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4 pm

Mr. Sanders: I am glad that the Minister has already answered some of the questions that I was going to ask—he must have a crystal ball. The way in which the technology is advancing and some of the assurances given in Committee make it clear that an electronic system is as secure as a paper-based system, if not more so. I think that the hon. Member for Stone (Mr. Cash) is getting at what lies behind any system—public confidence. The public recognise the paper-based system and the security within that, and it will be some time before they accept that electronic security systems protect their interests perhaps even better than a paper-based system. Confidence is therefore everything.

Who will determine who is guilty of negligence or fraudulent behaviour within the system? I understand from the Minister's comments that that will take place within the Land Registry, but at what point does the law take over? Who investigates? Who determines? Is it a matter for the police? Is evidence gathered by the Land Registry, or is the whole matter passed over to the constabulary?

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I have a great deal of sympathy with both amendments, but I think on balance that we will have to wait and see. The Minister mentioned further technological advances: they will come and they will build confidence in the system. The Government must avoid a dual system of both paper-based and electronic conveyancing, as that would cause confusion. At some point the electronic system will take over from the paper-based system, but building in an inhibitor to electronic conveyancing, which I think would be the effect of the amendments, will not allow the idea to fly, confidence to be built, and the public to be won over. I hope that the Minister can answer my questions.

Mr. Cash: I am grateful to the Minister for his assurance on amendment No. 9. We have on a mutually satisfactory basis edged the issue along a little bit. The assurance he has given—

Mr. Wills rose

Mr. Cash: I gather he has yet another assurance to give. Let us hope for the best.

Mr. Wills: Before the hon. Member for Stone concludes that he feels able to withdraw the amendments, as I hope he will, I should like to answer the questions asked by the hon. Member for Torbay (Mr. Sanders) about the determination of guilt of fraudulence. He is right that it will be, in the first instance, for the Land Registry to determine what it thinks—

Mr. Speaker: Order. The best way to proceed would be to allow the hon. Member for Stone (Mr. Cash) to finish his comments.

Mr. Cash: That is very kind of you, Mr. Speaker. It is always an enormous satisfaction to anyone standing at the Dispatch Box to know that he will be allowed to complete his speech.

I thank the Minister for edging the matter a little further forward. I hear what he says about amendment No. 12, but would like to add that we are dealing with a new technology. The profession as a whole—and its clients—are faced with a new system that, for obvious reasons, has not been tested. No one is sure how it will all pan out. I have no doubt that we shall all be extremely grateful to the experts, whom we heaped with praise in Committee. None the less, only time will tell.

It would be a pity if the Minister created a blot on his own landscape—if our concerns about the way in which the system will operate in practice were borne out.

Given the unbelievable and extraordinary number of Members attending the debate, it would be invidious of me to seek to divide the House. However, I have made my point, and the Minister has responded. He has given me half a cake, which I am glad of. On the principle that Marie Antoinette got it wrong when she said, "Let them eat cake", I shall have to settle for that.

Without prejudice to what I have said and what the future may hold, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Mr. Wills rose

Mr. Speaker: Order. Because of the procedures of the House, and as the hon. Member for Stone has sought to

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withdraw his amendment, I cannot say that it would be best if the Minister did not speak, but I think that he knows what I mean.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Clause 101

Fee orders

Amendment made: No. 2, in page 36, line 27, after "section" insert "69(3)(b) or".—[Mr. Wills.]

Clause 104

Consultancy and advisory services

Amendments made: No. 3, in page 37, line 2, after "provide" insert—

', or arrange for the provision of,'.
No. 4, in page 37, line 4, after "section" insert "by the registrar".
No. 5, in page 37, line 5, leave out "the registrar" and insert "he".—[Mr. Wills.]

Clause 126

Rules, regulations and orders

Mr. Cash: I beg to move amendment No. 10, in page 42, line 39, at end insert—

'(4A) Before making any order under any provision of this Act, the Lord Chancellor shall consult the Rule Committee.'.

Among other things, the clause prescribes certain powers that are conferred on the Lord Chancellor to make not only rules and regulations but

Furthermore, any such power is to be exercisable by statutory instrument. The clause then explains the procedure to be followed, where the statutory instrument is laid before Parliament.

Subsection (4) states that a statutory instrument concerning land registration rules, certain rules under part II or section 119, regulations under paragraph 5 of schedule 9 or certain orders

However—the Minister has heard me express a view on this before—there is no explicit provision that, when any such order is made, the Lord Chancellor is under an obligation to consult the rule committee.

Significant practical implications arise in respect of a number of the important changes that are being made, such as extending compulsory registration of title or varying the length of time required for upgrading a possessory title by order. The principle on which consultation operates as a matter of law is no doubt well known to the Minister and, for that matter, most emphatically to the Lord Chancellor, who is required to consult all and sundry, much as Gilbert and Sullivan have required him to sing many a song for his sins since the composition of "Iolanthe" or any other great opera. The lord high executioner in this case, the Lord Chancellor, has that facility. He should be required, in my judgment and that of professionals, to consult the rule committee.

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It would be astonishing if the Government wanted to resist any such provision. I am interested to learn whether the Minister has an ingenious way of satisfying me that the lack of consultation in the Bill is compensated for by the fact that the consultation will take place in practice. He knows that consultation means no more than "I hear what you say." There is substantial case law on the subject; one does not have to comply with the arguments made during consultation, but one is required to listen.

I know that the Government are a listening Government; at least, I am told that they are. I believe that the Minister is a listening Minister; it would be progress if he assured us that the Lord Chancellor will consult the rule committee, even if he is not prepared to accept my simple amendment. If he is not prepared to give that assurance, it follows that, astonishingly, the Government have no intention of consulting the rule committee. I am engaging in this didactic exchange entirely on my own and am waiting for him to respond. I am sure that he understands that this is an important matter, and will want to consult the rule committee.

Mr. Wills indicated assent.

Mr. Cash: I am glad that the Minister has just indicated that he will do so. However, if he does not wish to entrench my proposal in legislation, I trust that he can give me an assurance that the rule committee will be consulted as a matter of course. I should be delighted if he would do so, and shall not to try to pre-empt or anticipate what he has to say. It is not only members of the rule committee who expect an assurance, but everyone in the professions, as well as the many millions of people concerned about the way in which the rules, regulations and orders will operate. If the Minister can give that assurance in the best spirit of transparency, to which, I know, he is patriotically committed, that will guarantee that the measure can go ahead as smoothly as possible.

Mr. Wills: I know that the hon. Member for Stone (Mr. Cash) takes these matters extremely seriously, so I shall try, at some length, to reassure him.

There are two types of order-making power in the Bill. I will deal first with the administrative orders for running the land registration system, of which there are three: a power under clause 99, as the hon. Gentleman will recall, to designate a particular land registry office as the proper office for certain applications; a power under clause 101 to make fees orders for dealings with the registry; and a power under clause 111 to make fees orders for dealings with the adjudicator.

The power to designate where particular applications are handled is an internal matter for the Land Registry, allowing the registrar to even out the levels of work, and therefore processing times, at different offices. It also allows him to set up specialist teams to deal with complex or rare types of applications. Those orders are often made at relatively short notice to address difficulties as they arise. As now, it is intended that they should be made swiftly, and merely laid before Parliament afterwards. There is no need to create any greater scrutiny or delay in their implementation by involving the rule committee; the Bill as drafted reflects that.

The second power is to make a fees order for dealing with the registry itself. Fees orders are currently made by the Lord Chancellor with the advice and assistance of the

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rule committee; I am pleased to be able to confirm to the hon. Gentleman that that situation will continue under clause 101.

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