealing with adverse possession in relation to registered land. Clause 95 provides that no period of limitation under Section 15 of the Limitation Act 1980 runs against any person, other than a chargee, in relation to registered land.
Under paragraph 1 of Schedule 6, a person who has been in adverse possession can apply to be registered. Paragraph 5 of the schedule provides that if the applicant can show that one or more of three conditions apply, he or she is entitled to be registered as the new proprietor of the estate. Paragraph 6 of the same schedule provides that if the applicant's application for registration is refused but he or she remains in adverse possession for two more years, he or she can apply again to be registered.
These new provisions will apply only to registered land. They will not apply to unregistered land, where Section 15 of the Limitation Act 1980 still prevails. We can see no good reason why the substantive law of adverse possession should be different in the case of unregistered land. If the new provisions in the Bill are
In this respect--although, of course, I have not yet seen what is contained in the document which is due to be published on 10th July--our criticisms seem to be shared by the Law Commission in its consultative document at paragraph 10.18, where it is said that there are obvious disadvantages in adopting a different system of adverse possession for registered land. Why then does the Bill provide such a system?
Finally, I turn to the question of squatters' rights. In a way, I suppose, it can be said that the Bill seeks to weaken squatters' rights. At present, after a squatter has been in adverse possession of land for 12 years, he or she can apply to be the new proprietor of the estate. The Bill allows a squatter to apply for ownership after 10 years, but ensures that the owners are informed. Of course, if the owners do not object, the squatter will be registered as proprietor of the land.
We would argue that the proposed measures against squatters should be tougher. The Library in another place cites research based on the 1986 London Housing Survey suggesting that 74 per cent of squatted properties were in the social rented sector. Indeed, there have been high profile cases in the past few years of squatters obtaining ownership of council housing due to the continued negligence of councils to manage their housing stock.
We should like see a situation in which squatters have no automatic right to ownership of property owned by social landlords or by the public sector. This property was intended for a collective social benefit and should not be seized by private individuals without appropriate compensation.
The Parliamentary Secretary, Lord Chancellor's Department (Baroness Scotland of Asthal): My Lords, I am grateful to all noble Lords who have participated in the debate, not least to the noble Lord, Lord Kingsland. I was in danger of believing that we had unanimity in this House for the first time in any debate in which I have taken part. I am grateful to the noble Lord for disabusing me of that belief. I join warmly with all those who have congratulated the parliamentary draftsmen, together with Charles Harpen. As my noble and learned friend the Lord Chancellor said, the Bill is truly a wonderful piece of work.
I had the opportunity of delighting your Lordships with a long and detailed reply. However, with respect, bearing in mind the amount of agreement that there has been, it may be better if I seek to reply more directly to the various issues raised.
It is clear that we all agree that the changes and reformation that will be brought forward by this piece of legislation are momentous. The noble Earl, Lord Caithness, raised a number of points. In welcoming the Bill--on which I commend him--the noble Earl raised the issue--also mentioned by the noble Lord, Lord Goodhart--of the role of the adjudicator and whether the adjudicator would be able to decide in cases where there are boundary disputes. The short answer is yes. However, the Land Registry will also be looking for other, easier ways to settle land disputes.
In relation to this matter and many others we should be happy to consider any proposal that the noble Earl or other noble Lords may wish to make. One of the good things about the Bill is the consensual basis on which it is founded. It has been evident in the debate that all noble Lords wish to hone a system that will deliver transparency, efficiency and an effective means of transferring land. Speaking both for myself and on behalf of my noble and learned friend the Lord Chancellor, we very much want the Bill to be seen in that light. We shall be open to any improvement that noble Lords may feel able to bring to it.
