Tuesday, 28 January 2014

Joint Committee on Environment, Culture and the Gaeltacht Debate

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(Speaker Continuing)

[Chairman: Information on Michael McCarthy Zoom on Michael McCarthy] I also draw the Ministers' attention to the transcript of this meeting. I thank Mr. Foster and Mr. Cremin for their attendance. We will now suspend to allow the next set of witnesses to take their seats.

  Sitting suspended at 3.20p.m. and resumed at 3.22 p.m.

Capturing Full Value of Genealogical Heritage: Discussion (Resumed)

Chairman: Information on Michael McCarthy Zoom on Michael McCarthy 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 Journal European 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".

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