Thursday, 9 October 2014
Civil Registration (Amendment) Bill 2014 [Seanad]: Second Stage (Resumed)
I take this opportunity to congratulate the Minister of State, Deputy Kevin Humphreys, on his recent appointment and on steering this, his first Bill through the Oireachtas and, knowing him, I have no doubt will be the first of many.
It has been ten years since the introduction of the Civil Registration Act 2004 and in that short space of time we have seen Irish society evolve and change more so than in any other period in the history of the State. We welcome thousands of new immigrants to our shores while, regrettably, saying goodbye to those who have emigrated. We saw the days of boom and burst. This amending legislation is a responsive measure which will go a long way to responding to the changing Ireland we have before us. To summarise, essentially, it records life events such as marriages and deaths. That, in turn, will help modernise and give greater clarity to the records we keep in Ireland.
There are three major amendments provided for in this Bill, namely, the compulsory registration of the father's name on the birth certificate; a tighter crackdown on marriages of convenience; and a record of deaths of Irish people abroad. I am pleased it will be compulsory for the father's name to be placed on the birth certificate of any child born in Ireland. The Minister of State is addressing an issue that for a long time was placed on the long finger. The introduction of this provision will underline the rights of the child under EU legislation and allow them to have access to their own identities. It allows the child to know who their biological father was. It provides the child with a small sense of background. It will also help future generations to trace their heritage, family history and roots.
The figure of 2,675 non-marital births where the father's name was not registered has been raised by Deputies over the years. Those are 2,675 girls and boys who may never find out who their biological father was. This amending legislation addresses this unsatisfactory situation. I am pleased to see it placed on the Statute Book. However, there are situations where there may be genuine reasons where the father's name is not registered. The mother may not know the identity of the father or the mother may believe that providing that information would be harmful to the safety of the child. I am glad to see that these reasons have been well and clearly defined in the legislation. The compulsory registration of the father's name will add a greater sense of responsibility upon the biological father. I would very much favour the introduction of compulsory maintenance payments from the father to the mother and from the mother to the father.
During my 12 years in the Oireachtas I have come across situations of marriages of convenience on a few occasions. It is a complex situation but I am glad that the Minister has laid out extensive groundwork and regulations to crackdown on these sham marriages. For years people have abused Ireland's marriage laws. This amending legislation will strengthen our existing laws and make it more difficult to arrange a marriage of civil partnership of convenience. It is important that the Minister of State has introduced the concept of a registrar and a superintendent registrar. The registrar will be allowed to investigate the proposed marriage to see if it genuine. Meanwhile the superintendent registrar will also offer advice, clarity and will have the final say. Therefore, we will have two people ensuring that the marriage is genuine.
I would like to follow up on a point made recently by the Irish Emigrant Support Centre about the position of the registrar. I agree with its call to ensure both registrars receive cultural awareness and diversity training in advance of the commencement of these sections and recognise the cultural context in which the marriage is taking place. If this is followed up on, we have a greater change of being able to clearly define who are the genuine couples hoping to get married and those who are not.
The recording of deaths of Irish people abroad is an issue that has been personally championed by Members of both Houses. I commend the Minister of State on listening to our views and taking on board our advice. This amending legislation will introduce a record of deaths of Irish persons who are normally resident in the State who die while on short-term absences abroad. While the documents will not replace the original foreign death certificate, the facts that families can record that death in Ireland will bring a small bit comfort to a distressing situation that we have all experienced at one point or another in our lives.
I once again commend the Minister of State on introducing his first item of legislation, which is a complex one. The amendments put forward in the legislation are important. They will bring much greater clarity to areas of Irish life where previously there was none. This Bill provides substantial changes to the 2004 Act and puts the registration services far more in tune and responsive to the Ireland we live in today.
I welcome this Bill, which will enact various improvements to the administration of civil registration in this State. This amending legislation is broad in its capacity but I find the changes made to the registration of marriage and civil unions of key interest. The right to marry is a fundamental right according to both the European Convention on Human Rights and the Charter of Fundamental Rights of the European Union. Article 41.3.1o of our Constitution commits the State towards guarding the institution of marriage with "special care". If all of these documents, which form the backbone of our legislative powers, hold the institution of marriage in such a high regard, it is important that we closely analyse any attempts to limit or regulate that right.
