Civil Registration Bill 2003: Second Stage.

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

I am pleased to bring the Civil Registration Bill 2003 before the House. It provides a new legislative framework for civil registration, supports and enables the modernisation of the Civil Registration Service and facilitates the decentralisation of the General Register Office to Roscommon. The main objectives of the Bill are to: rationalise the procedures for registering births, stillbirths and deaths; give an tArd-Chláraitheoir responsibility for the overall policy for the Civil Registration Service, including maintaining standards of service; assign responsibility for the management, control and administration of the Civil Registration Service at local level to health boards; streamline the existing procedures governing the registration of adoptions; establish new registers of divorce and civil nullity; reform the procedures governing the registration of marriages; and facilitate the future linking of life-events.

Civil registration was introduced in Ireland in 1845 for the registration of non-Catholic marriages and expanded in 1864 for the registration of births, deaths and Roman Catholic marriages. Thus, a comprehensive registration system has been in place since 1864. The data forms a basic, continuous source of information about the population by providing a record of vital events relating to people and satisfying the need for evidence which has a bearing on rights, entitlements, liabilities, status and nationality.

Civil registration touches on each of us at important stages in our lives, beginning with the registration of our births and ending when our deaths are registered. Between those events, civil registration affects us both directly, as in the case of marriage, or indirectly, when certificates are required for many of the services that are available in our society, such as enrolling a child in school, obtaining a passport, taking up employment and claiming a social welfare payment, to mention but a few.

While there has been little change to the basic registration procedures since 1864, there have been many changes in our society, major developments in technology and increased expectations by citizens as to how public services should be delivered. In 2003, there were over 110,000 life events registered, some 500,000 certificates produced and approximately 1.2 million searches of registration records carried out.

Recognising the importance of civil registration and acknowledging the changing needs of our customers, the Government approved a programme of work to modernise the Civil Registration Service. The civil registration modernisation programme is a joint initiative between my Department, which is progressing civil registration legislation, and the Department of Health and Children, which oversees the administration of the Civil Registration Service. This is a major undertaking involving: the introduction of modern technology providing on-line registration; electronic certificate production and the capture of digitised signatures; redesign of business processes and procedures; capturing and storing in electronic format all paper-based records from 1845; and reform of legislation which has given rise to this Bill.

A key step in the process was the publication of a consultation document entitled Bringing Civil Registration into the 21st Century which set out the context and proposed future approach to civil registration and related services. The purpose of this document was to engage with as wide a range of organisations and individuals as possible on the proposals to modernise the service. Some 170 responses to the consultation document were received and these, together with views obtained during consultations with a number of organisations, have been considered in the development of the modernisation programme.

There will be substantial benefits, both tangible and intangible, arising from the modernisation programme. These include: improved service to customers, for example extended opening times; greater efficiency in the use of resources and reduction in red tape; nationwide standards for registering life events; the registration of divorces and civil annulments on a central register; the electronic capture and transmission of all vital statistics on life events to the Central Statistics Office; the sharing of data with designated Government Departments and agencies; facilitating long-standing plans to decentralise the General Register Office to Roscommon; and reducing the demand for paper certificates for the purposes of Government services.

As part of the groundwork for the programme of modernisation, Deputies will recall that amendments to a number of the provisions of the Births, Deaths and Marriages Acts were included in the Social Welfare (Miscellaneous Provisions) Act 2002 to facilitate the implementation of a new computerised system to cater for the electronic registration of births and deaths and electronic certificate production for births, deaths and marriages. I am pleased to inform the House that the roll out of the new civil registration system is well under way and is currently operating in five health board areas. It is expected that the implementation of the system in the remaining health board areas will be completed by mid-2004.

Until now, the registration and certificate production processes were manual, time consuming and location dependent. The modernisation programme marks a fundamental change in the way the civil registration service operates and is delivering significant improvements in operational efficiency and customer satisfaction throughout the country.

This Government is committed to improving public services by modernising the way it does its business. New Connections, the Government's information society action plan, identifies e-Government as a key infrastructural mechanism and the e-inclusion programme as a key supporting framework. In line with this Government's commitment to improving the way services are organised, integrated and delivered to customers, my Department initiated a number of significant programmes. These are the civil registration modernisation project, development of the REACH interagency messaging service, automated establishment of public service identity in respect of children born in Ireland and the service delivery modernisation project.

