May I first say, on behalf of the whole Committee, what a pleasure it is to serve under your benign chairmanship, Ms McVey, and welcome you to the Chair? May I also express my admiration and gratitude to hon. Members from all parts of the House who have physically made the journey to the Committee today? Under the rules of the House, we all have to be here physically to conduct the Committee stage, and I am immensely grateful to all those who have made the journey, whose names will be recorded in Hansard.
I also thank colleagues from both sides of the House for their co-operation in working on the Bill and, in particular, the Opposition for their support. That includes Sarah Jones, who unfortunately cannot be with us today, but who led for the Opposition on Second Reading.
The Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department, my hon. Friend Kevin Foster, cannot be here today either, for reasons that the Committee will readily understand and accept, but in his absence we are joined by my hon. Friend the Member for Corby, who is double-hatting—of course, a Government Whip is also a Minister. We are extremely grateful to him for, at short notice, taking on this speaking part, which is somewhat unusual for the Government Whips Office or, indeed, any Whips Office. I believe I am right in saying that, before he was a Government Whip, he was a very distinguished vice-chairman of the youth wing of our party. That was my first parliamentary job when I first came into the House at, I think, about the time when my hon. Friend was born, so we are very grateful indeed to him for being here today and helping to take this Bill through Committee.
This is a very difficult time. I therefore hope that you will allow me, Ms McVey, to express a couple of thanks to those who put together the arrangements for this morning so that the Committee could take place: from the Clerks Department, Adam Mellows-Facer, and Yohanna Sallberg from the Committee of Selection; Linda Edwards and Saskia Molekamp from the Home Office; and of course Jonathan Carter, who drafted the Bill and whom I should have mentioned on Second Reading. I am also very grateful that our former colleague Lord Lancaster of Kimbolton has generously agreed to take the Bill through the House of peers, should it get assent in this House.
The Second Reading debate made clear—at least I hope it did—that the Bill was conceived in the Royal Town of Sutton Coldfield, my constituency, where the registry office was closed back in 2014. As a result of that, many of my constituents, at a difficult time in their lives, had to make the long journey from Sutton Coldfield into Birmingham to register a birth or a death. A day like today, the day after we have all had to come to terms with the terrible news about the scale of covid deaths in our country, brings it home to us that at a difficult time, of great sadness often, having to go physically into a registry office to register a death or, indeed, a birth is a hardship. Of course, as a result of the Bill, that will all be able to be done online. In addition, of course, as I made clear on Second Reading, the Bill will save the taxpayer—the Treasury—some £200 million over 10 years, which is an important point to bear in mind.
While the Bill was conceived in the Royal Town of Sutton Coldfield, it was definitely born in the Home Office, which strongly supports it. Indeed, the Home Office has been enormously helpful and, as I say, I pay particular tribute to Linda Edwards for the time and effort that she has taken, both in briefing me and ensuring that we get the terms of these seven clauses and the schedule right today.
I will now address the clauses and the schedule in granular detail. As I am sure members of the Committee will understand, we are changing the law of the land, and therefore it is most important that we set down what is intended in this very technical area. Therefore, I hope that I will be relatively brief but also extremely clear.
Currently, under the Births and Deaths Registration Act 1953, the Registrar General for England and Wales provides the local registration service with paper birth and death registers, and paper forms for making certified copies of the register entries, which are more commonly known as birth and death certificates. The registers have been paper-based since 1837. Since 2009, registrars in England and Wales have also recorded the birth and death registration information electronically, in parallel with the paper-based system, due to the existing outdated legislation requiring the paper-based system, which is a duplication of effort for registrars.
Clause 1(2) amends the 1953 Act and substitutes section 25 with a new section 25. The new section allows the Registrar General to determine how registers of live births, stillbirths and deaths are to be kept, and contains additional provision that is appropriate for registers being in electronic form only. This will allow the duplication of processes to be removed, by allowing the Registrar General to remove the requirement for paper registers and to move to electronic birth and death registers. Subsection (2) allows the Registrar General to require that registrars keep information in a form that will allow the Registrar General and the superintendent registrar to have immediate access to all birth and death entries as soon as the registrar has entered the details in the electronic register.
