It is strange how one gets involved in business in this place. In the mid-1990s, I was a director of the city challenge in Bolton and we were looking around for flagship schemes. I proposed to the then leader of the council, Bob Howarth, that we should bring back into use an old hall on a hill overlooking Bolton that was in a rather attractive park. The hall had been boarded up for several years. It had previously been a mill owner’s house. I proposed that we move the registration service in Bolton out of dreadful premises in the town centre—where the brides came out into patches of oil on a taxi rank—to that lovely old hall set in a beautiful park. That cost £1 million, but it was achieved.
The registration service there today supports a community centre, a hospitality suite with bars, and so on. I was pleased to hear that it celebrated its 10th anniversary last week and that Oliver Barton, who was the principal officer at the time, returned and helped them celebrate. I was pleased in one way, but not so pleased in another, when my eldest daughter, Sally, chose to get married in Mere hall—the lovely old hall that I am talking about—right in the middle of the election campaign, which brought me to the House in 1997.
When Joyce Quin, the former hon. Member for Gateshead, East and Washington, West was promoted to the other place as Baroness Quin, the Society of Registration Officers was casting around for a new patron for England and Wales. It was no surprise, therefore, when my name popped up. I was initially pleased to be invited, because I thought that it was a great honour, but it soon dawned on me that the society was giving me a huge responsibility, because it was seeking to achieve what the Bill will, hopefully, bring about. It has taken 10 years of campaigning. I have lost count of how many Ministers I have met, both at the Department of Trade and Industry and the Treasury, with officers of the Society of Registration Officers and, latterly, Unison to try to bring about this measure.
It is odd that registration officers are appointed, housed and paid by local authorities and that their pensions are arranged by local authorities, but only one person—the Registrar General in Pimlico, London—has the right to dismiss them. When I began this campaign there was no right of appeal against dismissal. At least in the early days of the campaign we won the right of appeal, but appeals had to be heard by the Registrar General in Pimlico and he could hear them only on the basis of new evidence.
During my time as the society’s patron at least 18 members of the service have been dismissed—some of them under bitter circumstances that I do not want to relate.
Mr. Olner, I will take the hint. I thought that it was very considerate of the House authorities to sound the wedding bells right in the middle of my speech. [Laughter.]
What clause 66 will do is transfer the employment of superintendent registrars and their colleagues to the employment of local authorities, which is what we have been campaigning for all this time. The Society of Registration Officers—SORO—tells me that it has historical records to suggest that this campaign has been going on for 60 years. I have documentary evidence to suggest that it started at least in 1985 in the House when an efficiency scrutiny was published which recommended this transfer of employment.
The hon. Gentleman has been very helpful in explaining the genesis of the campaign, which has resulted in this measure. As patron of the Society of Registration Officers, can he tell us what proportion of registration officers are members of the society and what other consultation took place with registrars who were members of Unison or other groups to ensure consultation across the whole profession?
I will give a brief answer. I cannot give a percentage, but I know that the figure is extremely high and that the consultation has been going on for as long as I have been involved with the campaign. There are one or two members of SORO who still recognise that the status of being a statutory officer is rather special, but frankly I think that it is an outdated status, and it causes problems. What we are doing in clause 66 is the correct way forward.
There is another difficulty in the transfer in that statutory officers, as registration officers are, do not have any official employer and therefore on the whole do not come under employment legislation. This area is a bit grey and rather complex, as the Library research paper suggests. Under some of the employment legislation they could be classed as workers, but there have not been many court cases to test this. Myself, Unison and SORO have campaigned on two parallel tracks, one of which has resulted in clause 66, and we have also campaigned with the Department of Trade and Industry to bring in section 23 of the Employment Act 2002.
This clause is a better way forward, as the Library research paper suggests. To apply section 23 would have left registration officers in that grey area and there would have been some court cases before it was illustrated that employment rights could be protected under the Employment Act.
I thank the Financial Secretary for taking on board what is essentially my ten-minute Bill from the last Session of Parliament. He has listened, and I am grateful for that, as are all the people concerned.
As I have mentioned, clause 66 and part 2 have the support of SORO and Unison. They also have the support of the Local Authority Co-ordinators of Regulatory Services and the employers’ organisation as well. One problem remains; because registration officers have no legal employer, the Transfer of Undertakings (Protection of Employment) Regulations 1981 do not apply to them. Therefore, I am very pleased that the Government have seen their way to build into clause 66 protection of all the employment rights of that group of workers. Incidentally, there are 1,700 registration officers—not a large number, but a significant one. The clause protects the employment and pension rights of those people when they are transferred. Their service will be seen as continuous, so that their pension rights will transfer into the schemes of local authorities, which in any case already organise their pensions.
