On Tuesday 25th February 2014, Stewart Jackson MP again spoke up for the Land Registry and Peterborough in a debate in the House of Commons.
Mr Stewart Jackson (Peterborough) (Con):
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship for the first time, Mr Walker. I congratulate the hon. Member for Swansea East (Mrs James) on her speech, and I would like to put on the record that she will be a loss to the House when she leaves at the general election. She is a diligent and hard-working Member.
Almost four years ago, I stood on the other side of the Chamber opposite the then Justice Minister Michael Wills, who represented North Swindon. During that debate, I argued against the changes to the Land Registry estate that had been mooted by the previous Labour Government. Those changes were driven by the Lyons review of 2004, which focused on capital, land and buildings, and rental values.
I opposed the proposal because the methodology used was flawed, and it was very much a top-line, cost-saving exercise rather than one about efficiency and effectiveness. It did not take into account the great professionalism, esprit de corps and commitment of my constituents, some 210 of whom work in the Land Registry in Peterborough. I seek, as always, to protect the interests of my constituents; those are good-quality, white-collar jobs in Peterborough.
There is a difference between those proposals and the current ones, however. I echo the comments of my hon. Friend the Member for North West Norfolk (Mr Bellingham). There should be a consultation, but the Government should consider extending it because the proposals will have implications for many small and medium-sized enterprises involved in conveyancing and other property-related activities. If there is inherent merit in the Government’s case, I do not think that it will be damaged by extending the consultation.
Does my hon. Friend agree that outside London and the south-east the housing market is still quite fragile, so any change in that local authority-based arrangement may lead to a great deal of uncertainty? That is another reason why the consultation period might easily be extended a bit.
I take my hon. Friend’s point, and I largely agree with him. However, it would be remiss of the Government not to look at different models for the delivery of necessary public services. In some important public service activities, even the previous Government looked at substantial changes in governance. That is the distinction between the proposals enunciated by the previous Government between 2008 and 2010—as hon. Members will have concluded, they resulted in the saving of the Peterborough Land Registry office and others across the country—and the current proposals, which are much more about governance.
For the record, 10 constituents have written to or e-mailed me about the matter, which is substantially fewer than contacted me about the debate four years ago. I make no comment on that; I merely highlight it for comparison. I support a proper debate on the delivery of such an important service, but I have no ideological opposition to the splitting of functions, whereby a GovCo might carry out practical land registration functions separately from the office of the chief land registrar, which is much more policy-based.
I agree that there must be a new business model, not least because we must always be mindful of the fact that our first priority as constituency MPs is to protect our constituents’ job opportunities, as the hon. Member for Wirral South (Alison McGovern) says, particularly in areas with high unemployment. However, we also have a wider responsibility to other stakeholders, including the taxpayer and businesses that rely on the Land Registry being efficient and delivering a good service. It is an important tripartite approach.
Julian Sturdy (York Outer) (Con):
My hon. Friend is making a powerful point. Like him, I have had regular contact from constituents on this issue. North Yorkshire Legal Services Ltd, based in York and run by one of my constituents, has written to me on a number of occasions. It is deeply concerned about how the proposals that my hon. Friend has set out will affect the market. The potential consequences could be devastating for my constituent’s business. Does my hon. Friend agree that we have to understand any wider implications before rushing into such decisions?
That is a typically astute point from my hon. Friend. He anticipates some of the comments I will make later.
The Land Registry is almost totemic: it is a trusted, strong brand and the people who work there are professional and committed to the public service ethos. There is a general commitment in the Conservative party—indeed, across the House—to good governance and the aspiration to the proper ownership of land, owner-occupation and property ownership in general. The Land Registry is at the heart of that and, as the hon. Member for Swansea East said earlier, it has been in existence, governed by statute, for more than 150 years.
Mike Weatherley (Hove) (Con):
GroundSure Ltd, a company in Brighton and Hove, is very concerned about the impact of changes to the Land Registry on smaller businesses. Does my hon. Friend agree that we really should take such businesses into account?
I would be remiss and rather churlish if I did not compliment the work of the PCS union. Members do not often hear me saying that, but it has done a good job on the research it has sent to Members and entered into a good, fact-based debate, which is as it should be. Members will no doubt be aware of the very good PCS document “The future of our Land Registry”. It might also be appropriate to mention the contribution of Mr John Manthorpe, the former chief land registrar who also prepared interesting information, both for me in 2010 and now for other Members and others.
However, to a certain extent we have moved on, even since 2010. The provision of services is now online much more than even four years ago. The digitisation of the core facilities and services of the Land Registry is developing at a significant rate. We must take that on board as an important factor that informs the debate.
This is not necessarily a party political point, but we also need to remember that all public services are and should be much more customer-focused than they ever were before. The integrity and reputation of the Land Registry must, of course, be of uppermost concern. To a certain extent, I am reserving judgment on the proposed changes. I would like to look in detail at any future primary legislation that governs the operation of the Land Registry. Although it may not be fashionable, I think that there must be a degree of ministerial accountability for the activities of the Land Registry—the Minister can take that as my direct consultation response. It is too important an operation and piece of our national life to be disregarded. There should be some form of—circuitous, if necessary—direct or indirect accountability to Ministers and certainly to Parliament.
I am also slightly concerned about the potential of offshoring. I do not buy the concept that delivering a public service in a different way is necessarily a bad thing, in and of itself. Ultimately, the issue is what is good for the taxpayers, the work force and the wider community. Nevertheless, when considering an important function such as the Land Registry, offshoring slightly worries me. I would like the Minister to reassure me on that point.
There must also be a strong business case for the different model—the GovCo. They probably will not want to do so today, but in future the Government may want to say that the proposed changes are a signpost to a future privatisation. That does not scare me particularly and in principle I am not against it, but there must be a robust, demonstrable, fact-based business case in the preparation of the target operating model going forward.
As my hon. Friend the Member for York Outer (Julian Sturdy) said earlier, there must also be very thorough analysis and scrutiny of not just the benefits but the costs of any new model. It is important that we look at the costs of, say, moving over to e-conveyancing, or of the development of new IT. That is important, and I am sure that the Minister will want to reassure me on that point.
I will not be much longer, Mr Walker, because I know others wish to speak. As the hon. Member for Swansea East said, we are discussing a self-financing organisation that currently costs the taxpayer nothing. The proposition I would put to the hon. Lady is that if we could replicate the professionalism and efficiency of the present Land Registry and also make a profit for the taxpayer, we would be duty bound to look into that.
I would like to make a few other brief points. We must have an open and transparent procurement process for things such as IT. I am sure that the Minister is mindful of that. We should not have any sweetheart deals if we are looking into new IT procurement. If people transfer over, we must also ensure that the Government are mindful of TUPE in relation to the terms and conditions of people who have given a great deal of their professional life and commitment to public service in their local area.
I want to see more details of the GovCo and would want greater clarity in any future regulations or primary legislation. I believe that there should be flexibility and autonomy for the new company, if it so develops. That could well be the right thing for the taxpayer, for the work force and for business. As I say, however, I currently reserve my judgment. Let us extend the consultation and have a proper debate based on facts. We have a duty to all stakeholders and I expect the Government to rise to the challenge and robustly put their case for any future changes. I look after the interests of my constituents in Peterborough who come first, last and always for me. I hope that the Government are mindful of the individual circumstances resulting from any large-scale changes to people’s jobs and opportunities.
You can read the full debate here