Thursday, 10 July 1997
Dáil Éireann Debate
Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform (Mr. O'Donoghue): I am satisfied there will not be a reduction in the level of service provided and that, with the use of modern technology and means of communication, any difficulties can be kept to a minimum. The Registrar of Titles has communicated regularly with members of the legal profession practising in the counties concerned to keep them informed of the position and I am sure any teething problems which might arise will be promptly dealt with.
For the information of those members of the legal profession who have expressed misgivings because of the possible inconvenience of travelling to Waterford rather than Dublin, I have no doubt the policy of decentralisation is correct. While there might be some minor change to work patterns, I am satisfied the benefits for everyone involved — staff moving to decentralised locations and existing communities — are enormous. The revitalisation of communities and the increased economic activity are extremely beneficial to all. I invite anybody who has any doubts about this to visit my constituency of Kerry South, where about 140 staff of the Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform are based in Killarney, to see the operation there for themselves. The facilities there are first class and no difficulty has arisen with work being done there which was previously done in Dublin. I ask people who have misgivings to co-operate fully with the change. If there is any doubt about the willingness of civil servants to fully co-operate with decentralisation, the fact that more than 1,000 applications for transfer to Waterford were received should dispel these doubts. Future decentralisation of parts of Departments from Dublin should take place and I intend to vigorously pursue opportunities for further decentralisations.
The law relating to the registration of land is governed by the 1964 Act, section 7 of which provides that there shall be a central office located in the county borough of Dublin and a local office in each county other than Dublin. This central office is to be the office for registration of all land in the State.
Following on the Government's decision to decentralise certain operations of the Land Registry to Waterford, it becomes necessary, to provide a clear legal basis for the move, to amend section 7 of the 1964 Act. The necessary amendments, which the Bill before the House will effect, will essentially provide for the establishment of constituent offices of the central office which will carry out the work currently performed by the central office under the 1964 Act. The result of this change will be that the functions currently carried out by the central office of the Land Registry will be regionalised through the establishment of constituent offices in Dublin and outside Dublin.
While the Land Registry will continue to consist of a central office and local offices, the Bill's effect will be that the central office will not be a physical entity but will be made up of constituent offices to be located in Dublin and in any county so designated by an order made by me, as Minister. This will permit the designation of Waterford as an area within which a constituent office may be located.
I will briefly deal with each section. Section 1 amends section 7 of the 1964 Act in two respects. First, it provides for the substitution of a new subsection for subsection (1) to provide that the central office of the Land Registry will consist of one or more constituent offices to be located in Dublin and in any other area which the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform may, by order,  designate. There will continue to be local offices in each county other than Dublin and any county where a constituent office is located.
Second, by the addition of a new subsection, subsection (5), the Minister is given the necessary power to make or revoke an order designating any county as an area within which a constituent office will be located. Because the Dublin office will service the greater Dublin area there will be no need to establish a local office within any of the three administrative counties of South Dublin, Fingal or Dún Laoghaire-Rathdown. Neither will it be necessary to have one in any county where there is a constituency office.
Section 2 of the Bill deals with transitional provisions so that the central office of the Land Registry, at present located in Dublin in accordance with section 7 of the 1964 Act, will become a constituent office under the terms of the amended section 7. The section states that the central office of the Land Registry, which is located in the county borough of Dublin, after the passage of this Bill will become a constituent office or constituent offices of the central office in the county borough.
Those are the terms of this short but important Bill without which the proposed decentralisation of parts of the Land Registry to Waterford could have given rise to the need for cumbersome and expensive procedures to ensure compliance with the 1964 Act vis-à-vis the location of the central office. That would also have raised doubts about our commitment to genuine decentralisation by requiring certain operations in relation to the registration of land in the counties to remain in Dublin. With this Bill we will ensure that there is genuine decentralisation and a proper legal base therefor.
I commend the Bill to the House. Given the commitment, expertise and vigour of the staff involved, I am confident that the decentralisation of part of the Land Registry to Waterford will be a success.
Mrs. Owen: My party will be supporting this technical Bill to leave room for no doubt whatsoever in the transfer of part of the business of the Land Registry to Waterford as to whether and where titles can be finally registered.
