(Mayo): The poor performance of the Land Registry is reflected in the figures. The intake of transactions has increased from 91,060 in 1993 to 133,000 in 1999. At the end of 1999, there was an arrears of 86,084 applications. While the Minister will contend that there have been considerable increases in efficiency and that there is an overall increase of 20% in output of applications, the waiting times for many counties is unreasonable and unsustainable and the situation is getting progressively worse.
Counties Carlow, Kilkenny and Wexford have waiting times for processing of Land Registry dealings of up to 65 weeks. The waiting time for Counties Laois, Offaly and Tipperary is 62 weeks while files in the cases of Mayo and Sligo are not being processed for up to 60 weeks. In the case of Cork, the waiting period is 50 weeks.
Last January the Land Registry inserted a series of advertisements in national newspapers notifying the public that telephone inquiries for Counties Cavan, Clare, Donegal, Galway, Kildare, Leitrim, Longford, Louth, Mayo, Meath, Monaghan, Roscommon, Sligo, Westmeath and Wicklow would only be dealt with between the hours of 3 p.m. and 4 p.m. each day. That restriction is still in place.
The problem in the Land Registry, I acknowledge, did not begin today or yesterday. The problems have been obvious for a considerable period but the situation has become intolerable over the past three years, in particular. A 44% increase in transactions over an eight year span should have met with an adequate response in terms of resources and staffing levels and yet nothing was done on this front. Although there were 40,000 additional transactions, the staff figure remained static at 525.
On 2 February the Minister announced in the Dáil that he had received sanction from the Department of Finance for an additional allocation of core staff to the Land Registry. However, the situation continues to deteriorate. On the one hand, the Government has launched a new national development plan, a very ambitious plan which everybody welcomes. It is a seven year programme for economic and social development involving the spending of a massive £33.5 billion. On the other hand, one of the basic services in the State, the registration of the ownership of property, is in chaos because the Government has failed to assign adequate staff and resources to cope with the increased workload. It has failed to modernise and streamline procedures and has failed to introduce the type of technology urgently needed to provide the efficient level of service to which people are entitled.
The ownership of land and property is something which is deeply rooted and etched in the Irish personality and psyche. The very purpose of the Land Registry is to make available a secure, reliable and effective legal system for registering ownership of property. It has a crucial role in the finalising of financial transactions. The Land Registry, however, in its present form does not provide the efficient service a modern state needs and it is so hopelessly unable to cope with the current increased pressures, workloads and demands that one can only imagine how much more chaotic the situation will be in the context of the additional pressures, expectations and demands which will ensue from the national development plan.
Even the most routine of services are not being delivered. There is no reason, for example, a file plan should not be sent by return of post. Yet if one asks a solicitor anywhere in the country what the situation is, she or he will tell one that instead of a return of post service, it now takes up to four months for the Land Registry to return such a simple transaction.
I read a speech given by the Minister of State, Deputy Mary Wallace, when she deputised for the Minister, Deputy O'Donoghue, at a seminar hosted by the Irish Institute of Surveyors last year and which examined the need for change and the updating of the present land registration system. The Minister of State said the roar of the Celtic tiger has been heard in the Land Registry arising out of the recent buoyancy in the property market. While the roar might have been heard in the Land Registry, it has not been heeded at Government level.
Hundreds of young couples are being denied ownership of their homes because of the delays they have encountered with the Land Registry. Many are alarmed to learn that many months after they have parted with their hard earned cash or their mortgage, they are still not the legal owners of their property. The Minister will know from his own experience that section 25 of the 1965 Act lays down a stipulation that six months from the completion of the procedure of applying for land registry is the maximum period, in other words, unless one gets it done within that six month period, one does not own one's property and has to go cap in hand looking for an extension. The same difficulties are being experienced by people trying to sell on their houses and their land because of the delays they experience in obtaining legal title. Again, major difficulties are being encountered by people endeavouring to obtain top up loans for extensions to their houses or their properties.
Take the situation of a developer who buys 200 acres of land to build 1,000 houses. First, the present planning process will almost certainly ensure that any ambitious time scale can be thrown out the window. Parallel with the planning difficulties, it often takes up to three years, in some cases, to sort out the title of the property. There is something seriously wrong with a system which is so bogged down that it can take years to get sites into shape in terms of establishing exact title. In the meantime, the developer cannot proceed with the development and he certainly cannot dispose of the houses until clearance of title has been obtained. Again, business transactions which involve ownership and registration of property are being delayed and frustrated with obvious consequences for all involved.
There is the difficulty for farmers who opt for the farm retirement scheme. This is an excellent and commendable scheme to enable aging farmers to receive a retirement pension from the Department of Agriculture, Food and Rural Development in advance of the normal retirement age and, in so doing, to transfer the land by way of lease, agreement or transfer of ownership to a young person.
Land Registry delays are causing major problems for donors and recipients. This excellent scheme sponsored by a Government Department is encountering major delays, frustrations and difficulties because yet another Government agency, in this case the Land Registry, is failing to deliver a service in time.
There was a palpable sense of disbelief when it was announced last December that a decision had been taken and approved by the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform that two new fees orders were to be made, one for the Land Registry and one for the Registry of Deeds. The Registry of Deeds fees came into effect on 1 February last and the increase in Land Registry fees will come into effect on 1 May next. To introduce such increases in Land Registry fees in light of the crisis that exists and is getting increasingly worse illustrates how out of touch the Minister is with the situation on the ground.
