Wednesday, 15 November 1989
Dáil Éireann Debate
“notes that the Minister for Justice is carrying out an urgent general review of the operations of the Land Registry and Registry of Deeds with a view to bringing about substantial improvements in the level of service provided by the Registeries.”
Mr. Ferris: We are discussing the crisis which exists in the Land Registry Office. I think there was a measure of agreement from all sides of the House last night that there is a problem in this office because it is understaffed and underfunded. The increase of 10 per cent in the salaries, wages and allowances of the staff in today's Estimate is not an indication that the Minister, who gave a commitment in this respect in the House last night, is urgently addressing this problem. When one takes into account the normal increases in staff and salaries under the Programme for National Recovery this is an indication that there will be no dynamic progress made by the Government in the area of staffing.
In spite of the commitment given by the Minister in the House last night that he would address the problems, this Estimate does not indicate that the problems we have highlighted by way of our amendment will be addressed by the Government in time to deal with the crisis in the Land Registry office.
Mr. Spring: I am grateful for the opportunity to make some brief comments on this subject. I am glad that this matter is before the House. It is regrettable in many respects that we have to spend an hour and a half of very valuable Dáil time debating something which should have been dealt with many months ago, if not many years ago. It is also a subject matter which I would say most Deputies in this House, particularly Deputies from outside the Dublin area, are familiar with on a day to day basis because of the difficulties being experienced by their constituents in relation to property transactions. It is also regrettable in that for most private citizens a property transaction, the buying or selling of their house, will probably be the biggest undertaking they will have in the  course of their lifetime in terms of the amount of money involved.
The problems in the Land Registry, which in fairness to the Minister he acknowledged last night, are now at crisis point. I do not believe we will be doing enough if extra staff are put into the registry along the lines suggested by the Minister or that the amount of money provided in today's Estimate is anything like adequate to address this problem.
This office has another unique feature in that as opposed to many State Departments and other functions of the State, this function administered by the State makes a return to the State. It is rather ludicrous to say the least that a facility provided by the State which can and has been making money is run in such a backward fashion. I say that with total respect for the civil servants who are trying to carry out their functions with inadequate resources, a lack of facilities and Victorian machinery at their disposal. Their function could be totally mechanised and computerised with the modern facilities now available.
I believe there are some 49,000 cases presently on hands waiting to be dealt with and that that number will increase to over 52,000 by December, going on present trends. It is absolutely and totally unacceptable that there should be this major blockage in what should be a simple procedure. I will be urging the Government to deal with the obvious crisis in the Land Registry. I do not believe additional staff on their own will be adequate. I am not sure that the Minister — while recognising that there is a problem — grasps the urgency of tackling the problem and dealing with it in the manner required. Some sort of a crash programme such as the appointment of additional personnel for a limited period — whether by means of transferring civil servants from other Departments or bringing in private personnel into the Land Registry — and total computerisation, as was said today by the trade union representative on behalf of the workers is needed in the Land Registry. The additional staff on their own will  not bring the system up to the level of efficiency required.
A burden is being placed on other ancillary services. First the public are totally frustrated in the processing of their land transactions. Solicitors offices invariably contact TDs and they invariably contact the Land Registry. As a result we are all clogging up the system. This system should be able to function without the necessity for representations, letters or phone calls having to be made to the Land Registry which perhaps at the end of the day slow up the procedure because we are urging people to do work which they are trying to do without adequate resources or manpower. As I said at the outset it is unlikely there is any TD in this House who has not had to contact the Land Registry as a matter of course during his weekly representations on behalf of his constituents. If additional resources and staff were made available in the Land Registry, needless to say, the public who would be the first beneficiaries and the staff in the registry who have been neglected over the years, would benefit. One might say there are no particular votes in the Land Registry and thus it has not been looked after. Notwithstanding this the impact in recent years has been totally negative in the indifference shown by the Government in dealing with this problem.
I raised this problem at the beginning of the summer and numerous questions have been asked of the Minister for Justice who, by virtue of the motion being on the Floor of this House, at least acknowledges that a serious problem exists. I would urge the Minister to show his bona fides in relation to the aspirations he expressed here last night in the provision of additional staff. The office of registrar has not been filled for a number of months.
Mr. Spring: Surely it is unwise to come in here and say additional staff will be appointed while at the same time a very important appointment in relation to the  administration of the Land Registry has not been made. I would ask the Minister, if he is replying to the debate this evening, or to whoever replies on behalf of the Government, to give an assurance to the House that that office will be filled forthwith. Given the procedures for public appointments there is no reason that this post should not be filled by January at the latest. If that was done it would be a signal both to this House in regard to the frustration which is being expressed by all Members and a signal to the staff in the Land Registry that they are not being forgotten by the Government of the day and the Members of this House.
It is obvious that a major rationalisation and major changes are needed in regard to administration, work and computerisation. There is no point in having additional staff if land registration will still be carried out under a system which is almost 100 years old. I urge the Minister to set out a programme of work in relation to computerisation which would speed up the work in the Land Registry. I would also urge him to look at the lack of requirements which should prevail in land registrations, particularly in relation to building sites. There may be 300 to 500 houses in an estate and rather than have a single registration for each one there could be a single document used for all of them similar to that used in the registration of cars.
