§ Order for Second Reading read.
THE LORD ADVOCATE
, in moving that the Bill be now read a second time, said, that in a former Session they had had a full discussion upon the subject to which it related, and there was a good deal of difference of opinion among Scotch Members in respect to it, and he therefore thought it due to them that he should explain the grounds upon which it was now introduced to the House. It was well known that in Scotland there had existed for two centuries or more—certainly as far back as 1617—a system of land registration not only as respects the conveyance of land, and the mortgage of land, but of all deeds affecting the transfer of land; in consequence of which all those who might be interested in such transfer had the means of ascertaining the burdens which might exist upon any particular land proposed to be transferred. No doubt so far as regarded certainty and security of title the system had been to a large extent a very complete system of registration; but it had this one great defect—namely, that the expenses attending it were very great; and the object of this Bill was to diminish those expenses, to put the system 1157 upon a more complete footing, and to put the means of ascertaining the particulars of registration into a more easy form. The system introduced in 1617 established two separate systems of registration—one, a general register to be kept at Edinburgh under the control of an officer termed the Lord Clerk Registrar; and the other a system of registration, cot according to a county arrangement, but in certain specified districts, by means of which persons selling or burdening land might register the conveyance deeds, the deeds of incumbrance, or other particulars requiring registration. That general and particular registration was intended undoubtedly for the convenience of persons residing in remote districts of Scotland at the time when communication between different parts of Scotland were much more difficult than it was at the present time; and the result was obviously that when persons wished to purchase land or lend money on the security of landed estates, or when they wished to ascertain whether any burdens attached to any particular landed estate, they were obliged of necessity to search both in the General Registry at Edinburgh, and in the particular registry in the district in which the land was registered; and it not only obliged them to look into the registry of one county; a deed respecting the conveyance of land or the burdens upon it might be registered in another county than that in which the land was, and consequently a great deal of trouble was often given to the searcher. This state of things continued to exist, and at the present day there were nineteen particular registries in Scotland in different districts, and also the General Registry at Edinburgh. But there was another matter which in course of time came to be more important even than the expense of searching a double register. Of course, the accumulation of records of this nature necessarily went on from year to year, and at last the records became so great as to become almost unmanageable, so that in the beginning of this century they got into a condition in which it was exceedingly difficult for persons to prosecute their search. Though the deeds were registered in the particular registries in the districts, they were not actually kept there; but the Lord Clerk Registrar sent out from his head office in Edinburgh a book in which the matters required to be registered were orded. The keeper of the particular 1158 register kept that book until it was completed; and he then sent it for the purpose of preservation to Edinburgh; and in that way the whole of the records, whether registered in the particular or the General Registry, were kept in Edinburgh, and were there accessible for the purpose of searching. The accumulation of these records introduced a great difficulty. Under the original statute the keeper of the register was only bound to record the deeds and make a minute of them; he was not bound to index them. But in the commencement of the present century this state of things was found so inconvenient that very great efforts were made to supply the want of an index, and a gentleman who had charge of the registers, Mr. Thompson, did actually prepare an index of the various records up to 1845. But in order to accomplish the work, it was necessary to make an abridgment of deeds and records, giving the names of the particular buyers or sellers of the land, and the place to which the purchase or burden related, and from that abridgment a general index was made; but from the necessity of sending up the registers from the particular registries to Edinburgh only when the books were filled, those particular registers came up at intervals sometimes of a year, sometimes two, and sometimes of three years, so that it was impossible to make a general index of the records which at all corresponded in period of time with the contemporaneous registry of deeds itself. The object of this Bill was to do away with those difficulties, by concentrating the whole of the registries in Edinburgh, and thus to enable the officials to prepare not merely a record of the whole of the registers for the counties in Edinburgh—so that the whole records might be