Registers of Births and Deaths Bill

– in the House of Commons at 1:23 pm on 16th October 2020.

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Second Reading

Photo of Andrew Mitchell Andrew Mitchell Conservative, Sutton Coldfield 1:24 pm, 16th October 2020

I beg to move, That the Bill be now read a Second time.

I must apologise to the House, because I have not been a regular attender on Friday sittings in recent years. The last occasion on which I brought a private Member’s Bill to the House was in March 1991, when I promoted the Education (Publication of Examination Results) Bill, which proposed to set up league tables. It failed to win the support of the House, but, as my hon. Friend Sir Christopher Chope may recall, it subsequently became Government policy. In those days, the doyennes of Friday sittings were Ian Gow, Nicholas Soames and Michael Brown. I see that I attended on 20 April 1990 and spent 45 minutes speaking about the relative merits of low-volume alcohol drinks being defined as no more than 0.65% alcohol or 1.2%. Both you and I, Mr Deputy Speaker, will understand why a speech of such length was required.

My purpose today is much more serious, and I wish to start by thanking the Minister for his support and interest in this Bill. I know that he will have spent much of last night swatting up on all the details, a process I will remember from my time as a junior social security Minister in the 1990s. The good news for him is that once he reaches the Cabinet, which will not be long, he will not have to take Bills through the House any more—he will have a junior Minister to do it for him. I wish to thank his officials, particularly Linda Edwards and Saskia Molekamp, who have been extremely helpful in drafting and addressing the issues in this Bill.

My championing of this measure will come as no surprise whatsoever to my constituents in the royal town of Sutton Coldfield, whom I have the great honour of representing in this place, because our register office was closed by Birmingham City Council in 2014. It took that measure to save £83,000 of expenditure, which included the lease of a desk in the local library, so much of that expenditure was not actually saved. At the time, the failure to tell the local Good Hope Hospital, funeral directors and local GPs caused a considerable fuss. The central Birmingham register office was very overstretched at the time and people had to struggle to get an appointment to register a birth or a death, and it was not well placed for access in terms of parking. So for my constituents the removal of the register office constituted a considerable inconvenience, as a result of which there was a lot of campaigning across the town for it to remain open. I commend the Conservative councillors on Birmingham City Council, who, under their outstanding leader, Bobby Alden, have each year since then, in an alternative budget, pledged to reopen it and make better use of district centres to reduce travel and boost high-street activity.

Alas, that campaign at the time, which I, as the Member of Parliament, the hard-working councillors in Sutton Coldfield and local residents strongly supported, did not prevail. The failure of local government to hear the call from the royal town to stop this closure is one reason why people voted for local democracy; they voted, in a referendum, to set up the Royal Sutton Coldfield Town Council, which is today one of the largest, if not the largest, town councils in the country, under its outstanding leader, Simon Ward. I reiterate, because it is so relevant to the Bill, that the reason for the campaign from the royal town was that at an often upsetting and sad time in life my constituents had to journey all the way into Birmingham to comply with the necessary registration procedures.

The purpose of the Bill is to reform the way in which births and deaths are registered in England and Wales, moving from a paper-based system to registration in an electronic register. Registrars already use an electronic system to register births and deaths, and have done so since 2009, but they are still required to keep paper registers securely, in a safe, due to the requirements of the current and, I submit, outdated legislation. The Bill will remove the duplication of processes.

I reassure my hon. Friends that my Bill does not make any fundamental changes to the current arrangements for registering births and deaths—for example, who is able to provide the information to the registrar or the information to be recorded in the entry—but it will make a big difference, as I have described, for our constituents. The way in which births and deaths are currently registered dates back to 1837. It is much in need of modernisation and a move to digital methods of registration.

