HC Deb 03 June 2003 vol 406 cc51-8WH

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Dr. Brian Iddon (Bolton, South-East)

It is with great regret that I raise this matter in the Chamber today. I do so as the patron of the Society of Registration Officers—SORO. I was appointed to that unpaid position shortly after my election to the House on 1 May 1997, when my predecessor, my right hon. Friend the Member for Gateshead, East and Washington, West (Joyce Quin), was appointed as a Home Office Minister.

Registration officers and their deputies—I shall refer to them all from now on as registration officers—are independent statutory office holders with no employer. Civilly, they are held responsible for their own acts or omissions. Local authorities appoint, accommodate and pay registration officers, but they do not have any power to dismiss them as they are not considered to be their employer. Consequently, registration officers do not have contracts of employment with those local authorities. They receive salaries chargeable to income tax under schedule E and receive redundancy payments under the 1967 regulations governing redundancy payments for office holders.

The Registrar General has the sole power to dismiss registration officers. They have only recently won an appeal against unfair dismissal, but the Registrar General must hear the appeal and only if new material evidence is to be considered. They do not have the right to go to an employment tribunal in cases of unfair dismissal. I have been campaigning for that fundamental right since I was appointed patron. In 1997, only coroners, rent officers, members of the clergy, the armed forces and the police were in a similar position. I believe that the position has now been regularised in relation to rent officers, but I stand to be corrected. My hon. Friend the Member for Wirral, South (Mr. Chapman) and Amicus MSF have been campaigning on behalf of the clergy, who of course are answerable to God, and there was an Adjournment debate on 8 April on the situation regarding the clergy.

The Economic Secretary and the Treasury have been responsible for the Office for National Statistics and registration officers since I was elected to Parliament. One of my difficulties has been that I have dealt with four Economic Secretaries since 1997: the now Secretary of State for Scotland; the now Under-Secretary of State for Trade and Industry, my hon. Friend the Member for Welwyn Hatfield (Miss Johnson); the now Financial Secretary to the Treasury; and the now Secretary of State for Trade and Industry. That difficulty has been compounded by the fact that employment law is under the jurisdiction of the Department of Trade and Industry. I have dealt with two Ministers of State: my right hon. Friend the Minister without Portfolio when he was at the DTI; and the Minister for Employment Relations, Industry and the Regions.

In 1997, I began my campaign with a letter to the now Secretary of State for Scotland. who responded on 2 February 1998 that the situation had been under review since 1985, when a Select Committee recommended that registration officers become officers of local authorities. A Green Paper made the same proposal in 1988. It became a White Paper in 1990. Many of the White Paper's recommendations have already been implemented in legislation, but the right of registration officers to go to employment tribunals has not.

It has always been possible to take cases through the judicial review process, but that would consider only the procedures, not the fairness of any dismissal case. The Society of Registration Officers would prefer its service to become a national agency or board. It believes that that would be the best way of maintaining a consistent registration service throughout England and Wales. Different standards of accommodation are already offered by local authorities for the service as well as different charges; for example, for hiring an approved premises. However, the Government have dismissed that proposal on the grounds that it may increase costs and bureaucracy and, more important, damage the existing partnership with local authorities.

In another letter dated 30 April 1998 from the now Secretary of State for Scotland, I learned that the Department of Trade and Industry was reviewing employment status issues as they affected the coverage of employment protection rights. On 21 May 1998, I took up the issue with my right hon. Friend the Minister without Portfolio, then Minister of State at the DTI. In his response of 10 June, he mentioned that there was a way forward through the publication of the Government's White Paper entitled, "Fairness at work", whereby existing employment rights could be extended to allow office holders such as registration officers the right of appeal against unfair dismissal, which was encouraging news.

However, my right hon. Friend made it clear that, further consultation would be carried out on any changes before such a power was exercised". To cut a long story short, clause 21 of the Employment Relations Bill 1999, which became section 23 of the Act, introduced those measures, for which I was grateful. I raised the unfair position of registration officers on Second Reading on 9 February 1999. In September 1999, the Registrar General published a consultation paper entitled "Registration: Modernising a Vital Service", which resulted in 968 responses and publication of a White Paper entitled "Civil Registration: Vital Change" in January 2002.