accessible at one time—but also so to arrange as to have the records under one uniform superintendence, and under one staff of officers, and to have them indexed contemporaneously with the registry itself; and, consequently, that the person searching with reference to the records of any one particular year, should be able to refer to the index of that year in one volume in order to obtain the information that he required. That was the general objects of this Bill. He proposed to abolish the particular registries in the districts altogether. And whereas at present the records were brought up to Edinburgh only at intervals he proposed that they be brought up regularly, provision being made for indexing 1159 those registries at the time. That this would be a great improvement for convenience of search nobody would deny. The saving of expense might be judged from the fact that the present local registries cost £12,000 a year, no part of which was for the benefit of the public, it was solely for the benefit of the keepers of the registers. On the other hand, the Registry Office in Edinburgh was not only a self-supporting institution, drawing nothing from the Government, its income being £9,500 a year, but there was actually a surplus of £5,000 a year, which found its way into the public Exchequer. The amount of business done in Edinburgh was represented by the registration of 5,700 deeds a year, while the number of deeds registered in the particular registries amounted only to 4,000 a year. It was not only clear, therefore, that the present surplus would be continued, but it would increase to a great extent. It might be said—and he admitted that there was some force in the observation—"You are taking away a most important office from the localities, and you are taking away the patronage which attaches to the office which has previously been dispensed in the localities." He was not at all insensible to the importance or the weight of that consideration; but the public interest ought not to suffer from the continuance of the present system, because private interests might be involved. It would be said, in opposition to the Bill, that there was an advantage in having a registry in particular districts. He entirely denied that there was any advantage to any one from having the registries in particular districts, except to the keepers who benefited by the fees. He could quite understand that in former days, when it was necessary to travel to the towns where the registries were kept, it might have been important that people should have to travel only ten, twenty or thirty miles, instead of having to travel 100 or 150 miles to Edinburgh; but the whole state of affairs was changed. At the present day one-half at least of the deeds are sent by post, and, of course, it was as easy to send to Edinburgh from Aberdeen, as it was from Perth or Dundee, or any other part of Scotland, and, it was moreover, just as safe to send by post from one place as from another. Therefore, it was quite vain to say that the breaking up of the local registries will be inconvenient to persons whose titles were to be registered. 1160 They had been told, upon a former occasion, that the object of their Bill was to benefit professional men. He could not himself see how it would do so in any way whatever. It would not alter the employment of the conveyancer in any manner; it would have no effect in respect to the registration of the conveyance; but this it would do, it would make the operation of searching for the record cheaper. And it was certainly a singular fact, that although it is suggested that it would benefit the profession in Edinburgh, the discussion in which the Bill originated was first raised by the profession at Glasgow, and the fact that the advocates and writers to the Signet at Glasgow took up the question and agitated in favour of the removal of the registries to Edinburgh showed at least that they did not consider that the profession would be injured by it. The result was that the Lord Advocate of Lord Derby's Government did introduce a Bill precisely the same in its object as the present; but the tenure of his office, and the pressure of business, rendered it impossible to carry the Bill through. Since then, he (the Lord Advocate) had been pressed to take up the former Bill; hut he thought it right not to proceed without a preliminary inquiry, and two Commissioners were appointed who fully investigated the matter, and upon their Report he had prepared the present Bill.
§ Motion made, and Question proposed, "That the Bill be now read a second time."—(The Lord Advocate.)
§ MR. DUNLOP
