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Official Report (Hansard)

Session: 2008/2009

Date: 21 January 2009

COMMITTEE FOR FINANCE AND PERSONNEL

OFFICIAL REPORT

(Hansard)

Civil Registration Bill: Consideration of Issues Arising from Evidence

21 January 2009

Members present for all or part of the proceedings:

Mr Mitchel McLaughlin (Chairperson)
Mr Simon Hamilton (Deputy Chairperson)
Dr Stephen Farry 
Ms Jennifer McCann
Mr David McNarry 
Mr Adrian McQuillan
Mr Declan O’Loan 
Mr Ian Paisley Jnr 
Ms Dawn Purvis
Mr Peter Weir

Witnesses:

Dr Norman Caven ) Northern Ireland Statistics and Research Agency 
Mrs Annette Gilkeson )

The Chairperson (Mr McLaughlin):

I welcome Norman Caven, who is the Registrar General from the Northern Ireland Statistics and Research Agency, and Annette Gilkeson, who is the Deputy Registrar General. You are going to takes us through the table of issues. Members can interject on an issue-by-issue basis if they wish to further clarification.

Dr Norman Caven ( Northern Ireland Statistics and Research Agency):

Good morning. I will move forward on that basis and talk about the comments received and about the departmental comments.

The first issue relates to clause 8 of the Bill, which deals with the registration of deaths. Clause 8 is more concerned with allowing deaths to be registered at any registration office in Northern Ireland, and it talks about the potential for remote registration of deaths rather than actually attending the registration office. The issue arose during discussion of the clause with the genealogists, so it is not a point in the Bill itself. Current legislation, which is the Births and Deaths Registration ( Northern Ireland) Order 1976, makes provision for us, by regulation, to specify what information needs to be collected at the time of death. Therefore, it does not necessarily pertain to the Bill. It is something that we would come to in the regulations, but we may consider the issue anyway at this point.

The representatives from the genealogical organisations were concerned that the General Register Office for Northern Ireland was not collecting information about the names of the parents of the deceased person at the time of death, and wished that to be included. During the consultation, the Department proposed that we collect information, in that respect, for deceased children under the age of 16, mainly for epidemiological purposes — analysis of death by social class, because children under 16 do not have a social class. We will look favourably on the proposal and give it further consideration before the regulations come into effect, subject to any disproportionate burden that might be placed on respondents.

The system seems to have been working well — in Scotland since 1855 and in the Republic of Ireland since 2006. Subject to the above caveat, we will be prepared to move forward on this matter. In Scotland, particularly when an elderly person dies and the information is not readily available, it is not strictly necessary to include information about the names of the deceased’s parents.

Dr Farry:

You have more or less answered my question. How will the regulations be framed? Would it be a case of when the information is readily available, it will be included. How much of a burden will be placed on people to obtain that information? If a family member is registering the death of an elderly person, he or she may well know the names of the deceased’s parents. If that person is not a family member, it may be more difficult.

Dr Caven:

In Scotland, individuals registering a death are instructed, where possible, to submit a copy of the birth certificate and the marriage certificate. We will consider following that model. However, it is not a compulsory part of the registration process, which is made plain at the time. We will look more closely at that, and at how the system operates in the Republic of Ireland, so that we will know how to phrase the provision, but the aim is to ensure that there is no disproportionate burden.

Dr Farry:

In what percentage of registrations of deaths in Scotland is such information recorded?

Mrs Annette Gilkeson ( Northern Ireland Statistics and Research Agency):

The majority of deaths in Scotland are registered with that information included. The Scottish authorities already have the additional benefit of having records in digitised form. That means that the registrar has the option of checking records on screen while the informant is present.

Mr O’Loan:

I am sorry if I missed your introductory comments. I wished to raise three points, including the matter of a deceased person’s parents. I tuned in to what you were saying about considering that issue, and I support that idea. If it can be done, it would be a good thing, with the protection that it would not be an absolute requirement, because of the attendant difficulties.

