Friday, 1 July 2005
Dáil Eireann Debate
The purpose of the Bill is to amend the Civil Registration Act 2004 to provide for the continuation of payment of allowances and fees to private registrars of births, marriages and deaths. In addition to registrars directly employed by the Health Service Executive, approximately 50 private registrars are appointed under the Registration of Births, Deaths and Marriages Acts to their own designated districts. The majority are private individuals and general practitioners, who provide the service from private residences and private offices. Some private registrars are Health Service Executive employees, such as community welfare officers, who perform registration functions in addition to, but separate from, their substantive appointments. All registration staff, including private registrars, will be reappointed upon commencement of the provisions of the Civil Registration Act 2004. This is a minor technical amendment, but is essential to facilitate the commencement of the 2004 Act.
The Civil Registration Act 2004 was passed by both Houses of the Oireachtas and signed into law in February 2004. Its main objectives are to rationalise and modernise the procedures for registering births, stillbirths and deaths; give an tArd-Chláraitheoir responsibility for the overall policy for the civil registration service, including maintaining standards of service; assign responsibility for the management of the civil registration service at local level to the Health Service Executive; streamline the procedures for the registration of adoptions; establish new registers of divorce and civil nullity; reform the procedures governing the registration of marriages; and facilitate the linking of life events.
Civil registration was first introduced in Ireland in 1845 for the registration of non-Roman Catholic marriages, and extended in 1864 to births, deaths and Roman Catholic marriages. A comprehensive registration system, therefore, has been in place since 1864. The registers form a basic, continuous source of information about the population by providing a record of vital events relating to people, and satisfying the need for evidence which has a bearing on rights, entitlements, liabilities, status and nationality. The registers were subsequently extended to adoptions and stillbirths.
Civil registration touches on each of us at important stages in our lives, beginning with the registration of our births and ending when our deaths are registered. Between those events, civil registration affects us directly, as in the case of marriage, and indirectly, when certificates are required for many services available in our society, such as enrolling a child in school, obtaining a passport, taking up employment and claiming a social welfare payment.
While there has been little change to the basic registration procedures since 1864, there have been many changes in our society, major developments in technology and increased expectations by citizens as to how public services should be delivered. Recognising the importance of civil registration and acknowledging the changing needs of our society, the Government approved a programme of work to modernise the civil registration service. The civil registration modernisation programme is a joint initiative between the Department of Health and Children, which oversees the administration of the civil registration service, and the Department of Social and Family Affairs, which processed the 2004 Act. This is a major undertaking involving the introduction of modern technology providing on-line registration, electronic certificate production and the capture of digitalised signatures, redesign of business processes and procedures, capturing and storing in electronic format all paper-based records from 1845, and reform of legislation.
There will be substantial benefits, tangible and intangible, arising from the modernisation programme. These include improved service to customers, for example, extended opening times; greater efficiency in the use of resources and reduction in red tape; nationwide standards for registering life events; the registration of divorces and civil annulments on a central register; the electronic capture and transmission of all vital statistics on life events to the Central Statistics Office; the sharing of data with designated Departments and agencies; and reducing the demand for paper certificates for the purposes of Government services.
Until now, the registration and certificate production processes were manual, time-consuming and location dependent. The modernisation programme marks a fundamental change in how the civil registration service operates and is delivering significant improvements in operational efficiency and customer satisfaction. The new computer system is fully rolled out across the entire country with electronic registration and certificate production available in all registration offices. The system has been recognised nationally and internationally as an example of excellence in e-government and public service provision.
The modernisation programme aims to deliver a high quality, proactive service to customers. Since September 2003, all new birth registration data are transferred electronically to the Department of Social and Family Affairs from the civil registration computer system. This facilitates the allocation of a personal public service, PPS, number to a child at registration, establishing a child’s public service identity and the creation of family links on the national central database for all citizens. It also facilitates the client records system, administrated by the Department of Social and Family Affairs and the initiation of a child benefit claim for first-born children and the automatic payment for second and subsequent children in a family.
In essence, payment of child benefit in respect of a baby born and registered by the civil registration system on a Monday is made or, alternatively, the mother contacted by the following Thursday without any manual intervention. This is a prime example of the e-government objective of Departments working together to provide more convenient access to services for citizens. The introduction of the new civil registration system is, therefore, a flagship initiative in providing life-centred services to customers. The visible improvement from the customer perspective is that a single interaction with a public service agency, for example, the registration of a birth, not only achieves its original purpose, but also triggers a series of related services by another agency, in this case, the Department of Social and Family Affairs.
