[2nd Allocated Day]
Further consideration of Bill, not amended in the Public Bill Committee.
New Clause 15
Marriages according to usages of approved organisations
‘(1) In the Marriage Act 1949, insert the following section—
“47A Marriages according to usages of approved organisations
(1) The Registrar General may by certificate approve organisations to solemnize marriages according to their usages provided that any such organisation—
(a) is a registered charity principally concerned with advancing or practising the non-religious belief known as humanism;
(b) has been in continuous existence for five years; and
(c) appears to the Registrar General to be of good repute.
(2) In the certificate referred to in subsection (1) the Registrar General shall designate an officer of the organisation (“the principal officer”) to appoint persons for stated periods of time to act as registering officers on behalf of the organisation, and may impose such conditions as seem to him or her to be desirable relative to the conduct of marriages by the organisation and to the safe custody of marriage register books.
(3) The principal officer shall, within the prescribed time and in the prescribed manner, certify the names and addresses of the persons so appointed to the Registrar General and to the superintendent registrars of the registration districts in which such persons live, together with such other details as the Registrar General shall require.
(4) A marriage shall not be solemnized according to the usages of an approved organisation until duplicate marriage register books have been supplied by the Registrar General under Part IV of this Act to the registering officers appointed to act on behalf of the organisation.
(5) If the Registrar General is not satisfied with respect to any registering officer of the approved organisation that sufficient security exists for the safe custody of marriage register books, he or she may in his or her discretion suspend the appointment of that registering officer.
(6) A marriage to which this section applies shall be solemnized with open doors in the presence of either—
(a) a registrar of the registration district in which the marriage takes place; or
(b) a registering officer appointed under subsection (2) whose name and address have been certified in accordance with subsection (3) and of two witnesses; and the persons to be married shall make the declarations and use the form of words set out in subsection (3) or (3A) of section 44.
(7) A marriage solemnized according to the usages of an approved organisation shall not be valid unless there is produced to the superintendent registrar, at the time when notice of marriage is given, a certificate purporting to be signed by the principal officer or a registering officer of the approved organisation to the effect that each person giving notice of marriage is either a member of the said organisation or is authorised to be married according to the said usages under or in pursuance of a general rule of the said approved organisation.
(8) A certificate under subsection (7) shall be for all purposes conclusive evidence that any person to whom it relates is authorised to be married according to the usages of the said organisation and the entry of the marriage in a marriage register book under Part IV of this Act, or a certified copy thereof made under the said Part IV, shall be conclusive evidence of the production of such a certificate.
(9) A copy of any general rule of the said organisation purporting to be signed by the principal officer for the time being of the said organisation shall be admitted as evidence of the general rule in all proceedings touching the validity of any marriage solemnized according to the usages of the said organisation.”.
(2) Schedule [Consequential amendments—Marriage according to usages of approved organisations] has effect.’.—(Kate Green.)
Brought up, and read the First time.
With this it will be convenient to discuss the following:
New schedule 1—‘Consequential amendments—Marriage according to usages of approved organisations—
The following amendments are made to the Marriage Act 1949—
(1) In section 26 (marriages which may be solemnized on authority of superintendent registrar’s certificate) in subsection (1) after paragraph (c) there is inserted—
(ca) a marriage conducted under the auspices of an approved organisation;”.
(2) In section 35 (marriages in registration district in which neither party resides) after “the Society of Friends” there is inserted “or of an approved organisation”.
(3) In section 43 (appointment of authorised persons) in subsection (3) after “the Society of Friends” there is inserted “or of an approved organisation authorised by the Registrar General under section 47A”.
(4) In section 50 (person to whom certificate to be delivered), in subsection (1) after paragraph (d) there is inserted—
(da) if the marriage is to be solemnized according to the usages of an approved organisation, a registering officer of that organisation”.
(5) After section 52, the following section is inserted—
In this Part of this Act “approved organisation” has the meaning given to it in section 67.”.
(6) In section 53 (persons by whom marriages are to be registered), after paragraph (b) there is inserted—
(ba) in the case of a marriage solemnized according to the usages of an approved organisation, a registered officer of that organisation;”.
(7) In section 54 (provision of marriage register books by Registrar General), in subsection (1) after the words “the Society of Friends,” there is inserted “registering officer of an approved organisation”.
