Oireachtas Joint and Select Committees
Tuesday, 28 January 2014
Joint Oireachtas Committee on Environment, Culture and the Gaeltacht
Capturing Full Value of Genealogical Heritage: Discussion (Resumed)
We will now resume to consider the topic of developing a plan to capture the full value of our genealogical heritage with our witnesses from the General Register Office, GRO, and the Central Statistics Office, CSO. I welcome to the meeting Mr. Kieran Feely, director general of the GRO, and Mr. Pádraig Dalton, director general, Mr. Joe Treacy, director of information technology and corporate services, and Ms Deirdre Cullen, senior statistician census of population, of the CSO. I thank them for their attendance.
I will now read out some technical procedure, if witnesses might give me a couple of minutes. I wish to draw their attention to the fact, by virtue of section 17(2)(l) of the Defamation Act 2009, witnesses are protected by absolute privilege in respect of their evidence to this committee. However, if they are directed by it to cease giving evidence on a particular matter and continue to do so, they are entitled thereafter only to qualified privilege in respect of their evidence. They are directed that only evidence connected with the subject matter of these proceedings is to be given and asked to respect the parliamentary practice to the effect that, where possible, they should not criticise nor make charges against any person, persons or entity by name or in such a way as to make him, her or it identifiable. I also wish to advise the witnesses that the opening statements and any other documentation they submit to the committee may be published on its website once this meeting has finished. Members are reminded of the long-standing parliamentary practice to the effect that they should not comment on, criticise or make charges against a person outside the Houses or an official either by name or in such a way as to make him or her identifiable.
Will the GRO or the CSO give the first presentation? I ask Mr. Feely to address the meeting.
Mr. Kieran Feely:
I thank the committee for inviting me to address it on this important topic. Before dealing with the specifics of genealogy as it concerns the GRO, I will set out some of the history and structure of civil registration in Ireland.
Let us consider the nature and purpose of a system of civil registration. The UN defines a system of civil registration as "the continuous, permanent, compulsory and universal recording of the occurrence and characteristics of vital events" primarily for the purpose of providing legal documents and to be a source of vital statistics. The system in Ireland complies with this definition.
The GRO and the system of civil registration as we know it was first established in 1845 following the passing of the Marriages (Ireland) Act 1844. That Act provided for the registration of civil and religious marriages, excluding Catholic marriages. The system was extended to encompass Catholic marriages, births and deaths in 1864. At the time, the national system of civil registration was administered by the Registrar General through the GRO, while local registration services were administered through the poor law unions. Local registration functions were taken on by the local authorities when they were established in the 1890s. Registration of adoptions was provided for under the Adoption Act 1952. Responsibility for local registration services was transferred from the local authorities to the health boards in 1972 and to the HSE on its establishment in 2004. Registration of stillbirths was introduced in 1994. Other significant developments included the requirement to give three months notice of intention to marry, which was introduced in 1995, and the assignment of a surname at birth, which was introduced in 1997. The GRO moved from the then Department of Health and Children to the then Department of Social and Family Affairs in 2008. Civil partnership registration was introduced in 2011.
In 2000, a radical programme of reform was embarked upon jointly by the then Department of Health and Children and the then Department of Social, Community and Family Affairs. This entailed the design and development of new business processes and procedures and enhanced management structures; the introduction of modern technology; the capture and storage in electronic format of all historical paper-based records from 1845; and the reform of the legislation to underpin the delivery of a modern service and to facilitate the wider e-Government agenda.
The Civil Registration Act 2004 underpins the reform programme. It provides for enhanced management structures and for more efficient processes and procedures; a more active citizenship by requiring births, stillbirths and deaths to be registered by parents and relatives; streamlined preliminaries for marriage; a system of marriage licences and the giving of notice of intention to marry in person; the establishment of a register of solemnisers for religious and civil solemnisers of marriage; a greater choice of venue for civil marriages; electronic registration; and the capture of additional data in the registers, for example, PPS numbers.
