HL Deb 28 January 1983 vol 438 cc498-507

1.5 p.m.

Lord Teviot

My Lords, I beg to move that this Bill be now read a second time. In doing so I must declare an interest in that I am a genealogist and a record agent.

This is the third occasion on which I have introduced this Bill. The first was in November 1978 and the second in July 1979. Owing to the fact that this is a late hour on a Friday I shall he as brief as possible. I am extremely grateful to your Lordships, both to those who remain here to listen and, especially, to those distinguished speakers who will be speaking. I am particularly grateful to my noble and learned friend on the Woolsack, who, I gather, has given his guarded blessing for this little Bill to go forward. In July 1979 he said that he would pursue this matter with his colleagues in one way or another. This he has done, and I am most grateful to him.

The purpose of the Bill is to remove the custody of the registers of births, marriages and deaths from the Registrar General's office to the Public Record Office. General registration in England and Wales began on 1st July 1837 in pursuance of the Registration Act 1836. Members of the public had direct access to those registers until 1898. Since then access has applied only to the indexes; any further information has to be sought by purchasing a certificate. The current charge for those applying in person is £4.60, and, by post, about double that.

In the main, the indexes give only the names of the persons and the registration district in which the event occurred. From 1866 the death indexes have given the age of the deceased; and from 1912 onwards, in the case of births, the maiden name of the mother, and, in the case of marriages, the surname of the other party. I should mention here that the indexes give the address of the marriage (I do not know if I am out of order in mentioning this now) but often it is a very loose address with just the plain place and not always the parish in which the road is situated. For instance, to take a point made by the noble Lord, Lord Mishcon, one could have seen both taking place in Brixton, so it has not been necessary and would not be setting a precedent just putting the main place without a more precise one.

The certificates tell us much more: in the case of births they give the occupation of the father, the maiden name of the mother and the address at which the birth took place. For marriages, the occupations of the couple are given and the names and occupations of the fathers; for deaths, the age of the deceased, where he died, the cause of death and the name and address of the informant. Your Lordships will now be wanting to know why it is important for this information to be available. Basically, the main reason is that in the last decade there has been an explosion of interest—that term is not an exaggeration—in family history or genealogy, not only in this country but in all parts of the world. It would be fair to say that tourism has benefited greatly from the many people coming to this country in order to find out more about their origins. The interest comes from people in all walks of life, both the very young and the most senior. Frankly, the wealth of interest has imposed a great strain on the Registrar General's department whose real mission in life in this instance is to issue certificates of births, deaths and marriages to members of the public for current legal purposes. People pursuing family history do not need certified copies of entry; they just want information.

There is one point that I have not mentioned on the two previous occasions; that is, the present difficulty in searching for people with a common surname. One can quote the inevitable Smith, but more particularly to patronymics, such as Jones, Williams, and so on, especially in the Principality of Wales where they abound. I have myself suffered in the past. Now, those people have to buy many irrelevant certificates or have many irrelevant entries checked in order to find the right one. This is extremely expensive, time consuming and a waste of money.

I now come to the Bill itself. Clause 1 amends the Public Records Act 1958 to include registers of births and marriages 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; and Moscow marriages from 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 and will appreciate that the nature of those documents make them particularly sensitive, and that the registers started only in 1927, so even if they were not excluded they would not become available until 2027 or 2028.

So far I have not mentioned that there is a great deal of important historical demographic work proposed to be done on these registers. Some economic and social historians are disappointed that the period will remain at 100 years, although I was speaking recently to a member of that notable body, the Cambridge Group of Population Studies and Social Structure, and I gather that the 1880s is quite a good cut-off point because that is when fertility began to wane and birth control became more apparent and also mortality declined. The trend of mortality decline has continued from that date. I have discussed this matter with many other groups and 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 the period to be shortened should the climate of public opinion change and should it be thought 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 Birth 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 for this is that many arrangements have to be completed and final decisions made for this transfer. This Bill, as I have said, is only necessary because the Public Records Act 1958 specifically excluded these records. I would be grateful if my noble and learned friend could tell the House of what plans he proposes. I gather that charges will have to be made, and, much as one regrets it I fear that it is inevitable that this operation will have to be self-financing in order for it to proceed at all. I shall not say any more about this at the moment and will reserve any further comments to when I wind up.

However, there is one further point that I should like to be made clear. Will these records become the sole agency of the Public Record Office and will the Registrar General relinquish his total responsibility over them?