I hope that it may be helpful to the House if I explain how the current system works. All births and deaths that occur in England and Wales are required to be registered by the registrar for the sub-district in which the event occurred by a qualified informant. For example, in the case of a birth, the qualified informant is usually the child’s mother. When registering a birth or death, the registrar will record all the information on an electronic system. Once the registration is complete, the system will generate a paper register page, which is signed by the informant and the registrar. That paper record is then put into a loose-leaf register, which the registrar keeps in a safe. It is that paper record that is the formal record of the event, from which all certificates are then issued.

The changes proposed in my Bill would remove the requirement for paper birth and death registers and introduce a single electronic register in which all births and deaths would be registered. This will create a much more efficient and secure system of registration. The electronic system is already there and is used on a daily basis.

Photo of Andrew Mitchell Andrew Mitchell Conservative, Sutton Coldfield

I give way with great pleasure to my hon. Friend, who, as a distinguished resident of the royal town of Sutton Coldfield, may well recall the events of which I have spoken.

Photo of Suzanne Webb Suzanne Webb Conservative, Stourbridge

I do indeed, and troublesome they were at the time. Under my right hon. Friend’s Bill, will the old birth and death certificates be destroyed, or will they be archived?

Photo of Andrew Mitchell Andrew Mitchell Conservative, Sutton Coldfield

That is a most important point. I will come to it, but clause 4 refers to the very point that my hon. Friend so wisely makes.

Currently, registrars submit copies of all the birth and death entries they have registered in the last quarter to their superintendent registrar via a system of quarterly returns. The superintendent registrar certifies those entities as being true copies of birth and death entries in the registers and forwards them to the Registrar General. That is done electronically using the electronic system. The Registrar General holds a central repository of all births and deaths registered in England and Wales. My Bill will remove that administrative burden.

Photo of Christopher Chope Christopher Chope Conservative, Christchurch

When the electronic system was introduced in 2009, why did the Government decide not to abandon the hard copy record? Surely the reason was that it was a safeguard. Hard copies are an essential safeguard, are they not?

Photo of Andrew Mitchell Andrew Mitchell Conservative, Sutton Coldfield

I will come on to a number of points that my hon. Friend alludes to, but I think he will be satisfied, when he hears about the other provisions of my Bill, that that point is properly addressed.

With the move to an electronic register, the system of quarterly returns will no longer be necessary. Following the registration of a birth or death in the electronic register, the entry will immediately be available to the superintendent registrar and the Registrar General, without the quarterly returns process having to be completed from the paper registers.

The Bill amends the Births and Deaths Registration Act 1953 to insert a new section that enables Ministers to make regulations that make provision that a duty to sign the birth or death register is to have the effect of a duty to comply with specified requirements. If an informant complies with those requirements, they are to be treated as having signed the register and to have done so in the presence of the registrar.

The entry in the electronic register will be treated as having been signed by the person who has provided the information relating to a birth or death. For example, the regulations may require a person to sign something other than the register or to provide evidence of their identity. I reassure my hon. Friends that the regulations would be made using the affirmative procedure, which requires them to be approved by both Houses of Parliament and therefore there would be the opportunity to discuss the content of those measures.

The provisions in my Bill are the first step in moving to a more modern system of birth and death registration. By removing the requirement for paper registers to be signed in the presence of a registrar, we would pave the way for a move to online methods of registration. That would provide more flexibility and allow an informant to provide the particulars of a birth or death online and at a time to suit the individual, without having to visit a register office. That would modernise how births and deaths are registered in the future and give the public more choice, but the choice to register in person would remain, as register offices and facilities are needed for marriages, civil ceremonies and citizenship.

As I am sure my hon. Friends will agree, removing the requirement for face-to-face services is particularly relevant and most important at the moment as we deal with the issues of covid-19 and the pandemic. My right hon. and hon. Friends will also be pleased to hear that just these measures in respect of the registration of deaths would save the taxpayer £90 million over 10 years. Over the next 10 years, we conservatively estimate that the effect of all these measures would save £170 million for the taxpayer. I should explain that the figure of £20 million that appears in the explanatory notes is a reference only to the amount saved by removing the paper register and the requirements for quarterly returns. The savings to the taxpayer would be significant indeed.

