Land and Property Sales: Charges

Oral Answers to Questions — Finance – in the Northern Ireland Assembly at 2:45 pm on 30th June 2020.

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Photo of William Irwin William Irwin DUP 2:45 pm, 30th June 2020

12. Mr Irwin asked the Minister of Finance why people registering land and property sales were overcharged. (AQO 519/17-22)

Photo of Conor Murphy Conor Murphy Sinn Féin

A LeasCheann Comhairle, with your permission, I will group questions 3, 8 and 12, as they were all asked in response to the Audit Office's report on the LandWeb system.

I fully accept the findings of the Audit Office's report, which was published on 16 June, and my Department is implementing its findings. The PAC report from 2010 made eight recommendations, most of which have been implemented. One that remains outstanding relates to the contractual arrangements for LandWeb and measures to demonstrate value for money.

The Audit Office report acknowledges that cost savings of £1·8 million were negotiated as part of the 2019 to 2021 contract extension. I expect that further improvements will be secured from the negotiations on the arrangements for delivering the service after 2021, which is when the current LandWeb agreement expires. Those negotiations have already started and are being led by the permanent secretary in my Department. The Audit Office has welcomed that and the involvement of the British Government Commercial Function’s complex transactions team.

Two of the PAC’s recommendations were on the fees that were charged by Land Registry. Those were addressed when a revised fees order was introduced in 2014. However, the combination of an increase in property transactions and improved efficiency in Land Registry saw surpluses generated again from 2017 onwards. My Department is working on a new fees order that will take effect in 2021.

I cannot say anything further on these issues as the Public Accounts Committee has indicated its intention to take evidence on the Audit Office’s update report on LandWeb. Indeed, it has prioritised it to be the subject of its first session in September.

As Members should be aware, the PAC has primacy on considering NIAO reports. While matters are under consideration by that Committee, I must be careful to not be seen pre-empting or prejudging either the PAC report or the subsequent ministerial response

Photo of Alan Chambers Alan Chambers UUP

Minister, thank you for your answer. Would you consider excluding BT from any future competition?

Photo of Conor Murphy Conor Murphy Sinn Féin

I am not sure that it would be legal to set out to exclude someone before the negotiations have been entered into. Bear in mind that the contract was awarded in 1999 and has been reviewed since. Clearly, the Audit Office report has thrown up questions and issues that need to be addressed, and I do not doubt that they will form part of the consideration on renewing the contract. The contract will be up for renewal in 2021, and, obviously, we cannot preclude anyone from being involved, but we will certainly look at the lessons learned from the handling of the previous PFI contract.

Photo of Gordon Dunne Gordon Dunne DUP

I thank the Minister for his answers. Does he recognise that the LandWeb project was not value for money, considering that the original contract was £46 million and that by April 2019 it was almost £100 million? How did we justify the continuous extensions from 2016, which has brought us to an excess cost of over £107 million?

Photo of Conor Murphy Conor Murphy Sinn Féin

As I said, it was a PFI contract that was awarded in 1999, when PFI was touted as being the answer to quite a few public expenditure issues. Some of those contracts have worked, but quite clearly some of them did not work as intended and arguably did not represent value for money. So, I do not have an issue. There are lessons that need to be learned in relation to all of that. I do not want to pre-empt the Public Accounts Committee's findings after its consideration of the report, but undoubtedly we are taking steps to deal legislatively with the charging issue. That will be done by 2021. It could not be done over the three-year period when the Assembly was down. We will take steps to deal with that and will begin the discussions on the replacement of that contract. I anticipate, and I will ensure, that the lessons that are learned from this report are part of that consideration.

Photo of William Irwin William Irwin DUP

I thank the Minister for his responses. Will those who have been overcharged be reimbursed?

Photo of Conor Murphy Conor Murphy Sinn Féin

[Long Pause.]

This is the trouble with taking three questions at once.

I understand, from reading this, that the charges would not be reimbursed. The report acknowledges that the Department was unable to produce a new fees order to manage surplus fees due to the absence of the Assembly, and the Department is urgently progressing a revised fees order, which is to be in place by 2021. The fees collected by Land Registry over the last three years were lawfully levied under the legislation that was in force at that time. There is no statutory provision under which the Department could return any portion of the fees levied in the past.