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.