There must be a chance for greater scrutiny of the government’s plans to turn the registry into a ‘service delivery company’.
Political awareness is slowly building of the government’s plan for the future of Land Registry of England and Wales. For the benefit of new readers, the wheeze, set out in a consultation document from the Department for Business, Innovation & Skills, is to turn the 150-year old institution into a ‘service delivery company’ overseen by a rump office of the chief land registrar.
The assumption (though officially still only an option) is that the new company would be partly privately owned.
A parliamentary debate yesterday heard the responsible minister, Michael Fallon MP, defend the consultation against a cross-party barrage of concern. ‘It is government policy to assess options for moving assets to the private sector where there is no longer a strong policy reason for continued public ownership or where there is potential for an asset to operate more sensibly and efficiently in the private sector.’
The department’s problem is that there is a strong policy reason for continued public ownership - few activities of the state are more essential than assuring title to land - and there is very little evidence of any potential for Land Registry to operate more sensibly and efficiently in the private sector.
In the words of Labour’s Sian James: ‘The current system is tried, tested, evaluated and proven; and as the old adage goes, if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.’
Some of her concerns were echoed by a Conservative, Stewart Jackson MP, who called for the consultation to be extended – and to be based on facts.
Here, the problem - pointed out by the PCS trade union, which represents thousands of Land Registry staff - is the government’s refusal to publish the ‘target operating model’ of the registry in the digital age. James said that this appears to involve taking ‘the vast majority of the service provision of land registration from the Land Registry and move it to the customers – conveyancers and solicitors’.
‘Those solicitors and conveyancers will have to self-serve and they, not the Land Registry, will have to register legal interests in dealing with land on behalf of the public,’ she said. ‘If that is what is planned, where is the evidence that solicitors and conveyancers have been consulted?’ She also demanded to know how small and medium-sized high street firms will make the necessary changes.
These are good questions. The trouble is, ministers will find it easy to persuade themselves that critics such as the PCS are more concerned with protecting their membership than with the wider public interest. Indeed most of the speeches in yesterday’s debate came from MPs representing Land Registry staff (James declared such an interest, though as she intends to stand down at the next election, cannot be accused of raking for votes).
Opponents of the government’s proposal to meddle with such a critical part of the national infrastructure should not allow ministers such an easy get-out.
Michael Cross is Gazette news editor