Fresh proposals to privatise the Land Registry fail to take account of the extent to which the service has already embraced digital culture and will significantly reduce government oversight in comparison with scrapped plans from 2014, the PCS union has said.
Ministers last month floated new proposals to shift the Land Registry – keeps an up-to-date register of land ownership in England and Wales and has around 4,500 civil service staff – into the private sector by 2017 as part of wider plans to raise £5bn from government asset sales.
A consultation on the plans says a new owner "could bring new knowledge and investment into the organisation" to ensure it "accelerates its transformation into a more efficient and effective service delivery organisation".
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But a just-submitted full consultation response from the PCS, which is Britain’s biggest civil service union, said it believes the latest proposals are deeply flawed, contain wrong assumptions about the potential for digital transformation of services, and appear to offer a smaller rump of government employees to remain with the service than the discarded coalition scheme.
In the 28-page document, the PCS said the consultation contained a “fundamental mistake” in relation to the potential for reduced numbers of clerical and administrative staff by becoming a “truly digital organisation”.
The union said the Land Registry was “predominantly already a digital organisation" and said that the "vast majority" of its staff were "neither clerical nor administrative", although the organisation is considering introducing casework staff at clerical grades to process some of its less complex cases.
“It should be noted that even this work requires the individual caseworker to exercise judgement, and to refer any questionable matters to a higher authority,” the response said. “So, at the current time, 95% of applications to HM Land Registry are already processed digitally.”
The union said it was also concerned that the latest plans would see “a mere five to 10 staff” remaining in government to perform contract management roles after a privatisation.
“The 2014 consultation, despite all of its obvious, faults did, however, recognise that a relatively large number of staff (around 200) would need to remain in government as the Office of the Chief Land Registrar, to properly carry out the statutory duties, ensure the state guarantee of title and indemnity worked properly and set fees,” it said.
The government's preferred option for Land Registry, according to consulation, is for a dedicated contract management team to remain in government to ensure the new company sticks to agreed service standards, retaining "auditing and monitoring rights" over the organisation. The document also says the organisation's registers would continue to be owned by government, but argues that "there is no need for the core functions of the Land Registry to be delivered by civil servants".
PCS general secretary Mark Serwotka said the latest plans were “deeply dangerous” and were likely to result in increased fees for Land Registry users to fund private sector profits, even though the Land Registry had generated more than £240m for the Treasury over the past two years.
"Allowing a private company to profit from the Land Registry’s legal and statutory duties risks the stability of the housing market and would increase costs to homebuyers and small businesses,” he said.
PCS's argument echoes that of former Land Registry chief John Manthorpe, who told CSW he believed privatisation was “woefully misguided” because of the non-market functions – such as inheritances, matrimonial issues, court actions, and bankruptcies – that it was responsible for.
“Its impartial and statutory role of ‘keeper’ of titles and arbiter on matters affecting land rights is what makes the property and mortgage markets possible,” he said.
“Its activities are central to a functioning economy: Not least it provides the security of tenure on which citizens depend. Crucially its activities are, and can be seen to be, free from any actual or perceived conflicts of interest.” Manthorpe said the authors of the latest consultation “do not understand the adjudicatory nature of land registration”.
The government's consultation is open until May 26.
2016 Land Registry Consultation Response (1)