I thank the Minister for introducing this Bill, which the Labour Party broadly supports. It is an attempt to modernise the recording of events as one goes through life, from birth to death. It recognises the events that were not pertinent in earlier years, annulments and divorces. Such statistics are important in recording events and information that can be used by Departments and organisations to project what will happen in future. The Bill is an attempt to modernise bureaucratic administration and that is something on which I will elaborate at a later stage because I would be concerned that something might be lost in that.
Part of the thrust of the Bill is to suit the bureaucracy of administration as opposed to recognising the rights of the people involved. If there is some element of help — Deputy Neville referred to this — it is important that registration of guardianship and so on should also be recognised. People, including young children, have rights and it is important that they are recognised. I will refer to that at a later stage. The Bill deals with the administration of the registration of births, stillbirths, adoptions, deaths, marriages, divorce and annulments and introduces some changes. There are other ancillary provisions to bring us out of the 1800s and into this new millennium, and they are important.
As a lawyer I am a strong advocate of codifying and modernising legislation. It is important to do that because it is a major problem. Some of the costs of a lawyer may be linked to the amount of research that must be done, some dating back to 1845. The Taoiseach referred to laws which dated back to 1400 and are applicable today. That is nonsensical. The Government should consider employing more parliamentary draftsmen — I suppose that is what they are still called in a throwback to the old age — to ensure that the legislation is brought up to date, modernised and codified so that the ordinary citizen can understand it. It would eliminate much of the bureaucratic and antiquated language. That cannot be done so handily in the context of titles but it can be done in other areas.
The longer period to effect registration of various events is important and welcome. The five day period is like the three month notice under the 1995 Act. One can apply to the judge and the hearing takes place in camera. I am sure there will be some system whereby one can apply to the appropriate registrar because of specific extenuating circumstances as outlined by Deputy Neville. The fact that it might not be possible to postpone a wedding might represent an extenuating circumstance. I would be disappointed if the legislation did not recognise or vest in the registrar or superintendent the power and discretion to take cognisance of such a situation. In this Bill we recognise the reality of what is happening in that regard.
The system for the registration of births, marriages and deaths in Ireland dates back to at least 1844. That is how it appears from the list of statutes repealed in the Second Schedule to the Bill. The system is one which has evolved naturally over the years. The Labour Party in Government has been vigilant and active in playing its part in that regard. I recall and am proud of the fact that, when we were last in Government, we introduced the Stillbirths Registration Act 1994, to which Deputy Neville referred. It provided, for the first time, a statutory system for the registration of births of stillborn children. This has been of tremendous benefit and comfort to the parents of stillborn children. It would be remiss of me not to acknowledge the tremendous work of the former Deputy and Minister for Equality and Law Reform, Mervyn Taylor, in bringing forward the Act. He is now a member of the Commission on Human Rights.
Another significant innovation introduced by the former Minister, Mr. Taylor, was the Registration of Births Act 1996 which, for the first time, provided a new form of birth certificate which treated mothers and fathers equally. Prior to that, the registration of births system requested information regarding a father's occupation but not a mother's. Furthermore, there was no provision for registration of a surname for a child. In the absence of such a provision, the regulation regarding short birth certificates provided that a child automatically took the father's surname if the parents were married and the mother's if they were not. These outdated provisions were replaced by a modern form of birth certificate by the legislation introduced by the Labour Party in Government. I stand over that principle.
It is a matter of some regret, therefore, that the principle of equal treatment of both parents is being swept away by the Bill and replaced once again by a discriminatory provision which, if I read it correctly and I am open to correction, requires different information in respect of mothers and fathers. The offensive provision in this regard is the new requirement that a mother's marital status be included on a birth or stillbirth registration certificate. This is a regressive measure and one which the Minister should reconsider. While one might have no problem about such information now, it may cause problems for somebody in that situation in future.
