HL Deb 09 February 1965 vol 263 cc10-24

2.54 p.m.

Order of the Day for the Second Reading read.


My Lords, the last time that the Scottish law of registration of births, deaths and marriages was before your Lordships' House was 28 years ago. The first time was in July, 1854, when a First Reading was given to the Bill which became the Registration of Births, Deaths and Marriages (Scotland) Act, 1854. With the principal Act still in operation 110 years later I feel that I need scarcely apologise for taking up some time in your Lordships' House with a new Registration Bill. This new Bill repeals the 1854 Act and six amending Acts and re-writes them in the legislative and administrative language of to-day and also adds some new provision to meet present needs.

There are, therefore, two reasons for this Bill. The first is that the Act of 1854 is out of date in language and also in many of its practical applications. Simple consolidation would not be enough. To modernise, we have had to re-write. The second reason is that there are a number of improvements which should now be effected and which, I am sure, will be welcomed by the Scottish people. I should add at this point that there is no corresponding English Bill, as the English Registration Acts were consolidated in 1953. The two countries differ in this field in both law and practice, and I am assured that the contents of this Scottish Bill will not cause embarrassment on this side of the Border.

The Bill is based upon a four-year study undertaken by the present Registrar General, and also consultation with a wide range of interested bodies. This study resulted in broad agreement that the basic functions and structure of the registration service do not need radical change. I shall therefore describe the provisions of the Bill with emphasis on what is new rather than on what is already law.

The Bill has five Parts. Under Part 1 the broad structure of the registration service remains the same. There is a Registrar General with his head office in the new Register House in Edinburgh, and a network of district registrars (at present over 900) throughout Scotland. All are statutory officers with functions laid down in the Bill. The registrars are appointed by the local registration authority, but in the exercise of their statutory duties they are under the supervision of the Registrar General.

The Bill makes one significant change in the central organisation. The Registrar General is at present faced with an overcrowding problem. The annual intake of registers needs 110 linear feet of shelving, and at this rate the New Register House will be full probably within five years. It is therefore proposed to microfilm the registers as they come in from the local registrars, deposit the originals in a proper repository elsewhere, and retain (for search and extract purposes) the microfilms, which will take up only 3 feet annually instead of 110. Clause 3 is vital to this proposal, because it gives the Registrar General authority to deposit the registers elsewhere than the present New Register House. I should like to emphasise the fact that at the present moment there is no power to take the registers outside the building of New Register House.

In the local administration, which is covered by Clauses 5–12, an endeavour has been made to simplify the statutory arrangements so as to ease the work of the local registration authorities and to clarify the relationship between the authority and the registrar as employer and employee. I shall not go into detail on this matter, but I ought to mention that one of the steps taken to meet these objectives has been to omit certain administrative functions which were assigned to the sheriff under the 1854 Act.

Part II of the Bill re-writes the existing law on the registration of births—along with several improvements, a few of which I shall mention. Under the existing law all births must be registered by the registrar for the district in which the birth occurred. This can be an unnecessary inconvenience attaching to the policy—which your Lordships' House has often endorsed—of encouraging confinements in maternity hospitals, because it often obliges a parent to make a special journey (in some cases quite a long one) to have the birth registered. To help such parents Clause 13 will allow them a choice—provided that they reside in Scotland and that the child is born in Scotland—of having the birth registered either in the district in which the child was born or in the district where the parents reside.

Clause 15 deals with foundling children. One of its purposes is to give the foundling child a birthday. It still occasionally happens that a child is found on a doorstep. As a matter of fact, there was a case reported in the Press just within the last few weeks. At present the child is saddled for life with a birth certificate which shows that he was found at that particular address on such-and-such a date. Under Clause 15, if a medical certificate gives an approximate date of birth, that date may be entered in the register as the date of birth of the child.

Clause 17 deals with delayed registrations, and one of its objects is to meet the very real difficulties of some grownup people who have found that their births have never been registered at all. Under the present law they cannot act as their own informants if their parents or elder relatives are dead. In those circumstances it is impossible at present for a registration to be effected, but the change in Clause 17 will enable the person concerned to do so.

Under Clause 19, the abbreviated birth certificate instituted in 1934 will be issued to all informants free when a birth is registered. This certificate, unlike the ordinary full extract, does not contain names of parents and thus makes no distinction between legitimacy and illegitimacy. We hope that this free issue will bring it into more common use. The full extract will still be available on payment of the appropriate fee. Perhaps, as we are talking about Scotland, I should have put it the other way round. We hope that the imposition of the fee of 5s. 3d. for the whole certificate will make it more customary to accept the abbreviated one.