The move of part of the business of the Land Registry was a good decision taken by the then Government in 1992. Nonetheless, it is gilding the lily somewhat for the Minister to contend he is introducing the legislation to provide the necessary  legislative framework. The legislation to give legal effect to the overall changes envisaged in Land Registry is not yet ready and we will await its introduction before complimenting the Minister on it.
The Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform may, from time to time, designate by order any county. as an area within which one or more than one constituent office of the central office shall be located.
Is that subsection included because the Minister intends creating a 36-county or 47-county Ireland in the near future? Does this encompass some master plan vis-à-vis Ireland of which we are not at present aware?
While acknowledging that the recently created Fingal County Council, South Dublin County Council and Dun Laoghaire/Rathdown County Council are covered by the provisions of this Bill — not having been county boroughs in their own right heretofore — I question the inclusion of this subsection giving the Minister the right, without referral to the Dáil, to revoke an order designating any county, already designated, in order to replace it with a different county borough. I should like the Minister to elaborate when replying. The reason may well be to obviate the necessity for additional legislation but I would welcome his explanation.
I might refer to the changes which have taken place in regard to land registration generally. When I first entered this House I had very little knowledge of the operations of the Land Registry because I did not encounter many problems in relation thereto in the early days of my political life. However, I recall sharing offices with rural Members who appeared to spend endless hours contacting the Land Registry querying folio numbers and various dealings. Although no doubt begun beforehand, I am glad to report that during my term of office an enormous change was effected in the manner in which its business was conducted. I want to pay tribute publicly to Catherine Treacy, Chief Registrar in the Land Registry, at Assistant Secretary level, on the phenomenal changes effected, leading to a reduction in the length of time it takes solicitors and others to conduct their business with that office.
Any examination of the strategic management initiative document prepared by that office some months ago would make it abundantly clear that its aim is to provide all its services within defined, acceptable time limits. The clientele of all offices and organisations should expect and obtain delivery of requisite services within an acceptable timescale. The administration of the Land Registry has striven in recent years to improve its output, to modernise its equipment, install computers, channelling all counties into its computerised system to the greatest possible extent.
 As all Members know, legal transactions can be extremely complex, yet since 1988 there has been a 48 per cent increase in the workload of the Land Registry and a 62 per cent increase in the workload of the copy map section. At the same time, as the Minister acknowledged, there has not been a commensurate increase in the number of staff. This means that all these improvements have been due to the efficiency and management skills of those administering the office to ensure that, despite increased business, scarce resources are usefully deployed, much to their credit. Having visited its various sections and a number of courts dealing with land registration matters on many occasions I was very impressed with its method of operation.
The number of legal transactions undertaken by the Land Registry office amounted to 91,381 in 1989 and 119,395 in 1996, with an output in 1989 of 72,668, the corresponding figure for 1996 being 114,024, representing a 64 per cent increase. In addition, map holdings increased by 62 per cent.
As the Minister will be aware, the decision to convert the Land Registry to semi-State status was taken a considerable time ago. While during my term of office it was not possible to make progress on the relevant legislation, I trust the Minister, a working Deputy from South Kerry — who no doubt will have encountered many constituents' problems — will ensure that the relevant legislation will be prepared and introduced expeditiously, thus completing the circle commenced in 1992. A great deal of additional work was carried out in the past couple of years, along with the new building now available in Waterford for the transfer of part of its business there.
Mr. J. O'Keeffe: It is somewhat ironic that today we are engaged in amending the Registration of Title Act, 1964, introduced by one of the Minister's predecessors, the then Fianna Fáil Minister for Justice, Charles J. Haughey. That was one of his better contributions to political life and constituted a milestone. In introducing that Act, the then Minister, Charles J. Haughey, said that the system of registration was intended to be “cheap, simple and effective”, yet on many fronts over a considerable number of years it transpired that registration under the system then introduced was not cheap, simple or effective. Like many other things Charles J. Haughey said, it turned out not to be correct at all. In the 1990s, when the same Mr. Haughey was Taoiseach, a crisis obtained within the Land Registry. I am now reciting notes I made, having spoken here in 1990, when I proposed a motion deploring the enormous delays and deteriorating position within the Land Registry, calling for its establishment as an efficient business-orientated semi-State corporation. That was the contribution of Mr. Charles J. Haughey to the Land Registry system.