Customers availing of the e-enabled service no longer have to source and complete a multiple page paper application form and supply a paper birth certificate. Now, they simply have to register the baby’s birth to set the process in motion. In many cases, the birth notification is passed electronically from the hospital to the registration computer system. This facility will be implemented for all maternity hospitals in the future. In this case, the birth details are captured just once, at the earliest point in the process, with seamless electronic data transmission from hospital to registration to child benefit and back again to registration with the PPS number. In conjunction with the General Register Office, the REACH Agency electronically publishes data on deaths which are available to all Government agencies. This is of particular importance for the Department of Social and Family Affairs and the Health Service Executive for the efficient and effective management of their services.
Vital statistics are transmitted electronically to the Central Statistics Office. This greatly reduces the amount of manual intervention involved in such exercises, improves the quality of data and enhances the ability of the Central Statistics Office to manage the data. The capture of historic data in electronic format has been a central element of the modernisation programme. This has been a mammoth task, involving the digitisation of over 27 million records and 5 million registration images. The technology used in the process is first rate, and I commend all the staff for their efforts over the years in what has been a difficult and painstaking task. I am especially delighted to inform the House that the decentralisation of the General Register Office to Roscommon has been successfully achieved. A new office building has been provided which accommodates a number of Departments based in Roscommon. The building includes purpose-built archival storage, with up to date technology, providing a secure facility for vital historic records.
A new staffing structure has been put in place in the registration service of the Health Service Executive and extended opening hours are in operation in most of the main registration offices. I am delighted at how the registration staff have embraced the new challenge and I am confident their continued commitment will ensure a first class registration service in the years to come.
A significant investment will be made to bring genealogical research facilities up to modern standards. Discussions are under way with the OPW with a view to procuring new premises and facilities for research. The research facility will remain in Dublin and will be supported by a dedicated staff of eight. It is also intended to introduce electronic research in the new location. Those with an interest in tracing their roots will be able to search through records much faster and will be able to view the original register entries, which have been digitally scanned onto the system. Eventually, it is hoped to introduce Internet-based research, which will be available to a worldwide audience.
With these developments now in place, the stage has been reached where it will soon be possible to begin commencing parts of the Civil Registration Act 2004. In the course of preparatory work towards commencement, legal advice was received to the effect that the 2004 Act must be amended to allow for the continuation of payment of fees and allowances to private registrars and as I stated earlier, the Bill before the House is a necessary amendment to allow this to happen. The purpose of the Bill is to insert a new section 67A into the 2004 Act, to enable fees and allowances to be paid to private registrars and to provide for the necessary administrative arrangements. During drafting of the commencement and related orders for the Civil Registration Act 2004, it had been intended to provide for these payments to be made on an administrative basis. However, when the draft orders were submitted to the legal adviser, the advice given was that a specific statutory provision would be required. This advice was confirmed by the Attorney General. Parts 1, 2, 3, 5 and 8 of the 2004 Act pertain to the administration of the Civil Registration Service and to the registration of births, stillbirths and deaths. Preparatory work to commence these provisions is at an advanced stage and the passing of the Bill will allow them to be commenced within a matter of months. The new procedures for marriage are set out in Part 6 of the Act and include universal procedures for notification, solemnisation and registration of marriages, as well as a choice of venue for civil marriages. Before these provisions can be commenced, a substantial body of work must be completed, including drafting and publication of regulations, guidelines and detailed procedures; establishment of a register of solemnisers in consultation with religious bodies; establishment of a register of approved venues for civil marriages and the further development of the computer system to facilitate the administration of the new marriage procedures introduced by the Act.
Dr. Twomey: As this will be my last contribution during this session, I wish the Ceann Comhairle, the Minister and his colleagues, all other Members and staff in both Houses of the Oireachtas the best for the summer.
By the time Members return from the recess in September, a year will have passed since my appointment as Fine Gael spokesperson on health and children. Next September, when Members look back at the issues raised during the preceding 12 months, they will include the illegal nursing home charges, which has been a major issue and is still unresolved. They will include the crisis in accident and emergency services and the fact that the Tánaiste’s ten-point plan is neither resolved nor even half way to implementation. The issues will include the nursing home crisis affecting Leas Cross and other nursing homes. An independent inspectorate to monitor these homes has still not been established and no legislation to so do will be available when the House returns. Other issues will include the availability of medical cards and the cleanliness of hospitals. Another issue, which has been significant for Deputy McManus as Labour spokesperson and I, is that of ministerial responsibility as highlighted by the Travers report.