In a letter dated 1 December 1999 from the Minister for Employment Relations, Industry and the Regions, I was informed that consultation on section 23 of the Employment Relations Act 1999, originally scheduled for autumn 1999, was postponed until the following summer—that is, 2000. In a letter dated 20 December 1999 from the then Economic Secretary to the Treasury, now the Under-Secretary of State for Trade and Industry. I was promised that consultation on section 23 regarding registration officers "would not take long" because they were a "small and discrete group". She reminded me that the Registrar General was in favour of an early order to give registration officers the right of access to employment tribunals. That letter was extremely encouraging to officers in the service. However, it was received more than three years ago, and I have seen no sign of such an early order being made.

I wrote to the current Financial Secretary to the Treasury on 9 May 2002 about various matters, including employment rights, raised by registration officers at their annual conference, which I address every year—that year, it was held in Scarborough. In her response of 15 July, she informed me that a consultation was about to be launched by the DTI later in 2002 to seek views on the effects of extending statutory employment rights under section 23 of the Employment Relations Act to individuals currently excluded.

I was informed that the Government would use the order-making powers in the Regulatory Reform Act 2001 to "deliver registration reform". The Financial Secretary also informed me that it would take two years for legislation to reach the statute book and that changes affecting registration officers would be phased in from late 2004. I raised the issue again at Department of Trade and Industry questions, which, ironically, was on 1 May just passed—an appropriate day for raising employment issues. The Under-Secretary of State for Trade and Industry, my hon. Friend the Member for Edinburgh, South (Nigel Griffiths), told me that there had been 400 responses to that consultation on section 23. Furthermore, he told me: My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State made it clear…that all new employment legislation must be implemented by 6 April or 1 October. We will work with the Office for National Statistics so that those deadlines can be adhered to."—[Official Report, 1 May 2003; Vol. 404, c. 405–6.] I assumed that he meant 2003—I hope that that is the case, although he did not mention a year.

However, that answer contradicts other information that I have been given and also a written answer that I received from the Minister for Employment Relations, Industry and the Regions on 7 April 2003, in which he said that the results of the consultation were being analysed and that any proposed changes would be the subject of even more consultation. How long do we have to consult for on such a simple matter?

The employment rights of registration officers appear to have been under review since 1985. By 2004, it will have taken almost 20 years for successive Governments to resolve that simple matter. Is it any wonder that registration officers are losing their patience? Can my hon. Friend the Minister tell me why it has taken so long to make progress on an issue that the Government might regard as minor but which is a great concern to the registration officers whom I represent? To consider only my part in the campaign, it will have taken seven years by next year to resolve the matter.

The most important point is that I seek a separate order—I emphasise separate—to be made, as I have been promised in the past, as soon as possible for registration officers, who are a named group. The Registrar General himself has agreed to be named as their employer in the order until the more radical changes that are proposed for the registration service are implemented.

Believe it or not, registration officers get dismissed—three in one day in Newcastle a few years ago. SORO has told me that some local authorities are pushing interpretation of their powers concerning that group of workers to the limits, which often results in changes to their office practice; without proper consultation. That has inevitably led to stressful working conditions and increased the use of local disciplinary powers that potentially lead to dismissal through the Registrar General.

Radical changes in the terms and conditions of employment of these officers are inevitable when the recommendations in the White Paper entitled "Civil Registration: Vital Change" are implemented. Rights of access to an employment tribunal are necessary before such large-scale upheavals, rather than after, because, in my opinion, disputes there will be. I look forward to my hon. Friend the Minister's response to what has been a long drawn-out procedure.

1.14 pm
The Economic Secretary to the Treasury (John Healey)

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Bolton, South-East (Dr. Iddon) on securing the debate, which, as he said, is the latest in a series of ways in which he has raised the issue in Parliament since 1997. I am conscious of that track record and of his role as an unpaid patron of the Society of Registration Officers. As he explained, he has raised his concerns regularly and tirelessly—I think he said that he had raised it with two DTI Ministers and four Treasury Ministers, so I am sorry that he is raising it now with me, as a fifth to add to his collection.

Civil registration is an important service, which touches everyone at some time in their life. It ensures the civil status of every person and protects individuals and society as a whole. As my hon. Friend is aware, the Registrar General is responsible for administering the law relating to the registration of births, deaths and marriages in England and Wales. The office of the Registrar General—the General Register Office—now forms part of the Office for National Statistics and therefore falls within the remit of the Financial Secretary to the Treasury.

