The following announcement was written by the Council of Irish Genealogical Organisations (CIGO):
The National Health Service Information Centre (NHS-IC) has announced the launch of a new fee-paying service giving access to data held on deceased individuals recorded on the ‘National Register for England and Wales’ originally compiled in 1939. In essence this data is similar to census data in that it is arranged by household and includes basic details about the entire UK population (England & Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland) as it stood in 1939 at the outbreak of war. The NHS-IC’s announcement is made on foot of successful Freedom of Information Act requests by both Mr. Steven Smyrl and Mr. Guy Etchells, both professional genealogists.
The National Register
The National Register, often referred to as the ‘1939 Schedule’, was created under The National Registration Act 1939 (NRA) and was an emergency measure which took a snap-shot of the entire UK population on 29th September 1939. The data recorded was used to issue identity cards and for the ‘calling up’ of men and women to the Armed Forces for the war effort. From 1948 the National Register was used for both national registration (until that ended in the early 1950s) and for the creation of the NHS. For the NHS it was used to establish and maintain a register, containing personal details of each living person’s registration with an NHS General Practitioner in each constituent part of the United Kingdom. Subsequently, personal data was added into the National Register in the form of annotations to the data originally collected under the NRA. The data was constantly kept up to date as a manual patient register until the computerised NHS Central Register was launched 1991. As such, the register holds data about both living and deceased people. Many of those who were already elderly in 1939 would now of course have been born in the middle of the nineteenth century and in a few cases even before Queen Victoria ascended the throne in 1837!
The NRA compelled the population to provide the following information: full names; sex; date of birth; profession; home address; marital status; and whether a member of one of the UK Armed Forces. From 1948 additional data was added to the National Register (up until the creation of the NHS Central Register in 1991) including: changes of name; and, where relevant, the date and place of death.
The individual ‘schedules’ (these are the forms upon which the original information was recorded on 29th September 1939) were until 2008 held by the Office for National Statistics (ONS), but were transferred to the new NHS-IC in that year. Up until that time ONS had ran a very popular service called ‘Traceline’ which for a fee would search the National Register (and the annotated records created after 1939) in hopes of locating an entry for a given individual. Traceline would then either offer to forward a letter to that person if they appeared (from the records) to be still living - or if deceased they would provide the enquirer with the date and place of death (and alternative surname(s) where a married woman was concerned).
In April 2008 Steven Smyrl (one of CIGO's two Executive Liaison Officers) challenged this decision with an appeal to the UK Information Commissioner. The NHS-IC used a number of delaying tactics and it took until September 2009 when they finally relented and took heed of the Information Commissioner’s guidance in relation to the application of the DPA. The NHS-IC had tried to argue that it could not answer Steven’s enquiry for information about a particular person who appeared in their records because to process such a request would be to infringe the privacy of the “data subject”. He successfully argued that such a stand did not make sense as the DPA does not extend to the deceased – a principle that the UK Information Commissioner had conveyed to the NHS-IC during the period of their investigation. Finally, in September and October 2009 the NHS-IC relented and disclosed the information requested and included various addresses and alternative dates of birth for the deceased person. Subsequently, in correspondence with Steven the Information Commissioner described his appeal to them as one which “actually raised some interesting and novel points concerning data protection and the application of the Freedom of Information Act”.
Although Steven was the first person to successfully obtain information (in September 2009) from the National Register under the provisions of the Freedom of Information Act, it was Guy Etchells’ case which initially caughtn the interest of the UK media. Like Steven, Guy (who is a professional genealogist based in Yorkshire and who was pivotal in the early release of the 1911 census for England & Wales) had also been campaigning for the release of data from the National Register. When the register was transferred from ONS to NHS-IC he continued his campaign and applied for the full details of all people noted at a particular address in England. The NHS-IC refused to disclose the data Guy requested and he too appealed to the UK Information Commissioner. In November 2009 the Commissioner issued a Decision Notice upholding the NHS-IC policy of not disclosing data about living people but finding in Guy’s favour that he should have been given the data relating to those at the given address who were deceased.
Accessing the National Register for England & Wales will cost £42 per enquiry and for this the enquirer will be provided with the full details about each individual at the same address as recorded in September 1939. More details can be found here. In Scotland the cost will be only £13. However, at this time it is not clear how access will be managed for the Northern Ireland part of the National Register as the Public Record Office of Northern Ireland (PRONI) recently admitted that the collection, which comprises many hundreds of volumes, “is extremely large, is completely uncatalogued and is stored in our offsite storage facility.”!