The civil registration computer system, CRCS, was developed to replace the manual registers. The system was first deployed in 2003 and was rolled out nationwide by the end of 2004. Since then, the registration of all vital events has been electronic. Key features of the system include the creation of a national vital events database that facilitates online retrieval of registration records; the capture and storage in electronic format of historic records, thereby facilitating the production of certificates of all vital events; the online registration of life events; the use of electronic pads to capture informants' signatures; and interagency data transfers.
I will now move on to matters more relevant to genealogy services, the purpose of today's discussion. Critical to the modernisation programme was the separate, but related project to capture all of the manual records dating back to 1845 in electronic format. Each register entry has a corresponding index entry to facilitate efficient searching. This was the system that was in place from the commencement of registration in 1845. The project entailed the conversion of 27 million index records from manual and older electronic database sources to a single, comprehensive database of index records; the microfilming and scanning of 5 million register pages and creation of a quality electronic image of each page; the quality assurance and validation of electronic records; and the matching of index data to the appropriate register page. This was an incredibly complex and painstaking enterprise, given the volume of records involved and the fact that there was no precedent project to call on for guidance. All of these records are now available in electronic format. The manual registers are stored in a purpose-built, atmosphere-controlled facility in Roscommon town.
The last phase of the project was the conversion of these data to the live CRCS environment. To date, all births from 1864 have been converted to the live environment. Marriages from 1903 to date and deaths from 1924 to date have also been converted. These conversions are adequate to meet most business needs. Obviously, there are significant gaps in the availability of clean data in the live environment going back to 1845 in respect of marriages and 1864 in respect of deaths. It is estimated that it will take approximately three years to complete the conversion of the remaining marriage records. Unfortunately, we have not been in a position to progress work on the conversion of the deaths records, but we hope to do so shortly. We hope to be in a position to work on the conversion of the deaths data concurrently with marriages.
The civil registration modernisation programme has been recognised internationally as an example of excellence in public sector reform. In 2003, the programme was awarded winner in the category "Business Applications of IT Services" and overall "Bronze Medal for Business Innovation" at The Wall Street JournalEuropean Innovation Awards in London. In 2004, a Computerworld honours commemorative medallion was awarded at the Computerworld honours ceremony in San Francisco for the originality of concept, breadth of vision and significance of its benefit to society. The programme exhibited at the European Institute of Public Administration, EIPA, e-government conference in Italy in 2003 as an example of best practice under the theme "A better life for European Citizens".
The programme also exhibited at the Third Quality Conference for Public Administration in the EU in the Netherlands in 2004. Access to civil registration records is provided for under section 61 of the Civil Registration Act 2004. This section provides that any person may, on application in writing and on payment of the prescribed fee search an index to a register and obtain a copy or a certified copy of a register entry specified by that person. Copies or certified copies may be had from any registrar’s office, from the GRO or may be ordered online at www.certificates.ie.
There is a GRO research facility in Dublin which enables members of the public to search all of the indexes of births, deaths and marriages. Copies of entries may be obtained at the research facility in the former social welfare office in Werburgh Street, which is located at the western perimeter of Dublin Castle. I am aware of criticism of the facility during the pre-Christmas hearings and direct from members of the public. Provision of accommodation is the responsibility of the Office of Public Works. My understanding is that the OPW took advantage of the ending of a lease in the Irish Life Centre to relocate the GRO research facility to a building owned by the State, thereby achieving considerable savings for the taxpayer. This move is in accordance with Government policy. The issues raised have been brought to the attention of the OPW.
The availability of electronic records is essential for the development of modern genealogy services. While the Department of Arts, Heritage and Gaeltacht is responsible for national genealogy policy, the GRO has an important role to play in the implementation of that policy. As stated at the pre-Christmas hearings, a memorandum of understanding has been entered into between my office and the Department of Arts, Heritage and Gaeltacht for the provision of all index data relating to marriages from 1845, births and deaths from 1864 and civil partnerships from 2011 for the purpose of making the data available online at irishgenealogy.ie.Section 61 of the 2004 Act was amended by section 20 of the Social Welfare (Miscellaneous Provisions) Act 2013 to permit the Minister for Arts, Heritage and the Gaeltacht to facilitate access to the index data through the irishgenealogy.iewebsite.
