Think the government is clueless about privatising Land Registry? A classic sitcom was there first.
In the fifth episode of the classic BBC sitcom Yes Minister, blundering politician Jim Hacker learns that the Cabinet is about to discuss a policy proposal he knows nothing about. This is awkward, because the proposal is one of his own: at least his civil servants assure him he initialled it.
‘Why am I recommending it to Cabinet?’ Hacker demands of his smooth permanent secretary, Sir Humphrey Appleby, ‘The PM’s started asking very awkward questions!’
The proposal was to abolish Land Registry.
Substitute ‘sell off’ for ‘close down’ and the exchange between minister and civil servant could happen in 2016.
Or rather, should be happening. A consultation on the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills’ latest plan for the agency closes today. I have looked hard, but I have yet to find anyone in favour of the plan to turn most of the operations into a ‘NewCo’ that can be sold to the private sector. The PM should certainly be asking awkward questions.
Officially the rationale for a sale is twofold: first to ‘support the delivery of a modern, digitally based land registration service’; secondly ‘to return a capital receipt to the Exchequer to help reduce national debt’. While a sale might achieve the second aim, albeit at the cost of killing a golden goose in deficit-reducing dividends, there is no evidence that it would achieve the first.
An element of bandwagon-jumping is at work here
Indeed, as the Competition and Markets Authority points out in its response to the consultation, the proposed NewCo model of a vertically integrated behemoth would have little incentive to modernise and every incentive to degrade the terms of access to its monopoly data. (Gazette readers may have noticed me raising similar objections back in March.) Among other proposals, the CMA recommends that the government assess the possibility of creating ‘in market’ competition between service providers.
The competition watchdog is just one in a line-up of objectors ranging from City solicitors to the News Media Association. Of course the wisdom of the crowd isn't necessarily right. An element of bandwagon-jumping is at work here: it is amusing to see commentators who have previously been all in favour of confiscatory land taxes suddenly discovering the crucial economic importance of secure title to property.
And in opposing the government’s plans we should also beware of overdoing our praise for the incumbent organisation. It may have a better track record than many state agencies - especially when it comes to going digital - but my experience on the phone to it yesterday suggests it has much to learn about customer service.
The department for Business, Innovation and Skills told me today that no final decisions about Land Registry have been made: ‘We cannot pre-judge what any final model will look like.’
But what we do know is that no one with any experience of land registration, conveyancing, transparency and the wider digital economy seems to favour what is currently on the table.
The fifth episode of Yes Minister, broadcast back in March 1980, contributed several choice entries to dictionaries of civil service quotations. But my favourite is when the normally obfuscatory Sir Humphrey comes up with a blunt riposte to his minister’s approach to cuts: ‘If you’re going to do this damn silly thing, don’t do it in this damn silly way.’
Michael Cross is Gazette news editor