§ Order for Second Reading read.
§ Captain GUNSTON
I beg to move, "That the Bill be now read a Second time."
It is customary for Members introducing private Bills to limit themselves to a brief speech in moving the Second Reading, and I will do my best to follow the custom, but if I exceed the time a little my excuse must be that I do not often trespass on the time of the House and I have not learned by experience that brevity of expression which is so noticeable among those hon. Members who regularly address the Chamber. I also have the difficult task of attempting to expound a technical Bill and to place in a clear perspective the present, chaotic position of the Births and Deaths and Marriage Register. It will simplify matters if at the beginning I explain the various duties and the system of remuneration of the officers of this service. The service is divided into three branches, superintendent registrars, registrars of marriages, and registrars of births and deaths. Superintendent registrars are what may be called the heads of their districts. England and Wales is divided into 623 districts, which, roughly, correspond to the Poor Law unions. The duties of a superintendent registrar are to assist in the general supervision of the district, and he also has to be the guide, philosopher and friend of all the officers in his district—
§ Notice taken that 40 Members were not present; House counted; and 40 Members being present—
§ Captain GUNSTON
His duties comprise all matters relating to the preliminaries of marriages and civil marriages. If any hon. Member wanted to be married in a registry office it is the superintendent registrar who would perform the ceremony. He is also responsible for the issue of certified copies of books in his office and he has to make sure that the marriage law is properly administered in his district. He is appointed by the board of 520 guardians; but they pay him nothing. He is remunerated by public fees for marriages, notices, licences, and certificates, and he gets a small Exchequer grant and has the same superannuation rights as Poor Law officers. The next class is the registrar of marriages. He is appointed by the Registrar-General, or, with his approval, by the superintendent registrar. His duties are to attend and register marriages at the registry office or at places of worship where his attendance is necessary, such as Non-conformist chapels and Roman Catholic churches, though this is not necessary in all cases as many of them have an authorised person. He is paid by the public for attending and registering marriages and issuing certified copies of marriage entries. He acts for the whole area, but he has no superannuation rights.
I now come to the third class, and that is the registrar of births and deaths, and I should like to point out that it is the registrars of births and deaths who are the people chiefly suffering at the moment. They are appointed by the board of guardians and, like the superintendent registrar, hold office at the pleasure of the Registrar-General. They are paid by a. fixed fee from the guardians for the number of births and deaths registered. They receive a small Exchequer grant and they are also paid by the public for certain services and certified copies. The registration districts are divided into sub-districts, and it is the registrar of births and deaths who has a complete monopoly in the sub-district. Unlike the superintendent registrar they have to provide their own offices at their own expense, and they get the same superannuation rights as Poor Law officers. Their main duty, of course, is the registration of births and deaths, and they issue certified copies of entries in the books in their office. They also attest marriage notices, for which they are not paid. I think I have said enough to show that this service is an extraordinary combination of every administrative principle.
The officers of this service form a national and centralised service, and it may interest the House to know that they are the officers who carry out the census from time to time. Though they form a national and centralised service they are partly appointed by the 521 guardians. In regard to remuneration, they are partly paid by the Exchequer, partly by fees from the public, and partly out of the rates, though the latter is a fixed rate over which the guardians have no control. It must be obvious that a more illogical system could hardly be imagined. We defend our institutions by saying that, though they may be illogical, they work in practice. Let us see how this system works in practice. I hope to persuade the House that this is the exception which proves the rule, and that the time has arrived for an overhaul of this machinery. These officers are paid on a kind of piecework basis. I am now referring to the registrar of births and deaths. The piece-work is of a type that is quite different from that which is familiar to hon. Members; that is to say, it bears no resemblance to the amount of work performed or the responsibility undergone in any particular operation. This is partly due to the fact that for services rendered no fees can be charged in many cases.
Let me give a few instances of the anomalies. A registrar of births and deaths gets 1s. 3d. for every death that he registers. This registration is his principal duty and it involves the whole of his experience and intelligence. He has to put numerous questions, and on his action depends the whole machinery that links up death registration with the coroner's system. He issues the document that authorises burial, and he has to secure that the notification of burial is always returned. It is a. very serious responsibility. For this he gets 1s. 3d. If, on the other hand, he issues a copy of entry from one of his books and certifies that it is a true copy, he gets 2s. 6d., and after a certain period he gets 1s. for search. But under the various social reform Acts passed by this House he often has to give the same information, though it means the same amount of work, for 6d. These social Acts have also hit the superintendent registrar. He has the very important duty of attesting marriage notices, and for this he must have knowledge of the whole of the marriage law. For this he gets paid nothing at all. He gets no guarantee of a full day's work. The only guarantee he has is the fee-earning monopoly in his sub-district.
522 One of the difficulties of the present system is that districts vary very much, one from another. For instance, you may have a slum clearance scheme, and that includes an area which had once been profitable from the point of view of the registrar of births and deaths. Again, you may have a housing scheme, which suddenly brings extra fees to the registrar of births and deaths of the sub-district in which the houses are built. It is quite impossible to judge what fees a man will receive when he is appointed. Since these Acts first came into force in 1837 there has been a great growth of hospital service and the erection of many hospitals and infirmaries in the country. Where a hospital or infirmary is situated the registrar of births and deaths gets the fees in the area of the hospital. Though it may bring him and does bring him a lot of money, it has denuded other areas where the children might have been horn if the hospital had not been erected. Therefore it is quite impossible to foresee, when a man is appointed, what will be the outcome, or what fees he is likely to receive. There has been in fact an excessive increase or decrease of one district as compared with another. I do not think there was ever a better illustration of the old saying that one man's meat is another man's poison. But, in addition to this, we have a diminution in the number of births and deaths.
A lady wrote to me and asked me whether this Bill had anything to do with birth control. I am sorry to say that in my answer I had to disappoint her. The argument regarding births surely is this: that though you may get fewer births you get fewer unhealthy children and so, perhaps, fewer deaths. That may or may not be a good thing from the national point of view, but it is a very bad thing from the point of view of the registrar of births and deaths. I wonder whether the country realises how this doctrine—I am not now saying anything against it—is spreading. In the area where I live, a rural area, in 1914 we had 357 births. Last year we had 347. That is a decrease of only 10. But since 1914 we have erected 500 new houses. When we look at the national figures they are even more striking. The aggregate of births and deaths has fallen from 39 per 1,000 in 1913 to 29 per 1,000 in 1927. So one can say that modern conditions do not lead to increased fees for registrars 523 of births and deaths. Moreover, everyone knows that there has been a rise in the cost of living.
These officers are receiving practically the same scale of remuneration as that of 1837. It is true that the Registrar-General, under the Act of 1874, has used his power to try to carve out better sub-districts, and on the whole it is correct to say that the average income earned by these officers has increased. This does not represent the increase in regard to the cost of living, but is an increase for extra work put on these officers. It is true that the guardians are allowed to give gratuities and they have done so in some cases, but not in many, but those who have given these gratuities to meet the cost of living have, to a very large extent, withdrawn them. I shall quote two figures to show how some of these officers are suffering. The cases are not exceptional. One officer who was earning £150 in 1914 is to-day earning £112. Another who was earning £76 in 1914 is to-day earning £49, out of which he has to pay £20 for the rent of his office. What is the remedy? It will be agreed that a remedy is due to these officers, who have given devoted service to the nation. I have seen a suggestion of the Union of Clerks and Superintendent Registrars' Society, that there should be an increase of fees all round. But that union represents the officers who are not suffering; it does not represent the officers who are suffering to a great extent under the present conditions.
If you increase the fees all round the officers who are already getting adequate remuneration, or perhaps excessive remuneration, will get even more, while you will not help those officers who are getting very small fees in bad districts. At any rate, we can say that if you increase the fees all round the only result will be to increase the anomaly. It must be plain that the system of remunerating a staff by fees, as opposed to raising a fund by fees for the payment of salaries, has long ago been discredited. I believe the Coroner s Courts and the County Courts were among the last services to be paid in this way. The hon. Member for Westhoughton (Mr. Phys Davies), who is supporting this Bill and who has given me his assistance 524 and advice, had a great deal to do with the Coroners' Bill. I am not sure if that was actually the Measure which abolished payment by fees in that case, but, as far as we know, the service with which I am now dealing is the only service still paid by fees.
In addition to the disadvantages they suffer in regard to remuneration, these officers have another very serious grievance. They are appointed by the boards of guardians, and once a board of guardians appoints such an officer they cease to take any more interest in him. That is to say a man may get a position as registrar in a small district, but he has no guarantee that his service will be considered when officers are being appointed by that board of guardians in other places. The door of promotion is closed to able young men in the service. I believe it would be true to say that the only duty performed in regard to filling these offices is the duty of patronage, and, surely, patronage without responsibility is a vicious principle. Hon. Members may suggest that the best way to deal with the problem would be to defer it until we come to consider the whole question of Poor Law reform—[HON. MEMBERS: "That will be never!"] But these injustices brook no delay and we propose in this Bill to start a system which will not conflict with, but will fit in with the Poor Law reform proposals, if ever the House comes to consider them.
I have said that some of these officers may be receiving adequate fees, and some may even be receiving excessive fees. We do not propose to take away any officer's good fortune. While he is alive and holding office this Bill will in no way interfere with him. But we do say that on a vacancy occurring the Registrar-General should he entitled to declare that office a salaried office and to see that the man who succeeds to the office receives a proper salary. If there were excessive fees in connection with that office, the balance ought to go to a central fund, which would help to make up the salaries of those officers who are now under-paid. Clause 1 of the Bill allows the Registrar-General, on a vacancy occurring, to declare the office in question a salaried office, and any officer holding a non-salaried office can apply to the Registrar-General to have his office declared a salaried office. What 525 will happen in practice is that officers who are badly paid to-day will apply to the Registrar-General to be placed on salaries.
Clause 2 provides that persons holding salaried office shall receive salaries on a scale approved by the Treasury, and that the appointments to all salaried posts shall be made by the Registrar-General. This Clause also abolishes the system of water-tight sub-districts, and allows the officers to function over a wider area, so abolishing the anomalies to which I have already referred. It will be seen that by these two Clauses we not only make a start with the salaried system which has been demanded by the committee of the Registrars Association, but we open the door to promotion within the service. Clause 3 deals with the general fund from which the salaries will be paid and provides for regulation and collection. Clause 4 makes it, lawful for the Minister of Health to increase the statutory fees up to 50 per cent. This provision will be used to place the salaries on a satisfactory basis, and I would like to point out that 50 per cent. is well within the rise in the cost of living. Clause 5 will enable the Registrar-General to give new services which have been demanded by the public since the original Act.
