I beg to move, That the Bill be now read a Second time.
Every day that I am a parliamentarian is a day of great pride and privilege, but that is particularly the case today. I pay tribute to the hon. Members who have already introduced Bills, which were equally important. In particular, I pay tribute to my right hon. Friend Dr Fox for his Down Syndrome Bill, which shows what can be achieved when we have cross-party support but also passionate Members of Parliament trying to achieve something good. I pay tribute to Margaret Ferrier for two reasons: she introduced an important Bill, but she also ensured that my Bill is not the most technical Bill presented to the House today.
It is a great privilege to speak to this Bill, because I believe it will make a tangible difference to the way we deal with two absolutes in life—births and deaths. The Bill is about modernising the administration of those essential moments in life, by making them more efficient and easier to manage for local authorities and for the public at large, while making cost savings in the process. The Bill reforms the way in which births and deaths are registered in England and Wales, paving the way for a move away from a paper-based system of registration to an electronic system.
Eagle-eyed Members, of whom there are many, will note that this is not the first time that the Bill has been presented to the House. My right hon. Friend Mr Mitchell promoted the Bill in the last Session, and I thank him for his tireless work on this matter. I also thank the Minister for meeting me in the lead-up to the debate and for committing himself to modernising our registration systems so that they are fit for purpose in the 21st century. I am particularly grateful to his team for their support—namely Linda Edwards, who has been extremely helpful in drafting and addressing the issues present in the Bill. It would be remiss of me not to thank my own team—namely Ali Fazel and Ben Rayment—for their support in bringing the Bill to the House.
As in so many cases, covid-19 has had a significant impact on the delivery of registration services across England and Wales, and it has highlighted the need to offer more flexibility in how births and deaths are registered. I believe that the Bill goes a long way in improving the way we process both those pivotal moments in our lives.
Just a few months ago, I became a new father. The birth of my son was one of the happiest, most joyous experiences of my life. When it came to the registration, my wife and I decided to go together with the baby to the registration office. As I am sure Members are fully aware, childbirth and those early weeks are an exhausting experience, and the 20-mile round trip with the baby, when he started crying, felt more like 200 miles. Despite the excellent and kind staff at the registration office, I found the whole process cumbersome. On the way back, I found myself asking one question: surely there is a better way to do things? Of course, I was thinking of the registration process, not parenthood. That question is why I stand in the Chamber today.
For the purpose of clarity, I will run through the existing system and then the changes that the Bill would introduce. Currently, an appropriate informant is required to register all births and deaths that occur in England and Wales with the registrar for the sub-district in which the birth or death occurs. In the case of the birth, the appropriate informant can be the mother of the child or the father—as I recently found on my journey to the registrar’s office.
When they register 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 required to be signed by the registrar and by the informant in the presence of the registrar. That paper record is then put into a register that the registrar keeps in a safe, and it is the formal record of the event from which all certificates are then issued.
Many parents love the birth certificate they get for their child. Will my hon. Friend reassure me by clarifying that he proposes to do away with not that but just the duplication of the record?
My hon. Friend makes an important point. I can confirm that those certificates—of which I have three, by the way—will not be changed. They are an important thing that parents or, indeed, any informant, whether for a birth or death, treasure and keep safe. The Bill deals only with the administration and the process behind it.
The information is currently held in two places: in the electronic system and in paper form. In other words, as my hon. Friend just reiterated, two systems are running in parallel and creating unnecessary duplication. The changes proposed in clause 1 would remove that duplication of processes by amending the Births and Deaths Registration Act 1953—which implemented a system that had been in place since 1836—to remove the requirement for paper birth and death registers. Under my Bill, registrars would continue, as now, to register all births and deaths in the electronic register, which is a much more efficient and secure system for maintaining records of births and deaths. The electronic system is already in place, has been running in parallel since 2009 and is used on a daily basis. It is important to note, then, that we are not building new infrastructure but simply streamlining what we currently have.
I am sure that Members from all parties, but especially my fiscally-conservative colleagues on the Government Benches, will be pleased to hear that the removal of the need for paper registers and the ending of the requirement to make quarterly returns, to which I shall come in a moment, will save the taxpayer £20 million over the next 10 years. That figure is conservative, though, and the estimated savings to the taxpayer as a result of all the Bill’s measures amount to £170 million.
I have already spoken of the impact of covid-19 on births and deaths registration services. The Coronavirus Act 2020 allowed for an easing of the restrictions on the deaths registration process imposed by existing legislation, enabling the registering of deaths by telephone; however, the Act’s life is time-limited by a sunset clause that takes effect in March 2022. The industry hugely welcomed the remote registration of deaths. In the lead-up to this debate, I met the National Association of Funeral Directors in the Borough of Solihull, just outside the border of my constituency. The association informed me of the efficiency and ease of the registration of deaths via phone. The process was highly successful and showed that it could be done, and done well.
It is interesting that my hon. Friend mentioned the financial savings for the taxpayer and the new system of registration by phone or electronically. Are there also environmental benefits from not printing on tens of thousands of pieces of paper every year? Has my hon. Friend made any assessment of that, or might we consider it at a later stage?
My hon. Friend makes a good point and I would certainly welcome our looking into that at a later stage. It makes sense that the Bill could bring some environmental benefits.
Does my hon. Friend share my concern that many of these registrations of deaths during covid have inaccurate information on them? They say the death is caused by covid or with covid, when the nearest and dearest of the people who have died often say there was no covid involved at all. There is a lot of inaccuracy. How does his Bill address that?