I turn briefly to the clauses in the Bill. Clause 1 amends the original Births and Deaths Registration Act 1953. The new sections allow the Registrar General to determine how registers of live births, stillbirths and deaths are to be kept. It would remove the duplication of processes: all births and deaths would be registered in an electronic register without the need for paper registers.

Clause 2 deals with the provision of equipment and facilities by local authorities. It makes clear that all local authorities must provide and maintain the equipment and facilities set down by the Registrar General for all register and sub-district register offices. I am grateful to Sarah Jones for specifically raising that point in our discussions earlier.

Clause 3 is the requirement to sign the register. This is a new power that would bring before the House new regulations in respect of non-paper registration. Where someone complies with specific requirements, they will be treated as having signed. Obviously, such provisions may require evidence of identity, and those provisions would be put to the House in further legislation that we would move in the way that I have described. The clause makes it clear that the Government can do so only under the affirmative procedure, which means that any provisions must be laid before and approved by both Houses of Parliament.

Clause 4 is the about the treatment of existing registers and records—the point made so ably by my hon. Friend Suzanne Webb. It requires the Registrar General to continue to keep and maintain all the existing records.

Clause 5 effectively brings the schedules to the Bill into effect. Clause 6 is a power to make further consequential provisions, including, if required, to primary legislation. Again, in those circumstances that can be done only by affirmative resolution. Clause 7 is the commencement clause, which comes into force on the day the Bill is passed. Finally, the schedule deals with minor and consequential amendments to the original 1953 Act and certain other primary legislation consequent on the provisions of this Bill.

The Bill requires neither a money resolution, my hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch will be pleased to hear, nor a Ways and Means resolution. It is also fully compatible with the European convention on human rights. I very much hope that the Bill will progress through the House and, indeed, the other place, where our late colleague my noble Friend Lord Lancaster of Kimbolton has agreed to assist in its passage, and that, with its self-evident benefits for our constituents, it will, after further scrutiny, become an Act. I commend its provisions to the House.

Photo of Sarah Jones Sarah Jones Shadow Minister (Home Office) 1:40 pm, 16th October 2020

It is a great pleasure to be here today, and it was a pleasure to hear that the last time Mr Mitchell was here with a private Member’s Bill was in March 1991, with a Bill on exam results. He will be pleased to know that in March 1991 I was revising for my A-level exams. I am grateful to him for making me feel young today, which does not happen very often.

It is a pleasure to speak in support of the Bill. My husband is from the royal town of Sutton Coldfield and it is my second favourite place in the country—second only to Croydon. My mother-in-law very kindly says to me that she votes Labour, but I suspect she actually votes for the right hon. Member. It is good to be on the same side in this debate.

I congratulate the right hon. Member for his hard work on the Bill. We have worked together on it and I am happy to stand and support it. As he explained, the provision for registering births and deaths is principally governed by the Births and Deaths Registration Act 1953, the Registration Service Act 1953 and the Registration of Births and Deaths Regulations 1987. Those pieces of legislation are based on laws that have been in place since 1837.

The Bill will modernise the way in which births and deaths are registered. It will, as the right hon. Member explained, remove the duplication of processes that has been in place since 2009, since when all birth and death registrations have been captured electronically as well as on paper. It will also remove the need to do quarterly returns. It will pave the way to changing the way we register births and deaths and bring that process into the modern world. It is good to hear that, contrary to the explanatory notes, the savings will be greater than £20 million—somewhere between £90 million and £170 million over the next 10 years.

I have spoken to the staff at Croydon Council who manage the registration processes, and I understand that they would not require new skills to make the changes in the Bill because they are already familiar with the Registration Online system. That has to be a good thing.