It would be inappropriate of me not to thank Karen Knapton this afternoon. She has worked with me for many years as the honorary secretary of the Society of Registration Officers. She has now retired, and she would have liked to have seen this campaign bear fruit today. I am now continuing my work with Julie Hole, the present honorary secretary. I thank those people. I will be able to go to the conference this spring and give my 10th and valedictory speech—as Members know, I am retiring. Instead of trying to find excuses for the Government, as I have done at all my annual presentations in the past nine years, I will be able to go out on a high note. Bearing in mind what you said at the beginning of this part of the debate, Mr. Olner, I thank you for your patience.
I welcome the chance to say a few words about the employment status of registration officers in England and Wales. I would like to take this opportunity to pay tribute to the important work undertaken by the hon. Member for Bolton, South-East on the issue. As we have heard, he has been campaigning tirelessly for many years and he deserves a huge amount of credit for the measure.
The Opposition welcome the changes. We would have been happy if the hon. Gentleman’s private Member’s Bill had proceeded a few years ago. That did not happen, thanks to the late great Eric Forth. He, of course, had firm opinions about the use of private Member’s Bill time for Government business. We are delighted to see that the Government have used their own business time to propose the measure to regularise the employment position of registrars and superintendent registrars. It is clear that the law needs changing, and I would like to join the Financial Secretary in paying tribute to the work done by registrars at important and sometimes stressful ceremonies in people’s family lives. They deal with the public with great care and sensitivity. I would particularly like to single out the registrars working in my constituency in Chipping Barnet for their valuable work.
We support the move to make registrars local authority employees and to provide them with employment rights and protection. It seems not only sensible but just and consistent to bring the employment of registration officers into line with that of employees of local authorities. I am sure that the change will be welcomed by organisations that have long campaigned for it, such as SORO, Unison and the other organisations to which the hon. Gentleman referred.
There is one point on which I seek reassurancefrom the Minister. I have received a representation from one registration officer who is unhappy with the Government’s proposals. She fears that the changes could remove one of the safeguards relating to the registration of deaths. Registration officers decide whether to refer a death to the coroner. The registrar in question is concerned that if registration officers and coroners become local authority employees, that will in some way interfere with the freedom of registrars to take a decision in the public interest. Since I have not heard from any other registrars on the point, it is reasonable to conclude that that is a minority concern, but because it has been raised with me it would be useful to hear the Financial Secretary’s view. Is he confident that the Bill will ensure that sufficient safeguards are still in place on the registration of deaths? Have such concerns been brought to his attention?
According to the Association of Registration and Celebratory Services, some concern has been expressed that registrars would suffer a loss of independenceif they became local authority employees. My understanding is that such concerns seem largely to have been laid to rest and that the reform is broadly welcomed not just by members on both sides of the Committee but by a significant majority of registration officers. We welcome the proposals and would be grateful for clarification on the points that I have mentioned.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Bolton, South-East, on the wonderful work that he has done on this matter. Will the Financial Secretary clarify one point? Clause 66(8) defines a local authority. Will a unitary authority such as Wolverhampton, where my constituency is located, come under the rubric of paragraph (b), which includes in that definition
“a district council in England for an area without a county council”?
Wolverhampton city council is not commonly described as a district council, and a number of other authorities are in the same position.
I join everyone else in welcoming the proposals and congratulating the hon. Member for Bolton, South-East on his work in bringing them forward. It makes sense to deal with this matter at the same time as changes to the statistics system.
I wish to raise one issue—the possibility of a registration officer simultaneously holding theposition of deputy registration officer. I have had correspondence, I suspect from the same person as the hon. Member for Chipping Barnet. I believe that this person holds the post of registration officer and is also deputy officer. Deputy superintendent registrars and deputy registrars are already local authority employees, so what impact will the clause have on people who hold deputy as well as main registrar posts? That relates to subsections (2)(c) and (d), which may well be clarified in subsections (5)(a) and (b), but it is worth putting the matter on record.
I shall first respond to the substantive contribution made by my hon. Friend the Member for Bolton, South-East. He gave an eloquent and rather moving account of his work and what has motivated it over the years. The progress that can be made through private Member’s legislation and the dividends that can come from persistent pressure are a testament to the role of Members of the House. His work on the matter is in the best traditions of the House and the role of Members of Parliament.