I thank my hon. Friend for that intervention and I recognise that he has always been a doughty champion of parliamentary scrutiny. I do not share that concern in reference to my Bill because the reason for the deaths is stipulated by the coroner, which is outside the scope of the Bill.
It might be helpful if I point out that in many cases it would be the medical certificate of the causes of death that would set out the circumstances of the death and what particular conditions may have been involved. That is part of the registration process, but its contents are not necessarily affected by the proposed change.
But does that not highlight the difficulty that, if somebody registers a death on the telephone, they may not have access to the death certificate and may find that the death is registered with inaccurate information from the death certificate?
My hon. Friend says the information that comes from the death certificate is transmitted directly to the registrar. That is right, but if the person who is the nearest and dearest does not know what is contained in that death certificate and is concerned about its accuracy, the death could be registered with information that the nearest and dearest disagreed with.
I understand the point my hon. Friend makes, but it is my contention that that would be covered by the coroner’s process. Of course, there are avenues for reflection and appeal for anyone who is the informant in that instance.
Perhaps it might help if I say that these changed procedures would not change the rules about what goes into the medical certificate of the cause of death. We have already moved how it is transmitted, so the process and methods for raising any concerns are not fundamentally affected by whether it is a paper register or an electronic register, which, of course, already runs in parallel to the paper system.
I thank the Minister for further clarification on that point.
I mentioned that I spoke to the National Association of Funeral Directors, and I am sure the whole House will pay tribute to the funeral industry, which, like many parts of our community, has worked incredibly hard over the past 12 to 18 months due to covid. I certainly pay tribute to funeral directors for their hard work.
Registering a death has traditionally been a paper-driven process and has often been hindered by delays in the system, which serve to increase the gap between the death and the funeral. In fact, a survey of NAFD members in 2021 confirmed that 82% of funeral directors felt that processing the forms digitally was working either well or very well, and almost 80% of respondents confirmed that they rarely or never experienced delays in the registration of deaths.
But I would go further: if we have the chance today to ease the pain of any individual who is grieving, we ought to take that opportunity. That is the opportunity I believe this Bill presents. The last thing anyone who is grieving wants to do is to make that journey—sometimes a very long journey—to the registrar to register a death. Being able to do so electronically may provide some relief in an otherwise difficult time. I reassure my hon. Friends that, as has already been mentioned, this Bill does not make any changes to the information that is to be recorded in an entry, such as who can act as a qualified informant. That remains the same in the case of a birth or a death.
A further change that clause 1 makes to current procedure relates to how information is given to the superintendent registrar. Currently, registrars are required to submit copies of all the birth and death entries that they have registered in the last quarter to their superintendent registrar through a system of quarterly returns. When received from the registrar, the superintendent registrar certifies all the entries as being true copies of the birth and death entries in the registers, and forwards them to the Registrar General. The Registrar General holds a central repository of all births and deaths registered in England and Wales, which is then completed electronically using the electronic system.
My Bill removes that administrative burden, because the move to an electronic register would make the system of quarterly returns unnecessary. Following the registration of a birth or death in the electronic register, the entry would immediately be available to the superintendent registrar and Registrar General without having to complete the quarterly return process from the paper registers.
I turn briefly to the clauses. As already explained, clause 1 removes the duplication of processes and no longer requires the upkeep of a paper register. Instead, all registrations of births and deaths will be processed on to the electronic register. The clause also ends the administrative burden of quarterly returns, as I have stated, as the electronic register will make birth and death entries available to the Registrar General and the superintendent registrar immediately.
Clause 2 makes arrangements for the equipment and facilities to be maintained by local authorities. It makes it clear that all local authorities must provide and maintain the relevant equipment and facilities that the Registrar General deems necessary for all register and sub-district register offices.
Clause 3 introduces a new power that amends the Births and Deaths Registration Act 1953 and allows the Minister to bring before the House new regulations in respect of non-paper registration. Where someone complies with specific requirements, such as the provision of identification, they will be treated as having signed the register in the presence of the registrar.
Crucially, if passed by the House under the affirmative procedure, provision may be made to include the signing of something other than the register, so that a wet signature would not be required and an electronic one would be acceptable. Those requirements would have to be put to the House in further legislation. The clause makes it clear that the Government can do so only under the affirmative procedure, which means that the provisions must be laid before and approved by both Houses of Parliament.
My hon. Friend makes a good point. I admit that I am less au fait with that Act; I know that he was instrumental in helping to make some of the provisions originally. The provision will be considered further in Committee, where I would welcome his input if he were so inclined.
Clause 4 deals with the treatment of the current paper records, which date back to 1836. It requires the registrar to keep and maintain all registers in paper form. Clause 5 brings the schedule into effect. Clause 6 provides the power to make further consequential provisions, including any changes to primary legislation which, to reiterate, would be done through the affirmative procedure only. Clause 7, the commencement clause, comes into effect the day the Bill is passed. It is also worth noting that the Bill does not require a money resolution or a Ways and Means resolution.
In conclusion, the Bill modernises our registration system and makes it more efficient. I hope that we can look back on this debate in years to come as the moment when we collectively made our constituents’ lives more convenient at a time of their lives that can often be pivotal—a moment of happiness or, in the case of deaths, of great tragedy. I urge hon. Members to support the Bill and commend its provisions to the House.
I rise in support of the Bill and I congratulate my hon. Friend Saqib Bhatti on bringing it forward. It will help to update our way of dealing with a process that can add to the stress of situations that are joyful at the beginning of a life and sad at the end of one. I recall that my right hon. Friend Mr Mitchell introduced a similar Bill that did not progress beyond Report for reasons outside his control. I hope that we can complete that work and deal with the anomaly.
