Q&A With Land Registry On Their Response To The Pandemic

There is no doubt that every business around the world has had to face enormous challenges since the emergence of the Covid-19 virus. In the UK, millions of works are beginning to adapt to working from home, with chats over video calls rather than face to face. The handling of paper seems archaic now as we move to paperless communication to help kerb the spread of the virus.

However, some organisations are unable to move away from paper or operate easily from the comfort of their homes.

HM Land Registry last year had over 60,000 transfer for value applications during the month of April, however, since the lockdown, the organisation has had conveyancers complain about the speed to which applications are being processed and comment on the worries of properties not being protected.

Like any other business though, HM Land Registry is working to adapt how it is working in these strange time and already introduced measures such as….

We spoke to Chris Pope, Chief Operations Officer, about the issues currently being faced by the organisation and what other measures are being taken to help applications move forward.

Land Registry has thousands of workers over 14 offices who will have been affected by the lockdown rules, have the majority of staff been asked to work remotely? (We had heard that in excess of 5,000 staff were working from home, which in itself is a mammoth task.)

Our first response to the lockdown was to keep our most vital services – those essential to the continued functioning of the property market – operational while following the public health guidelines to work from home where possible. To that end, we have now enabled our staff to work remotely. Just under six thousand staff work for HM Land Registry, and the vast majority are caseworkers who usually work from 14 offices across England and Wales. Like many of our customers, our caseworkers are now working in very different and sometimes difficult circumstances.

We believe this approach will support our efforts allowing us to continue with greater flexibility in the long run should there be a second period of lockdown. It has also enabled us to move some of our digital transformation projects forward more quickly.

What systems have been put in place to allow staff to work remotely, especially as applications for transfer for value are paper based, as well as the identification documents needed for many transactions now?

Our caseworkers have remote access to the same systems as they do in the office. The integrity of the register is paramount so we have included a number of quality checks to these systems.

For many years now we have been investing in reducing the reliance on paper, making it possible for our customers’ applications to be lodged electronically through our business e-services and automating services where possible. As a result of this long-term investment, when the lockdown hit, our customers could still secure priority for their clients with many search results being issued without delay, by using the HM Land Registry Portal.

From the early stages of lockdown we have been listening to our customers and making changes to our policy and practice to acknowledge the unique circumstances that they were working in. We quickly updated our ID and signature policies to help conveyancers continue to function while conforming with the public health guidelines. We have also made other smaller policy changes such as pausing cancellation of applications with outstanding requests for information (requisitions) until further notice. Our COVID-19 guidance page has been regularly updated as changes have been made and we have been sending emails out directly to customers to keep them informed of our regular and rapid changes.

Are there any indications of when the majority of staff will be returning to the offices?

The guidance from government has been clear that everyone should work from home where possible. Only a handful of our people are working in our offices, undertaking tasks that cannot be carried out remotely. We will continue to follow government guidance while ensuring that we are doing everything we can to deliver our services for our customers. Like everyone else, we will continue to adapt to changes in guidance as they are introduced and ensure that we play our part in supporting the effort against the pandemic while continuing to support the property market.

There have been some comments that a few solicitors are still awaiting applications that were submitted in March. Is there a backlog of applications from the start of lockdown and if so what is the percentage?

We have been prioritising the most urgent applications through the expedite process, but we acknowledge that our services have been running slower than normal during these unusual times.

Prior to 23 March, we completed 95% of the 18,000 daily applications to update the register within five days. We are now processing more updates than we receive each day, but it will take some time to clear the backlog which built up in March, April and early May when we were unable to process significant numbers. We have been processing fewer register create applications (first registrations, transfers of part and first leases) during this period but we will be rebalancing our efforts and resources on to these cases.

We are also aware that the volume of applications received has fallen and that many of our customers are expecting a bounce back over the summer months.

What are your current turnaround times?

All services to search the register are operating as they were before the lockdown, with most results being delivered within 2-3 working days. These are our most vital services, enabling property to be bought and sold. We are also processing any application which has been expedited within 10 working days – again this is at the level we delivered before lockdown.

Again, applications to update the register are taking a little longer than we’d like and we are bringing more and more of our people onto these services to help complete applications more quickly.

If there are applications placed over 30 days ago, will Land Registry extend the priority period for searches done just prior to the application in an attempt to stop any fraudulent charges being placed?

Priority is given the moment an official search is submitted – that has remained unchanged during the recent lockdown.

Once a search is made, the 30 day priority period is activated. If the application is then lodged within these 30 days it will stay protected by the initial search. It is not possible to extend the priority periods of searches, but a new search can be lodged. As mentioned previously, there is no need to do this if the application has been submitted within the initial 30 days.

How can conveyancers best help their applications progress through the system, other than being patient in times they are also having to adapt to?

If there is a need to expedite an application, due to hardship or a linked transaction etc, we urge customers to use Application Enquiry to ask us to expedite, and we will prioritise these cases where possible. This allows us to clearly identify the most urgent cases and quickly meet our customers’ needs.

What is the best way for conveyancers to communicate with you?

Conveyancers can continue to contact us with specific queries via our new contact form as the first point of contact. Using our online contact form means we are able to provide a faster and more consistent response, getting back to all customers within five working days (often much sooner). I also know that many customers are now able to speak directly to one of our expert customer support team on our telephone lines.

However, do please keep in mind that we will only be able to respond to urgent calls and that we are still having to operate with a reduced service; our current opening times are 8am to 12 midday (we hope to be extending these hours soon).

Business e-services customers can use the application enquiry checker to check the status of applications or to request an expedition.

What is Land Registry’s biggest challenge at the moment?

I’m sure like many companies and organisations, ensuring our people can continue to work, safely and with a similar level of productivity, has been challenging. The sheer scale of the logistical effort required to ensure all 6000 of our people could work remotely, while supporting them to operate in these unusual and often difficult circumstances, has been immense and has taken time to ensure we get it right.

We were already reflecting on our priorities before the coronavirus struck, and we are taking the opportunity to take a step back and look at the level of service we provide across our different products. This may result in changes to some services.

We will be reaching out to ask about all of our customers’ priorities and how they feel we should prioritise our work. We will then be reviewing how we manage all our services in line with what they tell us to make sure we are accurately meeting their needs and providing the best support possible to the market.

All decisions on this will be based on clear evidence that this is what our customers need. We will be sharing more about this in the coming months.

 

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