Clause 6 is rather technical, and perhaps the House will bear with me while I try to explain it. Under the Act of 1874, if the informant, or person whose duty it was to give the facts about a birth, removed after the time of the birth, and before registration, he could go to the registrar of the area to which he removed, and there give the necessary particulars. The registrar of that area then sent the particulars to the area in which the birth had taken place. This provision has been very useful to the public, but it has been restricted. Under this Bill we propose to make this provision apply to all births, and we take power to apply it to cases of deaths and still-births. Clause 7 removes a grave hardship. To-day if a Registrar is required to go to a man's house to register a birth or death, he must do so for a fee of one shilling. I have many cases of hardship, but I only mention one, that of a man who had to travel 12 miles out and 12 miles back and who was charged 18s. 6d. for the hire of a car. He only got 1s. for his services and was 17s. 6d. 526 out of pocket. This Clause gives power to registrars to charge travelling expenses. Though the chief sufferers under the present system are registrars of births and deaths, there are many individual instances where superintendent registrars and h registrars of marriages have also suffered, and in Clause 8 we make it permissible to apply the benefits of the Measure to any individual officer.
When I was fortunate enough to draw No. 8 and to succeed in the Ballot for Private Members Bills, for the first time in my life, I became an object of interest to Lobby correspondents. When I told them I was going to introduce a Bill dealing with the registration of births, deaths and marriages, they soon melted away. I am well aware that if I had chosen a Bill regulating that sport or pastime or waste of time which has been described as animated petits chevaux, it would have been of greater interest to the public Press, but I know that anyone who buys one of these elongated petits chiens takes jolly good care to see that it has been registered. If it is right to pay an adequate salary to those who are responsible for registering dogs or horses, surely it is more right that we should pay an adequate salary for those responsible for registering the births, deaths, and marriages of the human race. I have visited these officers in London and in the country districts, and one cannot help being struck with the very great knowledge they require and the great devotion with which they do their duties. I have noticed that every one of these officers is aware that in the Registrar-General they have a Chief who is animated by two ideals—to give to the public an adequate service and to see that his officers should be properly paid. For nearly 100 years, under great difficulties and hardships, this service has done its duty to the public, and I hope to-day that the public, through the House of Commons, is going to do its duty to this service.
§ Mr. GEOFFREY PETO
I beg to second the Motion.
My hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Thornbury (Captain Gunston), in an interesting and able speech, has described to us the anomalous and disastrous position of registrars and the registration service, and has outlined the remedies proposed in the Bill. I am 527 sure that this House and the country are grateful to him for using the chance of the ballot to remedy grievances nearly 100 years old, to drive patronage from one of its few remaining strongholds, and to substitute salaries and promotion for fees and stagnation for the officers in this relatively small, but highly important service. Every Member of this House and the nation at large must be thankful that we have been relieved of the invidious responsibility of political patronage, but having relieved ourselves, surely the least we can do now is to relieve the guardians. The result of such a system of patronage is that there is no proper method of promotion in the registration service.
The tendency naturally is for guardians, who are in no way responsible for the work of the applicant when he becomes a registrar, to appoint a local applicant without considering whether he has any knowledge of registration and without considering the claims of others who may have had considerable experience and training in the duties of a registration officer. In some cases, where applicants from outside are considered, boards of guardians have an alternating system on the basis of party politics, and in other cases they appoint a man on an alternating system based on religious convictions. How, under such systems as those, can you expect to get the best men? Then again the registrars are paid on the uncertain and fluctuating basis of fees. This appears to be the only remaining public service which is paid by fees and not by salaries. The Labour Government, by the County Courts Act of 1924, as my hon. and gallant Friend has pointed out, placed county court officials on a salaried basis. We of the Conservative party, by the Coroners (Amendment) Act of 1926, abolished the remuneration of borough coroners by fees, just as the fees of county coroners had already been abolished; and the then Lord Chancellor said, in introducing that Bill:I think everyone who is cognisant with the system of payment of these officers will agree that the payment of a salary is better than payment by casual fees. It is sometimes said, I think without foundation, that the fee system induces the coroners to multiply inquests.I am sure that no one will suggest that the fee system induces registrars to 528 multiply births, and still less to multiply deaths, though doubtless marriages, which I believe are the most remunerative portion of that service, are looked upon with a very benignant eye. But does it not show what an unsatisfactory basis it is to have fees? Whatever a registrar may do, he cannot improve his position, however hard he may work or whatever skill he may show.
The Bill gives power to increase fees, but only to the maximum extent of 50 per cent. on the basis of 1836, whereas the cost of living is now 64 per cent. above 1914—I do not know how much it is above the basis of 1836—and only certain fees will be increased, and those only temporarily, hut let us remember that pulling the communication cord in a railway carriage is about the only privilege we now enjoy at pre-war price. This increase of fees will not be handed over indiscriminately to registrars, whether they need them or not, but will be used as a basis to build up a fund, from which salaries can be paid and which will even out the injustices of the present system. The Bill enables certain services which are paid for by fees, and which are no longer required, to be abolished by degrees. At present that cannot be done without injustice to the registrar who draws fees from them and who depends for his livelihood upon them.
It will also be possible to re-group the whole service, to prevent excessive work falling on sonic officers and too little on others, and above all it will open to all officers a direct and wide channel of promotion, which will come to them as a reward for merit and no longer through wire-pulling and local influence. It seems to me to offer a particularly attractive held for the employment of partially disabled ex-service men, and as far as the public are concerned—and they are very greatly concerned—they should be rendered by this re-organisation a far more efficient service. The public should be relieved of having to travel unnecessarily long distances to register, and they should he relieved of having to wait, sometimes for long periods, in overcrowded offices.
The only outside opposition of which I have heard is contained in a circular letter received yesterday by various Members from the Midland Union 529 Clerks and Superintendent Registrars Society. This opposition comes from a very small body of superintendent registrars, who, after all, enjoy the plums of the service and will not be disturbed, as my hon. and gallant Friend has pointed out, in the enjoyment of their present fees. They are fighting, not for themselves, but for the future of a privileged caste. I notice, however, that the circular does not even mention superintendent registrars. It only deals with registrars. These much more numerous gentlemen are the very ones who suffer most under the present system, but they are represented, and very ably represented, by their own body, the Joint Committee of Registrars' Associations. This Joint Committee was recently informed of the provisions of the Bill and unanimously passed the following resolution, which it communicated to the Registrar-General:The Joint Committee of Registrars' Associations of England and Wales, representing the National Federation of Registrars, the Registrars' Association (to which is affiliated the Devon and Cornwall and the South Wales Associations) and the Provincial Registrars' Association, having received a statement of the main provisions proposed to be included in Captain Gunston's Registration (Births, Deaths, and Marriages) Bill, desire to convey to the Registrar-General its strongest approval of those provisions, particularly in respect of the vesting of patronage of salaried posts in the Registrar-General, and the opportunities thus afforded of securing for the first time some prospect of promotion for officers, a principle which the Joint Committee have consistently advocated in the interests not only of individual registrars, hut of the service itself.I do not think you could get any stronger testimonial from those who are most concerned with the Bill in its favour. The Bill is promoted largely in consequence of a deputation from the National Poor Law Officers' Association urging their hardships and pressing for the payment of salaries. The memorandum of objections to the Bill particularly deals with the—unrestricted power in the hands of a single individual, the Registrar-General.Now the Registrar-General is under the Minister of Health, who is responsible to this House for the actions of the Registrar-General, so that there is nothing autocratic in his position. It goes on to say: 530It proposes gradually to remove all local control of registration services into the hands of a Government Department.There, again, there is no local control at present. They have no control over the Department. The control of such services as registration and the census must be, and always has been, under the central Government. Then it says:The registration officers who earn the fees are not to share in the central fund unless they give up their rights to all fees and become 'salaried officers' in accordance with Clause I.If they are satisfied with their present position, they can draw their fees as at present. If they are riot satisfied, they can apply for a salaried position, which would, probably, be better for them. Another grievance is that the Registrar-General will fix the salary and travelling allowances. That seems particularly ungracious, because under the present system they have no salaries and no travelling allowances, although they are frequently compelled to travel long distances. Under this Bill they would get both if they wished to. Then they point out that it would result in the "creation of whole-time posts for registration officers," and they fear that clerks of boards of guardians will be no longer appointed to render part-time service. Salaries do not necessarily mean whole-time service, and there is nothing whatever in this Bill to prevent clerks, of guardians or other officers of guardians from being appointed registration officers or superintendent registrars. Then it says:The eventual result of the Bill must he to increase the number of public officials by many thousands.They give no reason for that. The re-organisation of the service should prevent a great deal of overlapping and should merge together certain districts which are too small for one officer, and should lead, if anything, to a reduction of officers, and to the payment of better salaries to officers.From the officers' point of view, the Bill will he disastrous to the young local government official. It will make financial promotion impossible, and lead to stagnation.That is exactly the reverse of what would happen. At the present moment you have stagnation, and you can only get away from it by using considerable local influence and such means. This Bill 531 would give the widest possible channel for promotion. The memorandum proceeds:It actually increases the amount which the guardians will have to pay from the local rates to registrars of births and deaths.It does not. It makes it permissive. They may increase the fees within a certain limit and to certain people, but the very people who sign this memorandum wish to see wholesale, compulsory increase of fees in a far more drastic degree than we propose. The memorandum also says:The grievance of registration officers that they are still paid on an 1836 basis with vastly increased work is not remedied in any way.It is remedied by a fairer distribution of fees in the form of salaries, and by permission to increase these fees where necessary. We come to their one remedy, which is—that money values in 1928 are not the same as in 1836, and that fees should be adjusted on a comparative basis, as has been clone in the case of solicitors' fees.This suggests a uniform increase of fees of 64 per cent. at least, which would not only be undesirable from the point of view of the service and of the public, but would also, like the rain from heaven, fall impartially upon those who need it and upon those who are already well paid—a; sort of surtax, not to repay debt, not even for social services, but a surtax to increase the emoluments of gentlemen, some of whom are already receiving £2,000 a year in fees, making it some thing over £3,000. I am sure that this kind of opposition cannot possibly succeed. In this House the only opposition of which I have heard appears in an Amendment to be moved by those crusted Whigs, those bigoted reactionaries, those blind and fervid admirers of the legislation of 100 years ago, the hon. Members for Bow and Bromley (Mr. Lansbury), Mile End (Mr. Scurr) and South Poplar (Mr. March); but I am confident that even they will not seriously oppose such an excellent Measure of progress and reform.
§ Mr. SCURR
I beg to move, to leave out the word "now," and, at the end of the Question, to add the words "upon this day six months."
Before addressing myself to the Clauses of the Bill, I desire to make a protest 532 against this use of a Friday afternoon by a private Member to bring in a Measure which, in every sense of the word, ought to be a Government Measure. I do protest, on behalf of private Members, against the increasing practice in all parties—my own is just as bad, and those responsible for my party are just as had as those on the other side—to bring in Measures which are party Government Measures, Measures connected with a party, instead of bringing in those Measures which ought to deal with private Members' affairs. I want to make that protest in all seriousness, and although I congratulate the hon. and gallant Member on the speech which he made in introducing this Bill, I do feel, at the same time, that I ought to voice that feeling on behalf of private Members of this House.
