Wednesday, 11 February 2004
Seanad Eireann Debate
I am pleased to bring the Civil Registration Bill 2003 before the House. The Bill provides a new legislative framework for civil registration, supports and enables the modernisation of the Civil Registration Service and facilitates the decentralisation of the General Register Office to Roscommon. The main objectives of the Bill are to rationalise the procedures for registering births, stillbirths and deaths; give an tArd-Chláraitheoir responsibility for overall policy for the Civil Registration Service, including maintaining standards of service; assign responsibility for the management, control and administration of the Civil Registration Service at local level to health boards; streamline the existing procedures governing the registration of adoptions; establish new registers of divorce and civil nullity; reform the procedures governing the registration and solemnisation of marriage and venues for marriage; and facilitate the future linking of life events.
Civil registration was introduced in 1845 for the registration of non-Catholic marriages and expanded in 1864 for the registration of births, deaths and Roman Catholic marriages. Thus, a comprehensive registration system has been in place since 1864. This data forms 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.
Civil registration touches on each of us at important stages in our lives, beginning with the registration of our birth and ending when our death is registered. In between these events, civil registration affects us directly, as in the case of marriage, or indirectly when certificates are required for many of the services available in our society, such as enrolling a child in school, obtaining a passport, taking up employment and claiming a social welfare payment, to mention but a few.
While there has been little change to the basic registration procedures since 1864, there have been many changes in our society as well as major developments in technology and increased expectations by citizens as to how public services should be delivered. In 2003, more than 110,000 life events were registered, approximately 500,000 certificates produced and some 1.2 million searches of registration records carried out.
Recognising the importance of civil registration and acknowledging the changing needs of customers, the Government approved a programme of work to modernise the Civil Registration Service. The civil registration modernisation programme is a joint initiative between my Department, which is progressing civil registration legislation, and the Department of Health and Children, which oversees the administration of the Civil Registration Service. This is a major undertaking involving the introduction of modern technology providing on-line registration, electronic certificate production and the capture of digitised signatures; the redesign of business processes and procedures; capturing and storing in electronic format all paper-based records from 1845 onwards; and the reform of legislation which has given rise to the Bill.
A key step in the process was the publication of a consultation document entitled, Bringing Civil Registration into the 21st Century, which sets out the context and proposed future approach to civil registration and related services. The purpose of the document was to engage with as wide a range of organisations and individuals as possible with regard to the proposals to modernise the service. Approximately 170 responses to the consultation document were received and these, together with views obtained during consultations with a number of organisations, have been considered in the development of the modernisation programme.
Substantial tangible and intangible benefits will arise 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; the facilitation of long-standing plans to decentralise the General Register Office to
Roscommon; and reducing the demand for paper certificates for the purposes of Government services.
As part of the groundwork for the programme of modernisation, Senators will recall that amendments to a number of the provisions of the Births, Deaths and Marriages Acts were included in the Social Welfare (Miscellaneous Provisions) Act 2002, to facilitate the implementation of a new computerised system to cater for the electronic registration of births and deaths and electronic certificate production for births, deaths and marriages. I am pleased to inform the House that the roll-out of the new civil registration system is well under way and is currently operating in five health board areas. It is expected that the implementation of the system in the remaining health board areas will be completed by mid-2004.
Until now, the registration and certificate production processes were manual, time consuming and location dependent. The modernisation programme marks a fundamental change in the way the Civil Registration Service operates and is delivering significant improvements in operational efficiency and customer satisfaction throughout the country.
The Government is committed to improving public services by modernising the way it does its business. New Connections, the Government's information society action plan, identifies e-government as a key infrastructural mechanism and the e-inclusion programme as a key supporting framework. In line with the Government's commitment to improving the way services are organised, integrated and delivered to customers, my Department initiated a number of significant programmes, including the civil registration modernisation project; the development of the REACH inter-agency messaging service; the automated establishment of public service identity in respect of children born in Ireland; and the service delivery modernisation project.
