Official Report (Hansard)

Session: 2007/2008

Date: 28 May 2008

COMMITTEE FOR 
FINANCE AND PERSONNEL

OFFICIAL REPORT
(Hansard)

Draft Civil Registration Bill

28 May 2008

Members present for all or part of the proceedings:

Mr Mitchel McLaughlin (Chairperson) 
Mr Mervyn Storey (Deputy Chairperson) 
Mr Roy Beggs 
Dr Stephen Farry 
Mr Simon Hamilton 
Mr Fra McCann 
Ms Jennifer McCann 
Mr Adrian McQuillan 
Mr Declan O’Loan 
Ms Dawn Purvis 
Mr Peter Weir

Witnesses:

Dr Norman Caven ) Department of Finance and Personnel 
Ms Annette Gilkeson )

The Chairperson (Mr McLaughlin):
I welcome Dr Norman Caven, Registrar General of the Northern Ireland Statistics and Research Agency (NISRA), and Ms Annette Gilkeson from the same body, who will present a pre-introduction update of the draft civil registration Bill to the Committee.

Dr Norman Caven (Department of Finance and Personnel):
We previously briefed the Committee on 24 October 2007 to give members an inkling of the likely contents of the Bill. Since that time, we have worked with the civil law reform division of the Departmental Solicitor’s Office to provide instructions to counsel. Counsel has now drafted a Bill that is scheduled for introduction to the Assembly on 16 June 2008.

Civil registration has existed since the 1840s and has operated almost continuously since then. It plays a vital role in giving a name and identity to people in society and providing proof of parentage and entitlement to inheritance. It covers many aspects of basic human rights. We have examined the historical civil registration framework, and we introduced the Marriage ( Northern Ireland) Order 2003. We conducted extensive work in local registration offices in district council areas to introduce new technology; since 1997, registers have been computerised, which has allowed the production of certificates of events registered since that date.

Over the past few years in the General Register Office, we have done quite a lot of work updating and significantly developing internal systems in order to make them more efficient, outward facing and easier for citizens to use. We have attained several Charter Mark awards and, in that process, our staff have also achieved Investors in People awards.

We are now addressing the last pieces of the jigsaw, one of which is our attempt to computerise records that stretch back to the 1840s. New births and deaths legislation will complement that task and further improve the service that we provide to the public.

There are a variety of measures in the Bill, and, rather than addressing each one independently, in an attempt to assist members, I shall group them in several areas. There are several service improvements, and one or two are worth identifying. We will be able to allow the registration of an event at any register office in Northern Ireland, rather than just in the locale of a child’s birth or in which the mother is living, and we hope that that will facilitate a more customer-oriented procedure. We will also seek to introduce regulations — including suitable safeguards — that would allow remote registration using electronic links. Irrespective of those measures, face-to-face registration will always remain for those who want it.

We also plan to facilitate commemorative certificates. Sometimes people want a certificate that is slightly different from the general certificate in order to commemorate a special event, such as a wedding anniversary or a particular birthday, and we are considering providing that as a service to individuals.

The Chairperson:
Obviously, it will also be another source of revenue. [Laughter.]

Dr Caven:
We also wish to facilitate unmarried fathers to be indicated as a parent on a child’s birth certificate. That is the range of service improvements that we envisage.

There are several other matters, which, although they do not affect many people, are nonetheless important to those people. We propose to extend the period in which a stillbirth can be registered from three months to 12 months. Stillbirth is always a traumatic event, and, sometimes, the three-month registration period is not sufficiently long for parents’ comfort, and, therefore, we envisage introducing that improvement.

Some individuals are sensitive about the notation of the cause of death on a death certificate, which is not strictly required for all purposes — for example, closing a bank account. In order to address that concern, we are proposing to provide for purchase an alternative form of death certificate that excludes the cause of death. If people so desire, that will be an option. As I said, those matters affect only a small number of people, but they are important to them.

We are also aiming to introduce some efficiency measures that will provide customer service improvements. I mentioned the digitisation of records, and that must be done not least because we are still working with paper records that stretch back to the mid-nineteenth century. We wish to do that not only to preserve those records under proper conditions but to accrue efficiencies as a consequence of computerisation.

