Births, Deaths and Marriages Registration Bill, 1972: Second Stage.

I move: "That the Bill be now read a Second Time."

This is a very short Bill of eight sections which has as its objects the improvement of the system which operates for the registration of births, deaths and marriages.

As Deputies know, the obligation to register a birth, marriage or death is a statutory one. It falls on persons in different categories associated with the particular event, and I am sure that I do not have to emphasise the importance of achieving the greatest possible degree of compliance with the law.

Any short-fall in registration diminishes the validity of our vital statistics which are essential to all forms of social planning. The short-comings of the present system are especially serious in relation to registration of deaths. This applies particularly to deaths in rural areas of old people who are not property owners and not covered by life insurance. It is not possible to cite precise figures in this connection, but from studies carried out in recent years I am satisfied that there are areas where under-registration of deaths may be of the order of 7 to 8 per cent. Where a failure to register a death comes under the notice of a registrar, or of the Office of an tArd-Chláraitheoir, the omission is, of course, corrected, but this can account for only a small number of cases. It will, I am sure, be readily accepted that any organisational changes which will assist in achieving maximum registration should be effected, and this is one of the main objectives of the present Bill.

Failure to register births is quite rare, but registration is sometimes delayed and effected only when the need to produce a certificate arises. Marriage registration can be accepted as comprehensive.

It is evident that whatever can be done to improve the registration system should be done as expeditiously as possible. This, in fact, is theraison d'etre of the present Bill. I would describe it as a Bill designed to improve the quality and efficiency of the registration system, to settle the basis for a new and improved service by facilitating members of the public in making registrations, to clear up points of difficulty and hardship which have persistently hindered the making of registrations in certain cases, and, finally, to eliminate a lot of the formidable and cumbersome documentation which up to now was part of the system. The present system, first established over 100 years ago, has served us well but it is not surprising that changes of a significant nature now require to be made.

To turn to detailed provisions— section 2 of the Bill has the important effect of authorising the chief executive officer of health boards to make appointments to fill vacancies in posts of registrar. The vacancies are those existing at the passing of the Act and those arising subsequently. The appointments will be subject to any directions which may be issued from time to time by an tArd-Chláraitheoir. Existing permanent registrars are not affected. They will continue to hold office on the same terms as hitherto.

At present there are about 650 registration districts, generally coterminous with the dispensary districts in which the dispensary service functioned. I am referring here to districts for the registration of births, deaths and Catholic marriages— there are registrars of marriages other than Catholic marriages and their districts are another matter. People are now much more mobile than when the registration service was established; hospital systems have developed; the great majority of births now take place in hospitals and nursing homes rather than at home as was the case when the service started. A much higher proportion of deaths occur in hospitals also. All of this adds up to the conclusion that such a large number of registration districts is nowadays unnecessary. In fact, the large number of registration districts is now a disadvantage.

As things stand, over 400 districts, or 60 per cent of the total, each register less than 50 events in a year and account in total for less than 10 per cent of registrations. Such a large number of districts with low work loads inevitably leads to a loss of administrative efficiency. This is so simply because registrars have not a sufficient variety or volume of registrations to be experienced in the unusual cases that can arise. The net effect is that the central registration office in Dublin, Oifig an Árd Chláraitheora, or, as it is more generally known, the General Registrar Office, is regularly called upon to provide guidance and assistance in cases which would be well within the competence of a local registrar handling a reasonably wide span of work. And, of course, this leads to delays and inconvenience for members of the public.

I am quite satisfied that the needs of the service could be better met by reducing—by, perhaps, one-half—the number of registration districts now operating and I hope to achieve this by amalgamating smaller districts as opportunity offers and vacancies arise. In this connection I will ensure that the convenience of the public will at all times be borne in mind. If, say, the low density of population on certain western seaboard areas warrants retaining certain existing small sized districts, then they will be retained in those areas.

We cannot proceed with the amalgamation of districts without removing a lien which dispensary doctors have had up to now on registration posts. This is the purpose of section 2 (1) (b). Section 2 (1) (a), as I have said, gives the function of appointment of registration staff in future to the chief executive officer of health boards. Under the 1970 Health Act, health boards have, of course, taken over the responsibility of supervising the registration service and also act as superintendent registrars at regional level in many cases.

It is proposed, under the Bill, to bring within the administrative ambit of the health boards the registration service at local level in respect of all events which are routinely notified to the Registrar of Births and Deaths. Existing registrars hold their appointments from an tÁrd Chláraitheoir and it would not be feasible, nor desirable, to alter that arrangement. It would also be incongruous to apply a different basis of tenure of office to registrars who will be appointed from time to time to vacancies. Accordingly, it is proposed to continue the system for existing registrars and to apply it to new appointees until such time as the health boards are, in fact, the registrars for the entire country. This is the reason then for section 2 (2).

I might also mention that I see the amalgamation process as leading to the establishment in the larger areas of population of general registration offices open throughout normal working hours. These are a feature of registration services in other countries and are much more effective in populated areas than the service now provided on the basis of one or two hours attendance on mornings of the week in a number of scattered locations.

