HC Deb 01 July 1952 vol 503 cc381-7

10.11 p.m.

Mr. Ede (South Shields)

I beg to move, That an humble Address be presented to Her Majesty, praying that the Registration (Births, Still-births, Marriages and Deaths) (Fees) Order, 1952 (S.I., 1952, No. 991), dated 19th May, 1952, a copy of which was laid before this House on 19th May, be annulled. We all recognise that the cost of living has increased, but that seems to be no sound reason for increasing the cost for declaring a person alive to share in the miseries of the world. I should like to know from the hon. Lady the Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Health the reasons that have induced the Ministry to increase these fees, as I understand, by 50 per cent. in each case.

There seems to me no reason, except that increases appear to be infectious, that this policy should have been pursued in this case. I have a suspicion that it is part of a collaborating policy with some of the local authorities who are associated with the Ministry in this service. If that be so, there are difficulties that arise for a certain class of public servant out of the decision of the Ministry to increase the fees.

Some of the registrars are still paid on a fee basis, a policy that I do not think is sound. The sounder policy is that the officer should be a salaried officer of the local authority and that all the fees he receives should be paid into the public funds and that he should receive the appropriate salary for a clerk or officer of his status and description under the local authority. But there are some local authorities who, it always seems to me, more out of perversity than anything else, adhere to the system of expecting the person to make his living, at any rate to a considerable extent, out of the fees. These officers fear that an increase in the fees may not lead to an increase in their income, for where a woman was quite prepared to pay 2s. 6d. for a birth certificate on registering the birth of a child, it does not follow that she will think that that particular memento of her activity will be worth 3s. 9d. There may be some fall in this respect.

I do not know whether the hon. Lady could tell us how far this Order will affect the livelihood and professional prospects of these officers who are still paid on a basis of the fees they receive and whether it will be possible, as a result of this Order, to bring increased pressure to bear on those local authorities who do not employ these people on a salary basis to bring about what seems to me to be a more modern and civilised way of organising their service.

The Order is a small one and I do not want to labour the point unduly, but I think that the points that I have put before the hon. Lady are sufficiently serious to warrant a reply on behalf of the Ministry. It is not often that we get a chance of dealing with particular matters in regard to the organisation of local government services which this Order undoubtedly raises and I should be grateful for a reply on these points.

10.16 p.m.

Mr. Eric Fletcher (Islington, East)

I beg to second the Motion.

I should like to know whether the agitation which prompted this Order came from the local authorities and, if so, to what extent and whether the agitation was in any way due to the concern of those registrars who are paid by fee rather than by salary.

Is it really thought in these days that it is in the public interest to increase the charges for these certificates by as much as 50 per cent.? Does the Parliamentary Secretary realise that an increase of 50 per cent. in any charge is very substantial and must necessarily operate unfairly on the poorer sections of the community as compared with those sections of the community which are better off?

It may be almost immaterial in the case of people who are well to do whether they have to pay 2s. 6d. or 3s. 9d. for a birth certificate, or a death certificate, but it is a matter of great importance to those who are not so wealthy. Does the Parliamentary Secretary realise that, broadly, it is the poorest sections of the community who are more likely to require birth and death certificates than other sections of the community?

I think it is perfectly proper that the registration of births and deaths should be compulsory. Of course it is perfectly proper that no charge should be made for registering a birth or a death because it is in the public interest that a register should be kept. But let it not be forgotten that people who register births or deaths do not do so for their own benefit. Representatives do not register a death solely so that they can subsequently obtain a death certificate. It is a public duty to register a birth and a death, and it is very often in pursuance of a public duty that one has to obtain a birth certificate or a death certificate.

It is true that people sometimes have to produce these certificates for private purposes. I do not know whether the Parliamentary Secretary realises that in the case of people who die leaving a great deal of money and a will, probate is obtained, and that that is used for registration in the case of various companies and banks with whom they have an interest. But where people of humble means die and leave relatively little money, there is no need to obtain probate. They have to obtain a death certificate which takes the place of the grant of probate or letters of administration, and it so happens that it is more often necessary for a person of limited means to be compelled to obtain death certificates than persons who are better off.

It would, therefore, seem to me that this Order will operate unfairly as between the various sections of the community. I hope the day will come when we shall consider the whole question of whether any charge at all should be required, or anything more than a nominal charge, for what is after all a matter of public interest. I am sorry to ask so many questions, but I think that in the long run it is the most convenient form in which to make a speech on a subject of this kind. I take it it is not the policy of the Ministry to fix these fees on such a basis that the service rendered under the Registration Acts is self-supporting? I take it that is not the basis at all, because the Ministry must bear in mind the public interest involved and the private requirements of individuals. Perhaps the Parliamentary Secretary will deal with that.

I should have thought that in these days an Order of this kind required a good deal of justification before the House is asked to accept it. I hope we shall hear from the Parliamentary Secretary a full explanation of the reasons which it was felt made necessary an Order of this kind.

10.24 p.m.

Mr. E. Fernyhough (Jarrow)

This Order is in keeping with the Tory Party policy, because they believe in increasing the cost of living and the cost of dying. If we are to believe statements made from time to time by the Government, they are anxious to increase the birth rate and I would ask whether they think this will tend to do that.

What has struck me is what happens in the case of those families in Lancashire, now unemployed, where a baby arrives? Is the National Assistance Board to meet the increased cost, or does the Government feel that this is something which the unemployed and those on sickness benefit can afford to pay? For the Government to do anything which would tend to make people think twice about getting married is not in the interests of the country.

There is much moaning and groaning about our not being able to maintain the birth rate. We are only just now reproducing ourselves and there is a tendency for the population to decline. Everyone thinks that that would be a catastrophe, and surely it would be, because, otherwise, we should not be doing what we have been doing for several years—bringing in foreigners to step up our manpower position.