said, the House will perceive that there is a Bill in the paper standing in my name on the same subject. We differ only in the mode in which we seek to secure the same object—namely, a register and an index that will really facilitate persons who may use them. It certainly was not his (Mr. Dunlop's) fault that the learned Lord Advocate should meet with any opposition to his Bill. The House knew it was always the custom of the Scotch Members to treat business of this kind in such a manner as to avoid anything like the introduction of competing Bills. The learned Lord, however, did not think it right upon this occasion to summon the Scotch Members to give their opinion on the question, and when he called the attention of the Government to the fact, and suggested that both the Bills would be sent to a Committee so that their details might be examined and one mea- 1161 sure agreed upon, his learned Friend entirely objected. In the present instance they were driven to embark in a contest on the relative merits of the two Bills. At the same time, he must again express his willingness that they should both be sent to a Select Committee. The learned Lord had stated that the foundation of his Bill was a resolution of the Glasgow meeting in 1856, and the Report of the two Commissioners. It was quite true that the resolution referred to recommended a change in voting the sending of the registers to Edinburgh; but, on reference to the petitions presented from Glasgow, his learned Friend would find that much the greater number of the petitioners were in favour of his (Mr. Dunlop's) Bill as against that of the Bill of his learned Friend. On the last occasion when this matter was discussed, it was said that the object of his (Mr. Dunlop's) proposal was to subserve the private interests of professional gentlemen in the various towns where the particular registers were kept. Now, he begged to say that he was as free from wishing to support private interests at the public expense as the learned Lord. In point of fact, he had introduced this Bill after the fullest consideration, because he thought it was for the interest of the general public. The Bill of the learned Lord himself proposed to give them the fullest compensation for any loss they might sustain while he relieved them from all labour and responsibility. Not only so, but he proposed actually to compensate gentlemen who, by their own admission, were not legally entitled to compensation, but were bound to submit to any change that might be carried out. The House might be assured he (Mr. Dunlop) would not ask them to pass any Bill unless he was thoroughly convinced that it was for the public advantage. The other basis on which the learned Lord said his Bill was introduced was the Report of the Commission. But he (Mr. Dunlop) would call the attention of this House to the object for which that inquiry was instituted. The Commissioners were directed to ascertain whether it would be desirable to concentrate the local registries in Edinburgh, but they were not directed to inquire into the state of the General Registry in that city. The evidence taken by the Commissioners was taken in accordance with these instructions; and therefore there was no evidence whatever as to the desirability of transferring all the registries to the General Registry in Edin- 1162 burgh. The evidence, moreover, was stated to have been taken in a most cursory and insufficient manner; and as an instance of the haste with which the Report was drawn up, it was there stated that from 1856 to 1861 the registries were not entered up, or at least the indices were in arrear. Therefore, there was not the slightest foundation in the Report of the Commissioners whereon this measure could be based. Now, as to the Bills themselves. The Lord Advocate, in a former debate, described his (Mr. Dunlop's) as a Registrar Bill. The learned Gentleman is as little entitled to impute to me a Bill on behalf of registrars as he (Mr. Dunlop) was to impute to him a Bill in the interests of the Edinburgh officials and candidates. No doubt registrars had an interest, but not a pecuniary one, for the Lord Advocate's Bill gave them full compensation, and relieved them from work and responsibility for life. He (Mr. Dunlop) did not ask the House to pass his Bill unless he could show it was for the public interest. The onus of showing grounds for transferring whole district registers to Edinburgh after they have had an independent existence for 250 years, and dispensing with the services of all the present keepers, compensating them out of public funds, must lie on the Lord Advocate who proposes the change. In one thing he agreed with the Lord Advocate—when he proposes to get rid of one of the two registers. The bother, annoyance, and expense in our system had arisen from the General Registry. That being the chief evil, what was the remedy? What was wanted is a remedy co-extensive with the evil. Confessedly the weak point in the system is the necessity of double search produced by the existence of the General Register, creating great expense and difficulties by its scheme of merging together deeds from all parts of the kingdom, without order in the way of abridging, indexing, or searching. Now, both Bills concurred in this, that they abolished the General Register. The learned Lord kept it up in name, but in substance he admitted the unsoundness of its principles. The Lord Advocate so far went with him (Mr. Dunlop), and he said to-night that he will abolish the General Register; but he proposed that there should be a register for each county. That was exactly what he (Mr. Dunlop) wanted. But he proposed another change, which was to bring all these county registers to Edinburgh, and he (Mr. Dunlop) wanted to know what necessity there was 1163 for that. The Lord Advocate alleges, in the first place, that the work will be better done. Now, what is the work? Copying into books prepared, paged, and marked, the deed to be registered, and making up the minute-book in forms furnished