HL Deb 09 March 1999 vol 598 cc172-9

5.56 p.m.

Lord Elis-Thomas

My Lords, I beg to move that this Bill be now read a second time.

There has been provision since 1969 for births, still births and deaths to be registered in both Welsh and English where the event takes places in Wales and where a qualified informant is able to give the information in Welsh to a registrar who can speak and understand Welsh. That arose from the context of the Welsh Language Act 1967.

This proposed Bill is an extension of those rights already in the statute. The Bill appears in the context of the Welsh Language Act 1993. As I have told the House on a number of occasions when dealing with issues of this kind, I was privileged until the end of last month to be chair of the statutory Welsh Language Board. I wish to acknowledge the assistance of the board and of ONS in the discussions that brought about the Bill.

The purpose of the Bill is to extend the provision to events taking place in England where the informant wishes to give details in Welsh. Under the original Births and Deaths (Registration) Act 1953, it is required that an event is registered by the registrar of the sub-district where it takes place. The facility to register an event bilingually obviously has not been available to Welsh residents. That has been a particular cause of concern for parents where births take place in England and also where the family of elderly persons and persons suffering death in England are unable to register the event bilingually.

The Bill overcomes the difficulty that might occur where the local authorities that administer the service in England require to do so bilingually by establishing a central register of births, still births and deaths occurring in England where Welsh speakers would seek bilingual certificates on payment of a prescribed fee. Welsh speakers will be able to make a declaration of the particulars to be registered before a registrar in Wales; the registrar will then send the declaration to the registrar for the district in England where the birth or death occurred and it will be registered in the normal way. The declaration would then be forwarded to the Registrar General who would record the details in the central register in both Welsh and English. That is the main effect of the Bill.

There are two further aspects which I must mention. The first is to allow for certificates to be issued in Welsh or English. That is not possible at present. The Bill provides for the issue of certified copies containing the Welsh-only or the English-only particulars from any bilingual entry of birth, still birth or death. Bilingual certificates will continue to be available, but the English and Welsh languages will now be placed on a basis of equality as far as this legislation is concerned.

I also take advantage of this opportunity to put into effect the provision for short certificates of death. There is currently provision for short certificates of birth containing prescribed information extracted from the birth entry. There is no similar provision for still birth and death certificates. That is made available in the Bill.

This Bill is a small piece of legislation which extends the existing statutory rights available bilingually. The ONS already has experience of central registers which are operated bilingually, in relation to surrogacy, abandoned children, adopted children and so forth.

I hope therefore that the Whole House can support this Bill, which operates within the spirit of the existing Welsh language legislation. I beg to move.

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

6.1 p.m.

Lord Teviot

My Lords, it is a great pleasure to speak in support of the noble Lord, Lord Elis-Thomas, as I have been connected for a very long time with the registration service.

This short Bill will add lustre to the service. Thankfully, most of the original 1836 Registration Act remains in force. I think I am right in saying that certificates of births, marriages and deaths issued in Wales have always been issued in the two languages without any problem. The legislators in the 1830s were surprisingly enlightened and introduced various social measures, including this one.

Can the noble Lord tell me whether he has any news about the progress of the registration review which is now taking place? Especially, is there any news of the original 75 or 100 year-old registers being made public? Unfortunately, these records were not classed as public records in the Public Records Act 1958. I myself introduced no fewer than three Bills in the late 1970s and early 1980s for these records to be transferred from the Registrar General to the Public Records Office. The last time was in 1983 when the Bill, suitably drafted, was passed in this House, only to fail in the other place due to the dissolution of Parliament before the general election of that year.

This point is of particular importance to Welsh people because of the large number who have patronymic surnames. Genealogy and family history are of great interest and a hobby for many, but it is difficult to identify particular people from indexes. For example, in trying to find a John Jones or a William Jones living in a certain quarter of Merthyr Tydfil in the 1850s, one would probably find five or six in that registration alone. Open access to the original registers should make it much easier for people to trace their ancestors.