In conclusion, I would again like to thank all those from whom I have received co-operation—that is, the officials from the Public Record Office and the Office of Population Census and Surveys. One sincerely hopes that the Bill might reach the statute book this Session. There is no telling, but it would be a great pity if it fails in another place. There are Members there who are taking an interest, so it only remains for us to hope and pray. I beg to move.

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

1.15 p.m.

Lord Denning

My Lords, I would like to support the Bill. The modern law as to public records is contained in a statute of 1958. In that statute there is set up the Advisory Council on Public Records and of that advisory council the Master of the Rolls is, by statute, the chairman. For 20 years I have been chairman of the Advisory Council on Public Records. This question has been considered time after time by the advisory council and on every occasion they have expressed their support for the Bill. Let me tell your Lordships one or two more things about it.

Of course, public records are really the records which are kept by Government departments and Government agencies and administrations and among those, as a matter of principle, all births, deaths and marriages—all these registers—should be public records. If they were public records under the general provisions of this statute, after 30 years they should be handed over to the Public Record Office and made available for public inspection. But there was an exception made in 1958 in regard to these registers of births, deaths and marriages. So the position is simply that a member of the public cannot go to the Public Record Office and ask to see these registers in any way. No historian, genealogist or other person can go and ask to see them; all someone can do is go to the Registrar General's department. All that he will get there is an index with a few names and surnames and the place of registration.

Let us take as an example my own mother's surname which was Thompson. If a person wants to seek out and find out her date of birth and the like, it is almost an impossible task to find it from the index. He has to guess on several occasions where it might be and to ask for a copy of the certificate. That will cost him £4.60 if he looks at it, then and there, and if he has it sent by post it will cost £9.60. Before he finds out the information—in my case it was my mother's birth—goodness knows how many pounds he will have to spend. No wonder a genealogist like my noble friend Lord Teviot would say that all the genealogists and record agents are put to enormous expense simply because they can only look at the index at present.

Moreover, on the advisory council, of which I was chairman, there are historians—modern and old—and they are all unanimously of the opinion that it would be of historical interest and importance that they should have access, so as to see the trend of populations, the number of families, children and so forth over the generations. If these were made public records they would be put on micro film and made available in the Public Record Office for all to see. But I must point out that this is only for those who are more than 100 years old. It is only for those between 1837 and 1883. So none of your Lordships' will be able to go and look at any of the birth certificates of anyone now living, however old they may be, because the period will be only from 1837 to 1883. The Bill would propose that all those registers of births, deaths and marriages should be transferred to the Public Record Office, be put on micro film and be available to all those who wanted to search, for the many reasons that I have mentioned.

It seems to me—and the whole of the advisory council were unanimous—that this would be a very beneficial reform. Not only that, but it would need some expenditure, more extra work by the Public Record Office and the like. That would have to be catered for but it would not be a large sum in this sphere at all. Some historians think that it ought not to be limited just to that 100 years. But in my view limiting it to those—as my noble friend has—more than 100 years old from 1837 to 1883 is a beneficial reform. This is a most welcome Bill under which those registers more than 100 years old will become public records and available accordingly. I support the Bill.

1.19 p.m.

Lord Bancroft

My Lords, I suppose that I, too, ought to declare a very minor, personal, potential interest. I use the word "potential" because I have just been appointed as a member of the advisory council of which the noble and learned Lord was such a distinguished chairman for so many years and of which the noble Lord, Lord Teviot, was a member. But there has been no meeting since my appointment, so I can speak my mind unfettered by the previous deliberations of the advisory council.

Happily your Lordships will be glad to learn that I have very little to add to what has already been said by the two previous speakers about this small but useful Bill. I support it. It has a number of advantages which have been pointed out. Perhaps, briefly, I might mention those which strike me as important. First, as has been pointed out, it will make the older registers of births, deaths and marriages more easily accessible.

Secondly, welcoming as one obviously must, the notion that the cost will be very small and its operations will be self-financing, one hopes, it will almost certainly make access cheaper for the many citizens who are now interested in their more immediate forbears.

Thirdly, it will relieve the truly immense pressure on the search room of the General Register Office, a pressure which at times, is, I assure noble Lords, literally intolerable. Believe it or not, people have been known to faint in the crush to get at the later registers.

