Any solicitor who deals with property conveyancing will have been both concerned and surprised by the controversial government proposals to privatise the Land Registry. After all, as agencies go, the Land Registry was a shining example of public sector efficiency and effectiveness. However, following an announcement by minister, George Freeman, last week, it seems the controversial proposals to sell-off of Land Registry operations may not actually go ahead as the government concedes it could face defeat in parliament.
Responding to a barrage of cross-party concerns, George Freeman MP, minister for life sciences, said that with a government majority of only 12 ‘it does not require many people to take a different view… in order for us to assess the likelihood of getting a measure through.’
The consultation period on proposals to transfer Land Registry operations to a ‘NewCo’ in private ownership closed in May. The planned proposals had prompted widespread concerns about both threats to the integrity of the register and potential conflicts of interest. The government’s response to the consultation was due to be delivered this autumn, but it is now thought that because of the many uncertainties created by the Brexit vote, this response will either be put on hold or shelved for the foreseeable future.
The debate on a motion opposing sell-off of the Land Registry was proposed by Labour MP David Lammy. He accused the government of ‘looking to sell off the family silver to turn a short-term profit, to try and make their sums add up.’ He added that he was surprised the government had even considered the matter when the agency is currently running at 96 per cent efficiency:
“Far from being a basket case of public sector inefficiency, it is a shining example of a successful public service being run efficiently and effectively. I must state in the clearest possible terms that privatising it would be daylight robbery and a national scandal.”
Mr Lammy said the minister had ‘made a case for looking again, but not made a case for privatisation’, which he said would not command a majority in the house.
His concerns were echoed by Conservative MP and former solicitor, Will Quince, who said that in proposing the move, the government has ‘misunderstood what the Land Registry is fundamentally about’:
“It is more than just a data provider or an authority for recording title. It registers title, guarantees rights to land and provides guarantees pre and post completion searches. The reliability of the register is vital to the property market, and any loss of confidence in the register would significantly affect the property and mortgage markets and, therefore, the economy as a whole.”
“While the Land Registry can, at times, feel clunky and hugely frustrating for property professionals, at its heart it is based on the principles of integrity and impartiality, and I fear it is that that we put at risk if we accept the proposals to privatise.”
Mr Freeman told the Commons that although the government had no intention of selling ownership of Land Registry data or creating a private monopoly as some had claimed, ‘we have heard the concerns expressed loud and clear.’