Births, Deaths and Marriages Registration Bill, 1972: Second and Subsequent Stages.

Question proposed: "That the Bill be now read a Second Time."

The Births, Deaths and Marriages Bill, 1972, will effect certain amendments of the registration code and will enable improvements of the arrangements for registering births, deaths and marriages to be carried out including improvements in the associated documentation.

The existing system has been in operation for over a century and in that period a dependable service of high standard has been built up. Persons associated with the registration service have reason to be satisfied with their efforts towards achieving this end. But the time has come to make certain important changes and I trust the House will agree with me that these changes cannot be delayed and must be made if the registration service is to maintain the standards and at the same time meet modern needs.

The question has been asked how comprehensive our statistics of births, deaths and marriages are. In so far as births are concerned, we are achieving 100 per cent registration, or close to it, which is highly satisfactory. Less satisfactory is the fact that the registration is sometimes delayed until a birth certificate is actually needed for some purpose. Marriage registration is, as one might expect, comprehensive in its coverage. Death registration, on the other hand, gives cause for considerable concern and far too many deaths are not being registered at all. This is particularly the case in rural areas in respect of old people who do not own property or have no life insurance. Precise figures are impossible to come by but, from studies undertaken, it is clear that there are areas where under-registration of deaths is of the order of 7 per cent to 8 per cent.

Any short-fall in registration of births, marriages or deaths, or even undue delays in effecting registrations, reduces the effectiveness of our vital statistics and, if these figures are not reliable and well based, our social planning will operate under a grievous handicap. I do not have to underline the importance of this or indeed the part which accurate vital statistics play over a wide range of social planning.

The Bill, when enacted, will effect various organisational improvements designed to help towards achieving 100 per cent registration of all events. But I would appeal to members of the public to appreciate the need for a full and complete registration service and to co-operate fully in making the necessary registrations promptly and accurately.

On the detailed provisions of the Bill, subsection (1) (a) of section 2 authorises the chief executive officers of health boards to make appointments as registrar as vacancies occur. The vacancies will be those which exist at the passing of the Act or which arise subsequently. Existing permanent registrars are not affected and they will continue to hold office on the same terms as hitherto. I should explain that we have at present some 650 registration districts dealing with the registration of births, deaths and Catholic marriages—there are registrars of marriages other than Catholic marriages also and their districts are another matter.

These registration districts are generally coterminous with the dispensary districts in which the dispensary service functioned. Such a large number of registration districts is unnecessary nowadays and indeed is often a handicap. For example, over 400 districts or 60 per cent of the total are called upon to register less than 50 events in the year and all told they deal with less than 10 per cent of registrations. Registrars in those small districts have not the variety or volume of registration to become expert in dealing with the unusual cases which can arise. This in turn means that the central registration office in Dublin is called upon to intervene to deal with cases which a local registrar with a reasonably wide span of work would be competent to deal with. This in turn leads to inconvenience and delays for members of the public. It seems quite clear that the needs of the service could be adequately met by halving the number of registration districts now in operation. I would hope to achieve this by amalgamating smaller districts as vacancies arise. This amalgamation would, incidentally, give a wider range of work to the registrars of the expanded districts.

I would also see the amalgamation process as leading to the establishment of registration offices open during normal office hours in each major centre of population. These offices are a feature of the registration services provided in other countries and would be more effective in populated areas than the present service on the basis of one or two hours attendance on mornings of the week in a number of scattered locations. I must emphasise, however, that I will keep the convenience of the public at all times to the fore and if, say, the low density of population in areas in the west calls for retaining small sized districts they will be retained in those areas. Subsection (1) (b) of section 2 removes a lien which dispensary doctors have had up to now on registration posts, and with its removal the amalgamation process can proceed. Subsection (1) of section 2 also has the effect of bringing within the administrative ambit of chief executive officers the registration service at local level for the first time. Health boards already exercise responsibility for general supervision of the registration service in their area and also act as superintendent or regional registrar. The new provision would, in time, therefore complete the rationalisation process in respect of the registration service.