My second point is about the evidence given by the genealogists, who referred to the agreement with the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints that was made in 1959. They said that it would not stand up —

The Chairperson:

We will come to that.

Mr O’Loan:

I am sorry.

The Chairperson:

That is OK.

Dr Caven:

The next comments relate to clause 13. The genealogists have accepted the Department’s assurance that the article being introduced by clause 13 is not designed to deny access to registration data. That was certainly not our intent, and the genealogists are prepared to withdraw their proposed amendments, with one exception, which concerned the title of the clause. They asked for a specific reference to historic information to be included, and said that the insertion of the word “historic” would be beneficial.

The clause makes provision for access to the registers. Currently, people are afforded access to the indexes, but they do not have access to the actual register entries. Access to those is provided by way of copies of the entries. This clause will open up access to the register entries themselves — as has been the case in Scotland for a considerable period of time — and that universal opening up will be provided by the new article 34A(1).

For those records that will made available on the internet, we will be inserting an additional caveat of “the relevant period”, meaning that access to death records will not be available until after 50 years has elapsed, marriage records will not be available for 75 years and birth records for 100 years. That caveat will only apply to the records that will be available on the internet, in order to prevent causal browsing, and it relates not just to historical records — pre-1922 — but to all records. Therefore, we feel that the insertion of the word “historic” is inaccurate, and we are not proposing to insert it for that reason.

Ms Purvis:

Article 34A will provide for access to records via the internet. Will those records be free to view?

Dr Caven:

No. The intention, which we will come to later, is that a fee will be paid, as is the case throughout the British Isles. That fee reflects the cost of the service, and the principle in all registration work is that the cost of the service is passed on to the customer.

The genealogical groups were also concerned about the phrase “the relevant period” and wondered whether the Department could vary it; albeit in regulations. I believe that the provision was discussed with those groups last week, and the point was made that the position that the Department would adhere to is that to allow for future concerns to be communicated, it is normal practice when timescales are specified, for contingencies to be established to vary those timescales if required. Any attempt to vary the timescales would be subject to legislative scrutiny.

If the proposed timescales were to be changed, the likelihood is that the periods would be shortened. However, there is a counter argument that if people are living longer, the number of who would be over 100 years old could increase quite significantly. That would mean that allowing a birth record to be made available after 100 years could become more of an issue. Therefore, having the option to vary the timescales is prudent.

The Chairperson:

The Committee has raised the issue of whether there is any merit in the related subordinate legislation being subject to affirmative, rather than negative resolution. That would mean that the Assembly would be able to exert its views on the issues. Do you have a view on that?

Dr Caven:

The regulations we will introduce, subsequent to this Bill, will consolidate all of the regulations contained in the Births and Deaths Registration ( Northern Ireland) Order 1976 and this Bill. That legislation will be enacted by negative resolution as there is no need for affirmative resolution in any of the other clauses. Introducing a particular clause, to be enacted by affirmative resolution, would require a separate regulation. From the Department’s perspective, negative scrutiny still provides an opportunity to question what the Department is doing.

The Foreign and Commonwealth Office is concerned that the reference in clause 14 to “any register” implies that the Registrar General will be making alterations to foreign and consular marriages, for which the Foreign and Commonwealth Office has responsibility. The power to make alterations to foreign and consular marriages is not within the compass of the Registrar General’s powers. The reference to “any register” was implicitly meant to mean that the Registrar General may alter any register that is within the compass of his powers. If it would help, the Department is happy to provide clarification on that by including a definition of “any register”, citing that point in an amendment.

The issue around clause 16 has been resolved satisfactorily. I will move to clauses 22 and 23, which were referred to earlier. If members are content with the explanations I gave previously, we can apply those to these two clauses also.

The Chairperson:

That is sensible.

Dr Caven:

Clause 27 deals with the record of Northern Ireland connections. I invite my colleague to speak on that issue.

Mrs Gilkeson:

The record of Northern Ireland connections will be an entirely voluntary scheme, whereby someone who registers an event abroad will be able to register it in Northern Ireland also. That will be helpful for genealogical research.