(8) In section 55 (manner of registration of marriages)—
(a) in subsection (1) after the words “the Society of Friends” there is inserted “or of an approved organisation”; and
(b) in subsection (1)(b) after the words “the Society of Friends” there is inserted “or of an approved organisation” and after the words “the said Society” there is inserted “or organisation”.
(9) In section 57 (quarterly returns to be made to superintendent registrar), in subsection (1) after the words “the Society of Friends” there is inserted “or of an approved organisation”.
(10) In section 59 (custody of register books) after the words “the Society of Friends” there is inserted “or of an approved organisation”.
(11) In section 60 (filled register books) in subsection (1), paragraph (b), after the words “registering officer of the Society of Friends” there is inserted “or of an approved organisation”; after the words “members of the Society of Friends” there is inserted “or of the said organisation”, and after the words “the said Society” there is inserted “or organisation”.
(12) In section 63 (searches in register books) after the words “the Society of Friends” there is inserted “or of an approved organisation”.
(13) In section 67 (interpretation of Part IV), there are inserted in the list of definitions the following—
““approved organisation” means an organisation approved by the Registrar General under section 47A of this Act;” and
““registering officer of an approved organisation” means a person whom the principal officer of the said organisation certifies in writing under his or her hand to the Registrar General to be a registering officer in England or Wales of that organisation;”;
and in the definition of “superintendent registrar” after paragraph (b) there is inserted—
(ba) in the case of a marriage registered by a registering officer of an approved organisation, the superintendent registrar of the registration district which is assigned by the Registrar General to that registering officer;”.
(14) In section 75 (offences relating to solemnization of marriages) in subsection (1), paragraph (a), after the words “the Society of Friends” there is inserted “or of an approved organisation”; and in subsection (2), paragraph (a), after the words “the Society of Friends” there is inserted “or of an approved organisation.”.’.
Amendment 19, in clause 2, page 3, line 28, at end insert—
(iA) section 47A (marriage according to the usages of approved organisations).’.
Amendment 20, in clause 5, page 6, line 29, after ‘solemnized’, insert
‘and includes an organisation approved under section 47A(1).’.
Amendment 21, schedule 7, page 49, line 16, after ‘celebrated’, insert
‘and includes an organisation approved under section 47A(1).’.
New clause 14—Civil union—
‘(1) Two people, whether they are of different or the same sex, may enter into a civil union if—
(a) they are both aged 18 or over;
(b) they are not within prohibited degrees of relationship;
(c) they are not currently in a civil union with someone else.
(2) A civil union must be solemnized by a Registrar.
(3) No religious service is to be used while the civil union registrar is officiating at the signing of a civil union document.
(4) A civil union ends only on death, dissolution or annulment.
(5) The Marriage Act 1949 is repealed.’.
New clause 18—Marriage solemnized other than at a religious ceremony to be termed Civil Marriage—
‘(1) Any marriage solemnized (whether before or after the passing of this Act) under Part 3 of the Marriage Act 1949 (Marriage under Superintendent Registrar’s Certificate), the Marriage (Registrar General’s Licence) Act 1970 or an Order in Council made under Part 1 or 3 of Schedule 6 (other than a marriage according to religious rites and usages) shall be termed a Civil Marriage.
(2) The Secretary of State or Lord Chancellor may, by order, make such provision (including provision amending UK legislation) as the Secretary of Sate or Lord Chancellor considers appropriate in consequence of this section.’.
Amendment 58, in clause 9, page 9, line 5, at end insert
‘and such a marriage shall be a civil marriage’.
Amendment 59, in clause 15, page 12, line 15, at end insert—
‘(ba) an order under section (Marriage solemnized other than at a religious ceremony to be termed Civil Marriage).
Order. I will not say that I was heckled by the Clerk of the House from a sedentary position, as he was rather helpfully advising me from his usual position on a point on which we need to be clear. I am sorry if the hon. Lady thinks this is a pedantic point, but it is quite important procedurally. The hon. Lady can speak to the other amendments in the group, but the only item she is moving at this stage is new clause 15. We anoraks like to get these things right.
Thank you for that exceptionally helpful advice, Mr Speaker. I am, of course, moving new clause 15 and speaking to new schedule 1 and amendments 19, 20 and 21.
I should like to pay tribute to the British Humanist Association for its support with drafting and its general and wider advice. This proposal seeks to put right a long-standing injustice in a simple and uncontroversial way.