The clause will give about 1,700 registration officers status as local government employees. For the first time, they will have access to the tribunals, rights and protections that others have had for some time. My hon. Friend is right. I made sure that clause 66 ensured that registration officers’ existing terms and conditions were retained after the formal transfer of employment status. Not least as a result of his work, the proposals command the support of all bodies in this rather densely-populated field of local government organisations. I listened to him carefully, but am not sure whether he mentioned that Unison was strongly supportive of his Bill and his campaign to secure this new status for registration officers. When he goes to the annual conference of the Society of Registration Officers later this year, he can give it the good news and, I hope, convey the Government’s and the Committee’s good wishes. The society provides a vital service and the change in the clause is long overdue.
The concerns raised by the hon. Member for Chipping Barnet have not been brought to my attention before. The registration officer who contacted her was concerned that registration officers’ important discretion to refer a death to the coroner for further examination would be affected. I see nothing in the legislation or the intention behind it to suggest that that would be the case. However, I shall double check and if I am wrong, shall let the hon. Lady and other Committee members know.
In response to my hon. Friend the Member for Wolverhampton, South-West, I should say that the provisions in clause 66 include a comprehensive list of all local authorities with registration functions. I think, therefore, that his concerns are covered. In answer to the hon. Member for Falmouth and Camborne, deputies, like registration officers, will indeed become local authority employees. In light of our debate, I hope that both sides of the Committee will give a good loud shout in support of the clause.
On a point of order, Mr. Olner. May I pay tribute to you and your co-Chairman, Sir John? You have chaired our Committee flexibly and firmly and have helped to guide us in giving due scrutiny to all the provisions in the Bill. I am particularly grateful to the Clerks for the advice that they have given to you, Mr. Olner, to us and to the officials. I pay tribute to the Official Reporters; some of the technical points that I have made might have been a bit obscure and hard to follow—as I daresay some of my arguments have been—but they have done a marvellous job. The same is true of the police and the staff of the House, who have ensured the smooth running of our proceedings during the past two weeks.
I also pay tribute to the Opposition Front-Bench spokespeople: the hon. Members for Chipping Barnet, for Fareham, for Twickenham and for Falmouth and Camborne. I also thank the hon. Member for Dundee, East, who represents both his Front Bench and his Back Bench in the Committee. Minority parties do not always take their place in legislative Committees. He is not in his place this afternoon, but he is particularly assiduous in carrying out the duties for his party on the Treasury brief, and I welcome his interest in serving on the Committee, not least because of Scotland’s decision to be a full part of the Bill, which is equally strongly supported by my hon. Friend the Member for Central Ayrshire, who is in his place this afternoon.
I am also grateful to all Back-Bench Members of the Committee. They might not make the Minister’s job easier, but I welcome the contributions from both sides of the Room to the scrutiny of legislation in Committee. At the profound risk of singling some out but not others—it is like judging a beautiful baby competition—I must say that the hon. Member for Sevenoaks has brought to our proceedings his usual forensic examination of the Bill. He chaired the Treasury Committee’s inquiry, has spoken widely at conferences and to interest groups, and is therefore highly knowledgeable on the subject.
I must also mention my right hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff, South and Penarth. He has brought to our deliberations the passion that he showed in government for the people responsible for policy and public services locally. He has been clear in insisting that we use the new statistical system to recognise their role and to help them play it better.
My hon. Friend the Member for Bolton, South-East has worked for so long and pursued so many paths—and Ministers—to put the employment of registration officers on a proper footing. I am pleased to be the Minister who is finally able to do so, not least because it will save so many of my colleagues from his assiduous attention. My hon. Friend the Member for Portsmouth, North, has played a necessarily low-key role in the Committee’s proceedings, but one that is vital and appreciated by any Minister.
My hon. Friend the Member for Wolverhampton, South-West has contributed with his usual attention to detail, both of the Bill and of debates, and is a lesson to us all in providing active Back-Bench scrutiny of legislation. This is the first such Committee on which he and I have served together in which he has not mentioned the explanatory notes accompanying the Bill, except when I mentioned them first. If he wants to correct me, I will check the official record to see whether I have made a mistake—on second thoughts, I will not, but I guess that he might.
