Registers of Births and Deaths Bill

16th October 2020

Andrew Mitchell leads the Second Reading debate of his Private Member’s Bill to reform the method of registration of births and deaths by moving from a paper-based system to registration in an electronic register.

I beg to move, That the Bill be now read a Second time.

I must apologise to the House, because I have not been a regular attender on Friday sittings in recent years. The last occasion on which I brought a private Member’s Bill to the House was in March 1991, when I promoted the Education (Publication of Examination Results) Bill, which proposed to set up league tables. It failed to win the support of the House, but, as my hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch (Sir Christopher Chope) may recall, it subsequently became Government policy. In those days, the doyennes of Friday sittings were Ian Gow, Nicholas Soames and Michael Brown. I see that I attended on 20 April 1990 and spent 45 minutes speaking about the relative merits of low-volume alcohol drinks being defined as no more than 0.65% alcohol or 1.2%. Both you and I, Mr Deputy Speaker, will understand why a speech of such length was required.

My purpose today is much more serious, and I wish to start by thanking the Minister for his support and interest in this Bill. I know that he will have spent much of last night swatting up on all the details, a process I will remember from my time as a junior social security Minister in the 1990s. The good news for him is that once he reaches the Cabinet, which will not be long, he will not have to take Bills through the House any more—he will have a junior Minister to do it for him. I wish to thank his officials, particularly Linda Edwards and Saskia Molekamp, who have been extremely helpful in drafting and addressing the issues in this Bill.

My championing of this measure will come as no surprise whatsoever to my constituents in the royal town of Sutton Coldfield, whom I have the great honour of representing in this place, because our register office was closed by Birmingham City Council in 2014. It took that measure to save £83,000 of expenditure, which included the lease of a desk in the local library, so much of that expenditure was not actually saved. At the time, the failure to tell the local Good Hope Hospital, funeral directors and local GPs caused a considerable fuss. The central Birmingham register office was very overstretched at the time and people had to struggle to get an appointment to register a birth or a death, and it was not well placed for access in terms of parking. So for my constituents the removal of the register office constituted a considerable inconvenience, as a result of which there was a lot of campaigning across the town for it to remain open. I commend the Conservative councillors on Birmingham City Council, who, under their outstanding leader, Bobby Alden, have each year since then, in an alternative budget, pledged to reopen it and make better use of district centres to reduce travel and boost high-street activity.

Alas, that campaign at the time, which I, as the Member of Parliament, the hard-working councillors in Sutton Coldfield and local residents strongly supported, did not prevail. The failure of local government to hear the call from the royal town to stop this closure is one reason why people voted for local democracy; they voted, in a referendum, to set up the Royal Sutton Coldfield Town Council, which is today one of the largest, if not the largest, town councils in the country, under its outstanding leader, Simon Ward. I reiterate, because it is so relevant to the Bill, that the reason for the campaign from the royal town was that at an often upsetting and sad time in life my constituents had to journey all the way into Birmingham to comply with the necessary registration procedures.

The purpose of the Bill is to reform the way in which births and deaths are registered in England and Wales, moving from a paper-based system to registration in an electronic register. Registrars already use an electronic system to register births and deaths, and have done so since 2009, but they are still required to keep paper registers securely, in a safe, due to the requirements of the current and, I submit, outdated legislation. The Bill will remove the duplication of processes.

I reassure my hon. Friends that my Bill does not make any fundamental changes to the current arrangements for registering births and deaths—for example, who is able to provide the information to the registrar or the information to be recorded in the entry—but it will make a big difference, as I have described, for our constituents. The way in which births and deaths are currently registered dates back to 1837. It is much in need of modernisation and a move to digital methods of registration.

I hope that it may be helpful to the House if I explain how the current system works. All births and deaths that occur in England and Wales are required to be registered by the registrar for the sub-district in which the event occurred by a qualified informant. For example, in the case of a birth, the qualified informant is usually the child’s mother. When registering a birth or death, the registrar will record all the information on an electronic system. Once the registration is complete, the system will generate a paper register page, which is signed by the informant and the registrar. That paper record is then put into a loose-leaf register, which the registrar keeps in a safe. It is that paper record that is the formal record of the event, from which all certificates are then issued.

The changes proposed in my Bill would remove the requirement for paper birth and death registers and introduce a single electronic register in which all births and deaths would be registered. This will create a much more efficient and secure system of registration. The electronic system is already there and is used on a daily basis.

Will my right hon. Friend give way?

I give way with great pleasure to my hon. Friend, who, as a distinguished resident of the royal town of Sutton Coldfield, may well recall the events of which I have spoken.

I do indeed, and troublesome they were at the time. Under my right hon. Friend’s Bill, will the old birth and death certificates be destroyed, or will they be archived?

