Tá lúcháir orm a bheith ar ais arís sa Seanad agus gabhaim buíochas as ucht seans a thabhairt dom an Bille tábhachtach a chur os comhair an Tí.
I am pleased to bring the Civil Registration Bill 2003 before the House. The Bill 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 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 and solemnisation of marriage and venues for marriage; and facilitate the future linking of life events.
Civil registration was introduced 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. This 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 birth and ending when our death is registered. In between these events, civil registration affects us directly, as in the case of marriage, or indirectly when certificates are required for many of the services 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 as well as major developments in technology and increased expectations by citizens as to how public services should be delivered. In 2003, more than 110,000 life events were registered, approximately 500,000 certificates produced and some 1.2 million searches of registration records carried out.
Recognising the importance of civil registration and acknowledging the changing needs of 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; the redesign of business processes and procedures; capturing and storing in electronic format all paper-based records from 1845 onwards; and the reform of legislation which has given rise to the Bill.
A key step in the process was the publication of a consultation document entitled, Bringing Civil Registration into the 21st Century, which sets out the context and proposed future approach to civil registration and related services. The purpose of the document was to engage with as wide a range of organisations and individuals as possible with regard to the proposals to modernise the service. Approximately 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.
Substantial tangible and intangible benefits will arise 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 Departments and agencies; the facilitation of long-standing plans to decentralise the General Register Office toRoscommon; and reducing the demand for paper certificates for the purposes of Government services.
As part of the groundwork for the programme of modernisation, Senators 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.
The 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 the Government's commitment to improving the way services are organised, integrated and delivered to customers, my Department initiated a number of significant programmes, including the civil registration modernisation project; the development of the REACH inter-agency messaging service; the 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 inter-agency 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 with effect from the end of February.
The service delivery modernisation programme aims to deliver a high quality, proactive service to customers. The redesign 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 which establishes a child's public service identity; the creation of family links on the national central database for all citizens, the client records system which is administered by my Department; and initiation of a child benefit claim for first born children and automatic payment for second and subsequent children in a family. For example, payment of child benefit in respect of a baby born and registered by the civil registration system on Monday is made by Thursday or alternatively the mother is contacted by my Department, 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, therefore, is a flagship initiative in providing life-centred services to customers. The visible improvement from the customer's 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 will outline the provisions contained in the Bill and, as Members will already have 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 Cunta — and Oifig an Ard-Chláraitheora. Section 13 provides powers for an tArd-Chláraitheoir to establish and maintain registers of births, stillbirths, adoptions, deaths, marriages, divorce and civil nullity, the last two mentioned being new registers. In the 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 the health boards who 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 their area. This Part also contains a number of provisions which facilitate the delegation of certain functions, for example, 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 current time limit of 42 days will be extended to three months. In future, births may be registered with any registrar as opposed to the current 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 and stillbirths occurring outside the State. This includes the birth or stillbirth 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 the Garda Síochána while serving abroad. The provision relating to births and stillbirths on aircraft is being introduced for the first time. In addition, this provision addresses the current anomaly where the birth or stillbirth 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. Adoptions are currently 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 the 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 of a court which is satisfied that such access is in the best interests of the adopted person concerned. This continues an existing provision.
Senators will be aware that at the instigation of my colleague, the Minister of State at the Department of Health and Children, Deputy Brian Lenihan, a wide-ranging consultation process on adoption legislation, including information and post-adoption contact, was carried out in the second half of 2003. The findings from that process are being examined and proposals to amend the legislation to make it more compatible with Irish society today are being developed and will be circulated for observations before legislative proposals are brought to Government. Pending the outcome of that process, access to the existing manual indexes will be maintained for the present.
Part 5 of the Bill concerns the registration of deaths. Section 37 provides that the primary responsibility for registering 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 and aircraft or deaths of members of the Defence Forces or the 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 and stillbirths occurring outside the State.
Part 6 of the Bill provides for reform of the law in respect of marriage. The provisions arise from recommendations of the inter-departmental 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. There are different requirements to be met, depending on the form of marriage whether it is civil or religious. These requirements can be complex and there is a strong need for clarity and simplicity in this area. The current rule that requires 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 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 are living outside the State. However, in all such 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.
This section also facilitates an tArd-Chláraitheoir to publish all marriage notifications received. This measure allows such information to be made available to the public and supports the public and open nature of marriage. 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. Section 49 provides for the registration of marriages which is to be effected by either of the married couple by giving the completed marriage registration form to the registrar within one month of the marriage taking place.
Section 50 provides that if a marriage registration form is not returned within 56 days of the date of marriage, the registrar can pursue the matter by issuing a reminder to the couple requiring the return of the form within a further 14 days. This follow-up measure is intended to ensure that the marriage is registered as soon as possible after its solemnisation.
Section 51 of the Bill outlines the substantive requirements for the solemnisation of a valid marriage. It also provides for an interpretation service at the marriage ceremony, where necessary. Section 52 is concerned with the venues and times that a marriage can take place. It allows a marriage to be solemnised at a place and time agreed by the couple and the solemniser. The section also provides for the payment of fees by the couple where a civil marriage is conducted by a registrar at a location other than the registrar's office.
Section 53 provides for an tArd-Chláraitheoir to establish and maintain a new register of solemnisers, which will replace the current register of churches and buildings. Only registered solemnisers and members of religious bodies temporarily authorised to do so may solemnise a marriage. Section 54 outlines 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. Section 55 enables an tArd-Chláraitheoir to cancel an entry in the register of solemnisers and provides for the procedures involved in doing so.
Section 56 introduces an appeals system which gives a person the right to appeal an tArd-Chláraitheoir's decision to refuse to register him or her in the register of solemnisers or to cancel his or her entry in that register. Section 57 allows an tArd-Chláraitheoir to grant a temporary authorisation to a member of a religious body to solemnise a specific marriage or to solemnise marriages within a specified time only. This measure is being provided to facilitate, for example, a clergy person who wishes to visit the State specifically to solemnise the marriage of a relative. Section 58 provides for the lodging of an objection to an intended marriage to a registrar and for the processing of such an objection.
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 of the Bill contains a number of miscellaneous provisions relating to civil registration. Section 60 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 61 provides for the conditions necessary for searches of registration records. Civil registration records are a matter of public record. Anyone can carry out a search and obtain a certificate of any event, excluding stillbirths, by paying 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 will allow any person to search the indexes to all the registers and to purchase copies of the records relating to the 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 66 allows an tArd-Chláraitheoir to share certain registration information for specified purposes with designated Departments and agencies. This provision will facilitate the sharing of information, reduce form filling and the need for certificates for the administration and control of schemes and services. Section 67 makes provision for the Minister for Health and Children to make regulations for the charging of fees. For example, fees may be charged for issuing certificates or for undertaking the re-registration of an event, such as a marriages.
The particulars required 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. It was necessary, in order to produce an updated Bill on civil registration, to examine existing legislation and to identify provisions which are obsolete or need to be restated or retained. Of the 28 Acts, dating back to 1844, which are being repealed in whole or in part, 12 were passed in the 19th century. This work is a clear example of the Government's commitment to regulatory reform.
This Bill is the first major reform of civil registration legislation since it was introduced here in 1845. It is a clear demonstration of the Government's commitment to regulatory reform. All stakeholders — citizens, service providers and the Government — will share the benefits. The modernisation of the civil registration service is essential 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 effectively. I commend the Bill to the House and I look forward to the forthcoming debate.