An important point is that when the abbreviated certificate was brought in, in 1934, the purpose was to enable a birth certificate to be available which did not indicate to anyone seeing it that the child was illegitimate. In fact, because it has not been as widely used for all practical purposes as we should have liked, the use of an abbreviated certificate immediately raises the suspicion in somebody's mind, "Is this a reference to a child of illegitimate birth?" We hope, therefore, that by making this the standard certificate it will be the one which is regularly used, so that the original intention in 1934 will now be carried out, some thirty years later.

Part III deals with the registration of deaths. There is no radical change in existing arrangements, except for a provision in Clause 22 enabling a death to be registered either in the district where it took place or in the district where the deceased was ordinarily resident before his death. Clause 24 brings the statutory arrangements for the supply of a medical certificate of cause of death into line with current practice, and provides some latitude for improvements in the future. As I imagine your Lordships are aware, the particulars in death registrations, including the cause of death, are transferred to anonymous punched cards which are processed in order to produce a wide variety of statistical tables. I recently visited the machine room in the New Register House where this work is done and was much impressed by the tremendous variety of services given in this way to medical research workers in hospitals and medical schools.

Part IV relates to registration of marriages. It is not among the objects of the Bill to make any change in the marriage law of Scotland. In substance it consolidates the present law on the registration of ecclesiastical marriages, and it leaves untouched the Marriage (Scotland) Act, 1939, which deals with both the contracting and the registration of civil marriages.

Part V modernises the procedures for indexing, copying, and correcting registers. Photographic or other reproduction methods will be used when this is possible and desirable. If a photographic extract is issued it will be authenticated in the same way as one written by hand or provided by typewriter. Clause 43 contains new proposals for recording changes of name and surname already made in accordance with the Common Law of Scotland. There is nothing in Scotland exactly corresponding to the deed poll procedure in England and Wales, and there has been some demand in Scotland for many years for a convenient method of recording such changes. It occasionally happens, for example, that a young man or a young woman is applying for entry to higher education or employment and is suddenly faced with the fact that he or she has been brought up with a Christian name or a surname different from that in the birth entry. In these and similar cases it will be possible to have established changes recorded in a separate register. The original entry will not be altered, but when an extract is obtained the change or changes will be shown in addition to the original name or surname. I believe that these provisions not only will be found convenient, but will often relieve some real personal distress.

Clauses 45 to 47 remind us that Parliament in its wisdom did something for Scotland a hundred years ago which it did not do for England and Wales. It made it a statutory requirement that all surviving parochial registers up to the year 1854 should be deposited with the Registrar General. He has them still—4000 volumes of them. I saw them recently in the New Register House, where they are in regular use for genealogical, historical and biographical research. I am told that they are also much used in the tourist season by Canadian and Australian visitors, who come to the New Register House to trace their ancestors.

May I conclude by making the point that the registration service continues to serve in an ever-increasing degree the two main purposes for which it was established over a hundred years ago. On the one hand, it supplies records for legal, personal and scholarly purposes. On the other hand, it provides the raw material for vital and social statistics, and these statistics are linked with Census results to provide an important part of the factual background on which social, economic and land use planning must be based. I am happy to commend to your Lordships a Bill which modernises the law on a matter which concerns every Scot and has a contribution to make to the social and economic progress of Scotland. I beg to move.

Moved, That the Bill be now read 2a,—(Lord Hughes.)

3.5 p.m.


My Lords, I am sure that the whole House is most grateful to the noble Lord for the clear and concise explanation which he has given of this very important Bill. We sympathise with him in realising that he was much gayer and uninhibited when in Opposition. We on this side of the House welcome the Bill. Inevitably, my noble friends and I have some doubts to voice, and we have, too, some suggestions—some of which, in fact I hope all of which, will be constructive. We shall study with care the noble Lord's replies to the points we make. Finally, we have a number of minor Committee points which I do not propose to raise to-day, but we shall put them down for the next stage.

Before turning to the Bill, I have three questions which I should like to ask the noble Lord. First, this Bill, as the noble Lord has said, touches on many aspects of life. Can he tell the House about the various bodies which have been consulted in its preparation, which, as we all understand, has taken such a long time? Secondly, can the noble Lord confirm that no change is proposed in the degree and the nature of the access which is now afforded to the public to the entries in the registers of births, marriages and deaths? Thirdly, the noble Lord spoke about correction of errors. Is it going to be any easier to get ordinary spelling errors corrected in the register entries? At present, as I understand the position, a simple correction of a spelling error requires a formal petition to the sheriff, which must be inconvenient and perhaps expensive for some people.