I should declare that I do not have a registry office in my Meon Valley constituency, because such offices are in the surrounding towns and cities of Petersfield, Havant, Portsmouth, Fareham, Eastleigh and Winchester. However, this is something that can help all my constituents with the important duties they have to carry out for their families. For example, the telephone registration of a death is particularly helpful, as there are so many things to do at that very tragic time—organising the funeral, writing to people and all the other things that have to be done—so I think this will make a huge difference.
It is important that we have accurate and timely records, but it seems no longer sensible to complicate the process in the way it is with the law as it stands. I know that we have dealt with this through the pandemic with measures that have amended some of the processes of registration, but the underlying system remains the same. I want to thank all the registry office staff, who have been working so hard to help people and keep records updated, for their efforts in these difficult circumstances. We can do much more to help them manage a system fit for the 21st century with the measures in this Bill.
The duplication of paper records and online records is outdated, although the practice only dates back to 2009, as my hon. Friend the Member for Meriden said. As we have moved on to digitising much of our national archives in a wider sense, we have developed systems for securely storing data, while ensuring that it can be queried when needed. It makes very little sense, in 2021, to require all the registry offices in the country to keep thousands and thousands of register books and secure them in a safe.
However, it is vital that the public have confidence in the process. My hon. Friend Sir Christopher Chope questioned that earlier, but I believe the familiarity most people have with electronic record keeping nowadays means that they will trust it. Registering a death, in particular, can be a difficult or traumatic experience for relatives. As I mentioned at the beginning of my speech, all my constituents have to travel a considerable distance to do this. I hope the Minister will consider how this Bill could make that process less difficult in the future, perhaps by making it possible to do so—remotely—online.
I congratulate my hon. Friend Saqib Bhatti on bringing this Bill to the House. I reiterate how important it is now, in the 21st century, to be able to register the important moments in life easily. As hon. Members have said, registering a death, in particular, is extremely distressing. A process that is quite complicated often just adds stress to what people are going through at that stage. I think that being able to register it using a smartphone would be so much better, especially given the last year or 18 months we have gone through, when people have not been able easily or confidently to go out to register births and deaths. I think we need to remember that our registrar and council teams work extremely hard, but it really seems silly now not to think about putting as many records as possible on electronic systems to make it easy and more efficient for our teams. We should also remember that, at those important times in people’s lives, this means that people could actually think about their lives, rather than about the paperwork they have to do. I congratulate my hon. Friend on the work he is doing.
I rise in support of this Bill. It is a pleasure to speak in this debate to support my fellow west midlander, my hon. Friend Saqib Bhatti, and to continue the work done by my right hon. Friend Mr Mitchell. This Bill offers a very straightforward—[Interruption.] Do you know, I changed my glasses because I could not actually read what I was saying, and I am struggling now. Excuse me, Madam Deputy Speaker.
This Bill offers a very straightforward, uncontroversial solution that I hope can command support across the House. It is a measure that both saves money for the taxpayer and removes bureaucracy. As we have heard, the Bill corrects a duplication of processes that has been going on for over a decade. There is now no need for a paper-based system for births and deaths registration, and we can move effectively, efficiently and securely to doing so digitally, as indeed we have been doing for 10 years.
The digitalisation of records has generally been a great success and continues to evolve in accuracy and efficiency as our technology does. As an example, we can take our great archives here in Parliament. The archives can be traced back to as early as 1497, when the Clerk of the House in the other place, Richard Hatton, took the very unusual decision to retain 16 Acts after they had been used to compile the Parliament Roll for the Chancery.
In this House, we were a little slow to start, or perhaps we just had more to do. We can trace the beginning of records here to around 50 years later, when journals and records were preserved. Records continued to accumulate for hundreds of years. Tragically, though, in 1834 a great fire badly affected the archives, particularly in the House of Commons. That brief history lesson aside, the Parliamentary Archives continue to look after the records of both Houses. For some time now, they have been digitalising records and documents, and that is how we should continue.
If covid has highlighted anything, it is the need to offer the public alternative ways to access services, including registering births and deaths. As Members will be aware, the Coronavirus Act 2020 included easements that have enabled registrars to register deaths by telephone and avoid non-essential face-to-face contact. However, the Act was time-limited because of a sunset clause that would take effect in March 2022. The ability to register deaths by telephone has worked very well over the last 18 months, and it has been beneficial for registration officers, the public and the funeral industry in providing a more streamlined service. It has allowed the public to make their funeral arrangements and access relevant services much more quickly at a very difficult moment in their lives.
The Bill has untold benefits, increasing access, improving and enhancing research opportunities and aiding in preservation. I hope that Members across the House agree that we should be looking to reduce bureaucracy and save money for the taxpayer in any way we can, especially right now. The Bill could save the taxpayer £20 million over 10 years, I believe, and that is equivalent to more than £150,000 every month for a decade. This simple Bill will facilitate a registration system that is more modern, more secure, more efficient and cheaper than what we have had to date, and I am happy to offer my hon. Friend the Member for Meriden my support.
I welcome the opportunity to support this important Bill. I congratulate my hon. Friend on it and on the birth of his child, who I can see is very much enjoying today’s proceedings.
We live in a digital age, and some of our Government administrative processes already reflect this, including universal credit and tax assessments. With births and deaths, however, the approach has remained paper-first, not digital-first, so I welcome the Bill’s contribution to changing that. I am sure that busy new parents will welcome the opportunity and flexibility to complete an online form—perhaps in the middle of the night when they are up feeding or settling baby—so that a very tired mum or dad does not have to trudge to the registry office.