The capacity to share data is a key building block underpinning the integration of public service delivery. To facilitate the sharing and e-enabling of life event data between Government agencies, REACH developed an inter-agency messaging service, IAMS, which is currently being used to transfer registration data between the Civil Registration System, this Department and the Central Statistics Office. This facility will be used to make death registration data available electronically to other Government agencies with effect from the end of February.
The service delivery modernisation programme aims to deliver a high quality, proactive service to customers. The redesign of the child benefit system is the first manifestation of the new service delivery framework. Since September 2003, all new birth registration data is transferred electronically to my Department from the civil registration computer system. This facilitates the allocation of a personal public service number to a child at registration which establishes a child's public service identity; the creation of family links on the national central database for all citizens, the client records system which is administered by my Department; and initiation of a child benefit claim for first born children and automatic payment for second and subsequent children in a family. For example, payment of child benefit in respect of a baby born and registered by the civil registration system on Monday is made by Thursday or alternatively the mother is contacted by my Department, 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, therefore, is a flagship initiative in providing life-centred services to customers. The visible improvement from the customer's 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, my Department. Customers availing of the e-enabled service no longer have to source and complete a multi-paged paper application form and supply a paper birth certificate. They simply have to register the baby's birth to set the process in motion.
I will outline the provisions contained in the Bill and, as Members will already have considered it in detail, I will focus on a number of key provisions. The administration of the civil registration service is provided for in Part 2 of the Bill. Sections 7, 9 and 12 provide for the continuation of the existing offices of an tArd-Chláraitheoir, the assistant to an tArd-Chláraitheoir — to be named an tArd-Chláraitheoir Cunta — and Oifig an Ard-Chláraitheora. Section 13 provides powers for an tArd-Chláraitheoir to establish and maintain registers of births, stillbirths, adoptions, deaths, marriages, divorce and civil nullity, the last two mentioned being new registers. In the future all life events will be stored in electronic registers.
Sections 14 and 15 provide for the establishment of local registration authorities which will be the health boards who will appoint a superintendent registrar to administer the service at local level. Each registration authority will be required to set out a formal scheme for the administration of the civil registration service in their area. This Part also contains a number of provisions which facilitate the delegation of certain functions, for example, late registration, from an tArd-Chláraitheoir to local registration authorities.
Part 3 of the Bill provides for the registration of births and stillbirths. The principal responsibility for registering a birth will remain with the parents, who will be required to register the event within three months of the birth. To facilitate parents in fulfilling this obligation, the current time limit of 42 days will be extended to three months. In future, births may be registered with any registrar as opposed to the current system where a birth can only be registered by the registrar of the district in which the birth occurred.
Sections 23 and 24 of the Bill allow a birth to be re-registered to include the father's details where they were not entered in the register at the time of registration. Sections 26 and 27 provide for the registration of certain births and stillbirths occurring outside the State. This includes the birth or stillbirth to an Irish citizen in jurisdictions where no registration system exists or the registration records are unavailable; on Irish-registered ships and aircraft; to an Irish citizen on foreign ships and aircraft; and to members of the Defence Forces and the Garda Síochána while serving abroad. The provision relating to births and stillbirths on aircraft is being introduced for the first time. In addition, this provision addresses the current anomaly where the birth or stillbirth of a child on board an Irish-registered ship, in certain circumstances, cannot be registered.
Sections 28 and 29 provide for the registration of stillbirths. In future parents or a relative may register the stillbirth within 12 months. Currently only the parents can register the stillbirth within 42 days. The new provisions are being introduced to allow the family of the child more time to undertake the necessary registration procedures while coping with their loss.
Section 30 will require institutions, including hospitals, to notify the local registration authority of the occurrence of each birth and stillbirth. This obligation also falls on doctors and midwives where such events occur outside these locations. This notification will be recorded electronically and will assist parents in their registration obligations at the registrar's office of their choice.
Part 4 of the Bill provides for the registration of adoptions. In future, there will be one adoption register for the registration of all adoptions in the State. Adoptions are currently registered in either the adopted children's register for adoptions effected within the State, or the foreign adoption register for foreign adoptions. An authorised officer of the Adoption Board will act as registrar for the purposes of these registrations.