to order. What was required was attention, care, accuracy, intelligence, and local knowledge. Now, would this work be done better by a great body of clerks in Edinburgh, though under the superintendence of the ablest man? But there was no need to speculate about the matter—it was not alleged that there was any deficiency in the work. The Commissioners do not hint such a thing. Then, as to cheapness, he acknowledged the great importance of reducing the fees, but he denied that the work would be more cheaply done under the Lord Advocate's Bill. The Commissioners estimated that the staff would cost £5,000, which, with the Keeper's salary £1,000, if not increased, would be £6,000. This Estimate for the staff was undoubtedly too low. At present in Edinburgh, to record 5,721 deeds cost £4,527, which, deducting the Keeper's salary, left the staff of the Office to cost £3,527. The whole writs for Scotland were 14,405, more than two and a half times the present number in Edinburgh. Multiplying £3,527 by two and a half gave £8,817, to which, adding the Keeper's salary of £1,000, gives £9,817; and if that be increased proportionally to the increasing work, the amount would be at least £10,817. Now, this was not an Estimate, but a calculation on the basis of the existing cost. That would double the Commissioners' Estimate, and nearly exhaust their estimated saving. But now, keeping up particular registers, the large cost at present arose, not from the difference of work in Edinburgh and in the country—for labour was cheaper there—but because the officials in Edinburgh were on salaries, while in the provinces they received the fees. No doubt, in many cases the remuneration was far too large; but put the provincial registrars also on salaries, and he undertook that £8,000 a year would do the whole, giving a yearly saving to be applied in reduction of fees of £14,000 out of £22,000, or nearly two-thirds. His (Mr. Dunlop's) Bill proposed to effect this as the holders died out; but if the Government would agree to give compensation for the difference of the emoluments he would agree that they should be paid by 1164 salaries, and give the public the benefit of the reduction of fees at once. The next point was with reference to the facilitating of indexes and abridgments. The cause of the past delay was anything but creditable to Edinburgh management. They commenced the work of making these abridgments with 1780 instead of keeping up the current volumes, and the consequence has been that when they reach 1855 all previous to 1820 will have become useless; and the mass of arrears is constantly accumulating. The assertion that delay in sending up the records is the cause of abridgments being in arrear is utterly groundless. The registers at Edinburgh are to be kept by counties; and if the Register House will only regulate the size of the books to be sent to the district registrars by the same rule as they would be kept at Edinburgh they would be filled up in the same time. The volumes must be finished, whether in Edinburgh or in the country; and the only delay would be that of transmission by the mail. All this will be as well and quickly done under my Bill as under the Lord Advocate's. All the alleged reasons for so great a change as his Bill proposes entirely fail. He (Mr. Dunlop) believed that the people of Scotland were perfectly satisfied with the present system, provided that the fees were reduced and double searches abolished. By the present system, when indexes and abridgments were sent out, they were able in the country to bring up the search to any hour, and if in Edinburgh a day would be lost. The Lord Advocate kept up a separate register for inhibitions and adjudications, and those were registers which it was necessary to search as well as the others. He (Mr. Dunlop) proposed to abolish them altogether, but the Bill of the Lord Advocate retained them, and required a double search. Now, he (Mr. Dunlop) thought that it was of some importance in Scotland to keep up the status of country practitioners; but the Bill of the Lord Advocate tended to draw all conveyancing to Edinburgh and thus to lower the position of country writers. This involved the question of the responsibility for blunders and inaccuracies, and that is a question which requires to be settled. Was it to be retained or abandoned? And if retained what was the value of the responsibility of one man compared with that of twenty? At present, if a blunder were committed, there was far greater security for covering 1165 the loss than would exist if the Bill of the Lord Advocate was passed. The burgh registers are left. All the Commissioners' reasons for having these apply to the suburbs of towns, which occasion by far the greatest number of deeds. So strongly do they feel this, that they say that if engaged in establishing registers for the first time they would make them local in large towns; but as they have been local for 250 years, they will transfer them to Edinburgh, chiefly because they think that by the aid of their "search-sheet" which the Lord Advocate had rejected, they might bring the burgh registers to Edinburgh too. All the reasons they gave plead strongly for keeping the local registers, and the anomaly of one portion of the same town being local and the other Edinburgh was most objectionable.
