To little fanfare last month the UK's Office of National Statistics announced proposals for the creation of a central electronic database containing birth, death and marriage records. Announcing the publication of "Civil Registration: Delivering Vital Change," and a consultation process running through until 31st October, the ONS listed key changes as including the ability to register births and deaths online,* in person and by telephone, greater choice as regards marriage ceremonies and "new arrangements for access to registration information." The creation of a centrally-held "through life record" for everybody however appears not to have been deemed a key change of sufficient moment to make it to the press release.
The ONS document itself covers the creation of this record specifically in some detail, and the very nature of the proposals means that its existence is pretty much of a given throughout, but from the ONS' point of view you could see it as part side-effect, part record of happy and/or commemorative things. Primarily, the ONS is busying itself with putting births, marriages and deaths online, joining them up as a convenience for the citizenry and facilitating diversity in celebrating life events. So from that perspective it might seem reasonable that the move is pretty much a done deal already, to be implemented under the order-making powers of the Regulatory Reform Act 2001.
This Act is intended to allow changes to be made to legislation without them having to be put before Parliament, so in theory at least these changes should be minor, adminstrative, uncontroversial, whatever. But the "through life record" side-effect is potentially very controversial indeed.
Numerous government agencies already have rights of access to the existing records, but switching these to electronic and joining them up will inevitably broaden these access rights, and make them more useful to government, and to other organisations. Says the document: "It is envisaged that an up-to-date 'living record' will be valuable to both individuals and Government for providing identity and for verification purposes... Computerising the records of births, deaths and marriages will make it easier for this information to be used by others. In future, instead of producing a paper certificate when applying for a passport, driving licence or other Government service, the individual will agree to his or her birth registration information being checked and the service provider will do so electronically as part of processing the application. Similarly, the next of kin could agree to an insurance company or bank viewing the death information electronically, thus removing the need to provide a paper death certificate."
This is pretty much a description of an electronic implementation of how the current system operates, and the kinds of organisations who'd be using the information. The ONS also envisages organisations having to obtain your permission. So, for example, where you'd now send the insurance company your birth or death certificate (well, maybe not that one) you'd in future give them permission to check it online.
So far, so similar, so uncontroversial? Perhaps. But it is in the nature of databases to grow, and for bright sparks to identify useful ways in which these growing records can be repurposed. For the greater good, of course. "The Government recognises that the registration service is ideally placed to act as a focal point for information on services associated with the birth of a baby, bereavement, deaths and marriages, for example on social security benefits and marriage preparation."
There are quite a lot of services that you could associate with the birth of a baby, so there's quite a chain of other databases you could reasonably expect to start to intersect at this "focal point." And: "Other records could be added to the central database... and linked, and the ability to do so would be provided for in the order. The inclusion of other records would be beneficial, both to the individual and to the users of registration information."
Aside from the morphing of a few pieces of paper concerning you ("snapshot" approach, as the ONS terms it) into a single electronic record, this linking notion is the most significant aspect of the proposals. "The creation of 'through life' records would bring benefits to individuals, Government Departments and Agencies, other bodies and society as a whole... 'Through life' records would also have a significant impact on the fight against fraud. Organisations could use information from the linked records to confirm the identity and entitlement of an applicant... Government Departments and Agencies and other users of the central database would be consulted on what record linkage would be most beneficial to them and what would be most cost effective."
It can be seen from this that the linking of other kinds of record, in consultation with other agencies, is a part of the process. This could, and will, mean many things, but it's worth noting that the Inland Revenue, listed by the ONS as a likely Authorised User, has its own plans for joined up records, its term being "life event". The Revenue envisages some form of record of your taxation and business career, which in some cases could be a deal more disturbing than a record of whether you're dead or not, but as plenty of other agencies could also provide similarly complex records of your career in their areas, database linking could conjure up some pretty impressive stuff.
There are however safeguards, which is a word the ONS uses a lot (not always convincingly) in the document. In principle at least, the default is that access is permission-based. If you show somebody your birth certificate you're pretty obviously giving them permission to look, but doing things electronically requires new systems, and a class called "Authorised Users" is envisaged. These are "principally... organisations who access large numbers of registration records as part of their business and who may require access to the restricted information.
Authorised Users would be able only to access restricted information where the person named in the record or their representative has given permission for them to do so."
It's entirely opaque to us where being an Authorised User gets you, if you've still got to get permission on a case-by-case basis anyway, but no doubt this will become clearer in the fullness of time. Example Authorised Users include the Revenue, Department of Work and Pensions, DVLA, "financial institutions and insurance companies" and "police, solicitors or those granting probate."
As regards linking access (which is different from record access), "linking information would not be made public and would therefore not be available to those using the central database. However, it is possible that it would be made available to the individuals named on the records... to those people who confirm a link when registering an event, those given permission by individuals and some users of registration records where there are legal or other reasons for doing so... The list of those entitled to access the linking information would be prescribed in subordinate provisions to the order. The Government is seeking views on this issue."
Quite a few nested $64,000 questions in that one, aren't there? The creation of one "focal point" database of individual records will provide an enabler for the linking of any number of pre-existing and nascent databanks, and we're seeking views on who gets to play with them, and how. Quite a big step to implement on the basis of a Regulatory Reform Act order, surely.
The ONS also has a related project undergoing a feasibility study. This is the Citizen Information Project, " a high-quality common population register. This would hold core data (such as name, address and date of birth) and a unique identifier on UK residents that could be used by public sector organisations to ensure that they have the right records about the right people at the right time." Depending on how the registration changes are implemented, this could quite possibly be redundant, but its existence does illustrate that the commitment to the all-singing, all-dancing central record is very much live. ®
* The Register is disappointed to note that the ONS has shirked the opportunity to implement online marriages, and fails to mention texting at all. Here we are, on the threshold of a new age where we could be getting married in 3G video and having our death registered via SMS, sent automatically when our wireless-enabled bio-monitoring notes our unfortunate demise (the doctor has also been informed, has confirmed, wirelessly, and the ambulance is on its way), and they try to fob us off with letting us get married wherever we want, so long as we're actually there. Tired or what?