Because of covid and by necessity, we have seen different systems in place for registering deaths, and we can learn from this period. In Croydon, as in other areas, the decision was taken that, for a temporary period during the covid pandemic, the registration of deaths should move online, under the Registration Online—or RON—system, or via the telephone. I have spoken to the team in Croydon—they are wonderful and I thank them for what they do—and they say that the system has worked well. Indeed, they do not want to go back to the old system. In fact, they had been innovating before covid and had set up an office at our local hospital, Croydon University Hospital, where people could go to register deaths. The plan before covid kicked in had been to extend that service to the registration of births in the hospital as well.

As we know, the registration of births is far more likely to lead to fraud than the registration of deaths. That is the issue that concerns local registrars. If the registration of births moves online or by telephone, how can we ensure that the system is not susceptible to fraud? That is not at all to say that it cannot be done, but the question to the Minister and the right hon. Member for Sutton Coldfield is how we can ensure that we avoid an increase in identity fraud. How can an online system be sufficiently secure that there is no risk of records being lost were the system’s security to be compromised? RON, the Registration Online system, has been notoriously unreliable in the past. That could cause significant issues. We recommend that the platform is reviewed and any risks mitigated.

Can we ensure in the Bill that councils do not lose resources in the course of implementing the legislation? Although funds will be saved, as the right hon. Member has said, it is possible that, at a later date, the proposals could impact on income for local authority register offices. If the General Register Office issues copy certificates and takes the income from that, does that mean the local authority does not have the ability to undertake this role? It would be good if we could look into that, please. Will a move to online records in any way risk a lack of accessibility for those who may struggle to access the internet? I was pleased to hear from the right hon. Member that people would still be able to register in person. That is good to hear and we need to make sure that continues.

I want to be brief, so I will conclude by saying again that this Bill deserves the support of the House. It will bring up to date the antiquated process for registering births and deaths, and it will save a lot of paper.

Photo of Chris Loder Chris Loder Conservative, West Dorset 1:45 pm, 16th October 2020

I rise to speak in support of the Bill, and I am delighted to offer my support to my right hon. Friend Mr Mitchell. Births and deaths are important moments, and often at present I feel that the registration of such is filled with too much bureaucracy. I am very keen that we might be able to streamline that process.

Of course, the register has many other purposes, does it not? In particular, they include the registration of baby names and allowing us to see the most popular baby names. Probably in testament to one of the many wonderful legacies of my predecessor, Oliver is the most popular boy’s name in the Dorset Council area. Isabella is the most popular girl’s name in the Dorset Council area, which I did not know until I had done the research for this. I should just like to say that, in England and Wales, Christopher ranks at 152 and Andrew ranks at 227, so there we are.

Coming back to the purpose of the Bill, it does remove unnecessary duplication and bureaucracy. I am extremely pleased that we will be able to remove the additional efforts and the additional cost of tens of millions of pounds to the taxpayer. It currently is a complete waste of money. We can do things much better. The cutting down on paper usage also, of course, has many obvious benefits to the environment, albeit reasonably marginal. Digital records can be kept more securely, and it is a more adaptable system that we can evolve and use going forward in terms of technology and societal needs. I am very pleased to be able to support the Bill in the House today.

Photo of Nigel Evans Nigel Evans Deputy Speaker (Second Deputy Chairman of Ways and Means)

Just to make Andrew Mitchell happy, or happier, nobody is named Nigel any more—one of those things. [Interruption.] I know, I know.

Photo of Christopher Chope Christopher Chope Conservative, Christchurch 1:47 pm, 16th October 2020

I am not sure that we wanted our parents to give us really popular Christian names, but I note that my parents had the foresight to give me the same Christian name as my hon. Friend Chris Loder, so that was obviously a good thing. We are 152nd in the league table. I predict that it will not be long before we are about 1,000th in the league table because obviously Christopher is a name that has Christ in it, and I fear that the Christian emphasis in our society is on the decline, rather than on the increase, but that is by the bye.