All of the requisite data has been provided by GRO to the Department of Arts, Heritage and the Gaeltacht and it is my understanding that the online search facility will go live on the irishgenealogy.iewebsite within a matter of months. As for future developments, I understand that the forthcoming Civil Registration (Amendment) Bill will seek to provide for certain historic records to be made available direct to the public through an online search facility. It is proposed to make available records in respect of births more than 100 years old, marriages more than 75 years old and deaths more than 50 years old. I understand that the Minister for Social Protection hopes to publish the Bill later in the year.
I take this opportunity to pay tribute to colleagues past and present who have made an enormous contribution to the creation of a civil registration system fit for modern society.
Mr. Pádraig Dalton:
I thank the committee for the invitation to the Central Statistics Office to attend today's meeting. The Central Statistics Office operates under the terms of the Statistics Act 1993, which sets out the mandate of the office and the standards by which it must conduct its business. Independent, objective, trusted and high quality official statistics are the cornerstone of any developed democratic society. A key element in ensuring that trust and quality is the legal guarantee in regard to the confidentiality of statistical returns made to the CSO.
The CSO compiles a broad range of official statistics across a range of subject areas, including social, environmental, economic and business statistics. Some of its key outputs include the measures of GDP and GNP, debt and deficit, employment and unemployment, income and poverty, inflation, travel and tourism, demography and the related indicators of migration and population. Official statistics have always played an important role in informing decision-making across a whole host of users of statistics, including those in the policy domain. This is still very much the case and is a considerable focus of the CSO. However, increasingly official statistics are being used for monitoring purposes by a range of institutions, national and international, and by the markets in terms of monitoring the ongoing performance of our economy and society as a whole. This shift has been evident to all of us over the past number of years. The CSO has been very conscious of the focus placed on its data by the IMF, ECB, EU Commission and, of course, the markets. As a result of this shift in focus many of the activities of the CSO are now the subject of formal monitoring and compliance visits by the EU Commission to validate our statistical processes and adherence to the prescribed statistical rules and methodologies.
As set out in the Statistics Act 1993, the functions of the CSO shall be the collection, compilation, extraction and dissemination for statistical purposes of information relating to economic, social and general activities and conditions in the State. The CSO's mandate does not include any formal role in respect of genealogical activities. However, we are acutely aware of the strong genealogical interest in historic records and the success of the online release of the Census 1901 and 1911 records. Section 35 of the Statistics Act provides for a 100 year rule in regard to the release of subsequent census of population records. This is the only exception specified in the Act.
Due to the nature of its work, the CSO is entrusted by its respondents, business and person-based, with a large quantity of extremely sensitive information. The legal guarantee provided by the CSO to these respondents is central to its ability to collect information and is central to many of the official statistics compiled by CSO on a regular basis. The information give to the CSO is subject to the conditions on use of information and statistical confidentiality as set out in sections 32 and 33 of the Statistics Act 1993. It may only be used for statistical purposes and must be kept confidential.
In this context, maintaining compliance levels or response rates is a continuous challenge for all national statistical institutes. A key element in the achievement of this objective is the integrity and reputation of the CSO in terms of protecting information provided to it for statistical compilation purposes. The CSO recognises the work of the committee and the plan to capture the full value of our genealogical heritage within existing legislation. We are happy to explore ways that this office can contribute to furthering the goals of the committee, while maintaining the integrity of the confidentiality commitment given to respondents and the confidentiality of the information provided by the CSO.
My first set of questions are directed to the officials from the GRO. When will the first set of historic records be made available online? Those who are interested in this information will be aware of the changes applicable from 2000 onwards and the ongoing project in Roscommon. I welcome that the indexes will be available on the irishgenealogy.iewebsite in the near future. I acknowledge these are already available through other sources such as the Church of Latter Day Saints and roots.ie. However, access to the records is key and has been described as most genealogists as the game-changer.