In some respects, the problems which have arisen are indicative of the fact that only one piece of primary legislation has passed through this House since I was appointed as Fine Gael’s spokesperson on health and children. That legislation concerned the establishment of the Health Service Executive. Subsequently, three amendment Bills have been presented. The Bill before the House is the third such health-related Bill although in reality, it is only the second, as one of the others was rejected by the Supreme Court, obliging the Government to re-introduce the same legislation after Christmas. In effect, this is only the third piece of health-related legislation with which this House has dealt.
In the course of his speech, the Minister of State laid out many important issues as far as this legislation is concerned. However, it is disgraceful that in legislative terms, this is all we have to show for a 12 month period, as far as the health services are concerned. I have just checked the proposed health-related legislative programme and the Government set itself low targets for this year. Its only planned legislation was the proposed Irish Medicines Board (Miscellaneous Provisions) Bill to amend the Misuse of Drugs Acts 1977 to 1984, the Irish Medicines Board Act 1995 and the Control of Clinical Trials Acts. As far as health legislation is concerned, that amendment Bill was the only target which the Government set itself for this session and it never reached the House. The purpose of the proposed Bill was to allow paramedics to administer drugs in ambulances. The Tánaiste and Minister for Health and Children, Deputy Harney, informed the House that the Hanly report is alive and well and will be implemented. I have always asserted that the Hanly report is not implementable in respect of acute services. This legislation was to allow paramedics to administer life-saving drugs in an ambulance and has not even been introduced for discussion into the House in a full year. That is a shocking indictment of this Government’s basic attitude towards the health services from a legislative perspective.
The Bill now before the House was only published yesterday. That practice is becoming quite common because if I recall correctly, the Health (Amendment) (No. 2) Bill 2004, which was subsequently thrown out by the Supreme Court, was also published the day before it was discussed in the House. Fortunately, the legislation being debated today is straightforward and the proposed changes are simple. The consequences may be broader, but the legislation itself is quite basic. It is unbelievable that from a legislative perspective, a debate on the establishment of the Health Service Executive has been the only substantive work done in the House. I do not recall it to have been a broad debate. Given that the debate took place as I began my role as Fine Gael spokesperson on health late last September, the legislation was introduced literally weeks before the establishment of the Health Service Executive on 1 January 2005. In other words, it was another vital piece of legislation that was rushed through the House.
Will it be the same next year? What legislation requires discussion in this House? One measure of which the Minister of State is aware is the proposed pharmacy Bill, which is going nowhere. The proposed medical practitioners Bill to review the Medical Practitioners Act 1978 is going nowhere. The Nurses Bill is going nowhere. There are many vital Bills relating to how the health service is run and we have not spent as much as an hour on debate. Everyone outside the House believes the health service is very important. How can they take the Government seriously regarding the concerns they raise about the health service if we spend so little time in our role as legislators debating the issues? I hope we will see a much more productive period regarding the health service in the House in the year starting in September 2005.
Much is spoken about reform and making life easier for the people with whom we deal by delivering a better service. I could talk all day about all that has happened with the HSE since its establishment on 1 January. The chief executive of that organisation has only been confirmed in recent days and so far nothing indicates that it represents a great reforming process. While that might not be a matter that exercises the minds of people outside this House, people instinctively feel nothing is happening, which is what concerns me more than anything else.
There is not much to say on this legislation, which is basic, housekeeping legislation. We discussed the original legislation only at the beginning of last year and already we are amending it. We regularly see legislation introduced not just in the health area but also across other Departments to amend mistakes made in primary legislation that had been passed in the previous two to three years. This is in part because the Government tries to ram legislation through the Oireachtas. There have been long debates on how we will reorganise the House over the summer. We need to be very careful when we see the problems with such small, almost insignificant legislation. I hate to think what the result would be if this were to happen with some of the major issues that will need to be addressed.
I hope we will see an independent inspector for nursing homes. I also hope the Government will address the serious issue of illegal nursing home charges, which will cost the taxpayer €1 billion. I have not heard much from the Department of Health and Children as to how that matter will be resolved in the next 12 months. We all know what happens when the Government drags its heels on issues like this. When the law of the land is broken, those affected go to the courts and we are left with significant legal bills to pay when the courts confirm the Government was wrong. Dragging heels on this issue will not make matters easier for anybody. This matter must be dealt with quickly.
This Bill has been introduced with great speed on the last sitting day of the Dáil before the recess. I hope that over the summer the Government will prepare the legislation that needs to be implemented, especially the Irish Medicines Board (Miscellaneous Provisions) Bill 2005, which the Government identified as a priority. We have approximately 36 to 48 trained paramedics in the country, yet that qualification is useless to them because they have no legal standing when it comes to administering drugs. Without enacting this legislation and as a further batch of 16 paramedics will complete training over the summer we will look like a laughing stock as far as reforms are concerned. It is very expensive to train these people. Simple legislation is required to allow them to carry out their duties as paramedics in the ambulance service.