Customers will find it easier to use the service once the records are computerised. For example, someone requiring a passport need not come to us for a birth certificate and then toddle along to the passport office and hand it in for processing. Instead, that person could provide on his or her passport application form the details that would allow the passport office, under suitable conditions, to check our registers, thereby streamlining the process. Computerisation would also reduce the number of certificates in circulation, thereby potentially reducing fraud. Those are examples of service-level improvements.

We are conscious of having some 10 million records, which are a substantial genealogical resource, and we encourage the use of that resource. Computerisation will allow those records to be made available on the Internet, again with suitable safeguards. A period of time would have to elapse before records were made available, and we are considering 100 years for births, 75 years for marriages and 50 years for deaths.

We are planning a book of Northern Ireland connections so that individuals who have a connection with Northern Ireland could register events, births, deaths or marriages that happen outwith Northern Ireland. Such registrations would not have any legal standing but would be an additional valuable resource to genealogists. That is being undertaken in Scotland and has been well received. It is another area where we see a potential improvement but which would be paid for by users and not be a cost to the public purse.

The legislation contains technical points, including how we correct errors, the delegation that the Registrar General can give to officers and other matters of clarification, which are tidy-up points and cover a number of efficiencies. There are also several small consequential changes that will result from the facility to allow registration in any register office and for the registrar, eventually, to be able to issue certificates in local offices that cover all of Northern Ireland.

Quite a number of those proposed changes have already been implemented in Scotland, although not in England and Wales, without much difficulty or adverse public reaction. The proposals have been agreed by the Executive and the Bill will be introduced to the Assembly on 16 June 2008, with Second Stage scheduled for 24 June 2008, before returning to the Committee for detailed scrutiny.

Mr Weir:
The Committee welcomes many of the proposals, not least the passport proposal, especially if it reduces paperwork and hassle. The current geographic restriction could be a great inconvenience for a small number of people. I assume that you do not expect many people to register outside their geographic area, thereby not placing much of a burden on an individual office.

Dr Caven:
We were interested in how the removal of geographic restrictions worked in Scotland. Although Scotland is not strictly comparable with Northern Ireland, the experience there has not resulted in much change and has not required changes in the staff complements of many offices. Although we could alter the staffing structure according to the demands of individual offices, the Department defrays the cost of individual offices in each district council area between what it costs to undertake the service and how much income is recouped from each office.

Mr Weir:
There could be implications for staff. For instance, there could be a massive additional burden on individual members of staff, or several members of staff could be forced to relocate because of higher volumes of registrations in Belfast, for example. You said that in Scotland it was at the margins.

Dr Caven:
Yes, it was at the margins.

Mr Weir:
That is what we would expect. What are the cost implications of the changes? Will they be cost neutral?

Dr Caven:
We expect them to be cost neutral. The records are being digitised, and we have produced a business case that has been approved by the supply side for the work that is entailed. The cost of the registration service is usually borne by members of the public who request certificates. The Government defray the cost of having a registration service and staffing it, but the cost to the public purse is defrayed by the time that it takes to undertake the work to produce an individual certificate. That cost is charged out at an economic rate.

Mr Weir:
I assume that commemorative certificates would also be cost neutral. Some of us are getting to the age where we would like to forget about birthdays rather than commemorate them, but will there be a set list of memorable life events? Will they be restricted to fiftieth wedding anniversaries, for example, or fiftieth birthdays, or will there be a level of flexibility so that a specific request can be accommodated?

Dr Caven:
The draft legislation provides some flexibility, but if experience elsewhere in the UK is anything to go by, memorable life events include fortieth, fiftieth or sixtieth wedding anniversaries, for example.

The Chairperson:
A certificate could have been issued for the day that you arrived in the Assembly.

Mr Weir:
That certificate should have black lines around it.

Dr Farry:
Or a certificate could have been issued for the day that you joined the DUP. [Laughter.]

Mr Weir:
Can the General Register Office cope with such requests? Some people may have unusual request, and I am sure that members who have worked in constituency offices are aware of the unusual requests that members of the public can make. However, presumably the General Register Office will be able to accommodate those requests within reason.

