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Official Report (Hansard)

Session: 2008/2009

Date: 14 January 2009

COMMITTEE FOR FINANCE AND PERSONNEL

OFFICIAL REPORT

(Hansard)

Civil Registration Bill

14 January 2009

Members present for all or part of the proceedings:

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

Witnesses:

Mr Robert Davison ) Association of Professional Genealogists in Ireland 
Mr Steven Smyrl ) Council of Irish Genealogical Organisations

The Chairperson (Mr McLaughlin):

I welcome Robert Davison, the honorary secretary of the Association of Professional Genealogists in Ireland (APGI), and Steven Smyrl, the executive liaison officer for the Council of Irish Genealogical Organisations (CIGO). Thank you both for attending the Committee, and I wish you all the best for 2009.

As the Committee previously agreed, the session is being recorded by Hansard. Therefore, all mobile phones must be turned off completely.

I invite the witnesses to make an initial statement. I understand that you are content with some of the responses issued thus far from the Department of Finance and Personnel, but perhaps you might bring your outstanding concerns to the Committee’s attention.

Mr Steven Smyrl (Council of Irish Genealogical Organisations):

I have prepared a short statement about Mr Davison and myself, and the issues at hand. Shall I go through my presentation? Would that be easier?

The Chairperson:

Sight unseen, I will take your guidance.

Mr Smyrl:

I represent the Council of Irish Genealogical Organisations. I have practised as a specialist in legal and probate genealogical research since the late 1980s. I am a founding member of CIGO, of which I was chairman from 2000 to 2002. In 1991, I founded Massey and King Ltd, the Republic of Ireland’s only incorporated firm dedicated to legal genealogy.

CIGO was established in 1992, as a lobby group for national and international organisations that were interested in Irish genealogical research. It aims to provide a forum for family-history and genealogical groups and societies; to encourage greater public knowledge of, and access to, records that are relevant to genealogists; and to formulate, influence and co-ordinate policy on all issues of concern to member organisations.

My colleague is Robert Davison, who represents the Association of Professional Genealogists in Ireland. Members of APGI are independently accredited genealogists. After his retirement from the British Transport Police, Mr Davison moved to the Ards Peninsula in County Down, where he took up a long-time interest in his own Irish family history, and joined the North of Ireland Family History Society and the Upper Ards Historical Society. He has practised as a professional genealogist since 1997, specialising in genealogical probate and adoption research. He became a member of APGI in 2003. In December 2008, he completed a three-year term as the organisation’s honorary secretary.

The daily work that Mr Davison and I do involves accessing civil registration records in Belfast and Dublin, and through the various county-based genealogical heritage centres that have access to historical registration data. We have each lectured extensively on the use of such records in the study of genealogy. With another colleague, Eileen O’Duill, I compiled a guide to Ireland’s civil records, which was published by CIGO in 2000. We have brought a few copies for the Committee.

When the Republic’s General Register Office (GRO) announced in the 1990s that it was to modernise legislation — much of it dating back to 1844 — that underpins civil registration, CIGO and APGI were to the fore in lobbying the relevant Department in the Republic in order to ensure that genealogists’ views were heard. Over several years of contact with the Minister for Health and the GRO, we convinced the authorities that access to registration data, which are a matter of public record, must not be curtailed.

Beyond that, CIGO and APGI secured a commitment to improve data recorded in death registrations in order that a person’s date and place of birth, and parents’ full names, would be recorded. That small change in data collection revolutionised the credibility of the Republic’s death registrations.

CIGO and APGI welcome the Civil Registration Bill, which will help to create a new and modern framework for civil registration in Northern Ireland, and make it easier for genealogists and historians to access historical registration data.

CIGO and APGI had initial reservations about clauses 13, 16 and 22. Clauses 13 and 22 deal with access to historical registration data through third parties and will lead to an innovative, Internet-based service. The importance of the reference to third parties is that current legislation states that registration data are available only in the form of a certificate issued by a registrar. To allow certain data to be passed to a third party will enable the General Register Office for Northern Ireland (GRONI) to establish Internet access to its historical records. CIGO and APGI very much favour that development, but we were concerned that clarity was needed about the wording of a clause that would insert a new article 34A into the Births and Deaths Registration ( Northern Ireland) Order 1976.