It is proper to give credit where it is due and there has been an enormous improvement in the  Land Registry in recent years. Ms Catherine Treacy and her staff have done a fantastically good job and the position has been very much improved. With an increased volume of business, arrears, although still substantial, have been reduced. At the end of December 1990 there were arrears of 50,624 while they now stand at about 40,000. Extra work has been taken on and current business is being dealt with, but there is still a substantial backlog of arrears and every effort should be made to ensure it is cleared without delay.
I wish to refer in passing to a matter that is indirectly related to the Land Registry, the Land Commission. The Land Commission is to blame for many of the delays in the Land Registry because many papers have not been sent to the Land Registry from the old Land Commission office. I know of a case that has been ongoing for ten years and the papers have not yet reached the Land Registry. From his experience in Kerry, the Minister will be aware of this problem and he should ensure the issue is dealt with. Land Commission sub-division applications are a total waste of time for the parties involved and the officials who have to deal with the applications. Perhaps they should be retained for purchasers outside the EU, but otherwise they should be abolished.
Progress has been made with computerisation but much more needs to be done to complete this process. There is also the related problem of premises. Computerisation cannot take place in Chancery Street and proper premises are required there. The new premises in Waterford will be state of the art, but it is important that the computerisation process is completed in Dublin.
The Land Registry is a self-financing body with a fee income of about £12 million. There has been no increase in fees of any consequence for a long time. The Land Registry has coped with extra expenses by way of increased business and I welcome the business orientated approach adopted by it. I moved a motion here in 1990 calling for the establishment of the Land Registry as an efficient business orientated semi-State corporation, but that label is still outstanding. That matter must be dealt with. When the Minister comes back to the House with the necessary Bill in that regard we will give him credit for helping to bring the Land Registry into the next millennium.
Mr. Enright: I thank Deputy Owen for sharing her time with me. I congratulate Deputy O'Donoghue on his appointment as Minister for Justice. He is a hard worker and an honest man, and I wish him and his family well.
This is a very important Bill. I welcome the decentralisation of the Land Registry. It will be of benefit to the local economies involved and to the overall administration of business. The Midland Solicitors' Association which communicated with the Minister and his predecessors is concerned about decentralisation to Waterford, particularly as it affects people in Offaly. I have great admiration for Waterford and I wish the  new offices well. It is proposed to have three Land Registry regions: Limerick, Waterford and Kerry; Cork; and Tipperary, Kilkenny, Carlow, Laois, Offaly and Wexford. Since Edenderry in Offaly is only about 45 miles from Dublin, it would be much more convenient for the people there to continue to do business in Dublin rather than Waterford. There is a train service from Tullamore to Dublin which takes approximately an hour and many people in that town would find it more convenient to do business in Dublin than Waterford. People in towns such as Portarlington and Portlaoise would also find it more convenient to do business in Dublin. I am sure work will be carried out efficiently in Waterford and the office there will be of benefit to the people of Waterford, but it would be much more convenient for the people of Offaly and Laois to do business in Dublin.
There has been a great improvement in the Land Registry in recent years. In 1980 there were 565 staff dealing with 222,000 applications and now there are 515 staff dealing with 300,000 applications, which shows a remarkable improvement. Even though there are arrears of 40,000, great progress has been made in that regard. I congratulate Ms Catherine Treacy and her staff on the work they have carried out.
Deputy O'Keeffe referred to delays in the allocation of land by the former Land Commission. In some cases land held by the Land Commission still has not been vested in the Land Registry. There are many delays with farm retirement pensions and grants because people cannot prove title. Queries are being raised with the Land Commission in regard to some of the land vested in the Land Registry. There is total chaos and many decent people are deprived of their livelihoods. This problem must be sorted out. I will raise the matter again on the resumption of the Dáil if it is not dealt with in the meantime.
A large body of opinion is in favour of turning the Land Registry into a semi-State body, but having dealt with the Land Registry for 35 years, I doubt if that will happen. The staff in the Land Registry are very courteous and helpful. The system has been improved. However, the office did not have access to adequate numbers of staff or the necessary facilities for many years. The existing staff worked in Dickensian conditions and were not provided with computers or modern equipment. These problems have been overcome but before a final decision is taken I ask the Minister to consult the staff of the Land Registry who work at the coalface. I wish the Minister well in his Department and I welcome the Bill.