I would like to make a little more progress and then take some interventions. Let us start by establishing the ground on which I shall make my case and I will accept interventions later.
Whereas Christians and most other believers have a choice when they marry of a civil ceremony in front of a registrar, or a religious ceremony that reflects their beliefs, non-religious people have no choice: it is the local registrar at a register office or in a so-called approved place or nothing.
The Government have objections to my proposals. It is important to say this afternoon that we are absolutely crystal clear about what those objections are. If there are problems with the way in which the new clause seeks to achieve its objective, we stand ready to work with the Government to address those concerns. There is a very strong wish for humanist weddings to be recognised and for any perceived problems to be overcome.
It has been suggested that the proposals before us are in some way a wholesale departure from what has been described as fundamental English marriage law. I question whether any such fundamental law in fact exists. Our marriage laws are an accretion of changes and legislative and social developments over many centuries, but I accept that the broad framework in which our English marriage system operates goes back in many regards to the 18th century when Lord Hardwicke introduced his Marriage Act 1753, which required all marriages to be conducted in parish churches and after due notice had been given.
The privilege was later extended to other churches, not just parish churches, and indeed to other religions, but only to those places of worship registered under the Places of Worship Registration Act 1855. Before it is argued that that excludes the basis of the new clause, let me point out that there are two exceptions: from the start, Jews and the Quakers have been allowed to continue to marry according to their own rites. The new clause is in keeping with that approach of designating exceptions, in this instance for humanists. It introduces a third exception, but one that is very much on all fours with the exceptions made for those two other groups.
The hon. Lady is right to highlight the general importance of the premises in English law in relation to most faiths, but I think she should bear in mind that in the Church of England the clergy are registered, that registrars are registered in our civil system and that, as I have said, Jews and Quakers already operate in a different legislative framework from that governing religions as a whole.
I know my place.
When I first received communications from humanists supporting this approach, I looked up “humanist weddings”, and discovered from the humanism.org.uk website that there are wedding celebrants who can take services now. It is recommended that people obtain a civil marriage certificate at the register office and then hold the ceremony wherever they want, perhaps in the open air: they are not limited by buildings in any way. I understand that that applies to a number of religions, as well as to humanists. I am therefore wondering whether we need to have this debate.
What the hon. Gentleman says about other religions may be correct, but it is not the case that all religions are required to go through a dual process. Jews and Quakers are not. My contention is that we should recognise the strong popular support for humanism, just as we recognise popular support for other forms of marriage. Many organisations can perform legal marriages in their own right, and do so for smaller numbers than the humanists would and, indeed, than the humanists do now. While I would not for one minute suggest that our marriage laws should be based on some sort of numbers game—although I believe that some Members sought to suggest as much in Committee, an approach that I found somewhat offensive and regrettable—my contention is supported, in this context, by the fact that not only is practice in relation to humanist marriages already fairly widespread, but the numbers are increasing. The popularity is growing.
I hope the hon. Lady will accept that I make my comments in a completely neutral way and that I appreciate what she is trying to achieve, but I have absolutely no doubt that the new clause, if passed, would render the Bill incompatible with the provisions of the European convention on human rights, because it identifies a group that is not a religious group and gives it a special status. The first thing that would happen is that all sorts of other secular groups would claim non-discrimination rights under article 14. I realise that that may be capable of being cured, but I can only say to the hon. Lady that the new clause would make it impossible for the Minister to sign a certificate under section 19(1)(a) of the Human Rights Act 1998, enabling the Bill to proceed to the other place.
First, although of course I respect the Attorney-General’s expert advice, I must point out that the narrow drafting of the new clause follows advice from the Government’s own officials. We had been given to understand that it would be possible to prescribe, very tightly, a mode of marriage for humanists, legally recognised, and we are surprised that human rights objections are being raised now.
I will give way in a moment, but I have not quite finished dealing with the points raised by the Attorney-General.
Secondly, although I am encouraged to learn that the Attorney-General believes that there is potential for some of the objections to be “cured”—
I must say, with respect to Government Members, that I need to respond to the first point before I can respond to points two, three and four.
I understand that the possibility of challenge on the grounds suggested by the Attorney-General exists, broadly, in England and in Scotland, where humanist marriages are already being conducted. While I accept that there is one significant difference between humanist marriage and the religious forms of marriage that are recognised in English law—namely, that they are not religious forms of marriage—they are none the less a belief form of marriage.