That is a most important point. I will come to it, but clause 4 refers to the very point that my hon. Friend so wisely makes.

Currently, registrars submit copies of all the birth and death entries they have registered in the last quarter to their superintendent registrar via a system of quarterly returns. The superintendent registrar certifies those entities as being true copies of birth and death entries in the registers and forwards them to the Registrar General. That is done electronically using the electronic system. The Registrar General holds a central repository of all births and deaths registered in England and Wales. My Bill will remove that administrative burden.

When the electronic system was introduced in 2009, why did the Government decide not to abandon the hard copy record? Surely the reason was that it was a safeguard. Hard copies are an essential safeguard, are they not?

I will come on to a number of points that my hon. Friend alludes to, but I think he will be satisfied, when he hears about the other provisions of my Bill, that that point is properly addressed.

With the move to an electronic register, the system of quarterly returns will no longer be necessary. Following the registration of a birth or death in the electronic register, the entry will immediately be available to the superintendent registrar and the Registrar General, without the quarterly returns process having to be completed from the paper registers.

The Bill amends the Births and Deaths Registration Act 1953 to insert a new section that enables Ministers to make regulations that make provision that a duty to sign the birth or death register is to have the effect of a duty to comply with specified requirements. If an informant complies with those requirements, they are to be treated as having signed the register and to have done so in the presence of the registrar.

The entry in the electronic register will be treated as having been signed by the person who has provided the information relating to a birth or death. For example, the regulations may require a person to sign something other than the register or to provide evidence of their identity. I reassure my hon. Friends that the regulations would be made using the affirmative procedure, which requires them to be approved by both Houses of Parliament and therefore there would be the opportunity to discuss the content of those measures.

The provisions in my Bill are the first step in moving to a more modern system of birth and death registration. By removing the requirement for paper registers to be signed in the presence of a registrar, we would pave the way for a move to online methods of registration. That would provide more flexibility and allow an informant to provide the particulars of a birth or death online and at a time to suit the individual, without having to visit a register office. That would modernise how births and deaths are registered in the future and give the public more choice, but the choice to register in person would remain, as register offices and facilities are needed for marriages, civil ceremonies and citizenship.

As I am sure my hon. Friends will agree, removing the requirement for face-to-face services is particularly relevant and most important at the moment as we deal with the issues of covid-19 and the pandemic. My right hon. and hon. Friends will also be pleased to hear that just these measures in respect of the registration of deaths would save the taxpayer £90 million over 10 years. Over the next 10 years, we conservatively estimate that the effect of all these measures would save £170 million for the taxpayer. I should explain that the figure of £20 million that appears in the explanatory notes is a reference only to the amount saved by removing the paper register and the requirements for quarterly returns. The savings to the taxpayer would be significant indeed.

I turn briefly to the clauses in the Bill. Clause 1 amends the original Births and Deaths Registration Act 1953. The new sections allow the Registrar General to determine how registers of live births, stillbirths and deaths are to be kept. It would remove the duplication of processes: all births and deaths would be registered in an electronic register without the need for paper registers.

Clause 2 deals with the provision of equipment and facilities by local authorities. It makes clear that all local authorities must provide and maintain the equipment and facilities set down by the Registrar General for all register and sub-district register offices. I am grateful to the hon. Member for Croydon Central (Sarah Jones) for specifically raising that point in our discussions earlier.

Clause 3 is the requirement to sign the register. This is a new power that would bring before the House new regulations in respect of non-paper registration. Where someone complies with specific requirements, they will be treated as having signed. Obviously, such provisions may require evidence of identity, and those provisions would be put to the House in further legislation that we would move in the way that I have described. The clause makes it clear that the Government can do so only under the affirmative procedure, which means that any provisions must be laid before and approved by both Houses of Parliament.

Clause 4 is the about the treatment of existing registers and records—the point made so ably by my hon. Friend the Member for Stourbridge (Suzanne Webb). It requires the Registrar General to continue to keep and maintain all the existing records.

Clause 5 effectively brings the schedules to the Bill into effect. Clause 6 is a power to make further consequential provisions, including, if required, to primary legislation. Again, in those circumstances that can be done only by affirmative resolution. Clause 7 is the commencement clause, which comes into force on the day the Bill is passed. Finally, the schedule deals with minor and consequential amendments to the original 1953 Act and certain other primary legislation consequent on the provisions of this Bill.

The Bill requires neither a money resolution, my hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch will be pleased to hear, nor a Ways and Means resolution. It is also fully compatible with the European convention on human rights. I very much hope that the Bill will progress through the House and, indeed, the other place, where our late colleague my noble Friend Lord Lancaster of Kimbolton has agreed to assist in its passage, and that, with its self-evident benefits for our constituents, it will, after further scrutiny, become an Act. I commend its provisions to the House.

Hansard

Rt Hon Andrew Mitchell MP