To turn to the Bill itself, Clause 3 (1) requires that the General Register Office shall be maintained in Edinburgh. It seems to be a very unusual provision to put into a Statute that an office should be maintained in Edinburgh. The noble Lord pointed out to the House that it had been 28 years since a Bill of this nature has been before your Lordships. This is the sort of Bill which remains unchanged for many years. We are facing big changes in Scotland. Who knows what the future will bring? Some Registrar General, some Secretary of State for Scotland, may have very good reasons for wishing to move the office to Livingstone, or Glasgow, or Fife. But, as the Bill stands, he must come to Parliament with an amending Bill. I feel strongly that this is a most unusual provision to go into a Bill. I know the Register Office will be in Edinburgh; it may be in Edinburgh for all time. But I am going to suggest that we should substitute the word "Scotland" for the word "Edinburgh" and not create what, I believe, is a quite unusual precedent.

On Clause 6 and other clauses, I am concerned about the effect on the present staff in some of the registration districts. Their districts will alter quite properly: they may contract, they may enlarge, and the volume of their work may be greater or less. Would it not be proper and in conformity with the normal practice—we put this in so many Bills—to include in this Bill a compensation clause for any officers or servants who may suffer detriment as a result of the Bill?

To turn now to Clauses 7 and 53, my noble friends and I know that many of the staff are concerned about the arrangements in the Bill for such things as the fixing of salaries, the engagement of staff, and the appeal procedure over salaries and over dismissals of part-time registrars. As I have investigated the situation, and as I hope the position is, the staff of the district registrar's office will all be treated for this purpose as normal local authority employees, whether they are full-time or part-time. I understand that the part-time registrars may join the Association of Registrars of Scotland. I ask the noble Lord whether I am right. I hope the noble Lord will clarify this matter in his reply. There is misunderstanding, there are fears, and it would be very good to have the answer on the record from him.

On Clauses 13 and 22, the Bill departs, as the noble Lord told us, from the present practice of registering births and deaths in the district where they occur, and I agree with him that the present provision has caused some inconvenience. The present practice in England is to give the particulars to any registrar. The registrar then sends the declaration for registration to the registrar of the district in which the event took place. This is clearly a more convenient practice, though, of course, because the declaration has to be handed on from one registrar to another, this may lead to some delay. I do not think the English system causes any trouble over signatures, because, presumably, the informant advising the original registrar's office can sign the form giving the particulars.

Both systems seem to have the advantage that the district where the event occurred is the one place to look for the particulars. Under the Bill, the record need not be in the district where the event occurred; it can be in the district where either parent was living at the time. But how is one to find which district this is? Will it not be necessary, in far more cases than at present, to go and consult the central register? This is what I do not understand. I am not at all sure that the noble Lord is not curing one difficulty by creating another. We try in Scottish Bills to do things better than they are done in England, and I hope that the noble Lord can convince me that this is the case here. As of now, I and some of my noble friends have considerable doubts on this matter.

The noble Lord mentioned Clause 19, which discontinues the free issue of a full birth certificate. Of course, this is something which we in Scotland do better than England does, and such a certificate has not been charged for in Scotland. I am glad to see that the Bill keeps ahead of England by giving a free issue of the abbreviated certificate. As the noble Lord knows, there has been some criticism of this change, and I am grateful to the noble Lord, who suddenly became so lucid in departing from his brief, for telling us in words that we could well understand the reason for this departure.

Finally, my Lords, there is Clause 46 under which all the parochial registers not already returned must be returned to the Registrar General. I feel that some of these registers are prized historical documents, possibly kept now in a place of honour where they have lain for so many years. I do not see why they must be returned to the Registrar General. Should not provision be made so that, with or without payment of a small fee, the Registrar General would be satisfied with a photographic copy, allowing the original to remain where it has lain for so long—that is, of course, if the present custodians so desire? That is something which we can talk about at greater length in Committee. Those are the points I have to make. My noble friends have others, and I hope they will support and elaborate some of the points I have made. Our one desire on this side of the House is to send this good Bill on its way as an even better Bill.

3.16 p.m.


My Lords, perhaps it may not be inappropriate, in opening my remarks on this Bill, to look back to the 1854 Act, the purpose of which, as described in its preamble, was that a complete and uniform system of registration should be established and maintained. Lord Elcho, who introduced the Bill in another place on April 7, 1854, claimed that compulsory registration was the greatest boon which an enlightened Government could confer upon the people. In his peroration he said: While the rich have their title deeds, their parchments and their sculptured monuments, there is literally no record of the poor man's birth or death except the parish register, which may not inaptly be called the charter of the poor man. And he sought, in effect, to convert the parish registers into a national record.