§ MR. CRAUFURD
said, that when the question was last before the House, considerable discussion took place upon it; but of all the Members for Scotland pro-sent at that debate, with the exception of the Lord Advocate and his Colleague, the representative of Edinburgh, and the then learned Member for Bute (Mr. Mure), not a single voice was raised in favour of the Lord Advocate's Bill, which by some was designated a centralizing Bill. On that occasion they had only one proposal—that of the Lord Advocate based, as he said, on the Report of the Commissioners. On this occasion they had the advantage of having a converse proposition before us from the hon. Member for Greenock (Mr. Dunlop)—that the system which had existed in Scotland for the registration of land rights for the last two and a half centuries was as perfect as it possibly could be. That was a fact admitted by the Commissioners themselves; and which was also admitted by the Lord Advocate last Session, the only one defect being that of registration. The question now at issue was a very narrow one—namely, which of the systems proposed in the two Bills now before the House was the one which would lead to the greatest saving of expense, and was the best and most efficient plan. Now, in his opinion the Bill of the Lord Advocate was a revolutionary measure; whereas, that of the hon. Member for Greenock removes the blots and defects which existed, and which were the cause of unnecessary expense, without dealing with the question in a revolutionary spirit. It treats the question in accordance with the habits of the people 1166 for the last two and a half centuries, and asks you to amend that system without altering it. There was this advantage in his Bill, that they could try his system, and if they found it deficient, and not sufficiently economical, they could still go on and adopt a centralizing system. In the Report of the Commissioners, they said that, viewed as a whole, it was the most complete and practically useful system which had yet been devised. That was the point upon which he invited them to decide between the two Bills; he asked them to refuse to take the measure of the Lord Advocate as one that did unnecessarily interfere with that system. For his own part, he quite agreed with the hon. Member for Greenock. If centralization would achieve the object, it ought not to be a bugbear; but he did not think it would attain the object. With regard to the question as to whether this proposal was for the interest of one party or another, he utterly repudiated it. He was only taking the course which he now takes after the fullest consideration of what appeared to him most desirable for the interests of the country—namely, the removal of that one defect, the defect of the large expenditure. The second reason given for the introduction of this Bill was that it would save the expense of the transmission and re-transmission of the register books. But the expense of these transmissions are expenses paid entirely out of the pockets of the local keepers of the registrars. They were paid by the people of the locality, and therefore that argument fell to the ground. There was a curious fact connected with the Report of 1856. One of those who signed that Report was Mr. Bannatyne, one of the Commissioners. With all respect to Mr. Bannatyne, he must say that he went into that inquiry with his mind made up, having signed the Report which advised the removal of all the registers to Edinburgh. Therefore, he was not an unbiassed Commissioner. The other gentleman was an Edinburgh lawyer; it was, therefore, hardly to be expected that the inquiry would be conducted with that fairness which such a question demanded. But, more than that, what was the course that they described themselves as having pursued? How did they conduct the inquiry? What did they do at Dundee? Did they ask the profession any questions? Not at all. Mr. Bannatyne made a long speech to them, and then apologized for the haste with which he had 1167 to break up the meeting, as he wished to go off by the next train. At Ayr the same course was pursued. He thought that the Commissioners ought not only to have given us their Report, but the evidence on which it was founded. We are entitled to that evidence in order that we may judge how far their conclusions are correct, and he said that until we have the evidence we are not in a condition to state whether we can agree with the recommendations of the Report. They were now asked to remove the registries to Edinburgh on account of the great advantage of having all the registries in one place. If that was good for the counties it is good for the burghs. Having said that—so far as the counties are concerned—that was the proper principle to adopt, he might turn round and say, as to the burghs, it ought to be left to the burghs. It was of the greatest importance that the registry should be in the locality, and they proposed to continue a system that would be a double register. The advantage of the proposition of the hon. Member for Greenock was that he took in the whole country; he had one registry for the whole. It was said that there was a surplus of the fees. Then he (Mr. Craufurd) said it was a monstrous thing that for twenty years past the landed proprietors should have to pay not only for their deeds, but a surplus to the Exchequer. It was said that the work could be done much cheaper and better in Edinburgh than elsewhere. Now, here was the contested point. They had this fact, that in the counties which had local registers, the books were more closely made up than they were in the office at Edinburgh. Under these circumstances, how can they be expected to support the Bill which had been introduced to their notice by the Lord Advocate, particularly when they found that the work was not so well done in Edinburgh as in other places. On a review of the whole case, and in the belief that the system proposed by the hon. Member for Greenock was likely to be most conducive to the interests of the country, and the most likely to be economical, he should give his support to his Bill rather than to that of the Lord Advocate. Taking the difference between the two to be central and local, and objecting to the central, he begged to move, as an Amendment, that the Bill be read a second time this day six months.
§ Amendment proposed, to leave out the word "now," and at the end of the Question to add the words "upon this day six months."—(Mr. Edward Craufurd.)
§ Question proposed, "That the word 'now' stand part of the Question."
§ CAPTAIN CARNEGIE moved the adjournment of the debate.
THE LORD ADVOCATE
said, he thought this was rather an early hour at which to propose an adjournment; but, at the same time, provided his hon. Friend would assist him in endeavouring to come to some arrangement with respect to the discussion, he would not object to the adjournment. The Bill could be put down as the First Order of the Day after the Motion for the Committee of Supply tomorrow.
§ Debate adjourned till To-morrow.