The noble Earl turned next to the question of Ordnance Survey maps. I can reassure him that the relationship with the Ordnance Survey map will not change significantly in electronic conveyancing. On the question of whether we shall set up a pilot scheme for electronic conveyancing, the short answer is yes. Implementation will be staged. We, too, understand the thrust of the argument of those who say that compulsion should be immediate. However, we want to have the benefits assured before going down that road. The noble Earl asked about electronic auctioneering. That does not currently fall within the scope of the Bill. I can write to the noble Lord in more detail on the matter.
The noble Earl also raised what some have seen as a controversial provision in Clause 4 relating to the registration of a lease and the reduction in the period from 21 years to seven years, and the fact that it may bring about more bureaucracy. We do not believe that that will be the case. There will be more registration, but there will be a simpler system of law and quicker conveyancing which will save business money on each transaction. So, overall, the procedure will be more efficacious.
My noble friend Lady Cohen referred to the Government's commitment to the seller's pack. Neither this Bill nor the commonhold and leasehold Bill will contain provision relating to the seller's pack. However, it will not have escaped your Lordships' notice that the mischief that the seller's pack sought to cure is dealt with in material ways by this Bill. I shall say nothing about whether or not in due course there will be parliamentary time for further legislation. We shall have to wait and see. For the moment, our commitment to delivering a clear system will be dealt with in part by the passage of the Bill that is before the House.
My noble friend Lord Harrison, in his usual forthright and robust way, raised a number of issues. The first related to making all overriding interests disclosable. That duty is created by Clause 71. We believe that that will help greatly.
My noble friend also exhorted us to cut red tape and asked why we did not introduce a three-year period from the outset. We want to be sure that the Land Registry and the market will cope. My noble and learned friend the Lord Chancellor can reduce the period when it appears to him to be right. During his opening remarks my noble and learned friend made it clear that he will consult, and all noble Lords know that he will adhere to that promise.
My noble friend Lord Harrison asked about the Northern Irish and Scottish systems, which are very different from our own. The Land Registry in England and Wales is working closely with registrars in Scotland to ensure that, so far as possible, the two systems will be similar from the point of view of the users.
The Bill stands alone, and its Explanatory Notes assist it. I know that noble Lords would have been "happier" if the report had been made available before Second Reading and, indeed, for a longer period before the Committee stage. Of course, that is a counsel of perfection. Bearing in mind that we have waited since 1925 for reformation of this area, I shall disclose quite frankly that we were not going to allow this opportunity to slip us by. The Bill team is ready; we shall consult, and shall continue to do so, to ensure that the legislation is as perfect as we should all wish. But time is of the essence and we are happy to have the opportunity to bring forward this Bill, which will do so much good, at the earliest possible moment. It is a matter of some pride to us that we are able to do so. I should like to pay a compliment to all those who worked before 1997 to help to bring this about; indeed, the gestation period of this Bill has been long.
Like the noble Lord, Lord Kingsland, the noble Lord, Lord Dixon-Smith, also raised the issue of the rule-making power, and questioned whether it was too wide. The power referred to exactly replicates the current law. However, my noble and learned friend the Lord Chancellor will happily consider suggestions about improvement. I reiterate that position. As regards the rules procedure, the noble Lord will know that most procedural rules for the registry will be made by the Lord Chancellor on advice from the rules committee and simply laid, although the House cannot amend them. The ones that need greater scrutiny will be subject to negative resolution. But, of course, they cannot be changed; they can only be accepted or rejected.
I believe that the noble Lord, Lord Dixon-Smith, asked about price information. I can tell him that the role of price information has been widely praised. It will reduce the inflationary pressure because we shall know what the previous buyer paid. The house market should, thereby, be transparent.
I turn now to the usual sagacity of the noble Lord, Lord Goodhart. It was with great appreciation that I listened to his words, which warmly welcomed the Bill. The noble Lord is known for his great depth of understanding of the law in this area. His assent has been most welcome. I believe that the noble Lord made a similar point in relation to the report. We are advised that chapter 2 of the report will be particularly helpful to all those who wish to consider it, because, as I understand it, it is a condensed over-view of the issues covered by the Law Commission and the changes proposed. I do not believe that it will materially affect the clauses of the Bill that your Lordships will be considering, but in its 400 pages it will outline such matters in great depth. I am sure that all speakers participating in this debate will scrutinise those pages with a great deal of acuity. Indeed, I am sure that noble Lords will find them most helpful.
