HL Deb 23 November 1978 vol 396 cc1090-6

3.29 p.m.


My Lords, this has come as a great surprise to me. I beg to move that the Bill be now read a second time. I am in some difficulty because the people who should be in the Box will be there in due course and will be able to answer these questions. Also, while I am not in my usual seat, thank goodness, I am here and I am prepared; otherwise, like the noble Lord, Lord Lloyd of Kilgerran, I might have "missed the 'bus".

My Lords, I have first to declare an interest. For some years I have earned my living as a genealogical record agent and I am a member of the Lord Chancellor's Advisory Council on Public Records. In making that statement I feel that the noble and learned Lord the Lord Chancellor should be here if he is going to answer this debate.


My Lords, I understand that, and that is why I have sent out a message.


I thank the noble Lord. Both the Long Title and the Short Title of this little Bill do very little to explain what it is about. Basically, it makes registers of births, marriages and deaths in the custody of the Registrar General into public records when they become 100 years old. This means that the records are transferred to the Public Record Office where they may be seen on microfilm. At the moment all registers of births, et cetera, are specifically excluded from the Public Records Act 1958.

Before I go into the reasons for this change I should like to mention very briefly the history of general registration in order to give this Second Reading a little colour and to put the whole matter into perspective. As long ago as 1590 Lord Burghley sponsored an abortive attempt to bring about a form of national registration. Following this, literally centuries passed before it actually came into being. Sweden was the first European country, or the first country in the world, to introduce such a system, in 1749. General registration finally began in England and Wales on 1st July 1837, as a result of the 1836 Act. This Act, together with its sister Act, the Marriage Act, was the outcome of many unsuccessful efforts.

The main purpose of these Acts was to satisfy the demands of the dissenting religious denominations to allow their members to be married in their own churches and not the Church of England, because it was thought their methods of record keeping were not up to standard, except for Quakers and Jews, who were previously trusted. Therefore, all other dissenting denominations had their records deposited compulsorily to the Registrar General.

Apart from this, the General Register Act was designed for other practical purposes, which can be described in no better way than by quoting from a report of Lord John Russell's Second Reading speech in the House of Commons. It is reported that he said: But laying aside altogether for the present moment that part of the measure which related particularly to the grievances complained of by the Dissenters, he thought that in a general and national point of view it was most desirable that a general system of civil registration should be now carried into effect. It was a most important subject—important for the security of property—important to ascertain the state and condition of individuals under various circumstances—important to enable the Government to acquire a general knowledge of the state of the population of the country—that there should be a general registration of births, marriages, and deaths ". To illustrate the importance of this Bill as it was considered at the time, it was moved in the House of Commons by Lord John Russell, the then Home Secretary, and replied to by Sir Robert Peel. In this House it was moved by no less than the Prime Minister, Viscount Melbourne. So we can all feel that we are following in very distinguished company.

From 1837 to the present day the General Register Office, or as it is now known the Office of Population, Census and Surveys, has carried out in its functions all the points outlined in that speech, together with producing very valuable medical statistics and social surveys and all that we associate with it today. From its inception it has occupied those beautiful rooms on the Strand side of Somerset House. Thus, people from all over the English-speaking world were proud to know that their entries of births, et cetera, and those of their forebears were lodged in such a famous building. The Office remained there intil 1974 when it was transferred to the nearby St. Catherine's House on the corner of Aldwych and Kingsway.

Public access to the search rooms has always been allowed, and until 1898 members of the public were themselves allowed to inspect the register. Since then the public have been allowed only to inspect the indexes, and in order to obtain any information given on those certificates one has had to buy a certificate to get the information. The charge remained for many years at 3s. 9d. and it has been sharply increased in the last few years. The current price for a member of the public going to the public search room himself is £2.50 per full certificate, and application by post costs £6.

Apart from people wanting copies of certificates for legal and other purposes, there has been a steady increase in the last decade, and very sharply indeed in the last year or so, in the interest of people wishing to trace their family history. This has come from a growth of interest by people from all walks of life, and more lately from the media in the form of the television series, Roots. I believe next year there is going to be an educational programme, which I am afraid will bring more people. As a result the crush of people using the search room at St. Catherine's House has become quite unbearable, without exaggeration, not only during the summer but the whole year round. It is especially congested in school holidays and half terms.