We have heard for a long time from the Government of their intention some day to bring in a Measure of Poor Law reform. "Some day," I suppose, will be never. But we are trying to do it bit by bit, and, as the Government cannot find the time themselves to bring in this particular Measure, they induce the hon. and gallant Member to bring it forward. With regard to what he has said as to the position of the registrars of births, deaths and marriages, I have no quarrel with him at all. As a matter of fact, I am opposing this Bill to-day very largely at the request of a personal friend of mine who is one of the biggest sufferers from the very causes which the hon. and gallant Member mentioned. He said to me in a. letter that he had been bitterly disappointed in this Bill. I had not noticed particularly that this Measure had been on the Order Paper till he drew my attention to it some time ago, before it was printed, when he thought it was going to be a Measure to benefit the class to which he belonged, and he asked me to support it. I have since received a letter saving how bitterly disappointed he was when he saw the Bill printed, as it does not accomplish the things which he desires. As to the question whether the registrars should be paid by fees or by salaries, there is no quarrel between the hon. and gallant Gentleman and myself. I agree that they should be paid by salaries. If the service is to be re-organised, it ought not to be clone in the way which is proposed under this Bill. It will leave a large amount of it in the 533 air. The Registrar-General will be able to say, when a vacancy occurs. that it shall be a salaried office, but he need not say it. On the other hand, a person who feels that he is not getting sufficient out of the office may apply to have his position declared a salaried office, but, once more, the Registrar-General need not of necessity declare it to be a salaried office.
If this matter is dealt with at all, it ought to be dealt with for all persons in the service in precisely the same way. The real question which has been put forward is that of the appointment by the Registrar-General. Both the hon. and gallant Gentleman and his Seconder have made great play of the fact that this is going to open up great avenues of promotion to those who are in this service. I listened very carefully to that point, because I agree that, for a good many people in the service, it is a blind alley occupation. I, therefore, waited to see where these opportunities of promotion were coming from. All I can see is that this Bill is concerned with future appointments in the service, and that it really means a transfer of the patronage, which the boards of guardians have, to the Registrar-General. It does not lay down any conditions of service, or form of entry into the service, or any particular qualifications. The hon. and gallant Gentleman referred to the fact that the registrars are supposed to have a considerable knowledge of their areas, but there is nothing laid down that there should be particular qualifications for the persons who desire to enter the service. I suggest that it would be far better, for the moment, to leave the Ministry of Health to insist that, in those districts where men are suffering through no fault of their own, by reason of some of the causes which the hon. and gallant Gentleman mentioned, such as diminution in population, and decrease of births, deaths and marriages, the present conditions should be continued until the Government have introduced their Poor Law Reform Bill. The question of registrars is largely a matter of county council administration, and I think we should get an excellent service if we had a municipal civil service under which those who are in the service of the county council would qualify and enter in exactly the same way as the ordinary clerks on the 534 administrative side. Under this Bill, all that I can see is that the Registrar-General will appoint precisely the same kind of people as boards of guardians appoint at the present time, for the reason that, in the administration of this work, a considerable amount of local knowledge is needed by the person doing the work; it requires a considerable amount of tact and of knowledge of the particular district. I can conceive some people who are registrars who are successful in their own particular district but who would be unsuitable in other districts because of the different character of the population. Therefore, the Registrar-General may appoint the same kind of people, in exactly the same was as boards of guardians do now. I am not standing by the retention of the appointments in the hands of the old boards of guardians. I want to see the Poor Law system done away with altogether, and boards of guardians with it, as speedily as possible. The Minister of Health has not had any opposition from us on this side of the House to bringing in a Poor Law Reform Bill. In examining this Bill Clause by Clause, I oppose it, not because I am opposed to the principle of these officers becoming salaried officers; I think they ought to be salaried; but I consider the methods proposed will not attain the object which the hon. and gallant Member hopes; and further that it ought to be a Government Measure and not a private Member's Measure.
§ Mr. MARCH
I beg to second the Amendment.
Whenever private Bills are brought before the House Members get applications from various people who are concerned, some asking them to support the Measure, and others asking them to oppose it. I have had both, and for many reasons, I agree that this is not the right and proper way to bring in such a Measure as this. The Government ought to have been bold enough to bring forward a proper Poor Law Reform Bill of their own, and not to deal with the question bit by bit as they are doing. It may be a very good thing that registrars of births, deaths and marriages should have a salary instead of fees, but does the Bill mean that we are going to have the same number of officers, or will it enable some of the registrars' offices to be closed? In 535 an area like Poplar, we have at least two offices where people can register. There is a possibility that the Registrar-General may say that, if an officer is going from one of them shortly, the office will not be renewed, and that all the business of that officer will be transferred to the officer on the other side of the borough. That would inconvenience the people a great deal. There is nothing in this Bill to say that the offices will be retained as they are at present. According to an hon. Member opposite, whom I came in just in time to hear, it may mean economies, which may turn out to be to the disadvantage of people who have to register. He and his supporters will not mind how far people have to travel, or to what inconvenience they are put, as long as we achieve economy through a reduction of officers and offices. For these reasons, and for others which have been mentioned, I second the Amendment in opposition to the Bill.
I do not wish in any way to oppose this Bill, nor can I understand the point of view of the hon. Member for Mile End (Mr. Scurr), who says this is not the sort of Bill which ought to be brought in on a Friday. I should think that if a private Member is to bring in any Bill it is as well that he should bring in a Bill which will do something to improve existing conditions and to remedy existing grievances. On the whole. I believe that it will be infinitely better to have these various registrars as salaried servants rather than allow them to continue to be paid on a contributary fee basis; but I have always held that it is the primary duty of a private Member, after he has decided whether a Bill is a good Bill or a bad Bill—and I have decided that on the whole this is a good Bill and I shall support it—to endeavour to ascertain what the Bill will cost the taxpayers. The mover of the Bill, in a very clear and very able speech, if I may be allowed to say so, told us that a large number of these people are very, very badly paid and that a large number do well—he referred to their having secured the "plums"; in other words, some are well off and some are badly off. He went out of his way to assure those who have what he described as the "plums" of the profession that they would not suffer in any way; so the remuneration of the higher 536 paid ones will not be diminished, and in some way or other the remuneration of the lower paid ones will be raised.
As I understand the Bill, under Clause 2 the Registrar-General has power to raise salaries, travelling and office allowances, and that will mean raising the cost, though, according to Clause 4, it is not to be beyond 50 per cent. I am not objecting to this general raising of the standard, but while we do know what the cost is at the present time the question arises of what it will be in the future. Some definite Government contribution is made to this expenditure at the present time, I gather, from the speech of the Mover of the Bill, and I think it is only fair that we ought to be told quite clearly and plainly what that contribution is to-day. What that contribution will be in the future must depend very largely on what salaries are going to be, and also what the lees will be, because those two, plus the Government contribution, will make up the increase. It is only right that we should know what that expenditure is likely to be, because finance is, possibly, the most important question before the House at the present time.
§ Captain GUNSTON
The present contribution from the Exchequer is £32,000 out of a total of £400,000.
I thank my hon. and gallant Friend for that statement. There is a contribution of £32,000 at present. I imagine that any of us could have found that figure in the Estimates if we had had the time to look it up, but I thank him for it; but whatever the present contribution is the point is that under this Bill we are tending to raise the scale. If any additional contribution is to come from the Treasury it is only right and fair that we should have a clear statement from the Government of what the increase is to be. I do not pretend to be an expert in these matters, but I am not sure that the Bill, though it has been exceedingly ably drafted from the point of view of not showing quite clearly what amount may fall upon the taxes, ought it not to have been accompanied by a Financial Resolution and by a White Paper stating clearly what the present expenditure of £32,000 is likely to become in the future. That is the point I wish to make. I think that in accepting these Friday afternoon 537 Bills we very often, without knowing it, put something more on the taxpayers. I hope everyone will clearly understand that I do not wish to oppose the Bill, but that I am asking that we should be told clearly what the future financial position will be.
§ The PARLIAMENTARY SECRETARY to the MINISTRY of HEALTH (Sir Kingsley Wood)
I desire to say a word or two on this Bill because, as hon. Members will appreciate, it is a matter of some importance to my Department. In the first place I should like to congratulate my hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Thornbury (Captain Gunston) who has always given me such excellent service in another capacity, on the very excellent speech he made in introducing this Bill, and it gives me great pleasure to do so. The hon. Member for Mile End (Mr. Scurr) complained of a Friday being used for a Bill of this kind. I confess that when I heard him say that I wondered what kind of Bill he would like to see introduced on a Friday. He said Friday was not the day for bringing in party political Measures, but I can conceive of no Bill which is less likely to raise political feeling than this one, and I should have thought it was a type of Bill eminently suitable for introduction by a private Member. Speaking from the point of view of the Ministry of Health, and also on behalf of my right hon. Friend the Minister of Health, who is very keenly interested in the subject of this Bill, I want to tell the House that we have looked with a considerable amount of anxiety upon the position of a good many of the registration officers up and down the country. Only a short time ago my right hon. Friend received a deputation from their association, and during the last few years I think every Minister of Health has been made acutely aware of the dissatisfaction which exists among this body of men, who have to perform very difficult and onerous duties and are serving under almost impossible conditions. This dissatisfaction has been evinced for, I should think, at least 20 years, and these men have shown great patience. It has been impossible, for one reason or another, more particularly in later years, I am afraid, on the ground of lack of Parliamentary time,, to do anything, and, if hon. Members like to put it so, it is a matter of reproach to my 538 own Department that we have not been able to do something further in this connection.
The hardships and grievances of these men have undoubtedly been greatly enhanced by the conditions which have followed the war, with the consequent rise in the cost of living. Their remuneration, which, as my hon. and gallant Friend who moved this Bill stated, is in the nature of piece-work pay, bears no relation to the amount of work they do or the responsibility which is involved. A registrar of births and deaths now receives the sum of 1s. 3d. per registration. Prior to 1920 the fees was 1s. These duties involve the exercise of the whole of his knowledge and experience. The registrar has to put awkward questions to the applicants for certificates. He has to carry out the regulations, and upon his action and precaution depends the efficient working of the whole of the machinery of registration. The work of a registration officer is all the more responsible and important because it involves the making of entries which rank as legal records, to be available for all time, for the purpose of proof in Courts of law and elsewhere. For all these duties, the registration officer gets 1s. 3d., but for making a mere copy of a death entry and certifying that entry the normal fee is double that amount, namely, 2s. 6d. That is an illustration of what I had in mind when I pointed out the importance of these duties.