I trust the Minister will take cognisance of the views expressed in the House. I would certainly welcome a statement to the effect that immediate action will be taken to alleviate some of the very serious problems in the Land Registry.
An Ceann Comhairle: The House will recollect that we lost 10 minutes in respect of this debate. It was agreed that the Government would forego that 10 minutes. Do the Deputies wish to forego it now or at a later stage?
Mr. O'Donoghue: I preface my remarks on the Land Registry by stating that the examiners of titles in the Land Registry are among the best and most professional of all the professions. These people are absolute experts at their work and have given tremendous service over many years. That point should be noted and acknowledged at the outset.
We have had serious problems in the Land Registry for some time. In practice the problem relates to registration of the transfer of parts of folios, with section 49 applications where people apply for registration, and in the issue of Land Registry maps. Mortgages, if they are affected at all are affected minimally because the practice is to lodge the mortgage deed with the deed of transfer and other documents. Delays in registration in the Land Registry have a minimal effect on mortgages because of this practice.
Everybody has to welcome the fact that the Minister has provided for the employment of an additional 33 staff. This is bound to make an impact, which I welcome. The Land Registry, and the entire concept of land registration should ideally be extended further. It is fair to say that the Registry of Deeds system is cumbersome and it would be desirable if all cases were dealt with by the Land Registry. It is many years since a system of compulsory registration was introduced for a small number of counties, and in an ideal situation that should be extended to other counties, and throughout the entire country.
It is believed that only a title of 40 years standing should be accepted in the  Registry of Deeds and I believe this should change. Solicitors should change their view on this because a title stretching back 20 years is quite sufficient.
The upturn in the property market has caused difficulties for the Land Registry. The employment of additional staff should go a long way towards solving the problem together with the computerisation of the system which began in the Dublin region in 1982 and was extended to some western counties in 1987. It is most desirable that this should continue.
The practice, whereby examiners of title must examine all cases where the transaction involves a consideration of more than £50,000, should be changed and examiners of title should only be called in where the consideration is £100,000 or more. This would be a welcome change. Senior examiners of title are not used for administrative purposes at present. Very often these are the best qualified people in the running of the Land Registry and yet they have no input into land registry management. It is time the Minister had a close look at this and changed that system in the interest of all concerned.
Mr. Davern: There are only two Members present who were here in 1970, when there was another crisis in the Land Registry offices. At that time it was suggested that the employment of additional draughtsmen would solve the problem for all time. Unfortunately, most of them were poached by builders in the private sector when they were trained and were paid at a higher rate. I mention that because I am delighted that the Minister is not appointing anybody to the Land Registry until the system has been reviewed. There have been nine Governments since 1970 and there have been crises in the Land Registry over that period. The workload has increased by 20 per cent over the past ten months. We are aware that since 1970 properties farms, shops and houses, are changing hands more frequently. New houses are being built. All this causes a blockage in the system.
 I do not agree with Deputy O'Donoghue's suggestion on title. I have recently come across a number of cases of transfers from the local authorities 20 or 30 years ago and I have found the sites were marked on the wrong place. In fact they were marked on the wrong side of the ditch so, while they exist physically, they do not exist officially. I presume that is due to the local input of the legal fraternity——
Mr. Davern: They do not, but they supervise them when they are finished and they submit them to the Land Registry. Various mistakes have been made over a long time. However, seeing that the legal profession is represented in force here tonight, I will not upset them, because they are the most touchy body God ever made. Nobody can examine them, nobody can look at them, they are perfect.
What worries me is that young people are caught for bridging finance when waiting for the deeds of a house to come through. If this is extended beyond a certain period it is extremely dangerous for them because the interest on the loan is mounting. One would imagine from the difficulties people experience in obtaining bridging finance that the banks were not charging interest. I take this opportunity to condemn the banks for charging extra for bridging facilities. They charge people for whom a house may be the biggest investment they will ever make in their lives over and above the normal lending rates. They have to pay for the site, build and furnish the house while the banks, adding insult to injury, make a compliment of giving them the loan and charge them extra for doing so. In the interests of young people who want to own their home I ask the banks publicly to reduce the interest rate on mortgages during the current crisis in the Land Registry.
I heard tonight that a Civil Service  union are concerned about the total computerisation of the Land Registry. It was also suggested that the Land Registry should become a semi-State body. I for one have doubts about taking the Land Registry from the Department of Justice. There is something about the fact that the Land Registry is in the Department of Justice that gives a certain guarantee that the job will be done properly. However, if it is proved that semi-State is the proper way to do the job, I will accept that. I ask the Minister not to panic during the interim stage. I acknowledge that he has appointed 33 extra staff. If there is to be a review of the Land Registry let it be done properly on a once and for all basis to gear us for the year 2200 and not just for this year. It would be very serious if in 40, 50 or 60 years time somebody looked for their deeds and found they were not properly examined. We all know the consequences of that.
I would make one plea to the Minister. In local authorities where the matter has been dealt with officially, it should be expedited particularly in view of the fact that the greatest number of cases have been dealt with in the past year. At least there would be no legal cost in that regard. I would like to compliment the staff who are doing a good job. I would rather see a total review of the system now than do anything for short-term gain. We should implement a measure now which would last into the next century. Again, I thank the staff who are doing a tremendous job under pressure in that office.