At the other end, there is no doubt that people who are grieving their loved ones would prefer to be able to complete paperwork in the way that best suits them at their difficult time. Let us not forget that this includes parents who suffer the heartache and grief of losing their child at or before birth. Sometimes, the greatest joy—bringing life into the world—can also be the source of the greatest grief. Let us not add to that grief by unnecessary and old-fashioned ways of administration.
I hope that in taking forward these actions, I might also raise a related opportunity to help people to cope with death administration. I am talking about enabling flexibility and a facility for people to register wills online by uploading them to their individual Government accounts. Perhaps as many as 30 million adults are thought not to have an up-to-date will, or indeed one at all. That adds enormous strain to families, as well as cost to the public purse, and it causes delays in releasing estates and moneys to people when they need them. Will my hon. Friend join me in writing to the relevant Minister to ask them to consider the electronic uploading of wills, which does not fall under the register of births and deaths, as part of the modernisation of death administration?
I thank my hon. Friend. With that, I conclude by saying that this Bill is a very timely and important contribution. It is essential, as we learn and move on from the coronavirus pandemic, that we take the best of how we are adapting to people’s different ways of working and living. I very much hope that we will see this Bill taken forward and modern digital approaches being brought into this important area of births and deaths registration.
I rise to speak in support of this Bill. I begin by congratulating my hon. Friend Saqib Bhatti on bringing this Bill to the House this afternoon. I also offer my belated congratulations on his becoming a father again and bringing those experiences to the Floor of the House today.
My wife is a very patient woman. It was remiss of me not to mention in my speech that she was in the Lobby with our child. I accept the congratulations of everyone who has given them and everyone who will. I thank my hon. Friend for that.
I am happy to give my hon. Friend the opportunity not to get into trouble with Mrs Bhatti later.
I have to admit that I first approached this Bill with a slight degree of trepidation. As I was reading the letter from the Minister on the Bill, I saw that dreaded word “modernise”. It is not one I always look on favourably. I have a slightly romantic view of records as bound volumes on shelves that will be there forever for historians to pore over in future. I had a worry that with the Bill coming forward, there was a chance that in that drive for modernity—that desire to make progress—we were going to lose something of our history and of our past.
I was not going to speak and am sort of in favour of possibly supporting this Bill, but my hon. Friend’s speech is making me doubt it. Surely having a paper record is a safeguard if someone hacks into the digital one. He is making a good point, and I think he is persuading me to vote against the Bill.
I hope that as I develop my argument, I will begin to show my hon. Friend the error of his ways and how I have convinced myself that my Tory instincts are, on this occasion, perhaps not entirely right.
As I have read further into this matter, I have come to realise that what we have had for so long is not some handsome bound volumes on a shelf to be admired in libraries for years to come, but essentially computer printouts, as I understand it. We have not been recording history beautifully; we have just been duplicating a process—printing out what is really part of a spreadsheet almost and putting it in a loose-leaf binder that is then stored in some secure box in some office somewhere. I am intrigued to know what happens to that secure room in a sub-district departmental office somewhere, perhaps forgotten or secured to some rather dreary out-of-town facility. The glamour and the romance I thought we perhaps had with the way we recorded this important information is a completely inaccurate picture. For that reason, I now realise the error of my ways and I hope Mr Bone will also come to realise that progress, digitisation and computerisation are things to which we will all, reluctantly, have to subscribe.
This issue speaks to one of the core functions of government: record-keeping of births and deaths, and knowing who is in the country. The circumstances of where people have been born and where they have died is one of the very core functions of government. Therefore, getting the Bill on the statute book in the right way may not be glamorous, but it is important to get it right and done as accurately as possible.
The other point that doubters perhaps need to hear is that we have a duplication system. It is not the case that we have bound volumes that are the record. The paper copies we have at the moment are already redundant. It appears that we have an electronic system, which is really the primary system, and the paper copies are an adjunct. They are already redundant. One might ask why we have them at this point anyway, as they have already been proven to be beyond their use. I have not had the experience of registering a birth and I am very fortunate that, so far, I have never had to register a death, but the important point has been made, and I can very well imagine and sympathise, that those experiences can be very emotional and traumatic. They happen at a time when we have 1,001 things that we need to do, and making a trip to do something very bureaucratic and burdensome is something an ordinary person could really do without. We have to remember that government is supposed to work for people, certainly at very emotionally difficult periods of their life.
Does my hon. Friend agree, for the very reasons he has just set out, that that is the most important thing? We are Members of Parliament serving our constituents and we need to simplify the process for them. That is why the Bill is so important: it will make access for registering births and deaths so much easier for our constituents.
My hon. Friend is completely right. Funnily enough, what we will agree today might have a more direct effect and a bigger impact on people’s everyday lives than a lot of the other stuff we debate. It will enable people to get on and it will make their lives easier, and that is, presumably, ultimately what we are for.
I have one final plea for computerisation. We heard about hacking and defaults in the paper system. Maybe I am wrong, but I think the “Day of the Jackal” fraud that used to be perpetrated—I am sure everyone has seen the film or read the novel—has been ended by computerisation, because the birth and death registers are now linked up. I suspect that that is one example of where the computerised system is far superior to the paper-based system. We do not all want to assassinate Charles de Gaulle, but other sorts of fraud can happen with a susceptible system. I am sure that the computerised system will be more secure and it is the future.
