HC Deb 24 April 1996 vol 276 cc563-8

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. Streeter.]

2.6 am

Mr. Nick Hawkins (Blackpool, South)

The debate that I have initiated on behalf of and at the request of my constituent, Mr. Alan Charles Veale, relates to a rather sad series of events. My sympathies for my constituent arise partly because I used to practise at the Bar, where, among many other matters, I dealt with family law. The debate concerns the family case that has never been properly resolved.

The facts briefly are that my constituent Mr. Veale was originally married to a lady whose maiden name was Caroline—or Carly—Mary Lacey in July 1981. A male child, Tarran James Veale, was born to the then Mrs. Veale on 27 April 1987, and the birth was registered by the mother, registering Mr. Alan Veale—now my constituent—as the father, on 13 May 1987. Mr. Veale believes, and has abundant evidence to prove, that he was erroneously registered as the father. The mother told him very shortly after the birth that the true father was another man with whom his wife had been having an affair.

Mr. Veale also knows that blood tests were subsequently made by a Dr. Grant, using samples taken from the mother, the child, Mr. Veale and the other man. Those tests prove that Mr. Veale was not the father. Mr. Veale is blood group O and the child is blood group A rhesus negative, which is known to the courts as an exclusion result. All that was established to the entire satisfaction of the courts seven years ago. Sadly, Mr. Veale cannot now establish those facts to officialdom's satisfaction, and his problems in trying to do so are the basis of this short debate.

Mr. Veale began to take steps to correct the formal registration of Tarran's birth in 1992. Before that, however, he had not expected problems, since in the year after the child's birth, not only had the blood test established Mr. Veale's non-paternity, but an affiliation order was made in the courts against the other man. As far back as 1988, on the mother's application, the other man was recorded by Weymouth county court as the father of the child.

It is part of my and my constituent's contention that such a finding by a properly constituted court, based on proper blood test evidence, should be sufficient to allow the correction of the erroneous registration of birth. At present, it appears that the Office of Population Censuses and Surveys, now the Office of National Statistics—a somewhat Orwellian name—does not accept that the finding by the court is sufficient.

In 1992, after all the other proceedings arising from the marriage—the so-called ancillary relief proceedings—had finished, Mr. Veale began to seek to correct the erroneous birth registration. It is important to note that the court dealing with ancillary relief matters also accepted the clear evidence that the child was not what is known in law as a child of the marriage. Sadly, it was at this stage, in 1992, that Mr. Veale's real problems began.

Mr. Veale found that the procedures of what is now the Office for National Statistics stood in his way, as it was discovered that Dr. Grant, who had taken the blood tests, had, sadly, died in 1992. Dr. Grant's records of the blood tests he had taken, after being kept for a time after his death, had been destroyed. I discovered that, on my constituent's behalf, late in 1994. Frustratingly, the records had been shredded as recently as the beginning of 1994, before anybody had requested that they be kept.

The problem with Office for National Statistics procedures is that, to correct an erroneous entry of a registration of birth, the office requires, by law, two statutory declarations from two different people with knowledge of the facts. Mr. Veale himself obviously provided one declaration. However, the ancillary relief proceedings arising from the divorce from his ex-wife had been very bitter, and she has consistently refused to provide another statutory declaration, even though she had initiated the affiliation order proceedings against the real father.

It is part of the burden of my submission to my hon. Friend the Minister that the rules of the Office for National Statistics—or, if necessary, primary legislation—should be changed so that, in a case like this one, the application to a court by the ex-wife naming another man as the father should be treated as if it were a statutory declaration and should be valid later, even if the ex-wife later, as in this case, refused to co-operate or, to put another case, the ex-wife died after making such an application for an affiliation order.

At present, my constituent finds himself caught in a tricky Catch-22 position. He can apparently do nothing while the ex-wife, who was at fault all the way through the proceedings, can frustrate the correction of her own erroneous registration of the birth. That has wider implications, especially for Child Support Agency cases, unless the Office for National Statistics and/or the law can be changed.

The superintendent registrar of Dorset county council, Mrs. Heather Downie at Weymouth, has been sympathetic to my constituent since first contacted in 1993, but her hands are tied by the procedures of the Office for National Statistics, and the office says that the statute law concerned is section 29(3) of the Births and Deaths Registration Act 1953. The deputy registrar-general, Mr. Ribbins, wrote to me in August 1994 to say that he was sympathetic, but that his hands were tied by statute.