Clause 16 will enable GRONI to issue edited certificates; for instance, death certificates that omit the cause of death. For example, submitting a death certificate to a bank does not require one that states the cause of death. CIGO and APGI were concerned that the issuing of edited certificates might be done to the exclusion of unedited, or full, certificates.

However, in the past few days, in response to our submissions made in August 2008, the Department has clarified some of those issues.

In the light of that, we are happy to withdraw completely our suggested amendments to clause 16, and almost all of what we suggested on clauses 13 and 22.

We wish to see the heading changed in clause 13 at lines 8 and 11 on page 5 of the Bill. Both headings currently read:

“Access to information relating to births and deaths”.

We wish to see both headings changed to read:

“Access to historical information relating to births and deaths through third parties”.

We wish to see the heading in clause 22 at line 23 on page 8 of the Bill changed from:

“Access to information relating to marriages and civil partnerships”

to

“Access to historical information relating to marriages and civil partnerships through third parties”.

Having read through the Department’s response to our original submissions, which was mentioned earlier, we are now of the opinion that our new suggested minor changes will do much to improve the clarity of clauses 13 and 22. Furthermore, the new wording will ensure that the Bill is easily understood by people who are unfamiliar with legislation.

Lines 18 to 24 in clause 13 and lines 31 to 33 in clause 22 deal with the issue of where to draw the line between a “current” record, which can only be obtained in the form of a certificate from a registrar, and a “historical” record, which can be made generally available through third parties. The Bill sets the tariffs at 100 years for births, 75 years for marriages and 50 years for deaths, and describes those tariffs as the “relevant period”.

In his recent response to CIGO’s initial submission, Norman Irwin spoke on the Department’s behalf on the subject of “relevant periods”. He said:

“CIGO have suggested restricting GRO’s power to extend ‘the relevant periods’ beyond those given in the Bill. GRO included these timeframes as it was considered that this proposal balances the individuals’ and the families’ rights to privacy against the need for openness. However, GRO consider it is prudent to have this power included so that ‘relevant periods’ could be extended in the future, if necessary. It should be noted that any future changes GRO may wish to make to the ‘relevant periods’ contained within the Bill would have to be made by means of subordinate legislation which would be subject to legislative scrutiny.”

With regard to possibly extending the “relevant periods” beyond those given in the Bill, the Department’s suggestion that they consider it:

“prudent to have this power included so that ‘relevant periods’ could be extended in the future, if necessary”

is far from convincing. After at least two periods of intensive consultation, GRONI surely cannot argue that it has not yet established where privacy ends and open access begins. Has it not been able to strike a balance between the rights of individuals and families and the need for openness? The “relevant periods” are already well in line with international standards and could be described, when compared with some other jurisdictions, as conservative. CIGO and APGI believe that the periods set out in the Bill are more than adequate and allow that, as a general rule, the subject — the person named in each record — will, by the time a record achieves “historical” status, have been born a century or more earlier. Bearing that in mind, CIGO and APGI are keen that their proposed amendments to lines 18 to 24 on page 5 and lines 31 to 33 on page 8 of the Bill be given further scrutiny and accepted.

In its response to our original submissions, the Department raised the issue of improving the range of data recorded in civil records. It indicated that it intends, by regulation, to commence recording extra detail in death registrations. The extra detail would include the occupation of a husband’s wife, and the names and occupations of parents of children who die before reaching the age of 16. Interestingly, although the Department implies that there will be genealogical value in that new information, none of that extra detail is being recorded on foot of consultation with genealogists. GRONI is already well aware that CIGO and APGI would like the recording of parents’ names extended to all persons who die, and not just to those under the age of 16. I raised that issue with GRONI’s Stanley Campbell as recently as August 2008, and pointed out that, on foot of representations by CIGO and APGI, such information has now been a matter of record in the Republic of Ireland since 2006.

Given that, we wish to make a case for improving death registration in Northern Ireland by including — in addition to the deceased’s date and place of birth — his or her parents’ names, too. Beyond mere genealogy, the importance of recording parents’ names in death records is that it allows death records to be matched to birth records, thus proving beyond reasonable doubt that a particular person has died. That is vital when dealing with the important subject of inheritance and intestacy. One might call the matching up of birth and death records a game of “genealogical snap”.