Fourthly, the Public Record Office already holds the old census records, so there will be a more sensible symmetry as and when the older registers of births, marriages and deaths are cared for by the same department.

Fifthly, as has already been pointed out, the Bill is basically an enabling measure, as Clause 3 makes very clear. I believe that this last point is especially important. As the noble Lord, Lord Teviot, pointed out, there is no prescribed operative date; this is left to the noble and learned Lord the Lord Chancellor to bring in by order, embodied in a statutory instrument. It will be possible to prescribe different operative dates for different provisions and purposes. To my mind the importance of this flexibility is that it disposes of the argument, with which one is very familiar, along with Sir Humphrey Appleby and others, that the Bill is marginally desirable as a minor reforming measure, but, alas! it could create a call on scarce resources at a time of enormous economic stringency, and one again is straight back from "Yes, Minister" to Cornford and the doctrine of unripe time. It gives the noble and learned Lord the Lord Chancellor liberty to decide on the operative date or dates and the phasing in of the new arrangement, no doubt—although, of course, it is not for me to say so—in consultation with interested colleagues.

Clearly, the General Register Office will need a new search room which will cost money. But, who knows—1 certainly do not—but that the rationalisation and reduction of the Government's London civil estate will throw up, if one might forgive the expression, the necessary space in an economical way? So despite my distaste for tinkering with organisational matters unnecessarily, after I confess, most of a lifetime spent in stirring this very pot, which seemed very necessary at the time, I earnestly hope that your Lordships will speed the Bill on its way.

1.25 p.m.

Lord Mishcon

My Lords, I am indebted—and no doubt your Lordships will be—to the noble Lord, Lord Teviot, for two things. First, because he has given some of us, who have enjoyed paying tribute to the noble and learned Lord, Lord Denning, as one of our outstanding judges, an opportunity to recollect that he was, indeed, as he has told us, the distinguished chairman for 20 years of the Advisory Council on Public Records. Secondly, this debate has given the noble Lord, Lord Bancroft, the opportunity to give us a most dramatic account of people so crowded in the records office, as it at present exists, anxious to look at the records of their forbears, that they find themselves in a condition of complete fainting, with results—which I must immediately try to imagine—which call upon the energies of the Red Cross, the St. John Ambulance people, and so on. If it only managed to avoid this sort of catastrophe, I suppose that this would be a useful Bill. But, to take the matter seriously, as has been pointed out, this is an enabling measure and I have no doubt at all that the enabling measure will be carried out with due care.

There are a couple of questions that those of us who are not experienced in the keeping of public records would want to ask. First, one remembers that the locality of the Public Record Office and its future has indeed been a matter of quite a lot of discussion. It may very well be that when one is dealing with public records of a rather rarefied nature it would not be an inconvenience to the average citizen, or even the professional person investigating matters like genealogy and so on, to go to some distant place far removed from the centre of London. But if this is to contain records so that one can look at the date of birth—as many of us would always want to do with great affection—of the mother of the noble and learned Lord, Lord Denning, and if indeed to do that one had to travel far out of the centre of the Metropolis, obviously it would be a great disadvantage.

Again, the layman asks this quesion—and if it be a foolish question the layman apologises. If the disadvantage at the present moment of the Registrar General's department is that the record contains only an index and so therefore one has to make various searches—especially if you are looking at a name which is quite a common name—please may the layman ask: how will this be put right when one has this series of certificates, and so on, in the Public Record Office? What is the system which it is envisaged by this Bill will operate by way of contrast to the index so that I, the simple layman, can walk in and find the certificate that I want without going through the present difficulties of looking at an index? If I may say so to your Lordships. I immediately feel that there must be some index, and how does the name of "Thompson", "Jones" or "Brown" become more easily ascertainable on the certificate that I want than it is at the present moment?

Thirdly, is it envisaged that as a result of this—and I am sure that those who have been thinking about this for some years obviously have the answer, and I apologise for putting this question—there will in some way be a reduction in staff of the Registrar General's department, and therefore if the Public Record Office has to take on staff it will not indeed be increasing the total establishment, if I may put it that way?

Last of all, may I ask this question, again with some simplicity. Is it envisaged by those who have tried to compute the cost of this that, even though one may need rather more work done in order to make a search much more simple, the resulting fee to the member of the public, or indeed the expert agent who is looking for the information, will not be more excessive than the totality of the fees, about which we have heard, which are charged by the registrar when one search has to be made after the other? These are merely questions that I ask; they are not meant to be criticisms of what I have no doubt is a good Bill.