Subsequent to that letter to me in August 1994, there were further unhelpful developments. The man who assisted with the late Dr. Grant's affairs was contacted by me about the medical records, and another consultant, Dr. Patrick Lincoln, was contacted by the OPCS, as it then was. Sadly, Dr. Lincoln said that he could not provide a statutory declaration, as he did not have Dr. Grant's original records to look at.

Mr. Veale has found himself blocked at every turn in his perfectly proper efforts to correct this erroneous registration, despite having a sworn affidavit from his former wife dated November 1991. I shall quote from that affidavit: I had an affair with a gentleman … the result of which was my becoming pregnant and giving birth to my son Tarran James Veale whose date of birth is the 27th April 1987. Affiliation proceedings were subsequently pursued and an order was made in respect of Tarran for maintenance. That sworn affidavit to the court, dated 7 November 1991, is apparently not sufficient to correct the erroneous birth certificate.

The evidence has been accepted as fact by the courts for all the other important decisions in the divorce and the ancillary relief proceedings to be based upon it, but apparently, under the law as it stands, it is not sufficient for the Office for National Statistics.

On 28 April last year, my constituent and I tried another tack to secure a statutory declaration that the Office for National Statistics might regard as acceptable. We tried to get statutory declarations from the magistrate or the solicitor in front of whom the affiliation proceedings had taken place. That, too, was regarded as insufficient.

The Office for National Statistics subsequently made an offer, suggesting in a letter dated 22 May last year that it might be able to correct the birth registration if someone else could be found who was prepared to accept the findings of Dr. Grant and make a statutory declaration on that basis.

However, that offer is of no help to my constituent unless the office itself can find somebody who, without Dr. Grant's original records, is still prepared to make such a statutory declaration. My constituent has tried, but he has no means of finding such a person, and when the Office for National Statistics suggested Dr. Lincoln, he was unwilling to make such a declaration without the original records. The offer is therefore fruitless.

During the long saga of this case, it never occurred to me, or, I am sure, to my constituent, that it would end as a debate answered by a Treasury Minister. Such are the oddities thrown up when arms of Government responsibility are transferred from one Department to another. However, knowing of the sympathetic nature of my hon. Friend the Minister, I hope that she will be able to assist.

Now that the matter is within the purview of the Treasury, my fears about lack of parliamentary time are substantial. I do not suppose my hon. Friend can see any scope for making the required changes to statute law, if that is the only way forward, in a Finance Bill. However, I hope that she may be able to bring pressure to bear on officials, to break the vicious circle in which my constituent finds himself.

Perhaps she can ensure that the Office for National Statistics does more than express sympathy, as it has repeatedly done, and either finds a doctor who is prepared to consider the considerable legal evidence—based on medical evidence that everybody acknowledges once existed in the case—and who will swear the second statutory declaration that is said to be the only way out, or finds another way out for my constituent. Or perhaps she can find parliamentary time to change the law.

Clearly in this case, as Mr. Bumble said in "Oliver Twist", the law is a ass—a idiot. If that is the best that the law can do, my hope for the law, like that of Mr. Bumble, is that its eyes may be opened by experience.

12.17 am
The Economic Secretary to the Treasury (Mrs. Angela Knight)

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Blackpool, South (Mr. Hawkins) on obtaining a debate on this serious case. Just as he was surprised to find that it was a Treasury Minister to whom his debate was addressed, I too, as that Treasury Minister, am surprised that the matter falls within my remit. As for the law, I could not possibly make any comment; as a barrister, no doubt my hon. Friend knows the law better than I do.

I am aware of the background to the case, and I have considerable sympathy with the difficult situation in which my hon. Friend's constituent, Mr. Veale, finds himself. I congratulate my hon. Friend on the assiduous way in which he has pursued the case.

The Registrar-General is responsible for administering the law relating to the registration of births, deaths and marriages in England and Wales, and I have consulted him about this matter. The Registrar-General's office forms part of the Office of Population Censuses and Surveys, which is now the Office for National Statistics. I am aware that there are particular complications with this most sensitive and unusual case.

The background legislation governing the handling of Mr. Veale's application is the Births and Deaths Registration Act 1953, which requires the birth of every child born in England and Wales to be registered by the registrar of births and deaths for the registration sub-district in which the child was born. The information required to be registered in respect of each child is prescribed by regulations made by the Registrar-General. The information is given to the registrar by a qualified informant, who is usually a parent of the child.