Mr. O'Shea: Ba mhaith liom comhghairdeas a ghabháil leis an Aire as ucht a bheith roghnaithe ag an Taoiseach mar Aire Dlí agus Cirt, Comhionannais agus Athchóirithe Dlí. Tá súil agam go n-éireoidh go maith leis sa phost nua agus san obair tábhachtach atá idir lámha aige.
I welcome this legislation which is the final  technical legal adjustment to a project which has been some time in gestation. Construction of the new state-of-the-art building in Waterford, which is almost complete, began under the previous Government. Also nearing completion in the immediate vicinity of the new building are the new office for social services in Waterford and the new community care headquarters of the South Eastern Health Board.
On Deputy Enright's statement regarding County Offaly the new building is located on a national primary route and access to it from that route, with the possible exception of peak times, will not be restricted. Access to Waterford city is also being greatly improved. A new roundabout is being built on the northern side of the bridge in Waterford in addition to a four lane highway through the Sallypark area. Therefore, access to the new building will be quite easy. If we balance the scenarios of people travelling to Waterford or other areas, the difficulties involved are not great.
I am opposed to diluting this project because the number of civil servants being sent to Waterford is not great. During his contribution the Minister stated the number involved will be 140. My recollection is that the initial staff allocation would be slightly higher than that. To dilute this project further would not be acceptable to me and the people of Waterford.
Mr. Flanagan: I thank Deputies O'Shea, Owen, O'Keeffe and Enright for condensing their remarks to allow other Members to contribute to the debate. I congratulate Deputy O'Hanlon on attaining the position of Leas-Cheann Comhairle. I also congratulate Deputy O'Donoghue on his appointment as Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform and I wish him well.
The point I wish to make was alluded to by Deputy O'Shea who stated that he does not want the decentralisation proposal for County Waterford to be diluted. I sympathise with his view because he represents the city and county of Waterford. However, there are a number of compelling reasons for the removal of Counties Laois and Offaly in my constituency from any proposed decentralisation to Waterford. People engaged in dealing with the decentralisation of the Land Registry did not have adequate consultation at any level. Removing the Land Registry from Dublin to Waterford will not serve the legal practitioners or, more importantly, the consumers of Counties Laois and Offaly.
The midland counties have suffered in the past by not being part of a clearly identifiable area which could be described as the “midlands region”, from the point of view of tourism, health  boards, Garda divisions, courts and regional authorities. Irrespective of the Department of Justice, the people living in the midlands have no relationship with those living in the south east and County Waterford. I do not mean any disrespect to the people of County Waterford or those represented by Deputy O'Shea, but the midland counties have no connection with the south east and it is very difficult in terms of transportation and access for people in Counties Offaly and Laois to travel to County Waterford.
Deputy O'Shea made a feeble attempt to state that access to Waterford will be easy because a new roundabout has been built. There might be a new roundabout in Waterford but it is 120 miles from north County Offaly to that city.
Mr. Flanagan: There is not a national primary route linking Counties Laois and Offaly with the south east. The road system between Counties Offaly and Waterford, which runs through County Kilkenny, is deplorable and it has been neglected by successive Governments in terms of infrastructural development. There is no public transport between Counties Offaly and Laois and County Waterford and I cannot understand how the public interest is being served by transferring the Land Registry from Dublin to Waterford as far as the provision of a service to the people of Counties Laois and Offaly is concerned.
I ask the Minister to reconsider this matter. If he cannot do so, I ask him to liaise with his colleagues to ensure that a sub-office of the Stamp Office is transferred to Waterford so that consumers visiting County Waterford to lodge documents in the Land Registry will avoid having to make a trip to Dublin to stamp such documents before lodging them. If such documents could be stamped in Waterford, it would reduce the inconvenience involved. If the Minister insists in proceeding with decentralisation to County Waterford, will he consider situating a capital taxes branch in that county so that a practitioner or punter making an inquiry could have access to such a facility which deals with those capital tax queries which go hand in hand with Land Registry and Stamp Office queries.
