Clause 66 - Inspection of the registers etc

Land Registration Bill [Lords] – in a Public Bill Committee at 12:50 pm on 11 December 2001.

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Photo of Bill Cash Bill Cash Shadow Attorney General 12:50, 11 December 2001

I beg to move amendment No. 55, in page 24, line 5, after 'document', insert 'other than a lease or charge'.

Photo of Eric Illsley Eric Illsley Labour, Barnsley Central

With this it will be convenient to take amendment No. 56, in clause 67, page 24, line 17, after 'document', insert 'other than a lease or charge'.

Photo of Bill Cash Bill Cash Shadow Attorney General

The object of the amendment is to restrict the availability of information that individuals may consider private or that companies may consider commercially confidential. Land Registry records have only been open to general inspection for less than 20 years. At the time that the change removing confidentiality was made, an undertaking was given to safeguard the privacy of people's private and commercial information by not disclosing the contents of leases and charges. There is good reason for that. However, I regret to say that the Government propose to remove those safeguards and to allow access to leases and mortgages, both residential and commercial.

I expect the Minister to say that rules in this matter follow the policy that underlies the Freedom of Information Act 2000. The presumption is to supply a copy of the information unless it falls within the exceptions of commercial confidentiality and data protection. Will the Minister explain how a determination will be made to establish whether documents fall into that category? Will certification by a solicitor that the document is commercially confidential be sufficient, or does the Land Registry intend to make its own determination? It is understood that these matters will be discussed when the rules are discussed, but we would like some indication of the Government's thinking at this stage.

Photo of Michael Wills Michael Wills Parliamentary Secretary, Lord Chancellor's Department, Parliamentary Secretary (Lord Chancellor's Department)

I agree with the hon. Member for Stone that the clause is important. It provides that, subject to any exceptions and provisions specified in the rules, anyone may inspect and make copies of the register of title together with any other documents either referred to in the register or kept in relation to an application affecting that register.

As the hon. Gentleman divined, the rules made under the clause will reflect the principles underlying the Freedom of Information Act 2000. Leases and charges will not be excluded automatically from the list of documents to which the public have a right of access, as they are under existing legislation. The presumption in the 2000 Act is that information will be supplied unless there is good reason for it to be withheld. There are two bases on which the register of information might be withheld under the exceptions stated in that Act. Following application of the Data Protection Act 1998, information may also be withheld on the grounds of personal or commercial sensitivity.

Land registration rules will clarify how the principles will be applied, but if leases were excluded as a class, better information on leases—our consultations show clearly that that is what businesses want—would be difficult or impossible to assemble. However, I assure the hon. Gentleman that rules are likely to provide for persons submitting documents to assert confidentiality in case of objection and an independent adjudicator or a court will decide between them. I hope that that will give him some comfort.

The amendments seek to reproduce the current position when leases and charges are automatically and permanently excluded, and that would not only be damaging to the greater transparency of the markets, but offend the principles on which the Freedom of Information Act 2000 is based.

The consultant who carried out the quinquennial review of the Land Registry's work reported that there was particular enthusiasm among users at the prospect of wider information on leasehold property shedding light on commercial property transactions and so creating a better and more competitive market.

The details of what will be released and what will be withheld will be subject to land registration rules. I remind the Committee that those rules will be subject to the scrutiny of the Rule Committee and Parliament. They will also be subject to widespread consultation with all those involved in conveyancing. That will ensure that the rules provide for the exclusion of appropriate documents, including leases and charges, from the public gaze in the way envisaged by the Freedom of Information Act. They may usefully describe how the Registry will identify documents as of a commercially sensitive nature.

I hope that those assurances will be adequate and that the hon. Gentleman will feel able to withdraw the amendment.

Photo of Bill Cash Bill Cash Shadow Attorney General

In the light of what the Minister said and bearing in mind the importance of the subject, which he acknowledges, and the degree of consultation that he has explained—I have no doubt that the matter will be returned to in consultation and in relation to whatever the Rule Committee proposes—I am prepared to withdraw the amendment.

Bearing in mind that the time is now 12.58 pm, you may find it convenient, Mr. Illsley, with the agreement of the Committee, to put the Questions on clauses 67 to 70 so that when we return this afternoon—

Photo of Bill Cash Bill Cash Shadow Attorney General

There is all the more reason for doing so—if that is convenient.

I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Clause 66 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clauses 67 to 70 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Photo of Eric Illsley Eric Illsley Labour, Barnsley Central

For the information of the Committee, we are not sitting this afternoon but will sit on Thursday morning.

For the benefit of the hon. Member for Stone, the defect in amendment No. 53 is the word ''two'' in the last line. Parliamentary counsel could not determine whether that word applied to schedule 6 or clause 62, which is the subject of the amendment.

It being One o'clock, The Chairman adjourned the Committee without Question put, pursuant to the Standing Order.

Adjourned till Thursday 13 December at half-past Nine o'clock. {**vert_rule**}