Section 35 provides that access to the register of adoptions or the index which makes traceable the connection between this register and the register of births will not be available except by order of the Adoption Board, or of a court which is satisfied that such access is in the best interests of the adopted person concerned. This continues an existing provision.
Senators will be aware that at the instigation of my colleague, the Minister of State at the Department of Health and Children, Deputy Brian Lenihan, a wide-ranging consultation process on adoption legislation, including information and post-adoption contact, was carried out in the second half of 2003. The findings from that process are being examined and proposals to amend the legislation to make it more compatible with Irish society today are being developed and will be circulated for observations before legislative proposals are brought to Government. Pending the outcome of that process, access to the existing manual indexes will be maintained for the present.
Part 5 of the Bill concerns the registration of deaths. Section 37 provides that the primary responsibility for registering a death remains with the next-of-kin or persons who would have knowledge of the particulars of the death. This section also extends the list of persons who may provide details of a death to include specified staff of a hospital or institution where the death occurred and undertakers. The period for registering a death is also being extended from five days to three months from the date of death. In future, a death may be registered at any registrar's office. These measures allow greater flexibility for the person responsible for registering a death.
Sections 38 and 39 provide for the registration of deaths which occur on ships and aircraft or deaths of members of the Defence Forces or the Garda Síochána while serving abroad. These measures are similar to the provisions of sections 26 and 27 which provide for the registration of certain births and stillbirths occurring outside the State.
Part 6 of the Bill provides for reform of the law in respect of marriage. The provisions arise from recommendations of the inter-departmental committee on the reform of marriage law. Among the issues identified by the committee as requiring examination was the need for a universally applicable framework of clear and simple procedures to underpin the solemnity of the marriage contract. There are different requirements to be met, depending on the form of marriage whether it is civil or religious. These requirements can be complex and there is a strong need for clarity and simplicity in this area. The current rule that requires a couple to notify the registrar of marriages of the district at least three months before the intended date of marriage will continue in force. This was introduced in the Family Law Act 1995 in order to give couples intending to marry an opportunity to reflect on the seriousness and importance of the commitment they are making.
Accordingly, section 46 of the Bill provides that three months notification of marriage must be made in person to a registrar and in a prescribed form. The current arrangement whereby a couple may apply to a court for an exemption to the three months notification rule, because of extenuating circumstances, will remain.
In specified circumstances, a couple will be allowed to submit the three month notification in writing, for example, where the couple are living outside the State. However, in all such cases, the couple will be required to attend at the registrar's office at least five days prior to the intended date of marriage to sign an undertaking that there is no lawful impediment to the marriage and to produce other necessary documentation.
This section also facilitates an tArd-Chláraitheoir to publish all marriage notifications received. This measure allows such information to be made available to the public and supports the public and open nature of marriage. Section 48 of the Bill introduces a new marriage registration form. This form will only be produced and given to a couple when they have completed all civil preliminaries for marriage. This is a very important document as no marriage can be solemnised without it. It is to be signed immediately after the ceremony by all the parties to the marriage. Responsibility for returning the completed form to a registrar lies with the couple who must do so within one month of the date of the marriage. Section 49 provides for the registration of marriages which is to be effected by either of the married couple by giving the completed marriage registration form to the registrar within one month of the marriage taking place.
Section 50 provides that if a marriage registration form is not returned within 56 days of the date of marriage, the registrar can pursue the matter by issuing a reminder to the couple requiring the return of the form within a further 14 days. This follow-up measure is intended to ensure that the marriage is registered as soon as possible after its solemnisation.
Section 51 of the Bill outlines the substantive requirements for the solemnisation of a valid marriage. It also provides for an interpretation service at the marriage ceremony, where necessary. Section 52 is concerned with the venues and times that a marriage can take place. It allows a marriage to be solemnised at a place and time agreed by the couple and the solemniser. The section also provides for the payment of fees by the couple where a civil marriage is conducted by a registrar at a location other than the registrar's office.
Section 53 provides for an tArd-Chláraitheoir to establish and maintain a new register of solemnisers, which will replace the current register of churches and buildings. Only registered solemnisers and members of religious bodies temporarily authorised to do so may solemnise a marriage. Section 54 outlines the procedures to be followed by a religious body or local registration authority when applying to have one of its members entered in the register of solemnisers. Section 55 enables an tArd-Chláraitheoir to cancel an entry in the register of solemnisers and provides for the procedures involved in doing so.