The remaining provisions are of varying degrees of importance. Section 3 seeks to remedy distressing personal difficulties which arise occasionally, for example, where the facts of a birth or a death can clearly be established but a statutory informant is not available or is seriously ill and unable to attend and sign the register. At present such events cannot be registered. The provision in the Bill will remedy this problem, while, of course, maintaining the requirement that an tArd-Chláraitheoir must be satisfied as to thebona fides of each case.

In section 4 I seek to remedy other difficulties about registration of certain births or deaths occurring outside the State where the person born was the child of an Irish citizen domiciled in the State or the person dead was an Irish citizen domiciled in the State. Difficulties arise where registration records of foreign countries are either non-existent or have been destroyed, for example, in wartime or by fire or accident.

Another urgent provision is to permit of a change from the present cumbersome statutory requirements in which forms were prescribed, their content specified, their layout settled, their incorporation in ledgers required and so on. All of these requirements are now outmoded. Modernisation of documentation and procedures which have subsisted for a century is essential if advantage is to be taken of modern recording techniques and the use of automatic data processing, microfilming and other modern office procedures. Regulations under section 5 will enable these changes to be made and also changes in the present arrangements for informants to register events so as to facilitate certain new procedures, e.g. undertakers may be required to notify registrars before a burial. This should help to reduce the number of unregistered deaths which I have already spoken about. Any such regulations must be laid before each House of the Oireachtas.

Section 6 applies the appropriate provisions of the Registration Acts to registrations authorised by an tArd-Chláraitheoir. The provision is necessary because, under the existing legislation, certified copies of registered births and deaths are acceptable as "proof of the event without further evidence" only if made under the signature of an informant or on the basis of notification from a coroner. Section 6 will place registration made under sections 3 and 4 of the Bill on the same standing as the normal registration of a birth or death.

On section 7, the position is that section 2 (5) of the Vital Statistics and Births, Deaths and Marriages Registration Act, 1952 prevents any person engaged in the collection, compilation, abstraction or publication of vital statistics from disclosing information relating to any identifiable person unless for the purposes of a prosecution under the Act. This has restricted the work of medical and social research workers and has made for difficulties for medical officers in their efforts to control and eliminate outbreaks of infectious diseases. I have been pressed by medical and professional bodies to modify the restriction in the interests of the health of the community and to aid research work. I am satisfied that the present limitations could well operate against the advancement of medical knowledge and the effectiveness of existing services, and I am, accordingly, proposing to authorise the disclosure of information in this type of case subject to conditions which I lay down. The House may be assured that the terms of the consent which I shall give will be very carefully considered, indeed, and that I shall be at pains to preserve the confidentiality of all information.

The reorganisation of the health services and the adoption of a choice of doctor scheme replacing the dispensary doctor system operates to provide an impetus to adopt a more effective registration organisation by underlining the need for change and providing an opportunity for change. I hope the House will assist me to take the opportunity by endorsing this Bill.

I take it that the Minister in introducing this Bill is trying to bring the matter of registration into line with the Health Acts, involving the abolition of the dispensary system. In rural areas the dispensary doctor was the registrar of births and deaths and he was entitled to appoint somebody to act. I take from the Minister's statement an assurance that the persons who held these offices will continue to do so. Am I right in that?

When such posts become vacant I gather from what the Minister said that he intends cutting down on the numbers and that the areas will be larger. I would fear that if we make the areas larger a certain amount of inconvenience may be caused to people in rural areas because of the distance they might have to travel to register births or deaths. I know that babies are born in hospitals and deaths take place in hospitals and they are registered straight away, but the difficulty I referred to may arise in country areas. I should like the Minister to keep this in mind. He should not cover too wide an area.

I should also like an assurance, if it can be given, that the cost will not be prohibitive. The registrars do not get very much at the moment and, if the Minister intends to hand over this matter to the regional health boards, we may find ourselves again with the problem of much higher expense. It may be completely overloaded at the top level.

I am rather surprised to learn from what the Minister said that the number of unregistered deaths may be of the order of 7 to 8 per cent. That strikes me as an alarming figure. I had no idea that it was so high but I am sure the Minister has proof of it. I did not think there could be anything like that percentage of unregistered deaths.

Only in certain areas.

I see. There is nothing further that I should like to raise so long as I have the assurance that those who now occupy the position of registrar will not be disturbed in their position.

I am glad this Bill has been introduced because it is modernising the system of registration. Those of us who are engaged in social work of any kind know the difficulties that arise from time to time when matters affecting the registration of births, deaths or marriages come to be checked. If the system which it is now proposed to introduce improves the situation, we should all welcome it.

I quite agree that the number of unregistered deaths can be 7 or 8 per cent, or even higher. It is not generally known that when people die, particularly old people living alone, somebody should register the death. Unless the doctor does it, it can be overlooked. Recently I knew of somebody who died in hospital and was registered as a widower. He was a married man and his widow was still living. When the registrar registered his death and recorded him as being a widower all sorts of complications arose. The matter had to be referred to the Custom House before the death was properly registered and the death certificate could be issued properly.

