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Standing Committee D
Thursday 13 December 2001
[Mr. Eric Illsley in the Chair]
New clause 2
Completion of register
Brought up, and read the First time.
Question proposed this day, That the clause be read a Second time.
Question again proposed.
The Chairman: I remind the Committee that with this we are taking the following: New clause 3Registrar to create public record of unregistered titles
''The registrar shall create a public record of all unregistered titles known to him by 30th December 2003.''.
Mr. Adrian Sanders (Torbay): I was making the point that there should be a comprehensive register of land.
The book ''Who Owns Scotland'' by Andy Wightman states that
''the ownership and use of land is one of the most fundamental issues in any society.''
Whereas that book did much to place land ownership on the political agenda in Scotland, it is clear that in general, in Britain, land is not a fundamental issue, nor has it been for most of the 20th century. One reason for that is that in the late 19th century, the register of returns of owners of land threatened to highlight the issue of land ownership. Once they were aware of that, the return was buried by the landowners that it had exposed.
Admittedly, the landowners were threatened by more than exposure in the return. They were disturbed by land agitation in Ireland. The extent of landlessness among the English population in 1876 was not hugely different from that in Ireland. The potential for a revolution in land ownership in England existed, but it simply never happened.
Mr. William Cash (Stone): I hope that the hon. Gentleman will not mind if I mention the fact that my great, great uncle happened to be the secretary of the Tenant Rights Association in the 1840s.
Mr. Sanders: That was a helpful intervention, because I was not aware of that association. I am aware of another organisation that no doubt the hon. Gentleman will intervene and say that another member of his family was a member of.
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The return was pulled back and, in a sense, buried, partly as a result of the events in the Republic of Ireland, where land was being redistributed to the landless peasantry. That redistribution began in the 1880s and finally ended only a few years ago. It proved so effective that, by 1921 and independence, large landowners as a class in most of that country had largely been eliminated.
This is where the history links into the Bill. There is reason to believe that that redistribution of land is one of the essential underpinnings of the Irish economic success of the 1990s, when that comparatively tiny state of fewer than 4 million people drove its gross domestic product above that of the United Kingdom. Without a comprehensive land register, we cannot begin to tackle that issue.
The Republic of Ireland does not require its citizens to pay a council tax or water rates. It provides a far higher level of old-age benefits than almost any other European state. Despite the huge and very British style of intense urbanisation around the capital, Dublin, the community of the Republic of Ireland remains largely rural, although most farms are now adjusted to the post-European-integration reality of deriving one quarter of their income from subsidy, one quarter from farming and a full half from other activities. What has never been analysed is the ''credit accelerator'' based on land ownership, which has drawn money and investment into the Irish economy, as opposed to the economy created in Ireland by foreign investment.
Understanding the way that credit was generated for Irish families through the possession of land on a widely distributed basis is central to understanding why the British economy stalled, not in the last 50 years of the previous century, but possibly as far back as the late 1800s, when economic decline first set in. Another lesson for Britain is hidden in the Irish economy. As real wealth has spread and the value of land and its potential as collateral has risen, so has the pace and nature of housebuilding in the Irish economy.
Mr. Cash: On a point of order, Mr Illsley. I am fascinated by this essay on the relationship between the Irish and British economies, and the question of land in Ireland. However, I ask you whether it is entirely in order, given that we are talking about a Land Registration Bill for this country. Whatever Sinn Fein may be up to in attempting to get into this House, I wonder whether this is the right way to go about it.
The Chairman: That is a valid point. The hon. Member for Torbay (Mr. Sanders) has strayed rather wide of the terms of the Bill, which deals with registration rather than ownership, and I hope that in his subsequent remarks he will return to the issue of registration.