A number of aspects of the Bill have received considerable attention. I want to highlight the absence of registration of orders or agreements regarding guardianship. It seems that guardianship is a sufficiently major life event to warrant registration in a formal way. I support calls for the inclusion of guardianship registration in the Bill. On a more general level, however, it is important that we approach the question of the guardianship of children of parents who are not married to each other in a spirit of equality. This has not yet been achieved. While the law has moved in the direction of greater protection for natural parents in recent years, the days of complete equality are still some way off. The aim is to try to achieve this. It is something that falls outside the scope of this Bill. However, the ambit of the Minister's departmental responsibilities is wide in this regard. Given its complexity, it is something to which we should return on a future occasion to ensure that the legitimate entitlements of natural mothers are also recognised.
The failure to make provision for registration of orders or agreements regarding guardianship illustrates a fundamental shortcoming of the Bill, namely, that it is driven by organisational and bureaucratic considerations rather than by ideological motivation. The primary objectives of the Bill are not to facilitate the rights of individuals but the convenience of the system. Accordingly, in a significant number of areas, the Bill fails to come to grips with the fact that individuals have rights — a point Deputy Neville made — which cannot be readily accommodated within the framework of a bureaucratic control mechanism which has traditionally existed and is perpetuated by the Bill. It may seem to some that registration of births, marriages, deaths and other life events is inherently a bureaucratic process and the question of individual rights does not arise. I reject this proposition. It is clear from experience that the registration of life events is a matter of great sensitivity and importance to many individuals. It is important and essential that our administrative systems are geared to the needs of individuals rather than, as the Bill appears to provide, individuals being required to submit to the dictates of the system and the rigid rules it prescribes.
I will give one example of the rigidity of the system contained in the Bill. It provides for appeals against the decision of registrars. At first sight this appears to be a useful provision and, in so far as it goes, I welcome it. On closer inspection, however, the limitations of the appeals system become obvious. Only two categories of decisions can be appealed against, namely, failure to register details which have been supplied and refusal to correct an error. There are many types of dispute which might arise with the registrar which fall outside this provision and in relation to which the Minister makes no provision for appeal.
For example, by virtue of the Schedule 1 to the Bill, the surname of a child is to be that provided in the first instance by the person registering the birth. There may be cases, albeit isolated, but we must try to stretch our minds in that way, where parents wish to give the child a joint surname based on the surnames of both parents but the hospital registers it as, for example, Penrose rather than Penrose-Fitzsimons. In circumstances where the hospital registers the birth with the father's surname only, there is no right vested in the parents to have the surname corrected. The only right that would arise under the Bill would be for the correction of an error, and this is not an error within the meaning of the Bill. The Minister should take cognisance of that. It is a situation that does not arise often but it needs to be taken into account.
There are other areas. Another example I found is where a child is born in an ambulance on the way to the hospital and the registrar registers the birth as occurring on a particular road between two named places. That is not a satisfactory description of the place of birth. It would be far better if the name of a townland were used. In these circumstances a dispute does not appear to constitute an error for the purposes of the Bill. Accordingly appeal procedures will not be available to a parent in such a situation.
Another instance of the narrow and bureaucratic approach taken to disputes is in further appeals to the High Court. The Minister has provided the narrowest form of appeal. The appeal lies in a question of law indicating an intention on the part of the Minister to make the register's determination and question of fact final and conclusive. It is often on a question of fact that the argument arises, not on a question of law. This is inappropriate in any appeal system and it is a matter on which I have strong views.
If one is a barrister by profession and makes an argument, people tend to question one's motives and accuse one of arguing one's own case. Far be it from me to do that and I say that sincerely. I hold no brief for the prolongation of litigation, but there is a worrying and inappropriate trend towards the restriction of the right of appeal to the Supreme Court. This has been removed by the Minister in this Bill.
It is interesting that the right of appeal to the Supreme Court, which was prohibited under the Freedom of Information Act 1997, was restored in the 2003 Act. It would be desirable if other Ministers would take note and follow the same practice.