The Bill of my right hon. Friend Mr Mitchell is one about which I have considerable concerns. Sarah Jones identified two concerns: the risk of identity fraud associated with the registration of births, and the problems that there already are in the reliability of the registration online system. We have a registration system at the moment and there is a back-up, which is the hard copies. What this Bill is going to do is to deprive us of that back-up.

I am sure there are hon. Friends who run their constituency offices on the basis that it is all purely electronic, but I certainly do not, and I have good reason not to do that because on so many occasions the electronic systems fail and we need to rely on the hard copy back-up. If that was not just a general proposition, it was brought home to me last evening because I was talking to my wife and she showed me an email that she has had from the Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency saying that her driving licence details need to be updated. She looked at the email and saw that the details registered were not correct. She tried to change the details but could not. Suffice it to say that, in those details, there are names of foreign people and suggestions that my wife’s driving licence record has now been tampered with and been the subject perhaps of fraud or forgery.

I cite that as a topical example of what happens if we become wholly reliant upon electronic systems. I think most of us will have safes at home where we keep our birth certificates for ourselves and our children, our marriage certificates, our passports, our driving licences, exam certificates, degree certificates and so on. The reason we do that is that we have the security of having a hard copy, instead of having to faff around trying to get duplicate copies. How can we be sure that the back-up system, which will now become the main system under my right hon. Friend’s Bill, will be 100% reliable and proof against fraud?

My right hon. Friend identifies savings, and obviously any savings that come from efficiency are good. In terms of the need to pass these records on up through the lines, from the area manager to the regional manager and then to the top dog, I think that is a very sensible reform, but dispensing totally with the written record will save only £20 million over 10 years. The other savings to which he referred are from the other streamlining processes set out in his Bill. I have no problem with those, but I question whether, for £2 million a year, it is worth taking the risk both in terms of opening up fraud and damaging the potential for future generations to be able to examine this period of our history, which is much easier to do with hard-copy, written records than it is with electronic data.

Photo of Andrew Mitchell Andrew Mitchell Conservative, Sutton Coldfield

I believe that in Committee we will be able to satisfy my hon. Friend absolutely on the issue of fraud and on the other points as well. I hope that he will perhaps consider serving on the Bill Committee, where I am completely confident we will be able to satisfy him on all his concerns.

Photo of Christopher Chope Christopher Chope Conservative, Christchurch

I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for his confidence. I approach this sort of legislation in a constructive frame of mind. One point occurred to me when he referred to draft regulations. In due course, we will all be able to see these draft regulations. Although they would be affirmative resolution regulations, we know that we would not be able to amend them. I ask my right hon. Friend: would it be possible, by the time that the Bill reaches Committee, as I expect it to, for us to have a draft of those regulations so that we can look at them in Committee alongside his Bill? That practice has often been supported by Ministers, and I think that he would support it as well.

Photo of Andrew Mitchell Andrew Mitchell Conservative, Sutton Coldfield

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. I think that would be a very good thing to do. Of course, it would have to be the proposed orders, which will be subject to the affirmative resolution, as we have both agreed, that are already on the stocks, and there will be more in the future, not least to address any dangers—he mentioned the issue of fraud—that are not relevant or understood today but which could emerge in future.

Photo of Christopher Chope Christopher Chope Conservative, Christchurch

I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for that assurance. We are talking about fraud and forgery. We know from our own constituency records that it is rife. Action Fraud is incapable of dealing with all the fraud cases that come before it. Most of our local police forces are incapable and under-resourced to deal with the fraud, which is rife. It never used to be part and parcel of British society that you assumed that people were fraudulent until proved otherwise, but we have almost got to that stage now. Elderly people are receiving phone calls and most of them seem to be to try to con the individual out of some money. There is every incentive for fraud where we are talking about birth certificates and certificates of registration, which give us our identity. What could be more fundamental than that? I look forward to seeing these assurances in Committee, but it would be helpful and desirable that we should be able to give them a line by line examination, rather than just rely on expressions of good intention.