It is well that the House should know, as was pointed out by a deputation which was received by the Registrar-General some little time ago, that most of the fees received by registrars were fixed as far back as 1874, and some of them are now being remunerated on a scale fixed in 1836. These officers do not receive bonuses in accordance with the Civil Service scale, and only a very small proportion of them have been granted gratuities. Since the war many of them have not received bonuses, although some have been awarded small bonuses. There are other grievances with which, no doubt, hon. Members are fully familiar from communications which they have received. The average total receipts per registration at the present time is approximately £137 per annum. Under the present chaotic position, there are a number of registrars in large districts receiving very large fees indeed. Speaking from my 539 own point of view, I must say that in some cases I think their salaries are in excess of what would be regarded as a whole time salary for such work.
§ Mr. HARNEY
Does the Bill empower more to be given than is now collected in the form of fees, guardians' bonuses and Treasury grants? Is there a pooling operation out of which the salaries are paid?
§ Sir K. WOOD
The Bill empowers the Registrar-General, in certain cases, to increase certain fees which are now payable, and that increase will go to form a central pool. No existing registrar will be adversely affected by the operation of this Bill. It is obvious that in order to deal with the situation, and bring about a remedy, we cannot interfere with the existing holders of these offices; but we do provide that no existing holder of one of these offices will be injuriously affected by the operation of this Bill. In future, when one of these officers resigns or when an office becomes vacant by death, it will then be possible for the Registrar-General to put into operation the terms of this Bill, and in this way we shall gradually get this service established upon a sounder basis. Under the Bill the Registrar-General will be able to grant these officers increased remuneration. I think those hon. Members who have expressed some objection to the terms of this Bill must agree that the present system of remunerating these officers is rather a discredited one. When the Coroners Bill was passed it established a much better system than that which was in operation before, under which there existed a system of fees which it was practically impossible to defend. That is one of the great advantages which will be established by this Bill.
Another important fact is that the present system holds out practically no prospect of promotion. A man may be as efficient as possible in his work, but there is practically no prospect of him ever being able to get to a higher position. I think hon. Members opposite will agree that the present system paralyses any attempt to get better administration in this very important service. The hon. Member for Mile End told the House that he had received a letter from a friend objecting to this Bill, but he did 540 not tell us why his correspondent objected, neither did he say what was contained in the letter. Under those circumstances, it is quite impossible for me to deal with that particular matter. There is no doubt that it would be far better, from all points of view in connection with the service, that the Registrar-General should be able to make these appointments. At the present time, these appointments are all made by the boards of guardians, and I cannot conceive a more unsatisfactory system. What happens in a very large number of cases is that the board of guardians appoint these officers, and that is the end of the business, because the guardians are not afterwards interested in this matter. They have nothing to do with the duties of these officers. The guardians do not supervise them, or give them orders or instructions. After making the appointments the whole business passes out of the control of the guardians and the officers come under the jurisdiction of the Registrar-General. Very often there are influences guiding these appointments other than the efficiency of this particular service.
One of the advantages of this Bill, if it be approved of by the House, will be that the Registrar-General, in making these appointments, will be guided simply and solely by the good of the service. The hon. Gentleman said that there was nothing in the Bill which would provide better qualifications, or anything of that kind, for this branch of the service, but, as a matter of fact, the qualification for these appointments can be, and in fact already is, prescribed by the Registrar-General, with the approval of my right hon. Friend the Minister of Health, and, of course, it will be possible to prescribe new qualifications to meet the new circumstances created by the Bill, and to lay down improved conditions. A substantial objection with which I have to deal is one which naturally arises when one first glances at the Bill. It may be asked; Why should these appointments be made by the Registrar-General, because, surely, it is very unwise to put them in the hands of an official of that kind? The answer to that is that the Registrar-General has, of course, to act under the direction and subject to the control of my right hon. Friend the Minister of Health, and, therefore, from 541 the point of view of the House of Commons and of the public service, a great advantage is gained by putting the appointments in the hands of the Registrar-General. At the present time, as I have already stated, boards of guardians make these appointments, and no one can question them. The appointments may be made for all sorts of reasons, but no one can raise the matter, although in fact the public pay the greater part of the remuneration.
§ Mr. LANSBURY
Does the right hon. Gentleman say that there is no authority to determine appointments—that the Registrar-General has no power over appointments at present?
§ Sir K. WOOD
I will not definitely go so far as that, but, in fact at any rate, taking the system as it has been carried on, the appointments have, with certain exceptions, rested with the boards of guardians.
§ Sir K. WOOD
The Registrar-General would not, in fact, refuse his approval unless in some extreme case, and in practice he does not do so. I will not, however, labour that side of the question, except to emphasise that it is far better, from the point of view of the public service, that these appointments should be made by the Registrar-General, because, when they are made by the Registrar-General, they can be questioned, and, if any appointment is unsatisfactory, my right hon. Friend the Minister can be challenged upon it and will have to answer for the action of the Registrar-General in the matter. I think that in that way this new system will mean a real reorganisation of the service, and, undoubtedly, a great improvement so far as the registrars themselves are concerned, and that it will mean the gradual building up of a much better service all the way round. I do not think that hon. Members need feel at all apprehensive that they are assenting to any autocratic appointments or anything of that kind, because it will be possible to challenge any appointment, and my right hon. Friend will then have to answer and defend it.
542 My hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Torquay (Commander Williams) raised the question of money, and asked whether this meant any further Government responsibility. My hon. and gallant Friend knows, of course, that, if this Bill did mean further money from the State, it would be very difficult for a private Member to introduce it, and, if ho did succeed in doing so, it would not get any further unless the Government assented to a Financial Resolution in connection with it. This Bill does not mean any further cost to the State, and, as I explained to the hon. and learned Member for South Shields (Mr. Harney) a little while ago, the method adopted will be to get together in the form of a pool the additional money for the purposes of improving the service.
§ Sir K. WOOD
In certain cases, yes, and I think it is quite right that that should be so, because many of these fees were fixed many years ago, and have no regard to the work entailed. Obviously, if it is desired to improve the service and to improve the conditions of these men, the money has to be obtained with which to do so, and I think that in many cases an increase in that direction would be justified.
§ Mr. WELLOCK
Could not the Minister, under Clause 4, issue Regulations increasing the fees, so that there may be some control over that matter?
§ Sir K. WOOD
I do not think that hon. Members need have any apprehension on that account. The only alternative which has been put before the House is the alternative, with which I think some hon. Members have associated themselves, contained in the circular from a certain union of which I think every Member has received a copy. Their suggestion is that the whole of the fees should be doubled—
§ Mr. LANSBURY
Would the right hon. Gentleman say what hon. Member has associated himself with that circular?
§ Sir K. WOOD
I will not say that anyone in particular has, but I will say that the only other proposition which have seen is that contained in this circular, which suggests that the whole of the fees should be materially increased. If we followed that advice, it would be necessary to accept the other suggestion that has been made, namely, that all registrars' fees should be increased. That would mean that a number of men who are now receiving what I, at any rate, think is fair remuneration—I will not put it higher than that—namely, some £2,000 a year, would receive a very large sum in addition, and I do not think that that is reasonable.
Am I right in understanding that any increase in the sum paid in salaries will be raised by an increase of fees; and may I also understand that my right hon. Friend's Department has figures and estimates to show that the limit of 50 per cent. mentioned in Clause 4 will cover the case, and that, beyond the £32,000 which has been mentioned, there will be no charge of any sort on the Exchequer?
§ Sir K. WOOD
Yes. I may also say that there is another way in which money will come into this pool, and that is when a certain number of what may be called the wealthy offices fall in by death or resignation. A readjustment can then be made, and a saving will be effected there. It does not mean that there is going to be an immediate revision all the way round. Undoubtedly, the scheme of this Bill, for good or ill, is a gradual one, and many questions of detail will have to be considered in connection with it as time goes on. In my own opinion, the scheme is a fair one. When we go into Committee, the Government and, no doubt, hon. Members, may desire to offer suggestions as regards the exact machinery and details of the Bill, but, broadly, the principle of the Bill is as I have described it, and I do not think that anyone need have any feeling of alarm that the fees may be put up to any extravagant figure, because, obviously, the first thing that would guide us would naturally be the public interest. For the reasons which I have given, I hope that the House will assent to the Second Reading of the Bill.
§ Mr. RHYS DAVIES
As soon as I was asked to put my name to this Bill 544 I tried to make myself familiar with the problems with which it sought to deal, and I find that the situation in regard to the registrars mentioned in the Bill is almost as anomalous as the position of coroners was and certifying factory surgeons is still. Several of these public services have been going on for about a century without any change at all. I thought, when the Bill was introduced, it would at any rate call attention to the anomalies that exist in connection with the work of registrars. I support it in its main principles, and I congratulate the hon. and gallant Gentleman on bringing it forward and calling public attention to the position of these people. I am not quite clear in my mind as to what use is ultimately being made of the registration work done by these men and women. As far as I have been able to gather, all the statistics secured by registration pass by the local authorities and are sent up finally to Somerset House for national purposes. I have never been able to understand where the local authorities, in fact, conic in, in connection with these appointments. It seems to me an anomaly that the figures collected are not utilised much by the local authority but are sent to Somerset House. Their work is apparently done for national purposes.
If we were beginning to deal with registration for the first time in 1928 instead of 1836, I should say that all this work should be done on the Civil Service plan, because it is quite as important as that of collecting Income Tax. But we are faced with a century-old problem; and to get out of it now, of course, is quite a different thing from starting anew. I agree that the Boards of Guardians, having had these appointments in their hands, may feel that they are losing some power; but I would appeal to my hon. Friends in this way. I have worked in several occupations in my lifetime, and from time to time I have seen men getting jobs merely because they belonged to the same club or the same Church or the same political party as the employer. We have always objected to that as trade unionists; and we have said that the only qualification for the job was that the man was competent to perform it, irrespective of his politics or his religion. So far as I can see, the real way out of the difficulty ultimately is to make this service a branch of the national Civil Service. 545 While I support the Measure in its fundamentals, in order to bring this business right up to date, I also have just a little doubt as to the wording of the Clause giving power to the Registrar-General to make the appointments. I would ask the hon. and gallant Gentleman in charge of the Bill to consider whether the appointments when they are made shall not be made under what I think is called the Civil Service Appointments Board.
I do not charge the Ministry of Health with giving patronage or anything of that kind, but there is, I understand, a separate and distinct body which deals with appointments in the Civil Service. They make those appointments not because of what the applicants may have done in public life, but on the merits of their capacity, mentally and otherwise. I would like very much to see the Bill being amended later on in that direction if at all possible.
The argument has been employed that this Measure ought to be left over until we get a Poor Law Reform Bill. I have heard that argument many times before. I speak here as a trade unionist, and would say that that is the argument of the average employer always. Wait till we reorganise, and all the rest of it. You will get better conditions some time. If these men were members of a Trade Union they would say: "Poor Law Reform or not, we want an increase of wages at once, and a definite salary at that." I am a little surprised that they are not in a trade union. If they were, we should probably not be troubled with a Bill before the House of Commons to deal with them at all.
