Chapter 10: Statutory Registration
“The COVID-19 pandemic, and subsequent lockdown, has had a very significant effect on the registration service since March 2020”
At National Records of Scotland (NRS), the Registration business area is responsible for:
- The administration of births, deaths, still-births, marriages, civil partnerships and gender recognition, as well as statutes relating to the legal preliminaries to marriage/civil partnership and solemnisation of civil marriages
- Business input to IT systems which enable the electronic capture and distribution of information for registration purposes
- The professional training and development of registrars, and support for their progress towards the longstanding registrar’s qualification, the Certificate of Proficiency in the Law and Practice of Registration in Scotland.
Each of the 32 local council areas in Scotland is a registration district. Councils can operate their registration service from a single office or multiple sites, depending on the size of the council area and how each authority chooses to configure its services. Registrars are appointed and remunerated by each local authority, which appoints registration staff for their registration district as they deem necessary, receiving policy and process guidance from NRS, as well as extensive IT and training support.
Uses of Registration data
There are a number of significant and important uses of the data generated by the Registration service in Scotland. This includes:
- Extracts from the registers (birth/death certificates etc) used by members of the public to attest to the true occurrence and details of different life events
- A key data source for the demographic statistics produced by NRS
- The base for future family history research
- To provide significant input to the promotion of positive social goods such as public health, justice and medical research.
- Prevention of social ills such as forced marriage, fraud and the subversion of immigration law.
- Underpinning the NHS Central Register (NHSCR)
- Used by a range of other government departments, such as the Department for Work and Pensions via the Tell Us Once scheme, and HMRC as part of the tax-free childcare and child benefit data verification schemes.
NRS continues to work on expanding the reach and impact of Registration data through these and other channels.
More than 98% of all civil status events are recorded by registrars using a secure network (the Forward Electronic Register – FER). Remaining events are recorded manually by home-based registrars, and these manual records are then transcribed into FER. Outputs are register pages, extracts and computer data.
Every entry in the registers of birth, still-birth, death, marriage and civil partnership is examined individually by the team of District Examiners. These staff quality assure information recorded by registrars, and make strategic visits to registration districts during the year. Once they have been examined, register pages are sent to NRS, where they are digitally imaged and made available to family history researchers through ScotlandsPeople, as well as more widely through a secure network to computerised registration offices. The original records are stored permanently in NRS.
Registration and COVID-19
The advent of the COVID-19 pandemic, and subsequent lockdown, has had a dramatic effect on the registration service since March 2020. It has required a complete reconfiguration of registration services across the country, beginning in March and continuing through summer 2020.
Throughout this unprecedented period, the normal work of registering events has continued, alongside other important developments such as legislative work on mixed-sex civil partnerships, and the ongoing programme of examination of register entries.
The new challenges this presented included:
- Making an urgent assessment of those aspects of registration which were essential, which were less so and could be suspended or postponed, and how to immediately order these priorities
- Engaging rapidly with policy and legal colleagues to develop provisions in the first UK Coronavirus bill to facilitate remote death registration, a key public health priority
- Communicating NRS’s broad thinking on registration priorities, programmes of change and implementation tasks to local authority registrars and registration managers
- Responding to changes in guidance and regulations to rapidly reconfigure services to match circumstances, and then producing detailed registration-specific guidance on aspects of the service
- Communicating with a wide range of external stakeholders to ensure changes were understood, grounded in real experience and sensitive to the needs of different groups and communities. For example, religious or cultural reasons can mean that burial or cremation must happen quickly; this concern was played into remote death registration preparations.
Key impacts of the pandemic on registration
1. Prioritising Death Registration
Continuing death and still-birth registration was an essential public health priority during the pandemic. With significantly increased numbers of deaths, it was vital for the registration service to focus its energies on registering deaths and still-births. (Following implementation of the Certification of Death (Scotland) Act 2011, people can only be buried or cremated after registration has taken place.)
Registration worked with legal and policy colleagues to develop provisions in the first UK Coronavirus bill which allowed deaths and still-births to be registered remotely (as opposed to by means of a person coming in to a registration office, which would have involved unnecessary exposure of registrars and members of the public to COVID-19).
These provisions have worked extremely well, affording registrars the ability to obtain the required information from families by phone or other remote means, send on and receive key documents electronically and complete registration by means of a transcribed signature (again, avoiding the need for a person’s physical presence to sign the register page). We intend to maintain their use through to the expiry of the UK Coronavirus Act in May 2022, and are also exploring the possibility of introducing parallel systems of remote and in-person death and still-birth registration for the future.
2. Postponement of Birth Registration
As a consequence of focusing primarily on death registration, and as births can already be registered up to three months after occurrence, NRS took the decision to postpone birth registrations during the initial period of the lockdown. This enabled greater focus on deaths, and we worked to communicate this policy effectively to stakeholders and the general public. In addition, we ensured that key benefits flowing from birth registration such as eligibility for child benefit (UK departments confirmed applications could still be made, in the absence of a birth certificate) and GP registration of new-borns (children could be registered at the doctor’s surgery without a birth certificate) were not interrupted, and families did not suffer any detriment.
As the lockdown period moved on, we worked with local authorities on planning for the gradual reopening of registration offices – each council opening and configuring a number of offices matching local needs – and as of June 29, offices began to reopen for high-priority activities, including birth registration. NRS also developed a new hybrid system of birth registration under which much of the required information could be gathered from parents over the phone, prior to a short, focused in-person appointment to check and sign the register page, again intended to minimise exposure to COVID-19.
3. Suspension of work on Marriage and Civil Partnership
The third key aspect of registration affected by the pandemic was marriage and civil partnership, work on which was temporarily suspended to allow for the initial focus on death and still-birth registration. As lockdown progressed, we worked extensively with Scottish Government policy leads to implement changes to registration practice required by the developing phases of the Routemap through and out of the COVID-19 crisis. This work has been complex and fast-moving, with initial household and travel limitations around ceremonies gradually giving way to attendee caps, indoor marriages and safety measures such as the wearing of face coverings, ensuring that registrars, celebrants, marriage parties and guests can participate in a safe environment. Work on marriage and civil partnership is ongoing, with restrictions developed for phase three of the Routemap still in force.
What have NRS learned from the COVID-19 pandemic?
As at October 2020, we remain in phase three of the Route Map, and work is in hand across the registration service to maintain delivery to the public, ensure safe operations and engage on future developments. This will include plans to implement mixed-sex civil partnerships over the coming year, and further work on marriage authorisations. In addition, numbers of key policy, process and training priorities which have had to be postponed in the face of the pandemic will be resumed, as the registration service works towards the ‘new normal’.
- Registration is planning to engage in early 2021 with all of our main stakeholders – particularly chief and senior registrars, registration managers, and policy/legal colleagues within Scottish Government – to determine key lessons from the pandemic period, and how best to apply them to the new context of registration services.
- This is likely to encompass learning around issues that developed differently to expectations, as well as interventions (such as remote death registration) which were very successful from the start.
- It will be important to understand the different challenges likely to be placed on registration in coming years, and to ensure we maintain the excellent partnership working which has allowed us to work through the pandemic, and which will set us in good stead for the future.