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1 Apr 2009 : Column 920

Mr. Speaker: That is not a matter for the Chair. It is up to Ministers to come to the House to make statements.

Chris Grayling (Epsom and Ewell) (Con): On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. The Home Office has in recent times developed a habit of issuing written parliamentary answers to the media before they are received by Members of Parliament. That was taken to an extreme last weekend when it issued a written parliamentary statement to the media on Sunday, when it would clearly have been impossible for an MP to gain access to it until the following day. May I ask you, if you are in a position to do so, to issue guidance to Departments stating that it is inappropriate to issue formal written parliamentary questions to the media before Members have had a chance to receive and read them?

Mr. Speaker: If the hon. Gentleman is categorically saying that this was a written parliamentary statement, then it should be put to the House of Commons first. I will look further into this matter and I take it very seriously. Let me be specific: a parliamentary statement must not be issued to any body other than this House of Commons.

Chris Grayling: Further to the point of order, Mr. Speaker. I should make it clear that I was referring to written parliamentary questions. [Hon. Members: “Written answers.”] I mean written parliamentary answers.

Mr. Speaker: A written answer is different from a statement. A written answer should be published for the House of Commons. Obviously, if a Member of Parliament has tabled a question, the answer should go to that Member of Parliament first, and it should not be produced on a Sunday when Members of Parliament are working and doing other things. I shall have to look into the matter, because a rebutting argument may be presented, but that is what I say.

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Registration of Births and Deaths (Welsh Language)

Motion for leave to introduce a Bill (Standing Order No. 23)

12.35 pm

Hywel Williams (Caernarfon) (PC): I beg to move,

The Bill would amend the Births and Deaths Registration Act 1953. It aims to allow registration in English and Welsh when a birth or death has occurred in England, and to allow certificates to be issued in either language as well as bilingually. It also provides for the issuing of short death certificates.

The 1953 Act requires that a birth or death be registered by the registrar of the district in which the event takes place, but since 1 April 1969, 40 years ago today, births, stillbirths and deaths in Wales may be registered in both Welsh and English when a qualified informant is able to give information in Welsh to a registrar who can speak and understand Welsh. Certificates may then be issued which are either bilingual or in English only. Welsh-only certificates are not allowed, and registration in England is currently only possible in English. Short birth certificates may be issued, but death certificates are allowed only in the long form.

Some families from Wales travel to England for the birth of a child, either to obtain specialist care at the birth or because their areas are normally served by hospitals in England. I am thinking in particular of families from north Wales who may have to travel to Merseyside and, indeed, beyond in an emergency, and also of families from Powys who might normally cross the border to Shropshire or Herefordshire to obtain hospital care at the birth. Furthermore, some people from Wales receive their end-of-life care in hospitals in England, again because of the need for specialist care or because that is the normal arrangement where they live. Quite reasonably, families in those circumstances may wish to register such significant events in Welsh. The language is both a signifier and a definer of the identity of their loved ones.

In 1999, my colleague Lord Elis-Thomas introduced a Bill similar to this, which was passed in the other place but did not proceed in this House owing to lack of time. A Bill to the same effect was published by our erstwhile colleague Mr. Gareth Thomas, then Member of Parliament for Clwyd, West, but it too proceeded no further, again owing to lack of time. Indeed, the need for at least one of these reforms—the bilingual registration of births in England—was noted as long ago as 1990, in the White Paper “Registration: proposals for change”. Lord Elis-Thomas and Gareth Thomas benefited at that time from the advice of the Office for National Statistics, and also worked closely with the Welsh Language Board. I am glad to acknowledge the help given by the board in the preparation of the Bill.

All three Bills would overcome the deficiency that families face by establishing a central register of births, stillbirths and deaths occurring in England when Welsh speakers wish for a bilingual certificate. In practice, the
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Welsh-speaking informant would be able to make a declaration of the particulars to be registered, not in the district where the event occurred but before a suitable registrar in Wales. That registrar would then send the declaration to the registrar for the district in England where the event occurred, and it would be registered in the normal way. The declaration would also be forwarded to the Registrar General, who would record the details in the central register in both Welsh and English. A certificate could then be issued. That would enable the details, in future years, always to be available in both languages.