In the Financial Secretary's temporary absence with her new baby Niamh, I have the pleasure of dealing with the issues. The Financial Secretary is conscious of the concerns raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Bolton, South-East and she does not want to see any momentum for reform stalled in her absence. I will do my best to honour that intention while she is on maternity leave. I shall explain later in a little more detail about the consultation document that we plan to issue next month, which I hope will reassure my hon. Friend the Member for Bolton, South-East that a sufficient momentum and priority is being given to reforms of the type about which he is concerned.

My hon. Friend is correct in saying that the problems have a long pedigree. He goes back 20 years, but I would go back further. The fundamental structure of the civil registration service in England and Wales dates back to 1837 when the current arrangements were established, including the introduction of registration officers holding statutory office, as they do, and the organisation of the registration service into small districts and sub-districts, as it is. Although the registration service functions well within its 19th century limitations, it is widely acknowledged that many of the arrangements do not meet people's current needs and expectations. The limits that those place on the service mean that often it cannot be flexible and sympathetic to the present expectations of the public. I shall deal with that later in a little more detail.

I turn now to the employment relationship of registration officers, and therefore their employment rights, which is at the heart of my hon. Friend's concerns. He is correct. The 1,800 or so registration officers in England and Wales do not have a legal employer. As such, they do not have the full range of employment rights that many others take for granted; they are appointed, paid and accommodated by local authorities, but are answerable for their actions to the Registrar General. Currently, registration officers hold office during the pleasure of the Registrar General. That rather quaint employment status places a responsibility on the Registrar General to act with great prudence in matters of discipline and, ultimately, in matters of dismissal. He is, as my hon. Friend pointed out, the final arbiter in the decision-making process for registration officers and he is conscious of the duty of care and caution that he must employ, given the unusual employment status of those registration officers for whom he is responsible.

My hon. Friend will know, although he did not mention it in his speech, that the Registrar General has, in conjunction with the Society of Registration Officers, developed, introduced and subsequently revised an agreed system of disciplinary procedures for registration officers that are designed to mirror local authority procedures, as far as they can. The Government, and the Registrar General, are grateful to the society for the contribution that it made to that process and for making the procedures work as effectively as possible. I should be grateful if my hon. Friend would pass that on to officers of the society.

The procedures strive to ensure that registration officers are treated with the same consideration as local government employees and are offered as high a level of protection as possible within the current registration law. The Registrar General liaises closely with local authorities wherever possible, to ensure consistency and fairness in all disciplinary cases.

As my hon. Friend said, a registrar may appeal in person or in writing against the Registrar General's recommendation to dismiss. Such decisions are not made lightly. The total number of cases involved in such procedures is relatively small and the dismissal of registration officers on disciplinary grounds is very rare. In the past 10 years, the Registrar General has considered fewer than 20 such cases.

Recent case law from the Employment Appeal Tribunal in April 2002 confirmed that registrars are not eligible to appeal to an employment tribunal when they are dismissed from office. That is the core of my hon. Friend's concern. They may not therefore follow an accessible and independent appeal route, which is open to the majority of other workers. Judicial review is the only way to challenge the Registrar General's decision, which is clearly a difficult route for ordinary people and has not been used to date.

As my hon. Friend said, there has been intent in the past to reform the registration service, but previous Governments could not find the time to follow through proposals laid out in the mid-1980s and in early 1990. More recently, the present Government's consultation paper, "Supporting Families", published in 1998, recommended a review of the civil registration service in England and Wales, and the Registrar General was asked by the Government to conduct that review. His consultation paper, "Registration: Modernising a Vital Service", was published in 1999 and, as my hon. Friend said, almost 1,000 responses were received. It was followed in January 2002 by the White Paper, "Civil Registration: Vital Change", which set out the plans for reform.

The Government's proposals will give more choice in the use of registration services: choices about where and how to register a birth or death and where one can get married, as well as wider choices about baby naming and marriage reaffirmation. The proposals will improve the services that users receive.

Central to the modernisation of the registration service is the reform of the status of registration officers, making them local authority employees. I suggest to my hon. Friend that that is the proper way for the reforms that he wants to be introduced. We plan to make the legislative changes needed to implement the White Paper proposals using the order-making powers that exist under the Regulatory Reform Act 2001. That contains wide powers matched by tough safeguards. It allows us to reform burdensome and outdated legislation for regulatory regimes such as that relating to civil registration. In future, within a framework of national standards, local authorities will be able to develop face-to-face services to meet the current and future needs of their communities. To achieve that, local authorities will need staff to be flexible, and will not want the hindrance of the current outdated restrictions.