The committee met prior to Christmas with four other groups on this issue. During that meeting it was stated that four sets of records are critical, namely, church, civil registration, land and census records. I note that one of the witnesses stated that birth records from 1864 onwards have been fully digitised, that while work on the marriage records is somewhat behind it is ongoing and that work on the death records is at this stage indeterminate. Is the plan to not release any of the records until all are available or will what is available be released in an incremental way? Also, by what Department will this be done?
We are all aware of what is happening in this regard in Northern Ireland. It would be nice if, as will happen in the North in the near future, our records were available online soon. We would like to see genealogy developed on an all-Ireland basis. Release of the records here is important from that point of view. It is essential to reinforce people's dissatisfaction in regard to the location of the research rooms, although I note this accommodation was selected by the Office of Public Works. The history in regard to this has been very difficult in that the Lombard Street office was very unsatisfactory. This was followed by a very satisfactory outcome in terms of the move to the Irish Life Mall, which is a good facility.
It was a very good facility. The idea was that there would be computers on each desk - even the desks were the type one would expect to see - but now it seems to have gone very far backwards. Is the office receiving complaints as I have certainly heard complaints not just about the location, which is not visually attractive or easy to find, but also about inadequacies in electrical sockets and toilets, which have been raised here before? For many people it is the first port of call in seeking records, especially if they are visitors, so it would be wrong of us not to reinforce the opinion that there is dissatisfaction in that respect.
I have other questions for the CSO, personnel. The 1911 census work was produced well in advance of the 100 year anniversary, for example. There is a big gap between the 1911 and 1926 censuses because of reasons relating to the era, but it is still the first census that was taken since the foundation of the State. It is almost regarded as historically more important from that perspective; it is also of historical importance because of the era we are entering into, and that is not just because of its genealogical value. There is a value in multiple contexts.
There are a variety of arrangements in different parts of the world. The United States, for example, releases information after approximately 50 years, and that does not seem to cause problems, although the same issue of confidentiality applies. In the UK there is a different arrangement with the 1911 census and some material was redacted. It is in the programme for Government to open the 1926 census at an earlier point but we have heard from earlier delegations that there is resistance from the CSO in that regard. What is that point of resistance? I have spoke to some fairly elderly people, including my 91-year-old mother, about the confidentiality issue, and the very opposite of the opinions that have been put forward came back to me. It would be useful to have people who are still alive to flesh out some of the material in the 1926 census, which would primarily be of interest to individuals. Are we reading the issue wrong or misinterpreting the idea that there is resistance from the CSO with regard to an early release of information? That issue came up repeatedly when we had hearings before Christmas.
Mr. Kieran Feely:
As I have stated, I am aware of the criticism of the research room. The feedback from staff is that people are reasonably happy with it, although I accept the entrance is poor. Unfortunately, I am not the decision maker, which is the Office of Public Works. The criticisms have been well aired at this committee and by users of the facility, and they have been passed to the Office of Public Works, which has control of the matter. We have raised it with that body on more than one occasion, so I can really say no more on that.
I agree with everything that Deputy Murphy said about genealogy services being brought into line with those of Northern Ireland, on an all-island basis, as soon as possible. I am not answering questions in order but I will address all of them. If I leave out anything, it can be picked up later. All of the index records are available in data format and all of the register pages are available as digital images of microfilms. There are no gaps. All of the birth records from 1864 have been converted and are available on a live computer system. Deaths from 1864 to 1923 are not on the system, along with marriages from 1845 to 1902. It will take approximately three years to clean that data and ensure it is in a fit state for conversion.
It would be possible and desirable for the data to be put into an on-line and searchable facility without it being complete. It is largely complete in any case, and the births, which are the most important records, are all there. When that will happen is dependent on a number of issues. The law needs to change and I am told by the Department of Social Protection that the Minister intends to include appropriate provisions in the civil registration (amendment) Bill which is intended to be published this year. That will be subject to the parliamentary schedule, and members are probably just as able to comment on that as I would be. After that it is a technical exercise to extract data and pass it on to the Department of Arts, Heritage and the Gaeltacht for inclusion in the irishgenealogy.iewebsite.