My Lords, what are the tests by which a measure of this description should be judged? The first I suggest is: will it improve the system of registration so as to make it more uniform and complete? The second is: do the changes proposed make registration easier and more convenient for the citizen, with due regard for economy and administrative efficiency? The third is: are the interests of those who carry out the registration—the registrars—properly safeguarded? The first question on which we have to make up our minds is whether registration should be regarded as a local or as a national service. I would suggest that, where it is desired that in meeting human needs different methods should be employed to conform with differences in life, thought and habit in different areas, then it is natural that the service concerned should be local rather than national. But where the very essence of the service is uniformity throughout the country, it is reasonable, at least, to put the case for a national rather than a local service.

Under this Bill, it is the Registrar General who is to give the registrar instructions and directions in the exercise of his functions under the Act. That comes under Clause 7. Under the same clause, it is also the Registrar General who is to prescribe the appropriate qualifications for registrars. Indeed, it is really not too much to say that responsibility is placed upon the Registrar General for the efficiency of the service, for Clause 1 (3) empowers him, to do all such things as appear to him necessary or expedient for maintaining the utility of the registration service in Scotland. There are, of course, powerful arguments in favour of local administrative control. First of all, that is where the control now lies. Secondly, it is in many ways economical and administratively convenient. Registrars may well combine their functions as registrars with other local authority duties, and there is a close link between local authority health services and registrars, each relying on the other for much of the information required. On the other hand, local authority boundaries may not always result in the registrars' offices being located in the most convenient place for the people in the surrounding area, or even in the most economical distribution of offices throughout the country. For example, one office situated on the boundary between two local registration authorities might replace two or more registration offices, yet Clause 6 of the Bill does not seem to make provision for one registration office to cover parts of two or more local registration authority areas. This is something we can look at in Committee.

There are also frontiers of jurisdiction which may cause trouble. For example, there is the small one of office hours. I believe that, under the original Act, the hours of opening were laid down in the Act; and I think they were to be from eight to six for six days a week. But now, under this Bill, they are to be fixed by the local registration authority with the approval of the Registrar General. What happens if the Registrar General does not approve? It may well be that in certain areas which have gone over to a five-day local authority week the Registrar General may feel that it is for the convenience of the citizens, many of whom come into the centre on a Saturday, that the registration office should be open on that day.

Then there is the question of discipline. The power of dismissal is given to the local registration authority, although it must first of all consult the Registrar General. But it is the Registrar General who issues instructions as to how the registrar is to carry out his functions; and if they are not carried out efficiently, then it is presumably the Registrar General who will want to have the registrar removed. It is not easy to be sure where the balance of advantage lies in the interests of uniformity and efficiency, and the choice is perhaps made more difficult because of the review of expenditure falling on the rates which I believe the Government are undertaking. If local authorities were to be relieved of the cost of registration services, the balance would be tipped in favour of a national service. Conversely, if Parliament felt strongly that the service is primarily national rather than local, there would be a strong case for relieving local authorities of the rate burden of the service.

My own view is that much depends on the extent to which local authority officers act as part-time registrars. It seems to me significant that the cities are in favour, I believe, of registration being a national service; for in cities, no doubt, registrars all have a whole-time job and do nothing but registrations. But I am sure that the answer ought to depend on the convenience of the individual, rather than on administrative convenience; and I hope that the noble Lord, Lord Hughes, will be able to convince us that in fact the two coincide. Personally, I want the Bill to go as far as possible to enable every individual to fulfil his registration obligations at the office which is most accessible to him—which, of course, is not necessarily the nearest office.

On the score of remuneration, even if local authorities are to continue to be the employers of registrars there seems no reason why, in a uniform service such as this, there should not be uniformity of remuneration, at least for whole-time registrars and those who are only part-time employees of local authorities, or in some cases, perhaps, not employees at all, but independent people carrying out the functions of registrars. Again, this is a matter which we can perhaps consider in Committee.

My Lords, it is at least surprising that there should be no mention in the Bill, that I can find, of any arrangements for the negotiation of salary scales or for arbitration in case of disagreement. If it is the intention that reorganisation of districts should take place on a considerable scale—and this was something that I think the noble Lord did not mention in the course, of his observations—then surely provision should also be made for compensation for loss of office or for down-grading of office. There is also the effect on salaries of those of the Bill's provisions which give a choice of the place of registration. That choice, I should have thought, would be likely to increase the work for some registrars and perhaps reduce it for others, although the mere fact that a choice is given will not mean that the amount of the reduction will be as much as the amount of the increase, because of the necessity to consult between registrars.