The Bill would also allow certificates to be issued from the bilingual entry in Welsh or English only, thus ensuring that at last both languages would be treated equally—as noted in the Welsh Language Act 1993, passed by the Conservative Administration. Bilingual certificates would continue to be available under this Bill, and I suspect that that would remain the usual choice for most families. The Bill would also allow for short death certificates, so as to exclude details of the cause of death, which sometimes cause great distress to families.

I understand that there are no significant staffing implications for public services from the Bill. The cost of establishing a central register would be minimal and would be paid for by the sale of certificates. The measure raises no human rights issues.

The law concerning the Welsh language has developed over many years, from the Acts of Union in the 16th century whose penalising clauses in effect banished the Welsh language from its previous position in the official domain—as an official language, I would even chance to say—to the modest reform of the Welsh Courts Act 1942, the landmark Welsh Language Act 1967, and subsequently the Act of 1993.

At present the Welsh Affairs Committee, of which I am a member, is taking evidence on a Welsh language legislative competence order. If passed, that will transfer the Welsh language powers from Westminster to the National Assembly for Wales. However, registration of births and deaths is not included in that LCO, hence the need for this Bill.

On 17 March, I proposed a range of suitable amendments to the Welfare Reform Bill on Report, but they were not reached. However, I am glad to say that the Government agree with elements of this Bill and agree that they are needed. I refer the House to an answer from the Under-Secretary of State for Wales:

I also have here a copy of a letter to Mr. Gareth Thomas from a then Minister at the Treasury, the right hon. Member for Leicester, West (Ms Hewitt), in which she shares her disappointment that his

That was in 1999. She continued:

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I am of course glad of the Government's historic support on this issue, but I note that some nine years have passed since that “glad and confident” letter. I hope therefore that their support can now be translated into a commitment of parliamentary time.

I am by nature an optimist, but I am reminded of a point made in Ned Thomas's seminal work “The Welsh Extremist: A Culture in Crisis” in 1971, in which he pointed out that the Welsh language so often had

More poetically, T.H. Parry Williams, in one of his finest sonnets, says of the language:

which translates as,

This Bill has wide support in Wales and I am grateful today for the support of Welsh Members on both sides of the House and Members from across the border—

Mr. Angus MacNeil (Na h-Eileanan an Iar) (SNP): And the other border.

Hywel Williams: And the other border.

Birth and death are the most significant events in life, the alpha and the omega. It is proper and humane, and in my view a fundamental right, that these events be marked in one's own language. Those happy parents and those grieving families who by force of circumstance find themselves unable to do so merely by the accident of location have waited fully 40 years for this day and for this reform.

Question put and agreed to.


That Hywel Williams, Mr. Elfyn Llwyd, Adam Price, Mr. Dai Davies, Mark Williams, Dr. Hywel Francis and Michael Fabricant present the Bill.

Hywel Williams accordingly presented the Bill.

Bill read the First time; to be read a Second time on Friday 16 October and to be printed (Bill 83).

1 Apr 2009 : Column 924

Geneva Conventions and United Nations Personnel (Protocols) Bill [ Lords]

Second Reading

Mr. Greg Knight (East Yorkshire) (Con): On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. This Bill seeks to amend the Geneva Conventions Act 1957, but the Vote Office does not have a copy of that Act. That is a very unfortunate state of affairs. Should not this debate be delayed until the Vote Office has a copy of that Act?

Mr. Speaker: I do not think that we can do that. I will instruct the officials to ensure that the Act is made available in the Vote Office, but we cannot delay the proceedings.

12.45 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs (Gillian Merron): I beg to move, That the Bill be now read a Second time.