Typically, these projects depend on the type of searchability that is included, and there are a number of technical questions to be addressed. It would be a big enough project and it could take 12 to 18 months. That is a guess, although I have reasonable experience of doing IT projects, so it is not a wild guess.
Mr. Pádraig Dalton:
There were questions on the census in particular. The first point to note that the census projects for 1901 and 1911 were undertaken under legislation where there was no provision laid in respect of confidentiality of the data recorded. In 1926 the Statistics Act 1926 applied, and the legal framework at the time was that there would never be provision given to the census records at the time. That is the distinction between the 1911 and 1926 records, and it is why work on the 1911 project was able to commence well in advance of the 100-year rule; it did not apply to the 1911 census.
The Deputy mentioned the release of data in the US. Data is released after 72 years there, and in Canada the period is 92 years. In Australia the period is 99 years and the UK and New Zealand have 100 years as the period. There is a range of countries in Europe where census records are destroyed after a prescribed number of years, including Sweden, Luxembourg, Belgium, Portugal, Germany, Switzerland, Poland, France and Russia. I could go on. There are varying practices in that range of countries.
We can only operate within the law, and as it stands that is the Statistics Act 1993, which states that census records can only be put into the public domain after 100 years.
Until such time as the law is changed that is the way things are. Of course the CSO has no role in terms of legislation. Therefore, we can only advise if we are asked for our opinion.
The Deputy is correct that we have a position on the 1926 records. Our position is that we need to hold to the legislation that exists. It is important to remember that we are talking about a retrospective change in the legislation which could have unintended consequences, not just for the census of population, but right across the CSO's range of statistical activities. People do not look at our activities in a compartmentalised manner. Therefore, if we make a mistake in one area it will have knock-on consequences that will have an impact right across all of our statistical activities. For example, if we released 1926 data in 2016 it would immediately lead to the disclosure about a significant number of people who are still alive. Some of them may still live in Ireland and some elsewhere. If one adopted the 72-year rule like in the US then one would release information of up to 310,000 people. That is a significant issue. The most important thing to remember is that at the time the 1926 census data was collected, a legal guarantee was given to respondents that the data would never be put into the public domain. The introduction of the Statistics Act 1993 brought a change and a compromise that records could be put into the public domain 100 years after the date of the census. That suggests that the 1926 data could go into the public domain in 2026. However, we are concerned about the signal that a second retrospective change to the legislation could have on the broader statistical system, in particular to our survey respondents, business respondents, and personal respondents through our household surveys. It would negatively impact on our response rates and the quality of the official statistics.
We need to be conscious of the environment in which we operate. We compile a lot of sensitive information. The quality of our key outputs such as GDP and GNP, debt and deficit and unemployment and unemployment - and I mentioned many of these areas earlier - are monitored very closely, not just by national users but internationally. The environment in which we work has changed dramatically over the years and a high premium is now placed on the quality of official statistics. Quality is related to response rates. Our ability to maintain response rates is directly related to the legal guarantee that we provide to respondents of confidentiality regarding the data that they provide to us. Without that legal guarantee we would not have an effective and fully functioning statistical system in Ireland. A legislative change would have implications, not just for the census area, but right across the range of statistical data that we provide. Therefore, we need to be very careful about undertaking any initiative that could undermine the quality or integrity of the system. To change the law retrospectively once could be classified as an event but to change it twice could be seen as a pattern or track record. That is the major concern about the second proposal to retrospectively change the law. That is why we have adopted the position to hold to the 100-year rule and want to provide access to the 1926 census records in 2026.
Go raibh maith agat. Cuirim fáilte roimh na daoine atá anseo inniu. I wish to declare an interest just like I did at the beginning of the hearings. I am chairman of the Irish Family History Foundation.
I shall avail of this opportunity to compliment the GRO and the CSO on their impressive work to date. This is an occasion for us to exchange views. Mr. Dalton has clearly stated his position on the 1926 census, a subject that I shall return to in a moment.