Mr. D. Ahern: I agree with Deputy Davern about the staff in the Land Registry. My experience in my 13 years in practice is that they are excellent, particularly those in the C section which deals with County Louth. I have always found them very courteous and helpful. If you telephone them in an emergency they are always willing to assist you at the drop of  a hat. For Deputy Davern's information, in relation to the county council and the problems that might arise in that area, it has been my experience that grave problems arise because of the drafting of the maps by the county council engineers.
Mr. D. Ahern: No, they were not checked by a solicitor; they were sent there directly from the county council housing office. I am aware of a case at present where, because of an inaccuracy by the local council, two people were registered on each other's plots. That happens all the time. The Land Registry have in recent years brought in rules to deal with the rectification of title and they are to be congratulated on that because grave problems arose in that area.
When the Land Registry was set up in the early sixties it was intended to simplify matters and for a while that did happen, but because of the building boom in the seventies the whole area became a lot more complicated. Legislation was introduced, such as the Family Home Protection Act and the Family Law Act which achieved a lot, but the Family Home Protection Act in particular led to many problems in the examination of title. Matters have settled in recent times, but for a long time that Act created grave problems for the Land Registry. The housing estates which were built in the early seventies have been dealt with and that is one of the reasons there should not be as many delays as there are at present in the Land Registry. All that work has been done and it is now only a matter of a simple transfer of the houses in those estates.
I am glad to see provision has been made in the Estimate for an extra 33 staff. I agree with Deputy Spring that that in itself will not help matters. It may be of help from an administrative point of view, in getting copy folios and maps, but it may not necessarily cater for the examiner cases, as my colleague, Deputy John O'Donoghue stated. I wonder will  these 33 extra staff be qualified in that area. If not, the log jam will still remain.
Deputy Davern referred to the fact that there has been an increase of 21 per cent in the workload in the last year. That is an indication of the upturn in the economy and obviously an effort will have to be made to deal with that increased workload. In relation to the examiner cases, I suggest that the Minister address the first registration and conversion of title. Section 64 of the Succession Act provide that on a transmission on death the onus is on the applicant to ensure that everything is right. In other words, the Registrar of Titles has no responsibility to investigate the title on a transmission on death. In cases like first registration and conversion of title, I wonder would it be possible to consider putting the onus on the applicant to a greater degree than has been the case up to now. In these days when the vast majority of the legal profession have professional indemnity insurance, perhaps a greater onus could be put on the applicants. In areas where applications are put in by the legal profession who are not insured or by ordinary individuals, perhaps the Land Registry could demand some sort of a title insurance bond, which is quite frequently used in America.
Another area which should be looked at is the Land Registry forms. They have not been changed for a long time, as far as I am aware. There is a plethora of forms which could be very much simplified and that should be considered when a review is taking place. Everyone who is involved, or has dealings with the Land Registry will know of the drastic delays in trying to get Land Registry maps which are very badly needed in some cases. I noticed in recent times that transactions have been held up because the folio in the Land Registry is not readily available. When someone comes to close a transaction, because the folio is not available from the Land Registry, the whole transaction is held up. That may not mean much to you or me sitting here, but it could mean a week's delay for people moving into their homes and it could mean somebody being on bridging  finance for a lot longer than they anticipated.
Mr. D. Ahern: I will wind up and I will give the rest of my time to Deputy Clohessy. I heard the interview with Mr. O'Dowd and I agree with him. I am not very happy with the idea of a semi-State corporation even though the Incorporated Law Society have promoted it. A greater emphasis should be placed on the use of the excess income that is generated by the Land Registry. Perhaps the Department of Justice should put that money back into the Land Registry. That is a matter that should be considered.
Mr. Clohessy: The present position with regard to the Land Registry is untenable despite the fact that this country is rife with examples of overloaded, inefficient and cumbersome bureaucracies and institutions. The Land Registry stands out for the appalling condition to which it has deteriorated and the extent to which it is unable to meet the task for which it was set up. There is crying need for a fundamental review of the institution and for sweeping changes to its structure and the way it operates. The basic problem with the registry is its total inability to cater for the demands for its services. We have seen, highlighted in the debate last night and in the media today the extent of this inability. There are tens of thousands of cases in arrears and years' delay in registering plots of ground and so on. This is an appalling position for any body but in the case of a body which plays a central role in the business life of this country, it is indefensible. Changes from top to bottom are needed if we are to create the type of  enterprise society needs to get this country working and to tackle the acute problems of unemployment and emigration. The changes necessary go beyond getting the economic indicators right. We need to start getting rid of the bureaucratic red tape which has often needlessly built up to suffocate people's initiative and to re-examine the role the State plays in our business life and on an individual basis to see whether it is to our advantage.
I believe the Land Registry is one example of the State having an involvement where it is not necessary and which has proved to be inefficient and lacking. The Fine Gael motion argues that the present structure should be replaced by some kind of semi-State body but this raises the question of why the State should have any involvement in the running of the registry. I urge the Government to seriously examine the possibility of privatising the Land Registry, removing it from public ownership, and placing it entirely under proper supervision. Where a body has failed, as obviously the Land Registry has, we should not try to fiddle around with its relationship with the State but should re-examine the basis for that relationship in the first place. We should judge whether either partner benefits from the relationship and whether the task could not be carried out more effectively and fairly by a private body under proper regulation.