Mr. Sanders: Yes, the issue of registration is fundamental if we are to change the way in which our economy has developed over the years. My argument is that we cannot deal with other linked issues without some form of comprehensive land register. In essence, the issue is not legal but economic. We cannot begin to
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deal with, say, the housing crisis unless we first establish a comprehensive land register. In the UK, the importance of home ownership is widely understood, yet the Treasury remains locked into neo-classical industrial economic models that produce not real growth but only a gentle level of decline, along with appalling levels of pay and job security in a so-called service economy. It is from our small neighbour, which is building more than twice as many houses a year per head of population, that we can learn the most crucial lesson about creating a viable economy for our people.
In essence, a land register would help us to redistribute land more widely and raise money on its value. We could do away with the council tax, improve many available social benefits and find land for the houses that are so desperately needed. Having already gone through that process, the Irish pay no council tax yet still benefit from local services. Surely that could be done in this country, too. Between £12 billion and £17 billion could be raisedmore than sufficient to cover the £10.4 billion currently raised by the council tax. A revision of land subsidies should not seriously affect farmers. On the contrary, the system might well be more efficient if it ensured that subsidies were paid to those who could assist agricultural output, rather than to the landed aristocracy.
I hope that I have given members of the Committee an inkling of the present situation, which is undesirable and cannot begin to change until there is a comprehensive register of land ownership. As I have said, the implications for generating wealth, housing the homeless and really tackling poverty are so obvious and profound that one might ask why no one has tried it before. The answer is that they have. In 1911, Lloyd George wanted to introduce site value rating, or land value taxation, as others call it. What stopped him was opposition to a comprehensive land register. Other countriesIreland, New Zealand, Canada, Australia, Sweden and parts of the United Stateshave been more successful, and it is time that we followed suit.
The Parliamentary Secretary, Lord Chancellor's Department (Mr. Michael Wills): I thank the hon. Member for Torbay (Mr. Sanders) for a fascinating and radical insight into the way in which Liberal Democrat policy is evolving. If I understood him correctly, he is calling for the nationalisation of land, widespread redistribution and, as a consequence, the abolition of most other taxesall of which is to be brought about through completion of the land register. That is remarkable. I look forward to seeing those policies develop, and to combating my Liberal Democrat opponent on their fine detail.
I do agree with many of the hon. Gentleman's points about the importance of registering land. In case there is any doubt, however, I should make it clear for the record that, although registration is valuable, we do not see it as a precursor to the nationalisation of land. We share his views about the importance of completing the register, but I am afraid that we must resist the new clauses. Unregistered land should of
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course be phased out as soon as possibleindeed, that is the purpose of the Bill. However, to proceed in the way envisaged in the new clauses would be fraught with difficulties. The vast majority of events that result in changes to the legal owner of the land are already caught by the existing trigger mechanisms. As I think I said on Second Reading, it would be hard to devise a system that naturally picked up further registrations, and now is not the time to do so. The Bill as drafted and the way in which it will be implemented will fully match the resources of the Land Registry and its customers for many years to come. We think that they can cope with the current proposals, but they would be hard pressed to deal with much more than that.
The issues surrounding completion of the register need to be considered very carefully. Due account must be taken of human rights, which the hon. Member for Torbay seemed to overlook in his survey of future developments. The Law Commission has suggested that that issue be reviewed in about five years' time, when the Bill has bedded in, and in my view that is a sensible course to adopt. Moving towards the goal of total registration is of course important, but we may not need drastic measures of the sort that the hon. Member for Torbay would like to see. If we allow time to discover the Bill's impact on the level of voluntary registrations, such information could help us to design the measures necessary to complete the register.
New clause 2 is unnecessary, ill-timed and misconceived. The creation of a record of unregistered interests would not result in a meaningful public register without a corresponding investigation of legal titles to those interests. To be meaningful, such a record must involve the investigation of title process that currently precedes first registration of title. The new clause is untimely, in that we anticipate the Bill's encouraging a far greater level of voluntary registrations. The new clause would also result in much additional work for, and adjustment by, the Land Registry, and occupy those involved in the conveyancing process for some time to come. Regrettably, we must therefore resist it.