I ask the Minister to reconsider this matter in so far as it concerns Counties Offaly and Laois. If these counties were to be excluded from the proposed decentralisation to Waterford and retained in the Dublin jurisdiction, I do not see how the service operated in Waterford for the people of the south east would be diminished. I do not envisage a need to reduce staff and I do not believe the decentralisation project outlined in the legislation will be diluted. The Minister should reconsider this matter because it will be extremely difficult for people living in the midlands region to carry out their business in County Waterford with which Counties Laois and Offaly have no connection in terms of regional development or other projects.
Mr. Callely: An issue was brought to my attention in respect of the Waterford offices when the project under discussion was first proposed in 1992 and I understand that a number of submissions have been made in respect of it. I have a vested interest in this matter because my uncle retains an interest in a law searches office. Many of my friends are involved in the industry and they are able to avail of the information provided by the various offices based in the Dublin region. I am not in favour of decentralisation and my view will not change regardless of the side of the House on which I sit. If we decentralise these offices to Waterford, what are we saying to people who have built up practices over the years? Are we saying people must now establish a Waterford based office to deal with certain queries for certain areas? Is that a practical proposal? If so, it must be outlined.
Many eminent people involved in this line of work have made submissions on this matter. If they are practical and logical they should be reviewed rather than steamrolling an old proposal that may merit proper review.
Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform (Mr. O'Donoghue): I thank Deputies Enright, O'Shea and Flanagan for their congratulations on my appointment as Minister. I extend a warm welcome to Deputy Enright on his return to the House.
I thank all Deputies who contributed to this debate. It is unlikely that any other legislation I propose to the House will be as relatively uncontentuous, although there have been some murmurings regarding aspects of this legislation. I will bring remarks made during the course of the debate to the attention of the Registrar of Titles.
Decisions remain to be taken about the future organisation of the Land Registry and its status. This will form part of a heavy programme of administrative reform which I will undertake. It will include a new court service and a prison authority.
For all the technical nature of the measure before the House, it is important to see this Bill in the context of a policy of decentralisation. The programme for Government contains a commitment on decentralisation and there is a growing realisation that, with modern technology, barriers that may have existed before can now be overcome.
In her contribution, Deputy Owen wondered about the insertion of section 1(5)(a). This provision allows the Minister to designate any county as one in which the central office may be located. It has no sinister intent other than to allow further decentralisation to take place if that is deemed appropriate. It would hardly be necessary for a separate Bill to be introduced should such a decision be made.
I note Deputy Jim O'Keeffe's statement regarding the Land Commission. I will bring his remarks to the attention of the Minister for Agriculture, Food and Forestry. There would appear  to be some difficulty with regard to tracing documentation. It might be appropriate for the Minister to look at ways in which the situation could be improved because this could only lead in turn to titles being dealt with more expeditiously where Land Commission papers are required.
Deputies Enright and Flanagan commented on concerns raised by the Midlands Bar Association and others. I appreciate these concerns. However, if we are determined about decentralisation there will have to be an acceptance of new practices and arrangements, especially given the enormous benefits it brings to local communities. I am sure Deputy Callely will also understand that.
I am very optimistic that this decentralisation will work in practice without giving rise to great difficulties. I assure the House that, as always, the Land Registry will co-operate fully with solicitors. I realise, as Deputies Flanagan and Enright have said, that some people in County Offaly would prefer to deal with the Dublin office. However, there has been welcome decentralisation to the midlands over the years which has benefited local communities. That is as it should be. In the same way, this decentralisation will benefit the people of Waterford and ensure that Waterford continues to be a viable place. The movement of a significant number of civil servants to the city can only be of benefit. I do not believe anybody begrudges Waterford its place in the sun where decentralisation is concerned. Furthermore, the vast majority of work with the Land Registry is done through the post.
An Leas-Cheann Comhairle: As it is now 1.45 p.m. I am required to put the following question in accordance with an order of the Dáil today: “That the Bill is hereby read a Second Time, that sections 1 and 3 and the Title are hereby agreed to in Committee and the Bill is reported to the House without amendment; Fourth Stage is hereby completed and the Bill is hereby passed.”
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