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THE LAST WORD

A Genealogy Tax?

O

N 6 APRIL 2010, the cost of obtaining a duplicate civil registration certificate from the General Register Office for England and Wales (GRO), now part of the Information and Passport Service (IPS), rose from £7 for a 4-day turnaround to £9.25, and the cost of a priority certificate delivered within 24 hours was set at £23.40. The explanation given for the rises by the Registrar General, James Hall, was that ‘The General Register Office receives more than two million certificate orders every year, the vast majority of which, over 90 per cent, are ordered online. This is our first change to fees since 2003 and we believe that the new fee structure will be simpler to use for our customers. GRO certificates are self-financing and costs must be recovered to ensure taxpayers do not subsidise them. This is a responsibility we take extremely seriously. We will continue to play our part in keeping costs as low as possible by bringing in technological efficiencies and improvements.’ Meanwhile, plans to digitise the indexes have been revived under a new Digitisation and Indexing (D&I) project. This replaces the former Digitisation of Vital Events (DoVE) project, initiated in 2005 and run by Siemens Business Services on behalf of IPS, which was intended to create an online search engine known as MAGPIE (MultiAccess to GRO Public Index of Events) but was abandoned when the contract expired in 2008 with just over half the process completed. At the time, Ian Tait, Operation Related Services Director for Siemens, said: ‘Being part of a project with such a huge scope and historical value is very exciting. We were able to prove that Siemens Business Services has the capabilities to undertake this project with extremely high quality security standards at every stage.’ The 130 million or so records that were digitised have been incorporated into EAGLE, the Electronic Access to GRO Legacy Events system, which is intended to make finding and ordering certificates much easier. However, access to images of the certificates themselves is not planned – in contrast to Scotland, where ScotlandsPeople provides online searchable indexes with links to images of most certificates. To date, a contract for the new D&I project has not been awarded. It is certainly the case that there is a cost recovery process that needs to be met through the price of each certificate produced. It is also true that prices for GRO certificates have not changed since 2003. Yet the recent

price hike represents a rise of 32 per cent. Even if we allow for a generous inflation rate of 3 per cent per year, the new price should only be £8.60 maximum – and as we know, we’ve been living through a recession over the last 18 months or so where inflation has been far lower. The rise will produce £18m annual revenue for IPS, based on their production figures – an increased bounty of £4.5m through the additional £2.25 per certificate. The cost of the 3-year Siemens contract was £18m, or £6m per year. As stated previously, no contract for the new D&I project has been awarded. So is this price rise a genealogy tax to raise money from a popular pastime, designed to help cover the costs of the new D&I project following the failure of DoVE and MAGPIE? Is this really going to deliver ‘a more complete and accurate repository of index information’, as the IPS website claims? Roger Lewry, Archives Liaison Officer for the Federation of Family History Societies, quite rightly pointed out that there is no guarantee provided that ‘previous promises made by the GRO … will be carried over into the new project’, which included additional index data from 1837 of mothers’ maiden names for births (currently only available from September 1911 onwards), spouses’ surnames for marriages (currently available from March 1912), and ages at death (currently available from March 1866). Furthermore, no attempt has been made to replace the long-lamented paper lists, which were removed from public access in 2007 much to the consternation of family historians. Indeed The National Archives has removed its microfiche set of national indexes as part of its 2009 costcutting exercise on the flimsy justification that the fiche take up too much room in the open reading room, whilst an expenditure budget needs to be set aside for the maintenance of fiche readers and copiers. Clearly, it has abandoned its claims to be the home of family history. Whilst we can view national indexes online from commercial dataset providers – for a fee – the means of access requires a linear search pattern, making it much harder to spot siblings and patterns of family behaviour. We are still waiting for the replacement system – although it now appears we may have to contribute to its construction through this price rise. In a year of cutbacks, closures and consternation in the archive sector we need to keep an eagle eye on EAGLE to ensure that mistakes from the past are not repeated, and the needs of the users are put first.

The recent price hike represents a rise of 32 per cent...

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Y O U R FA M I LY H I S TO RY

A Genealogy Tax?  

Nick Barratt wonders whether genealogists will benefit from the recent rise in the cost of certificates.

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