We are looking at a first for the Bill in other ways. The hon. Member for Twickenham declared himself “quite overwhelmed” by how, for the first time in 10 years, he has tabled an amendment that has been accepted. Once again, I am delighted to be in a position to make the hon. Gentleman so happy.
My hon. Friend the Member for Slough helped to establish a new parliamentary protocol on the acceptable use of a word as a noun rather than an adjective for the contents of the sewers of Slough. The hon. Member for South-West Hertfordshire broke new ground too, when he proposed incorporating two minutes on the naughty step as a sanction for board members. I have persuaded parliamentary counsel to have another look at the concept of misbehaviour, but they regarded that as a step too far. [Laughter.] I am glad that the members of the Committee are still awake after our long proceedings—that was a little test for my hon. Friend the Member for Loughborough.
On a slightly more serious note, we have a parliamentary first for the Committee—ours is the first Bill under the new Public Bill process, by which we have resolved to take in and publish written evidence. I am slightly disappointed that no written evidence has been submitted for us to publish, but I guess that it is early days for the new system.
The Clerk described this part of our proceedings as Oscar-winning stuff. In that vein, I wish to point out that I have refrained from mentioning my mother-in-law or, indeed, Mrs. Gauke. Finally, the hon. Member for Bexleyheath and Crayford and the Lord Commissioner of Her Majesty's Treasury, my hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff, West have done an excellent job of keeping us on track, in making sure that we have given due scrutiny to the Bill but in an efficient way. I have particularly valued the advice of my hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff, West. In my own small way, I have returned that favour by dropping him a note to ensure that he knows exactly which way to vote on Report.
Further to that point of order, Mr. Olner. I should like to join the Financial Secretary in thanking you for your excellent stewardship of the Committee and in putting on record our thanks to your co-Chairman, Sir John. I should like to thank, in his absence, my hon. Friend the Member for Fareham for handling the Bill from the Front Bench for me, as well as the team behind me: my hon. Friends the Members for Braintree and for South-West Hertfordshire. I am delighted that Mrs. Gauke’s name is finally on the record; I was going to ensure that it happened, but the Financial Secretary got there first.
I particularly welcome and agree warmly with the tributes paid by the Financial Secretary to my hon. Friend the Member for Sevenoaks, who has brought rigorous scrutiny and huge expertise to the Committee’s deliberations. He has played an extremely strong part in the scrutiny process. I should like to thank the hon. Member for Wolverhampton, South-West for his usual forensic scrutiny, not only of the Opposition’s activities but of the Government’s.
Turning to the Financial Secretary, much of what he has told us in Committee has provided welcome clarification. As he will be aware, there are a number of points on which we will continue our campaign to strengthen the Bill, but we have been able to clarify some points in an important way.
I, too, welcome the contribution of the hon. Member for Dundee, East and was struck by the comments of the hon. Member for Twickenham and his moving address to the Committee after his amendment was accepted. I recall that I had about 30 amendments accepted to the Finance Bill last summer, but it takes a while for such things to happen.
I should also like to place on record my thanks to the Clerks of the Committee, who have done an excellent job, to the Hansard writers, the police and the staff and to the unmentionable—the Whips—who have done an excellent job in managing the business of the Committee.
Further to that point of order, Mr. Olner. On behalf of my hon. Friend the Member for Twickenham and myself, I thank you for your support and for ensuring both that we got through the Bill in a timely way and that sufficient scrutiny was undertaken. At times, debates on some groups of amendments became complicated, and we appreciate your guidance, which was essential in ensuring that we kept in order. We also appreciate the effort that the Clerks made to keep up with our ramblings. I also thank the Official Reporters for their help, and I thank the police and staff of the House for making sure that everything proceeded smoothly.
If it were a beautiful baby competition, everyone would have gone home with a prize for their contributions. We have had some interesting debates and we have covered a wide range of issues in the past couple of weeks. The Financial Secretary has been helpful and productive in dealing with the matters that Liberal Democrat Members have raised. That may be why my hon. Friend the hon. Member for Twickenham was so moved; it sounds as though he gave something akin to an Oscar acceptance speech. I am sure that he treasures his amendment being agreed to more than he would treasure an Oscar.
I thank the hon. Members for Chipping Barnet and for Fareham for being so co-operative. This has been a fairly smooth Committee. We have discussed some serious matters, but they have all been dealt with well. These proceedings have led to a first for my hon. Friend and a first for the Committee in terms of the submission of written evidence, and I hope that both precedents will be followed by many more successes.