I commend the Bill to the House and am glad to see that Deputy Seán Ryan is supporting it. I commend him for his public acknowledgement in the House of the changing nature of Irish society and of its multiethnic character, which we both see in our constituencies. Furthermore, I commend him for recognising the need to respect ethnic and religious diversity. It is important that Members acknowledge this, especially because there is in Ireland a worrying trend of racism against ethnic minorities who come to our shores to work and make a living. It is important that we acknowledge that no party in the House has chosen to abuse this particular issue in a niggardly and awful way through racism or sought to build votes around a racist platform.
This Bill represents a milestone. The last time we had legislation of this kind was in 1845, a time in our history that presaged the famine and mass emigration. The famine was a tragic event in our history, and the population went into decline thereafter. It was also a period of failure in economic and social terms. In recent decades we have gladly seen a complete resurgence in our fortunes to the extent that we are now introducing a Bill that consolidates previous legislation, brings new technologies to bear on the essential and eternal issues of birth, marriage and death and mirrors the social complexity about which Deputy Seán Ryan spoke.
The Bill also contains an idea that perhaps would never have been envisaged in 1844 or 1845, namely, that of formalising the approach to adoption, nullity and divorce. These are the modern eternals that accompany the other eternal human milestones that define our lives and society. It is important that we acknowledge that our population is again climbing and that it may not be long until we achieve the population we had attained prior to the famine. This is a great indicator of success and a great tribute to the many political parties in the House that have led this new State since independence. This Bill is, in a way, an expression of our sovereignty as a country, state and nation. We are again asserting our sovereignty in the all-essential areas of birth, marriage and death. It may not be a controversial Bill — there is all-party agreement on it — but it marks a very significant milestone in our social development.
It is instructive to note that the United State enjoys pre-eminence in the increasingly global economy that now obtains, to the extent that it is responsible for 35% of the world's economic activity. One of the main reasons America, particularly the United States, has achieved this pre-eminence is because of its assiduous routine collection of data on its own society, ranging from the very ordinary to the extraordinary. It is important that our society, which is successful and has full employment, rediscovers its interest in this particular area because, for years, particularly during the 1970s and 1980s, which were characterised by economic failure, there was also a systemic failure in the collection of basic raw information about our society, economy, people and their way of living.
I am glad the Central Statistics Office has achieved a huge increase in its budget in recent years and that we are now seeing proper, reliable statistics that can inform the work of policymakers and lawmakers in their daily work in the House and the work of civil servants outside the House in support of what we do. This Bill will only add to our capability in this regard and afford to us reliable information about our population at the touch of a button. I hope it can be made available to all Departments when there is a relevant issue to be inquired into. This is an extremely important part of the Bill. For the first time, we are using the new technology in the area of data capture and I hope it will be put to the service of policy development in the future.
I commend the Minister for Social and Family Affairs, Deputy Coughlan, for her initiatives in this regard. Her Department has been a fantastic, innovative Department in the area of developing new technology and transparent, accountable and properly functioning systems of data collection, thus allowing the ordinary citizens who rely so often on us as public representatives to vindicate their rights regarding many social services. If we can master and develop this data collection system better, public representatives will not have to be in the position they are in week in, week out, whereby they have to intervene and gain access to the system to vindicate very basic rights and entitlements where a citizen feels he or she has been denied them because of poor paperwork or mistakes that have been made, however inadvertently. It is important that this Bill goes a great distance towards doing this.
The Bill also helps us clarify the changing nature of our society. Deputy Seán Ryan rightly pointed this out in terms of marriage statistics and the changing nature of fatherhood and parenthood. The decline evident in our marriage statistics is remarkable, as is the growth in single parenthood. Instead of being conservative and looking at this as some sort of terrible thing, it is important to consider the more optimistic side. For instance, the statistics clearly show that many single parents enter a married or settled relationship within five years of their becoming single parents. According to one particular survey, two thirds of them do so. It is not all bad news, yet there is a tendency among the more conservative elements in this House and society in general to look with great trepidation at these changing social norms in terms of marriage, including second marriages, etc. We have to be open to the idea that it is not just a negative development and that it may, in the longer term, prove to be somewhat more positive than we now believe it to be.
The Minister, who is a new Minister in the Cabinet, should be commended for the speed at which she is implementing this change in a Department that has generally innovated in terms of technology and made basic entitlements much more accessible. However, there is still a long way to go in this regard. The central register, as it develops under the framework set out in this Bill, will allow for the steady rolling out of those entitlements in a proper and transparent manner. The fact that 40% of the work associated with the old register involved the generation of paper certificates is very instructive and underlines for us the huge importance we should attach to e-government and making our State one of the best in the world at providing electronic payments and information in a timely and proper way. This will give us a distinct advantage as we go forward, not just in respect of social services and their provision but also in respect of the private sector.