Section 56 introduces an appeals system which gives a person the right to appeal an tArd-Chláraitheoir's decision to refuse to register him or her in the register of solemnisers or to cancel his or her entry in that register. Section 57 allows an tArd-Chláraitheoir to grant a temporary authorisation to a member of a religious body to solemnise a specific marriage or to solemnise marriages within a specified time only. This measure is being provided to facilitate, for example, a clergy person who wishes to visit the State specifically to solemnise the marriage of a relative. Section 58 provides for the lodging of an objection to an intended marriage to a registrar and for the processing of such an objection.
Part 7 of the Bill provides for the registration of decrees of divorce and decrees of nullity by the Courts Service in new registers in accordance with section 13. Part 8 of the Bill contains a number of miscellaneous provisions relating to civil registration. Section 60 provides for the introduction of a formal appeals system for the first time. This will allow persons to appeal a decision of a registrar or an authorised officer to an appeals officer of the local registration authority.
Section 61 provides for the conditions necessary for searches of registration records. Civil registration records are a matter of public record. Anyone can carry out a search and obtain a certificate of any event, excluding stillbirths, by paying a specified fee. The introduction of electronic registers and the electronic capture of all paper-based records will provide easier and faster access to registration records and will improve customer service. The provisions of this section will allow any person to search the indexes to all the registers and to purchase copies of the records relating to the searches, with the exception of the index of stillbirths and an index which makes traceable the connection between an entry in the register of adoptions and the corresponding entry in the register of births.
Section 66 allows an tArd-Chláraitheoir to share certain registration information for specified purposes with designated Departments and agencies. This provision will facilitate the sharing of information, reduce form filling and the need for certificates for the administration and control of schemes and services. Section 67 makes provision for the Minister for Health and Children to make regulations for the charging of fees. For example, fees may be charged for issuing certificates or for undertaking the re-registration of an event, such as a marriages.
The particulars required to be entered in the register of births, stillbirths, adoptions, deaths, decrees of divorce and decrees of nullity of marriage are listed in the First Schedule to the Bill. A number of items in addition to those currently recorded are being included in each register. The enactments being repealed are listed in the Second Schedule to the Bill. It was necessary, in order to produce an updated Bill on civil registration, to examine existing legislation and to identify provisions which are obsolete or need to be restated or retained. Of the 28 Acts, dating back to 1844, which are being repealed in whole or in part, 12 were passed in the 19th century. This work is a clear example of the Government's commitment to regulatory reform.
This Bill is the first major reform of civil registration legislation since it was introduced here in 1845. It is a clear demonstration of the Government's commitment to regulatory reform. All stakeholders — citizens, service providers and the Government — will share the benefits. The modernisation of the civil registration service is essential in its own right as it seeks to meet the needs of a modern society, but also as part of the Government's overall strategy of improving public services. It heralds a new era for civil registration through the introduction of electronic registration and electronic registers. Our goal is that the delivery of all State services will meet the challenges of the new century effectively. I commend the Bill to the House and I look forward to the forthcoming debate.
Mr. Cummins: I welcome the Minister, Deputy Coughlan, to the House and I thank her for introducing this Bill, which my party broadly supports. Fine Gael welcomes any attempt to modernise the recording of births, marriages, deaths and other events which are of paramount importance in most people's lives. It is important that the Bill recognises events such as annulments and divorces, which were not pertinent in the 1840s when the initial legislation was passed.
In recent years, we have seen a great deal of enlightened legislation, such as the Stillbirths Registration Act 1994 and the Registration of Births Act 1996. These Acts modernised parts of the law in this area. The 1994 Act established, for the first time, a statutory system for the registration of stillbirths. I welcome the extension in this Bill of the period in which stillbirths can be registered and the fact that parents can now ask a friend or another significant person to register a still birth, rather than having to endure the trauma of registering the child's name. The level of bereavement experienced by the parents and siblings of a stillborn child cannot be overstated. While society can show some sympathy, people often do not receive assistance from their friends and neighbours after the death of a child. In this context, therefore, it is very helpful to give more time for registration and to permit another relevant person to register the birth. I question the need for a mother's marital status to be included on a stillbirth registration certificate. I wonder if this provision is necessary.