As we are on this point, and not wishing to miss an opportunity of this kind, I should like to point out to the noble Lord, and to the noble Lord, Lord McIntosh of Haringey, who will be speaking later, that many of the original indexes in the local registry offices, as well the registers, are in a bad state of preservation due to age, storage and use, although it is now understood that such records should be kept in a proper repository. I am sure that for one reason or another this is very difficult. But do the Government have any plans for how to deal with this problem?

To return to this Bill, it will be important for Welsh people living in England to record an event in their own language. It is important that people retain their own identity, and this Bill will help to fulfill that aim.

Finally, I hope that I have nothing to fear on the outcome of the registration review and that nothing radical will happen. The registration service rightly has a proud history. Please let it remain. A little tweaking is perhaps needed, but a major upheaval is not.

6.5 p.m.

Lord Prys-Davies

My Lords, I was delighted to see this very useful Bill in the legislative machine. I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Elis-Thomas, for that achievement.

The Bill deals with what may appear to be a small issue, but it is an issue of great significance to a growing number of our Welsh citizens who wish to preserve their identity. The Bill confers a right and at the same time removes a grievance. As the noble Lord mentioned, he has recently left his distinguished position as the first chair of the Welsh Language Board. During his tenure of office one of his aims was to seek to remove obstacles and barriers to the use of Welsh in transacting official business. The Bill which he has introduced this evening will, if enacted, secure one additional reform.

The noble Lord has described the background to the Bill and has explained with clarity what it proposes to do. I believe that Clause 1 is the right way out of the problem which he illustrated and with which we are familiar. I am grateful that he has also explained Clause 2, which had baffled me at first reading.

I believe that the Bill is based on consultations with the appropriate bodies in Wales and that there is consensus on it in Wales. I am also grateful that the noble Lord, Lord Teviot, spoke in support of its contents. I therefore trust that the Bill will be acceptable to the House.

May I say in passing that, since the Welsh Language Act 1967 and particularly since the Welsh Language Act 1993, we have seen a remarkable growth in the use of Welsh in official transactions and documents, and I warmly welcome this development. I believe, however, that we have to address our minds to what authoritative body there should be recourse in order to validate new Welsh terminology which is rapidly coming on stream. What is the place to which translators should go for advice? This question was first posed by Sir David Hughes Parry in his report on the status of the Welsh language which he produced in about in 1965. The question remains unanswered.

I have been hesitant in raising the matter because it could be misunderstood. However, I receive letters on this issue from time to time from skilled translators of Welsh who think it is important that there should be a centre to which they can go for and obtain prompt guidance. I believe that this is also a concern of Cymdeithas Cyfieithwyr Cymru, the professional body that represents the interests of translators who work through the medium of the Welsh language.

These observations are not addressed to the noble Lord, Lord Elis-Thomas; rather, they are urged upon the Welsh Office. I believe that there are many in Wales who would consider it a major contribution to the Welsh language if the Welsh Office put its weight behind the case for such a language centre. That is a case which has been developed elsewhere in detail. I would be grateful if my noble friend Lord McIntosh would convey that plea to his ministerial colleagues in the Welsh Office. If the case for such a centre still has no appeal, I fear that we may find ourselves worse off one day.

To revert to the Bill, I again thank the noble Lord, Lord Elis-Thomas, for introducing this Bill, which is a contribution. I hope that my noble friend Lord McIntosh will be able to confirm that the Bill is supported by the Government, that the House will give it a Second Reading and that it will have a speedy passage through your Lordships' House and another place.

6.11 p.m.

Lord Geraint

My Lords, my colleagues and I on the Liberal Democrat Benches wholeheartedly support the Bill so ably introduced by the noble Lord, Lord Elis-Thomas. I remind the House that the noble Lord and I were elected to the other place in 1974. We both took the Oath in Welsh in March of that year. In October 1992 we were both elevated to your Lordships' House on the same day and took the Oath in Welsh. We are both Welsh to the core, and proud of it. We both believe in the politics of persuasion, not confrontation. That is our intent today in seeking to persuade the Minister to accept this Bill.