Since 1973, GRONI has recorded the date and place of birth, and maiden surname, of married women in all death registrations but does not record the deceased’s parents’ names. Until the passing of its Civil Registration Act in 2004, the Republic did not include any additional information to the meagre data recorded since registration first began in 1864. It was only after extensive lobbying by CIGO and APGI that provision was included in the Republic’s new Act for the recording of a deceased person’s date and place of birth and parents’ names. The fact that such details are not currently noted in Northern Ireland is an urgent issue and one that GRONI should address, particularly because as it can be argued that clause 27, which will establish a record of Northern Ireland connections, is not in any way urgent but is designed to be a register of value to genealogists.

On 28 May 2008, during an evidence session with the Committee of Finance and Personnel, Northern Ireland’s Registrar General, Dr Norman Caven, said of clause 27:

“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.”

We hope that you have had the time to read the copy of a newspaper article about the improvement of data in death registrations, which was attached to the briefing notes that we provided last week. The article, which I wrote, appeared in ‘The Irish Times’ in January 2003 in response to a statement by the Republic’s General Registrar Office that the inclusion of further data in death registrations would:

“be outside the requirements of civil registration”.

The article compared the situation regarding registration of deaths in the Republic at that time with both Northern Ireland and the European Union, and, through quoting the United Nation’s civil-registration policy, it challenged the status quo and highlighted the crucial need for change. Subsequent to our lobbying, the recording of deceased people’s parents’ names in death registrations is now a reality in the Republic. CIGO and APGI believe that Northern Ireland should now follow suit. In the near future, the Department intends to replace the 1973 registration regulations, and we hope that the Committee will recommend that the new regulations make provision for the noting of parents’ names in death registrations.

Mr Weir:

Thank you for your presentation. For a second, I wondered whether you were going to trace the antecedents of the Bill, back a couple of centuries, to previous pieces of legislation. I am glad that you resisted that temptation.

You have received various bits of communication from the Department and, to some extent, several of your concerns have been addressed. If I picked you up right, your remaining concerns deal with three particular aspects: minor amendments to the wording of the Bill; the potential to vary “the relevant period”; and what information is included on a deceased person’s certificate, which is the biggest issue that you want to see addressed.

Mr Smyrl:

Technically, our concern about the information that is included in the Bill on a deceased person’s certificate is askew, because the Bill does not deal with that issue. It was the Department that raised the issue of improving information in civil records, so I took the tack to slip in some extra information and make a plea for that to happen.

Mr Weir:

Given that your concern is relevant to the legislation but somewhat askew to its wording, will you seek to take separate action rather than to incorporate a provision into the Bill to address that?

Mr Smyrl:

I had not considered that, because our concern is not really relevant to the Bill. The information that is collected on birth, death and marriage registrations in Northern Ireland is set, I think, by regulations. In the Republic, they are called statutory instruments.

Rather, I raised the issue to highlight the fact that not only will the legislation be updated but new regulations will be introduced to deal with the collection of registration data. I mentioned earlier that, in future death registrations in Northern Ireland, the parents’ names of all children aged under 16 years who die will be recorded.

At present, when a married woman dies, she is said be the wife of so-and-so, a carpenter. However, when man dies, he is not said to be the husband of, for example, Florie, a housewife. That will be included in future.

Mr Weir:

On the minor changes to wording, you received responses that satisfied you on the bulk of the issues. However, that area particular remains outstanding. Are you still pursuing that issue with the Department? I presume that the Department’s mind is not closed to making those minor changes, and that you will pursue the matter further.

Mr Smyrl:

Yes, we will go back to the Department. However, I hope that the Committee will recommend some changes.

A change to the heading to clause 13 will not change the Bill materially. However, in reality, that whole part of the Bill, which must be read through, and I not immersed in legal terms for legislation, is about access to historical information. There would be no harm in the heading’s stating that clearly.

Mr Weir:

The Committee can look at that issue.

I understand your concerns about the relevant qualifying period. However, to be fair to the Department and to those who drafted the Bill, there may not be any sinister motive behind the general provision to vary timescales. That is normal practice with many pieces of legislation in which there are references to time frames. There is a feeling that the original legislation has got it right; however, there is a general provision that if, at a later stage, something appears that requires a variation, it can be made by subordinate legislation, rather than by having to introduce new primary legislation. I appreciate your concerns, but do you accept that that is a safeguard provision that may not need to be used?