Although the definition of marriage can become the subject of intense debate, it is hard to imagine anyone encouraging the use of the institution of marriage for the purposes of circumventing our immigration laws and procedures. In a 2011 High Court ruling, the decision was made that a marriage contracted for immigration purposes is valid under Irish law due to the lack of explicit legislation against such practices. Allowing such a loophole to remain unchanged diminishes the authority of our naturalisation procedures.
It is imperative to ensure that our civil registration process does not interfere with the work being done to accommodate and manage our immigrant population. By putting into place this amendment to the Civil Registration Act, we can distinguish between those who want to use marriage for legitimate purposes and those who are attempting to manipulate the system.
Our failure to legislate on this immigration breach has raised international concerns, particularly from Latvia. There has been a rush of marriages that were allegedly responsible for trafficking Latvian women to Ireland with the intention of marrying non-EU nationals for the purposes of citizenship. We cannot stand idly by and simply watch as Ireland is used as a haven for human trafficking. We cannot allow our Republic to become the weakest link for those looking for an illegitimate reason to enter the European Union.
Most importantly, we cannot allow our negligence to affect the lives of vulnerable women from within the EU. We must strive to make a positive difference through our interactions with member states, and making our immigration process airtight is a part of that commitment. The issue is not marriages or civil partnerships based on economic benefits. While it may be the optimal situation to be in love with one's partner, it is by no means a legislative requirement. It is important that we keep in mind all of the prospective situations in which people may find themselves before we pass laws that might infringe on the rights of Irish citizens to determine their own lives.
Civil unions and marriages are not the only issues within the scope the Bill. In particular, section 6 amends a great deal of legislation on the registration of a child's birth parents. Over 35% of births last year were to parents outside of marriage. In current law, only the mother's name need be registered in the circumstance of a child born out of wedlock. This, unfortunately, leaves a child without a guaranteed right to know who his or her father is, which can bring great confusion into a child's life through no fault of his or her own. It is also important to know one's lineage for practical reasons, such as establishing where family connections exist, and it might be problematic if such information is unavailable.
Exceptions are to be made, and this Bill allows room for negotiation. Should a mother lack knowledge of who her child's father is, or should she find it to be detrimental to the safety or welfare of either her or her child, she may opt out of the new registration requirement. This nuanced approach to birth registration ensures a fair and unobtrusive process will be used when gathering what can be sensitive information that is necessary for a number of legal and administrative reasons. On this facet of the Bill, it is important that the rights of the child be placed at the forefront of our efforts to navigate this potentially controversial amendment. Critics will rightfully point to the compulsory nature of birth registration as being somewhat unjust to women who find themselves in a position of potential vulnerability. While it is not our responsibility as law makers to pry into the personal lives of our constituents, for us to take our focus off of the children in question would be a disservice to them. Children born in this country have a right to know where they come from, and we must preserve their right to an identity above all else.
I firmly support our Government's push to streamline our civil registration processes. The more we work to sharpen existing legislation, the more efficiently and effectively we can serve the citizens of our nation.
I think the Deputies for their well thought out contributions today and last Tuesday, which are very much appreciated. There will be time to broaden and extend the discussion further on Committee Stage. The Civil Registration (Amendment) Bill 2014 is part of a suite of Bills introduced to modernise our civil registration service. The first of these was the Civil Registration (Amendment) Bill 2012 which provided for secular bodies to apply to conduct marriages. Most people agree it was very successful legislation. On 17 June 2014, the general scheme of the gender recognition Bill 2014 was published. The Bill will give legal recognition to transgender people. The Bill is being drafted and I intend to publish it later this year. It is one of the priorities of my Department and me to bring the Bill before the House as soon as possible.
The Bill before us today contains significant new provisions and provides a wide range of changes and improvements in the civil registration service. The compulsory inclusion of fathers names on birth certificates, which has been mentioned in many contributions today, is one of the progressive elements because every child has the right to know the identity of his or her father and mother. Current legislation does not require the mother or the father to provide the father’s details when registering the birth if the parents are not married to each other. The registration of the father's name on the birth certificate confers no additional rights on the father of a child, and this was touched on many times during the debate.
Deputy O’Dea raised points regarding how the changes will operate in practice if a woman makes a statutory declaration that she does not know the identity of the child's father when in reality she does. In such a case, she is clearly committing an offence under the Statutory Declarations Act 1938 and section 69 of the Civil Registration Act 2004. In the case where a mother claims she does not know the whereabouts of the father, she would be required to supply his name and any further information on his identity, such as his last known address or contact details. The registrar would then make all reasonable efforts to contact the man named as the father.
