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New ID cards to store health records

Biometric passports by end of year

Each new identity card to be introduced next year would contain an electronic chip containing the individual's health record, Communications Minister Austin Gatt told Parliament yesterday.

Moving the second reading of the Central Registry Bill, he said the information would be linked to Mater Dei Hospital, health clinics and, in time, to general practitioners' clinics. Eventually the individual's banking information could be stored on the ID card, the use of which could be extended as an alternative to the passport and even the credit card, where small amounts were concerned.

Dr Gatt said he hoped that biometric passports would be introduced by the end of the year. These would contain the print of one of the individual's fingers. In all probability, he said, they would also contain another security feature - the individual's iris.

The Bill had already been moved during the last legislature and 49 of its 90 clauses had been reviewed in committee stage. A number of amendments had been suggested by both sides and the new bill's first clauses were being presented as amended. However, he felt some of the clauses connected with IT still needed to be refined.

The Bill aims at consolidating into one law the separate pieces of legislation relating to Public Registry and Land Registry operations, eliminating the dichotomy between the two.

Dr Gatt said this was the first step to modernising the registry, and he was convinced that this would lead to better accessibility of information.

This was not a bill aiming only at registration of land. There was also the register of persons and that of legal entities, all linked to a sophisticated IT system. The Public Registry and the Land Registry part-duplicated the information, but this would now be eliminated and the new Central Registry would lead to researchers being able to find to whom a residence or field belonged. The law would give owners legal surety of title.

Apart from the information in the registry being used for ID cards and passports, this database would also register non-legal entities, thus enabling citizens to see who were the persons responsible for such entities. The register of legal entities, administered by the MFSA, was working well.

Dr Gatt said the Central Registry database would be accessible on the existing e-government system 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

He expected the Public Registry and the Land Registry would account for a greater part of the discussion on the Bill because they were the most complicated. They included technicalities and legal jargon, as well as some changes to entrenched practices. Although the Land Registry had been formed, and there had been various efforts by governments and ministers, the Public Registry's function had remained important.

So far the system had worked by registering properties in Valletta. But anywhere else, property was not registered, and this was an intrinsic fault of the Land Registry system. This was now going to be changed, and all land in Malta and Gozo would have to be registered. The task would take between 10 and 15 years.

This was open to discussion because the aim was to have an effective system which encouraged people to switch over from the Public Registry to the Land Registry. This would not be an easy task but it was necessary. In today's world, where clients demanded more certainty, it was imperative to have a system which ensured titles, and this was the only system that guaranteed this certainty. This was a major advantage of this system and this certainty was indispensable in today's world. The change had to be a smooth one, with regular discussions with notaries.

Dr Gatt said that since 1981 only 10 per cent of the property had been registered and it was time to do away with the double registration system. The Bill would also create a one-stop shop.

It was interesting that this system would register not only simple things, such as sales or purchases, but even things such as promises of sale or disputes over property, making the whole process more transparent.

The very real possibility of conflicts, he said, was something that had to be dealt with. A proposed system was to create tribunals, presided over by lawyers who had been practising for more than 12 years.

A disadvantage of this tribunal system was that the same lawyer might have interests on both sides of the room, although this could be forbidden. Some people wished the system to remain as it was, but a disadvantage of this was that it would take a long time for a case to be heard. After all, the majority of cases at the moment were related to property disputes. Alternatively the Minister for Justice could create a sector in the existing system to deal specifically with these disputes. Dr Gatt said it was best to wait and see.

In this case, the government and the opposition together were trying to give Malta a push forward. As 78 per cent of the population owned their residences, this had always been important to the Maltese people. The government encouraged property ownership and attempted to create a reliable system.

Labour spokesman Angelo Farrugia said the opposition was in agreement with the Bill because it aimed to extend registrations other than land titles in a uniform manner.

For the first time one could input information in the database and the Data Protection Act would be infringed only if that information was used for means other than what it was intended for. The archives would have to be put into the databank, which would lead to a common database.

Dr Farrugia said that in the case of conflicts, people could refer to a new tribunal. But he asked whether this new Central Registry Tribunal was to be part of the Central Tribunal system. If in the negative, this would mean creating a special procedure.

The common database, which was the central repository, would form part of the registry. Any person who accessed the register under false pretences or misused or abused the information supplied would be infringing the Data Protection Act.

Dr Farrugia said information was power, and ordinary citizens were being given the tools to be further informed. The Bill provided that rents would now also be registered. This would mean that, even if a residence was rented out for a year, this could be registered by the owner. Even a condominium's trustee could register property.

Any person who entered into a promise of sale with the registered proprietor could apply to the registrar to grant him a priority notice. Dr Farrugia said that the courts had already decided that, where no time-limit was given in the promise of sale, this would be taken to be of three months. He asked that this be clarified at committee stage.

Jason Azzopardi (PN) said that the bill incorporated two laws and proposed one unified system. The government's aim had always been to improve the public service.

There were a number of advantages to this Land Registry Bill, he said, such as guaranteed title, minimisation of litigation over who land belonged to, security for creditors, as well as facilitation of the administrative work of the public service, because there would be an up-to-date map available. It also removed the possibility of mistakes on past titles, and the possibility of any fraud. There would be a reduction in expenses, as the process would be simplified.

As Dr Farrugia had already explained, the system of resolution of conflict, he said, would be improved and would avoid an unnecessary backlog of cases in court. The law would also include a fund created to pay off any expenses incurred as a result of this Bill. Whenever this fund was insufficient, he explained, the difference would be paid out of the Consolidated Fund.

Dr Azzopardi went on to speak of a supervision committee for the notarial profession. There was a provision that twice a year an inspection was carried out by visiting professionals, to check that everything was in working order. The majority of notaries, he said, were exemplary, but there had been cases when some notaries had fallen short of their duty. There was work under way to resolve such issues.

This law, he said, stated that the minister could appoint members of this committee; but a public notary should not be allowed to be a member, unless he renounced his profession. This was a matter of common sense.

There had been discussions with the Council of Notaries which augured that in the near future they might, together, propose amendments to the laws regulating their profession, thereby giving it increased stability.

Anton Refalo (MLP) said that in Gozo there were many problems because many were registering land in their name.

One of the most important clauses of the Bill was that which said that all streets and alleys, including those linking two existing roads but not those leading to an internal development, should, for all intents and purposes, be deemed to be public roads. This clause, he said, would render justice to many.

Referring to registration, Dr Refalo said that the mechanism should be more rigid and not based only on the premise of a will. The registrar must be shown a proper title to property.

He said it was important that people had the right of appeal from the decisions of the First Hall.

Owen Bonnici (MLP) said land registration was a great challenge. Facts show that the land registry system had never caught on; only 10 per cent of property was registered.

The two main banks had decided that with every loan agreement they needed a land registry certificate, and this has led to a number of contracts falling behind. Huge efforts should be made to introduce the changes which the Bill was proposing. These would do away with uncertainties. Even court decisions would have to be registered in the database.

Dr Bonnici said that most provisions were streamlined, especially the time limit of registration. He also commented on the high fees one would have to pay for public registry researches, and augured that now these would be quasi non-existent.

Notes should one day be registered through electronic mail.

He expressed wariness of another tribunal, particularly because the value of the properties would run into thousands of euros.

It did not make sense for the safeguards now enjoyed by the judiciary to be passed to others. Nonetheless he acknowledged that issues needed to be resolved as quickly as possible.

Concluding, Dr Bonnici asked for a time-frame when the Bill would come into force. The debate continues this evening.

The House yesterday also gave the first reading to a Bill amending the Explosive Ordinance.

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