The Foreign and Commonwealth Office is concerned that the proposal will impact on the work of consular officers abroad and that it will have resource implications, because lots of procedures will have to be changed and documentation followed up on.

The record of Northern Ireland connections will not impact on the procedures that the consuls and the Foreign and Commonwealth Office operate currently. GRONI will maintain the register and all issues relating to an event — registering, deleting or accessing of records — will be conducted through our office in Northern Ireland; therefore, the Foreign and Commonwealth Office’s procedures will not be changed in any way.

The Foreign and Commonwealth Office did not contradict this proposal in its latest submission to the Committee. Rather, it focused on elaborating the details of the Foreign Marriage Order 1970. It did not suggest that any changes be made to the Bill. None of the points raised require a change to the Bill as drafted.

Dr Caven:

A number of other issues that do not relate to clauses of the Bill arose during the course of the Committee’s evidence sessions.

First, the genealogists who gave evidence said that they did not want any new legislation or regulations that would restrict access to data. In our original consultation for this Bill, we were slightly concerned about the balance between privacy and public access. That has led to the mooting of a suggestion that certain fields might not be available on the records. In view of the consultation responses, and the situation in Scotland, where that system has worked quite well over the past quarter of a century, we have changed our proposals in the Bill. Therefore, that is no longer an issue for those who responded.

The Chairperson:

I am sure that people will welcome that response.

Dr Caven:

There was also some discussion about the agreement entered into in the 1950s by the General Register Office and the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints to microfilm Northern Ireland civil registers.

Information from the registers was then appearing in the Church library in Northern Ireland. The terms of the original agreement provided for a copy of the records to be made available in the Family History Library in Salt Lake City for research purposes and to be available there only to the attention of the Church. Subsequently, the Church has decided to adhere to the terms of that original agreement and withdraw those records from the library here.

The Committee posed a number of questions relating to that. The first was whether the General Register Office intends to make the post-1922 records for Northern Ireland available on the internet as well as at the GRO offices in Belfast and in the various district council offices. The answer to that is yes, but that is subject to what I said earlier: it will include the records of births prior to 1909, marriages prior to 1934 and deaths prior to 1959 and, as each year passes, an extra year will be added to those categories.

There is also the question as to whether making post-1922 records from Northern Ireland available only on a fee-paying basis, creates a commercial disadvantage to genealogists here. Subsequent to the withdrawal of that information by the Church, post-1922 Northern Ireland records are not available anywhere, other than from the General Register Office, so that there is no disadvantage to any group.

Finally, a question was asked as to the correct balance between charging for the information and making it freely available. What would be the impact on tourism? As I said to Ms Purvis, all charging for access to records in Northern Ireland is based on the principle of charging for the service received. In this case, the service is received by a genealogist or someone who is interested in family history. There is a cost attached to that, which would otherwise be borne by the taxpayer. The principle that the Department adheres to is that a charge reflecting that cost should be levied: that is the case in all registration offices in the British Isles.

With respect to tourism, Scotland has a website called “ScotlandsPeople” where such information has been available over the internet for a number of years. No quantitative or before-and-after study has been carried out as to whether it generates tourism: that might be difficult to prove. Despite the fact that the site levies an access charge, it has been successful.

The Chairperson:

The theory still stands: but it has not been tested.

Dr Caven:

It is a hypothesis.

Mr O’Loan:

I wish to make two points. Many think that if records are put on the internet, they should be freely available, for they become almost public records. On first consideration, I think that having a charge, as a barrier to that availability sits ill with me. Various charging mechanisms may be considered: a one-off charge could be levied for people to become registered users, or an annual licence sold. I do not know what system is currently being used. My first instinct, however, is that once such material becomes regarded as of sufficient general use that it is taken out of the protections for the individuals and the families, it becomes a like a public record. If we go so far as to put it on the internet, it ought to be freely available. How do you react to that?