The Government also needs to proceed with the medical practitioners Bill and to deal with good samaritan cover. Once paramedics start to administer drugs at the side of the road, when GPs and other health care workers turn up at accidents if these medications are available in the back of an ambulance, there will be an expectation that qualified and trained doctors and nurses will be able to use the drugs and equipment in ambulances. As I know from experience, many doctors can become deskilled over the years. Equally many doctors who are now qualified do not feel comfortable to act as trauma doctors on the side of a road or at a major accident. They may not be totally comfortable with using the medication and equipment in the back of an ambulance. We could well see more court cases in this regard in future.
This is the future the Government is creating for the Irish health care service. Legislation will always lag behind scientific changes and new processes in the health service. However, it would be a sad day for the House if we fall behind in backing up the so-called reforms and changes to the health service. Rather than wait to end up in the courts in the future because of mistakes that are likely, let us pre-empt what will happen and introduce the legislation in the next 12 months. I hope the Minister of State will bring this message to the Tánaiste and Minister for Health and Children and highlight the importance of what we are failing to do in this House.
Ms McManus: Like Deputy Twomey, I wish the Ceann Comhairle, Members and staff a good summer. I promise that the Labour Party will return completely energised and ready to give the Government more grief on our return in the autumn. As I recall the Civil Registration Bill was published in 2003 and we had a full debate on it in 2004. It is hard to justify having to amend an Act that has not even commenced even though it was passed by the Houses of the Oireachtas 18 months ago. Yet again we have flawed legislation that needed to return to the House to be amended and made workable. Again the Department of Health and Children has got it wrong. The most dramatic previous example related to the nursing home charges, which was struck down by the Supreme Court.
This morning the Minister for Finance indicated, as was stated in reply to a parliamentary question, that the legal advice as agreed by the Attorney General indicated that this Bill needed to be amended. However, it is not clear when the Minister received that legal advice. As I said, regardless of how small the Bill, it is not good practice for us to have a debate within 24 hours of a Bill being published. It certainly makes it impossible for us to comply with the recommendation from the Ceann Comhairle that amendments be tabled four days in advance. When the Minister of State replies I would like him to advise exactly when that legal advice was received. Was it necessary to wait until the 11th hour on the final day of the Dáil session to deal with this matter?
The Minister of State needs to realise that this kind of ineptitude has an effect on people’s lives. It is not as if nobody is affected by this matter. I can cite one example of the distress that is caused by such a long delay. People who wish to register their children have had difficulties. In one case an unmarried woman had a child, who was registered in her name. This woman subsequently married the father of the child. At this stage, the father had divorced his first wife. The father and mother got married, but the child was still registered in the mother’s name. When they sought to re-register the child, they were told that they would not be allowed to do so until this new Act commenced. Their only option was to adopt the child. They were quite reasonable in saying that they did not want to do this and that it was a ridiculous demand, as both of them are the natural parents of the child in question.
This is very upsetting. This child will go to school on 1 September 2005 with a surname that is no longer appropriate. His parents have a different surname to him. This child is not alone as there is a queue of people waiting to regularise their situation. They have been put in a very invidious position. That is why I tabled the amendment to the Bill, which regrettably, has been ruled out of order. We are back in the House to discuss legislation that has taken 18 months to be published. I will re-iterate some of the concerns groups had with the original Act. One of these groups was Treoir, which provides services and support for unmarried parents.
There was a missed opportunity in the original Act, in that it did not allow for the setting up of a system of registering joint guardianship agreements. These are statutory agreements that unmarried couples can sign in the presence of a peace commissioner or commissioner for oaths, agreeing to joint guardianship of their child, as unmarried mothers have sole rights in law and fathers have no automatic rights. There is no obligation on the peace commissioner or commissioner of oaths to record such agreements. There is no central register for such agreements. A facility for registering such agreements should be included in the Civil Registration (Amendment) Bill.
More than one third of children are born outside marriage and many of the fathers of these children rely on such agreements to acquire and prove guardianship rights of their children. In case of a dispute between parents, the only record is a copy of the document and if this is mislaid, there is no way of establishing that such an agreement was made. Therefore there is currently nowhere to register centrally the statutory agreement between guardians and that puts them in a precarious position because if it is lost, the document is essentially irreplaceable. It is a reflection of the lack of status in which fathers’ rights are held that there is no central register for these forms. The 2004 Act did not address this and in that sense was a lost opportunity.