In the 1980s many politicians persuaded the then Conservative government to give the people of Wales their own Welsh television channel, S4C, which has now turned out to be a great success under the chairmanship of Mrs. Elan Closs Stephens of Aberystwyth. The people of Wales owe a great debt of gratitude to the noble Lord, Lord Cledwyn of Penrhos, for his uncompromising stand during the passage through this House of the S4C Bill. The noble Lord is well respected both in your Lordships' House and in his native Wales. We can only say thank you to him today for his endeavours.

We are also indebted to the previous Conservative government, especially the noble Lord, Lord Roberts of Conwy, for introducing the Welsh Language Act 1993 which I believe is the cornerstone of the Welsh language for generations to come. I congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Elis-Thomas, on having chaired the Welsh Language Board with distinction over the past four or five years. Finally, I thank the present Government for giving the people of Wales the right to govern themselves. But what the people of Wales really need is their own parliament, with the same powers as those that have been given to our Celtic friends in Scotland. The noble Lord, Lord Elis-Thomas, I and many other politicians in Wales are determined to see their dream come true one day. I wish the Births and Deaths Registration (Amendment) Bill well, and it is worth supporting.

6.15 p.m.

Lord Cope of Berkeley

My Lords, this Bill also seems to me to be a useful reform. I echo the thanks of the House to the noble Lord, Lord Elis-Thomas. I took the Oath in another place in the same month as the noble Lords, Lord Elis-Thomas and Lord Geraint, but in English. I took rather longer to cross the Central Lobby and take that Oath in English at this end, but I did so hand in hand, as it were, with my noble friend Lord Roberts of Conwy, who unfortunately is not well at the present time. The Welsh aspect of the Bill has been fully covered and appears to be satisfactory to the Welsh-speaking residents of England. I live in the Marches. We try to get along with our neighbours as well as possible.

The other provisions have received a little less attention this afternoon, for example those relating to short certificates. I believe that they will be of equal assistance. People want to register a death, for example, when the deceased was a shareholder with the company concerned. On such occasions the cause of death is immaterial to either the relative of the deceased or the company. I believe that this is therefore one field in which freedom of information, otherwise supported by the Government, can be curtailed and less information given on the certificate. I support the Bill.


Lord McIntosh of Haringey

My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Elis-Thomas, for bringing forward and explaining the Bill. It will be welcomed by those members of the public who are unable to avail themselves of the facility to have a birth, still birth or death which takes place in England registered in both the Welsh and English languages. It also extends the principle of equality of treatment of the Welsh and English languages, as promoted by the Welsh Language Act 1993. We understand the importance of being able to have a record in Welsh as well as in English of the significant milestones in family life, and we are pleased that the Bill extends the circumstances in which the Welsh language may be used.

The registration service has always been in the forefront when it comes to providing Welsh language facilities. It began to provide bilingual registration in Wales as soon as possible after the Welsh Language Act 1967 came into force. In 1999, when the people of Wales acquire their own Assembly, we are pleased that these new language rights can be provided. Before I leave this point, I should say to my noble friend Lord Prys-Davies that officials of the Office for National Statistics will consult the Welsh Language Board and the Welsh Office about the translations. My noble friend's comments on the translation will be welcome at the drafting stage. I shall ensure that both bodies are aware of his wider concerns about the quality of translation generally.

In addition to the very welcome extensions that this Bill makes to facilities for Welsh language registration, there are benefits, such as those referred to by the noble Lord, Lord Cope, for others who use registration services throughout England and Wales. Currently, with the exception of a shortened form of birth certificate, any certificate that is issued must include all the information that is registered, together with the details of any correction. The Bill contains order-making powers that will be used to make available other shortened forms of certificates, for example where the cause of death or correction to the information recorded in a register entry may be distressing to the family or the individual. We are aware of cases currently where families are concerned that death certificates containing intimate details of a loved one's last illness must be provided to banks or building societies when closing an account. We can understand the embarrassment that arises where details of a child's father have been struck out of the birth register and a full certificate highlights that alteration. I am sure that noble Lords will agree that any measure that helps to ease distress in such circumstances is to be applauded.