If the parents are married, the child's birth may be registered on the sole information of the mother or the father. There is a presumption in common law that a child born to a married woman is a child of the mother and the husband. In those circumstances, the husband would be recorded in the birth register as the father of the child, unless, at the time of registration, it was made clear to the registrar that the husband could not possibly be the father.

A great deal of reliance is therefore placed on the information given to the registrar being accurate and for that reason, every registrar permanently displays a notice referring to the penalties of the Perjury Act 1911 for giving false information. That, of course, does not always deter. Indeed, it would be true to say that, while a birth certificate is certainly evidence of the fact of birth, the same cannot always be said of the person named as the father. That is the nub and heart of this case.

The difficulty arises when one tries to make a correction to an entry contained in a birth register. Such a correction can be made in accordance with the law only if it can be shown that an error was made when the birth was registered. The appropriate section of the Births and Deaths Registration Act 1953 allows an error of fact or substance, which is what we have in this case, to be corrected. That may be done once satisfactory evidence of the facts has been obtained, and on production of a statutory declaration setting out the nature of the error and the true facts of the case made by two qualified informants of the birth.

The people who are qualified to act as informants are defined in legislation, and the mother and father of a child are the primary informants. The Registrar-General therefore looks first for statutory declarations from the people named as the child's parents when a correction is requested. The legislation goes on to state that, in default of a qualified informant, a credible person with knowledge of the true facts may make the statutory declaration. That person must have personal knowledge of the facts.

My hon. Friend has outlined the circumstances of the birth and the divorce in this case. The birth was registered on information given by the mother as that of the child of herself and her then husband. Application for the father's details to be removed was made by Mr. Veale in February 1993.

Officials of what was then the OPCS were satisfied from the evidence provided that the entry could be corrected by means of statutory declarations by Mr. Veale and the child's mother. Evidence of an error in the entry included a copy of a blood test result to which my hon. Friend referred. It was carried out in 1988 and excluded Mr. Veale from paternity of the child. A copy of an affiliation order made in 1988 naming someone other than Mr. Veale as the father was also submitted, together with an affidavit made by the mother in 1991. However, the child's mother refused to co-operate in making the statutory declaration required by law for the purpose of correcting the birth entry.

In those circumstances, OPCS officials advised that the blood tester would be qualified as an alternative declarant in the capacity of a credible person with knowledge of the facts.

The mother was notified, but it transpired that the blood tester had died, and other doctors who were contacted felt that they were not able to make a declaration based on the tester's original records, as my hon. Friend said. Officials also wrote to the person who had been named as the father, inquiring whether he would be willing to make a statutory declaration. Unfortunately, he declined to be involved in the matter.

I hope that the House will agree that the ONS tried to find someone who could provide the relevant evidence. The declaration from the mother was not made, so one was left with the difficulties that have been described. To date, Mr. Veale has been unable to find another person who is qualified by law to make the appropriate statutory declaration.

The provisions that govern the correction of errors in civil registration records are tightly drawn by law to prevent abuse. Neither the Registrar-General nor I have the power to exercise any discretion in this matter. The court records and blood tests provide good evidence of the facts, but the legislation still requires the statutory declaration to be made before a birth entry can be corrected.

As a consequence of this type of case, although not this one in particular, the provisions were reviewed in 1988 in a Green Paper. A White Paper was subsequently published, and the result has been a series of proposals that have not yet been brought into law because parliamentary time has not yet allowed it.

The proposals in that White Paper governing this sort of case would broaden the range of persons who could be qualified to make a statutory declaration. Such broadening could be a suitable candidate for the deregulation route. I hold out no promises to my hon. Friend, but I can assure him that we are examining that area, and I will keep in touch with him as far as progress and potential possibilities are concerned.

I can appreciate my hon. Friend's frustration, and particularly Mr. Veale's frustration, but without the co-operation of his former wife or a suitably qualified second person to declare that the blood tests taken were accurate, regrettably there is nothing further that I can offer him, other than considering the matter via the deregulation route to find out whether some of the White Paper's proposals can be brought into force.

I thank my hon. Friend again for bringing this matter forward for consideration, and I am sorry to have had to give him this answer, which is undoubtedly not as positive as he would have liked.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at twenty-six minutes past Twelve midnight.