I have received a copy of the correspondence sent to the Minister by the co-ordinator of AMEN, who asks questions about the registration of unmarried fathers as guardians of their children. It seems that guardianship is a sufficient life event to warrant registration in a formal way. Does the Minister intend to address this aspect of the issue of guardianship in the Bill? Does she intend to address the matter in other legislation?
It is essential that all the administrative systems of the State are user-friendly and geared to the needs of individuals, rather than having rigid rules and bureaucracy. I ask for more flexibility to be provided in the appeals system.
As the Minister is aware, the Irish Genealogical Research Society and the Genealogical Society of Ireland have raised some questions about the need to insert the maximum amount of information in all records, particularly death registration. It is felt that the insertion of more detail, such as a person's place of birth, would be most helpful. I ask the Minister to consider this area. The Bill also reflects matters already provided for in the Status of Children Act 1987.
It is most important that the Bill reflects current realities. It is critical, for many reasons, that death certificates are issued as quickly as possible. It is imperative that this is done and that the process is expedited.
I would like to ask about the provision of greater flexibility in the venues in which marriages are permitted to take place. Can the Minister indicate whether guidelines in this area will be issued? I broadly welcome this provision, as some of the offices in which marriages currently take place are less than attractive. In Waterford, City Hall was a wonderful venue for marriages, but permission to marry there was refused by officials not long ago. Is it intended that guidelines will indicate what type of venues can be used, or will it be open season, with only the consent of the registrar required?
I look forward to the Minister's response to my questions. It is important that we get the details right and that we tease out many problems that may exist. In this instance, going from a manual to a computer-based system is to be welcomed, as it should improve and expedite the service to the public. I have not seen the amendments accepted on Committee Stage in the other House last night, but I am sure the Minister will be flexible about any amendments we put down.
A colleague of mine recently gave me a copy of an American publication which contained an article headlined: “Irish citizens can now get records of births, deaths and marriages in just a matter of minutes”. To highlight the simplification of the system, the article takes the example of a person who was born in Dublin but moves to “...County Donegal, a remote corner of northwestern Ireland.” It states:
Ms Cox: I was getting carried away listening to the wonderful stories about north-west Donegal. I welcome the Minister. It is interesting to consider the picture of Ireland being broadcast to the world — the picture of what Ireland is becoming. The Minister gave an example of the arrival of a baby. The registration of his or her birth is automatically sent to the Department, a PPS number is allocated and there is automatic registration for child benefit, which is paid to the mother directly, as it is for subsequent children. One of the first things I did in this House after my election in 1997 was to try to convince the former Minister for the Environment and Local Government, Deputy Dermot Ahern, to change the regulations dealing with child benefit that were in place at that time. In those days, if one did not apply for child benefit within the first three months of the child's birth, one did not receive it. If one wrote a letter saying one was not really with it, one might receive the money later.
Ms Cox: Lots. However, we changed the system for the better, allowing six months during which parents may apply for child benefit. Now we are seeing what technology can do for customer service. Senators know what it was like to deal with the red tape and bureaucracy of many Departments, especially, in the past, the Department of Social Welfare. One might sometimes wonder whether it was worth it. Many people gave up and stopped fighting. The new system is a building block — in fact, it is probably the whole foundation — for some of the modernisation we are seeing. It is to be welcomed.
It is time we stepped into the 21st century and had central databases of information. I recognise the amount of work that has been done all over the country and in various Departments in considering business process re-engineering. Many years ago, when Digital was in Galway, we used to hear new terminology on a weekly basis from the engineers and business managers: re-engineering, reprocess engineering, restructuring, business processes. Little did I know that as time moved on, we would see them being used to refer to new systems by the Government. It is a welcome development.
