Sir Christopher Chope
What my hon. Friend is referring to is like saying, “When I print off an email, it’s a hard copy.” It is not a hard copy; it is emailed and printed off. The Minister is talking about an electric record that can be reproduced in hard copy form. If we are talking about hard-hard copies, then, as I asked earlier, how does that fit in with the Forgery Act? Obviously, hard copies depend on having holograph signatures, and we hear that in this Bill there is the power for people to be able to register births without having to provide any signature at all unless they can send their signature by electronic means to the registration district. This is a very serious issue.
Without dwelling any more on the history of the Act, let me just say that throughout the mid-19th century, the only blip on issues relating to birth registrations, which were increasing the whole time, was the Vaccination Act 1853, which tied compulsory vaccination of all infants to their registration and gave powers for parents to be fined for non-compliance. As always happens with the law of good intentions, it ended out quite differently because as it was the local registrar who informed parents of their legal obligation to vaccinate their children, parents who feared vaccination avoided the registrar. Plus ça change, as they might say, in the context of today’s attempts to try to require compulsory vaccination for everybody in this country even if it means depriving them of their right to work in a care home or in the national health service.
The Bill itself contains a number of provisions about which I raised concerns with my right hon. Friend the Member for Sutton Coldfield when he brought it forward originally. One of those is the fact that there are lots of regulation-making powers in the Bill. I said to him that I thought it was desirable that those regulations or orders should be available in draft at Committee stage so that they could be properly examined in Committee. He said that he thought that was a really good idea. However, when we got to Committee, no such draft regulations were available.
I presume, because the Government attach urgency to this Bill and more than a year has elapsed, that those regulations and draft orders are available. I look forward to the Minister confirming that they are, but if they are not, why not? When will they be available? Why can we not see them before the Bill goes into Committee? These draconian measures give great power to the Government to set out regulations and change the existing law. It seems bad practice that people should be expected to go through a detailed Bill such as this in Committee without having any inkling of what the Government are hiding away in the regulations that are held in the relevant Department and are not being openly disclosed. I fear that that total lack of transparency is almost endemic in so much of what the Government do.
My next concern about the Bill is that under clause 1(3), section 28 of the 1953 Act, in relation to the custody of registers, would be repealed. That would remove any requirement for registration officers to hold registers. As a consequence, the hard copies that so many people look at when they examine their family history would not be available and accessible. Clause 4 states that such a repeal of section 28 would not affect the requirement that every superintendent registrar should keep records that were already in existence, provided that that did not cover records issued between 2009 and the day when this Bill comes into effect.
I was assured by my right hon. Friend and the Minister, who responded to the debate on the previous Bill, which is on identical terms, that the requirement to keep existing—or what might be described as old—records would not be affected in any way. However, when one looks at clause 6 of this Bill, one sees that the Government are taking the power to make further consequential provisions on any provision of this Act, including clause 4, which is meant to be a safeguard. That power
“is exercisable by statutory instrument”.
It includes the powers
“to make different provision for different purposes”
“to make transitional, transitory or saving provision”,
“may, in particular, be exercised by amending, repealing or revoking any provision made by or under primary legislation”—
in other words, this is a Henry VIII clause writ large—
“passed or made before, or in the same Session as, this Act.”
Under the powers in clause 6, all the assurances and guarantees on the operation of clause 4 and the safeguards under what is now section 28 of the 1953 Act are completely worthless. We, as a sovereign Parliament, do not have the power to bind our successors, but we do have the power, if we so choose, not to make it too easy for our successors to change the rules against the wishes of the people. That is why I think it is outrageous that the Government should be taking powers to change by regulation the guarantees that they say are in existence in clause 4 of this Bill. That is just the sort of issue I would like to address in Committee, and I hope that my hon. Friend the Member for Meriden will be able to give me some indication that he will accept amendments facilitating those safeguards for existing registers and records.
Another concern I have about the Bill, which my hon. Friend alluded to in introducing it, is the way regulations could be amended to change the requirement to actually sign the register. Those provisions, set out in clause 3 of the Bill, amend the 1953 Act by inserting a new section 38B after section 38A. An extraordinary lack of information is attached to what the Government intend here. It has been alluded to in the speeches of some of my hon. Friends, who seem to think it is really desirable that we should simplify what has been a solemn and historic process of registering births; I will come on later to the issue of registering deaths.
The proposed new section says:
“Where any register of births or register of deaths is required to be kept…otherwise than in hard copy form, the Minister may by regulations provide that—
(a) a person’s duty…to sign the register at any time is to have effect as a duty to comply with specified requirements at that time, and
(b) a person who complies with those requirements is to be treated…as having signed the register”.
In other words, somebody who has not actually signed the register will be treated as having signed it. Are we seriously going to legislate to create the pretence that somebody who has not signed the register has signed it and is deemed to have signed it, that, in the case of a duty to sign the register in the presence of the registrar, they are deemed to have done so in the presence of the registrar, and that accordingly in such a case the entry in the register is to be taken for the purposes of the Act as having been signed by the person when it has not been? Why are we allowing that?
What is one of the biggest safeguards of the integrity of our births register and our deaths register? It is the sanction against forgery. A sanction against forgery is nugatory if we do not require holograph signatures. My hon. Friend who so ably introduced the discussion on the Bill seems to be slightly poleaxed—I think that might be the expression—by the references to that. We have not yet had any help from the Minister on how the Forgery and Counterfeiting Act fits into this, but maybe the regulation-making powers under clause 6 of this Bill will be able to change the Forgery and Counterfeiting Act so that it applies not to actual forgery as we would know it, with people using pen and ink to change something, but to something that is deemed to be pen and ink.