With regard to subsection (2) of section 2 it is proposed to continue the present arrangement whereby the existing registrars hold their appointments from an tArd-Chláraitheoir as it would not be feasible or desirable to alter that arrangement. This being so, it would not be practicable to apply a different basis of tenure of office to registrars who will be appointed to future vacancies. Because the new appointments are being made by chief executive officers it is therefore necessary to exclude the appointees from the usual provisions about offices under health boards.

Section 3 deals with problem cases which cause personal distress and hardship and which arises occasionally. Old persons sometimes find that their birth has never been registered and a statutory informant is no longer available, for one reason or another, to attend and sign the register. At present such events cannot be registered. Section 3 will provide some answer to this problem. If the individual is able to produce satisfactory evidence of the particulars which are usually registered, an tArd-Chláraitheoir will have discretion to register the birth. But if there is not satisfactory evidence, the birth cannot be registered. In other words the section goes as far as possible to meet the difficulty while insisting, at the same time, on maintaining the high ethical standard of the registration system.

Section 4 deals with other registration difficulties. It covers certain births or deaths which occur outside the State where the person born was the child of an Irish citizen domiciled in this State or the person dead was an Irish citizen domiciled in the State. It will make possible the registration in Ireland of such events where, for example, there are no records available in foreign countries, either because there is no registration system, or the records may have been destroyed by fire, or accident, or in war.

Section 5 will permit the Minister, by regulations, to make an important change from the present cumbersome statutory requirements about registration forms. In the Registration Acts the contents of these forms is itemised and set out in specific detailed terms and their incorporation in ledgers required and so on. These requirements are out of date and must be changed if we are to take advantage of modern recording techniques, micro filming, automatic data processing and so on. Regulations made under the section can require persons other than the present statutory informants to notify registrars of events with which they are concerned and, for example, undertakers may be required to notify a registrar before a burial. This procedure could help to reduce the number of unregistered deaths which I mentioned earlier.

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

Regarding section 7 it has transpired that subsection (5) of section 2 of the Vital Statistics and Births, Deaths and Marriages Registration Act, 1952, was drawn too tightly. That subsection prevents any person engaged in collecting, publishinget cetera, vital statistics from disclosing information relating to any identifiable persons unless for the purposes of a prosecution under that Act. This has made for certain difficulties for medical and social research workers. Medical and other professional bodies have pressed for amendments of the section and have indicated that the restriction operates against the best interest of the community health and welfare and hampers research work. I am satisfied that the case they have made is well founded and, accordingly, I am, in section 7, seeking authority to disclose information to meet this type of situation subject to conditions which the Minister will, in each case, lay down. Applications will be considered on their merits and will be acceded to only if the public good so requires and I shall see to it that confidentiality in the real sense is preserved.

I would therefore ask the House to endorse the Bill now before it.

This House will generally welcome this Bill but there may be certain points that need clarification. Section 2 states that the chief executive officer of the health board shall appoint the person to hold the office of registrar. It would seem from the explanatory memorandum that the health board will not have to pay this person. I take it that this is true. Another point with which I should like to deal is whether the Minister is satisfied that the registration of illegitimate births is properly covered or whether he can go any further in ensuring that the registration of these births would be properly carried out and in whose name they should be so done.

He mentioned that the person involved in funeral arrangements notifies the registrar. Most people nowadays use undertakers, but some people may not use them for one reason or another. It may be more appropriate to the Department of Justice to investigate why an undertaker was not used or why a proper report to the registrar was not given on the cause of the death of the person. Is there any method by which that can be got around?

Towards the end of the penultimate paragraph of the Minister's speech he says:

because the new appointments have been made by chief executive officer it is therefore necessary to exclude the appointees from the usual provisions about offices under health boards.

Perhaps the Minister would expand on that to some extent when he is replying. Can the registrar be appointed from the staff of a health board by the CEO? The CEO usually can so appoint him, and therefore he comes under the jurisdiction of the registrar general. I presume the payment is going to come from that source rather than from the health board.

The health board can assign health board staff under the directions and control of the registrar.

And the health board will not be paying for that?