Dr. Iddon

Does my hon. Friend agree that it is important for the Registrar General, through the Government, to lay down minimal standards for the provision of services throughout England and Wales?

John Healey

I can tell my hon. Friend that the Registrar General is conscious of the integrity, future and standards of the service over which he presides. That sort of concern will play a part in the way that we reform the service in future.

My hon. Friend questioned the process by which we shall have to undertake the reforms. I want to make it clear to him that regulatory reform orders are scrutinised by the House of Commons in the Select Committee on Regulatory Reform and by the House of Lords in the Select Committee on Delegated Powers and Regulatory Reform. As the first step required by the 2001 Act, we plan to publish a detailed consultation paper next month. The publication of that document will be followed by a three-month consultation period, which is required by law. The consultation will include the proposals necessary to make legal changes to the Registration Acts and other legislation. The determination to change the employment status of registration officers, which was announced in the White Paper, is settled. The consultation document will consider the best way of achieving that.

As I said earlier, the law restricts registration officers in the range of duties that they may perform when acting as statutory officers. The White Paper proposes that registrars should become local authority staff and thus obtain the full employment rights held by that group of employees—my hon. Friend's objective. There will then be no need to involve outside bodies in disciplinary matters, and responsibility for disciplinary action will be placed firmly where it belongs—with the local authority responsible for delivering the registration service, which we want to reform. The authority will have responsibility for all aspects of disciplinary action against what will then clearly be its employees.

The regulatory reform order should provide an opportunity to reform and modernise the registration service. It will allow for the staged implementation of reforms, and I intend the transfer of registration officers to local government employment to be completed at an early stage of the implementation process.

More widely, the Government recognise the importance of all workers having appropriate employment protection. The Department of Trade and Industry is reviewing employment status and employment rights. My hon. Friend referred to that review, which is considering the position not only of certain officeholders, such as registration officers, clergy and, in some cases, coroner's staff, but of a much wider group of workers, who are not confined to specific sectors, such as casual and agency workers, and those with atypical working patterns.

The discussion document that was published last July examined the issue. It sought views on whether there were problems with the present coverage of employment rights and on possible ways to tackle them, including non-regulatory action and the extension of employment rights to certain groups of workers under section 23 of the 1999 Act.

The Society of Registration Officers has played an active part in the process. It attended a round table discussion that was held in November 2002 as part of a wider consultation on the interests of the larger group of workers that I mentioned.

The responses to the DTI discussion document are being analysed, and the DTI aims to publish its response later this year. I should, however, make it clear that because the discussion document was broad, sought views on a broad front and proposed no specific changes, any proposed regulatory action under section 23 of the 1999 Act would require further consultation.

I hope that my hon. Friend will welcome the fact that the Government plan to issue the consultation document on civil registration reform next month. I hope that he accepts that that is the proper place to deal with his long-standing concerns, and that his proposals are part of a package of reforms that we are looking to put in place. I also hope that he accepts that the issue of the consultation document will maintain the significant momentum that my hon. Friend the Financial Secretary was keen to see behind such reforms, and that it will properly settle the inconsistencies in the present position, which have caused concern.

Dr. Iddon

I ask my hon. Friend not to lose sight of one important point that I tried to make. Registration officers feel that their employment rights should be protected before, not after, they are officially transferred to local authorities in a large-scale upheaval. I respect my hon. Friend's point about officers' rights being fully protected once they are transferred, but there may be cases of unfair dismissal during the transfer process.

John Healey

I took careful note of my hon. Friend's point, and I hope that he sees from my comments about the process of reform by means of order-making powers that the issue of employment status will form part of the early changes that are brought into effect. I hope that that meets the concerns that he and the society have. In the absence of my hon. Friend the Financial Secretary, I will ensure that that is given full ministerial attention. In that way, we can achieve the objective that we share, which is to ensure that, almost 170 years on, registration officers have the employment rights that everyone has now accepted they should have.

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Nicholas Winterton)

The Minister has finished in the nick of time, and we are grateful to him for his response. We now move to the final debate in Westminster Hall today.