Mr. Clohessy: Finally, the Minister for Justice indicated last night that it was intended to significantly increase employment in the registry in the coming year and that the new Estimates would take account of this fact. I believe this is necessary to ensure that we begin tackling the appalling backlog of cases which require attention.
Mr. McCartan: I welcome this motion  tabled by the Fine Gael Party on the Land Registry. I have put down an amendment asking that this debate not be confined solely to the Land Registry but that it cover also its sister and closely related organisation, the Registry of Deeds. I have been led to understand by the mover of the Fine Gael motion, Deputy O'Keeffe, that that amendment is acceptable and as the Government amendment includes a reference to the Registry of Deeds I presume there will be no difficulties with what I have to say from that side.
In welcoming this motion, let me say that particular attention must be paid to the very reasoned and detailed case prepared by the Law Society in favour of the establishment of a semi-State authority who would regulate and run in an efficient and profit making basis the two agencies. I am appalled that the whimper of the Progressive Democrats for privatisation can still be heard, even though they have now been consumed back into their party of creation, the Fianna Fáil Party.
In reply to the motion the Minister indicated that his biggest difficulty with regard to any proposal to take the Land Registry out of State hands is that if this were to happen he would be faced with the problem of providing adequate security of title, which would emanate from an authority, be it semi-State or otherwise. I would have absolutely no confidence in the private sector taking on the serious, onerous burden of underwriting all titles, handled by that agency, once established. As I said, that whimper can still be heard, however feebly, from Deputy Clohessy.
I also have to say that I am very disappointed with the contributions which have been made from the Government side to this debate. The motion seeks to address the question of how the Land Registry should be constructed and organised. It suggests that its status should be changed, that it should no longer be another office within a Department of Government and that it should be established as an efficient semi-State organisation with a proper budget,  proper resources and the capacity to reinvest its proceeds with the aim of making the office more efficient in its operations. It is unacceptable that the present position be allowed continue for one moment longer.
It is not just a matter of computerisation, we have to look at the overall position and make recommendations. That is what Fine Gael in their motion are seeking to do and that is what the Law Society in their submission tried to do. That submission has been available to all sides of this House since early this year, yet we have had a procession of Deputies into the House who quite frankly should address the issues much better. What we are talking about here is a reorganisation of the Land Registry but all we hear is that maybe there is a need to change the form of the Land Registry here or there.
I am sure also that I heard one Deputy suggest that the Land Registry was established in 1963. The Land Registry has been in existence since 1891. It was set up for a particular purpose, in recognition of the changes which were taking place as this country moved towards independence in the title of lands. In 1963 it was admitted that there was a crisis then and this House was asked to address issues in connection with the running of the Land Registry. I would like briefly to refer to the contribution made by the Taoiseach, who was Minister for Justice at that time, in which he indicated what needed and should be done. In saying what he did he underlined the importance of the Land Registry and its sister organisation, the Registry of Deeds.
Mr. McCartan: At that time the Taoiseach highlighted a number of things about the Land Registry which have been  completely lost in this debate. He indicated, as reported at column 1134 of the Official Report of 7 November 1963, and I quote:
Registration of title is in essence a system of simplified conveyancing. One of its biggest advantages is that the forms used for sales, mortgages and other dealings are readily intelligible to the layman.
I do not think any of that can be said of the Land Registry today. Difficulties were created by the legal profession who have not been ready accessories to the simplification of conveyancing during the years and they have not worked to simplify the system. At the end of the day it may well be that the problem will come back to the Floor of this House but in essence the Land Registry was to have provided a simplified card system when anyone could walk in off the street, look at the index and find out there and then who was the possessor of the title of a particular piece of land. Such a system is not in place. The Taoiseach, who was then Minister for Justice, went on to say that “the transfer of land becomes, as it should be, a painless, simple and inexpensive process”. He went on to say, from the point of view of the Government, and this is one of the points often missed, that one of the great merits of registration of title is the invaluable assistance it can afford both to central and local authorities in providing a definite basis for taxation and valuation and the operation of a sound system of agricultural credit facilities for the provision and repair of houses and such matters as the administration of planning legislation.
I wonder how long has it been since the Land Registry was consulted by central Government or local authorities in connection with any of those functions. I believe this has never happened and could not be countenanced because of the conditions under which the Land Registry have to operate today. The  Taoiseach went on to say that the encouragement of registration of title is therefore a sound administrative policy. No one could be encouraged now to consider approaching the Land Registry or to consider transferring title from the Registry of Deeds to the Land Registry. It is preposterous to believe that there is anything operating in the system to encourage this development.
In 1963 the Bill then was to impose compulsory registration of title for the first time, to force people to use the Land Registry. At that time the House was being advised that for the first time we were getting amplification services into the Chamber. It would appear that progress in the Land Registry has been slow with regard to the improvement of facilities as progress has been here. Taking Deputy Davern's contribution we are left today with a situation that reappears cyclically every seven to ten years and the Minister on a cyclical basis comes in and says that he will give extra staff and will try to provide extra funds to keep the Land Registry going.
