Private Registrar Services.

I raise the question of the need for the Minister for Health and Children to indicate whether the function of the interim registrars who register births, marriages and deaths, especially in the Western Health Board area, will continue to operate in the future. If not, will the Minister outline the redundancy package offered to them?

This is a vexed question for members of the community who have offered a sterling service registering births, marriages and deaths. This method of registration is prevalent in the Western Health Board area, particularly in my county. Private registrars have entered into this arrangement with enthusiasm and have done their work in a professional manner and at a very low cost to the health board and to the Government. Private registrars can register a birth or death for less than 50 cent, before tax.

The future position of these registrars is not secure. They want to know if their position will continue into the future. They are more than willing to continue to offer this very worthwhile service. If not, they want to know what redundancy package the health board or the Department will offer. These questions have been asked many times in the Dáil and Seanad. I hope the Minister of State will not give the same vague answer which has been given so often in recent years. I hope he has something worthwhile to offer which will appease these people, who want to work for the State but who want to know what remuneration package the Government has put in place for them. I hope the Minister of State will give me good news which I can bring back to my constituency.

Births, stillbirths and Roman Catholic marriages are registered by the registrar of births, deaths and marriages for the district in which the event occurred, as provided in the Births and Deaths Registration Acts 1863 to 1996 and the Registration of Marriages Act 1863. As the Senator is aware the provisions of the new Civil Registration Act 2004, when introduced, will replace these provisions.

The health boards discharge the functions of the superintendent registrars and in future will become the new local registration authorities, as provided by the Act. Registrars are mainly employees of the health boards. In addition to health board personnel there are some 67 private registrars appointed under the Acts to register births, stillbirths, Roman Catholic marriages and deaths in their designated districts.

This group largely comprises private individuals who provide a service from their own homes and general practitioners who provide a service from their offices. Some private registrars are also full-time employees of the health board. All such appointments are made by the health board. While their letter of appointment stipulated the term of their appointment up to the age of 65, some have been allowed to continue after that age.

The level of business transacted by most private registrars varies considerably. In 2002, some 47 registered from four to 100 events, 16 registered between 100 and 200 events, two registered between 200 and 400 events and two registered between 1,000 and 2,500 events.

Persons appointed by registrars who are not permanent and pensionable employees of the health boards derive income from fees for registrations and from fees for certificates issued by them. These fees are set out in statutory instruments, including S.I. 278 of 1987, which sets out the principal fees for the registration of events and the issue of certificates. In particular and limited circumstances a registrar may issue a certificate which is compiled from an entry in a register in which amendments have been made. The fees for such certificates are set out in S.I. 234 of 1987. In discussing plans for the modernisation of the civil registration service, some private registrars asked for a severance payment — many are over 65 years of age. To consider the issue, Department of Finance officials requested that the contractual relationships of private registrars be established. Legal advice obtained from the Office of the Attorney General on the matter indicates that no contract of employment exists under the current terms of employment. Officials from my Department and the Department of Social and Family Affairs, the Department with responsibility for the Civil Registration Act 2004, are holding discussions with the Department of Finance concerning the issue of entitlement to payments, if any, on the cessation of service of a private registrar.

All registration staff, including private registrars, will be re-appointed on the commencement of the relevant part of the Civil Registration Act 2004. Private registrars, therefore, will continue to provide a paper based service as heretofore in respect of births and deaths and will facilitate the return of the new marriage registration document when introduced. The events registered in this manner will be subsequently entered on the electronic database.

The provisions covering the administration of the Civil Registration Service in the Civil Registration Bill will require each health board to draw up a scheme for the administration and delivery of the service in its area. In drawing up such a scheme, it will be necessary to review current locations, the range of services provided at each location and the need to provide an enhanced service to customers. This may lead to a rationalisation of civil registration services locations through the merging of offices or co-location with other health board services.

Some rationalisation of health board staffed locations has already occurred. This was deemed necessary so as to be able to provide an improved service to customers, to maximise resources and meet future needs of the service, for example, the registration office in Trim was amalgamated with the office in Navan. Other proposals are in the pipeline, for example, providing civil marriage services from one main centre in a county, such as in Waterford or in Wexford.

As the current number of registrations at many private registrars' locations does not exceed 100 per year, installing network computers, PCs, printers and so on would not be feasible from a cost or a security perspective. However, account must be taken of geographic factors, for example, the offshore islands. Therefore, it will be necessary to continue to operate a paper based registration system for some time in these locations. The events registered in this manner will be subsequently entered on the electronic database. Such registrars will facilitate the issue of certificates.

Section 17 of the Civil Registration Act provides for the continuance in office of existing registrars of births, stillbirths and marriages. As the implementation of the provisions of the Act will take some time, there will be no immediate change in the current duties of private registrars. Private registrars will continue to retain fees for all certificates issued.

However, the introduction of the new marriage provisions will lead to some change. On implementation of the new provisions, all marriage notifications must be made at health board staffed registration offices, as all couples will be required to electronically sign a declaration that they are free to marry. This is necessary so as to be able to electronically produce the marriage registration form, which will incorporate the details supplied at notification including the couple's signatures. Private registrars could accept a signed marriage registration form and forward it to the superintendent registrar.

I trust this clarifies the future position of registrars following the completion of the rollout of the new civil registration system and commencement of the provisions of the Civil Registration Act 2004. I note that Senator Feighan referred specifically to a redundancy package as well as to whether interim registrars will continue to operate. I have tried to outline the situation as best I can. Some private registrars have already raised with the Department the issue of entitlement to a severance package and many registrars over 65 years had sought an extension of the existing contractual arrangements. The Department of Finance's officials are looking at contractual relationships that can be established with private registrars and will seek advice from the Office of the Attorney General. However, to date, the advice indicates there is no contract of employment under the current terms. Discussions are ongoing so we have not come to a dead end. The issue of entitlement, if any, is under discussion. Should Senator Feighan wish to bring an issue to my attention, I will have it clarified for him.

I thank the Minister of State for his reply.