Civil Marriage Registrars

Ar dtús ba mhaith liom fáilte a chuir roimh an Aire. My motion relates to couples in the north east who wish to say "I do" but who must say "I would if I could but I cannot." Numerous constituents have contacted me about the lack of available registrars in the Louth-Meath area to perform civil marriage ceremonies. One constituent who wishes to marry on a Friday next March-April 2011 has been told it is not possible and has been offered a Tuesday as a possible day for her marriage.

The Central Statistics Office has stated the number of civil ceremonies will in future surpass the number of religious ceremonies. In 1996, the number of civil ceremonies stood at 6%. In 2006, this figure was 23%. Another issue of concern is the lack of off-site ceremonies. One's wedding day should be a special day for oneself, one's partner and extended family. Not everybody wants to marry in a registry office. People often chose to marry in off-site ceremonies. This should be provided for. The purpose of the Central Statistics Office work is to ensure we can plan ahead for the future. This issue requires serious consideration.

There is a lack of flexibility across many elements of the public sector. This issue needs to be addressed. I am aware it has been proposed that registrars be redeployed from one area to another to perform ceremonies but this is not always practical or feasible. I hope the Minister can address this issue. I have been told that in the Louth-Meath, Cavan-Monaghan region there are four registrars, one of whom is due to retire and another of whom is on maternity leave. This leaves only one registrar to perform ceremonies as one person needs to man the office. Perhaps the Minister will clarify this information. Civil ceremonies in Drogheda are performed on a Tuesday or Friday only and there is no one free to do off-site ceremonies on a Friday. Perhaps the Minister will outline if there is any way around this so people can be accommodated. I raise this issue to ensure the Government is planning for the future to ensure people, who give approximately one year's notice of their intention to marry are not told they must pick a Tuesday only to have their wedding ceremony. I look forward to the Minister's reply.

I thank the Senator for raising this matter. Gabhaim buíochas leis as ucht na ceiste a ardú.

I will briefly outline the management and organisational arrangements for the delivery of civil registration services. Under the provisions of the Civil Registration Act 2004, the Registrar General is responsible for the maintenance, management and control of the system of civil registration. The Health Service Executive, HSE, is responsible for the provision of registration services direct to members of the public, including solemnisation of civil marriages. The country is divided into eight regions, each region equating to an area covered by the former health boards, and each region is managed by a superintendent registrar appointed by the HSE. All registrars are HSE staff members and the funding of the service is provided for in the annual Vote of the HSE.

The staffing levels in the HSE civil registration service were established as a result of an independent review carried out under the modernisation programme, including grading structures and job descriptions. The total number of staff approved for the region, which includes Louth and Meath, was 16.25 whole-time equivalents. The region also includes Cavan and Monaghan. The job descriptions designated staff at grade V as solemnisers of civil marriages. Civil marriages are also solemnised by one grade VI member of staff and by the superintendent registrar as required.

The number of staff at grade VI was approved at three — one each in counties Louth, Meath and Cavan. One grade VI is based in Dundalk and the superintendent registrar in Drogheda. The system of bookings for marriages is managed centrally in the superintendent registrar's office and registrars from across the region are deployed in a flexible manner, consistent with the provision of an efficient service.

The number of civil marriages has been growing in recent years. For example, civil marriages as a proportion of total marriages has risen from an average of 23% a year from 2005 to 2008 to 29% in 2009. The actual volume of civil marriages increased by 20% between 2007 and 2009. This, coupled with the option to have a marriage at an off-site location, has increased the workload on registration staff considerably.

The current position is that the region has a full complement of registrars who solemnise civil marriages. The superintendent registrar has confirmed that, while every effort is made to facilitate couples with their chosen date, this is not always possible due to previous bookings having been made on the date-time in question. In all cases, an alternative date is offered and every effort is made to provide the best possible service, given the resource limitations and growing demand for civil marriages.

The matter raised by the Senator is of vital importance in view of the fact the right to marry is enshrined in the European Convention on Human Rights and the special protection afforded the family under the Constitution. Consequently, I will arrange to have the issue brought to the attention of the HSE to allow the matter be kept under review and appropriate action taken, where necessary.

I thank the Minister for his response. As stated in the Minister's reply, the country is divided into eight regions, each region equating to an area covered by the former health boards. The Minister will be aware the north east has in recent years exploded in terms of population. We need to examine this issue in terms of increasing the number of civil registrars in the area. As the Minister stated, there will always be resource limitations, in particular given current affairs. However, we must accept the reality in terms of where the population is leaning. The CSO figures extrapolate where we are going. There is a growing demand for civil marriages and as such this issue requires serious consideration. I hope the Minister will bring the matter to the attention of the HSE. I will make every effort to bring it to the attention of the HSE in the north east.

I will ask the HSE to address the issue. I again confirm that the right to marriage is fundamental and we must within reason facilitate it.

I thank the Minister.

The Seanad adjourned at 8.20 p.m. until 10.30 a.m. on Wednesday, 14 July 2010.