The provision of extra staff at this stage or the allocation of a better computer system might make the system more efficient in the short term but not in the long term. We should seriously address what has been proposed in the motion, the simple concept of establishing a semi-State authority. The importance of such an authority is underlined in the submission of the Law Society that there is a difficulty in staff being assigned through the Department of Justice to the Land Registry in that no sooner than do they develop expertise or a knowledge of the area of work than they are transferred to other sections within that wide ranging section of government so that continuity of expertise is not allowed. They found also that where there is an issue relating to the allocation of resources, demands from this House and other quarters for allocations to the police service, to the prison service and all the different services that the Department of Justice must look after, rank far greater in priority with the result that yet again the Land Registry and the Registry of Deeds must  wait. The Law Society talk about the difficulties in maintaining staff morale and good work practices as a result.
Lost in this debate is the fact that the Land Registry is a revenue creating agency. Last year it created a profit approaching £1 million despite all the difficulties and despite the fact that it provides at this stage a poor, unsatisfactory and shoddy service. That profit can be trebled or quadrupled if not increased tenfold and those moneys can and should be allocated to develop efficiencies and to develop the service, to develop the concept of a one-stop shop where a member of the public who wants to engage in conveyancing and the transfer of title can come to the counter and get this service not just in Dublin but in the regions. They should be able to go to the counter, deal with an authorised person, indicate the interests of the transaction they are involved in and at the press of the computer entry the title should be changed under proper certification procedures. Some people including the Law Society and lawyers would say that it is outrageous but that is what we should aim for. We should work towards the concept of a simplified and inexpensive process. That is the type of system that exists in the land bank outlets in America where one, in a matter of minutes can have title to land or property transferred by simple recourse to computer entry without the long tedious scrutiny of documents, compilation of deeds and indentures, the lodging of deeds in the Registry of Deeds or with the Land Registry for scrutiny so that ultimately a registered certificate is maintained. Paper itself has a short life compared with what can be done with the use of the computer. All of this will never happen because no sooner does the Land Registry or the Registry of Deeds move in a direction under the aegis of the Department of Justice to improve their facilities than some other section of the Department will say “if they have it, we should have it” and if the Department of Justice seem to be getting facilities in an over predominant way, another Department in another related area will say “if those  are the conditions within which my colleagues are working in the public service than I want them for my area as well”, and no one can complain. The problem at the end of the day is that because of huge competing demands on scarce resources which are becoming scarcer because of Government cutbacks, the more the reality faces us that nothing concrete will be done and so we will move from this crisis by a short term injection of cash and resources by way of personnel, on to the next crisis and to the next bottleneck that will emerge in the next five to ten years. That is not what we should be about. We should not just introduce a short term initiative and talk about changing forms to make them more simple so that lawyers can understand them better. We should talk about a system that provides a one stop, over the counter service, relying on up to date technology and facilities available on a regional basis so that people can deal with this whole issue of title and its transfer in a simple, inexpensive and easily managed process.
Mr. Sheehan: I had the privilege of raising this important matter in an Adjournment debate on Wednesday, 19 July of this year. I outlined the position of the serious backlog of applications for registration of title and the issuing of Land Registry maps. I stated that it took two years to register a plot of land and that it took from six to nine months to obtain a land certificate. That was the first week that Deputy Burke sat in his office as Minister for Justice and Minister for Communications and perhaps he was not aware of the serious situation existing. However I was assured by the Minister that evening on the conclusion of the debate that he would take immediate steps to put extra staff in the Land Registry office to deal with the applications. Four months later nothing has been done and the delays continue. There is an air of desperation throughout the country. Week after week people are coming to my clinics asking if anything can be done to expedite the issuing of land certificates and Land Registry maps. People going to  the Land Registry office are being told that there is a backlog and that it takes between six and nine months to issue maps and about two years to register a title. This is despicable under any Minister or any Government. The time is ripe for common sense to prevail. When will the Minister wipe out the backlog of 49,000 applications in the Department? Actions speak louder than words. The Minister should get going immediately and try to clear this backlog. It is shocking to think that young farmers are held up in receiving the farm installation grants because they cannot produce the title to their farms which were handed over, perhaps two years earlier, by their parents. Surely this is not progress. It is not good enough that people buying council houses cannot get their deeds. Local authorities all over the country have the same story as that of ordinary citizens. Nothing has been done about this problem in the past number of years.
It is clear that this business of converting the Land Registry into a semi-State corporation would be self financing. Approximately £7 million per year is paid through the Land Registry to the Department of Justice for land registry business by our citizens. That sum would run a very big efficient outlet. I do not blame the staff working in the Land Registry who are great to have put up with all the criticism that has been levelled against them over the past few years. What is happening is due to the embargo on employment in the Department. Let us lift this embargo immediately. Let us computerise the Land Registry and give it sufficient staff to deal with the backlog of 49,000 applications.
Surely the Minister has better sense than to come into the House and say that the matter is under review four months after stating to the House that as an interim measure a number of clerical staff were being assigned immediately to the Land Registry office to try to improve the situation; that the Department were having discussions with the Department  of Finance concerning the urgent provision of further additional staff for the Land Registry; that the computerisation programme was in operation, and that further progress would be made in the near future? That is what the Minister said four months ago. Last night we heard the same — he is going to bring in staff. When is he going to do the job? It is high time the Minister copped himself on and stopped trying to cod not alone himself and the Land Registry office but the whole country, the people whose applications for title registrations are being frustrated.