My noble friend Lord Craigton has referred to the question of where registration takes place. This, I think, is perhaps one of the most important changes made by the Bill. On the face of it, one would say that the right place to register is where the event took place. In the less mobile days of 1854, where the event took place was in most cases probably also the district of residence. Nowadays, in a far higher proportion of cases children are born in hospitals, and those hospitals may be quite a long way from home and in a different registration district. I am sure it is right at least to allow notice of a birth to be given to the registrar in the district of residence, and perhaps even to go as far as is the case under the English procedure, and allow notice to be given to any registrar—that is to say, the registrar who is most conveniently situated for the individual. Because, I repeat, it is the convenience of the individual that we want to study most in this matter. I am also sure that it is right to allow parents to notify a birth in the district of residence. That is not quite the same thing as allowing the birth to be registered in the district of residence. In England, as my noble friend has said, one may give notice to any office, but registration will take place in the district of birth.

It can hardly be said that to adopt the English system would greatly increase the work of registrars, since in every case the registrar in the district of birth will have to verify that the registration has duly taken place elsewhere whenever, indeed, it has not been made by him. Otherwise, one could never be certain that there had not been double registration. The most cogent reason for an event always being recorded in the district in which it took place is perhaps that where it took place is a matter of fact: in contrast, a person's district of residence is a much less clear-cut concept. There are many nuances between "Where I lived" and "Where I was" at any particular time.

If the Bill becomes law, what is to happen on the Borders? I thought that perhaps the noble Lord, Lord Hughes, did not quite cover all the points here. No doubt a Dumfriesshire or Berwickshire parent whose child is born in a Carlisle or Berwick hospital will want to register the birth in Scotland, for reasons of national sentiment. I gather that he will not be able to do so. Why should the Scottish registrar not be empowered to send the notice of birth to his English counterpart to be registered in England? Why should the Bill not provide for that? Or will notification of the birth have to be given in England, since there is to be no machinery in Scotland for notification as the Bill is now drafted?

What happens if a woman who is ordinarily resident in Carlisle has her baby, perhaps prematurely or unexpectedly, in Dumfries while on a visit there and is sent back to Carlisle quite soon after the birth, as sometimes happens? If the father gives notice of the birth to the Carlisle registrar, the registrar has no power to register the birth but must send the notification to the district of birth. So it looks as if in such cases, even though the mother may be already back in Carlisle, the Dumfries registrar will have to do the registration. Surely the Dumfries registrar could be empowered to receive the registration from the registrar in Carlisle. Otherwise, obviously, the parents will be compelled to go back to Dumfries to make the registration.

My Lords, there are two main purposes in this Bill. One, has been referred to by the noble Lord, and that is the question of changes of name and surname. He referred, in particular, to children; and I think that what I have to say also covers children. The Bill maintains the Scottish tradition that the name of a person is his Christian name and that the surname is an additional name. Until I looked into this I confess that I was not aware that it is customary, but not necessary, for a father in Scotland to confer his own name on his children born in wedlock; and that, to quote the authority I consulted: unless any obligation exists, freedom of selection is unrestricted. —that is, selection of name. Such obligation arises in cases of "names of dignity". A person, according to the law as stated by Lord Adam: has a perfect right to change his name and no-one can prevent him from adding to it or altering it. At the same time, it is clearly desirable that some formal step be taken so as to establish the identity of the person.

I understand that in Scotland the commonest ways of establishing a new name are by Lord Lyon's certificate, which confers official recognition of the change of name, or by public advertisement. Once the formal step has been taken, and the new name is in use, there seems to be no reason why application for registration of the new name should not be made. But Clause 43 (5) allows application after the name has been in use for two years, and not before; and the registrar can insist on a further insertion in a newspaper, this time giving notice of the intention to apply. I quite appreciate that where no formal act has taken place, this delay may be justified. I realise that the period of the delay may in some circumstances provide some protection for the community. But surely at least where official recognition has been given to a change of name it is not necessary that there should be this two-years wait before the change is recorded in the register. I should have thought that in the particular case that the noble Lord cited, that of children, this might be very disadvantageous. These are the points, and some others, which we shall consider in Committee. With that I welcome the Bill and wish it well.


My Lords, I wonder whether the noble Lord could indicate to us the situation of that place he refers to as "elsewhere", that is; the place where the Registrar General might deposit the document other than in the New Register House. Is it by any chance a certain church situated in Charlotte Square, or is it some other place?