Despite the changes in society, our laws have been slow to reflect these changes. The Irish courts interprets “the family” to be confined to families based on marriage. Although parents who are not married do not benefit from the rights enunciated in Articles 41 and 42 of the Constitution, it has been held that children born outside wedlock have the same natural and imprescriptable rights as children born within marriage. However, the courts have held that in a number of instances, it is permissible to treat children born outside marriage differently to those born to a married couple. The non-marital family is effectively outside of constitutional protection and an unmarried cohabiting couple cannot acquire full rights, no matter how stable or continuous their relationship.
Guardianship is the most significant right a parent can have in respect of a child. It is essential that a central register of joint guardianship agreements is initiated. I urge that this issue be considered as an amendment to the Act at some point. We must be conscious that, in light of the changes in the family in our society, there is work being done by the All-Party Oireachtas Committee on the Constitution to provide safeguards for all families. Our mission should be to promote equality, acceptance and understanding, regardless of the form the family takes.
There are further ramifications due to the long awaited execution of provisions set out in the Act. For instance, there are many people who would have wanted a wider choice on where they may marry and they certainly have been let down by these long delays. Instead of the imagined romantic settings promised to them, couples who have opted out of a conventional church wedding have had to marry in the very often cramped, indifferent and distinctly unromantic surroundings of health board offices.
Regarding the much delayed implementation of the Act, it is reasonable to assume that the decentralisation of the General Register Office to Roscommon in April 2004, with the exception of its research facility, may well have added unduly to the delay. This is a further indication that the whole decentralisation programme was ill conceived by the Government and was certainly driven by electoral consideration, although not very successfully. It is not unreasonable to question the efficiency of the hand-over and the knock on effect this had. I do not wish to disregard the immense work done by the staff and I join the Minister in paying tribute to them. However, the implementation of the Act has been delayed for so long that one must question the reasons for that.
While this Bill is short and technical, I hope that the Minister reflects on the comments made here today and I urge that this Act, in part or in whole, be implemented without delay. In answer to a recent parliamentary question on this, the Minister stated that the date for the new marriage procedures will be as late as the autumn of 2006, two years after the passing of the Act. Dates for the implementation of the other provisions, relating to the registration of adoptions, divorces and civil nullity have not been given and the Minister only gave a general commitment in his speech. It is unacceptable to have that kind of open-ended arrangement when people are being affected in very practical ways, be it with regard to the registration of a child, the guardianship of a child, adoption or marriage. It is regrettable that it has taken so long but we still cannot set a date — in accordance with my amendment, which has been disallowed — so that the child to whom I referred earlier may be secure this autumn in the knowledge that he is carrying the same name as his parents.
Caoimhghín Ó Caoláin: In his introduction, the Minister of State indicated that there are approximately 50 registrars involved, a greater number of whom are not employees of the Health Service Executive, but all of whom act as private registrars of births, deaths and marriages. What is the breakdown of those who are also employees of the HSE?
Was there a review undertaken of the arrangement on e-registration, which led to it being changed? Is it intended that these specific positions outside of the HSE facilities will continue? Is there any ongoing review of the service providers that are currently operating the whole registration process? We all recognise the unsatisfactory provision for civil marriages in many locations throughout the country.
Is the direct registration of children from hospital to the central register, which automatically issues a personal public service number for each child, conducted exclusively through English or do parents have the option to choose not only to register the child’s name in Irish but to conduct the entire registration process in that language? Are there different arrangements for the detail being recorded or is it recorded universally in the State in the English language only?
I appreciate fully that civil registration must be addressed and have no intention of being obstructive of the Minister of State in getting the Bill through the House speedily today. It would, however, be remiss of me to allow the opportunity to go by without pointing out the unacceptable delay in moving towards the presentation of whatever legislation is required to provide for the refund of illegal charges which have been withheld from service users in institutions for the elderly over a long period. Queries continue to present from members of the families of those who have been and are in the circumstances in question but we have not been given definitive information as to when and how the programme of repayment will be processed.
Given the great onus and responsibility on the State towards a significant section of its citizenry, it is not good enough to have continual delays, especially when we can move with such speed in a scenario affecting a small number of people providing a specific service within the overall framework of the delivery of services under the aegis of the Department. While I understand that speed is necessary in this case, I take the opportunity to emphasise the need to act with the same speed to address the repayment programme for individuals and families of those who have been in institutional and nursing home care and had their pensions withheld illegally over a period of many years.