This is a disgraceful state of affairs. I call on the Minister here and now to take immediate steps to meet the demands in the Private Members' Motion tabled by my colleague Deputy Jim O'Keeffe. If the Minister does that he will be taking a step in the right direction to eradicate the backlog of applications.
Coming from a disadvantaged area, I know only too well the serious problems that exist in regard to mountain commonages from Mizen Head to Malin Head. What are the Minister and his Department doing to expedite the registration of such mountain commonages? Bovine animals are intermingling, risking the spread of TB at an alarming rate. This is a shocking state of affairs and the sooner it is remedied the better. Let the Minister of State tell his boss, the Minister for Justice, that what we want is action, not pious platitudes.
Mr. Carey: I wish to acknowledge the generosity of Deputy McCartan in giving me some of his time. I joined in the motion last July to ask the Minister to make some effort to reduce the backlog in the Land Registry. These delays are unseemly. People are left with an impression of great inefficiency when they cannot get their land transferred. One case I had to deal with in my office in the last few days concerned a small cottage the sale of which has not been executed in four years because the solicitor is having great difficulty getting all the elements organised.
Deputy O'Keeffe's motion aims at  trying to establish an efficient area in the Land Registry. The Land Registry has been inhibited by the Civil Service embargo. Over 120 jobs have been lost in the Land Registry since that embargo came into effect; job numbers went down from 510 to 390. Senior people were not replaced over long periods. The Minister made excuses and told us he would have these officers replaced, but he said nothing about that in his speech last night. All he said was that it was being reviewed. That is not good enough. It is a black mark against the institution of Dáil Éireann that we cannot even properly order the affairs of the Land Registry.
I had a question on the Order Paper a couple of days ago about one transfer that is being held up in the Department of Agriculture and Food. I got a reply acknowledging receipt of the application for this vesting order and informing me that they did not know when a decision would be reached. This has been going on for five years, and they still do not know. I have been in communication with the Department of Agriculture and Food but it seems that all the officers there go into hiding. What is going on in some Departments at present is intolerable. I investigated the position in the Department of Agriculture and Food and I have been told that there are no people working in the vesting section. I am quite certain it is the same in the Land Registry. I appeal to the better judgement of the Minister and ask him to reconsider this review and act immediately on the motion proposed by Deputy Jim O'Keeffe.
Mrs. Taylor-Quinn: I would like to commend my colleague, Deputy Jim O'Keeffe, for tabling this very relevant motion. Many people across the country are extremely affected by the problems in the Land Registry where there is a backlog of 49,000 cases. This means that it will take one to two years before a land certificate will issue. That very serious delay will put many people in serious financial difficulty. Somebody in the process of purchasing a house could be on bridging finance for anything up to two  years and the cost of that is phenomenal and puts great strain on the purchasers, particularly young married people.
Farmers who are having farms transferred find that they are not in a position to do developmental work until they have the land certificate in their name because until this has been done they cannot raise the necessary finance. This is stifling development in the agricultural area. The development of small business is also being stifled as a result of land certificates not being issued. Those who want a plot transferred in order to build have the same difficulty.
The overall result is that all the economy is being stifled particularly in the building, agricultural and small businesses sectors. That is very serious for the economy particularly when there are so many people unemployed and so many thousands are emigrating. We have this system glueing up the process and making things much more difficult, and in despair some people are deciding to get out of the country and go elsewhere. It is unfortunate that this situation has been allowed to develop particularly when, with a bit of common sense and ingenuity, matters could be rectified. As my colleague, Deputy O'Keeffe already stated, it would be a fairly simple process to computerise the transactions, maps and so on. Now that many of the maps are disintegrating because of their age there is a need for something to be done. Indeed, there is a need to do something about the basic problem of having a map issued because the delay in issuing a map from the Land Registry can be considerable.
The Registrar retired last year and he has not been replaced. Why have the Government not acted in this? In all my dealings with the staff there I find them extremely courteous and helpful but there is a problem in that there is no overall, proper management there. The whole affair of the Land Registry could be very easily sorted out.
Again I commend my colleague, Deputy O'Keeffe, for promoting the idea of having the Land Registry turned into  a semi-State body. This should be considered seriously. As a semi-State body they could be properly computerised and managed and be self-financing. Most people would be prepared to pay considerably more than they are paying at the moment to get early registration. With the money they pay at the moment while not securing registration, and the havoc that is creating for many of them, an increase in registration fees would be a very small hindrance compared with the hindrances they are now experiencing. There is an onus on this House and on the Minister to act.
The Minister made a promise in this House last July and I am amazed therefore that something positive has not been done. Day after day and week after week I come across cases in my constituency of people being seriously inconvenienced as a result of the problems in the Land Registry. Many people are under terrible financial strain. This is unsatisfactory and unacceptable, particularly when there is a way out and a way of accommodating these people. I urge the Minister here tonight in this House to do something immediately to ensure that the backlog of 49,000 cases existing at the moment is tackled quickly with the object of relieving many people who are affected by it. This House should not tolerate that.
Mr. Deenihan: The Land Registry should have more autonomy as set out by Deputy O'Keeffe. They should not be tied so much to the Department of Justice. For example, at the moment I understand all equipment required by the Land Registry, photocopiers, computers, etc., have to be cleared by the Department of Justice and then by the Department of Finance before it can be purchased. This takes up unnecessary  time and money and does not facilitate efficiency.
