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.