You mentioned that greater public access to civil registration records will be useful for genealogy purposes. Has any study been carried out to ensure that there are no loopholes that could be exploited for fraud purposes? I am not being facetious, but the famous book and film ‘The Day of the Jackal’ dealt with exploitation of people’s identities. People regarded that story as a piece of fiction, but, years later, it seems that many of those loopholes can still be exploited. Are you confident that the system is robust enough to provide data protection and to prevent fraud? We welcome greater public access, but there can be no loopholes that could be exploited for criminal or financial purposes.

Dr Caven:
That issue is to the front of our minds. The ‘Day of the Jackal’ fraud has been assessed by the Identity and Passport Service and the General Register Office.

As regards the availability of those records, we have considered restricting Internet access to what we call “historic” records. In other words, 100 years would have to elapse before a birth record would be available on that facility, 75 years for a marriage record and 50 years for a death record. Therefore, it is hoped that historic records, by definition, are not the type of records that individuals who intend to commit fraud would aim to use.

The Chairperson:
We can, therefore, take reassurance that he really is Peter Weir.

Mr Weir:
Unfortunately, for the rest of you, yes. [Laughter.]

Mr O’Loan:
Likewise, I support what you are doing to make the service more responsive to modern needs and desires. Is there a provision for naming stillborn babies?

Dr Caven:
Yes, there is such a provision.

Mr O’Loan:
I did not take in what you said about alterations to registration records. Can you explain what that is about?

Dr Caven:
Do you mean the re-registration of fathers’ names?

Mr O’Loan:
I do not mean changes to the procedures to make alterations. In what context can alterations to existing records be made?

Dr Caven:
Sometimes, a registrar may make a clerical error. Those things happen. Current legislation allows such an error to be fixed and a clean certificate to be provided to the individual. However, parents may attend their child’s birth registration and spell the child’s name wrongly but insist that that is how they want the child’s name to be registered at that time. They then go away and decide that that is not the way that the name should be spelled. That is not clerical error. However, nor is it an error of fact or substance. We are, therefore, trying to widen the legislation’s latitude in order to fix errors and provide clean certificates that do not have annotations that relate to matters other than errors of fact or substance. That is one way in which an existing entry can be changed.

Under current legislation, a child who is born to unmarried parents can be registered by the mother. However, if the father wishes to appear on the register, he must attend the register office with the mother in order to effect that registration. Sometimes, that is difficult, because people may be required to attend the office at a time when they have to be at work, for example. We are trying to make it easier for fathers to attend separately and to have their details recorded as their child’s father on the birth entry. At the same time, however, the record would be held in draft form until the mother in an unmarried couple gives her permission for the entry to be finalised. Therefore, although the process is made easier, it also retains that safeguard.

Mr O’Loan:
I am interested in alterations because registers are important legal records. The idea that someone could alter them retrospectively is quite significant. I wanted to ask about unmarried fathers, but you have, essentially, answered my query about the changes that would apply to them. I also wanted to raise the point about data security, given the recent review and incidents that have occurred. You have fully explained that matter as well. Therefore, I am happy to leave it there.

Dr Farry:
I want to follow up on Peter’s point about security. Presumably, there would be a risk of people hacking into the central systems, which must also be taken into account. There are security risks associated not only with fraud but with terrorism, for example. Presumably, you are conscious of that problem.

Dr Caven:
Our systems are not available to the public. The registrar links into the General Register Office database, which is for the non-historic records, and that is how it will remain. We will have a bespoke system that will have all the firewalls and Government ISO standards built in. In a sense, that currently exists.

Dr Farry:
People hacked into the Department of Defense’s computer systems in the United States. The skills of hackers have improved.

Dr Caven:
You are right; it is important to stay one step ahead of hackers. Such issues will be under continuous review.

Dr Farry:
Will there be a cross-referencing process that will highlight any illegal operating of the system by a hacker?

Dr Caven:
It is unlikely, even if someone did hack in, that they could make alterations to documents. To do so would require further passwords and authentications.