I hope the hon. and gallant Gentleman who brought in the Bill will be able to say that if it gets a Second Reading it is capable of amendment in some details. What we really want is to raise the whole standard of this work—to co-ordinate it. The question was asked whether an increase in the fees from individuals who require to be registered will not add to the salaries of those who are apparently getting quite enough now. As far as I understand the financial provisions of the Bill, it means that new appointments will be put on a, salaried basis and there will be a national pool of the fees paid in the best places to aid the poorest paid registrars.
§ Captain GUNSTON
Supposing the fees are increased, a man getting good fees to-day will still get the old fees.
§ Mr. DAVIES
That is what I thought would be the case. The main reason why I support the Measure is that I want these men who are doing public service to be properly paid, and if the present system does not provide a decent salary for them it ought to be changed. I want the abolition of the system of patronage so that no party of airy kind shall be in a position to give jobs to their friends. Beyond that I have beers rather impressed with the argument that these men should be the servants of the county councils. But all their work is done for the purpose of national registration, and for that reason, unless I hear stronger arguments than have already been put forward, I am convinced that the whole service ought to be in the hands of those who have national registration in their charge.
§ Lieut.-Colonel FREMANTLE
I shall be glad to reply to one or two of the points which have been raised, and, firstly, may I reply to the point to which the hon. Member for Mile End (Mr. Scurr) referred, namely, that very strange objection to this Bill being brought in as a private Member's Bill. It is one of the best features of the work of this House that these private Members' Bills are so frequently used for bringing forward Measures which can eventually be put on the Statute Book with the help of the Ministers of the respective Departments. May I say that that applies especially to Measures in connection with the public health. Two years ago we had in this way, as a private Member's Measure, the Midwives and Maternity Homes Act, which was backed by the Minister of Health when the Minister of Health had no time to introduce such a Measure. Last year we had the Nursing Homes Registration Act and the Mental Deficiency Act, and two years ago, also, we passed a Measure which I had brought forward unsuccessfully for two or three Sessions hut which was finally brought in by another private Member for the improvement of the registration of births and deaths. This Bill is entirely connected with that proposal, and I am quite certain that Members of the House generally will feel that it is a very useful way of using 547 private Members' opportunities. I am sure we are grateful to my hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Thorn-bury (Captain Gunston) for having exercised his choice in this matter as well as for the extremely clear and lucid way in which he gave a definition of the Bill.
I would like also to deal with one point which was raised in friendly criticism by the hon. Member for Westhoughton (Mr. Rhys Davies), who suggested that the appointments made under this proposal should be made, not by the Minister of Health, but by the Civil Service Commissioners. He will recognise that if that were the case appointments, so made, would be entirely divorced from the present system of Poor Law administration. Although in theory the proposal that we are considering to-day is to transfer this service from a local service to a national service, for reasons to which the hon. Member referred, and to which I shall refer again, at the same time, we have the period of transition to consider. That period of transition may be a very long one, inasmuch as these appointments will be of people who are used to dealing with the very important local facts which have to be registered, and we have not a very large supply of persons throughout the country, especially in more remote areas, who can fill these offices. Therefore, it is a very natural thing for the clerk to the guardians or for people who are connected with local Government to be appointed. I maintain that we shall get a very good plan and a very good system of transition if we adopt the proposal by which the appointments are to be made by the Minister of Health, who, in addition to being responsible for this service, is also responsible for the local Government services and for the Poor Law services.
The main objections to this Measure have been very well stated in a letter to myself from a constituent for whom I have the greatest respect, the Superintendent Registrar of St. Albans. He sums it up very clearly under three headings. The first one is, that the Bill will do nothing to remedy the grievances of registration officers generally. Curiously enough by this morning's post, there also reached me a postcard from another body which I have not heard mentioned to-day, 548 the Registrars' Association, in which they definitely say:We have the honour to call your attention to the above-named Bill. We venture to ask your vote and interest in support of this Measure, which is designed to fix more equitable terms and conditions of service for registration officers.I do not really know the constitution of these respective societies, but it is quite clear that my friend's complaint, namely, that this Bill does nothing to remedy their grievances is obviously not the general opinion of the registration officers concerned. I am quite certain from the explanation we have heard and from the study which has been given to the Bill that that is not the case.
May I refer to the second point which my friend brings forward. He says that it leaves unrestricted power in the hands of the Registrar-General. It does not do any such thing. The power, such as it is, is in the hands of the Registrar-General as regards making Regulations, subject to the approval of the Minister of Health, the Minister of Health being responsible to Parliament. As regards the appointments, they are not in the hands of the Registrar-General, unrestricted or otherwise, but in the hands of the Minister of Health. The power is not unrestricted. The power is really definite. It is a very clear and a proper power. If you are going to have any system which is going to work, you must have power given to the proper authorities, and to give the power to the Minister of Health, who is responsible to Parliament, is the right and proper method.
The third criticism in the letter sent to me is that it is contrary to public policy to centralise these services. We on this side of the House, as hon. Members know, are not too fond of central and national services. We want to decentralise where it is useful in order to get a greater body of opinion, greater help and greater responsibility among the local electorates and also, at the same time, to relieve the central Government. But we do not take that attitude in all circumstances. There are certain services which require to be more centralised than others. This is a matter with regard to which one likes to go back, as the hon. Gentleman the Member for Westhoughton did, to the history of this service. We must remember that this service originally started as a purely local matter. It 549 was for the registration of the mere facts of births and deaths for local purposes. When the service was established it was only natural that local officers should be appointed by the local authorities simply in order to carry out an entirely local matter. There was no idea when the service was originally instituted of obtaining a large volume of statistics, mathematically calculated, for national purposes, and for the purposes required the local administration was the best. But in the course of time, owing to the spread of knowledge of various kinds, to the spread of the science of invention especially to social services, and to the improvement of communications, we have found that this volume of facts, so got together, is of infinitely more use than merely recording local facts. These facts are of immense value for the purposes of government generally.
I am particularly concerned with the social services, and social services especially in public health depend very largely upon this wonderful volume of facts got together by the registration system of this country. It is not merely for social services that this is useful. The whole system of vital statistics is dependent mainly and fundamentally on this system of registration, and the vital statistics are essential for purely financial matters as well as for other purposes, for the profession of the actuary, with all that it implies, is at the bottom of insurance societies and other similar bodies. This registration is responsible largely for the basis of sound finance. We can be constantly checking our system of administration according to the results of vital statistics. It is essential therefore, in administration. It is essential for economy. It is used for research, and it could be used much more for research if it was properly centralised as a service.
Anyone who studies the extraordinarily fascinating annual reports of the Registrar-General, and the different discussions that follow from those reports, will realise the amount of knowledge and practical information, useful for administrative purposes, which is derived from this system. Research of statistical kind is based on this work. You can compare the conditions of one town with another, urban or rural, one profession with another, one occupation with another, 550 but you want for that purpose to have a wide perspective, a wide field of view. You do not want to depend upon the differences of administration of different officers who happen to have been appointed by respective boards of guardians. You must have someone who can control and that control should be emphatic and complete.
To emphasise that point, I should like to bring forward a letter which has been sent to me by the Eugenics Society in support of this Bill. A good many Members, especially those interested in scientific matters, are very much concerned with the question of eugenics and the future development of the race. There was an important meeting upstairs, which was very largely attended, and a great deal of interest was taken in the work of the Eugenics Society and their research. The Eugenics Society write to me:The advantages to be obtained from accurate statistical information concerning many social questions are becoming more widely recognised. … The separate register now maintained for different purposes should be amalgamated. … This Bill would facilitate the introduction of those minor reforms which must from time to time be found to be desirable. It may be hoped that the ascertainment of the differences in the rate of multiplication of the different social classes would thus be made possible, this being a subject of great practical importance so far as the future welfare of the nation is concerned.There is no end to the possible development of tins system. A system has been developed very largely in recent years under successive Registrars-General and their efficient staffs at Somerset House, hut we want a proper method of control, and it is that proper method of control which is given in this Bill. The only point before the House is whether the method of transition is fair to the individual and sound in administration I maintain that in both cases it is, therefore I cordially support the Bill.
§ Mr. CRAWFURD
I have listened very carefully to every word spoken in this Debate, and I have been waiting to hear some valid criticism of the Measure. I join with others in congratulating the hon. and gallant Member who introduced t he Bill and for having used this opportunity of bringing forward such a Bill, and I also congratulate the hon. and 551 gallant Member and the Seconder for the speeches which they have made. I have been rather concerned about this Debate on a Friday afternoon. It may be that I have not quite as quick an apprehension as some hon. Members, but I am not able to distinguish so sharply between Bills which should be Government Bills and which should be private Members' Bills. A good Bill is a good Bill on Friday as on a Wednesday. Possibly in regard to those types of Bills which some hon. Members think should only be brought in by the Government there might be some advantage in having them brought in on Friday instead of occupying Government time on other days, because on Friday afternoon we generally get what I might call rather a more honest and candid expression of opinion from both sides of the House and, possibly, a freer Debate.
There are three points of detail in connection with the Bill with which I should like to deal. One concerns the question asked by the hon. Member for Willesden, West (Mr. Viant) who asked if the effect of this Bill would not be to increase the charges unduly in partially populated districts. That is not so, because the remuneration being determined by salary and not by fees, by time and not by piece, it does not follow that the fees drawn from one particular district are paying the salary for that particular district; they go into the general fund. The second point is one which I have not heard raised. I do not know whether it is a point which concerns the hon. Member for Bow and Bromley (Mr. Lansbury), but I would like to put it to him, because I understand that he joined in the opposition of some of his hon. Friends and, possibly, I can understand the reason. I believe there is a fear that if this Bill becomes law the opportunity that some Poor Law officers have of getting a part-time job as registrar may disappear. I believe I am right in saying that there is no ground whatever for that fear. The introduction of this Bill and its passage into law makes no difference to that position. The only difference which the Bill makes in the position of those persons is that they will become salaried instead of fee-receiving officers. I am dealing now with the position of persons 552 who are now so employed, but in regard to future appointments there is no reason why that system should not be maintained, if the Registrar-General thinks fit.
The third point was raised by the hon. Member for Westhoughton (Mr. Rhys Davies) who suggested that these appointments should not be made by the Registrar-General but by the Civil Service Commission. The hon. and gallant Member for St. Albans (Lieut.-Colonel Fremantle) has answered that point in one sense, but there is another reason against it. One of the advantages of this Bill is that, for the first time, we are going to give the control of all these appointments to somebody who can have a general view of an efficient service over the whole country. Therefore, it is important that someone who is in touch with the actual work that is being done should have the power of appointment and the power of organising the service. There are two main reasons in favour of this Measure. In the first place, if you have this service placed under the control of the Registrar-General instead of the appointments being made by the hoards of guardians, you will, for the first time, have an opportunity of a general survey being taken of an efficient service throughout the country and arrangements made in regard to area, salary, and every other point which will help to fit the service for the work which has to be undertaken.
