HL Deb 14 March 1997 vol 579 cc599-602

2.36 p.m.

The Minister of State, Department of Social Security (Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish) rose to move, That the draft order laid before the House on 11th February be approved [12th Report from the Joint Committee].

The noble Lord said: My Lords, I beg to move that the draft Contracting Out (Functions of the Registrar General in relation to authorising re-registration of births) Order 1997 laid before the House on 11th February be approved.

This order is made under the powers at Section 69 of the Deregulation and Contracting Out Act 1994. Its purpose is to simplify and improve procedures for the re-registration of births in England and Wales by allowing local registrars of births to process straightforward applications for re-registration without reference to the Registrar General.

The re-registration of births may take place in two circumstances. First, where the parents of a child were not married to each other at the time of the birth and no-one was entered in the register as the father. The second case is where the parents of a child subsequently marry each other after the registration of the birth, thereby legitimising the child. At present, an application for re-registration has to be made either directly to the Registrar General or through a local registration officer, who forwards it to the Registrar General. If an application is successful the Registrar General then sends his authority for the re-registration of the birth to the registrar concerned, who then arranges for the parents to attend his or her office to complete the formalities.

This proposal originates in the Green Paper, Registration: a modern service,, published in 1999 in which it was proposed that the Registrar General's authority for the re-registration of births should be devolved to local registrars. This proposals become one of a package of over 80 recommendations in the White Paper, Registration: proposals for change, published in 1990. Unfortunately, in the absence of parliamentary time to introduce a registration programme Bill, there has been no opportunity to give effect to the proposed change in the law.

Your Lordships will be aware of the significant increase in the number of children born outside marriage, which is now around 34 per cent. of all births. There has been an increase in the number of applications for re-registration made to the Registrar General. In the past 10 years the number of applications has risen by over a third from 16,000 to 21,000. It is time that a more effective way is found to deal with these rising numbers of applications and the order is a suitable mechanism for achieving this.

Section 69 of the Deregulation and Contracting Out Act 1994 enables a Minister to make an order contracting out the functions of an office-holder, in this case the Registrar General, subject to the assent of Parliament. That is the purpose of this order. The order would enable the Registrar General to delegate to local registrars the responsibility for authorising the re-registration of some births. I say some births because it is recognised that there are applications involving, for example, complex correspondence, court orders, disputes about paternity and questions of foreign domicile which are to continue to be dealt with by the Registrar General. If the order is approved it is intended that local registrars will be able to process straightforward applications for re-registration without reference to the Registrar General. This will reduce public expenditure and will be more convenient for those who need the service. Local registrars will be able to process most applications much more quickly and thus the public will benefit from a faster, more efficient service.

I should like to assure your Lordships that the delegation of responsibility from the Registrar General to local registrars will be underpinned by checks on the handling of applications made by Her Majesty's Inspectorate of Registration. Registrars will be given guidance and instructions as to how to process applications, and a telephone helpline will be available for their use.

The order before the House is therefore a straightforward provision enabling us to improve the efficiency of the administration of the re-registration of births with significant benefits to those members of the public who use the service.

Moved, That the draft order laid before the House on 11 th February be approved [12th Report from the Joint Committee].—(Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish.)

Lord Eatwell

My Lords, I am most grateful to the Minister for introducing this order so clearly. Noble Lords will be aware that the re-registration of births is a very sensitive matter, involving as it does complex issues of personal relationships and the even more complex and important legal issues of legitimacy and paternity. That is an issue which may be regarded as important, for example, by the hereditary Members of your Lordships' House.

It is clearly desirable that re-registration should be handled in a friendly and sympathetic manner, and this is likely to be best achieved by well trained local staff with as much informality as is possible and reasonable with respect to the legal complexities which may be confronted from time to time. In that respect the contracting out order is to be welcomed.