For all the concern and attention to bureaucratic detail outlined in the Bill, a number of provisions do not seem to have been fully thought out. For example, it is ironic that the primary registration function under the Bill has been given to the health boards, notwithstanding the fact that it is being debated at a time when these bodies are on the endangered species list with a view to their abolition. It is also somewhat strange that the Bill retains many of the 19th century provisions as regards registration such as the requirement that persons registering a birth, for example, must physically attend registration. I accept the elongation of the time period for registration of birth and the widening of the definition of "qualified persons" who can register an event, such as undertakers and so on. However, it would seem to be unlawful to transmit notice of births, or indeed many other events to be registered under this Bill, by means of the post. Whatever excuse there may be for Victorian legislation enacted 1884 not accommodating the penny post, it seems strange that this Bill does not accommodate information transmitted other than in person.
I know there is a degree of urgency about this Bill as court decisions are pending. I welcome the fact that the particular life event can now be registered anywhere and that it is not prescribed by the geographical area in which it occurs. The issue of a certificate is vitally important. I acknowledge the Minister has done work as regards the immediacy of registration that will now take place following the birth of a child. This has a bearing on aspects of children's allowance. It may now be the case that if a child is registered the children's allowance will arrive within three or four days. It will be automatic in the case of a second child because of computerised records. I am always wary as to where the information will be available, however. Everyone says it is great to have the PPS number, but I hope that the provision of the Data Protection Act 1988 will apply to certain important information that is personal. There is a certain sensitivity about some information and it is important that this should be respected.
We received some information from the Genealogical Society of Ireland. I noted a recent article from that source on the importance of what the society does. It is an independent voluntary non-governmental organisation which promotes the study of genealogy, heraldry and social historical subjects. It has an Irish and international membership. Likewise the Irish Genealogical Research Society has been examining this area. It has campaigned for a civil registration Bill for many years and kept up the pressure for the introduction of a comprehensive structure of legislation for Irish civil registration that caters for the requirements of a modern technological environment and meets the needs of researchers of many disciplines, including genealogy.
I read an article recently by a member of the Irish Genealogical Research Society. We lost records from the Public Record Office in 1922 and that was obviously a blow to genealogical research. Nevertheless, the point was made that a substantial and voluminous body of civil records dating back to 1845 remains. It was only in 1864 that legislation first came into force to compel the registration in Ireland of all births, deaths and marriages. Death registration has remained virtually unchanged since 1964. Currently, nothing is being recorded about the date or place of birth or parents' names. This is a weakness in the current civil record. In the case of marriage registrations it is only since 1956 that the dates of birth of both parties have been recorded in full as well as their parents' names. It is important to insert the maximum amount of information in the records, particularly death registration.
The Bill, as drafted, contains a provision to record a deceased person's date of birth, but the Irish Genealogical Research Society and indeed the Genealogical Society of Ireland advocate the insertion of more details such as a person's place of birth. I support this because one's place of birth is of historical and familial important. My own name is virtually confined to the Midlands. The Americans will find one, nonetheless. They will find a gravestone and trace the connection and establish a relationship. The name might be Murphy, O'Connor or whatever. Locally, people might be known as Black Jack, Red Sean or Micky Joe, but for people trying to trace their ancestors the place of birth is paramount.
On reading the Bill last night, I thought the Minister was acceding to this request. I was prepared to challenge the argument that there was no need to record the place of birth as the computerised system could make links of all civil records through the use of the PPS number. This is absolutely critical because it is only future registrations that will include the PPS number. From that point onwards the linkage will be in place.
We are only complying with UN legislation. The model civil registration law includes precisely date and place of birth etc. Only one other EU country, Greece, does not have a model system. Northern Ireland has had all the relevant paraphernalia in place for the last 31 years as regards deceased persons' places of birth and it causes no difficulties. In this legislation it is important we reflect the norms that pertain in most other jurisdictions as regards the inclusion of the place as well as the date of birth in the death registration process. That point has been made by Michael Merrigan on behalf of the Genealogical Society of Ireland. The society has done excellent work which should be acknowledged. We used this Bill to advance a number of the points he made.