In the case of stillbirths, subsection (2)(b) of proposed new section 25 allows only the registrar to have immediate access to the entries in the register. Currently, the superintendent registrar and Registrar General would have access to the birth and death entries only upon receipt of the quarterly returns.
Subsection (3) of proposed new section 25 provides that
“where a register is kept in such form”,
for example in electronic form, any information in that register made available to the Registrar General and superintendent registrar is deemed to be
“held by that person (as well as by the registrar)” when carrying out that person’s functions—in other words, for the issuing of certified copies and for data-sharing powers. Subsection (4) provides that is required for the purpose of creating and maintaining the birth and death registers, for example providing registrars with the electronic system, is the responsibility of the Registrar General. Subsection (5) also places a responsibility on the Registrar General to provide the required forms to produce certified copies of entries, for example birth and death certificates.
Sections 26 and 27 of the 1953 Act set out the requirements for quarterly returns. Currently, copies of all the entries of live births, stillbirths and deaths made in the paper registers are transmitted by the registrar to the superintendent registrar. The superintendent registrar is required to certify the entries as a true copy and deliver them to the Registrar General on a quarterly basis. The process of quarterly returns is completed electronically. The Registrar General holds a central repository of all births and deaths that have been registered in England and Wales, from which certificates can be issued.
Clause 1(3)(a) and (b) omit sections 26 and 27 of the Act, which set out the requirements for the quarterly returns made by a registrar and superintendent registrar, as they will no longer be needed, due to the entries for all births and deaths being held on a single electronic register, which will give the superintendent registrar and the Registrar General immediate access to the records, as provided for by subsection (2). Clause 1(3)(c) omits section 28 of the Act, which sets out how paper birth and death registers need to be stored by registrars, superintendent registrars and the Registrar General. With the introduction of an electronic register, this provision will no longer be required. The requirements for the retention and storage of existing paper registers are covered in clause 4, which I will cover later.
Clause 2 inserts a new section 11A into the 1953 Act. Subsections (1) and (2) set out how the council of every non-metropolitan county and metropolitan district, subject to the provisions of local scheme arrangements, must provide and maintain equipment or facilities that the Registrar General considers necessary for a superintendent registrar or registrar to carry out their functions—for example, the IT equipment needed to host the electronic register. It should be noted that this equipment is already in place in register offices, as births and deaths are currently registered electronically in parallel with the paper registers. This requirement applies across each register office or sub-district of a registrar.
Clause 3 makes provision for the signing by the informant of registers of births and deaths that are not kept in paper form, as we move towards digital methods of registering births and deaths, and the introduction of an electronic register. Currently, numerous sections of the Act require the paper registers of births and deaths to be signed by an informant, when attending to register a birth or death. The Act places a duty on the informant to provide the particulars required to be registered through a registrar and in the presence of the registrar to sign the register.
Clause 3(2) inserts a new section 38B in the Act, entitled “Requirements to sign register.” This section empowers the Minister to make regulations in relation to registers of births and deaths not kept in paper form. New section 38B(1)(a) provides that a duty to sign the paper birth or death register
“at any time is to have effect as a duty to comply with specified requirements”.
“Specified” means specified in regulations made under this section. New section 38B(1)(b) provides that a person who complies with these specified requirements
“is to be treated…as having signed the register…and…to have done so in the presence of the registrar”.
Under new section 38B(2)(a) and (b) provisions that may be made by regulations include
“requiring a person to sign something other than the register,” and
“requiring a person to provide…evidence of identity” to be specified in the regulations when attending to register a birth or death. New section 38B(3) clarifies that:
“In this section ‘specified’ means specified in regulations under this section.”
Clause 3(3) inserts a new subsection (6) in section 39A of the Act. Subsection (6) states that regulations made by the Minister under section 38B are subject to the affirmative procedure. The regulations may not be made unless they have been laid before and approved by both Houses of Parliament. I reassure hon. Members that this will ensure full parliamentary oversight of the content, as the Committee will understand.