I attended a conference about e-democracy on behalf of the Government approximately six years ago. The story I told then, having been briefed by the various Departments, was very different from what is happening now. We were not talking about the integration of databases, on-line processing of applications, or being able to register a birth in one location and obtaining details of it in another location. This system will allow for Irish people all over the world to check information. We have come into the technology age and this will make a big difference in terms of accessibility to our records.
I compliment everyone who has been involved in the Bill. As I read through the Minister's speech and the aims and objectives she outlined in the Lower House, I recognised a proactive focus on change. What does the Bill actually do? It considers the area of administration and sets out the various offices that must continue. It deals with the servicing and preparation of the annual report of the civil registration system for the Minister for Health and Children and the Houses of the Oireachtas. It makes clear the divisions between an tArd-Chláraitheoir and the local health boards, which are renamed as the local registration authorities. It delegates certain functions currently performed by an tArd-Chláraitheoir to the superintendent registrars. It provides for the maintenance of the register of births, stillbirths, adoptions, deaths, marriages, decrees of divorce and decrees of civil nullity of marriage and the continuation in office of serving registrars. It has addressed these issues in a businesslike and clear manner.
As the Minister has outlined, registration of a birth with any registrar instead of the registrar of the district in which the birth occurred makes absolute sense. It is good that we are in a position to facilitate this. An important point is the extension of the time limit for the registration of a birth from 42 days to three months. The limit of 42 days did not make sense in certain circumstances. These incidents were the exception, but they were not catered for. This is a welcome development and an indication of the increasing emphasis on practicality in the way we do our business. We are recognising that sometimes time limits need to be extended and technology is allowing us to make these extensions.
Procedures are also outlined for the registration of the birth of an abandoned baby and for the registration of the details of a child's father where the parents of the child are not married to each other. The registration and late registration functions are devolved to a local level and it allows for the registration of certain births and stillbirths which occur on board an aircraft or at sea.
There is the opportunity on Second Stage of a Bill to explore some of the issues around a Bill. Responsibility of fatherhood, already referred to on the other side of the House, is raised by this Bill. It is not simply about putting one's name on a birth certificate. It is about what is entailed if one fathers a child. It is not just about guardianship or custody of the child, but what direction society is going in. Is it acceptable to allow the State to take the responsibility for the role of the father in certain circumstances? I do not believe that is good enough. We must ask what is acceptable in this matter. What do we expect from people and what are their roles and responsibilities? This legislation is not the place to write this in, but the debate needs to be more focused. An attitude now prevails that it does not matter who the father of the child is if that person does not present themselves and that it does not matter that the girl in question, generally, is left with the responsibility of bringing that child up on her own, with the State expected to pick up the tab. That is not good enough. The Minister clearly outlined in the Lower House that research has shown that the most stable and best environment for children to be brought up is two-parent family units. However, we have made this huge step to where it does not matter anymore if the baby's father is not doing his job properly. This is not acceptable, we need to say so and there needs to be change. I do not have the answers to this issue. However, the debate must begin as to why it is unacceptable and how to impose responsibility on somebody who thinks it is good enough to leave the mother to carry the burden for the following 18 years after the child is born.
The Bill addresses the issue of stillbirths. We have moved on from the old days when stillbirths were hidden and the child was not recognised as one. Hospitals have worked hard over the last number of years in dealing with this issue. A stillbirth will now be registered as a birth, which is important to those who have lost a child this way. The Bill proposes to extend the time limit for registration from three months to 12 months, which is also important. The extension of those who can act as qualified informants is an important step in accepting that sometimes parents are not in a position, even 12 months later, to deal with such sad circumstances. This is particularly the case if that birth had been awaited or there were previous miscarriages. It is important to recognise the changes that have been made in this area. The registration of adoptions is also covered in the Bill and the creation of indexes to allow traceability of parentage is an important development.
With regard to the registration of deaths, I recall how I was contacted by a lady who had gone to her local registry office to get a copy of her father's death certificate. When she got it, the date of death was wrong, yet the official insisted it was the right date. It was badly handled, the customer service was not appropriate and the bureaucracy involved in changing the date was unacceptable. This Bill addresses that issue. The list of qualified informants can be extended to include undertakers. The time limit for registration is being extended from five days to three months. Again, in certain circumstances, five days does not make sense, particularly if it was an unexpected death or a case of multiple deaths caused by a road traffic accident. To expect such cases to be registered within five days does not make sense as the bereaved are not thinking about it at that stage. This Bill introduces provisions that are proactive, clear and practical.