The second reason is even more important and it is, that you will open up to the people who are engaged in this work a better chance of a career, in which they may find not only stable and adequate payment hut an opportunity of advancement. The question was asked how this Bill is going to offer advancement to anyone engaged in this work. The answer is simple. The Registrar-General having control of all these appointments and being able to make the appointments, with varying salaries according to the importance of the post, will have power to appoint those people who show particular efficiency or particular promise to the better posts, and so create a career where at present there is merely a gamble.
I have tried very hard to find one valid reason against this Measure, and 553 if any hon. Member is going to speak against it later I should like to put this question to him. Is there one single argument which can be advanced against this Bill except on one of two grounds, either that it is going to affect the position of some particular person of which there is no fear because this is a gradual and permissive Measure, or the possible opposition which was indicated by the hon. Member for Mile End (Mr. Scurr), that it is going to transfer patronage from one set of persons to another. It seems to me to be to the advantage of the government of the country if you can decrease the possible number of occasions when elected persons are able to dispense patronage in a particular district. That would be a step forward. Unless you are going to take patronage from one set of persons and place it in the hands of another set, I can see no valid argument against the Bill.
§ Mr. LANSBURY
It is rather difficult amidst a universal chorus of approval to rise and say anything in opposition to this Measure, especially as every hon. Member who has supported the Bill has taken it for granted that those who are opposed to it are anxious to retain some piece of patronage which certain local authorities at present possess. The hon. Member for Walthamstow West (Mr. Crawfurd) has been at pains to try and prove that those who are taking up an attitude of criticism and opposition—
§ Mr. CRAWFURD
The hon. Member is quite wrong in saying that I have been at pains to prove it. What I said was that I have been trying to find the arguments, if there are any left, against the Bill.
§ Mr. LANSBURY
I do not want to misrepresent the hon. Member. The question that is worrying him is, what object we have in criticising and opposing the Bill, and he asserts that boards of guardians have at present a little patronage which we want to preserve. That is entirely untrue. We do not want to preserve boards of guardians as they are at present. If we object to this Bill it does not mean to say that we support the present arrangements. We think that boards of guardians are out of date, and 554 should be fundamentally changed. For over 100 years Tories and Liberals have had patronage, and have exercised it to the full. I have always said that public appointments should be based on proper qualifications, but my experience of local government is that Conservatives and Liberals have not adopted that attitude when it was a case of appointing people, but that persons have been pitchforked into jobs for which they were unfitted. The position of a registrar of births and deaths is very often a nice piece of what is called "fat" for the clerks to the guardians, and there have been assistants of the clerks who have had subsidiary jobs. We all know that these positions are usually held by persons who occupy other positions, whether as clerks of boards of guardians or not. In my view this is quite wrong, and I am with the hon. and gallant Member who moved the Second Reading on this point. I should like to say quite sincerely that I enjoyed his speech very much. It was one of the best expositions of the Bill I have heard.
Where I and my hon. Friends disagree with him is not in his description of the evil of the present system, or the need for reform, but as to the method he proposes to employ in order to bring about reform. We are against centralisation, and placing this in the hands of an officer far removed from any control. It is quite an illusion to tell us that a Minister is under the control of Parliament. We know very well that we can have a discussion on 101 things on the Vote for the Minister's salary. He will answer us, and then we go through the Lobby. We have no control over a Minister under the present system. I do not want to trust any individual with this patronage. If a board of guardians is composed of poor men it does not say that they are any less qualified to dispense patronage than any other board of guardians, or the Parliamentary Secretary or his chief. I do not want either of them to have this patronage. What we propose is this. We think that these vital statistics are important to the public health authorities in the country as well as to the office of the Registrar-General, and their collection and tabulation has been entrusted to the public health authorities. To take this work out of their hands and centralise it at Whitehall is a reactionary and retrogressive step. That is our point of view.
§ Mr. LANSBURY
We have to provide the offices and the means for keeping the documents and all the material necessary for transferring these returns to Somerset House. But the main point is that these statistics are not only of value nationally, but of value to the health authority of the district where they are collected. Even if I admit the contention that at present the local authority has nothing to do with it, I maintain that the local authority ought to have something to do with it. It should be its business to collect these statistics and to send them to the central authority. The reform of the Poor Law, if carried out on our lines, would have provided for the transfer of this business to the local health authority, which would be the county council. That brings me to emphasise again my objection to putting this into the hands of the Registrar-General. A good deal has been made of the point that this new arrangement will give men an opportunity of rising and will take them out of dead ends. I have known registrars, not superintendents but deputy-registrars, in other appointments under local authorities. It is absurd to say that they can never be moved. They can be moved even now if they apply and there is a position that they can fill.
If this were part of the public health service of the county council, if we, instead of transferring it to the Registrar-General, transferred this business to the public health authorities and the county council had this business, then the men who would be employed in doing this work would be part of the great staff of the county council and would be able to go from one position or one grade to another in the public health service. By that means you would get a much better service and more gifted men would be likely to enter it. The difficulty about this business is that it is not a full-time job, and I have not yet heard anyone say how it can be made a full-time job. Make an area as big as you like, take London or Manchester, and I defy you to make it a full-time job. A man has to go to register the baby when he is not at work. We know that most of this work is done during a couple of hours in the evening or during 556 an hour in the morning. There is very great difficulty in arranging a full-time job. That fact was given away by the hon. Member for West Walthamstow (Mr. Crawfurd), who said that you are to continue the pernicious system of part-time employment and you will be able to pay the clerk what you will call a salary for doing this particuar work in the evening or whenever it is necessary. That will merely perpetuate the present evil. The men will be better paid I admit; you are taking precautions for that by raising the fees by 50 per cent. if necessary. But I cannot see where the better service comes in or where you get over all the difficulties that the Mover of the Second Reading mentioned.
On the other hand, if this were part of the public health administration of London, for instance, in conjunction with the borough councils, it would be perfectly easy so to arrange the work of certain of the staff that the work could be done as part of their ordinary duties. I am certain that everyone who knows the sort of work that this involves will agree that if this work were imposed on the city council, say, of Westminster, there would be no such thing as the payment of an extra angry for someone to carry on the job and therefore giving them some sort of bonus, but you would be able to dovetail it in with the other work of the Health Department. That is the alternative. That is one reason why I object to the Bill. The Bill seeks to do the right thing in the wrong way, and it will not effect, what its Mover desires to effect. Then there is the question of superannuation. These officers have been considered rip to now as part of the Poor Law administration, so far as superannuation is concerned. They are within the Poor Law officers' superannuation scheme. I see nothing in the Bill dealing with superannuation for the future. It may be that the hon. and gallant Gentleman who moved the Second Reading has thought of it and that there are some arrangements of which I know nothing, but I would like someone to tell us what is going to happen if the Bill passes as it stands.
There is a final objection to the Bill, and that is that it is another example of piecemeal legislation. It is tackling a tiny part of a very big piece of work that ought to be carried out as a whole. 557 Every time you pass a Bill of this kind you postpone and push further away the really fundamental changes that we have been talking about for the past 30 years. You may very well say that this is a reform that greatly needs to be carried out, but it is nothing like as urgent or important as the reform of the Poor Law in its broadest sense. Further than that, when you say that there are great difficulties and evils, I reply that they are not so very great. No one has yet said to-day that there is any failure in getting together these vital statistics or in the carrying out of the work that these men have to do. No one has charged them with any incompetence or said that there is any national loss. It is an individual and private loss to some men where the boards of guardians have been too mean to give them a bonus when it was needed. That is the one evil that has been mentioned. The Treasury could have met that quite easily by finding the necessary money to assist these men until the bigger reform was brought forward.
The bigger reform is to get rid of the boards of guardians. I deny that I want patronage for boards of guardians. I want boards of guardians to be improved out of existence. I have wanted that for the last 25 years and the one regret of my life is that I have not been able to vote for it in this House. It is because I feel that though this is a well-intentioned Measure, it will strengthen the demand for more centralisation that I am opposed to the Second Reading.
§ Dr. VERNON DAVIES
It is not often that I am in agreement with the hon. Member for Bow and Bromley (Mr. Lana-bury) but I most heartily agree with him that it would be impossible to make this a whole-time service. Listening to this Debate I have wondered if hon. Members have any conception of the work done by these registrars. It is not difficult work; it is not work which requires a very high standard of education. In spite of what has been said by the hon. and gallant Member for St. Albans (Lieut.- Colonel Fremantle) the work of a registrar of births and deaths is to-day almost entirely the notification of the facts. The registrar enters certain facts which are given to him in the birth register or the death register, and these records in the course of time go up to London to the Registrar-General in whose department 558 all the important work is done. It is absolutely impossible that the work in connection with the vital statistics—work which is essential to the public services—could be done elsewhere than in a central place. The Memorandum to the Bill states that it is with a view to providingmore equitable terms and conditions of service for registration officers and removing hindrances to the more effective development and organisation of the system in the public interest.From that point of view I am sure that every Member of the House would heartily support the Bill. But I am not as optimistic as some hon. Members appear to be in this matter. I do not see how you can make this a salaried service in the smaller districts. I have here a letter from a registrar of a district of 15,000 inhabitants and he says:Last week I registered two deaths and no births. I paid 1s. 6d. for health insurance and drew 5s. 2d. I put in six hours actually waiting for anybody who might turn up. This week, so far, I have had two deaths and one birth. Last quarter ending 31st March I registered 32 deaths and 48 births, which is a little over the average for two years.How large a district would that man require to have in order to justify a full-time salaried appointment? It has been said that it would be necessary to extend districts of 50,000 inhabitants to districts of 100,000 inhabitants but that is a physical impossibility. In the case of the registration of births people have to go to the registrar, unless they care to pay him a fee for coming to their homes. As a rule, the registration is done on certain days at certain definite hours, because it would be rather too much, under present conditions, to ask the registrar to have office hours from 9 o'clock in the morning, perhaps, to 9 o'clock at night. In the case of the registration of deaths there is a difference. The relatives of the deceased as a rule are anxious to register the death as quickly as possible so that they may obtain the certificates necessary in order to claim any insurance to which they may be entitled. The object of the relatives is to register the death quickly because very often the insurance money is necessary for the burial. If you make a district large enough to justify a full-time appointment, these people will not be able to get to the registrar in time to obtain their certificates and provide the money for the burial. For that reason 559 alone I suggest it is physically impossible to make this a full-time service throughout the country.
That is no reason, however, why means should not be adopted to try to improve the position of the men at present in that service. The question of patronage has been raised more than once in this Debate, and I think one of the most important and useful parts of the. Bill is that which removes the patronage in this matter from the hands of the guardians. There is no doubt that, occasionally, the power has been used to the detriment of the present registrars of births, deaths or marriages. More than once guardians, in making new appointments have given them to their own officials, overlooking the claims of other registrars who may have been in the service for 15 or 20 years. These men have not the opportunity of being transferred to better-paid districts within the same union. From that point of view, the Bill is a great improvement but there are certain criticisms which I would like to make upon it. We have been told that the registrars of births and deaths, who are being appointed by the guardians at present, come under the superannuation scheme of the Poor Law officers. Registrars of marriages, as a rule, are appointed by the superintendent registrar with the approval of the Registrar-General, and they do not come under any superannuation scheme. Will they in future have the same chance of superannuation as the registrars of births and deaths? If not, I think something to that effect ought to be included in the Bill.