I will not labour the opportunity. I would appreciate it if the Minister of State addressed the questions I have asked to provide the House with a sense of some of the detail pertaining to the Civil Registration (Amendment) Bill 2005.
Mr. Gormley: I regret that we are considering on the final day of the session legislation which, while technical in nature and not requiring a great deal of debate, demonstrates a lack of foresight. I have been very critical of the manner in which the Government processes legislation. We had an example of the Government’s approach when on one day last week, 100 amendments were introduced by the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform as well as amendments to amend the original amendments. Such chaos is the result of arrogance and complacency by those who believe they can legislate in this manner because they know best. Unfortunately, there are repercussions in the long run.
Legislation requires lengthy consideration as one must examine it from every possible angle. As there will always be areas we overlook, we undertake what ought to be an exhaustive process of examining a Bill line by line to reduce our level and rate of fallibility. While it is a thankless task in which there are very few votes, it is what we are here to do as legislators. I regret the trend in the Government’s approach which is another example of why it must be got rid of. When a Government has been in office too long, it develops a significant comfort zone and believes it can behave in a certain way. That is the root of the current complacency.
The Government does not come up to scratch in the area of accountability either. We are here to hold the Government to account and ask questions in the House to which we expect honest answers. Last week, I asked the Minister for Health and Children a Priority Question on nursing homes which was taken by the Minister of State, Deputy Seán Power. The Minister of State promised that he would provide me at a later stage with the names of nursing homes which have been found to be deficient. He said he would give me the answers with no problem and that it was not his job to protect nursing homes. I have since had to pursue the HSE.
I was first told the executive’s computers were down, which is a matter to which I will revert when I address claims of national and international recognition for good e-Government. When the computer problem had been solved, I was told there were legal issues which it took the relevant staff two and a half days to consider. In the meantime, I made phone call after phone call but got no joy. Finally, the HSE reverted to me with the announcement that it was legally impossible to give me the information I sought, despite the assurance from the Minister of State in the House that it would prove to be no problem. I ask the Minister of State, Deputy Tim O’Malley, if this constitutes accountability and an example of what it is we are here to do. Need one ask oneself why we have tribunals?
The Government lauds itself on coming up to scratch in the provision of great e-Government and the facilitation of participation by people in the roll-out of the system. We saw the fiasco which resulted when it rolled out the system for electronic voting. The website for civil registration in Britain is a useful example and the real model the Government should consider. One can use the site to have a death certificate sent out within five days, which is an example of the rapidity of the service. I am dying to see — no pun intended — how the legislation works in effect as the precedents are not encouraging.
While we endorse the amendment in the name of Deputy McManus, the Opposition supports this sensible Bill. Having said that, it is important for the Government to take greater care when legislating. We are not here to put obstacles in the Minister’s way for the sake of it, but we would like a basic standard of decency when dealing with the Opposition in terms of accountability. At the moment it is simply not there.
Mr. F. McGrath: I welcome the debate on the Bill. It is important to address the issues in a professional and objective way. While the Bill is essentially a technical one, it is important that we deal with it.
I agree with what my colleagues said about rushed legislation. It is important that sufficient time is allocated because it is evident that rushed legislation can be flawed legislation. We must address this serious matter. As legislators we have a duty and responsibility to deal with Bills in a careful and considered way. I have concerns about this because sometimes this does not happen in the House.
Then when one looks at the provisions of the Bill, one finds that the Bill contains one substantive provision, section 1 to amend the 2004 Act. This provision will allow for the continued payment of specified fees and allowances. Section 2 contains standard provisions in legislation, that is the short title and collective citation.
I welcome the fact, in dealing with the financial implications, that it is not expected that the Act will give rise to any additional costs. Is this the reality, or is it just a vision for the legislation? Will the legislation be implemented in a professional and objective way without additional costs? The Minister must examine this matter closely.
On the staffing implications, it says in the explanatory memorandum: “The Act will not give rise to any additional staffing requirements.” It is important that we would deal with this issue. One must ensure an adequate number of public servants to deal with the registration of births and deaths in a professional manner. More importantly, one must ensure the staff working in this area act in a caring manner. Serious complaints were recently made about the provision of services. In some cases people with disabilities do not get the services they require and their families are not treated in a very professional or caring way.
I was horrified to get a phone call last week from a victim of the Dublin and Monaghan bombings who was seriously injured and whose father was killed by a bomb on Parnell Street, who submitted a bill from a consultant for in the region of €800. There was a problem in getting it through the system and a big deal was made of it. We must ensure that those directly involved with people in public services treat people with respect and dignity. It is not acceptable for people to be treated badly by any public servant. However, last week I heard of the opposite experience where a staff member in the Department of Social and Family Affairs treated an elderly, disabled woman in a nursing home in a very caring, professional way.