Dr Caven:

The internet will be only one means whereby people can access the records. People will still be able to go to the General Register Office in Belfast and access them there. That inevitably involves a cost: the time of employees who assist people who arrive in Oxford House to find the information that they seek. We try to work out what the cost is. We will include any updating of the internet system that would otherwise be funded by the taxpayer in the costing regime.

Mr O’Loan:

I think this is an area in which an economic gain could be made — there has been a reference to tourism. An argument could be made that we would be happy to give away historical information for free, with the expectation that there would be some degree of economic gain elsewhere, but not for GRONI.

The Chairperson:

We could ask the Tourist Board; I am sure it would be able to put up the money.

Dr Caven:

If it were helpful, I could provide information on the scale of charges attached to the information in Scotland.

Mr O’Loan:

The Committee will keep an open mind on the issue. The submission provided by the Council of Irish Genealogical Organisation states that:

“The agreement entered into by GRONI with the LDS Church over forty years ago now would be unlikely to withstand the legislative changes of more recent years.”

Do you know what legislative changes that refers to?

Dr Caven:

I have been puzzled by that; I do not know.

Ms Purvis:

I can clarify that, because it is an issue that I raised with the representatives of CIGO who appeared before the Committee last week. They explained that the legislative changes referred to were in relation to the holding of data and freedom of information. Due to those legislative changes, if the GRONI were to enter into an agreement with the Church now to take those records, that agreement would not withstand those legislative changes because of data protection regulations. It would be like handing over records that belong to someone else.

Dr Caven:

Certainly, if the agreement entered into in 1959 were entered into now, I would want to take quite a lot of legal advice as to whether it was not ultra vires.

The Chairperson:

Is that because of the legislative changes, or because of a problem with the original approach?

Dr Caven:

It is because of the existing legislation.

The Chairperson:

How can that issue be resolved? Should we just play it safe?

Dr Caven:

The records that we are making available are public records. Under statute they are available for inspection; we are opening them up more, with certain caveats in relation to internet availability. I do not think we are transgressing any freedom of information or data protection legislation in that respect.

Ms Purvis:

I would like to return to the issue of cost. I know some amateur genealogists, and people with an interest in family history. For those who may be just beginning a search and may not have the investigative skills of a professional genealogist, the cost can sometimes be off-putting, particularly if they are just beginning with a general search. I take Declan’s point about the internet and information being freely available, and Dr Caven’s point about other citizens in the UK who use the service paying for the cost of that service. Is there any way in which limited information could be made freely available — for example, names and years — so that those who may just be starting a search can try to find information in the general time frame that they are interested in? If they then require further investigation, they could be charged for that, and for the issuing of certificates, etc.

Is there any way in which that information can be made available without an initial charge levied? Somebody could be charged for 10 searches in relation to their great-grandfather, and end up going down totally the wrong line; that is money wasted. Perhaps a limited amount of information from the records could be made available to help people place their search within the relative time period and context.

Dr Caven:

Are you talking about people who are starting up a search?

Ms Purvis:

I am talking about not only people starting up, but those who do not have the skills that the professionals have.

Dr Caven:

The General Register Office offers the facility for an assisted search, which can be a very cost-effective way for someone starting up to begin their search. However, there is a charge to cover the time of the person who provides assistance; I am afraid that I keep coming back to the principle of cost. That can be a useful means of finding your way around the records. An individual can book a time to come into the General Register Office to avail of an assisted search, and a member of staff will assist them.

Ms Purvis:

I am thinking more about the internet; more and more people are using the internet and therefore would not go into the office.

Dr Caven:

When it comes to the internet, the website will include a self-instruction section which will advise people about how to use it. However, I am afraid that we still come up against the basic principle of cost.

Mrs Gilkeson:

It is worth noting that there is a concurrent project to digitise all our records dating right back to the beginning of registration. Following that, we expect to see a significant reduction in cost; an individual will then be able to access records quickly on the internet, and that is a lot more cost-effective than accessing the books in GRO.

