The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department (Kevin Foster)
It is a pleasure to speak on behalf of the Government in the debate. Like the hon Member for Croydon Central (Sarah Jones), I was feeling slightly youthful when I heard about my right hon. Friend the Member for Sutton Coldfield (Mr Mitchell) presenting a private Member’s Bill in 1991. I felt even more youthful when the hon. Member for Croydon Central said she was revising for A-levels in 1991, because I was in my first year at secondary school. Then came the speech of my hon. Friend the Member for Hyndburn (Sara Britcliffe).
I congratulate my right hon Friend the Member for Sutton Coldfield on bringing forward his Bill on birth and death registration. The Government wholeheartedly support it. I thank him for raising the profile of the need to reform the way in which births and deaths are registered in future by not only removing the requirement for paper registers and moving to digital methods of registration but allowing us to remove some of the requirements that are now rather antiquated and, as we have seen in recent times, have had an impact. I also thank all hon. Members for their contributions. I particularly look forward to the detailed and forensic scrutiny that my hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch (Sir Christopher Chope) will give to the Bill and any subsequent regulations, having had on many occasions the pleasure and the benefit of hearing his scrutiny of such Bills on a Friday in this Chamber.
It is an important issue. The current system of registering births and deaths is wholly outdated, based on a paper process first set up in 1837. We do need to move forward. As has already been said, an electronic register—the registration online system—is already in place and has been used by registrars to register births and deaths since 2009 in parallel with the paper registers. However, due to the requirements in primary legislation, a paper record of the event must also be kept. That is duplication of effort for registrars. We wish to rectify this anomaly, which can be done only by amending primary legislation.
I reassure the House that the RON system is mature and the infrastructure is well constructed to resist failures. It has high levels of resilience, incorporating multiple back-up systems at the application, hardware and data levels, and robust measures are in place to protect the data that it holds. It is perhaps worth noting that civil partnerships—a more modern concept, created in 2005—are all held in an electronic form of register, given that they were created in the modern era.
As many Members have said, the covid-19 pandemic has clearly highlighted the restrictions and problems with current legislation and the urgent need to be able to offer more flexibility in how births and deaths are registered in the future and remove the requirement for face-to-face registration. The births and deaths legislation does not reflect a modern digital Britain, and it is high time we updated it, which the Bill will do.
The changes proposed by the Bill mean that birth and death entries would be held in a single electronic register rather than in thousands of register books, which registrars are required to keep securely in a safe. That will make the system of registration more secure, more efficient and far simpler to administer in the future. It will also make it far harder for criminals to tamper with records or create false identities. While there has been some talk about the security of digital, we should remember that paper is vulnerable to being forged and enhanced electronic systems can improve the security of the registration process.
I would like to reassure the House that all the existing paper birth and death registers dating back to 1837 will continue to be held in perpetuity by each registration district. It is from those records that historic birth and death certificates will continue to be issued. In reference to the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Wolverhampton North East (Jane Stevenson), we are looking at how we can make them increasingly more available online, given that they are a rich historical source.
As touched on, the Bill also removes the administrative processes of quarterly returns, with registers having to be submitted to the superintendent registrar. That again will help to ensure that we have a more efficient system, and that we no longer have a bureaucracy that might have suited the early 19th century but does not suit modern Britain. With the move to an electronic register, it will no longer be necessary to have these types of returns, because following the registration of a birth or death the superintendent registrar and the registrar general will have immediate access to the entries without having to complete the quarterly returns process.
The Bill includes provisions for regulations to be made to provide that a duty to sign the birth or death register is to have effect as a duty to comply with specified requirements. If an informant complies with those requirements, they are to be treated as having signed the register, and to have done so in the presence of the registrar. For example, the regulations may require a person to provide specified evidence of their identity, and it may well allow the opportunity to register from home.
As touched on by some Members, registering a death can be difficult. At the moment it involves making an appointment, and in some cases having to travel quite significant distances, in a rural county, for what can be quite a sad and upsetting moment. It is far better to provide that someone can do it at home in their own time, perhaps with a cup of tea to hand, rather than feeling that it is very much an administrative process. Every death registered is someone—I remember doing it with my own mother. It is someone; it is not an administrative process. Again, I firmly believe that this provision will make it a much better experience for people at a very difficult time in their life.
As touched on, the regulations will be made using the affirmative procedure, requiring them to be laid before, and approved by, both Houses of Parliament, and providing Members of both Houses with an opportunity to discuss their content. I appreciate that not everyone will be able to demonstrate that they have the evidence prescribed in the legislation. We will therefore also include a discretionary power to enable a birth or death to be registered where appropriate.
As we have said throughout, this is about bringing in a modern system of birth and death registration, and I am very grateful to my right hon. Friend the Member for Sutton Coldfield for using this opportunity to present such a worthy Bill. It is high time that we had a modern system. We have seen in recent times the severe limitations that the current primary legislation presents, and it is time to have a system that allows people to be treated as customers, rather than going through a process set out in primary legislation that is now outdated. The Government therefore fully support the Bill’s Second Reading and hope that the House will too.