In regard to this and other legislation, we should tap into examples of good practice in the public service and try to ensure that all those dealing with the public, especially the disadvantaged, people with disabilities, victims of violence and so on, are treated in a caring and professional way. It is important that I refer to these issues in this debate. Even though the Bill is a technical one, it is important that we touch on these topics. I welcome the opportunity to contribute to the discussion on the Bill.
Mr. Neville: I welcome the opportunity to speak on the Bill. We were surprised to see this Bill before us because we had a long and comprehensive debate on the 2004 Act, especially on Committee Stage. One would have expected this issue to arise in the course of that debate. This shows that even when legislation is well debated issues can subsequently arise, which leads to concern about what can occur when legislation is not sufficiently debated.
The Minister of State, Deputy Tim O’Malley, spoke of the significant investment to be made in bringing genealogical research facilities up to modern standards and said discussions were under way with the OPW with a view to procuring premises in this regard. I am surprised matters are not more advanced because during the course of the 2004 debate a great deal of interest was expressed in having a facility available for research. Interest in this area has grown throughout the world. Perhaps the Minister of State would give an indication in his reply as to when it is expected to have this service available. The impression I got from what he said earlier is that it would not be available before the end of the year.
The Minister of State is probably aware that much disappointment has been expressed over the closure of the research facility in the Granary in Limerick. I am aware that discussions are currently taking place in connection with the move of that facility to the Irish Palatine Centre in Rathkeale. The Irish Palatine Association is very happy to assist this move in every way and to recommence that service, which is now a computerised information service. The information is readily available and has been well researched by the people in Shannon Development. It is unfortunate that the facility has not been available in the past 12 months, despite all the work that went into researching the information and putting it together over many years with significant State investment.
If the Minister has an opportunity, I would urge him to raise the matter with the relevant bodies in Shannon Development to support the discussions taking place between the Irish Palatine Association in Rathkeale and Shannon Development with a view to re-opening that facility. I recently spoke to one of the new Members, Deputy Catherine Murphy, who was very disappointed that the service was not available to her because her grandmother was from Limerick and she wanted to trace the family. The service was highly valued by many people. From time to time, public representatives were delighted to refer visitors to the centre who had family going back generations in the area.
In a similar vein to Deputy Gormley, I wish to outline my disappointment in regard to the Health Service Executive. I tabled a parliamentary question on 10 May requesting information on moneys being spent on suicide prevention. As the Minister of State is probably aware, I do this every year and he always replies to me within four days. I was informed on 10 May that the information would now be supplied by the HSE, that it was no longer in the domain of the Minister, and that the Minister would ask the HSE to convey that information to me but I have not yet received it. I raised the matter with the Minister of State, Deputy Seán Power, who agreed to raise the matter with the HSE but I still have not received any information. I do not understand this because since I came to the Dáil, the Minister for Health and Children or, since his appointment, the Minister of State, Deputy Tim O’Malley, gave me that information in four days.
Why, seven weeks after I tabled the question, have I not received a reply? If I receive it now I will not have an opportunity to address it, by way of an Adjournment matter or otherwise, in the House because it is going into recess today. Would I be unfair in suspecting that the information I seek will become available once the House adjourns for the summer? Given the failure of the Opposition today to secure the reconvening of the Dáil on 13 September, it will not now reconvene until the end of September.
Every May we receive statistics on suicide for the previous year. In May 2004, for example, we received the information pertaining to 2003. Last week, I again tabled a question seeking suicide statistics for 2004, but they are still not available to me. Perhaps this is an issue for the Central Statistics Office but it is obvious that the Minister of State has a great interest in this area as well, as the person responsible for mental health and the psychiatric services. Will the Minister of State tell us why these circumstances have arisen? Given the importance of the information required, I am sure he is asking the Central Statistics Office for statistics on 2004, not only in respect of the national suicide level but also levels of suicide by county, Health Service Executive region, gender and age. This information is vital to informing national discussion on the relevant issues between the five or six bodies involved in this area, including the Irish Association of Suicidology, the National Suicide Review Group and Turning the Tide of Suicide. I will await the Minister of State’s reply rather than speculate on why the information would be withheld.
Mr. Neville: The Leas-Cheann Comhairle has cut me off again. I can recall at least half a dozen occasions since Christmas on which such an input was made by the Chair. In fairness to the Leas-Cheann Comhairle, it was usually not by him but by the Ceann Comhairle.