The capacity to share data is a key building block underpinning the integration of public service delivery. To facilitate the sharing and e-enabling of life event data between Government agencies, REACH developed an interagency messaging service, IAMS, which is currently being used to transfer registration data between the civil registration system, this Department and the Central Statistics Office. This facility will be used to make death registration data available electronically to other Government agencies from the end of January.

The service delivery modernisation programme aims to deliver a high quality, proactive service to customers. The re-design of the child benefit system is the first manifestation of the new service delivery framework. Since September 2003, all new birth registration data is transferred electronically to my Department from the civil registration computer system. This facilitates the allocation of a personal public service number to a child at registration, thus establishing a child's public service identity and the creation of family links on the national central database for all citizens, the client records system which is administered by my Department, initiation of a child benefit claim for first-born children and automatic payment for second and subsequent children in a family. Payment of child benefit in respect of a baby born and registered by the civil registration system on Monday is made or the mother contacted by my Department by Thursday without any manual intervention. This is a prime example of the e-Government objective of Departments working together to provide more convenient access to services for citizens. The introduction of the new civil registration system is therefore a flagship initiative in providing life-centred services to customers.

The visible improvement from the customer perspective is that a single interaction with a public service agency, for example, the registration of a birth, not only achieves its original purpose but also triggers a series of related services by another agency, in this case my Department. Customers availing of the e-enabled service no longer have to source and complete a multi-paged paper application form and supply a paper birth certificate. They simply have to register the baby's birth to set the process in motion.

I now wish to outline the provisions contained in this Bill. As Members have already considered it in detail, I will focus on a number of key provisions.

The administration of the Civil Registration Service is provided for in Part 2 of the Bill. Sections 7, 9 and 12 provide for the continuation of the existing offices of an tArd-Chláraitheoir, the assistant to an tArd-Chláraitheoir, to be named an tArd-Chláraitheoir Cúnta, and Oifig an Ard-Chláraitheora.

Section 13 provides powers for an tArd-Chláraitheoir to establish and maintain registers of births, stillbirths, adoptions, deaths and marriages, divorce and civil nullity — the last two mentioned are new registers. In future, all life events will be stored in electronic registers.

Sections 14 and 15 provide for the establishment of local registration authorities, which will be based on the health boards, that will appoint a superintendent registrar to administer the service at local level. Each registration authority will be required to set out a formal scheme for the administration of the civil registration service in its area. This part also contains provisions which facilitate the delegation of certain functions, such as late registration, from an tArd-Chláraitheoir to local registration authorities.

Part 3 of the Bill provides for the registration of births and stillbirths. The principal responsibility for registering a birth will remain with the parents, who will be required to register the event within three months of the birth. To facilitate parents in fulfilling this obligation, the present time limit of 42 days will be extended to three months. In future, births may be registered with any registrar as opposed to the present system where a birth can only be registered by the registrar of the district in which the birth occurred.

Sections 23 and 24 of the Bill allow a birth to be re-registered to include the father's details where they were not entered in the register at the time of registration.

Sections 26 and 27 provide for the registration of certain births occurring outside the State. This includes the birth of a child to an Irish citizen in jurisdictions where no registration system exists or the registration records are unavailable, on Irish registered ships and aircraft, to an Irish citizen on foreign ships and aircraft and to members of the Defence Forces and Garda Síochána while serving abroad. The provision for births on aircraft is being introduced for the first time. In addition, this provision addresses the present anomaly where the birth of a child on board an Irish registered ship, in certain circumstances, cannot be registered.

Sections 28 and 29 provide for the registration of stillbirths. In future, parents or a relative may register the stillbirth within 12 months. Currently, only the parents can register the stillbirth within 42 days. The new provisions are being introduced to allow the family of the child more time to undertake the necessary registration procedures while coping with their loss.

Section 30 will require institutions, including hospitals, to notify the local registration authority of the occurrence of each birth and stillbirth. This obligation also falls on doctors and midwives where such events occur outside these locations. This notification will be recorded electronically and will assist parents in their registration obligations at the registrar's office of their choice.

Part 4 of the Bill provides for the registration of adoptions. In future, there will be one adoption register for the registration of all adoptions in the State. Currently, adoptions are registered in either the adopted children's register for adoptions effected within the State, or the foreign adoption register for foreign adoptions. An authorised officer of the Adoption Board will act as registrar for the purposes of these registrations.