Since 1983 the staffing level in the Land Registry has decreased by 130. Prior to the Civil Service embargo the Land Registry had 520 staff; now they have 390, although the workload and throughput in that period have increased by more than 25 per cent. I welcome the Minister's announcement tonight that 33 extra staff will be added to the existing staff. This could help to overcome the backlog of cases. If we want a better service from the Land Registry we must provide extra personnel for them.
We should examine the fee structure existing at the moment in the Land Registry. The maximum fee is £200 for any transaction over £30,000. This means transactions involving millions of pounds, which take up vast amounts of the time of senior examiners, cost the same as the registration of a house costing £35,000, which takes about five minutes to complete. This is totally unfair. The present fee structure penalises people who cannot afford it and those who can pay are not paying accordingly. Fees should be increased on a pro rata basis as in Northern Ireland.
Deputy O'Keeffe and other speakers have made the point, with which I agree, that all existing data and information in the Land Registry should be computerised. This has been done for Dublin; it must be done for the rest of the country. Mapping should also be computerised. The public could have access to some of these data. This again would be of great assistance to the public and to solicitors seeking information. I see no reason why this should not be technologically possible.
The delays at the moment which occur through no fault of the people working in the Land Registry are causing considerable distress for many people who are on bridging loans, as Deputy Taylor-Quinn mentioned. This is a source of deep frustration and anguish for many young couples, for example. The problem must be faced now rather than later. This motion presents a plausible solution  and I urge the Minister and the Government to give it due consideration and to accept the recommendations contained in it.
Mr. J. O'Keeffe: I thank the many Deputies who have contributed to this motion indicating intense interest in the subject of the motion and an acknowledgment of the crisis that clearly exists in the Land Registry. I have to say that the reply to the motion by the Minister for Justice was utterly unconvincing. He accepts fully the point made in the motion that the appalling delays in the Land Registry are unacceptable, yet his own amendment to the motion provides for the removal of that section of the motion which provides that Dáil Éireann deplores these enormous delays and the deteriorating position in the Land Registry. With respect, let me say that does not make sense. The Minister has acknowledged the delays and clearly accepts there is a deteriorating position yet his amendment seeks to remove that part of the motion. Why? Every speaker in this House, whether on the Government side or the Opposition side, has repeatedly stressed and acknowledged the appalling situation in the Land Registry. There may be some difference of opinion as to the solution, but it is right and proper that a view which is clearly accepted on all sides in this House should stand in the motion.
The Minister states he is carrying out an urgent review of the operations of the Land Registry and the Registry of Deeds. This urgent review was announced four months ago, but we have no evidence whatever of the action being taken, certainly no action of consequence. In some ways it is like Nero fiddling while Rome burned. The Minister stated that as part of the process of review he visited the Land Registry office in the Setanta Centre and had discussions with the personnel involved with the object of obtaining their views. Anybody who knows anything about the Land Registry must know that the Setanta Centre office is but a small out-office of the Land Registry operation which is centred in the Four  Courts complex in Chancery Street. It might have been more convincing if the Minister had given some indication that he had visited the Land Registry head office rather than that small portion thereof which, let us be fair, is about the only modern part of the Land Registry system.
The Minister mentioned that requests for copy folios and instruments can be dealt with very speedily. I am advised that in many instances people wait up to three months before they receive them. If this is an indication of the Minister's perception as to what constitutes an efficient Land Registry operation I have very little confidence in his ability to put in place the structures needed very urgently for a total, radical overhaul of the entire system. The Minister uses the excuse that the establishment of a semi-State corporation would require legislation and that this would cause delay. I accept that it would take some months to prepare the legislation. Of course, it has taken four months since the Minister announced the urgent review. There was no reason, in the meantime, why preliminary steps could not have been taken in regard to such legislation. If that has not been done there is no reason the steps should not be taken straight away.
The Minister has conceded that there are precedents for such legislation, not least in the Coillte Teoranta Bill, which the Minister in a previous manifestation put through this House. I accept that the legislation would take some time, that the democratic process should be followed and that we should debate it here in the House. I do not believe that the delay in putting through the legislation should be used as an excuse for taking the step which I have proposed in the motion. The establishment of a semi-State corporation could be announced here and now and the cosequential steps that are necessary, from the point of view of legislation and otherwise, could be put in place in the coming months.
So far as accommodation is concerned, the Minister used what I can only refer to as the usual Civil Service clap trap, that the accommodation needs are kept  under constant review. I have seen that expression so often in ministerial speeches that I can only hope that the Minister's urgent review is more effective than the constant review to which he refers when he deals with accommodation. We all know that very often this phraseology is an excuse for a doing nothing policy.
The Minister dealt with the question of staffing and stated that it was his intention to tackle the problem in the Land Registry by relieving the immediate arrears difficulty. The figures which he mentioned for staffing do not lend any confidence that there will be any improvement. In relation to arrears, he mentioned the sanction of 33 additional staff for the current year. However, taking into account resignations and retirements the net increase is now only two. On this basis, the provision in the estimate for 1990 of 33 staff will leave the Land Registry without any net increase if the same picture emerges for natural wastage and resignations. I am afraid that resignation is a matter which has to be taken into account for what is a totally demoralised and frustrated workforce. In any event, the provision of a few extra staff will not relieve the problem which has far deeper roots.