The Government therefore support the Bill which has cross-party support and seeks to implement one of the recommendations of the White Paper Registration: Proposals for Change published in 1990. That White Paper recommended a number of largely technical reforms of the registration service in England and Wales. Although some of the recommendations contained in the White Paper have been implemented, many remain outstanding. The fact that this route has been sought to implement one of the recommendations is welcomed by the Government.

This Government are committed to the reform and modernising of the Civil Registration Service. The service has its roots firmly embedded in early Victorian legislation. The prescriptive nature of that legislation is impeding its development in the wake of social and technological change. The Economic Secretary to the Treasury has commissioned a review of the civil registration service in England and Wales by the Registrar General. The aim of the review will be the establishment of a framework for the service which is more responsive to the needs of modern society without compromising its fundamental purpose and integrity. I can say to the noble Lord, Lord Teviot, that it will include options about access to records and to the conservation of older records to which he referred.

The Government are pleased that there will be no charge to members of the public wishing to have events recorded in the central register. The cost to the public purse is likely to be minimal because there are already facilities—forms in Welsh and software—for registration in Welsh and English. There are also other centrally held registers which are already administered by the Registrar General.

There is no obligation to make any declaration about human rights compatibility for this Private Member's Bill. However, I can confirm that the Bill is compatible with the European Convention of Human Rights. This is a Bill which is in line with the best principles of the Government's initiatives in service choice for the citizen and support for families. I hope that your Lordships will give it swift passage.

6.20 p.m.

Lord Elis-Thomas

My Lords, I am grateful to the Minister for his response to what has been a wide-ranging debate and for indicating the government welcome for this route, implementing proposals on the short certificate as set out in the White Paper, Registration: Proposals for Change. As the noble Lord emphasised, the measure will bring much comfort to families in bereavement.

We received support from the noble Lord, Lord Cope. It is always welcome in the Principality to receive support from the Marches. I am pleased at the cross-party consensus in this House on linguistic matters. It does not seem always to be the case outside the House. However I shall not go into that issue today; there will be other opportunities.

I was also grateful to the Minister for referring to the Registrar General's review of the registration service. No doubt it will reflect discussions on the issue raised by the noble Lord, Lord Teviot, to whom I am grateful. It is somewhat late to do anything about the Welsh patronymic issue at this stage. It is always possible to hyphenate names, but that sometimes complicates matters.

I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Geraint, for his wide-ranging discourse on Welsh history and politics. I have always appreciated his lead for consensus on important issues. I do not wish to digress to the powers of the National Assembly. However, the way in which we deal with primary legislation affecting Wales specifically will be a matter for some reflection in the future. I look forward to a developing relationship, through concordats or other means, between the Office for National Statistics and other arms of government and the Treasury and the National Assembly.

I am also grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Prys-Davies, for his intervention and expression of good wishes on my term with the Welsh Language Board. He was a strong supporter and advocate of bilingual registration for many years. I share his interest and concern in terminology and effective translation. Indeed, three years ago the noble Lord was responsible for preparing a detailed report on the subject for the Welsh Language Board. The Minister indicated that he will convey to the Welsh Office that it is a matter for consideration as it approaches transformation into the new Assembly.

I shall also convey points raised in the debate to my successor at the board, Mr. Rhodri Williams. I extend my good wishes to him. I am sure that he will wish to respond to the noble Lord, Lord Prys-Davies.

I again thank the ONS for its assistance in the preparation of the Bill and for the way in which it has pursued the issue of bilingual registration with such care and concern. I again thank my former colleagues on the Welsh Language Board for their assistance. I hope that the House will give the Bill a Second Reading.

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