Privatisation of the Land Registry by George Osborne makes three things very clear. The government does not understand the difference between quick cash and long-term economic stability. It does not respect the importance of an impartial register of the ownership of 24 million UK properties. And it does not appreciate that slipping the announcement out at the eleventh hour will somehow stem overwhelming public opposition.
The Land Registry does not cost tax payers a penny: In fact, it returned £100 million to the Treasury in 2012/13, and has delivered a surplus in 19 of the last 20 years. It is pretty desperate stuff for George Osborne to think that a one-off sale is worth more than year-on-year surpluses. Worse, it is cynical manipulation to claim that asset stripping is responsible management of the economy.
The consequences of selling off the Land Registry are also far wider - and more dangerous - than losing a profitable public sector enterprise. Having a trusted and impartial register of land underpins our economy. Any house you, your family or your company own, buy or sell relies on the Land Registry granting and transferring title deeds. It is the only proof of title - or ownership - recognised by law, for £3 trillion-worth of UK property. Every property sale, purchase, repossession and mortgage in the UK is carried out transparently and in confidence by the seller, buyer and lender.
The Land Registry's independence is fundamental to the trust that homeowners, mortgage lenders and solicitors place in it. How could this trust remain and how could the government maintain that the Land Registry's impartiality will remain, if it is taken over by someone acting be definition in their own, private interest?
The way this government times their announcements is normally a good indication of how conscious they are that they are on thin ice. The proposed relaxation of Sunday Trading laws was the last time they slipped out an unpopular policy announcement at the last possible moment (on the day of Second Reading in the Commons, after the legislation had already gone through the Lords.) Meanwhile, privatisation of the Land Registry was announced on the afternoon of the day before the Parliamentary recess. In the case of both Sunday Trading and the Land Registry, the government denied MPs the chance to scrutinise their announcements, let alone the details of the proposals until much later. The government might do well to remember that it was defeated on its Sunday Trading proposals.
The fact is, ministers are fully aware that the public do not want it, and that the proposal will not stand up to scrutiny. This is not the first time they have tried to railroad Land Registry privatisation through, and the public response they received last time could not have been more overwhelmingly negative. 91% of those asked in 2014 said privatisation would not provide a more efficient service. Just 5% thought it would. Survation's more recent polling has delivered the same message, with opposition outstripping support amongst the public by more than four to one.
For the sake of its small-state ideology and in its desperation to fund short term deficit reduction, the government is willing to deny the Treasury a healthy year-on-year surplus from the Land Registry. This is economic madness. The government is also willing to deny home-owners, mortgage lenders and buyers an independent national register of title deeds. This is downright irresponsible and Labour will oppose this privatisation. We must hope that the government will once again be defeated by parliament in the face of widespread public pressure.
Bill Esterson, Shadow Minister, Business, Innovation and Skills