Mr Smyrl:

Absolutely; it is unlikely — given the statements made today. The issue was raised with the Department, which said that it would be changed anyway. To give it its due, the Department did not pull those dates out of nowhere: 100 years for a birth; 75 years for a marriage; and 50 years for a death. The thinking was that a person would be 100 by the time his or her birth record would be available as a historical record. If a person were to marry at an average age of 25, 75 years later would make him or her 100 years old. Therefore, if someone died somewhere between 50 and 70 years of age, he or she would be more than 100 years of age 50 years later. The figures make sense. I would have liked to have seen them closed off, but I agree with Mr Weir that it is very unlikely that the Department will want to vary them — even though there is provision in the Bill for that. It is not the end of the world if the Department decides not to do that, but we have had our say and made our point.

The Chairperson:

In the event that the power be included in the Bill, should the matter be referred to a plenary sitting and be subject to affirmative resolution?

Mr Smyrl:

To my mind, it seems immaterial; it is a standard issue. For instance, in the United Kingdom and the Republic of Ireland, census records are made available once they are 100 years old. It seems to be an accepted instance that 100 years after a person’s birth, or after the creation of a record, that information should be made available. I take on board what Peter Weir said about its being a safeguard — it allows for the legislation to be changed easily at a later stage without having to have recourse to primary legislation. However, it is an unnecessary measure, because one is not likely to lengthen the periods for which one would create a record as a historical record. Anything longer than that would be 100, 110 or 120 years.

Mr Hamilton:

Does the General Registrar Office in the Republic intend to make pre-1922 records for the whole of Ireland fully and freely available on the Internet?

Mr Smyrl:

The General Register Office in the Republic has a long-standing, ongoing policy to make information available on the Internet eventually. Given the current financial situation, such a development may be a long way off. On numerous occasions, we have been promised access to the new computerised index of births, deaths and marriages that the GRO in Dublin has created. However, we still do not have access to that index.

Mr Hamilton:

Does GRONI intend to make post-1922 records available on the Internet as well as offering access to the records in its office for a fee?

Mr Davison:

I am a member of the GRO users group. As far as the group is aware, post-1922 records will not be available on the Internet. The idea is to make historical records available to enable users to conduct index searches and view digitised versions of the records.

Mr Hamilton:

If post-1922 records are available on a fee-paying basis only, will that pose problems for genealogists? Is it a competitive disadvantage?

Mr Davison:

Genealogists and researchers want all information to be made available. However, we realise that, for obvious reasons, limits are necessary. It is positive that GRONI is taking steps to introduce a digitisation process for historical records. Although the current search facility at Chichester Street is, occasionally, slightly restricted, it provides a very good service within those limitations. Post-1922 records are available there and will, I hope, continue to be available there.

Mr Hamilton:

If public authorities were to make records available online, would that encourage more people in Northern Ireland, and in Ireland as a whole, to trace their roots? Have you conducted any empirical research into that matter?

Mr Davison:

It is a given that if we provide easier access to information, more people will use that facility. More and more information is being made available online daily through Departments, agencies and commercial organisations. In fact, the 1911 UK census was placed online yesterday. We are keen to keep that information coming.

Mr Hamilton:

The more the merrier. Your earlier submission mentioned the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS). Are its records freely available in libraries and in its Churches in Ireland and the UK? Or are they available in Salt Lake City in Utah only?

Mr Smyrl:

As part of its belief system, members of the LDS Church trace their ancestors and baptise them as members of the Mormon Church. That should not affect other Christian Churches that do not share those beliefs. The LDS Church actively encourages outside parties to view its material. During the past 50, 60 or 70 years, it has assiduously microfilmed and made copies of records.

Although I do not know the history of the matter, in the 1950s, the LDS Church convinced the GRO in Dublin and in Belfast to allow it to microfilm copies of records. Although there was no legal provision for such action, an agreement was signed and the records were copied. Almost all Dublin’s records, which, prior to 1922, covered all of Ireland, were microfilmed. However, every single birth, death and marriage in Northern Ireland and the associated indexes from 1922 to 1959 were microfilmed and stored in the Church’s library in Salt Lake City. The LDS Church can copy the microfilms from the negative to create a positive, and circulate the records to any LDS church that has an attached library. The LDS church on the Holywood Road in Belfast had copies of many of Northern Ireland’s post-1922 births, deaths and marriages, and associated indexes, which it made available.