I go back to the point that I made in an intervention on my right hon. Friend’s speech. When the legislation was changed in 2009 to allow electronic records to be kept, safeguards were in place. Who could object to the establishment of electronic records if we were going to retain the hard copy written records? Now, just over 10 years later, we see that that safeguard, which was fundamental to the change then, is being removed and without, it seems, any justification. I hope that, in due course, my right hon. Friend will be able to explain what has happened in the last 10 or 11 years that has removed the necessity for the safeguards which this House thought were absolutely essential back in 2009.

Photo of Sara Britcliffe Sara Britcliffe Conservative, Hyndburn 1:57 pm, 16th October 2020

I am unsure of where Sara would rank, but I feel that it would not be very high. I just want to comment on what Sarah Jones said about revising in 1991: my birth was not registered until four years later.

Thank you, Mr Deputy Speaker, for calling me to speak in this debate. This Bill is an important step in the right direction, as we look to cut costs of registrations of births and deaths. The Government have rightly been spending to support individuals and businesses during this crisis. We should be taking this opportunity to save money, which could be spent in other much-needed areas, such as regenerating town centres such as Accrington, developing transport links and investing in our NHS.

We should always be looking to provide taxpayers with value for money and I am pleased that the Bill offers a simple and achievable solution, which will save them £20 million over 10 years, with the initial set-up costs being recouped in a matter of months. Clearly, the upkeep of two processes for a sole trade purpose does not represent value for money and consumes excess time and resources.

The Bill is more forward thinking than it might appear. It will save not only time, but precious paper. As has been mentioned, many companies have moved to cloud-based storage systems, which save on the unnecessary printing of documents. Since I have joined Parliament, the green economy has been at the forefront of the conversation. Steps such as these allow us to save on paper and reduce the number of trees that are cut down—trees that are crucial in reducing greenhouse emissions and preventing global warming.

This is a very simple debate and, having seen the financial positives that this Bill will produce, I stand in full support of it.

Photo of Duncan Baker Duncan Baker Conservative, North Norfolk 1:59 pm, 16th October 2020

It is nice to speak on a Bill that causes little controversy these days, and this Bill does just that. What is more, we have become rather accustomed in recent months to doing things electronically, including meetings, and I think we would all agree that, from time to time, things have to move on. To fully digitise the registers of births and deaths is a very welcome step, especially since we have not done an awful lot of that since 1837, when the paper system was introduced.

I have two reasonably young children, and when I was preparing for the debate, I asked my wife, “What was the process like when you registered the births?” She gave me a rather sharp look and said, “Well, you were actually there,” to which I replied, “I was quite tired at the time,” and then got told that you do not say things like that at all. The punishment is a Friday sitting before I go home later today. I talked to my colleague who runs my office in North Norfolk about whether this is an excellent piece of legislation, and he should know, given that he has been down to the register office to register births no fewer than four times. He thinks that it is an excellent Bill.

Clearly, removing the duplication involved in running two systems since 2009 will lead to a far more efficient process and will save the taxpayer some £20 million over the next few years. The registration process for births and deaths can be rather difficult and stressful, particularly for deaths, which can be highly emotional. In this digital age, I welcome this much more efficient process, which could help a great number of people, particularly those who might find going out of the house for the first time on their own after a death incredibly difficult. The Bill addresses those sensitive matters.

I wonder whether the entire process will end up being done virtually in due course, especially given what we have seen in the last few months. Provided that there are security checks and the ability to capture signatures electronically, we can get past some of the shortcomings. This is a natural step forward, and I know that the Bill has Government support. I thank my right hon. Friend Mr Mitchell for taking this sensible, progressive step, and I commend the Bill to the House.