I am delighted that the GRO and CSO are present to develop a plan to capture the full value of our genealogical heritage. Many players have attended the hearings and we have heard all of the players. Some of them are statutory in nature, some are voluntary-community in nature and so on. There is great enthusiasm for the subject and it would inspire a person to bring about a plan that would correlate and lead to co-operation between all of the players. I have got the feeling from the hearings to date - and I do not mean from today's meeting - that this has been a public relations exercise for us all. I include the Irish History Family Foundation in my conclusion. We have all set out our individual stalls. On the other hand, I understand the statutory obligations that belong to the two sets of witnesses attending today. I like to think that efforts to develop a plan will go beyond this stage because a great deal can be gained from co-operation.
There is a lot of information available because we have the exceptionally important civil and church records and we also have a lot of private collections of material. People would contribute to the scheme if there was a single focus that did not undermine the distinctive autonomy of each group involved. One cannot make progress by undermining their autonomy. Without doubt the genealogical heritage is a national treasure because it tells us who we are as a people and from whence we came. We all know that Irish people are very proud. Even in the most challenging of times and with a small population we virtually think that we own the world. We do own a bit of the world if we accept that there is an estimated 75 million people of Irish extraction located around the world. I have an immense feeling of pride wherever I travel. I had the same feeling last week when I was in London and it has happened when I travelled to China, Japan, South Korea and even North Korea. Wherever I have travelled I have found some understanding of the great Irish story.
There is great goodwill towards Ireland. One of the main reasons for it is that we never colonised any other country. Therefore, we are always viewed as having contributed to a developing world. I say that by way of explaining why our genealogical heritage is such an important subject for us. It is not just statistics. It is so much more than statistics.
Let us think in terms of employment. Many of the players who have attended here employ a large number of people, not just the State bodies but non-State bodies as well. I can say that applies to the Irish Family History Foundation as it employs quite a large number of people. I do not know if anyone has seen the publication of the top 100 global genealogical websites but I am particularly proud that the Irish Family History Foundation's website rootsireland.ie has been ranked top of an Irish group of three genealogical websites and in the past week has moved up another five points. The only reason that I made the point is to emphasise that it is good news when any player makes a contribution.
My next question will be difficult to answer for an organisation with a statutory background but let us consider the title of these hearings. Does either organisation see a way for us all to co-operate instead of setting out our own stalls yet protect the autonomy of each organisation and tap into the great potential that exists?
Only three months ago I introduced a Bill in the Seanad on the issue of the 1926 census. Interestingly, every Senator who spoke in the Seanad, both Government and Opposition, were in favour but the Government had to say it was not in a position to accept the Bill.
Deputy Catherine Murphy has outlined the importance of the 1926 census. It is the first census to be conducted since the foundation of the State which makes it very important. All of us, not just people in Ireland but all over the world, who have an interest are focused on the 1926 census. I have received messages from all over the world and groups of visitors who are involved in genealogy have met me here in order to focus on the 1926 census.
I spoke at the big event at the RDS that the Minister, Deputy Deenihan, attended four or five months ago. Questions were asked and the first concerned the 1926 census because such important information is in it. I fully understand what Mr. Dalton is saying about confidentiality and not undermining what is already there. Even allowing for those who are still alive from 1926, there could be some methodology not to release the information concerning them. When we made a decision on the 100-year rule, we did not realise the way society was going to change so quickly, nor how important this kind of information would be.
If the law has to be changed, it should be done in consultation with the CSO. None of us wishes to damage what the CSO has achieved. We rely on it so much and we do not wish to undermine the confidence people have in giving that information. In the decade of commemoration, and particularly 2016 for the centenary of 1916, we had all hoped that we would relax the law. I do not mean to point the finger at the CSO but I got the feeling, during the debate in the Seanad, that the reason given was that the CSO would not be happy with it. When asked for advice, the CSO must give advice. I would still like to think it is possible that we do not have to wait until 2026 for this information. Many of us will not be around to enjoy the result but, more important still, we will miss major opportunities.