I hope that within the lifetime of this Government, or its successor, we will be able to transact at least 90% of our business electronically, both in the private and public sectors. This would afford a significant competitive advantage to the country. We have a strong, literate, well-educated population relative to other countries, particularly the countries acceding to the European Union in May under our Presidency. We have a significant, embedded advantage in terms of literacy, general intelligence and educational qualifications and we should adopt electronic systems as fast as possible because it will be to our advantage economically, socially and in terms of vindicating the rights of the citizen. Given that we are a republic, this should be the central focus of all our efforts in this House and the efforts of all policymakers and civil servants. We are here to serve the public and ensure they get the basic information to which they are entitled as quickly as possible. I commend the Minister for Social and Family Affairs for establishing a committee in the Department to examine the effects of the public service identity number on other Departments. It is a positive development. The committee should examine the idea of a smart card for public services.
Last weekend the former leader of the Labour Party, Deputy Quinn, stated he supported the possible introduction of an identity card. It is crazy that we do not have one. We are an open country but, in this era of transparency and greater accountability, it is important that there should be an identity card system in order that people are not detained for too long by law enforcement agencies when their identity must be established. If people have nothing to hide, they should present their identity card and move on. It was refreshing to hear a former leader of the Labour Party advocating such a system. When I lived in England in the 1980s, there was a debate on an identity card system and those on the libertarian right and the far left came together in an unholy alliance to suggest that it was wrong and an intrusion on the part of the state into a person's individual freedoms. I fundamentally disagree. It is good to hear that Deputy Quinn advocates such a system.
When we are collecting statistics and information about the population, it is important that there is system in place to vindicate rights quickly on production of an identity card. The smart card is designed to improve service delivery but once there is proper data protection, we should consider the introduction of an identity card. It would assist all State agencies in their dealings with citizens, from law enforcement to the Department of Social and Family Affairs and from the Revenue Commissioners to immigration officers at airports who are seeking to establish if people have the right to be in the country.
I also welcome the answer of the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform to a parliamentary question I asked yesterday on this topic. In the past two years 11,000 people who sought to remain here illegally were turned away or removed from the country. That is a good sign because it is wrong that nationals or non-nationals who have a legitimate right to be here are subject to a question mark about their presence as a result of illegal immigration. We must get tough on illegal immigration, an issue that affects all of Europe.
Many speakers have referred to the sensitivity of the new provisions on stillbirths. They are positive and proper and allow hospital doctors and midwives, where births occur outside the institutions, to register them. They also allow for an extended period for people to register such tragic losses. Those who go through this experience a great deal of trauma and it is important that the State is not too rigorous and extends the period of notification.
I welcome the fact that the identity of a person who gives up a child for adoption will not be made known except through a court order or an instruction of the Adoption Board, a positive development that has been confirmed in the Bill. It would be invidious if the situation were otherwise.
Our population is rising once more and, as we try to consolidate the economic and social success of recent years, we must harness this system and use it properly for the efficient delivery of services. We must answer constituents' questions about entitlements but all Deputies accept that we would prefer not to be involved in such work. We must establish a State system that reflects our modernity and wealth. Transparent and efficient delivery of public services for citizens, proper systems of appeal and proper data collection are at the heart of that idea. If we do not collect the information properly, we will not be able to develop systems that benefit the citizen and society to the maximum extent. I served with the late Deputy Jim Mitchell on the Committee of Public Accounts and we were astounded week after week when we questioned Departments at the absence of recorded information. We often found policy was arrived without the requisite information or its close examination that should inform every decision made by the State or one of its agencies. It is vital that we get our act together.
The Bill is a major milestone. For the first time since 1845 we are taking responsibility as a State and rigorously collecting our own information. I support an identity card system. It would be a positive move and overcome the recent decision of the courts that an Irish-born person can be asked for evidence of identity but someone who is potentially an illegal immigrant with no right to be here cannot be challenged. We must correct that decision to ensure everyone enjoys the same rights and that those who are entitled to be here are granted their rights quickly. There is a whole industry in the House of our vindicating the rights of citizens that have been improperly denied. It would be better for the State as a whole if we were not involved in such work and spent more time on policy and decision-making.
I commend the Bill and compliment the Minister for Social and Family Affairs on the work she is doing. She is a Minister of great promise and will go far because she has conducted herself with efficiency and aplomb in this difficult role. In the 1980s no one wanted to be the Minister in charge of social welfare and it is indicative of the changes that have occurred in our fortunes that no aspirant to ministerial office would object to being appointed to the Department of Social and Family Affairs.
The Department has also transformed itself from the bad old days when it grudgingly granted people their entitlements. There is a transparent system for the explaining and granting of rights, a major change for which the civil servants in the Department deserve credit. Members must deal with all Departments and dealings with the Department of Social and Family Affairs are always positive. The same cannot be said of certain other Departments in terms of their response times to our many and detailed queries. I commend the Department on its work. I congratulate the Minister and I commend the Bill to the House. It is not greatly controversial. It rightly enjoys cross-party support.
We are dealing with the great eternals, birth, marriage and death. I welcome the continuance of the three-month notification requirement in terms of marriage. I wonder, though, whether it takes from the romance of the situation because there is now no possibility of a "quickie" marriage in Ireland. It must be a long bureaucratic delayed process, albeit involving new technology. Britney Spears would have difficulty getting married in Ireland.