The noble Lord, Lord Goodhart, is always adept at raising the most difficult and abstruse points. Therefore, I was charmed that he should raise chancel repair liability. I can tell him that the liability has, indeed, been struck down by the Court of Appeal. It will need to be reinstated in the Bill, and this will be considered in any appeal, if successful. We have seen no indication to date that there will be such an appeal; but, should one arise, we shall consider it.
The noble Lord also made a very good point about an RICS member being on the rules committee. We shall also be happy to consider that suggestion. There is already a power to co-opt a member who may have specific expertise. The noble Lord also asked whether this provision would help squatters because the owner of the property will not try to evict the squatters until they apply to be registered. The short answer is yes. The noble Lord, Lord Kingsland, also raised the issue of squatters' rights. I should point out to him that we shall now have clarity. There is a difference between registered and unregistered land, which is covered by the Bill. Perhaps I may sketch some of the answers that the noble Lord seeks. However, by the tempting array of issues that he covered in his speech, I know that we shall be delighted to consider such detail in Committee.
There are issues in relation to security of transaction--the tampering with signatures and whether a smartcard could be used. All those issues are valid concerns, but the detailed provisions for security can be considered in detail as rules are drawn up and changed and as the system develops. We know how rapidly technology has developed over a very short
Things have changed, and they do so rapidly. We must be able to adapt. That is why my noble and learned friend the Lord Chancellor made clear in his opening remarks that we must get the framework right. We know that the technology will develop rapidly and that the systems we put in place today may appear obsolete in a very short time. We must have the flexibility to respond when technology allows us to move forward in an appropriate way, after consultation.
The noble Lord asked what constitutes "occupation". The current law is seriously defective. We respectfully suggest that the new provisions are very much better. We should be more than happy to write and explain why we believe them to be better in an appropriate amount of detail, which I am sure will satisfy even the noble Lord. Indeed, if it does not satisfy him, I am sure that we can shower him with even more detail.
The noble Lord also raised the issue of the rule-making regime. The regime follows that contained in the 1925 Act. Although the provisions are reduced in scope by putting some questions of principle on the face of the Bill, their important nature remains the same.
Finally, the noble Lord referred to "adverse possession" and the issue of it applying only to registered land. I have already touched a little on this, but I can tell the noble Lord that a registered title is the basis of the new proposal. We cannot have the protection that it confers without registration, so the systems are fundamentally different.
I turn to over-riding rights and whether they can be over-riding on subsequent disposition. We respectfully suggest that this does not change the current law. There are issues upon which we shall continue to work. We certainly hope that we shall have the help and assistance of all your Lordships when we come to review the finer details to make sure that the minutiae of the Bill are as good as we should like.
Many people have rightly been thanked for the hard work they have undertaken in preparing the Bill. I refer to the special provisions relating to the Crown. The underlying law relating to the Crown's ancient ownership of land and its position as an owner of last resort is among the most arcane of all the many mysteries of land law in England and Wales. The Bill will simplify the task of those who come into contact with it. The pragmatic solutions put forward in the Bill would not have been possible without the detailed and constructive consultation that took place with the Crown Estate and the legal advisers to Her Majesty the Queen and His Royal Highness the Prince of Wales. We are grateful to them for their contribution.
Last but not least, I most warmly thank all noble Lords who have taken part in the debate. We have set the tone of what is to come. I hope that the work which will be done will be given the appropriate level of applause that it deserves. This is an opportunity for us to work together for the common good. It is a matter which gives me great pleasure. I commend all the proposals to your Lordships. I beg to move.