The Minister uses the excuse of the urgent review announced in July for the failure to appoint a Registrar of Titles. I would say that this excuse is entirely unconvincing. The post became vacant on the retirement of the last Registrar a year ago. The review was not even announced until July. I am not sure what significance can be read into the fact that the Minister, Deputy Burke, did not trouble himself to provide any explanation or excuse for his predecessor for failure to move on this issue for several months. Why does the Minister not have an open competition now and appoint a Chief Executive? If he moves in the direction I propose he will have a Chief Executive appointed by open competition, He will have somebody with the kind of managerial skills that are needed to rescue the Land Registry from the  devastated position into which it has fallen.
Similarly, in relation to computerisation, the Minister is entirely unconvincing. He has not faced the fact that virtually no progress has been made in recent times nor has he outlined how there is to be any progress in the future following the resignation of the computer expert at the end of October. The trade union delegate today, speaking on RTÉ, strongly supported the case for computerisation. Yet, when we look at the 1990 Estimate we see an increase in the order of £100,000. The money is there. Why is a proper programme not put in place?
Generally, the figures given by the Minister in relation to delays are very interesting. It is important for the Minister to note that with an arrears figure of 30,000 in October 1985, that figure had increased by no more than 2,000 in the three years up to 1 January 1989 when the figure totalled 32,000. It was a difficult positon but it was not considered a crisis, yet, on his own admission, nine months later, by the beginning of October that figure had increased to 47,448 for the current year. Even the figures given last night by the Minister were out of date because by the end of October — apparently this has not been drawn to his attention — the figure had risen again to 49,000. At that rate of deterioration the Land Registry will be in total chaos by the time we reach the new year.
In all the circumstances it is impossible to accept the alleged urgency of the review being carried out by the Minister or to have any confidence that it will result in the bringing about of substantial improvements in the level of service provided by the Land Registry. It is now 12 months since the Law Society presented to the Government a well-researched and well-argued proposal calling for the establishment of the Land Registry, including the Registry of Deeds, as a business orientated semi-State corporation. Nothing of any consequence has occured in the meantime except that the arrears position in the Land Registry  has deteriorated in that year by a further 50 per cent.
The consequences of this appalling situation are now well documented. The impact of such outrageous delays on the economy are very clear. The effect on economic activity and job creation is obvious. There is not a solicitor in the country who has not complained on behalf of his clients about the present position. The effect on those who want to make investment decisions, who want to purchase lands for forestry purposes, or who want to establish or expand business is clear. On a personal level, poor unfortunate people groaning under the burden of bridging finance must get relief. There are many young farmers throughout the country who cannot get their installation grants because they cannot produce their titles, through no fault of their own, to claim them. The Minister admits that there are many thousands suffering from hardship. The time for talking is over. The time for action is now. The solution is clear. The Minister should announce, this very night, that he is prepared to take the necessary decisive action and confirm that he is putting in hand the drafting of the necessary legislation to establish the Land Registry as an efficient business orientated semi-State corporation.
The Minister also mentioned that it was his intention to tackle this problem by relieving the immediate arrears difficulties. He did not say how, but said he would do it within a structure which, in the future, would be able to respond speedily and efficiently to the demands. I suggest to the Minister that he resist the Civil Service solution that will be offered. If the Civil Service do not keep total control over the position the next step will be the executive office which provides much the same element of control. Now we have the Department of Justice  and the Department of Finance in charge of every decision that has to be made in the Land Registry. The position would not be a whole lot different with an executive office. If I can look into the minds of the Civil Service advisers, I have not the slightest doubt that if they have to change that will be the hard step they will suggest. I strongly advise the Minister not to fall for it. The solution is clear. We have the precedents in Coillte Teoranta. An Post and in Telecom Éireann.
Mr. J. O'Keeffe: I have not the slightest doubt that if they finally agree that movement is necessary that will be the step they will be urging the Minister to take. I am telling him here and now to resist that step because it will not solve the problem. Finally, I want to make it clear that I have no difficulty whatever with the amendment from The Workers' Party which wants to ensure that the Registry of Deeds is included in the motion. In fact, that was my intention and I have no difficulty with it. Neither have I any difficulty with the addendum proposed by the Labour Party. I suggest, therefore, that the Government should face the situation squarely and accept not just the appalling position that exists in the Land Registry but the sensible proposal, originally coming from the Law Society, which was well researched and documented and is now proposed to this House. The proper course for the Government is to accept the Fine Gael motion and the proper course for that part of the Government represented by the Progressive Democrats, who wanted to go beyond what I am proposing and privatise the Land Registry, is at least to support the establishment of a semi-State corporation.
Browne, John (Wexford).
Burke, Raphael P.
Coughlan, Mary Theresa.
de Valera, Síle.
Fitzgerald, Liam Joseph.
Gallagher, Pat the Cope.
Haughey, Charles J.
Kitt, Michael P.
Noonan, Michael J.
O'Toole, Martin Joe.
Belton, Louis J.
Farrelly, John V.
Higgins, Jim. Sherlock, Joe.
|Higgins, Michael D.
Mac Giolla, Tomás.
Sheehan, Patrick J. Taylor-Quinn, Madeleine.
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