Thursday, January 12, 2017

More Baird slash and burn – Privatising the 150-year-old Land registry

The Baird government is privatising the 150-year-old registry despite condemnation from peak bodies across the property and legal sectors, including the Real Estate Institute of NSW and the Law Council of Australia.

The plans are deeply unpopular with the groups which say the Land and Property Information (LPI) is a monopoly provider of an essential service and its privatisation could increase the cost of buying a home in an overheated property market.

Lawyer Margaret Hole, member of the Concerned Titles Group, says privatisation could degrade the land titles system, leading to the need for title insurance. Experts fear the profit motive will lead to the degradation of the LPI, which registers and secures title of more than $1.2 trillion worth of real estate, increasing the risk of errors and fraud which will potentially lead to the need for expensive title insurance.

The richness of the data and potential retail opportunities could explain why "powerhouse" consortiums involving banks, infrastructure giants and data companies were reported to have made bids as high as $2 billion.

The Land and Property Information unit keeps the official records of land ownership in NSW.
Acting Treasurer Dominic Perrottet dismissed the concerns, saying the concession holder will only be given access to the data required to operate the register and perform the authorised concession.

"The NSW government will retain full ownership of all land title data and data must be stored in Australia," he said.

NSW Premier Mike Baird and Treasurer Gladys Berejiklian are close to handing over the land titles registry to the private sector.  "The government will also have strong step-in powers to operate the business under the concession where it is in the public interest to do so."

It's understood that if LPI requires documents to prove, for example, a person's authority to make a transaction, the evidence is sighted and once the matter is completed, either returned (if an original) or destroyed (if a copy).

Land and Property Information at times requires sensitive data, such as a marriage certificate when changing a name on a title.
Out of reach

The CTG met ministers to express its concerns before the government passed the transaction legislation in September last year.

The group's members include former president of Law Society of NSW Margaret Hole, president-elect of Institution of Surveyors NSW Tony Proust, and former LPI staff with decades of experience who were made redundant last July when LPI was separated from its other functions ahead of the lease.

"The database is currently held in safe hands, protected by authorised public servants ... and many arms of government, committees of Parliament, the law, judiciary and ICAC may readily audit or investigate any suspicious behaviour or activity with or without recourse to the courts," it said.

"Under private ownership, the information will be subject to persons employed under indeterminate security classification and guidelines, working and residing at an unknown place, possibly beyond our legal reach."

The Law Society of NSW (LSNSW) has called for the private operator to be subject to the Government Information (Public Access) Act 2009 (GIPA Act).

"We request that the bill and the concession agreement make clear that the private operator must comply with any requests received from the Registrar-General under the GIPA Act, even if it is not itself subject to the GIPA Act," it said in a submission.

During the successful fight to stop the Tory government from selling the land registry in the UK, the Law Society of England and Wales raised concerns about the potential blending of land title data with other data sets.

"Such blended data sets are a major area of business growth in many areas. Property information is a prime exponent of blended data sets," it said in a submission.

"Ownership of the registers should remain with government. The data in the registers is Crown copyright and must stay in public ownership. It is key data for government and the economy generally."

It's understood the concession holder must assist and co-operate with the Registrar-General in relation to any public disclosure obligations of the government, including obligations under the GIPA Act.

It must also gain the approval of the Registrar-General to create non-core services, including blending data sets

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