Then with regard to fees, I should like to know if the basis of the fees will be fixed according to the present position of the registrar or fixed retrospectively? The position of the registrars has varied considerably in recent years. The building of hospitals and maternity homes in certain districts has had a considerable effect. I have had a return sent to me, confidentially, by the registrar of a district close to which two hospitals have been built. They are not actually in the district but in the near vicinity. He informs me that whereas in 1921 he registered 782 births and 340 deaths, by 1927 the number of births had been reduced to 326 and the number of deaths 560 to 262. On the other hand, in the case of one of these hospitals the number of births was 630, and in the case of the other the number of births was 200, where previously there had been no births. So in this particular case you will find that the registrar of births and deaths in the district in which the hospitals are situated has done exceedingly well, by having a great increase in remuneration from fees, but the registrar who has been in practice for many years on the surrounding borders has seen his income very materially decrease, and I would like to know on what basis of fees he is to be dealt with in the future?
§ Dr. DAVIES
But on what will the salary be based? Are they going to have a flat rate of salary to enable them to have £150 or £200 a year, or are they to be paid a salary according to the size of their district? That is a very important point. Fees are to come from the central fund, and as far as I can see the only fees that are coming into this fund are the fees paid by the public, not for registration, which is free, but for the certificates which they obtain. That is not a very huge sum, and I would like to know if this fund is to be fortified by a Treasury grant. If not, is there any estimate of the amount of money that will come into that central pool from the whole country to provide these salaries? It is rather an important point, because my impression is that the amount of money that comes in from the public as fees to the registrar is a very small amount, and that a definite proportion of the money which the registrar gets is money paid to him either by the guardians or by the State for returning his entries every quarter and every year.
§ Captain GUNSTON
I have a return here of fees from the public. At present the Exchequer pay £32,000 a year, the rates contribute £86,000, and the public, through fees, pay £288,000.
§ Dr. DAVIES
What are the fees which are paid by the public direct to the registrar—the certification fees?
§ Dr. DAVIES
I am afraid the hon. and gallant Member has not quite understood me. There are certain sums of money which are at present paid to the registrar which come from the State.
§ Dr. DAVIES
There is another amount of money which the registrar receives from certification fees from the people who register a birth or a death.
§ Mr. HARNEY
I understand the hon. and gallant Gentleman to say that £200,000 comes from the public in the form of fees, £32,000 from the Government in the form of a grant, and a third sum that comes from whom?
§ Captain GUNSTON
The third sum is the money paid by the guardians under two heads, and it is 1s, 3d. to the registrar for every death registered, which was increased under the Act passed in 1926, and the other money paid by the guardians is 1s. for every birth registered. Those two come to £86,000.
§ Dr. DAVIES
That does not quite cover the whole point, because I understand that in those fees the hon. and gallant Member has included all feesreceived for marriages.
§ Dr. DAVIES
But it is not every registrar of births and deaths who is also registrar of marriages, and how will that help the poor man who is registrar of births and deaths only? The marriages pay very much better. It is 7s. 6d. for the lowest fee.
§ Captain GUNSTON
I think I can give that figure. The fees paid by the public to the registrar of births and deaths come to £145,000.
§ Dr. DAVIES
£145,000 to be divided by nearly 700 registrars means that this is not going to be a very wealthy appointment, and I should like to know whether it will mean any increased Treasury grant to give them a decent sum. Another point on which I am not quite certain is whether these appointments in future are supposed to be full-time or part-time appointments—not the present officers, but those appointed in the future.
§ Captain GUNSTON
We do not in any part of the Bill say that it must be a full-time job. We merely say that he will be paid by a salary instead of by fees. The notion that because you pay a salary it must therefore be a full-time job exists only in imagination.
§ Dr. DAVIES
It is as well that we should have these things thoroughly explained, because I have not been able to grasp them either from the Bill itself or from the remarks of my hon. and gallant Friend. Further, at the present time there are such persons as deputy registrars and deputy superintendent registrars. Are those appointments to be continued, and, if they are, at whose hands will they fall to be made'? Will the local authorities or the Registrar-General make those appointments?
§ Captain GUNSTON
At the present moment every officer in the service is responsible for seeing that a deputy acts in his absence, and he is also responsible for paying him. That will continue.
§ Dr. DAVIES
But it does not say so in the Bill. It does not say that these salaried officials in future will be expected to find deputies in their absence, nor does it say that they will be expected to pay them, but we get these things by asking questions. I say that, of course, without meaning any offence. Another question I should like to ask is in relation to the certification of births. Under Clause 6, as I understand my hon. and gallant Friend, if a birth takes place in a certain district and then the parents remove to another district before registering the birth, they can give the information in the second district, and it will be transmitted back to the district in which the birth took place.
§ Dr. DAVIES
But it does not say so. The Clause reads:Any person required by the Registration Acts to give information concerning a birth may, within three months from the date of the birth, give the information by making and signing in the presence of and delivering to such registration officer as may be prescribed a declaration in writing of the particulars required to be registered concerning the birth.That can simply be interpreted as applying to the districts in which they ordinarily live. It does not say anything about moving out of the district or about the birth having taken place outside the district.
§ Captain GUNSTON
The matter is very technical, but at present the Act applies to people who have removed. Under this Clause the advantages of the 1874 Act can apply to any birth. An informant may be living close to a registrar of another sub-area, and, if he wishes, he can go there to register a birth, if it is more convenient to do so.
§ Dr. DAVIES
I am afraid that I do not appreciate my hon. and gallant Friend's point, because he is visualising an enormously large sub-district, such as is not to be found except, perhaps, in country districts; but there are definite disadvantages, because it is quite a usual occurrence for the father or mother, when registering the birth of a child, to ask for a certificate of the registration of the birth. Who is to give it—the registrar before whom they make the declaration, or the one who registers it in his book?
§ Captain GUNSTON
As far as I understand, at the present moment the informant goes to the registrar in the subdistrict in which the child is born, and gives the information, which is then sent on by the registrar in that sub-district. He gets a fee, and the certificate is issued by the registrar of the district in which the child is born.
§ Dr. DAVIES
At the present time I am not quite certain that it is an advantage over the present system. Perhaps that had better be thrashed out in Committee, where we could get a better explanation. At the present time it seems very complicated. But I approve wholeheartedly the main idea of improving the status of registration officers, of giving them a salary instead of fees, of putting it out of the power of local authorities to 564 make the appointment, and of simply putting everything in the hands of the Registrar-General under the authority of the Ministry of Health—I think that for the proper compilation of vital statistics it is an absolute necessity that this work should be centralised, that all this information should come to London, where it can be analysed, collated, and put in its proper form, so that the proper deductions can be drawn. I hope I may have the pleasure of being on the Committee which deals with this Bill, so that I may again raise these points.
§ Mr. PALING
I listened with great interest to the speeches in favour of this Bill, particularly the speech of the hon. and gallant Member responsible for the Measure. When I looked through the Bill I had the impression, first of all, that it was mainly intended to improve the whole business of registration, which was not as efficient, by a long way, as it might be. The Bill will improve it, I think, to a very small extent, but the improvement of registration is not the question for which the Bill, I believe, is really intended. I think the title of the Bill should be altered to something like "A Bill for the improvement of the salaries of registrars," or "the better payment of registrars." which would probably designate more truly what the Bill is really after. I think the hon. and gallant Gentleman made out a good case as to the anomalous position of the payment of fees. I quite agree that it is an undesirable method of payment, and that the method he has suggested would be much better. While I am about that I would ask whether there is a change of heart in Members on the opposite benches with regard to the payment of better salaries and wages to everybody. The last speaker and the hon. and gallant Member for St. Albans (Lieut.-Colonel Fremantle) have given their blessing to this Bill, and expressed the view that these people ought to be better paid and the whole business brought up to a higher level. I remember the Coroners Bill, which gave an increase of wages, in some cases of 200 and 250 per cent. I would like to know if a change of heart is coming over Members opposite, and if this system is to be extended to everybody. [An HON. MEMBER: "To Members of Parliament!"] Yes, to Members of Parliament. I listened with great interest to the speech of the 565 Seconder of the Motion in favour of bigger salaries and a better position for registrars and for regularising the whole position. When we are discussing the question of the miners, he does not take up that attitude.
§ Mr. PALING
The hon. Member is prepared to increase payment to the extent of 50 per cent. to these people, on the basis that if they do good work they have a right to receive good money, and that the people who receive the benefit ought to pay for it. If we had suggested that for the miners he would have been down our throats in a moment, and with regard to pits in his own district he took a very different attitude on that sort of question. Is there to be one system of treatment for professional people and that sort of crowd, and another for ordinary working-men? If hon. Members opposite can assure me that they have seen the error of their ways, that there has been a change of heart, particularly in the Ministry of Health above all Departments, and that in future, so far from trying to reduce the standard of life and cut down everywhere, they are going to pursue the opposite path and regularise, not only the salaries of the registrars, but of everybody else who is getting less than he ought, and can persuade the Parliamentary Secretary and his chief at the Ministry of Health, I shall be delighted, because of all the reactionary people I think the Parliamentary Secretary and his chief are about the worst.
I agree as to the regularising of salaries, but I look with some amount of trepidation upon the suggestion to take away the power of appointment, and what little control there is in the local authorities, and invest it in the Registrar-General. It is, I think, in accord with the general trend of events, as evinced by the Ministry of Health, but we on this side do not look upon it with any great amount of favour. It has been pointed out that the amount of control which the boards of guardians have over these people is very small indeed. That may be so, but I do not see why you should do away with local control altogether and place the whole power of appointment in the Registrar-General. I do not think 566 that is a good thing. It is to the benefit of local government generally that we should keep the appointment of these men, who have to work locally, in the hands of the elected authorities, who know the character of the district and the person required to be appointed, who know most of the people who apply for the job, and who, being in close contact with all the circumstances, can be relied upon to make a better appointment even than the Registrar-General himself. I look with some jealousy on any proposition which will take away from local authorities, in any shape or form, any control or authority that they now have, particularly if that authority is to be vested in the Ministry of Health as it is represented at the present time.
What is worrying me is this. I understand that, according to the Bill, there can be an increase in the fees to a maximum of 50 per cent.; it may be anywhere from 1 per cent. to 50 per cent. I understand also that there are a good many districts, particularly in the populous areas, where the fees are more than sufficient to pay what can be regarded as a reasonable salary. The registrar gets them all in those cases, and it will not be necessary, as I see it, to increase the fees. It may be necessary, however, in sparsely populated districts where the number of births in a comparatively huge area is small, and the fees that the officer gets are small, to increase the fees in order to give him something like a decent salary. I understand that at the present time payment for the certificate, the registering and all the other things, is equal all over the country. If it is necessary to increase the fees, will there be an increase only in the sparsely populated districts, or over the whole country, so that the thickly populated areas will have to pay their proportion to the sparsely populated districts'? If the hon. Member can assure me that the increase will be equalised, he will satisfy me.
