Ros does not lodge many amendments to legislation as it makes its way through the Lords but, last Tuesday in Grand Committee, the Deregulation Bill offered her an opportunity to introduce a change which would be cheap and popular...
87B: After Clause 78, insert the following new Clause—
“Births, marriages and death registration: historical searches
(none) After section 34 of the Births and Deaths Registration Act 1953, insert—
“34A Historical searches
(1) The Registrar General may provide a copy of an historical record held by him, which need not be a certified copy, to any person who makes a search and requests such a copy.
(2) A copy provided under subsection (1) may not be used in place of a certified copy as proof of an entry in the register.
(3) For the purposes of this section—
(a) an “historical record” means any entry in a register held by the Registrar General which is more than one hundred years old on the date on which such a request is made;
(b) a copy of a record which is not a certified copy means a paper, electronic or other duplication as may be prescribed in regulation.
(4) The Registrar General may charge such fees as appropriate in relation to making and delivering a copy of a record which is not a certified copy, but such a fee shall be no more than £3.00 per record.””
Baroness Scott of Needham Market (LD): I rise to offer the Government an early Christmas gift, cunningly disguised as Amendment 87B. It is a rare jewel; a genuine piece of deregulation which no one as far as I can tell opposes, which saves money and does not cost anything. I shall explain.
In 1837, a system of civil registration of births, deaths and marriages was introduced into this country. For most of the time since then, it has been a legal requirement to register these events with the district registrar who issues a certificate. The framework has remained largely unchanged since then. Anyone can order a copy of a certificate from the General Register Office, which is currently set at a cost of £9.25. Because possession of a certificate does not confer identity, these certificates could be used for any purpose and many of us at some point or other may have used this service to order a copy certificate.
The one group of people in this country who could really use this service much more extensively are those, like me, who are researching their family history. Should noble Lords think this is a minority pursuit, one website alone, Ancestry, has 2.7 million global subscribers. The success of programmes such as, “Who Do You Think You Are?”, along with the relative ease of internet searching has led to an explosion of interest in genealogy. This will almost certainly increase this year as the result of the wonderful coverage of the centenary of World War I.
Genealogists from across the globe can trace their ancestors back to these islands. The Irish and Scottish Governments have been much quicker than the English and Welsh Governments to appreciate the great tourist value in people looking for their roots. For genealogists, the information on general registration certificates is invaluable. Birth certificates contain the father’s name and occupation and the mother’s maiden name. A marriage certificate will record both the father’s name and occupation, so in theory, you could use the general registration to trace ancestors back for well over 200 years. An ancestor dying in 1837 at the start of registration might well have been born in the 1750s.
Sometimes, the GRO is the only way of resolving the matter by distinguishing between individuals of the same name on census and parish records, but this valuable resource is nothing like as well used as it could be because the only form in which it is legally allowed to be given is by ordering and paying £9.75 for the full certificate. That is not the case in many jurisdictions. In Ireland, for example, the essential information is provided for €4. In Scotland, an extract can be ordered online through the authorised provider, ScotlandsPeople Centre. The General Register Office issues many thousands of historic copies every year. Even at £9.75 it does not make a profit from them. As I will explain in a moment, it would almost certainly be happy to find a less onerous way of doing this kind of historic business. It would also fit in very well with the Government’s deregulation agenda and the drive to digitise public services.
Turning to my amendment, I recognise and say at the outset that my limited expertise will not have produced an amendment that the Government would accept in its current form. But the fundamental point, aimed at allowing the GRO to change the regime for historic events of more than 100 years ago, is one that I hope the Government will take away for consideration. It would mean that for a much reduced fee - I have suggested £3 - the data could be sent by e-mail, rather than issued in a long-form certificate. One hundred years simply reflects the period at which census data is made public, and was the period chosen in the 2002 White Paper. A different time could be chosen, or differentials between births, marriages and deaths established.
This issue has been discussed since 1990. A public consultation in 1999 showed overwhelming support for such a change. The GRO itself proposed similar changes in a 2005 regulatory reform order. Ironically I was a member of the Delegated Powers and Regulatory Reform Committee at the time, but sadly the GRO proposed a whole package of measures rather than simply this specific change. Had there been this change only, it probably would have been successful, but unfortunately the package was considered far too wide ranging for a regulatory reform order.
I caution the Government against putting off making this modest reform until a wider package of measures can be drawn up in their own Bill. The reality is that GRO reform is always unlikely to be a priority in the legislative programme of any new Government. The fact that the GRO has been unable to get a Bill in three terms of the Labour Government and one term of the coalition Government says it all. As I said, this is a probing amendment only, which I hope that the Government will take away and consider. I recognise that the GRO will need time to consult on changes and draw up the details, but this can be done by secondary legislation. The important thing is to get this change into this Bill. I beg to move.
It shouldn't really have been any easier as, in footballing parlance, Ros was rolling the ball gently across the face of the penalty area for the Minister to slot into an open goal. Sadly, said Minister, who shall remain nameless, chose to smack it against the crossbar. I can only hope that he tucks away the rebound...