Bill Esterson speak against privatisation of Land Registry

Bill Esterson MP took part in the Land Registry Debate, arguing against Osborne's plan to privatise the sector, previously claiming the Government do not understand 'the difference between quick cash and long-term economic stability'. In the chamber the shadow minister for Small Businesses said:

"As my hon. Friend reminds me, the approach did not do the Government much good on that occasion. I suspect, following today’s debate, it is not going to do them much good this time either.

They chose to release the proposal on the Land Registry on the afternoon of the last day of Parliament before the Easter recess. Were you a cynical man, Mr Deputy Speaker, you might think that that was done deliberately to avoid attention, but of course you are not cynical, so there is no way you would think that.

The Government are fully aware that the public do not want this and that the proposal will not stand up to scrutiny. This is not the first time they have tried to railroad through Land Registry privatisation. The public ​response that they received last time could not have been more overwhelmingly negative: 91% of those asked in 2014 said that privatisation would not provide a more efficient service, while just 5% thought that it would. Survation’s more recent polling—not that we should necessarily believe everything we read in polls—delivered the same message, with opposition outstripping support among the public by more than 4:1. The online petition that was signed by 300,000 people was handed to BIS just the other week. Those 300,000 people made it clear within a month of the opening of the consultation that they, like many others, were against the privatisation.

If the Government think that they can mask an economically incoherent proposal with a “public sector bad, private sector good” mantra, nobody is going to be fooled. Do they honestly think that a private operator would create a more profitable Land Registry and therefore support broader economic growth? In public hands, it is generating £100 million-plus for the Treasury each year, so that simply does not stack up as an argument. The New Economics Foundation has pointed out that state assets—not just the Land Registry, but Ordnance Survey, NATS and Channel 4—are all examples of publicly owned services that are delivering lean, efficient and profitable business models. If the Government have any interest in long-term growth and stability, they should hold on to those assets, not sell them off. Securing this annual revenue is the economically responsible and more stable approach at a time when we lack the certainty on which the economy and business depend.

Do the Government honestly believe that a private operator would create a more efficient Land Registry? The Open Data Institute says that moving the body out of public hands would build barriers in our data infrastructure, reduce efficiency not just in the Land Registry but across Departments and other public services, and have clear consequences for public confidence. Do the Government honestly believe that a private operator would support a more transparent Land Registry? If it was privatised, it would cease to be subject to the Freedom of Information Act. It beggars belief that the Government can seriously suggest that, in the wake of the release of the Panama papers, it would be reasonable to pursue policies that make it easier to conceal landownership for non-doms?

If the privatisation happens, the Land Registry will go to private interests that are not subject to the same checks and balances, such as freedom of information provisions, as any remaining public sector body. As my hon. Friend the Member for City of Chester (Christian Matheson) said, we are not just talking about any private interests. Judging from the interested parties so far, these are interests that are already tied up overseas, including in tax havens. Given that we are dealing with trillions of pounds of property that underpins our whole housing sector, this can only be downright dangerous.

Privatisation would deny homeowners, mortgage lenders and buyers an independent national register of title deeds. It would be destabilising. The consultation asks how, not whether, privatisation should go ahead. We should enable the Land Registry to continue innovating, and delivering savings and revenue to the Government. It is already a success, so why does the consultation not consider the option of encouraging further improvement, development and success in our public sector, both to improve service and to generate further revenue, if that is what is driving what the Government want?​

As I understand it, the Minister for Small Business, Industry and Enterprise has told constituents that this is a ridiculous idea driven by Treasury capital receipts. I agree. Labour will fight this privatisation, and I hope that the Government will once again perform a U-turn in the face of widespread pressure from professionals and the public alike."