All 1 Peter Bone contributions to the Registers of Births and Deaths Bill 2021-22

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Registers of Births and Deaths Bill Debate

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Department: Home Office

Registers of Births and Deaths Bill

Peter Bone Excerpts
Tom Randall Portrait Tom Randall
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Grudgingly so.

Peter Bone Portrait Mr Peter Bone (Wellingborough) (Con)
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I was not going to speak and am sort of in favour of possibly supporting this Bill, but my hon. Friend’s speech is making me doubt it. Surely having a paper record is a safeguard if someone hacks into the digital one. He is making a good point, and I think he is persuading me to vote against the Bill.

Tom Randall Portrait Tom Randall
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I hope that as I develop my argument, I will begin to show my hon. Friend the error of his ways and how I have convinced myself that my Tory instincts are, on this occasion, perhaps not entirely right.

As I have read further into this matter, I have come to realise that what we have had for so long is not some handsome bound volumes on a shelf to be admired in libraries for years to come, but essentially computer printouts, as I understand it. We have not been recording history beautifully; we have just been duplicating a process—printing out what is really part of a spreadsheet almost and putting it in a loose-leaf binder that is then stored in some secure box in some office somewhere. I am intrigued to know what happens to that secure room in a sub-district departmental office somewhere, perhaps forgotten or secured to some rather dreary out-of-town facility. The glamour and the romance I thought we perhaps had with the way we recorded this important information is a completely inaccurate picture. For that reason, I now realise the error of my ways and I hope the hon. Member for Wellingborough (Mr Bone) will also come to realise that progress, digitisation and computerisation are things to which we will all, reluctantly, have to subscribe.

This issue speaks to one of the core functions of government: record-keeping of births and deaths, and knowing who is in the country. The circumstances of where people have been born and where they have died is one of the very core functions of government. Therefore, getting the Bill on the statute book in the right way may not be glamorous, but it is important to get it right and done as accurately as possible.

The other point that doubters perhaps need to hear is that we have a duplication system. It is not the case that we have bound volumes that are the record. The paper copies we have at the moment are already redundant. It appears that we have an electronic system, which is really the primary system, and the paper copies are an adjunct. They are already redundant. One might ask why we have them at this point anyway, as they have already been proven to be beyond their use. I have not had the experience of registering a birth and I am very fortunate that, so far, I have never had to register a death, but the important point has been made, and I can very well imagine and sympathise, that those experiences can be very emotional and traumatic. They happen at a time when we have 1,001 things that we need to do, and making a trip to do something very bureaucratic and burdensome is something an ordinary person could really do without. We have to remember that government is supposed to work for people, certainly at very emotionally difficult periods of their life.

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Sally-Ann Hart Portrait Sally-Ann Hart
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I thank my hon. Friend for explaining that point. Obviously with all electronic information storage it is vital that we have the right security and that legislation is kept up to date to ensure we are always one step ahead of those who wish to do us harm.

Peter Bone Portrait Mr Bone
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My hon. Friend is making a powerful speech, and she is persuading me even more to vote against the Bill. She rightly says there is a problem with paper records, because they can be stolen, but there is a problem with computer records because they can be hacked. Surely the current system of having both is the right way forward, unless she can guarantee that it is impossible to hack the records.

Sally-Ann Hart Portrait Sally-Ann Hart
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I do not think we can guarantee that anything cannot be hacked, but the fact is this is a good Bill. It would cut costs and protect the environment, and this is something we must modernise.

The Bill would streamline processes to bring the registration of births and deaths into the 21st century, which we need to do. I am sorry to my hon. Friend the Member for Gedling (Tom Randall), but at times we need to modernise. Modernisation and conservatism run hand in hand, and that is what we are good at. The goal of the Bill is clear and achievable, and it would cut bureaucracy, saving time and resources. A well-developed, modernised and functioning civil registration system would promote transparency and safeguard efficient Government planning, including the effective use of resources. This Bill deserves the support of the House.