Photo of Jane Stevenson Jane Stevenson Conservative, Wolverhampton North East 2:02 pm, 16th October 2020

I shall keep my comments brief, as I know that other Members want to speak. I welcome yet another common-sense private Member’s Bill promoted by a Conservative Member. As a good Conservative, saving taxpayers’ money where possible is important to me. My hon. Friend Sara Britcliffe made the point succinctly about the ecological benefits of not having paper records, and the fact that the Bill will lead to a saving of £170 million is highly commendable.

I support the Bill. I do so with slight regret, but that is based purely on nostalgia for a couple of afternoons I spent last year researching my family history and looking at the marvellous handwritten records that are now available to view online. I would not have discovered that my ancestors included vermin trap makers and miners, but my nostalgia certainly is not worth losing the vast financial saving to the taxpayer, so I am pleased to support the Bill wholeheartedly.

Photo of Simon Baynes Simon Baynes Conservative, Clwyd South 2:03 pm, 16th October 2020

It is a pleasure to follow my hon. Friend Jane Stevenson for the second time today. Like her, I will be brief. It is a great pleasure to support this Bill, brought forward by my right hon. Friend Mr Mitchell. As he rightly said, we are talking about an upsetting and sad time, and that point was made eloquently by my hon. Friend Duncan Baker. Considering the Bill has been poignant for me, as my mother died earlier this year, so we went through that whole process. Of course, the covid crisis brings this more poignantly into our minds.

I am happy to support the Bill. I welcome the removal of unnecessary duplicative practice and recognise that, if passed, the Bill will facilitate a more efficient registration of births and deaths. I also welcome the broad support for this change, including from the Government. As a new Member of Parliament, I have taken great encouragement from seeing the House working cross-party today. I commend in particular Sarah Jones for her elegant and supportive speech.

I am pleased that the actions the Bill seeks to take will save up to £170 million. As my hon. Friend Sara Britcliffe put it strongly, that is extremely beneficial to our communities. Of course, birth and death registers are run by local councils. In my constituency, it is by Wrexham County Borough Council and Denbighshire County Council. I take the opportunity to pay tribute to the sensitive and efficient way in which they conduct that business. It gives me great pleasure to support the Bill.

Photo of Kevin Foster Kevin Foster The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department 2:05 pm, 16th October 2020

It is a pleasure to speak on behalf of the Government in the debate. Like Sarah Jones, I was feeling slightly youthful when I heard about my right hon. Friend Mr Mitchell presenting a private Member’s Bill in 1991. I felt even more youthful when the hon. Member for Croydon Central said she was revising for A-levels in 1991, because I was in my first year at secondary school. Then came the speech of my hon. Friend Sara Britcliffe.

I congratulate my right hon Friend the Member for Sutton Coldfield on bringing forward his Bill on birth and death registration. The Government wholeheartedly support it. I thank him for raising the profile of the need to reform the way in which births and deaths are registered in future by not only removing the requirement for paper registers and moving to digital methods of registration but allowing us to remove some of the requirements that are now rather antiquated and, as we have seen in recent times, have had an impact. I also thank all hon. Members for their contributions. I particularly look forward to the detailed and forensic scrutiny that my hon. Friend Sir Christopher Chope will give to the Bill and any subsequent regulations, having had on many occasions the pleasure and the benefit of hearing his scrutiny of such Bills on a Friday in this Chamber.

It is an important issue. The current system of registering births and deaths is wholly outdated, based on a paper process first set up in 1837. We do need to move forward. As has already been said, an electronic register—the registration online system—is already in place and has been used by registrars to register births and deaths since 2009 in parallel with the paper registers. However, due to the requirements in primary legislation, a paper record of the event must also be kept. That is duplication of effort for registrars. We wish to rectify this anomaly, which can be done only by amending primary legislation.