I have been pondering my hon. Friend’s thoughts around glamour. He has mentioned “The Day of the Jackal” and perhaps that is where he gets his glamour from. Even though we will, I hope, become digital if the Bill, which I wholeheartedly support, passes, I feel as a glamourous person himself my hon. Friend will be able to continue with the glamour while doing digital work in serving his constituents.
My hon. Friend is too kind.
As we get our civil servants to return to the computer terminal, rather than the ledger, this Bill will do a lot of good by helping to make things much easier for those in a difficult period in their lives. For that, my hon. Friend the Member for Meriden is to be commended on introducing the Bill and I look forward to seeing it progress to the statute book.
I welcome the Bill introduced by my hon. Friend Saqib Bhatti, which seeks to make provision on the keeping and maintenance of registers of births and deaths.
In Hastings and Rye we have Hastings register office and the beautiful Hastings town hall, and I thank all staff for all their hard work, particularly over the past 18 months when their patience and empathy has been so important for so many people in my constituency.
Since 2009 all birth and death registrations have been captured both electronically and on paper. This duplication of processes is unnecessary, does not represent value for money, and is time consuming. Furthermore, this is an old-fashioned process that uses a lot of paper—and, Madam Deputy Speaker, the same might be said about this place. With global warming and too much carbon being emitted, polluting our environment, we can see the value in going green and decreasing our carbon footprint. This Bill removes the requirement for paper registers to be held but does not remove the requirement of having a lovely birth certificate.
Does my hon. Friend agree that this will eliminate not only paper and paper production but lots of unnecessary journeys in cars and other vehicles, and therefore perhaps help to get us to net zero a little more quickly?
My hon. Friend raises a valid point and I absolutely agree.
The Bill removes the requirement for paper registers to be held and stored securely in each registration district, and with records already stored electronically there is no need for on-paper storage. This will save space and eliminate the cost of that extra storage, as explained by my hon. Friend the Member for Meriden. As paper comes from trees, going paperless by utilising electronic document management systems helps cut down on deforestation and pollution, leaving more trees to absorb carbon dioxide, helping to mitigate climate change.
My hon. Friend raises a very good point and I will come to it shortly if he will continue to listen to my little speech.
It has been estimated that a single person uses up to 10,000 paper sheets in one year; imagine the quantity of paper utilised by the register of births and deaths and many other organisations, including this place, and businesses globally.
But is going paperless really saving trees? Is going digital better for the environment? Many in the paper industry dispute this, saying that those who claim going paperless is better for the environment are misleading consumers and that such claims are not substantiated by adequate research. Obviously they have a vested interest and paper manufacturing does lead to deforestation and contributes significantly to climate change. At first glance, digitisation seems to be more sustainable and renewable—electronic products are used over and over again, and information is stored in an invisible cloud—but manufacturing electronic products also leaves a carbon footprint, and energy is needed to power them. What do we do with old computers and laptops, et cetera? These are all waste, which is something we have to think about.
Although there are some environmental benefits of going paperless, there are also cost savings, as highlighted by many Members today. When it comes to being fiscally sensible, as Conservatives are, and taking care of how we spend taxpayers’ money, cost savings are vital, especially if we can provide an equal or even better service.
The Bill would remove unnecessary duplication and facilitate a more efficient registration of births and deaths. Data could be accessed immediately, giving staff and service users the ability to make faster, better-informed decisions, for example, but we need to ensure, as my hon. Friend Sir Christopher Chope highlighted, that digital security is paramount for all things stored or otherwise used online.
Digital files are far easier to copy, share, hack and destroy than physical files, and we must ensure that all legislation is up to date, which is why I welcome the passage this week of the Telecommunications (Security) Act 2021 to better protect people’s smartphones, smart televisions, smart speakers and tablets, and so on, which means people can safely register births and deaths with such devices.
My hon. Friend makes a good point. If people really want to target us and steal paperwork from our house, they would have to break in. That might be a little more difficult than just hacking a computer, but I take her point.
I have heard the points raised on hacking, but it is important to reiterate that this system has been running in parallel since 2009. My understanding is that the information is kept on multiple servers. I invite the Minister to clarify the security side, but there has never been an instance of hacking or suchlike.
I thank my hon. Friend for explaining that point. Obviously with all electronic information storage it is vital that we have the right security and that legislation is kept up to date to ensure we are always one step ahead of those who wish to do us harm.
My hon. Friend is making a powerful speech, and she is persuading me even more to vote against the Bill. She rightly says there is a problem with paper records, because they can be stolen, but there is a problem with computer records because they can be hacked. Surely the current system of having both is the right way forward, unless she can guarantee that it is impossible to hack the records.
I do not think we can guarantee that anything cannot be hacked, but the fact is this is a good Bill. It would cut costs and protect the environment, and this is something we must modernise.
The Bill would streamline processes to bring the registration of births and deaths into the 21st century, which we need to do. I am sorry to my hon. Friend Tom Randall, but at times we need to modernise. Modernisation and conservatism run hand in hand, and that is what we are good at. The goal of the Bill is clear and achievable, and it would cut bureaucracy, saving time and resources. A well-developed, modernised and functioning civil registration system would promote transparency and safeguard efficient Government planning, including the effective use of resources. This Bill deserves the support of the House.
It is a pleasure to follow my hon. Friend Sally-Ann Hart. I hope to be able to share with her a cautionary tale about the consequences of putting blind faith in digitalisation. Before I do so, I congratulate my hon. Friend Saqib Bhatti on introducing this Bill, which I think was a presentation Bill rather than a balloted Bill. However, I think he made the wrong choice about the topic for debate, because, as he has said, this proposal was debated and was the subject of a balloted Bill in the last Session of Parliament.
