HC Deb 26 October 1999 vol 336 cc811-2 3.35 pm
Mr. Keith Darvill (Upminster)

I beg to move, That leave be given to bring in a Bill to amend the law relating to access to registers of births, marriages and deaths; and for connected purposes. The main purpose of the Bill is to provide improved public access to records of civil registration—those of births, marriages and deaths. The Bill will give clarity to sections of the Marriage Act 1949 and the Births and Deaths Registration Act 1953, which prevent information from being obtained unless certificates are purchased. The proposals, which have widespread support both in and outside the House, attempt to address defects in the arrangements as well as clarifying the law.

The 1949 and 1953 Acts do not prohibit access to records. They authorise the issue of certified copies of birth, marriage and death certificates. However, those seeking information may look only at the index of records. To receive the information that they require, they must pay the unnecessary and exorbitant sum of £6.50 for a certificate, which, in many cases, the researcher does not need. Many of those researching information about ancestors in order to prepare a family tree or family history find the fee for certificates and the inability to browse erect unnecessary and expensive barriers.

The Registrar-General of Births, Deaths and Marriages has long recognised that the present arrangements are unnecessarily restrictive. Demands by members of the public to remedy the difficulties are growing. Many hon. Members will have received representations from constituents who read Family Tree Magazine, or who are members of the Society of Genealogists or one of the many family history societies around the country.

My Bill will provide a right to browse records, reducing the frustration of genealogists and other researchers who can obtain information only through certified copies of entries, and must purchase them without knowing what information they contain. Nor can copies be returned for a refund if they are of no use. The main aim of the Bill is to eliminate the need for researchers to conduct a search through the speculative purchase of certificates and to replace it with a right to examine records so that they may select information of interest to them.

The proposal relates to older records. The Bill will contain a provision opening historic records—those of 75 years or older—to public view. The 1990 White Paper "Registration: Proposal for Change" specified that period, considering it to be a reasonable compromise. That period also gained the greatest measure of support—almost half—among those who responded to the consultation paper to the Green Paper that preceded that document.

For recent records, the existing system will remain. Members of the public may still obtain information through the purchase of copies of specified items. This important distinction between recent and historic records will be drawn because of concern that the right to look up events—especially births—in public indexes, and to purchase copies of the records, offers scope for certificates to be used too readily for the creation of false identities for purposes of personation and fraud.

Those who have campaigned for a change in the law recognise that a balance must be struck between facilitating worthwhile research into family histories—an interest that grows every year—and the need to reduce the possibility of abuse. With that balance in mind, it is right to provide access to information but alternative arrangements for the purchase of certificates of recent events, which provides an approach for the prevention of personation and fraud.

I recognise that the previous Government intended to remedy the defects in the system, but they never found the parliamentary time to fulfil their good intentions. I am also heartened that this Government intend to make change and modernise the arrangements. "Supporting Families", the consultation document published last year, proposed that there should be a review of the civil registration system in England and Wales. The then Economic Secretary acknowledged that the Victorian legislation on which the civil registration service is based places too many restrictions on the type and extent of service and hinders the use of modern technology to meet the needs of a changing society.

I understand that the aim of the review was to consider the existing operational framework of civil registration and to set out options for its future development, including access to registration records. The final phase of the review has been completed, with the publication on 8 September of a public consultation document "Registration: Modernising a Vital Service".

Chapter 4 of the consultation paper is devoted to improving service delivery through better access to records. It acknowledges that the present paper-based system cannot be sustained and suggests that technology holds the key to solving problems of storage, retention and retrieval of future records. I welcome the recognition that technology will play an important role in access, and that is why my Bill will provide for computer-based records to be retained and allow access to records by way of information communication technology.

I am pleased to have the opportunity today to move this motion under Standing Order 23 and I trust that the House is persuaded of the need for change in this area of the law, a change that will benefit a large number of people throughout England and Wales and many who live in other parts of the world whose ancestors were born and lived in this country.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill ordered to be brought in by Mr. Keith Darvill, Mrs. Eileen Gordon, Mr. David Drew, Mr. Clive Efford, Mr. Gareth R. Thomas, Mr. David Lidington and Mr. Bob Russell.