A COUNCILLOR this week claimed he and his Scottish Borders Council (SBC) colleagues were misled last year when a cash-saving revamp of the registry service in the region was approved, writes Andrew Keddie.
That is the view of Selkirk’s Kenneth Gunn, the SNP opposition member for Selkirkshire – one of only two councillors who voted in February against the closure of registry offices in his home town as well as Jedburgh, Lauder and Newcastleton.
But he recalled this week that, while he stood by his opposition to the registration of marriages and deaths only being available in major towns such as Galashiels, Hawick and Peebles, he had been assured that staff at contact centres in Selkirk and Jedburgh would be retrained to handle local birth registrations.
Eleven months on, however, the SBC officer who recommended the registry office closures – aimed at saving £50,000 a year – has admitted that this training had only just begun in Jedburgh and was not due to start in Selkirk until next week. Therefore, births from families in these towns must be registered in Hawick and Galashiels respectively.
“It is still the intention that customer service advisors at contact centres will be trained to register births and this has started in Jedburgh,” said Jenni Craig, SBC’s head of customer services, in response to Mr Gunn’s criticism.
“Due to the time it has taken to restructure the registration service and the demands on qualified staff, it has not been possible to train these advisors as quickly as originally anticipated. The next priority for training is Selkirk which is due to start the week commencing January 16.
“However, death and marriage registrations will continue to be carried out by the professionally qualified registrar based in Galashiels.”
Mr Gunn said: “We were assured the registration of births as well as other duties would be done, if not by highly respected and qualified registrars, then by office staff in the contact centre in every burgh and major community. This apparent promise has been broken.”
He cited the case of a constituent in Selkirk who went to the town’s contact centre last week for a form to apply for a marriage certificate and was told he would have to go to Galashiels.
Councillor Gunn went on: “He was told the forms could not be handed out in Selkirk where, it appears, staff are not even qualified to hand over a form.
“It was when he went to Galashiels that he and his fiancee learned that the registration of births was also unavailable in Selkirk as no staff had been trained.
“Why has a service provided after hundreds of years of parish records and delivered by university-trained staff been abandoned in the Borders? The present administration at Newtown is cutting corners in almost every department, but this is unacceptable.
“If someone knew no registrations would be available in parishes and burghs after a knee-jerk reaction to save money, why were elected councillors misled by the administration?
“One cannot even see any more what banns [notices of forthcoming marriages] are hanging out in Selkirk for the first time since the 11th century.
“At a time where the UK Home Office cannot even tell you what the immigration figures are, either legally or illegally, this is simply not good enough. If a compromise cannot be found, then we must ensure that the properly qualified registrars are brought back with immediate effect.”
Ms Craig confirmed the registry offices in Selkirk, Lauder and Jedburgh had closed, and negotiations were still taking place with NHS Borders to find an accommodation solution in Newcastleton.
“It was always the intention that deaths and marriages would continued to be carried out by professionally qualified registrars and, for Selkirk residents and because of low demand, this means an appointment being made at Galashiels,” said Ms Craig.
“Marriage enquiries have become increasingly complicated since the removal last year of the certificate of approval for non-British citizens.
“Since these changes, the registration service is working in partnership with the UK Border Agency and the Home Office to inspect every single marriage application in the Borders. Since last year, we have reported three cases of lapsed immigration to the Home Office.”
She added: “This is why all marriages or civil partnerships must be dealt with by a registrar holding the appropriate skills and training.
“The lists of intended marriages or civil partnerships are only displayed in Hawick, Galashiels and Peebles, but if the public request to see the list, they can do so in any office a registrar.”