I reassure the House that the RON system is mature and the infrastructure is well constructed to resist failures. It has high levels of resilience, incorporating multiple back-up systems at the application, hardware and data levels, and robust measures are in place to protect the data that it holds. It is perhaps worth noting that civil partnerships—a more modern concept, created in 2005—are all held in an electronic form of register, given that they were created in the modern era.

As many Members have said, the covid-19 pandemic has clearly highlighted the restrictions and problems with current legislation and the urgent need to be able to offer more flexibility in how births and deaths are registered in the future and remove the requirement for face-to-face registration. The births and deaths legislation does not reflect a modern digital Britain, and it is high time we updated it, which the Bill will do.

The changes proposed by the Bill mean that birth and death entries would be held in a single electronic register rather than in thousands of register books, which registrars are required to keep securely in a safe. That will make the system of registration more secure, more efficient and far simpler to administer in the future. It will also make it far harder for criminals to tamper with records or create false identities. While there has been some talk about the security of digital, we should remember that paper is vulnerable to being forged and enhanced electronic systems can improve the security of the registration process.

I would like to reassure the House that all the existing paper birth and death registers dating back to 1837 will continue to be held in perpetuity by each registration district. It is from those records that historic birth and death certificates will continue to be issued. In reference to the point made by my hon. Friend Jane Stevenson, we are looking at how we can make them increasingly more available online, given that they are a rich historical source.

As touched on, the Bill also removes the administrative processes of quarterly returns, with registers having to be submitted to the superintendent registrar. That again will help to ensure that we have a more efficient system, and that we no longer have a bureaucracy that might have suited the early 19th century but does not suit modern Britain. With the move to an electronic register, it will no longer be necessary to have these types of returns, because following the registration of a birth or death the superintendent registrar and the registrar general will have immediate access to the entries without having to complete the quarterly returns process.

The Bill includes provisions for regulations to be made to provide that a duty to sign the birth or death register is to have effect as a duty to comply with specified requirements. If an informant complies with those requirements, they are to be treated as having signed the register, and to have done so in the presence of the registrar. For example, the regulations may require a person to provide specified evidence of their identity, and it may well allow the opportunity to register from home.

As touched on by some Members, registering a death can be difficult. At the moment it involves making an appointment, and in some cases having to travel quite significant distances, in a rural county, for what can be quite a sad and upsetting moment. It is far better to provide that someone can do it at home in their own time, perhaps with a cup of tea to hand, rather than feeling that it is very much an administrative process. Every death registered is someone—I remember doing it with my own mother. It is someone; it is not an administrative process. Again, I firmly believe that this provision will make it a much better experience for people at a very difficult time in their life.

As touched on, the regulations will be made using the affirmative procedure, requiring them to be laid before, and approved by, both Houses of Parliament, and providing Members of both Houses with an opportunity to discuss their content. I appreciate that not everyone will be able to demonstrate that they have the evidence prescribed in the legislation. We will therefore also include a discretionary power to enable a birth or death to be registered where appropriate.

As we have said throughout, this is about bringing in a modern system of birth and death registration, and I am very grateful to my right hon. Friend the Member for Sutton Coldfield for using this opportunity to present such a worthy Bill. It is high time that we had a modern system. We have seen in recent times the severe limitations that the current primary legislation presents, and it is time to have a system that allows people to be treated as customers, rather than going through a process set out in primary legislation that is now outdated. The Government therefore fully support the Bill’s Second Reading and hope that the House will too.

Photo of Andrew Mitchell Andrew Mitchell Conservative, Sutton Coldfield 2:12 pm, 16th October 2020

I am most grateful to the House for its support of this modest but important measure, particularly to the two Front Benchers for giving such fulsome support. I believe it updates and modernises an important Government service. It extends choice and convenience for our constituents. It saves a great deal of public money—I emphasise that £170 million over 10 years is a very conservative figure—and it starts to put right a wrong inflicted on the good people of the royal town of Sutton Coldfield.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill accordingly read a Second time; to stand committed to a Public Bill Committee (Standing Order No. 63).