Dr Farry:
That is an issue that should be considered in the future.

People here have access to UK passports and Irish passports. Although a different legal regime exists in both countries, will the system that you are offering apply to UK passports only, or could it be extended to Irish passports? Given Northern Ireland’s particular circumstances, the potential for the new system to be available to people from both countries has obvious attractions.

Dr Caven:
We would have to consider the policy and legal implications of that.

Dr Farry:
In order to be fair across the board, that issue may be worthy of consideration. It would also be useful for electronic signatures and passport applications.

Mr Storey:
You said that there will be a certain cut-off point for particular types of information. What amount of information will then be available? Will it be the entire record, or will it be only a certain amount of the record?

Dr Caven:
The digitisation work involves taking an image of the record entry, from which an index that dates back to the mid-nineteenth century will be created. A similar system is currently in place in Scotland in which people can search the index. They can search only a number of restricted fields, such as surnames and dates of events. Therefore, people cannot surf through the records. We want to guard against that.

Armed with certain information, which people will need to know in advance, they can then search the index. In the case of the historic records, that then affords them the opportunity to purchase and download the required records via the Internet. People have to be in possession of a certain amount of information to enable them to get to that stage, which we believe is appropriate.

Mr Storey:
You gave one example of when an abbreviated death certificate may be required. Are there any other circumstances in which one may be required?

Dr Caven:
The abbreviated version will sit alongside a full death certificate. Some people may require a full death certificate because that can be important for epidemiological research; therefore, we do not want to stop recording causes of death. A vast range of research is conducted under strict and controlled conditions using such data.

Someone may die from a disease about which his or her family is sensitive. The abbreviated death certificate could, in such circumstances, be used for the purpose of closing a bank account without a member of staff of the bank knowing about the disease. That is perfectly reasonable. The feedback from the consultation indicated that that was the type of issue that caused people concern. No other fields on death certificates raised the same types of issues.

The Chairperson:
In October 2007, the Committee was briefed on the consultation process of the previous year. Are you satisfied that the Bill now addresses all the issues that came to light during that consultation process, or are there still some concerns about the Bill?

Dr Caven:
We did not proceed with anything contained in the Bill that did not receive approval during the consultation process. A few items that were consulted on have not been included because it is better to make progress with those via administrative rather than legislative measures, such as the opening times of register offices. That matter would be better progressed by iteration between the district councils and us.

Ms Annette Gilkeson (Department of Finance and Personnel):
We discussed new services that would be introduced by local authorities. However, after consideration, we decided that that was not the most appropriate way to make progress. There was also a very mixed reaction from the public on that proposal. We plan to work directly with each district council on those issues, because they would sit better with well-being powers as they do with local authorities in England that deal with those matters.

Dr Caven:
Those were matters such as the reaffirmation of vows, civil marriages or baby-naming ceremonies for those who did not want a religious event.

The Chairperson:
Were there any new provisions or additions that did not form part of the consultation process?

Dr Caven:
Those were largely clarification points that would use the Bill to avoid doubt in some cases; for instance, a “live birth” means a birth in Northern Ireland. There are a number of others of that nature.

Ms Gilkeson:
One provision tidies up, and modernises, the existing legislation. The Births and Deaths Registration ( Northern Ireland) Order 1976 states that certificates can be reproduced by xerox. The provision ensures that we are able to reproduce an entry by any future electronic means or any other modern means that may be necessary.

A clause has been introduced to remove the need for reproduction or replacement registers to be authenticated by the signature of the Registrar General. That is a purely technical change. There is also an additional clause concerning the issue of short birth certificates; that is a consequential change because of the removal of geographic restrictions. In addition, the entries in registers are evidence. In the future, if remote registration is used, the need for an informant to sign to verify an entry will be removed.

Another clause updates documents for which the General Register Office may charge a fee. Those are, more or less, technical issues that concern the operation of the service rather than what the General Register Office provides to the public.

The Chairperson:
I remind the Committee that the Second Stage of the Bill will be introduced on 24 June 2008; it will then be referred immediately to the Committee for detailed consideration. Thank you very much.

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