Just before Easter this year, quietly, almost by stealth it seemed, the government announced its plan to privatise the Land Registry.
You might be asking if this matters. Well, dear Reader, it does.
Established 150 years ago, the Land Registry holds the title deeds, and hence ownership details, of more than 24 million properties across England and Wales. If you’ve ever bought a house, it’s the Land Registry that officially documents your ownership rights. Your solicitor would also have consulted the Registry to confirm the person selling you your house was legally entitled to do so.
All these records have been in the public domain since the Registry’s inception. Many of these records are free to access, such as the price a property sold for. For a small fee of £3, anyone can search the title deeds of any property in England and Wales.
These records are important public documents, and to privatise the Land Registry would have an adverse effect not only on public access, but also to the guarantee of independence and accuracy.
We’ve all seen the headlines about off-shore companies buying up vast swathes of properties or of shady multi-millionaire Non Doms diverting huge sums of freshly-laundered cash into upmarket London pads they never live in. The Prime Minister recently pledged to put an end to the London property market being viewed as a deposit for money-laundering and tax dodging.
If the privatisation of the Land Registry goes ahead, the promise of openness and transparency will be lost. It will become much more difficult to hold criminals to account, as the official records of their illicit transactions will no longer be for public access. The government should be making it more difficult for those with fraudulent or illegal intentions to evade scrutiny, not easier.
As private investigators, the Land Registry is an invaluable tool. We use it in Asset Traces, in Fraud Investigations, in Matrimonial cases, in Missing Persons cases, in mounting evidence for court and legal disputes – in fact in almost every area of our work.
We, like many others, rely on the Land Registry’s accuracy and impartiality. If it were sold to the highest bidder, not only would access become more difficult, but control over the security of its data could be compromised. Under privatisation, the data could be sold to third parties, access could be denied or become prohibitively expensive, and commercial gain would take precedence over public access
The most worrying aspect of the whole debacle was reported in The Sunday Times last week. The paper revealed that “all of the potential bidders have business links to tax havens or secretive jurisdictions including the Cayman Islands, Jersey and the US state of Delaware”.
We have signed this petition to oppose the government’s plan to put profit before the public interest. The Land Registry belongs to all of us – let’s hope it stays that way.