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Christopher Chope Portrait Sir Christopher Chope
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I do not have any evidence on that either way. The whole purpose of the 2009 regulations was that we would still have the hard-copy back-up system. Now, having put those regulations through on the basis that there would be a hard-copy back-up system, the Government say 11 or 12 years later that we do not need one, and can rely on the electronic system. That, I think, is playing fast and loose with the House. Why did the Government introduce regulations in 2009 to amend the system while still assuring the House that hard-copy records would be retained, and why, all these years later, are they seeking to abandon them? I am very concerned about that, but let me now finish the story about my constituent.

As I said earlier, I received a reply on 26 November saying that if my constituent required the return of his documents urgently he could submit a request, but I had already submitted a request for the return of his documents to the Home Office on his behalf. The letter made no reference at all to the fact that while this delay continues, and this muddle continues unresolved, he is unable to work. It is outrageous.

My hon. Friend the Member for Stourbridge (Suzanne Webb) said that this was just one example. I do not want to detain the House with a whole lot of other examples, but we do know that the hacking of computer records is prolific. It is widespread. It has led to large public companies, and indeed Government Departments, suffering severe fines, penalties and reprimands because of their inability to keep accurate data and protect themselves against hacking processes.

Even in the corridor just outside my office in this wonderful building, there is a great big poster—I think it is the only poster up there—about how we in this place are under continuous cyber-attack. If we are indeed under continuous cyber-attack, why are some of my colleagues so relaxed about it? I see no grounds whatever for being relaxed, and I think we should be very vigilant and protective of our paper record system.

Peter Bone Portrait Mr Bone
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The crux of the matter, it seems to me, is that there must be some great injustice in the current system if it needs to be changed. If the only reason for changing it is modernisation, we as Conservatives should not be supporting it—but perhaps my hon. Friend knows what the problem is with the current system.

Christopher Chope Portrait Sir Christopher Chope
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That takes me on to the question of how we got to where we are now. For those interested in the background to this, let me explain that one of the former Members for the Christchurch constituency, George Rose, proposed a Bill to overhaul the registration system. He did that in 1812, and Hansard reported at the time:

“It must, he thought”—

this refers to my predecessor—

“be universally allowed, that parish registers were of great importance to all ranks and classes of people from the nobleman to the peasant; and it was highly desirable they should be regularly entered, and safely deposited. At present, instead of being kept in the house of the clergyman of each parish, they were kept in a very slovenly manner in the dwelling of the parish clerk, and he had found, as Treasurer of the Navy”—

in those days you could double up these jobs—

“numberless instances of the widows of seamen, who, from this culpable negligence, were not able to prove their marriages.”

The legislation was passed, and proved to be inadequate. That ultimately led to the 1875 Act, which is the core of our current system. Under our current system, almost all the people who are born have their details recorded. I think that, according to the latest information available, there are about 20 cases a year in which people are born without having their details accurately recorded.

Fundamental to the issue is that it is a basic legal requirement to have a birth registration, and birth registration—I hope the Minister agrees—is one of our most fundamental human rights. The United Nations convention on the rights of the child acknowledges that every child should be registered immediately after birth. We now say that should be six weeks, and we have heard from my hon. Friend the Member for Meriden and others that it can be very burdensome for someone to go off and get their child registered.

All I can say is that my daughter gave birth to a little baby girl about a fortnight ago, and she and my son-in-law are much looking forward to going to the district register office in Lymington to record the details, including the name, of their daughter. Whatever happens, that record will be on paper as well as being an electronic record. How sad that it seems to be the intent of the Government that, in the future, people who are lucky enough to have children will not be able to have the privilege of a proper written birth certificate—a hard copy holograph birth certificate. I think that that is quite an unnecessary restriction on those fundamental freedoms.

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Christopher Chope Portrait Sir Christopher Chope
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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”

and

“to make transitional, transitory or saving provision”,

and it

“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.

Peter Bone Portrait Mr Bone
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My hon. Friend is making a powerful speech. Will he tell me what happened during covid? Unfortunately, I was involved in registering a death during the covid period and it seemed to me that this was all done electronically, with no signatures required. In the case I was involved in, that did not work particularly well. Does he have any views on that?

