Stamp Office flitting with Registers opens door for new one-stop shop

THE workings of the Edinburgh Stamp Office are a mystery to many. At a time when offices that deal with stamps - post offices - are being closed up and down the country, should we really care if the Edinburgh Stamp Office shuts its doors?

The answer has to be yes: the Edinburgh Stamp Office is an integral part of the paperwork of commercial transactions.

More than that, if the office disappeared down south to Birmingham, as part of what the HM Revenue and Customs (HMRC) calls improving customer service, then it would be a snub at devolution and a major disappointment for Scottish lawyers.

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HMRC has already stated it plans to centralise most of its work in Birmingham, providing a faster, more efficient service. By February, the work of the stamp offices in Belfast, Newcastle and Bristol will have been transferred to the Midlands. But, says HMRC, "for reasons of Scottish law", it will be retaining an office in Edinburgh.

That, says James Aitken, a senior associate with HBJ Gateley Wareing, with a sigh of relief, is only the first step. After years of campaigning as an individual and as a member of the Tax Committee of the Law Society of Scotland, he has been told by HMRC that the plan is for the Registers of Scotland and the Edinburgh Stamp Office to housed be under the one roof.

The Stamp Office is based at Sighthill and the Registers has a number of offices, the main one being in Queen Street, Edinburgh. The Stamp Office will make the move - probably about ten people will be involved and no date has yet been fixed.

At the moment, if a lawyer wants a same-day settlement, then it has to be lodged with the Registers, with somebody - usually a legal firm's trainee - being dispatched to the Stamp Office at Sighthill, with the relevant documents to complete the same-day registration.

This all takes time and money but, these days, the bulk of the work can be done online, and many commercial lawyers would claim that having both services under the one roof will not really make much difference.

But, says Aitken, what is important is that this move is at a time when there is more centralisation down south, and having in Edinburgh a devolved body, the Registers of Scotland, and a UK reserved body, HMRC, in the same building is a victory, with the closure of the Edinburgh office having been a possibility.

He says: "The Stamp Office sharing premises with the Registers is a practical and sensible move, but we have much further to go.

"There is what I call the Rolls-Royce option. That would be a Scottish one-stop shop for a number of legal, taxation and registration services.

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"There would also be a number of sub-offices, possibly based in local authority headquarters, throughout Scotland. Just as London is not the UK, Edinburgh is not Scotland.

"My argument for this idea is mainly the way the government, of whichever type, provides services. We should look at each service and see if it can be better delivered.

"One way of improving Scotland's economic performance is to make it as easy as possible for business to be conducted. That is why the sharing of premises is just a small step - the service provided by HMRC in Scotland needs to be improved."

Aitken's campaign will continue. He says it is currently taking 13 weeks to provide a VAT registration number - that inhibits industrial growth and has to be improved.

Other areas that he sees a one-stop shop dealing with include: a register of wills; the creation of a standardised property enquiry certificate for all residential transactions, with a 24-hour service; support for local authorities negotiating with developers; tax issues relating to Scottish charities; and landlord registration.

He adds: "There is so much to be done. A one-stop shop will mean cost savings, a greater use of technology, a sharing of information, the same opening hours, joined-up thinking and one contact point.

"HMRC understand less about Scotland than it did eight years ago - talk to them and they admit they don't know anything about Scotland.

"This promised move of Scottish and UK civil servants into the same building is the first of its kind and for lawyers it means we can now be as efficient as our colleagues in the south."

The modern Registers of Scotland was formed in 1948, when it was separated from the Keeper of the Records of Scotland.