At that time, our right hon. Friend Mr Mitchell promoted it, brought it before the House for a Second Reading debate for about three quarters of an hour and kindly offered to let me serve on the Committee, although that offer never materialised. My right hon. Friend told me, in a very courteous letter, that he thought that it was because of covid, but I think that it was just because the invitation never materialised. If it had materialised, I would have been more than happy to serve on the Committee. As I was not able to serve on that Committee, I tried to amend the legislation on Report, but unfortunately there was only one minute for my speech on
I am grateful for that offer and shall certainly take it up, because a lot needs to be amended in the Bill. When I tabled amendments on Report last time, they were set out on the amendment paper on
There has been a lot of talk of those of us who believe in having a hard copy record being backwards, and those who believe absolutely in modern technology and electronic records being the great modernisers, but let me share with the House a current live constituency case, about which I have written to the Home Office, as will become apparent in the course of my remarks.
The case is of a Ghanaian citizen, who has a Ghanaian passport. He came to this country about 20 years ago and now wishes to become a British citizen; he has indefinite leave to remain, and a driving licence, national insurance number and all the rest of it. His Ghanaian passport and his driving licence correctly identify his name, which consists of one forename and two surnames. I am not going to shout out his name in the House now, because I still hope that we will get a satisfactory answer out of the Department without the need to name and shame it publicly. He applied for British citizenship on
The website said that corrections to citizenship certificates take 24 working days. After three months had elapsed, he contacted me and I contacted the Home Office. On
“Please be assured that this is being processed…In the meantime, an application can be expedited”.
I had already explained that the lack of his documents was preventing him from being able to start work as a van driver. That remains the situation.
My hon. Friend is demonstrating very well why we should have electronic records: they can be passed forward and backwards much quicker than paper copies, which can also be lost in transit.
The point is that there was an inaccurate translation. When he got his citizenship certificate, somebody mistransposed the full names and put just one surname on his certificate rather than two surnames. That is an example of what happens when we rely on electronic records rather than the actual records, because he is now having to prove to the Home Office—and it is taking a long time, as I have been explaining—that his name is as it is set out on his driving licence and in his Ghanaian passport. He is fortunate that he still had his original records, which we assume have not been lost in the post.
That is just one example; I would like to see far more examples of digitalisation having gone wrong in computer records. As someone who spent more than 29 years in a business that was very technology-driven—I started in 1989 in a company that was all about technology and computerisation—I assure you that such instances are few and far between. I can guarantee you that it is more than likely that an error would be made in a handwritten record, not through digitalisation.
Well, Madam Deputy Speaker, you have a lot to answer for.
Handwritten errors can be identified and corrected. If there is fraud in handwriting, that can be subject to prosecution under the Forgery Act; if a digital record is inaccurate, either through accident or by design, it is very difficult to prosecute under the Forgery Act—in fact, I am not aware of any way in which it could be.
Let us return to the subject of the debate, which is the births and deaths register. The two systems have been running in parallel since 2009; does my hon. Friend have any evidence to adduce that there has ever been any mistake that would have been corrected had there been a paper record rather than an electronic one?
I do not have any evidence on that either way. The whole purpose of the 2009 regulations was that we would still have the hard-copy back-up system. Now, having put those regulations through on the basis that there would be a hard-copy back-up system, the Government say 11 or 12 years later that we do not need one, and can rely on the electronic system. That, I think, is playing fast and loose with the House. Why did the Government introduce regulations in 2009 to amend the system while still assuring the House that hard-copy records would be retained, and why, all these years later, are they seeking to abandon them? I am very concerned about that, but let me now finish the story about my constituent.
As I said earlier, I received a reply on
My hon. Friend Suzanne Webb said that this was just one example. I do not want to detain the House with a whole lot of other examples, but we do know that the hacking of computer records is prolific. It is widespread. It has led to large public companies, and indeed Government Departments, suffering severe fines, penalties and reprimands because of their inability to keep accurate data and protect themselves against hacking processes.
Even in the corridor just outside my office in this wonderful building, there is a great big poster—I think it is the only poster up there—about how we in this place are under continuous cyber-attack. If we are indeed under continuous cyber-attack, why are some of my colleagues so relaxed about it? I see no grounds whatever for being relaxed, and I think we should be very vigilant and protective of our paper record system.
The crux of the matter, it seems to me, is that there must be some great injustice in the current system if it needs to be changed. If the only reason for changing it is modernisation, we as Conservatives should not be supporting it—but perhaps my hon. Friend knows what the problem is with the current system.
That takes me on to the question of how we got to where we are now. For those interested in the background to this, let me explain that one of the former Members for the Christchurch constituency, George Rose, proposed a Bill to overhaul the registration system. He did that in 1812, and Hansard reported at the time:
“It must, he thought”— this refers to my predecessor—
“be universally allowed, that parish registers were of great importance to all ranks and classes of people from the nobleman to the peasant;
and it was highly desirable they should be regularly entered, and safely deposited. At present, instead of being kept in the house of the clergyman of each parish, they were kept in a very slovenly manner in the dwelling of the parish clerk, and he had found, as Treasurer of the Navy”— in those days you could double up these jobs—
“numberless instances of the widows of seamen, who, from this culpable negligence, were not able to prove their marriages.”
The legislation was passed, and proved to be inadequate. That ultimately led to the 1875 Act, which is the core of our current system. Under our current system, almost all the people who are born have their details recorded. I think that, according to the latest information available, there are about 20 cases a year in which people are born without having their details accurately recorded.