The Bill will give effect to two international agreements. The aim of both is to protect those who help others caught up in conflict—those who risk their lives to provide humanitarian support to others. The enactment of the Bill will enable the UK to become a party to the third additional protocol to the Geneva conventions and the optional protocol to the convention on the safety of the United Nations and associated personnel.

This is a fitting moment to seek support for improvements to the Geneva conventions as it is this year that the conventions celebrate their 60th anniversary. They are universally recognised as enshrining the main principles of international humanitarian law. They oblige every state in the world to abide by the rules of war in order to limit the effects of armed conflict. They help to ensure that the wounded and the sick receive treatment; that prisoners and refugees are treated humanely; and that all civilians are protected from unnecessary harm.

The UK has, of course, always been at the forefront of developing and promoting the rules in the Geneva conventions and, by enacting this Bill, we will show the UK’s support for the latest improvements to these rules and our continuing commitment to the development of international humanitarian law.

Lembit Öpik (Montgomeryshire) (LD): I am obviously minded to support the Bill. It is a question of process. Often the biggest frustration for free countries is the inability to bring obvious offenders—people such as Robert Mugabe—to justice for violations of civil liberties. Is it the Minister’s view that the Bill will improve our capacity to bring to justice people around the world who clearly have no regard for human rights?

Gillian Merron: I understand the hon. Gentleman’s point, but it is not within the scope of the Bill, for reasons that I will go on to outline.

I know that right hon. and hon. Members will join me in thanking the British Red Cross Society for the co-operation that it has given us in preparing and promoting this important Bill. Members will also join me in commending the magnificent work done by the British Red Cross, both in the UK and overseas, where it co-operates with other national societies, the International
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Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies, and the International Committee of the Red Cross, to which I also pay tribute.

Mr. Greg Knight: Hon. Members on both sides of the House would want to associate ourselves with what the Minister has just said about the Red Cross, but will the Bill have any consequences for the name of the Red Cross? For example, in the future, will it have to be called the Red Cross and Red Crystal society?

Gillian Merron: No, I am assured that the current arrangements will stay, and I will, of course, explain our default position on the use of symbols. I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for his support. Of course, we all share a common view of the work that is done on our behalf.

Most people are well aware of the life-saving work done by the Red Cross during times of conflict or when natural disasters strike, but I should like to put on record the kind of work that the Red Cross also does to save and improve lives in many other ways. First, it provides first aid training for thousands of ordinary people, so that they can take the right steps when confronted by serious injury. Secondly, it helps communities vulnerable to natural disasters to prepare for the worst and to work in advance against the possible effects of floods, earthquakes, fires and weather-related disasters. Thirdly, it promotes the international laws that help to minimise the negative effects of wars and other conflicts on civilians and combatants.

Michael Fabricant (Lichfield) (Con): In welcoming the work of the Red Cross, will the Minister include the work of the Red Crescent and the Red Star of David—the Magen David Adom?

Gillian Merron: Of course, I am very happy to do so.

Such work helps us all, of course, and we should be proud of and grateful for it. I very much welcome the sentiments expressed in early-day motion 1224, which was tabled this week by my hon. Friend the Member for Chorley (Mr. Hoyle), to support the “Our World. Your Move” campaign. I am grateful for the eagle-eyed attention of the hon. Member for Aylesbury (Mr. Lidington) in alerting me to the fact that the impact assessment was not, as it should have been, available in good time before the debate. I apologise to the House that that happened due to administrative error, and I assure the House that the impact assessment has now been made available.

I now come to the detail of the Bill. Clause 1 will amend the Geneva Conventions Act 1957 to allow the ratification of the third additional protocol to the Geneva conventions. The protocol provides for the use of a new humanitarian emblem—the red crystal—in addition to the existing emblems, the red cross and the red crescent. The UK Government and the British Red Cross played a significant role in securing international agreement for the adoption of the red crystal. The symbol is already widely accepted, as 38 states have already ratified the third additional protocol. Like the other two emblems, the red crystal is designed to be a protective symbol for humanitarian personnel in armed conflict.

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