As Deputy Neville said, the birth certification process should permit the recording of an option to have an Irish language version of the baby's forename and surname as supplied by the parents. This would, obviously, provide a legal recognition of the English and Irish version of the person's name, enabling him or her to use either or both during the course of his or her lifetime. It is important that the Irish version of the name is duly recorded.
The third point was that the registration system in Ireland which is now multi-ethnic and multi-cultural should provide for the recording of the traditional naming patterns of minority groups within the State, including names applied at certain stages of life or religious names. That should be optional and at the behest of the parents or guardians. It is important we take cognisance of that point.
The fourth point — Deputy Neville referred to this — is that the Bill does not specifically state that public search facilities will be situated in the city of Dublin. Successive Ministers have assured the genealogical community that such a facility will be maintained in Dublin and they are anxious that this be reflected in the text of the Bill. As it stands, the public search facility might only be available in cyber-space and might be limited to a credit card based pay-per-view service. That is the worst of all options. We want to ensure that will not be the end result.
My fifth point relates to the fact that the Bill is unclear on the nature of any public accessibility of future civil registration records. It creates an opportunity to provide for a definition of historical records and permits same to be transferred to the National Archives following 70 years. This should be a feature of the legislation. I appreciate the Minister may feel such a provision extends beyond the scope of this legislation. Nevertheless, we should respect that those involved in this area know the situation. This would indicate that microfilm copies of GRO records of births, marriages and deaths would be transferred each year from the General Register Office to the National Archives to facilitate research on these records in a non-fragmented format. A computerised format will not facilitate certain localised searches which are important in medical, demographic, labour, social and genealogical research.
The above points are reasonably made and we should take cognisance of them. I make my points in the spirit of partnership and of trying to improve the Bill and I hope the Minister will take some of them on board. As legislators, we are obliged to examine the legislation to see if we can improve upon it.
The Bill also reflects and brings into being matters already provided for in the Status of Children Act. It is important that a reflection of current reality is outlined in this Bill. The matter of devolution of authority to superintendents is also important. It is critical that death certificates are issued as quickly as possible. I have raised this matter with the Minister before. I know death certificates cannot be released until the medical staff have written in the cause of death but it is important the process is expedited. A significant number of people require death certificates within a short time, particularly if they wish to gain access to funding from banks and so on to pay for outgoings. One of the marks of elderly people — people like myself in the middle age group are a little slower to pay up immediately and instead obtain the maximum amount of credit — is that they like to deal with matters as soon as possible. Such a provision is important to them. A positive and notable advantage of the new registration system will be an acceleration in the process of issuing certificates.
One is now required to attend a particular register office five days before the date of intention to marry. Obviously, that is to ensure one is not aware of any impediment to one's marriage. I am sure the legislation makes provision in that regard. One is also required to have two witnesses of at least 18 years of age. That brings into line the substantive requirements of the solemnisation of a valid marriage. The flexibility in terms of venues where a marriage can take place will necessitate the issue of guidelines. Obviously, the church will prescribe its own guidelines in this area. I would like the Minister's views on what type of venues will be permitted under the flexibility clause which I broadly welcome.
On the devolution of powers, will the Minister say what decisions will now be appealable to an tArd-Chláraitheoir who might refuse to register people who make an application to him or her to be included in the register of solemnised marriages? On what basis could the right of appeal be affected?
Despite my misgivings on some of the shortcomings of the Bill, I broadly welcome and support it. I give notice that I intend to bring forward amendments on Committee Stage with a view to addressing some of the inadequacies I have identified today. The Bill is timely and it will modernise an extremely important area. I ask the Minister to ensure the availability of information and to take cognisance of the various sensitivities in terms of events which are important to people.