Fundamental to the issue is that it is a basic legal requirement to have a birth registration, and birth registration—I hope the Minister agrees—is one of our most fundamental human rights. The United Nations convention on the rights of the child acknowledges that every child should be registered immediately after birth. We now say that should be six weeks, and we have heard from my hon. Friend the Member for Meriden and others that it can be very burdensome for someone to go off and get their child registered.
All I can say is that my daughter gave birth to a little baby girl about a fortnight ago, and she and my son-in-law are much looking forward to going to the district register office in Lymington to record the details, including the name, of their daughter. Whatever happens, that record will be on paper as well as being an electronic record. How sad that it seems to be the intent of the Government that, in the future, people who are lucky enough to have children will not be able to have the privilege of a proper written birth certificate—a hard copy holograph birth certificate. I think that that is quite an unnecessary restriction on those fundamental freedoms.
To be absolutely clear, that is not the Government’s intent. The law will still provide for hard-copy birth certificates.
What my hon. Friend is referring to is like saying, “When I print off an email, it’s a hard copy.” It is not a hard copy; it is emailed and printed off. The Minister is talking about an electric record that can be reproduced in hard copy form. If we are talking about hard-hard copies, then, as I asked earlier, how does that fit in with the Forgery Act? Obviously, hard copies depend on having holograph signatures, and we hear that in this Bill there is the power for people to be able to register births without having to provide any signature at all unless they can send their signature by electronic means to the registration district. This is a very serious issue.
Without dwelling any more on the history of the Act, let me just say that throughout the mid-19th century, the only blip on issues relating to birth registrations, which were increasing the whole time, was the Vaccination Act 1853, which tied compulsory vaccination of all infants to their registration and gave powers for parents to be fined for non-compliance. As always happens with the law of good intentions, it ended out quite differently because as it was the local registrar who informed parents of their legal obligation to vaccinate their children, parents who feared vaccination avoided the registrar. Plus ça change, as they might say, in the context of today’s attempts to try to require compulsory vaccination for everybody in this country even if it means depriving them of their right to work in a care home or in the national health service.
The Bill itself contains a number of provisions about which I raised concerns with my right hon. Friend the Member for Sutton Coldfield when he brought it forward originally. One of those is the fact that there are lots of regulation-making powers in the Bill. I said to him that I thought it was desirable that those regulations or orders should be available in draft at Committee stage so that they could be properly examined in Committee. He said that he thought that was a really good idea. However, when we got to Committee, no such draft regulations were available.
I presume, because the Government attach urgency to this Bill and more than a year has elapsed, that those regulations and draft orders are available. I look forward to the Minister confirming that they are, but if they are not, why not? When will they be available? Why can we not see them before the Bill goes into Committee? These draconian measures give great power to the Government to set out regulations and change the existing law. It seems bad practice that people should be expected to go through a detailed Bill such as this in Committee without having any inkling of what the Government are hiding away in the regulations that are held in the relevant Department and are not being openly disclosed. I fear that that total lack of transparency is almost endemic in so much of what the Government do.
My next concern about the Bill is that under clause 1(3), section 28 of the 1953 Act, in relation to the custody of registers, would be repealed. That would remove any requirement for registration officers to hold registers. As a consequence, the hard copies that so many people look at when they examine their family history would not be available and accessible. Clause 4 states that such a repeal of section 28 would not affect the requirement that every superintendent registrar should keep records that were already in existence, provided that that did not cover records issued between 2009 and the day when this Bill comes into effect.
I was assured by my right hon. Friend and the Minister, who responded to the debate on the previous Bill, which is on identical terms, that the requirement to keep existing—or what might be described as old—records would not be affected in any way. However, when one looks at clause 6 of this Bill, one sees that the Government are taking the power to make further consequential provisions on any provision of this Act, including clause 4, which is meant to be a safeguard. That power
“is exercisable by statutory instrument”.
It includes the powers
“to make different provision for different purposes” and
“to make transitional, transitory or saving provision”,
“may, in particular, be exercised by amending, repealing or revoking any provision made by or under primary legislation”— in other words, this is a Henry VIII clause writ large—
“passed or made before, or in the same Session as, this Act.”
Under the powers in clause 6, all the assurances and guarantees on the operation of clause 4 and the safeguards under what is now section 28 of the 1953 Act are completely worthless. We, as a sovereign Parliament, do not have the power to bind our successors, but we do have the power, if we so choose, not to make it too easy for our successors to change the rules against the wishes of the people. That is why I think it is outrageous that the Government should be taking powers to change by regulation the guarantees that they say are in existence in clause 4 of this Bill. That is just the sort of issue I would like to address in Committee, and I hope that my hon. Friend the Member for Meriden will be able to give me some indication that he will accept amendments facilitating those safeguards for existing registers and records.
Another concern I have about the Bill, which my hon. Friend alluded to in introducing it, is the way regulations could be amended to change the requirement to actually sign the register. Those provisions, set out in clause 3 of the Bill, amend the 1953 Act by inserting a new section 38B after section 38A. An extraordinary lack of information is attached to what the Government intend here. It has been alluded to in the speeches of some of my hon. Friends, who seem to think it is really desirable that we should simplify what has been a solemn and historic process of registering births; I will come on later to the issue of registering deaths.
The proposed new section says:
“Where any register of births or register of deaths is required to be kept…otherwise than in hard copy form, the Minister may by regulations provide that—
(a) a person’s duty…to sign the register at any time is to have effect as a duty to comply with specified requirements at that time, and
(b) a person who complies with those requirements is to be treated…as having signed the register”.