Senator Cummins was correct in his comments on marriages. The Ireland of today is different from 19th century Ireland. We need to address a number of issues in marriages such as venues, registration and the process involved in marriages. One of the great elements about Ireland and her culture is that we believe that two people, together in some form of marriage, make the best and most stable family unit. It is appropriate for us to continue to support the stability of those types of relationships. We must ensure that when people go into a marriage, they realise it is a commitment. Hopefully, it is a commitment for life because it is much better to be married to one person than to be married and go through a separation, divorce or an annulment.
Ms Cox: The Bill states that a couple must attend in person at a registry office at least five days before the date of the intended marriage to declare that there is no known impediment to the marriage. I am not sure that having to do it within at least five days would be fair to Irish people living in America returning home to get married. As we know, in the United States, limited holiday time is available. If five days are used up before one comes home for a wedding, it does not leave much time to stay afterwards. I understand the Bill provides for the registrar to allow for less time. However, it needs to be clarified that this will not be the exception and that where people are travelling and not in the country it will be acceptable to attend the registry office one or two days beforehand to facilitate the marriage.
I welcome the single universal procedure for the notification and registration of marriage which makes matters clear. The approved form of the ceremony is also another clear provision. It is interesting to note how multi-cultural our society has become, as the Bill provides for the provision of an interpreter if required. We are moving into the 21st century and recognising that our society has changed. Those getting married now come from different backgrounds and communities. It is not just a case of going to church to stand in front of a priest. The registration of divorce and the annulment of marriages is also catered for in the Bill which again reflects the changes from the 19th century to the 21st century.
Other important and welcome provisions are the introduction of the new formal appeals system, the searches of the registers on the payment of a fee, the specific arrangements for the searching of the register of stillbirths — which needs to be handled diplomatically — and the arrangement for correction of entries in the register which will cut the bureaucratic red tape when mistakes are made. One provision, above and beyond the legislation itself, is the aim of a better customer service. This will be achieved through extended opening hours, better accessibility of services, the reduction of red tape and the once-off electronic capture and transmission of data which saves time. The Minister for Social and Family Affairs said it was about life-centred services to the customer. I congratulate her on this approach to the Bill. I also congratulate the people involved in drafting this detailed legislation. I commend the Bill to the House.
Dr. Henry: I welcome the Minister for Social and Family Affairs to the House and I welcome the Bill. I am glad she accepted many changes to it during its progress through the Lower House. I hope she will accept a few more in this House.
It is wise to keep one's wits about one in life, so that when it comes to looking at legislation, one can at least apply some practical notions to it. Members of the Church of Ireland have drawn to my attention that there will be a problem with section 51. This is not the Minister's fault. We have a 500 year old liturgy for the solemnisation of marriage which has featured in all the best films at that dramatic moment when the priest invites whoever knows any just impediment to the marriage to “speak now or forever hold his peace”. In the Church of Ireland everyone looks at their feet and says nothing, but that will not do. This Bill suggests that we must say something. The Church of Ireland prayerbook is being reprinted so this would not just be a change of liturgy; it would be a grave financial loss. I hope that the Minister and her officials have found a way around this impediment. It never occurred to me previously although I have been to many Roman Catholic weddings that people say there is no impediment to the marriage. I hope the Minister will address that when she replies to the debate.
One of the most important parts of this Bill is the section covering registration of births. Senator Cox made some very good points about this and how much more automatic it will be but there will be problems too because a distinction has been made between marital and non-marital births and 30% of births are non-marital. Until 1997 it was possible for all mothers, married or unmarried, to complete a registration form but leave the child's surname to be decided later. Now it appears that the surname must be put in at the time of registration within the hospital. Sometimes there can be awkwardness in non-marital births where paternity is not initially claimed but when the trouble calms down, the father of the child is quite enthusiastic about putting his name on the birth certificate. Under the terms of this Bill the unmarried mother must go with the father of the child to register in both their names or in a double-barrelled name. No change can be made on the registration form after that happens. Even if the parents marry, the short form of the birth certificate which is the one most people use in later life will show whatever was on the birth certificate at that time. Could this be rectified?