1.30 p.m.

The Lord Chancellor (Lord Hailsham of Saint Marylebone)

My Lords, I hope I shall not detain your Lordships too long. My noble friend Lord Teviot declared an interest as a professional genealogist, which of course was prudent. However, I should like to take the opportunity, which has already been touched on by other speakers, of thanking him for his long service to the Advisory Council, which is, if I may say so to the noble Lord, Lord Bancroft, not strictly an interest but is something in which he has played a notable part in the past. I should like to welcome the public spirit which has led the noble Lord, Lord Bancroft, to undertake the mantle of this responsibility, and to echo what has been said about the long chairmanship of my noble and learned friend Lord Denning.

This is, as my noble friend said, his third attempt. I hope this time it will be third time lucky, but we shall have to depend to some extent on another place to realise that hope. As my noble friend has said, the aim of the Bill is to provide for 100 year-old records of live births, marriages and deaths to be transferred to the Public Record Office from the General Register Officer and made available for public inspection on microfilm. That, to some extent, deals with the point raised by the noble Lord, Lord Mishcon, because at present all the records are held by the Registrar General, and I think it is only the indexes which are available generally to the public at the present time, for which they have to pay £4.60 for a copy of an entry from the Registrar in person, £9.60 on a postal application.

Under the present arrangements for the indexes, a reader buys a copy of entries which appear to be relevant by making the registers themselves available. The reader himself will be able to verify whether an entry is of interest to him. That is the advantage that he would get in respect of these which he does not at the moment possess. The argument is that the Registrar General's primary function is to provide access to current records. The "centenarian" records, which was the word used, I think, by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Elwyn-Jones, when this matter was debated in, I believe, 1978, no longer serve that purpose. But of course, as my noble friend has pointed out, although they do not serve that purpose they are of general and great interest to genealogists and historians.

Like the 100 year-old census records, which, as my noble friend said, are already held by the Public Record Office, there is no fear that public access to the centenarian records will intrude on personal privacy, which is the reason why the current records are not generally available. It is, therefore, suggested by the Bill that the registrar's records might also be held, like the census records, in the Public Record Office. I think we accept that it is the natural home for the 100 year records, whose importance is now primarily historical. In order to make it clear, in view of something that was said by my noble and learned friend Lord Denning on the Cross-Benches, the Public Record Office will be taking custody of the 100 year-old records and providing access. The Registrar General will enjoy the same right to recall them for administrative purpose as any other department enjoys under the terms of Section 54(6) of the Public Records Act 1958.

The proposal in this Bill was first agreed in principle by the then Registrar General in 1975, and it was accepted then that legislation would be required, but that the transfer should not be made until microfilms were completed. There was then no suitable vehicle for legislation, and the financial provisions had still to be worked out. The Advisory Council endorsed the proposal, as my noble and learned friend has said, and my noble friend introduced his first Bill in 1978. Then, after the election in April 1979, my noble friend reintroduced it, but generously then withdrew it to give an opportunity for the Government to look at the cost.

That opportunity was interrupted because at the end of 1980 we undertook a feasibility study into moving all the Public Record Office's records to Kew. If this had been done, there would have been no spare accommodation at Kew for the records as had been originally proposed until the new buildings were completed. In the event, however, last year in April it was decided that the cost of the new building required at Kew would be prohibitive, and the proposal was dropped. At the same time as that the Government reaffirmed their intention to provide for the housing and opening of the 100-year records by the Public Record Office. That remains my policy.

If I may say so, my noble friend was not overstating the case when he said that there had been an explosion of interest in family history. The noble Lord, Lord Bancroft, stirred our feelings by a description of the state of affairs in St. Catherine's House. I understand that the public search rooms have even had to be closed at times because of fears for public safety. The Record Office's census room is equally popular. The use of the census has risen by more than 200 per cent. in the last 5 years. The Public Record Office's 1981 handbook called Tracing your Ancestors has already proved a best seller and is already in its second print. This is, for the reasons given by my noble friend, a perfectly healthy development, but it makes it difficult to estimate future expenditure.

When I last spoke on the subject in July 1979, on the occasion to which I have made reference, I said that the Public Record Office expected 150 readers a day. That figure is now estimated at 720. The annual operating cost in 1979 was £213,000 a year. The estimate is now £1,300,000. The initial capital cost of buildings and equipment was put in 1979 at £300,000. If a new building were to be constructed, it might cost over £1 million. The capital cost of the necessary microfilm equipment alone is £300,000.

