Registration of Births and Deaths (Welsh Language)

– in the House of Commons at 12:31 pm on 1st April 2009.

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Motion for leave to introduce a Bill (Standing Order No. 23)

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Photo of Hywel Williams Hywel Williams Shadow PC Spokesperson (Education), Shadow PC Spokesperson (International Development), Shadow PC Spokesperson (Work and Pensions), Shadow PC Spokesperson (Health) 12:35 pm, 1st April 2009

I beg to move,

That leave be given to bring in a Bill to make provision about the registration of births and deaths where particulars are given in Welsh and English;
to permit certificates of particulars of entries of registers of births and deaths to be in Welsh or English only in such circumstances;
and for connected purposes.

The Bill would amend the Births and Deaths Registration Act 1953. It aims to allow registration in English and Welsh when a birth or death has occurred in England, and to allow certificates to be issued in either language as well as bilingually. It also provides for the issuing of short death certificates.

The 1953 Act requires that a birth or death be registered by the registrar of the district in which the event takes place, but since 1 April 1969, 40 years ago today, births, stillbirths and deaths in Wales may be registered in both Welsh and English when a qualified informant is able to give information in Welsh to a registrar who can speak and understand Welsh. Certificates may then be issued which are either bilingual or in English only. Welsh-only certificates are not allowed, and registration in England is currently only possible in English. Short birth certificates may be issued, but death certificates are allowed only in the long form.

Some families from Wales travel to England for the birth of a child, either to obtain specialist care at the birth or because their areas are normally served by hospitals in England. I am thinking in particular of families from north Wales who may have to travel to Merseyside and, indeed, beyond in an emergency, and also of families from Powys who might normally cross the border to Shropshire or Herefordshire to obtain hospital care at the birth. Furthermore, some people from Wales receive their end-of-life care in hospitals in England, again because of the need for specialist care or because that is the normal arrangement where they live. Quite reasonably, families in those circumstances may wish to register such significant events in Welsh. The language is both a signifier and a definer of the identity of their loved ones.

In 1999, my colleague Lord Elis-Thomas introduced a Bill similar to this, which was passed in the other place but did not proceed in this House owing to lack of time. A Bill to the same effect was published by our erstwhile colleague Mr. Gareth Thomas, then Member of Parliament for Clwyd, West, but it too proceeded no further, again owing to lack of time. Indeed, the need for at least one of these reforms—the bilingual registration of births in England—was noted as long ago as 1990, in the White Paper "Registration: proposals for change". Lord Elis-Thomas and Gareth Thomas benefited at that time from the advice of the Office for National Statistics, and also worked closely with the Welsh Language Board. I am glad to acknowledge the help given by the board in the preparation of the Bill.

All three Bills would overcome the deficiency that families face by establishing a central register of births, stillbirths and deaths occurring in England when Welsh speakers wish for a bilingual certificate. In practice, the Welsh-speaking informant would be able to make a declaration of the particulars to be registered, not in the district where the event occurred but before a suitable registrar in Wales. That registrar would then send the declaration to the registrar for the district in England where the event occurred, and it would be registered in the normal way. The declaration would also be forwarded to the Registrar General, who would record the details in the central register in both Welsh and English. A certificate could then be issued. That would enable the details, in future years, always to be available in both languages.

The Bill would also allow certificates to be issued from the bilingual entry in Welsh or English only, thus ensuring that at last both languages would be treated equally—as noted in the Welsh Language Act 1993, passed by the Conservative Administration. Bilingual certificates would continue to be available under this Bill, and I suspect that that would remain the usual choice for most families. The Bill would also allow for short death certificates, so as to exclude details of the cause of death, which sometimes cause great distress to families.

I understand that there are no significant staffing implications for public services from the Bill. The cost of establishing a central register would be minimal and would be paid for by the sale of certificates. The measure raises no human rights issues.

The law concerning the Welsh language has developed over many years, from the Acts of Union in the 16th century whose penalising clauses in effect banished the Welsh language from its previous position in the official domain—as an official language, I would even chance to say—to the modest reform of the Welsh Courts Act 1942, the landmark Welsh Language Act 1967, and subsequently the Act of 1993.

At present the Welsh Affairs Committee, of which I am a member, is taking evidence on a Welsh language legislative competence order. If passed, that will transfer the Welsh language powers from Westminster to the National Assembly for Wales. However, registration of births and deaths is not included in that LCO, hence the need for this Bill.

On 17 March, I proposed a range of suitable amendments to the Welfare Reform Bill on Report, but they were not reached. However, I am glad to say that the Government agree with elements of this Bill and agree that they are needed. I refer the House to an answer from the Under-Secretary of State for Wales:

"the Government remain firmly committed to producing Welsh language certificates, and the General Register Office is exploring the best way to do that...I reiterate that we are firmly committed to pursuing that path. "—[ Hansard, 11 March 2009; Vol. 489, c. 283.]

I also have here a copy of a letter to Mr. Gareth Thomas from a then Minister at the Treasury, Ms Hewitt, in which she shares her disappointment that his

"useful Bill failed to complete its passage through the Commons."

That was in 1999. She continued:

"The ONS has bid for the Bill to be reintroduced and the Chief Secretary has approved its inclusion on the Treasury's list of Government handout Bills for the next session.

If, by any misfortune, the Bill fails to succeed in the next session, we will take the opportunity to include its provisions within any legislation that follows from the current review of civil registration."

I am of course glad of the Government's historic support on this issue, but I note that some nine years have passed since that "glad and confident" letter. I hope therefore that their support can now be translated into a commitment of parliamentary time.

I am by nature an optimist, but I am reminded of a point made in Ned Thomas's seminal work "The Welsh Extremist: A Culture in Crisis" in 1971, in which he pointed out that the Welsh language so often had

"high prestige and low priority".

More poetically, T.H. Parry Williams, in one of his finest sonnets, says of the language:

"Cei ganmol hon fel canmol jwg ar seld

Ond gwna hi'n hanfod ac fe gei di weld", which translates as,

"You may praise her as you would a jug on a dresser

But make her essential and then you'll see".

This Bill has wide support in Wales and I am grateful today for the support of Welsh Members on both sides of the House and Members from across the border—

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Photo of Hywel Williams Hywel Williams Shadow PC Spokesperson (Education), Shadow PC Spokesperson (International Development), Shadow PC Spokesperson (Work and Pensions), Shadow PC Spokesperson (Health)

And the other border.

Birth and death are the most significant events in life, the alpha and the omega. It is proper and humane, and in my view a fundamental right, that these events be marked in one's own language. Those happy parents and those grieving families who by force of circumstance find themselves unable to do so merely by the accident of location have waited fully 40 years for this day and for this reform.

Question put and agreed to.

Ordered,

That Hywel Williams, Mr. Elfyn Llwyd, Adam Price, Mr. Dai Davies, Mark Williams, Dr. Hywel Francis and Michael Fabricant present the Bill.

Hywel Williams accordingly presented the Bill.

Bill read the First time; to be read a Second time on Friday 16 October and to be printed (Bill 83).

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