Another matter which has been mentioned briefly—and I think the Minister got around it—is the question of somebody who dies violently and an inquest has to be held. I am sure it is well known that some coroners seem to think it is all right if they adjourn an inquest indefinitely until they can have a gala evening with four, five or six inquests at which they preside. In the meantime the relatives of the deceased are waiting for a death certificate which will not be issued until the coroner has recorded some verdict.

I have known cases where widows were unable to get a widow's pension, or insurance which they had been paying over the years, or to draw gratuities which were due from local authorities, because of the fact that the inquest verdict was not given for months. Some of these people could not pay their way. It is ridiculous that this situation should have been allowed to continue. I assume from what the Minister said that this is now being got around because, if the registration is done in a different way, it will not be necessary to wait for the coroner's inquest before the death certificate can be issued. Perhaps the Minister would clarify that position when he is replying because I believe the matter is really important.

It is amazing how many people have never been registered as having been born. Usually this is not discovered until they apply for a pension of one kind or another, usually the old age pension. It is then discovered that, so far as the State is concerned, those people do not exist. I have come across numerous cases of that sort which I have had to investigate. While it is possible on occasion, so far as the Department of Social Welfare are concerned, to get such evidence as school attendance or something like that to prove the date of birth sometimes that is not possible.

I know of the case of a man who was born in an itinerant camp. Apparently nobody bothered to register the birth. When he reached 70 years of age, although he had left the itinerant life and had worked all his life, and had been insured by the Department of Social Welfare, the Department refused to accept statements from his employer that he was 70 years of age. They would not allow him to draw benefit. Eventually he ended up in an old folks home. He told me he started life depending on charity; he worked all his life and he did not think he would end his life depending on charity. This sort of thing will be prevented by the new system of registration suggested in the Bill.

I would suggest to the Minister that, if possible, an effort should be made through advertisements or otherwise to find out for people who are not registered whether they should take steps to become registered even at this late stage and have some evidence given of their date of birth so that complications will not be caused for them later on in life.

It may not be generally known that if somebody was alive when a particular census was taken, and was registered for census purposes, it is possible to get a copy of some of the census papers to produce evidence of age. It should not be necessary to do this but it is possible to do it.

I must say that during the time the British were here the RIC went to far more trouble to try to find out the names, ages and relationships of itinerants scattered throughout the country than do our present police force. Perhaps it is regarded asinfra dig to visit a tinkers' camp to inquire for such particulars. As I have said, it was done very thoroughly by the British. Again and again I have had to try to help those people by getting their births registered.

The idea of passing these matters over to the health boards may be a good one but it seems to me that these boards are becoming repositories for the affairs of the various sections in the community about whom nobody else wants to do anything. The administration of this will cost money, even if it is a small amount, and the last speaker expressed the hope that the costs will not be increased with the change over. Since the introduction of the health boards, the cost of various items appears to have been raised slightly and this is still another area where it could happen.

I agree it should be mandatory on all to have births, marriages and deaths registered but should the Minister not endeavour as far as possible, before handing this service over to another body, to have all existing births, marriages and deaths registered?

I am aware that some people have been appointed to act as registrars and it is important that we should decide now that these offices should be opened during normal hours. I am acquainted with people who have travelled long distances to try to find necessary documents only to be told when they arrived that the offices were open for only a couple of hours.

The idea behind this Bill is an excellent one but we should not let this opportunity pass without paying a tribute to people who have been registrars for a long time. They seemed to take a particular interest in seeing that the public got a good service. I know a very old lady who if she got a request either by a visit to her or by a letter replied by return of post. It would be unfair of us if we did not pay a tribute to the people who gave such an excellent service for a small remuneration.

I thank the House for the friendly way it has accepted the Bill. I shall deal first with a point made by Deputy Tully, the adjournment of inquests. This is outside the scope of the Bill but I will bring the matter before the Minister for Justice. I know that provision exists whereby once the inquest has been opened and adjourned the coroner can refer the necessary registration date to the registrar. If the system did not work properly, it was the fault of the coroner. However, the Minister for Justice can refer the registration date to the registrar.

In regard to unregistered births and the resultant problems in relation to insurance and so forth, section 3 of the Bill deals with just such problems. If a person brings forward reasonable evidence in regard to births he can be registered and benefits depending on age would follow automatically.

Deputy Governey referred to the position of existing holders of the office of registrar and said that existing permanent registrars are not affected. I stated in my opening speech that they will continue to hold office on the same terms as heretofore. He referred to the suggestion that many of them have too big an area to cover. Under the Bill, areas will be arranged so that maximum benefit can be given to persons concerned and so that the work will be effectively and efficiently carried out, so that unusual cases will be dealt with and that account will be taken of remote rural areas where the population would be extremely scattered and where people would have to travel extreme distances. The situation of registrars will depend on the needs of the areas.

There is nothing in the Bill about the cost of registration but under it the Registrar General will still retain his supervisory and control functions. It is not proposed to interfere with supervision and control, and though the health boards will manage the registration system, they will do so with the advice, consent and authorisation of the Registrar General. That covers the point of any health board attempting to engage in unnecessary expense in this sphere.

Question put and agreed to.
Committee Stage ordered for Tuesday, 14th November, 1972.