§ Mr. PALING
I do not know that he said "No," but it appears to me that it might be possible that there would be a variation, and that in the more sparsely populated districts the whole 50 per cent. would be imposed.
§ Mr. PALING
That satisfies me, because a previous answer left me in some doubt. I was going to say that, if it, were not so, it would be a big fault in the Bill.
§ 2.0 p.m.
§ Captain BOURNE
Although my hon. and gallant Friend the Member for St. Albans (Lieut.-Colonel Fremantle) became almost lyrical in his panegyrics in working out a system for the whole country, I venture to say that this idea of skilled officers in the remote rural districts would be extremely expensive or inconvenient to the population of those places. Every birth has to be registered, either by the parents or some one present in the house, and it is important to the rural district that the sub-registrar should be fairly accessible. We do not want salaried officers to be perhaps in the county town some 10 or 12 miles away from villages, and compel the people, who have to register births or deaths, to make very long journeys. It is desirable in the country districts that the registrar should be fairly close, so that he will be readily accessible.
§ Mr. MacLAREN
The hon. Member is surely aware that, under the present law of registration, the parents can summon the registration officer to attend the place of birth.
§ Captain BOURNE
I agree, but in the case of many agricultural labourers the expenses they would have to bear would be a serious matter, and there is a large class in the rural community upon whom we do not want to place the burden of the fee if it can be avoided. I am not speaking for the moment about urban districts where the conditions are different. The present system does not operate badly in the rural districts, where the work is light and the job of registrar is very often taken by the schoolmaster or the local postmaster, or by some other person living in the parish, and who has little work to do in the course of the year, and whose mere presence is a very great convenience to those who need his services. In the urban districts, where the amount of work is of necessity very much greater, a good case could be made out for having a whole-time officer. I 568 hope that when the Bill gets into Committee the point I have raised as to rural areas will be taken into account.
Another point which I have to make about the Bill is much more serious. The Bill follows the practice, which has become increasingly constant in this House, of imposing some form of charge upon His Majesty's subjects without that charge going through the formality of a Financial Resolution. It is done in this case partly by giving the Minister power to increase fees, and there is no provision that, if and when the Minister exercises that power, it should come to this House for discussion. After all, the fees charged, and especially those charged for births, are of great importance to a large number of the population. There are many things for which birth certificates are required, and people in all classes of life have to produce them, and have to pay for them. It is very undesirable that a heavier burden should be imposed if it can be avoided.
I sympathise with my hon. and gallant Friend. Really what be is attempting to do is to improve a national service without falling foul of the Treasury, and without asking the Treasury to pay. That is becoming an increasing practice in this House when a Bill is brought forward by a private Member for a purpose which is, in itself, desirable. He is faced with the trouble that, if he wishes to get money out of the Treasury, he has to get a Financial Resolution through the House, but that can only be done with the consent of the Government and by the Government. He knows that to put in a Clause necessitating a Financial Resolution means that, although the House may give a Bill a Second Reading, the Bill is, for all practical purposes, dead. Therefore, he looks about to see how he can get round that circumstance, and he does it by one of the methods proposed in this Bill, namely, that of increasing the fees which, in reality, is a form of taxation that does not come under our Standing Orders, and by giving the Minister power to make that increase without coming to the House or giving the House an opportunity of discussing it. Another criticism of the Bill is that it does, in fact, increase the charge on the local authority, as represented by the board of guardians. If the hon. Member 569 will turn to the definition Clause, he will see that "fees"includes the payments to be made by hoards of guardians to registration officers under Section twenty-nine of the Births and Deaths Registration Act, 1836, as amended by any subsequent, enactment.I think it must have been the experience of most hon. Members to get protests from local authorities against this House putting additional burdens on them, which they are compelled to bear whether they wish to or not. I have had many protests from local authorities in my own constituency, and have seen protests from many other local authorities. I do not think this tendency ought to pass without some protest on our part, and it was to draw attention both to the rural position and to what I regard as the somewhat undesirable financial arrangements in this Bill that I have ventured to address the House.
§ Mr. TASKER
The hon. Member for West Walthamstow (Mr. Crawfurd) directed the attention of the House to the question of patronage. To my mind that is one of the great blots on this Bill. While it may be said that boards of guardians to-day enjoy patronage in the appointment of registration officers, all we do here is to transfer that patronage from elected representatives to an official of the State. It might appear that it was rather dangerous to interfere with such a type of patronage—if that is the correct term to employ—but it might be alleged that whenever elected representatives make appointment it is patronage. How could county councils, borough councils, urban district councils, and guardians operate if, upon appointing an official, they were to be suspected of indulging in some improper patronage?
§ Mr. CRAWFURD
This has gone on long enough. I cannot allow the hon. Member, following the example of another hon. Member a few minutes ago, to attach to some words which I used all this superstructure about what is not patronage but corruption. All I said was that I was seeking to find any arguments in the speeches against this Bill, and that after exhausting all other objections the only one which seemed to remain was that possibly certain bodies would lose the power of patronage. If the hon. Member will read the dictionary he will see that patronage does not necessarily 570 mean corruption. We all enjoy the power of patronage, and we do not like it taken away from us, and I was suggesting that that was the basis of the opposition.
§ Mr. TASKER
I have no desire to misrepresent the hon. Member, but as I understood it he issued a direct challenge to anyone to state what the real grounds of objection were, and that one of them was patronage.
§ Mr. TASKER
I have not suggested that it would necessarily be corruption because patronage was exercised by a servant of the State disguised as a civil servant, any more than it would be if it were exercised by elected representatives. But it appears to me that this Bill will give the Registrar-General almost the powers of absolute monarchy. Clause 1 says that in the event of a vacancy occurring in the office of a registration officer, the Registrar-General shall declare this office to be a salaried office; and Clause 5 gives the Registrar-General power to fix, and from time to time to vary, the salary attached to any salaried office. No man appointed a registration officer will ever know what his emoluments are to be. At the present time he receives is. 3d. on the registration of a birth for what is known as "the slip"; if a full certificate is required the charge is 2s. 7d.
There is another reason why I think boards of guardians or some other elected body should have some voice in the appointment of registration officers. Boards of guardians have to pay 1s. per case at the present time, and that money they derive from the ratepayers. I should have thought that as elected representatives, spending ratepayers' money, they ought to have some voice in the selection of the individual who is appointed to the office, and I confess that I object to the authority to make the appointment being transferred from elected representatives to an official of the State. It is all very well for an hon. Member to say there remains the safeguard of the Ministry or Health. During the last three years there seems to have been an ever growing demand on the part of the Ministry of Health to extend their powers and (heir influence, and very soon we shall not have a soul to call our own without consult- 571 ing the Ministry of Health. Reference has been made to the Registrars' Association. I am credibly informed that that association represents only a very small proportion of registrars, and, if that be so, it ought not to exercise great influence upon the minds of hon. Members.
One point has been raised which I think is very important to officials now serving, and that is what will happen with regard to their superannuation? At the present time many of these officials are required to retire at the age of 65, and the amount of their pension is based upon their income for the last five years. I can find nothing in the Bill to safeguard the superannuation position of existing registration officers. It may be said that is a point for consideration in Committee, but I think it is an indication that before the Bill passes it must undergo drastic alterations. As it has been suggested that the Bill was designed to increase emoluments of officials, I would point out that unless the fees are increased there can be no pool, and that no official can enjoy any money from the pool unless he surrenders the whole of the rights which he now enjoys and becomes a salaried official. After these few observations I would like to express my congratulations to the hon. and gallant Member for Thornbury (Captain Gunston) on the way in which he presented the Bill, and say that I hope it will be considered very thoroughly in Committee if the House decides to give it a Second Reading.
§ Major PRICE
The lion Member for West, Walthamstow (Mr. Crawford) suggested that there was only one objection to this Bill, but I can see a good many objections. If you are going to carry out an alteration and improvement in the registration of births, deaths, and marriages, and if you are anxious to improve the position of the officials concerned, you can do this in a much more effective way than you are likely to achieve under the provisions of this Bill. On the question of centralisation I find myself in agreement with the hon. Member for Bow and Bromley (Mr. Lansbury), and I hope he will continue to hold that opinion. Hon. Members are aware that in 572 country districts you have to overcome a great many natural difficulties as regards the registration of births, deaths, and marriages, and those difficulties are generally overcome by appointing registrars in the particular areas which are most accessible to the bulk of the people in the district. I have not heard any suggestion to-day that at the present time the arrangements made in this respect are inefficient.
It is suggested that the registration officers are underpaid, but there is nothing in this Bill which provides that those officers will be placed in a better position as regards their pay if it becomes law. Clause I of the Bill provides that this system is to come into operation in an exceedingly piecemeal fashion. There is no indication that a new system is going to be set up, and what is proposed is dependent upon a vacancy occurring in the office of registrar. We have been told that there are about 700 registrars, and I would like to ask how many years will elapse before all those offices will become vacant. It may be 30 or 40 years before you can bring in your new system provided for under this Bill, and I think that is a fatal objection. How are you going to pay the officials during the interregnum between the fast and the last vacancy occurring? It is suggested that you are going to form a central fees fund. This can only be created as the posts become vacant, because the present holders will continue to hold office for life. If you have no central fund, you cannot increase the salaries, because you will not have sufficient money to carry out that, object unless you put an additional burden upon the boards of guardians.
The Registrar-General can add 50 per cent. to the fees payable by boards of guardians to form the nucleus of the fund, but that would be quite wrong, because it would be placing upon the local authorities a burden for which they have not asked, and which they would certainly decline to pay in these days of heavy rates. There is no demand for a system of that kind. It seems to me that this Bill has been promoted by permanent officials imbued with the permanent official mind desirous of creating another little strand in the rope of officialdom which is already strangling the country. The satellites of the Registrar-General 573 have to be paid by the general public or the taxpayer, and there is no provision in this Bill that general taxation should bear a certain proportion of the cost. Those are objections which ought to be very carefully considered before we pass a Bill of this kind.
I would like to ask if the local authorities have been consulted in regard to this Measure? has any request been made to the county councils to ask whether they can suggest a more economical and efficient method for carrying out the duties which this Bill seeks to impose upon a new body of public officials In my view, without a single additional halfpenny of cost, the work could be carried out by the existing staffs of the county councils, and if that were done I believe that the fees could be reduced by 50 per cent. instead of being increased by that amount. That is a point which requires very careful consideration by this House. I believe there are many other ways in which improvements could be carried out more economically and more satisfactorily to the general public than the method suggested under this Bill.
§ Question, "That the word 'now' stand part of the Question," put, and agreed to.
§ Bill read a Second time, and committed to a Standing Committee.