There are several points of that kind which the hon. Lady might answer. I should be especially pleased if she will tell us whether those in receipt of unemployment and sickness benefit or National Assistance will be able to recover from the Assistance Board the increased costs which this Order will impose upon them.

10.26 p.m.

The Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Health (Miss Patricia Hornsby-Smith)

As the right hon. Gentleman the Member for South Shields (Mr. Ede) said, this Order has been made under Section 23 of the Local Government Act, 1929, which empowered increases up to 50 per cent. in the fees fixed by the Registration Acts. Obviously that provision was included in the Act to meet the contingency of increased costs.

I should like to refer to a point made by the hon. Member for Islington, East (Mr. E. Fletcher) who, I think, inferred—he might not have made it plain to all—that one had to pay for the act of registration. The act of registration is still free. The registration of a birth or a death is still free. It is the issue of the certificate, the search, the late entry, or indeed a correction, which demands the fee.

This Order covers increases of 50 per cent. in the charges for birth, marriage and death certificates locally and at Somerset House, local notices of marriage, local certificates and licences for the solemnisation of marriages in a register office or in a Nonconformist church, and the attendance of registrars at those places. It also covers a 50 per cent. increase in fees for searches and other services including the fees paid by the local authority to the clergy or "approved persons" for copies of each marriage entry for the records at Somerset House.

I think I may say that these increases have not been made, as suggested by the hon. Member for Islington, East, as a result of agitation by the local authorities, although they certainly support the view that some increases to make up for some part of their greatly increased deficit for this service should be made. Most of these fees were fixed by the Registration Acts of 1836 and 1874. If hon. Members consider that the 50 per cent. increase makes the figure high now, then the fees and charges for certificates were very much higher in those days when costs were so much less.

The power given by the Act of 1929 has not previously been exercised, but at present it is necessary to look at the heavily increased costs of the local authorities and of the General Register Office for the purpose of this service. The proposed increases will produce about £20,000 extra per annum for the Registrar-General's Vote, to make a total income of £70,000. That will about cover the cost of staff and printing certificates, but it will not cover the accommodation, ancillary services and overheads.

The larger proportion of the increased fees will go to the local authorities and for them will produce about £200,000. That will go a fair way to offset their present deficit, which is running at the rate of £650,000.

The present cost of the service to the local authorities is £1,150,000 on which their present income is £500,000, leaving a deficit of £650,000, so that there will still remain a deficit or subsidy paid by the local or central authorities of up to nearly £500,000, which will be paid, and this answers the point raised by the hon. Member for Islington, East. We have no intention of making it a self-supporting service.

As a comparison of costs with the position before the 1929 Act, the loss then was only £150,000 to the local authorities—the subsidy paid for that service was £150,000. In 1947–48, it was i250,000, and now it is £650,000, and, in view of the very greatly increased costs, we do not think that an increase which will amount to £200,000 against a heavy 'deficit of £650,000 an undue increase.

Most of the recent increase in costs is due to increased salaries, which have gone up by approximately 50 per cent. in the last six or seven years, and some of it is due to a slight reduction in income, as we are now past the peak of the war years, when so many registrations were made. The local authorities have expressed approval of this measure so far as it goes, because they believe that such a large sum should not fall upon the ratepayers for this service.

The right hon. Gentleman dealt in some detail with the question of the non-salaried officers who are required to carry out these duties but who have remained outside the salaried service. In answer to his indictment of the local authorities, this is not a case of the local authorities refusing to take these officers into the service. These pre-1929 Act officers have been perfectly free to go into the service at any time when they opt to do so, and the vast majority of them have done so. There are now only about 45 such officers who are fee-paid, and they are still at liberty to opt to come in at any time on a salaried basis if they so desire. The responsibility is theirs and the option is still open to them.

With regard to whether or not they should be allowed to keep the whole of the increased fee payment, we have no power at all under Section 23 of the 1929 Act to allow this 50 per cent. increase to go to the non-salaried officers, because it was laid down in that Act that non-salaried officers should pay over to the responsible council the whole of the increase, subject only to such deduction as the Registrar-General shall allow them as remuneration for the "trouble and expense of collecting and accounting for " the increased amounts. That is a provision of which the officers are, and have been, well aware.

The Registrar-General has decided that 15 per cent. of the new increases is a fair proportion to make up for the trouble and expense of collecting and accounting. They already have the basic fees, and 15 per cent. of the additional fees will go to these non-salaried officers, and the rest to the county or county borough council. The suggestion has been made that it should all go to the non-salaried officer, but I hardly think that the two are comparable. If it goes to the council, it means that there will be less to come from the public purse out of the rates, and that position is hardly comparable with that of the pocket of a non-salaried officer, who has been aware for the past 23 years exactly what the statutory position was.

There are still available the cheap certificates which are given under special Acts, and which are available at 6d. and 1s. for friendly societies, National Insurance and Family Allowances purposes, and these have not, in fact, been increased. The short birth certificate is still available, but instead of being 6d. it will now be 9d. I think the hon. Member for Jarrow (Mr. Fernyhough) reached the greatest height of exaggeration when he suggested that people would be deterred from having children for the sake of the extra 3d. on the birth certificate.

I believe that, in view of the very greatly increased costs, and salaries, the Order is justified, and therefore I hope that the House will reject the Motion.

10.33 p.m.

Mr. Ede

I should like to thank the hon. Lady for the clear and concise way in which she has dealt with the various questions which have been raised. I still think that it is a pity that the infection of increasing costs should have spread to this matter, but in view of her statement I beg to ask leave to withdraw the Motion.

Motion, by leave, withdrawn.