Section 35 provides that access to the register of adoptions, or an index, which makes traceable the connection between this register and the register of births will not be available except by order of the Adoption Board or a court order, and only when it is in the best interests of the adopted person concerned to do so. This continues an existing provision. However, the index to the register of adoptions will continue to be accessible.

Part 5 of the Bill concerns the registration of deaths. Section 37 provides that the primary responsibility for the registration of a death remains with the next of kin or persons who would have knowledge of the particulars of the death. This section also extends the list of persons who may provide details of a death to include specified staff of a hospital or institution where the death occurred, and undertakers. The period for registering a death is also being extended from five days to three months from the date of death. In future a death may be registered at any registrar's office. These measures allow greater flexibility for the person responsible for registering a death.

Sections 38 and 39 provide for the registration of deaths which occur on ships, aircraft or deaths of members of the Defence Forces or Garda Síochána while serving abroad. These measures are similar to the provisions of sections 26 and 27 which provide for the registration of certain births occurring outside the State.

Part 6 of the Bill provides for the registration of marriages. I intend to bring forward significant amendments to this part of the Bill on Committee Stage, in order to progress some reform of marriage law, and I will outline these proposals to the House later. There are different requirements to be met, depending on the form of marriage, be it civil or religious. These requirements can be complex and I feel there is a strong need for clarity and simplicity in this area.

The current rule requiring a couple to notify the registrar of marriages of the district at least three months before the intended date of marriage will continue in force. This was introduced in the Family Law Act 1995 in order to give couples intending to marry an opportunity to reflect on the seriousness and importance of the commitment that they are making. Accordingly, section 46 of the Bill provides that three months notification of marriage must be made in person to a registrar and in a prescribed form. The current arrangement whereby a couple may apply to a court for an exemption to the three months notification rule, because of extenuating circumstances, will remain. In specified circumstances a couple will be allowed to submit the three month notification in writing, for example, where the couple is living outside the State. However, in all cases, the couple will be required to attend at the registrar's office at least five days prior to the intended date of marriage to sign an undertaking that there is no lawful impediment to the marriage and to produce other necessary documentation.

Section 48 of the Bill introduces a new marriage registration form. This form will only be produced and given to a couple when they have completed all civil preliminaries for marriage. This is a very important document as no marriage can be solemnised without it. It is to be signed immediately after the ceremony by all the parties to the marriage. Responsibility for returning the completed form to a registrar lies with the couple who must do so within one month of the date of the marriage.

Part 7 of the Bill provides for the registration of decrees of divorce and decrees of nullity by the courts service in new registers in accordance with section 13.

Part 8 contains a number of miscellaneous provisions related to civil registration. Section 52 provides for the introduction of a formal appeals system for the first time. This will allow persons to appeal a decision of a registrar or an authorised officer to an appeals officer of the local registration authority.

Section 53 provides for the conditions necessary for searches of registration records. Civil registration records are a matter of public record. At present anyone can carry out a search and obtain a certificate of any event by payment of a specified fee. The introduction of electronic registers and the electronic capture of all paper-based records will provide easier and faster access to registration records and will improve customer service. The provisions of this section of the Bill allow any person to search the indexes to all the registers and to purchase copies of the records relating to these searches with the exception of the index of stillbirths, and an index which makes traceable the connection between an entry in the register of adoptions and the corresponding entry in the register of births.

Section 58 allows an tArd-Chláraitheoir to share certain registration information for specified purposes with designated Government Departments and agencies. This provision in the Bill will facilitate the sharing of information, reduce form filling and the need for certificates for the administration and control of schemes and services.

Section 59 makes provision for the Minister for Health and Children to make regulations for the charging of fees, for example, for issuing certificates, undertaking the re-registration of an event, marriages, etc.

The required particulars to be entered in the register of births, stillbirths, adoptions, deaths, decrees of divorce and decrees of nullity of marriage are listed in the First Schedule to the Bill. A number of items in addition to those currently recorded are being included in each register. The enactments being repealed are listed in the Second Schedule to the Bill.

