HL Deb 30 July 1928 vol 71 cc1470-7

Order of the Day for the Second Reading read.


My Lords, this is a Bill which I recommend to your Lordships only if you are willing to accept it. May I say with reference to the conversation regarding what has just passed that I will not press this Bill through if there is substantial opposition to it in your Lordships' House. I know that my noble friend opposite is anxious to criticise its provisions. I do not say that it follows that the criticism even of so important a Peer as the noble Lord would of itself be fatal; but if there is any substantial wish on the part of your Lordships generally not to proceed with the Bill at this late date I shall not ask the House to carry it through.

Having said so much, may I say that the object of the Bill is to correct certain hardships which have long been felt by the registrars in this country. Three sets of registrars are dealt with—superintendent registrars, registrars of births and deaths, and registrars of marriages. They exist under a system which is long out of date and have great grievances to complain of. Their remuneration is arbitrary, it is inequitable, it is capricious, and they have no proper prospect of promotion in the profession which they have adopted.

For many years registrars of births and deaths and registrars of marriages have asked for relief and have not got it. All these registrars are paid by fees. Sometimes the fees are paid by the public, sometimes by the local authority, and sometimes by the Exchequer. But their whole remuneration is by fee and the scale, which is fixed by Statute, is quite irrational—I mean, that less is paid for work which is more laborious than is paid for work which is less laborious—and in many respects very inadequate. That inadequacy arises from the fact that the fees were fixed a long time ago and that the cost of living, the value of money, and so forth have altered since then.

Lastly, the fees fluctuate in number and there is no certainty about the incomes of these professional gentlemen. Births, as everybody knows, are diminishing, over the whole country, and in different districts the number of births varies; and the same is true of marriages. Then, perhaps, on the borders of a district an institution is built, a hospital let us say, which absorbs a lot of the births and deaths, carrying them out of the district to which naturally they would have belonged and giving the fees, therefore, to another registrar. Those are the sort of incidents which happen and which make the whole system inadequate and capricious. The obvious remedy, and the one which the Bill adopts, is that instead of these gentlemen being paid by fees they should henceforth receive salaries. That is the main object of the Bill. Those salaries are fixed and settled upon a certain standard of service in comparison with other public services in the country. A certain elasticity has to be allowed because, although in general the fee income is less than the salaries which are to be proposed, in particular cases it is not so. Particular registrars would enjoy a better income under the present system than they would under the new system, and their vested interest has to be considered. Therefore, in the case of existing registrars the provisions of the Bill are made optional, and they are not compelled to come under it unless they wish. Naturally, if their fee income is less than the salary they will come under the Bill. On the other hand, if their fee income is larger than the salary, probably they will not come under it.

With regard to existing registrars, as I say, the Bill is optional, but with regard to all future appointments it is not.

In order to provide the money for these salaries, which as I have explained will, on the whole, be larger than the fees, power is taken to increase the fees to not more than 50 per cent. higher than they are at present. All the increment from these increased fees will be paid into a central fund. In the case of future appointments or of registrars who elect at once to come under the new system, the whole of the fees will be paid into the central fund, and that central fund will form a pool out of which salaries will be paid. The system is quite simple.

I have said enough to show the mischief and inadequacy of the present system of remuneration and the remedy which the Bill proposes, and I desire to say a word or two regarding the prospects of promotion in the service. At the present moment the appointment of these registrars lies with the guardians. That is not absolutely without exception but broadly it is true. It is not a good system because the guardians have no responsibility for the conduct of the service. Moreover, in the great majority of cases they have no opportunity of rewarding a good registrar. They have only a very limited area over which they have jurisdiction in appointing the registrars and, as everybody knows, the propects of promotion in a service so limited are very bad. As I have said, they have no interest in the service; consequently, they have merely the patronage. That is not at all a desirable system.

Now that the salaries, if the Bill passes, are to be paid out of a central fund, it would follow that the appointments should be central instead of local. It is proposed in the Bill that the appointments should be made by the Registrar-General subject to certain limitations. The matter, therefore, will be put on a regular footing. The Registrar-General is himself deeply interested in the conduct of the service and, as the master of it, he will naturally take a great interest in the appointments of the registrars. He will have the whole thing in his hands, and, where the conduct of a registrar justifies it, he will have an opportunity, by the exercise of his power as Registrar-General, to make such promotion as is deserved. The system will, therefore, as we think, work in a thoroughly satisfactory way.

The Bill, is, I need not say, heartily approved by the Association of Registrars of Births and Deaths. They see that this will put their service on a footing far better than it has been on before. I believe the superintendent registrars are not quite so satisfied. That is not because they would be financially worse off, for the interests of all existing registrars are safeguarded under the Bill. They need not come under it unless they please. As a matter of practice the superintendent registrar's office is generally held by the clerks of guardians, and they apparently prefer that the present system should go on under which the office should be held as part of the patronage of the guardians in every case. I do not think that kind of objection, which has nothing substantial about it—there is no loss under the new system even to the superintendent registrars—is likely to have a great deal of weight with your Lordships. Some of the boards of guardians similarly object. They do not want to lose their patronage. There again, once it can be shown that these registrars are entitled to better treatment than they have had in the past, that the present system of payment of fees cannot provide them with that better treatment, and that you must have a centralised system, I do not think your Lordships would wish that objections upon the grounds of patronage should be allowed to prevail. Therefore it seems there is nothing to be said against the Bill.