Mr. Neville: I have discussed the Bill, which is technical. One could talk about the Bill forever, but one would not be making any progress. I was using an opportunity to obtain information from the Minister of State, which is very difficult to do.
Minister of State at the Department of Health and Children (Mr. T. O’Malley): I thank the Members for their interest in this legislation and for the co-operation of the House authorities and Whips in agreeing to have it introduced at short notice.
The swift passage of this legislation is important for a number of reasons, some of which I will outline. The commencement of the 2004 Act cannot be done without the proposed amendment. The introduction of the marriage provisions, including choice of marriage venues, will be further delayed without it. Currently, surnames of children born to parents who are not married to each other, but who subsequently marry, cannot be changed. This can often result in children of the same family having different surnames, which causes distress for the families involved, especially regarding schooling and contact with public agencies.
The delay in commencing the Act is causing continuing operational difficulties for the General Register Office and the civil registration services generally. The continued reliance on old and fragmented legislation, much of it dating back to the 19th century, poses ongoing problems for the General Register Office and the public because it is not geared to the needs of a modern society.
It is obvious from the debate that Members recognise the vital importance of civil registration legislation and the effect is has on us as individuals and on society. I assure Members that their comments are noted and will make a valuable contribution to the future development of civil registration policy. It is unfortunate that, owing to time pressures, it is not possible to respond to all of the points raised, but I will try to respond to some. Deputies will recall that there was a lengthy and thorough debate on registration issues raised during the passage of the Civil Registration Act in January and February 2004.
Deputy McManus asked when the legal advice was received. It was received during February and March of this year. Currently, in cases involving an application to change an existing surname, where a surname has been registered on foot of a joint registration or a statutory declaration from the father, it is not possible for an tArd-Chláraitheoir to make any amendment unless it is on foot of a court order.
The Civil Registration Act 2004, when commenced, will allow for the re-registration of births of “legitimated” children, where paternal details have been entered in the original entry. In other words, couples who marry after the child’s birth will be able to change the surname if they wish. Following the re-registration of a surname under the new provisions, it will not be possible to make any further alterations to the surname details. As there is no presumption in law that a man, other than the husband of a married woman, is the father of her child, there are practical and legal difficulties for a registrar in requiring a man to register the birth of a child without a conclusive establishment of paternity. For example, it would not be desirable if it were possible for a man to claim paternity in a case where the mother rebuts this claim or were it possible for a mother to name any man as the father of her child.
In cases where the parents are not married to each other, it is possible to have the father’s details re-registered with the agreement of both parents or on application by either parent supported by a court order. Any application for addition or alteration of paternity details or surname details, involving a woman who was in a substantive marriage during the ten-month period up to and including the date of the child’s birth, must be accompanied by a declaration of rebuttal of paternity from the husband.
Some Members referred to venues for the solemnisation of marriages. This issue does not apply to Roman Catholic marriages, which can be solemnised in any venue. The choice of venue is a matter for the parties to the marriage and the solemniser. Catholic marriages account for almost 80% of all marriages in the State per annum. Restrictions apply currently only to non-Catholic religious marriages, which must be solemnised in a registered building, and civil marriages, which can be solemnised only in the office of a civil registrar of marriages. A working group has been set up within the Department to examine the issue of places, other than the office of a registrar, where a civil marriage may take place. It is intended that a register of approved places will be established. It will be a matter for non-Catholic clergy to agree upon a venue for solemnisation with the participants. Guidelines on suitable venues, other than existing churches and places of religious worship, will be available to all religious denominations upon commencement of the marriage provisions of the 2004 Act.
Unfortunately I do not have a breakdown of the statistics Deputy Ó Caoláin requires on employees, but the majority are not employees of the HSE. On the question of registration in different languages, tá rogha ag na tuismitheoirí cén teanga a úsáid, más Gaeilge í nó aon teanga eile. Tá súil agam go n-aontaíonn an Teachta leis an bhfreagra sin.
The management of registration is reviewed regularly by an tArd-Chláraitheoir, who has regular meetings with the superintendent registrar. He or she is required under the Act to produce an annual report, to be brought to the attention of the Oireachtas.
I agree with Deputy Finian McGrath that members of the public must be treated with courtesy at all times, and the civil registration service is acutely aware of the needs of the public in this regard.
Regarding Deputy Neville’s question, talks are ongoing with the OPW but are at an early stage and no dates have been agreed. However, existing genealogical services continue to be available in Joyce House and additional staff will be assigned in the coming weeks. I regret that the Deputy has not received the information he sought from the HSE and will arrange to have the matter urgently followed up. He asked whether it would be unfair to think that the information would be withheld until the recess, and it would.
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