In order to produce an updated Bill on civil registration it was necessary to examine existing legislation and identify those provisions which are obsolete, needed to be restated or retained. As a result, including those associated with the amendments to marriage law which I will outline shortly, a total of 28 Acts dating back to 1844 are being repealed in whole or in part. Of this total, 12 Acts were passed in the 19th century. This work alone is a clear example of the Government's commitment to regulatory reform.

As indicated earlier, I intend to bring forward a number of amendments to Part 6 of this Bill, which relates to marriage law, on Committee Stage. These provisions arise from recommendations of the interdepartmental committee on the reform of marriage law. Among the issues identified by the committee as requiring examination was the need for a universally applicable framework of clear and simple procedures to underpin the solemnity of the marriage contract. The amendments make provision for: outlining the substantive requirements for the solemnisation of a valid marriage, and for an interpretation service at the marriage ceremony where necessary; flexibility in respect to the time and venue at which a marriage may take place and for the payment of fees where a civil marriage is conducted by a registrar at a location other than at a registrar's office; and the establishment and maintenance of a new register of solemnisers, which will replace the current register of churches and registered buildings. Only registered solemnisers and members of religious bodies temporarily authorised to do so may solemnise a marriage. The amendments provide for: the procedures to be followed by a religious body or local registration authority when applying to have one of its members entered in the register of solemnisers and to enable an tArd-Chláraitheoir to cancel an entry in this register; the introduction of an appeals system which gives a person the right to appeal a decision of an tArd-Chláraitheoir to refuse to register him or her in the register of solemnisers or cancelling his or her entry in that register; and an tArd-Chláraitheoir to grant a temporary authorisation to a member of a religious body to solemnise a specific marriage or solemnise marriages only within a specified time. This is being provided to facilitate circumstances where, for example, a clergyperson may visit the State specifically to solemnise a marriage of a relative.

The amendments provide for the lodging of an objection to an intended marriage to a registrar, the processing of such an objection, and for an tArd-Chláraitheoir to publish all marriage notifications received. This is being introduced to allow such information to be made available to the public and supports the public and open nature of marriage. They also provide for an tArd-Chláraitheoir to cancel an entry in the register of marriages in certain circumstances.

I wish to advise the House that I will be introducing a number of other amendments to the Bill on Committee Stage including measures to allow for: the registration of stillbirths in specific circumstances on ships and aircraft and to members of the Permanent Defence Forces and Garda Síochána while serving abroad, as well as making provision for the registration of births and stillbirths occurring on board an Irish ship or an Irish aircraft prior to the commencement of the relevant section; some degree of flexibility for the Courts Service in entering details of decrees of divorce and decrees of nullity into the register of decrees of divorce and register of decrees of nullity; the disclosure of information to persons engaged in medical or social research or to health board medical staff with the consent of the Minister for Health and Children — this measure restates an existing provision in section 7 of the Births, Deaths and Marriages Registration Act 1972 which is being repealed; and persons having possession of existing manuscript registers to return these to an tArd-Chláraitheoir. This provision is being introduced to ensure that the old and now obsolete register books are returned to an tArd-Chláraitheoir for security reasons.

The amendments on Committee Stage will also provide: that references to life events specified in the Bill could also refer to such events that could have been, but were not, registered under the enactments repealed; the inclusion in section 61 of additional offences consequent to the marriage law reforms; and the inclusion in Part 5 of the First Schedule for the registration of the occupation of parents or guardians where the deceased is under 18 years of age. This is similar to a provision included in the Social Welfare (Miscellaneous Provisions) Act 2002.

I am also including a provision in this part for the registration of the place of birth of the deceased, and additional repeals of enactments relating to marriage law to be included in the Second Schedule arising from the inclusion in the Bill of the additional reforms in this area. I will also be introducing a number of minor technical amendments to the Bill.

This Bill represents the first major reform of civil registration legislation since it was introduced in Ireland in 1845. It is also a clear demonstration of Government's commitment to regulatory reform. This means that all stakeholders — citizens, service providers and Government — will share in the benefits.

The modernisation of the Civil Registration Service is essential, both in its own right as it seeks to meet the needs of a modern society, but also as part of the Government's overall strategy of improving public services. It heralds a new era for civil registration through the introduction of electronic registration and electronic registers.

Our goal is that the delivery of all State services will meet the challenges of the new century. I commend the Bill to the House and look forward to a constructive debate on it.

Debate adjourned.