The only other objection which has been indicated to me is the sort of objection which one so often hears: "Why make a change like this when the Poor Law is going to be overhauled in the near future; better wait until it is overhauled." Accidents do happen, and at any rate it is not fair that these registrars up and down the country, who have for years asked Parliament to remedy their grievances, should be put off merely on the ground that, as I hope will be the case in a few months, a better Poor Law system will be laid before the country. There is nothing permanent in these Acts of Parliament, and if in the new Poor Law system it may turn out to be right to modify this Bill which I am asking your Lordships to pass, that will have to be considered and Parliament may be asked to make a modification. But as matters stand these gentlemen have come to us for justice and I ask your Lordships to give them justice. I move the Second Reading of the Bill.

Moved, That the Bill be now read 2a.—(The Marquess of Salisbury.)


My Lord, I rise to move that this Bill be read a second time this day six months. The reason I do that is that it really is a controversial Bill. I notice that the noble Marquess who leads the House said last week that we had to consider whether a Bill is so little controversial as to be suitable to be dealt with by your Lordships rather than that the interests which are involved of those persons whose positions are dealt with should be allowed to stand by. If it was merely a question of whether underpaid servants of local authorities should have their remuneration raised that would be a very different matter, and I should be the last person to oppose a Bill which was to get rid of any injustice. But this Bill goes a great deal further than that. It really is a Bill for centralisation, and the effect of it in practice will be to create perhaps some two or three thousand more Government officials. At the present moment, for all practical purposes, these officials for the registration of births, deaths and marriages are servants of the local authorities, and are appointed by them, but it is intended by this Bill to alter that entirely. Again, the noble Marquess said, as regards the 650 superintendent registrars, that there was no increase of pay to them and that apparently they were not dissatisfied. They are the most important people who deal with these matters. It seems to me that undoubtedly there is going to be an increase of expenditure both under Clause 7 and Clause 8, and that increased expenditure will have to come out of the pockets either of the taxpayer or the ratepayer. We always find, when there are changes of this sort, when we get more centralisation, that there is greater expenditure.

Why do I say there will be more expenditure? We shall have to pay larger salaries to get this work done by whole-time officers. That, I understand, is contemplated by the Government in the Bill. In most cases these officers at present are part-time officers. There is not enough work in many areas to occupy their whole time and they are engaged in other directions. I cannot see that there is any objection to that in the case of a registrar of births, deaths and marriages. It is not such an important matter as to take up the whole of a person's time in many places. On the other hand, it has been said that it saves money not only to the local authority but to the working classes who have to register births, deaths and marriages, but I understand from what the noble Marquess said that the fees are to be increased by 50 per cent. That increase will fall very heavily on the working classes. A small increase would not be so objectionable, but an increase of 50 per cent. in order to pay higher salaries to underpaid officials is a serious matter for those who will have to pay the increased fees. It is really impossible to get any explanation of the Bill or to attempt to do anything in Committee owing to the present state of business. One has also to remember that Clause 3 provides for another set of officials to carry out the central fees fund. Again you will have more officials to pay. The present Government always seem to be anxious to increase the power of Whitehall. Clause 4 empowers the Minister of Health to increase the statutory fees payable, and that seems to me very remarkable, for it gives power to the Minister, on his own initiative, to do that. Up to now these fees have been imposed by Statute, and it seems to me an extraordinary invasion of rights to give that power to the Minister.

The more one considers this Bill the more objections one finds to it. I would point out that it is not a Government Bill in the ordinary sense of the word. It is a Bill that was brought in by a private member in another place and when it comes here it is adopted by the Government. It seems rather curious that the Government should have done that. It is not a usual thing for them to do. They did not do it in the case of the Racecourse Betting Bill. Though they support that Bill it is still in the hands of the noble Lord, Lord Hamilton of Dalzell. I cannot see why the Government should take up this Bill. They cannot say it is a non-controversial Bill. I am informed that the Association of Municipal Corporations are opposed to it, and object to its proceeding further. I also understand it has been considered very carefully indeed by the Poor Law Association, which represents some 620 boards of guardians out of 650, and they have told me to-day that they are entirely opposed to the Bill as it now appears. I do not see that the noble Marquess can say that it is a non-controversial Bill in any sense of the word.

The noble Marquess has himself referred to what will take place in the next Session of Parliament. He has told us that there will be proposals regarding local government, and in all probability, as we know, boards of guardians will be abolished. But that is no reason why this patronage should not be transferred to another local authority, the urban district council. I should have thought that this question was exactly one of those which it was undesirable to prejudge, and that it would have been much better to have waited for the Report of the Royal Commission. You are proposing to throw on these local authorities the burden of providing offices for these registration officers and it is a further hardship, I think, that they should have to provide superannuation for these registration officers. I must say that this Bill can hardly be taken as uncontroversial, and for that reason it does seem to me rather extraordinary that the noble Marquess has asked us to give it a Second Reading at this time of the Session.

Amendment moved— Leave out ("now") and at the end of the Motion insert ("this day six months").—(Lord strachie.)


My Lords, I should like quite briefly to support the Amendment moved by Lord Strachie. This Bill certainly deals with a controversial matter. It is controversial as between the local government principle and the centralisation of officialism in this country. I think that is always a matter of controversy and has been for a very long time.


My Lords, will the noble Lord allow me to interrupt? I promised that if this Bill was substantially opposed in the present Session I would not press it. Therefore if he moves the adjournment of the debate I shall not resist it.


My Lords, in those circumstances I will move that the debate be now adjourned.

Moved, That the debate be now adjourned.—(Lord Parmoor.)

On Question, Motion agreed to and debate adjourned accordingly.