In all legislation regarding registration of the child we are concerned with the rights of the child. The child's need to know his or her own father has become more obvious and important in recent years. For medical reasons this has come out in court. Mr. Justice Budd has written that a child is entitled to know his or her father when knowledge of genetics and hereditary diseases is rapidly developing. The child does not seek this knowledge in the hope that the father has become a rich American and he or she might inherit from him. It is extremely important knowledge from a practical point of view. We want to do everything to get as much information as possible for the child.
Adding the PPS may cause difficulty so early in the procedure because some people might think it is being brought forward so that maintenance grants can be obtained. People think that way sometimes. We want to make it as easy as possible for the child to find his or her father. Double indexation should still be allowed. This helped widows in particular who might have used their own names, and those of first and second husbands. While we do not want children receiving two birth certificates, or in the case of a double-barrelled name three, double indexation could be very important so that not only the child, but also the family of the father, who may not have had such a close relationship with the child shortly after his or her birth, would be able to trace the child for reasons that could be beneficial to the child. The Minister would not want the children of an unmarried woman treated differently from those of a married woman. She would want them to be in the same position to access information about their parents.
I am sorry that a guardianship register is not being set up particularly because of the position of surrogate children. I will table amendments on this issue. From the genealogical point of view, I wish we could have definite access to the hard copy indices, not just the computer indices. It should not be the position that a person “may” have access but that he or she “shall” have access. The Minister seems to be under a misapprehension when she states that the National Archives has access to the General Register Office information. This is not so; it has absolutely no access to the GRO. We can address those issues on Committee Stage. The rights of the child are paramount and what is the situation regarding surrogate children? Frequently they are born in the UK or the US and when they come here guardianship seems to be all they have.
Mr. Norris: I thank my colleague, Senator Henry, for making this time available to me. Senator Cox referred to the multicultural society which is correct and there is some recognition of this fact. I am disappointed, however, that no attempt is made here to investigate the registration of same sex partnerships. This is a lamentable situation. Between today and yesterday three couples have come to me about this issue.
The Minister has found a resolution to the Church of Ireland impediment because I was privy to a conversation between Senator Ross and Senator Mansergh this morning, both of whom had been approached by Bishop Colton. I was ignored, perhaps because I live in the slums and they went to public schools. Nobody came near me, but I am sure Senator Mansergh will be able to recount what resolution has been agreed.
I welcome this Bill and I congratulate the Minister. It is the first major legislation in this area since 1845 which is a long time ago. There is an argument for keeping records in their local base because they are most germane to that area and I remind the Minister that copies at least must be kept. When the Customs House burnt down one of the reasons so many Church of Ireland members could trace their ancestry was that many local vestries had not surrendered the original ledgers and so on. People were able to return to parish churches around the country and find them. In other words, they survived the centralisation. In a recent case involving the notorious doctor Sir Roy Meadow where it was suggested that an Irishwoman had murdered her child, local research showed that there was a syndrome of sudden infant death in that family which emerged only when the local registers were consulted.
The chief issue is that to which Senator Henry referred: the discrimination between married and unmarried fathers in particular. Senator Henry mentioned amendments made available which she may put down and I understand these have been made available to Fine Gael.
The reason I did not table them was that the person who contacted me said there was no Independent member on the committee, but there was a Fine Gael person so they were given to him or her. Whoever tables them, I will be happy to support them, but I will not table them. I hope the Minister takes them on board.
Up to 1987 unmarried fathers could not be appointed as guardians of their own children unless they married the child's mother and adopted the child. Section 12 of the Status of Children Act 1987 gave the courts power to appoint the father, which was an improvement. There was a further improvement in section 2 of the Children Act 1997 which provided that an unmarried father could be appointed guardian of his children with the mother's agreement if both signed a statutory declaration to that effect in the presence of a commissioner of oaths. Although that is a great improvement, there is no methodology for registering it.
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