This is clearly a situation which, as regards safety and general comfort, cannot be tolerated. Lunch times between 12 and two are particularly ghastly and are times for the public to avoid, because instead of taking lunch a lot of people come and pursue their hobbies. Occasionally coach parties invade the place. Only this week I was there in person when such a party arrived from a city 128 miles North. Out came 50 or so happy smiling faces, much to the consternation of the regulars. It very much reminded me of the H.M. Bateman cartoon of the parents who came to the 4th of June at Eton in a charabanc. An artist could well have drawn that picture of the people who arrived at St. Catherine's House in a charabanc.

But there again, one cannot deprive people. It is perfectly reasonable that they should want to come, and there is no reason why they should not share the cost by coming in such a reasonable mode of conveyance. Here one can say that genealogy, family history, or call it what you will, plays a very great part in invisible exports in the field of tourism. Many people visit this country from the United States, Canada, Australia, New Zealand and from Southern Africa specifically to discover their origins. This is obvious, because the Tourist Board thought it important enough to publish a pamphlet called Tracing your Ancestors, which is out of print.

When, and if, this Bill becomes law, members of the public will be able to consult microfilms of the original registers. The microfilming is still in progress. I gather that the births are already complete back to 1837. The marriages are on their way. The deaths have hardly been started, but one hopes that when they do come to be started the OPCS will think to start them from 1837 in the same way. The programme, I gather, should be complete by 1980. The actual location as to where physically these microfilms are to be looked at it yet to be decided. Negotiations are in progress between the Public Record Office and the Property Services Agency.

The costs will obviously have to be approved by the Treasury. I cannot think that the costs will be very high. To some extent it will merely be transferring the costs from one Department to another. Considering the public interest there is in the registers and how important an historical source they are, I think it would be very sad if the Treasury denied access on these grounds. Before I leave this point I should like to emphasise to your Lordships how lucky we are as a realm to have such a wealth of public records.

I now come to the Bill itself. Clause 1 amends the Public Records Act 1958 to include registers of births, marriages and deaths where they were previously excluded, where they have been in existence for 100 years or less, deposited in the General Register Office under or in pursuance of any enactment. There are numerous minor consequentials covered by this with which I need not bother your Lordships except to give one or two examples—namely, the Consular Regulations; regulations made under the Civil Aviation Act as regards births, deaths and missing persons on hovercraft, which might sound rather bizarre; the Moscow marriages of 1826 to 1856, and the Ionian Islands Acts from 1816 to 1858. There are many extraordinary matters like that.

Your Lordships will notice that the registration of adoptions and stillbirths are still excluded. Your Lordships will also appreciate that the nature of those documents makes them particularly sensitive, and that the registers started only in 1927, so even if they were not excluded they would still not become available until 2027 or 2028.

So far I have not mentioned that there is a great deal of important historical and demographic work proposed to be done as regards these registers. Some economic and social historians are disappointed that the period would still remain at 100 years. I have discussed this matter with many groups but have come to the conclusion that it is better, because of the sensitive nature of these records, that the 100 year rule remains. However, subsection (3) allows for this period to be shortened should the climate of public opinion change and should it be thought to be desirable, without resorting to further legislation.

I need say little about Clause 2 except that it makes the necessary changes to the Marriage Act 1949 and the Births and Deaths Registration Act 1953. Clause 3 is the citation and commencement clause. Your Lordships will notice that no date is given for the commencement. The reason is twofold. The first reason—which I have already mentioned—is that the microfilming is not yet complete and will not be complete for some time. I also understand that the Office of Population Censuses and Surveys will not transfer its records until that is complete. The second reason is that the Public Record Office cannot, at present, accommodate either the microfilm readers that will be needed, or the members of the public who will wish to use them. Thus, I rather hope that all records of particular interest to genealogists and demographers, such as the decennial census returns, and these registers, could be housed together. Nevertheless, for the reasons I have mentioned, I hope that these records will be available as soon as possible, although I realise the difficulties faced by the Public Record Office. I know how long this type of legislation takes, but the Bill seeks to remove the legal obstacle in the path of the transfer.

In conclusion, the preparation of the Bill has been most agreeable. It has been drafted by a distinguished and well-known Queen's Counsel and I am very grateful for the co-operation that I have received from both the Government Departments concerned and other interested persons, not forgetting your Lordships who are speaking today and in particular the noble and learned Lord, the Lord Chancellor. Alas, as this business has come on at such an early hour I do not think that we shall hear from the Master of the Rolls, but I am sure that he would have made an excellent speech and would have supported the Bill. Therefore, I commend the Bill to your Lordships. My Lords, I beg to move.

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

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