I shall deal with that in my reply.

As regards the question of the restrictions which were in existence up to now, the Minister is trying to reduce these restrictions in order to allow medical and social research workers access to more details about various people. This is tied up with means tests in the sense that we are introducing another investigator into the privacy of homes. I have always maintained that one investigator is sufficient to cover the whole gamut of investigation, whether it is for the purpose set out here by the Minister for Health or for other health purposes, social welfare or housing purposes. One competent investigator should be able to deal with all this to cut out the multiplicity of investigators visiting homes. It is the poorer sections of the community that will object to this.

It may be that for medical reasons a special investigator would have to be provided. I understand this particular situation, but I am still loath to increase the number of investigators going into houses. The outcry against means tests at the present moment is not because a means test is objected to; it is the number of investigators going into homes and taking down the same particulars. One can understand this when it is being done for research purposes and when a specially qualified person investigates. Investigations should be reduced to the minimum by the employment of a proper investigator.

In general I welcome this Bill. I do not think that anybody can have any serious objection to it. I am sure the Minister will explain the few points I have made.

I should like to welcome the Bill. It is a serious matter when births or deaths are not notified to the registrar. It is only when you are called upon as a public representative to help somebody who is making a claim for an old age pension that you realise the difficulties in regard to non-registration. I am aware of a few cases in my own county where people about to leave this country on holidays made application for a passport and were shocked to find that, so far as the records were concerned, they never existed. It is well that there is some attempt made to eliminate any recurrence of that. Would it be possible, through the news media or some other way, to remind people to ask if their births have been registered? This is easier to ascertain through the information of a live person than through some widow who finds herself in a difficult position when her husband dies and she discovers he has never been registered.

The Minister has gone a long way in helping people with regard to death certificates. Sometimes when people died of accidents the coroner delayed the inquest. Maybe he had some valid reason, but that delay often created great hardship for the widow who was seeking a gratuity or pension. That is eliminated now. The transfer to the CEO of the function of appointing a registrar will, in my opinion, improve the position. It is well to know that people who are already registrars will maintain that position until they arrive at a certain age.

There is a situation existing in Limerick where one can obtain a death certificate only on Tuesdays. If you are not there before 3 o'clock you must wait until the following Tuesday. I welcome the Bill.

I thank the House for their kindly reception of this Bill. Senator Belton asked in relation to section 2 if the health boards pay the salaries of registrars. Some elements of the salary are payable by health boards. This expenditure ranks for recoupment in respect of health services in the usual way. The health boards also get the fees from the public for birth and other certificates.

Would it cover the cost?

I imagine it would. Senator Belton also asked whether the registration of births is satisfactory. I am told by the registration office that this is so. He asked about the remote rural areas where there may be no undertaker. There are some areas where this happens. We would have to consider how to deal with this. It might be possible to engage the interest of the caretaker of the burial ground in relation to the operation of the Bill.

Senator O'Brien suggested that we need some strengthening of the registration arrangements by reminding people that their births should be registered, but this is really not necessary. We are receiving almost 100 per cent registration of births. Section 3 of the Bill will go towards meeting the problem of where the birth was not registered until late in life.

Senator O'Brien also raised the question of coroner's inquests causing delays in relation to registration. It does take time to organise an inquest, so some delay must occur. However, if the inquest cannot be finalised rapidly, a system exists for registering deaths before the completion of the inquest under the present legislation.

Senator Belton asked about the investigators. When we make use of the section in the Bill which provides for research we will be careful to ensure that anything that is undertaken will be conducted in a reasonable way. The object is to carry out research in relation to the age at which people die from certain diseases and the location of diseases and deaths therefrom in relation to soil or water conditions. I guarantee that we will exercise discreation so that people will not feel they are being invaded by yet one more investigator of means or conditions. In many cases letters can be written to people in advance in regard to this matter.

Question put and agreed to.
Agreed to take remaining Stages today.
Bill put through Committee, reported without amendment, received for final consideration and passed.
The Seanad adjourned at 4.25 p.m. until 3 p.m. on Wednesday, 29th November, 1972.