Deputy Ó Snodaigh asked about the extent of re-registration. The figure is approximately 1,000 instances of re-registration of a father's name at a later stage. A number of Deputies raised the issue of marriages of convenience. The Bill aims to address marriages of inconvenience - sorry, I mean convenience; we sometimes go there. The Bill introduces measures to combat the occurrence of such marriages. The right to marry is a basic right and EU citizens and their families have a right to move freely within the territories of member states. These rights also apply to non-EU nationals who are spouses of EU nationals. Irish society has greatly benefitted from the free movement of EU citizens across Europe. However, criminal entities are abusing our system by using marriage laws in Ireland to gain an automatic right to residency in Europe. The vast majority of marriages are consensual. A key feature of the provision is to protect the safety of women, particularly vulnerable young women and there have been a number of contacts from embassies about this and the dangers of trafficking.
The Bill includes an honest attempt to try to control this. I direct Members to section 18 which outlines the roles and responsibilities of the registrar in detail, which did not exist previously. Members might like to re-examine it. We want to try to ensure women are protected in these circumstances and it is a very good amendment to the original Act. The registrar has a good opportunity to form an opinion on whether a marriage is genuine. Deputy O’Dea asked whether there would be an appeals mechanism. The Civil Registration Act 2004 already provides for an appeal process where required. The same process, which allows an appeal to the family Circuit Court, will be available in the case of such marriages. Another question was whether legal aid will be available, and this is a matter for the Legal Aid Board and the courts.
The provision for embassy marriages is a practical solution for what happened, and I covered it clearly in the earlier debate. A number of marriages took place in embassies that were not clearly under Irish legislation, and the Bill will allow those marriages and civil partnerships to be recognised. Deputy O’Dea queried the provision referring to the constitutional rights which arise in sections 19 and 26. These sections cover the retrospective validation of embassy marriages and civil partnerships. This is a fail-safe provision which is not unique in the legislation. Deputy O’Dea has concerns and I hope this covers those concerns in a very clear way. The provision is there because of a recognition that the sections could impact on people's property rights and the intention in such cases, if they ever arise, is that legislation will be clearly understood not to be attempting to curtail these rights.
It is not a new departure to have these types of provisions, particularly where the legislation will have some form of retrospective effect. Civil partnerships which took place in embassies or diplomatic missions prior to the commencement of the Civil Partnership and Certain Rights and Obligations of Cohabitants Act 2010 will be provided for within this Bill.
Many Members covered the record of deaths abroad. Deputy Kyne, Senator Healy Eames and other Deputies have raised this on a number of occasions. It is accepted broadly across the House that the record of deaths abroad addresses those issues raised, especially by Deputy Kyne where he introduced a Private Members' Bill. This is where we can see the reform that is coming into this Government. The Private Members' Bill has informed an element of this legislation.
Deputy Catherine Murphy covered the area of online access to historical records. This is becoming ever more important. Deputy Olivia Mitchell also referred to this. It is covered clearly in this Bill, but we must be careful that citizens' privacy is also protected. In the Bill, we are acting within the international norm.
Deputy Murphy also raised the General Register Office in Werburgh Street. As a result, I intend to visit the office to see exactly what the Deputy means. I will come back to her at a further stage in regard to the specifics because it is not within the Bill.
A number of Members raised the issue of registration of a baby in a very sad circumstances as a result of the mother's death late in pregnancy. The legal issues arising here are being carefully examined. Should it be determined that the existing legislation is inadequate, I will bring forward an amendment on Committee Stage.
Birth certificates were covered. In the case of adopted persons, the Adoption Act 2010 provides for the option of two types of birth certificate for an adopted person - one states clearly that the person is adopted and the other is an abridged version. The current provisions are there because people wanted the choice. Before there would be any changes, there would need to be a much broader consultation. There was an in-depth debate in the Seanad in this regard, and Deputy Daly has raised it again. The issue has been brought to the attention of my colleague, the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs, who has responsibility for policy and legislation for adoption. I am happy to cover that during Committee Stage.
This Bill is progressive. I compliment the staff in the Department for their hard work in bringing it forward. I thank the Members for their contributions. There were will be further in-depth contributions on Committee Stage.