Currently, a person can pay, per hour, for an assisted search, or, they can look at the indexes and then ask for the records — it costs £12 for a certified copy of each individual record. Once passed, the legislation, coupled with the benefits of the digitisation project that we are currently involved in, will allow us to move to a simplified and more cost-effective system.

The Chairperson:

Digitisation will open up access. Is there a charge for checking the indexes? Is that a step that an individual can pursue in the first instance?

Mrs Gilkeson:

There is a charge for checking the index, and that entitles the individual to four free searches each time they come in. However, that can still add up to quite an amount of money. Following the digitisation project, there will be an enhanced index, which means, potentially, that someone could check the index without looking at a digital copy of the actual record. Therefore, more information will be available in GRO and on the internet, for instance, by exposition of a list of common names in Northern Ireland throughout the generations.

Ms Purvis:

Do you think that those reductions in cost will be passed on to service users?

Mrs Gilkeson:

Yes; we operate on a full cost recovery basis — there is no profit.

The Chairperson:

We will move on.

Dr Caven:

The next issue relates to data security and the risk of people hacking into the central systems. The main General Register Office computer systems are internal and do not have a public interface; nonetheless, as bespoke operating systems, they have industry-standard protection procedures in place, and those are kept under continuous review. There are audit processes and reports built in, which allow GRO to monitor activities carried out on the system. Over and above that, the public-facing material that we will have on the internet will consist of static images, which cannot be manipulated.

Mr O’Loan:

An intensive review of all Government security in Northern Ireland was carried out following some major releases of information. Was NISRA part of that review, or are you an independent agency? We may have been told that information before, but I do not remember.

Dr Caven:

NISRA is an agency, but it is not independent, in the sense that it is an integral part of the Department of Finance and Personnel.

Mr O’Loan:

Were you part of the review, which was reported by Bill McCluggage on a number of occasions?

Dr Caven:

I do not recall. I will send you a note on that.

Mr O’Loan:

There was a lot of new thinking about security in the review, and it would seem prudent for NISRA to be linked into any new processes, correctives and protections that were introduced.

Mrs Gilkeson:

We have appointed an accredited consultant from the communications electronic security group (CESG) listed adviser scheme, a CLAS consultant, and that is in order to implement the British standard for information security management to BS 7799 for current and new systems such as the digitisation project that we are involved in. The CESG is the UK Government’s national technical authority for information assurance. A CLAS consultant was appointed to look at the systems that we had in place and to do an IT health check on them. Those systems, as well as the project that we are currently involved in, have been accredited. The CLAS consultant can approve information data on the system up to, and including, “secret” level.

Dr Caven:

Will that suffice in place of sending you a note?

Mr O’Loan:

It would also be useful if you were to send a note to let us know whether you were part of the security review process.

The Chairperson:

Thank you for your assistance.

Dr Caven:

I have a final point about sharing information with other Departments and the extension to the Irish passport service. Annette was going to say something about that.

Mrs Gilkeson:

I have been in discussions with the Passport Office in the Republic of Ireland, and there are no electronic links between that office and the General Register Office in the Republic. Any checks that the Passport Office wishes to carry out are done by telephone or by written correspondence. The Passport Office in Dublin has no short-term or long-term plan to initiate any action in that area. As such, it has confirmed that it does not wish to enter into any discussions with us at this point in time.

Dr Farry:

“Ourselves alone”. I presume that the introduction of the use of electronic signatures would be allowed in the proposed legislative or regulatory provision.

Dr Caven:

We will not require a signature as part of the new process. If someone is doing a remote registration, the legislation will allow us to say that whatever is articulated as being required in regulations for the registration of a birth or other event, with or without a signature, actually constitutes the required record. We will have checks in place so that a birth cannot be registered until we get information from the Health Service that it has actually occurred. In the same way, a death cannot be registered until the medical authorities provide that information. Therefore, someone cannot just come along and register a person as being dead when they are not dead.

The Chairperson:

Thank you for your assistance. Your responses to the issues were very helpful and constructive.

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