Christopher Chope Portrait Sir Christopher Chope
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When we were discussing earlier the issue of registration of deaths, I drew my hon. Friend’s attention to the fact that I have had lots of constituents—he probably has the same situation—raise with me the fact that their loved ones were given death certificates that inaccurately reflected their covid status. In a sense, the Government are hoist with their own petard on that, because it was all part of what has been described as a “scaremongering propaganda campaign” to make it seem as though more people were dying from covid than were actually doing so by saying that they may have had covid within the 28 days before their death. Extraordinarily, if one asks questions about whether people have died within 21 days or 28 days of having received a vaccine against covid, the Government get very coy about that. I do not know why that might be, because I think that the more transparent the Government are, the more they will be able to counter the vaccine hesitancy that is an increasing problem in this country as people find out that some things relating to the vaccines are being suppressed if not fully exposed to public view. I will not go on about that, but I referred in this House a few weeks ago to my Covid-19 Vaccine Damage Bill and I do so once again, without going into any more detail about it.

There is a real problem if the Government put provisions in a Bill and then are not willing to spell out all the implications. What do the explanatory notes say about clause 3? Obviously, in the absence of anything else, one looks at the explanatory notes, but they do not help, because the notes on clause 3 just repeat the content of clause 3 without explaining what the Government have in mind. Why are we in that situation? Why has no cost-benefit analysis or regulatory impact assessment been published in respect of this Bill? We know that the requirement to do this does not apply to private Members’ Bills, but if such a Bill is, in essence, a proxy for a Government Bill, is there any reason at all why those things should not be published? Again, the Government are intent on bringing this measure forward, but wish to do so without sharing with the House and the public all the implications that flow from it and the Government’s thinking about what might happen.

Peter Bone Portrait Mr Bone
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I have been thinking long and hard as the debate goes on. Does my hon. Friend agree that the Bill does appear to be a Government Bill but not in Government time, so it does not have an impact assessment? For that reason alone, when we vote later, I urge hon. Members to reject it to make sure that the Government bring it forward properly for proper scrutiny in Government time.

Christopher Chope Portrait Sir Christopher Chope
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I am grateful for my hon. Friend’s suggestion and it would be interesting to hear what the Minister has to say in response. [Hon. Members: “Hurry up, then!”] If the Minister wishes to intervene, I shall happily give way.

It is the Government’s prerogative to bring forward their legislation to the House. When they do so in the normal way, a Bill has a regulatory impact assessment, a cost-benefit analysis and so on. The Government should not avoid that system, and avoid the need to be transparent, by using the proxy system whereby a loyal Back Bencher takes on a Bill as a handout Bill.

My hon. Friend the Minister is a man of absolute integrity who has participated in almost as many Friday debates as I have over the years. In all those debates, I have not once found him wanting in terms of dealing straightforwardly with the subject matter under discussion. It is open to him to say that he will bring forward a regulatory impact assessment before we get to Committee so that we can examine it and we know the Bill’s full implications.

There is obviously no discipline or requirement on the Government to publish the impact assessment if they think that they have a majority of 80. I imagine that the Government will now bring forward the Bill as a Government Bill because my hon. Friend the Member for Wellingborough (Mr Bone) and I are expressing concerns about it and it is not making progress in the House as quickly as they might wish. If they do that, there will be a proper Second Reading, Committee and Report, which is fine.

I hope that we will then have the regulatory impact assessment in front of us and we will be able to assess what the Government have in mind and what they are hiding from us. Having had the experience in the previous Session of being told one thing in the House by my right hon. Friend the Member for Sutton Coldfield (Mr Mitchell) about what would happen when we got to Committee, and those promises, or certainly expressions of intent, not materialising, I am very suspicious about the Bill.

People up and down the country will wonder why we are spending so much time discussing the issue of removing proper paper records of births. What will we do about all the people who will be adversely affected by that? I have another example of a constituent who is a South African citizen whose child was born in the United Kingdom and is therefore entitled to United Kingdom citizenship. To take his child to South Africa, he has to provide a hard-copy, holographed birth certificate. How will he do that in future if those hard copies do not exist?

That is another practical example of how the Bill’s provisions will adversely affect people of foreign citizenship who have children born in this country for whom they wish to have an old-fashioned birth certificate rather than one that has been put on a—