In other words, somebody who has not actually signed the register will be treated as having signed it. Are we seriously going to legislate to create the pretence that somebody who has not signed the register has signed it and is deemed to have signed it, that, in the case of a duty to sign the register in the presence of the registrar, they are deemed to have done so in the presence of the registrar, and that accordingly in such a case the entry in the register is to be taken for the purposes of the Act as having been signed by the person when it has not been? Why are we allowing that?
What is one of the biggest safeguards of the integrity of our births register and our deaths register? It is the sanction against forgery. A sanction against forgery is nugatory if we do not require holograph signatures. My hon. Friend who so ably introduced the discussion on the Bill seems to be slightly poleaxed—I think that might be the expression—by the references to that. We have not yet had any help from the Minister on how the Forgery and Counterfeiting Act fits into this, but maybe the regulation-making powers under clause 6 of this Bill will be able to change the Forgery and Counterfeiting Act so that it applies not to actual forgery as we would know it, with people using pen and ink to change something, but to something that is deemed to be pen and ink.
My hon. Friend is making a powerful speech. Will he tell me what happened during covid? Unfortunately, I was involved in registering a death during the covid period and it seemed to me that this was all done electronically, with no signatures required. In the case I was involved in, that did not work particularly well. Does he have any views on that?
When we were discussing earlier the issue of registration of deaths, I drew my hon. Friend’s attention to the fact that I have had lots of constituents—he probably has the same situation—raise with me the fact that their loved ones were given death certificates that inaccurately reflected their covid status. In a sense, the Government are hoist with their own petard on that, because it was all part of what has been described as a “scaremongering propaganda campaign” to make it seem as though more people were dying from covid than were actually doing so by saying that they may have had covid within the 28 days before their death. Extraordinarily, if one asks questions about whether people have died within 21 days or 28 days of having received a vaccine against covid, the Government get very coy about that. I do not know why that might be, because I think that the more transparent the Government are, the more they will be able to counter the vaccine hesitancy that is an increasing problem in this country as people find out that some things relating to the vaccines are being suppressed if not fully exposed to public view. I will not go on about that, but I referred in this House a few weeks ago to my Covid-19 Vaccine Damage Bill and I do so once again, without going into any more detail about it.
There is a real problem if the Government put provisions in a Bill and then are not willing to spell out all the implications. What do the explanatory notes say about clause 3? Obviously, in the absence of anything else, one looks at the explanatory notes, but they do not help, because the notes on clause 3 just repeat the content of clause 3 without explaining what the Government have in mind. Why are we in that situation? Why has no cost-benefit analysis or regulatory impact assessment been published in respect of this Bill? We know that the requirement to do this does not apply to private Members’ Bills, but if such a Bill is, in essence, a proxy for a Government Bill, is there any reason at all why those things should not be published? Again, the Government are intent on bringing this measure forward, but wish to do so without sharing with the House and the public all the implications that flow from it and the Government’s thinking about what might happen.
I have been thinking long and hard as the debate goes on. Does my hon. Friend agree that the Bill does appear to be a Government Bill but not in Government time, so it does not have an impact assessment? For that reason alone, when we vote later, I urge hon. Members to reject it to make sure that the Government bring it forward properly for proper scrutiny in Government time.
I am grateful for my hon. Friend’s suggestion and it would be interesting to hear what the Minister has to say in response. [Hon. Members: “Hurry up, then!”] If the Minister wishes to intervene, I shall happily give way.
It is the Government’s prerogative to bring forward their legislation to the House. When they do so in the normal way, a Bill has a regulatory impact assessment, a cost-benefit analysis and so on. The Government should not avoid that system, and avoid the need to be transparent, by using the proxy system whereby a loyal Back Bencher takes on a Bill as a handout Bill.
My hon. Friend the Minister is a man of absolute integrity who has participated in almost as many Friday debates as I have over the years. In all those debates, I have not once found him wanting in terms of dealing straightforwardly with the subject matter under discussion. It is open to him to say that he will bring forward a regulatory impact assessment before we get to Committee so that we can examine it and we know the Bill’s full implications.
There is obviously no discipline or requirement on the Government to publish the impact assessment if they think that they have a majority of 80. I imagine that the Government will now bring forward the Bill as a Government Bill because my hon. Friend Mr Bone and I are expressing concerns about it and it is not making progress in the House as quickly as they might wish. If they do that, there will be a proper Second Reading, Committee and Report, which is fine.
I hope that we will then have the regulatory impact assessment in front of us and we will be able to assess what the Government have in mind and what they are hiding from us. Having had the experience in the previous Session of being told one thing in the House by my right hon. Friend Mr Mitchell about what would happen when we got to Committee, and those promises, or certainly expressions of intent, not materialising, I am very suspicious about the Bill.
People up and down the country will wonder why we are spending so much time discussing the issue of removing proper paper records of births. What will we do about all the people who will be adversely affected by that? I have another example of a constituent who is a South African citizen whose child was born in the United Kingdom and is therefore entitled to United Kingdom citizenship. To take his child to South Africa, he has to provide a hard-copy, holographed birth certificate. How will he do that in future if those hard copies do not exist?
That is another practical example of how the Bill’s provisions will adversely affect people of foreign citizenship who have children born in this country for whom they wish to have an old-fashioned birth certificate rather than one that has been put on a—
The Deputy Speaker interrupted the business (
Bill to be read a Second time on Friday