The Minister will undoubtedly argue that fees have not increased since 1991 and that may well be the case, but nobody could justify any increase in Land Registry charges until such time as the service is vastly improved and delivery dates are brought forward substantially. To increase Land Registry charges by 20% or 30% depending on the nature of the service is unfair, indefensible and irresponsible. I note that the Minister told the House during Question Time on 7 May last that there was no formal consultation with the Law Society. He went on to state that he understood the society would have been aware from routine discussions with senior management of the registry that the fees were under review and that the society was free to make whatever representations it deemed appropriate. There would seem to be an underlying implication in the Minister's remarks that the Law Society was in some way aware of the scale of the increases and that it was accepting of them.
Was an article under the heading "Law Society describes backlog of Land Registry as a national disgrace" inThe Irish Times of 18 January last or a similar article with similar comments in yesterday's edition of that newspaper brought to his attention? The Director General of the Law Society, Mr. Ken Murphy was quoted as describing the backlog of delays in the Land Registry as a “national embarrassment which is causing a great deal of frustration and annoyance” and as spelling out the various new charges for registering property, charges of £300, £400 or £500 depending on the value of the transaction, whereas previously there was a blanket flat rate of £250 for any property valued at more than £30,000. It is not only a question of a charge of £300, £400 or £500, if the construction of a new house is involved and a new folio has to be opened as is generally the case, a further £50 will be charged while a mortgage will also have an additional fee of £100. For any young couple building a house, we are talking about a charge of £450 minimum instead of one of £250 as it was heretofore for a service that is not being delivered.
For that reason Fine Gael calls on the Minister to defer his order to bring in the new charges on 1 May until adequate additional staff are assigned to the Land Registry. We are talking about specialist personnel. There seems to be a gross shortage of trained legal personnel and additional specialist staff for the mapping section. An increase in charges should not be contemplated until such staff are in place and certain reasonable minimum target deadlines are achieved.
In particular, the motion proposes that all applications for new registrations should be completed within four months provided the files and applications are in order. With adequate trained staff, there is no reason that deadline cannot be routinely met. We propose that all route sub-divisions should be completed within a two month maximum deadline. Where a father hands over a site to a daughter or a son, there is no reason such registration should not be completed within a two month period.
We are living in an era of incredible advances in the capacity of information technology. With the type of progress that has transformed so many different sectors of business and commerce and with the e-commerce revolution, these standards should be the norm in the Land Registry. I appreciate there has been some investment in computerisation, but I note from the Minister of State's address to the Irish Institute of Surveyors, to which I alluded previously, that she referred to a feasibility study on the future of digital mapping and that is in the process of being undertaken. In light of the current crisis and chaos in the Land Registry and in the context of present demands, one would imagine that this process should have moved beyond the realm of a feasibility study. I ask the Minister to indicate to the House whether the feasibility study has been completed, if so, what recommendations are contained in it and if they are to be implemented.
I note that the Minister has proposals to convert the Land Registry and the Registry of Deeds to a commercial semi-State body. According to the Minister, the new organisation will be expected to operate in a commercial environment and it will be critical to have regard to the costs of providing the services and the need to ensure that the new organisation is placed on a sound, commercial and financial footing. The Land Registry makes an annual profit of approximately £3.5 million. If the Land Registry can make a profit of £3.5 million annually in its current ramshackle state, is it not obvious that it would have major commercial potential if it was properly managed, streamlined, revamped and modernised? Surely it could quite easily double that profit if it was streamlined and made more efficient. What is needed is to make the service more efficient, to increase the turnover of successful transactions and thereby enhance the profit without any necessity to have recourse to increases in fees or charges.
The Minister justifies the change to semi-State status in order to introduce competition. What competition are we talking about? One must acknowledge there is only one Land Registry and it operates as a monopoly. From where, therefore, will the competition come? I do not necessarily support the concept of converting the Land Registry into a commercial semi-State body. Is this the direction in which we should be moving, given that would mean that a very important service that deals with people's property rights would not be answerable to anybody, not least to this House? In that regard, all one need do is check the Order Paper on any day and one would find between 25 and 30 questions tabled by Deputies around the country asking what progress has been made on applications to the Land Registry for registration. In a new situation will we be denied access to fundamental questions and information on the Land Registry? I would have major reservations if the Minister brings forward that proposal. I would like him to spell out precisely the merits of the new changes. What will converting the Land Registry into a semi-State organisation achieve that cannot be achieved by restructuring, modernising and giving the existing organisation additional trained staff and resources?
The Minister stated that "In the commercial world they will seek market prices to ensure that their business is competitive and that they will be able to pay their staff and purchase the necessary equipment." That indication by the Minister has a ominous ring and it seems to hint that additional increases are being envisaged to meet the market prices. What is needed here is reinvestment of the existing profits to provide the necessary equipment, staff and level of performance to generate more income by way of a better service. What is needed here is a larger turnover of transactions and, consequently, a higher level of profit rather than introducing unnecessary punitive charges. Do we need two separate agencies, the Land Registry and the Registry of Deeds? The Minister may tell us a dual system is not uncommon, that such a system operates in Northern Ireland, Scotland, Greece, Germany, Finland and Luxembourg. Nevertheless there are extremely efficient land registry systems with only one agency in Australia and the United States. Before we proceed, it would be well worth while examining the very efficient Code Napoleon which operates in France. I ask the Minister to consider the merits of the motion and look forward to hearing the views of my colleagues.