I mention these figures to show that the additional expenditure to which I shall be subjected is not a small proportion of the £7 million which is the present expenditure on the Public Record Office. No doubt the registrar may be able to transfer some staff provision to the Public Record Office, but he does not, in answer to one question put to me, expect to be able to make any savings on accommodation to reduce the net cost to the Exchequer. I must tell the House that there is no provision yet made in the Public Expenditure Survey—which we all know by the horrible name of "Pes"—to cover the additional costs.

Inevitably, these costs, small as they may seem in comparison with some other sums we discuss from day to day, will no doubt have to compete with other demands from other departments, and indeed other demands from my own department. It may be that part of the cost could be met by fees. The registrar's current operation is self-financing through the income from the purchase of copies of certified entries to which I referred.

We shall have to consider whether and in what way fees might be charged so as to ensure that the service continues to finance itself. I hope that when we do that, the grisly spectre of museum charges, which so befogged my noble friend Lord Eccles in his period of office, will not raise its horrible head to oppose it. Responsibility for these records will more than double readership at the Public Record Office, so this is a major new task. I can only say that the service to readers will be better but it will not necessarily be free. The cost implications, within the kind of limits 1 have discussed, will be substantial.

The microfilms are now complete and we are considering the financial implications as a matter of urgency. A bid for public expenditure provision will have to be made at what Sir Humphrey Appleby would certainly call "the appropriate time". I hope we can make early progress, but I am grateful for my noble friend's foresight in providing for the timing of implementation to be at my discretion. I cannot of course pre-empt the time in another place, and I cannot therefore guarantee that time will be available there to consider the Bill. However, I hope my noble friend will be lucky—perhaps he will get it through on the nod—and it has certainly had a very fair wind in this House.

I must tell my noble friend that some doctoring will be necessary in Committee, I hope in this House, in spite of his sagacity in getting what was obviously a professional job done on the drafting of the Bill as it is before us now. Perhaps he will get in touch with us or we can get in touch with him, and I hope we shall be able to co-operate with him. In the meantime, I am happy to join with all others who have spoken in commending the Second Reading to the House.

Lord Teviot

My Lords, I wish at the outset to thank my noble and learned friend the Lord Chancellor for his remarks. As for the question of doctoring in Committee, I have already been in touch with his department, or they have been in touch with me, and that will go forward, being quite understandable.

As for the place in which these records will be housed, a matter to which the noble Lord, Lord Mishcon, referred, it would be preferable if that were somewhere in Central London because it would be near other places of deposit. Obviously the question of cost must be looked into very carefully. One hopes that a new building would not be necessary, and one can think, for example, of large warehouses south of the river which could be converted, or one could suggest the original place of deposit of the Registrar General's records, Somerset House. Perhaps I am on slightly touchy ground here, but that was the building where the original registers were kept for about 140 years, until some people thought that those splendid rooms should be handed over to the arts. They were, but the arts have not made use of them. That, therefore, is another place that could be considered, but that is a matter for consideration in the future.

The noble Lord, Lord Mishcon, asked why things would be made easier with a common name. At present you must list all the entries in the index, put them in to be checked and then, a few days later, at great expense, get them all back again. If you are doing it yourself, you look at the lists in the indices and sit down with the microfilms, having taken them off the shelf, and you then read them. Suppose, as a hypothetical figure, £10 per day were the cost of searching. The present cost of certificates is £4.60, so there would be substantial savings quite quickly. I was grateful to the noble Lord for raising those points. As for a reduction in staff, it is not for me to answer on that, but I should not have thought there would be very much change one way or the other.

I was grateful to the noble and learned Lord, Lord Denning, for his remarks. He was a distinguished chairman under whom I was happy to serve for nine of his 20 years. I am sorry to have left that body, but nine years is a long time, and I welcome the noble Lord, Lord Bancroft, to it. I am sure he will find it a very interesting experience.

If the Bill succeeds, this will be the first country in the world to unite its vital records with its public records, and it would be nice if we could be the first to do that. I think there is no more for me to say at this hour, except to commend the Bill to your Lordships.

On Question, Bill read a second time, and committed to a Committee of the Whole House.

House adjourned at fourteen minutes before two o'clock.