Do the witnesses see a way of co-operation based what we are trying to achieve? Will our report of these hearings be setting out the stall of each group? Based on what we are saying today and accepting the points made by the CSO about defending confidentiality, Deputy Catherine Murphy is correct that her mother, although I would have thought it was her grandmother-----
Mr. Pádraig Dalton:
I thank the committee members for their interesting observations and questions. The CSO already plays a strong role in trying to support genealogy. We are the custodians of census records from 1951 to date. The years 1951 to 1981 are being held by the CSO, and the years up to 2006, in two different locations. The National Archives of Ireland stores the material from 1926 to 1951. In a sense, we are already making a big contribution in that we are trying to contain and protect the integrity of those records so that future genealogists can access the wealth of information. It is very important and we are already working with the Department and the National Archives of Ireland to see how we can move things forward for the release of the 1926 data in 2026.
Genealogy is a broad domain and there are significant number of resources and records that are of importance. The census is just one and I appreciate that is a very important one. The CSO must think about the fact that not a night goes by without the responsibility of the job weighs on this. We are very conscious that if we make a mistake on something like inflation, GDP or GNP or if we undertake any action that may undermine our ability to compile accurate and high quality statistics in those domains, it will not just have an impact on the CSO as they are of systemic importance. Let us think about what has happened in the past five or six years and how official statistics are now front and centre in monitoring how the economy is progressing and moving. The CSO is no different and our focus, role and responsibility is on the production of high-quality official statistics. Confidentiality is a cornerstone of it but it exists for a reason. It is there to maintain response rates and for us to maintain quality.
There is a direct link between confidentiality, response rates and quality. The retrospective nature of any potential change is what is of particular concern. The integrity of the confidentiality guarantee we provide will come under serious scrutiny, and not just for the census. We get detailed information from businesses, enterprises and householders. It will be very difficult for us, if the laws change a second time, to state the case for the ongoing protection of the data. Despite the fact there are statutory obligations on businesses to provide data to us, we find ourselves in the courts trying to ensure the legal requirement on enterprises is upheld by the law in terms of the provision of data. Response rates are very important because it is directly related to quality.
One of the points of concern to us is trying to protect this heritage for the future. We are all agreed on that point. One of our concerns is the storage of census forms. The National Archives of Ireland is the expert on storage and has examined how we are currently storing some census data. While the storage facilities are sufficient for the short term, trying to protect this information in the longer term for future generations and future genealogists means there must be some examination of how the records can be maintained into the future. We are not experts in data warehousing or protecting records of this nature. We do our best but, like everyone, we have limited resources. It is a significant issue that the committee could examine and see how we could be protected in the future. It is an important issue.
We are not trying to be resistant for the sake of it but our function is the provision of official statistics and we have a responsibility to take all of the precautions to ensure that we can ensure the publication and dissemination of official statistics to the highest standards. Our activities are now monitored far more closely than previously. We have study visits from the European Commission and the European Central Bank where they can come in and audit our books. Legislation going through the European Parliament will broaden that formal scrutiny beyond the key economic indicators and into the social domain. The world in which we operate has changed.
At the time of the Statistics Act 1993 and the debate about the 100-year rule, there was no such thing as access to data online. It was not perceived in the same way as it is now. Making information online means it is available to anybody in the world. It is a very different world to the one in which the 1993 decision was taken. I hope the committee can understand where we are coming from. We want to help to the greatest extent and work with the committee but we must do so within the existing legislation. If the Legislature decides to change the law on the access to census records, that is within its remit. If we are asked for our position, it is as we have outlined because of our core functions and responsibilities.
The 1911 census was released earlier , which I accept was within a different legal framework at that point.
It did not have any significant impact on the future collection of census data. People did not refuse to fill in the forms because the 1911 census records were released early. The roof did not fall in. I have used census records for a variety of reasons, as has everyone else here. The records are a very valuable source of information and are incredibly useful in the context of planning for the future, in terms of the likely demand for schools, houses and so forth. We understand that the data is statistical in nature but of all of the records that are kept, the census records are unique. I did not realise that many European countries have destroyed old census records.