Those were withdrawn about a year ago, and we heard that that was facilitated by negotiations with the General Register Office in Northern Ireland. Making the films available was contrary to the agreement that was struck between GRONI and the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in 1959-60. I appreciate that GRONI has reservations about that, but the films should have been readily available. It seems bizarre that, although the same information can be obtained free of charge in various libraries around the world, Northern Ireland citizens must pay GRONI to see it.

Mr Hamilton:

Near the end of your presentation, you mentioned additional information on death certificates in the Republic. You said that, in Northern Ireland, information is available only on death certificates for children up to the age of 16. Is there any reason why a more conservative approach is being taken in Northern Ireland?

Mr Smyrl:

It is actually the other way around. The Department is suggesting that genealogists should be thankful and pleased that that new information will have genealogical value. However, it was not recorded for its genealogical value but for its statistical value. The most useful new information will be that information relating to children who died before the age of 16 and the names and occupations of their parents. Recording details about a deceased husband’s wife is about parity of esteem; a wife must not be treated as her husband’s chattel, and, therefore, a husband’s death record should state the name of his deceased, or living, wife.

In order to illustrate why such information should be included on death records, take, for example, an individual called John Murphy, who was born in Limerick. Up to two or three years ago in the Republic, exactly the same information was recorded on death records as was recorded on records going back to 1864: a person’s home address; occupation; age; and cause of death. If John Murphy were born in Limerick and died in Dublin, the only identifying information on his death record would be his name and age — John Murphy, age 67, died Dublin — but there would be nothing to say that he was born in Limerick. Therefore, when attempting to demonstrate that an individual had died, it was difficult to match one record with another.

Since 1973, death records in Northern Ireland have sensibly included individuals’ date and place of birth, and that at least provides one with some idea when attempting to match birth and death records to prove that someone has definitely died. One problem that can arise from that is that dates and places of birth can be wrong. Consequently, one can end up not being absolutely sure, so the proof positive is to include parents’ names, and that is why including such information would be a great boon to genealogists. Moreover, having worked as a legal genealogist, I know that it is important to be able to say to a solicitor that John Murphy died on a particular date in a particular town, and here is the death record, on which the information matches that on the birth record — snap, two matching records.

Mr Davison:

As someone who deals with adoption tracing, I agree that such a paper trail is invaluable.

Ms Purvis:

To return to what Simon Hamilton said about the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and the removal of records from its Family History Centre on the Holywood Road, you said that the agreement with the church more than 40 years ago would be unlikely to have withstood legislative changes in recent years. Will you elaborate on that?

Mr Smyrl:

I was necessarily vague, because I cannot pretend to be an expert in that area. However, I was attempting to say that, given the UK’s Freedom of Information Act 2000 and Data Protection Act 1998, I cannot envisage a contract made more than 40 years ago, which insists that people in Northern Ireland must pay to access information that the body charging for it has allowed a third party to make available outside Northern Ireland free of charge, still being valid. That seems inequitable.

Ms Purvis:

Therefore, would you be an advocate of making those records freely available at the Family History Centre on the Holywood Road?

Mr Smyrl:

Yes, I would.

Ms Purvis:

Or would you prefer that they be available at GRO for free?

Mr Smyrl:

I do not want to say whether the GRO should provide free access to its records. It must be allowed a means of gaining revenue — one cannot provide free service and access to everything. The LDS Church already has copies of those microfilms, and, until a few years ago, it made them available through every one of its libraries worldwide. Now we are being told that it can provide them free of charge at every library across the world except at those in Northern Ireland. I do not know whether there is more than one located in Northern Ireland, but the LDS Church has one at the Holywood Road in Belfast.

The Chairperson:

I thank the witnesses for the information and evidence that they have provided.

The Committee will consider that evidence, and the general body of evidence relating to the Civil Registration Bill, at next week’s meeting. Does the Committee agree to forward to the Department of Finance and Personnel the Hansard report of the discussions on the Bill from 28 May 2008? We can also send it the briefing paper received from organisations today, the response from the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, and any other outstanding issue raised at today’s meeting. We will ask the Department for a written response on all outstanding issues by the end of this week. That will fit into our agreed programme of work.

Thank you all very much for taking the trouble to come to talk to the Committee this morning.

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