Backbench Business: Land Registry

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John Stevenson: I am pleased to make a contribution to this very important debate about a significant national organisation. Of course I am aware that the consultation has concluded and acknowledge that the Government have not yet come forward with any proposals for the actual privatisation of the Land Registry. I also bring to the House’s attention my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests: I am a practising solicitor.

There are plenty of arguments for retaining the Land Registry in state hands, and we have already heard a number of them. Some of those arguments may be valid and some undoubtedly have merit, but quite a few are, to be honest, bordering on irrelevant. Similarly, there are very sound arguments to suggest it would be far more beneficial for the Land Registry to move out of state ownership into more commercially minded ownership.

Matthew Offord: I wanted to say this to Mr Lammy as well: while I certainly am a privatisation believer, I do not understand why the Government are seeking to take a public monopoly and make it a private monopoly. I cannot see the benefit that the market will be able to bring to that.

John Stevenson: My hon. Friend makes an interesting point, and unsurprisingly I could support many of the arguments for privatisation, but I will come to that in due course.

I want to make two specific contributions to this debate. First, I shall comment as a practitioner—as someone who actually uses the services of the Land Registry and whose firm works with the Land Registry on a daily basis. Secondly, I shall comment as a Conservative politician.

Speaking as a practitioner, the Land Registry is an extremely important aspect of the conveyancing and land ownership process. Indeed, it is central to the whole system as over 75% of land is already registered and ultimately all land will be registered, at which point no physical deeds will be required. Therefore, the accuracy and integrity of the register is absolutely vital. Each day thousands of transactions are logged through the Land Registry portal, queries are raised, and in some cases disputes are resolved. It is part of the everyday work of the conveyancer.

However, we have to accept that the Land Registry is not in any way perfect. Most practitioners would confirm this and I suspect the Land Registry itself would also acknowledge it. The Land Registry does make mistakes, it has backlogs, it needs investment, and it needs to modernise—it is in many respects just like many other organisations that have similar issues.

Rob Flello: The hon. Gentleman lists a number of things that, understandably, need to be done, but the Land Registry makes a profit. Why are the Government not putting the profit back into improving it?

John Stevenson: The Land Registry does make a profit, and it is quite rightly trying to modernise. It also continuously develops its programmes, and all conveyancers are aware of that.

Like many other practitioners, I acknowledge that the Land Registry plays a vital and central role in the property market. Practitioners greatly value and respect the services that it provides. As a legal practitioner, I see the worth of the Land Registry and its services. We should also not forget the many skilled people who work for the Land Registry, all of whom ensure that the legal profession, the owners of land and the financial institutions are well served.

As a Conservative politician, not unsurprisingly I believe in a market economy, in competition and in competitive markets. I have absolutely no issue with the privatisation of businesses or industries, as I firmly believe that, more often than not, private sector ownership leads to greater efficiency and innovation and better value for money for the taxpayer and the consumer. I do, however, believe in a strong liberal democracy, in the importance of the rule of law and in the significance of property rights in a market economy—in this case, the rights relating to the ownership of land. We must therefore tread very carefully when considering the future ownership of the Land Registry, given its central role in the property market.

The Land Registry is at the very centre of land and property rights in this country, and the integrity of the system is critical. Its importance is such that all solicitors, property owners, leaseholders, lenders and financial institutions must have complete confidence in its integrity, openness and honesty. It has to be trusted. Any doubts or concerns about its integrity, about possible conflicts of interest or about misuse of information could affect this central part of our capitalist system. We must also recognise the fact that the Land Registry is a natural monopoly, a bit like the police or other institutions that do not lend themselves to competition. Such monopolies, which are of great importance to the very fabric of our system, must be treated with great care.

Madeleine Moon: A considerable number of my constituents work in the Land Registry in south Wales. Their concern is that they constantly have to adapt their practice on the basis of new policy guidelines from the Government. They work within an overarching public interest requirement, and they are worried that that ability to adapt will go if there is a constant need to renegotiate contracts and seek changes with a private sector company. How can we keep that integrity for my constituents if we have to factor in the profit motive of a private sector company?

John Stevenson: The hon. Lady raises an interesting point about the constant changes in the Land Registry. As practitioners, we have to deal with those changes as new rules are put forward by this place in relation to the Land Registry and other aspects of property transactions.

As I have said, the Land Registry is central to our property system in this country, and it is vital that it has absolute integrity and openness. It has to be trusted.

Caroline Lucas: Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

John Stevenson: I am about to conclude my speech, so I will continue.

It is for those reasons that I believe that, if the Government were to bring forward privatisation proposals for the Land Registry, it would be a privatisation too far.

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