It would be great if we could go back to 1922 and get our hands on those who put a match to the public records office, with so little regard for the importance of that resource. That was a terrible act of vandalism for which we are still paying a price. The data from the 1901 and 1911 census became even more important because we did not have the 19th century records and I can understand why there was a demand for that data to be released early. Indeed, that is part of the reason why things like the records of the General Register Office, GRO, have a higher premium here than they have in other countries which still have their 19th century records. Usually the data on births, marriages and deaths would not be one's first port of call; one would go to the census records. That is all the more reason for making such data immediately available. People expect to find records in one location but we have quite a fragmented range of records but together they are a wonderful resource. We must consider ways to provide an easier route to that data for researchers.
I completely accept that the witnesses have their point of view on this but I have a completely different view of it. I believe the 100 year rule is wrong - it is too long. I do not believe that a second change compromises the other elements of the records that are kept. Records on inflation, GDP, GNP and so forth are released almost as soon as they become available. We do not hold onto that data and then release it after 100 years. In that sense, one is not comparing like with like. The 100 year limit is as arbitrary as 90 years. As a compromise, redacting the names of people who are still alive is one possibility. I must disagree with the witnesses on that point because the historical value of these records, in addition to their genealogical value, given the era that we are in, sets them apart. People are quite able to differentiate between the different sets of records that are collected for different functions. We will see if there is a willingness to change the law. It is referred to in the programme for Government and is something that I would welcome.
I have just three brief questions. The first relates to the storage of all of these records, which is a big issue. How big do we make the warehouses to store these records? Is there an argument for digitising all of the records that are in storage? They can be released at whatever stage the law dictates but should they be digitised so that there is no risk of them being damaged or lost in the future? Digitising them would also reduce the enormous costs associated with their storage. This problem will just get bigger and bigger. I presume that in Mr. Feely's facility, now that everything is electronic, this issue does not arise in the context of new records. However, with the CSO, the issue will continue to arise into the future.
On a parochial note, I wish to compliment Mr. Feely and his team for their work on the translation project on the Racecourse Road in Roscommon, which led the way in the context of where we are today. We now have the GRO headquarters and Property Registration Authority, PRA, offices in Roscommon town. However, those who come to the town with the intention of accessing records are very confused about where exactly they should go. I urge the witnesses to speak to the OPW about erecting signage for all of the public buildings which have a public desk so that those travelling by train or car into the town can find the buildings easily.
I wish to touch on an issue which is not directly related to today's agenda but which is related to records. The local authorities all over the country have vast volumes of records, often held in basements in buildings, many of which are deteriorating. There does not seem to be any legal requirement on the local authorities to preserve those records or to store them appropriately. Perhaps that is an issue the committee could examine further.
Mr. Feely and myself have had conversations about amendments to the Civil Registration Act and I have tabled parliamentary questions on same. Those amendments have been long-promised but have not yet been delivered. Is Mr. Feely confident that the legislation will be ready this year and laid before the Oireachtas? Is he satisfied that all of his requirements are covered by that legislation?
Mr. Pádraig Dalton:
On the question of the digitisation of the records, the 2002 to 2011 records have already been digitised because of the way we now process the census. That will also happen with the 2016 records. We also have all of the forms too. The question of digitising older census records is one for the National Archives because that is their area of expertise. I would agree that the issue of the storage of census forms for future generations is extremely important and must be examined.
Mr. Kieran Feely:
I thank Deputy Naughten for his very kind compliments. On the civil registration Bill, the Deputy may be aware that there was a change in responsibilities implemented two years ago whereby I am no longer responsible for policy in this area. I made inquiries of the Department in preparation for this meeting and my understanding is that the Minister hopes to publish the Bill later this year. I am confident that the measures required to give effect to the making available of the historic data to the public, online, are contained in that Bill.
We are all aware of the staffing embargo and I appreciate that an enormous number of hours have been devoted to getting the records into the required format and many more hours will be needed to complete that task. Has there been any work force planning done in that context?
Has an evaluation been carried out of the number of people needed to complete this project?