Nonetheless, given the important sensitivity and complexity of these issues, this order appears to be drafted in a quite extraordinarily casual manner. In particular, it is disappointing that in Clause (3), which is really the only operable clause in the whole order, it merely states: Any function of the Registrar General to which this Order applies may be exercised by, or by employees of, such person (if any) as may be authorised in that behalf by the Registrar General". It says that without defining in any way who such persons or their employees might be. The Minister referred to officers in his introduction of the order, but nowhere in the order is the notion of an officer mentioned. Could the Minister tell us which rules have been laid down as to the selection of such persons? If there are indeed to be local registrars, as he has suggested, could he explain why that is not made explicit in the order?

Moreover, could he explain what the expression "or by employees of, such person" actually means? Could it be the janitor, for example? Who knows? This order does not tell us. If the employee must have a particular qualification, why is that not specified in the order, even by means of a reference to other orders or legislation?

Finally, given the serious nature of some paternity cases, it is clearly desirable that there should be clear criteria for reference of difficult cases to the Registrar General. Do such criteria exist? If so, what are they, and why are they not incorporated into the order?

This order deals with matters which are becoming increasingly important to British families. The casual drafting of this order is a misuse of the deregulation legislation. The apparently slapdash approach and especially the lack of any precision in defining procedures is a significant disservice to families, particularly to children, throughout the country.

I would invite the Minister to take this measure back and have it redrafted properly. Those of us on these Benches would then be happy to support it.

2.45 p.m.

Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish

My Lords, I am sorry that the noble Lord, Lord Eatwell, takes this view. I do not believe that the drafting is slapdash at all. The problem with all orders of this nature is that they have to be read in conjunction with the various Acts to which the order refers. While I fully accept that it is quite difficult to read through this as it stands, of course if one reads through it with reference to the Acts of Parliament mentioned in the order, then the position becomes perfectly clear.

The noble Lord asked me a number of questions. One related to the definition of "registrar". Of course, a lot of these definitions are contained in the Births and Deaths Registration Act 1953, which I have to hand here. It is rather a well-thumbed copy of it. This Act makes it perfectly clear who the registrar is and how he is appointed. The point about his employees is that they are in fact deputies employed by the registrar, so the noble Lord need have no fears that the janitor or the cleaner just in for a morning may suddenly find himself or herself being appointed as the registrar or made to stand in for the registrar. These things are very clearly laid out in the statute.

On the question of difficult cases, this is where in Clause 2 subsection (2)(a) the order refers to the paragraphs in the section of the 1953 Act. The paragraphs referred to are (a), (b) and (c) and these deal with the various different kinds of situation which may come up. As I said in my contribution, the difficult cases—and I mentioned examples such as where there is a dispute; where there is a domiciliary situation; perhaps where the father lives abroad and therefore it is necessary to check the law—will still have to be referred to the Registrar General. However, something like two-thirds of the cases are very straightforward ones where the registrar will be able to talk to and interview both the mother and the father who wants to have his name put on the birth certificate of the child. The noble Lord, Lord Eatwell, can be assured that if there are any difficulties or any problems then the registrar will know that in those circumstances he should refer the couple to the Registrar General. Of course, that will be part and parcel of the notes which will be going out from the Registrar General to the registrar.

I hope that I have explained the position to the noble Lord, Lord Eatwell. I certainly agree with him that in the modern world, with a significant number of people needing and wanting to use this service, this is a sensible way to make it easier for them so that, without the need to make application to the Registrar General and add to his workload, a couple can simply go along to the local registrar and by a very straightforward agreement have the birth re-registered.

Lord Eatwell

My Lords, before the noble Lord sits down, may I suggest that in future if an order of this all-encompassing type appears before your Lordships' House the notes which are to accompany it should be made available at the time when the order is to be approved in the House? The breadth of the clause and the vagueness of the clauses which we are supposed to be approving this afternoon do not really allow a satisfactory appraisal of the implications of the measure currently to be made.

Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish

My Lords, I note what the noble Lord says. It is always a problem in any piece of legislation, even primary legislation, when one is amending previous Acts of Parliament with reference back towards those Acts of Parliament. I commend the order to the House.

On Question, Motion agreed to.