I venture to suggest that if we could have the benefit of a fully worked and argued opinion from the Attorney-General, I might be able to take on board his complaint, but, having engaged in a series of discussions with Government officials to reach this point, I am very disappointed to find that we are now being presented with what appears to be one potentially significant legal objection that has not been properly raised with us until now.
Mine will be a triangular intervention, inviting the Attorney-General to intervene on the hon. Lady again. Given that humanist weddings have taken place in Scotland since 2005, and given that the United Kingdom, rather than England and Wales, is the signatory to the European convention on human rights, why has the Registrar General for Scotland not been subject to a legal challenge under the convention? Perhaps the Attorney-General can explain. [Interruption.]
My hon. Friend—if I may call him that in this context—has raised an excellent point. I hear mutterings from Government Members, who are suggesting that the answer to his question is that in Scotland it is the person who is registered. Let me say, with the greatest respect, that I do not see how that can possibly deal with the human rights point.
I do my best to provide advice on the law of England and Wales—Scottish law is unquestionably different historically—but, according to my limited understanding of the position, in Scotland it is not just humanists who may be registered for this purpose; pagans and all sorts of other groups may also qualify. I simply make the point that in the context of the Bill as drafted and as proposed today—I realise that the hon. Lady may be upset about this, but I have no role in it—the new clause undoubtedly introduces a serious human rights problem, which I think is obvious because of its discriminatory nature. That is really all that I can say on the matter.
I really cannot take an intervention before I have dealt with the preceding one. I will give way to the Minister in just a moment.
Although I understand the premise of the Attorney-General’s concern, I think that there are arguments to be advanced on the other side. The Equality Act 2010 provides for the recognition of “religion or belief”, and we strongly contend that our approach falls within the same legal territory. We are also mindful of the fact that in Scotland, where such challenges have also been possible—I recognise that Scotland has a different legal system, but in this context I do not think that that is an issue—registrars have been able to prevent organisations with no apparent legitimacy or justification from being registered to undertake weddings. I should be grateful if it could be explained to me why, given the tight drafting of the new clause, that could not be the case here.
I would not normally intervene on the hon. Lady, but she said that Government officials had advised her in a certain way, and I wanted to make clear that they did not advise the narrowing of the new clause. They drew attention to the problems with the earlier amendment, which—I say this for the benefit of Members who may not have had an opportunity to read the report of the Committee’s proceedings—covered both religious and non-religious organisations, and created real and unnecessary uncertainty about who would actually be covered. I think that the hon. Lady is aware of the genuine problems raised by amendments tabled in Committee. They confused the distinction in marriage law between religious and civil ceremonies, and it was therefore unclear how the religious protections in the Bill would work within such a system.
I do not accept that. I do not wish for one second to impugn the messages received from officials. It is quite possible that there was some gulf in understanding between those who delivered the message and those who heard it. I was not present at the conversations myself, and the Secretary of State is, of course, right to put forward her description of what took place, but my understanding is that the way that they concluded led the British Humanist Association, which is advising me, to understand that a more tightly worded proposal, such as the one that I have put before the House this afternoon, would meet the concerns. Although that may not have been the intention intended to be conveyed, it was certainly the intention that it came away with.
The hon. Lady is making an extremely strong and compelling case, and I look forward to expressing my support for it in more detail later. I have here a letter from the Culture Secretary and Minister for Women and Equalities, saying:
“I note the changes that have been made to narrow the scope of the amendments to cover the humanist organisations only, as we discussed.”
Does the hon. Lady agree that that strongly suggests the Government supported this change?
I was at a wedding on Sunday. I only attended the evening part, but during the day there was a humanist ceremony, and everyone said it was a wonderful occasion. It was held in the Royal Botanic Gardens in Edinburgh. Does my hon. Friend agree that humanists in Scotland cannot understand why their fellow humanists in England might not enjoy the same rights as they do and feel very disappointed about that?
I, too, have attended humanist weddings in Scotland, including that of my niece last October, which was an incredibly special occasion. I can fully understand what my hon. Friend says about the concern and hurt humanists across the UK will feel that these ceremonies that have worked so successfully in Scotland since 2005 have not been replicated here in England.
The hon. Lady is making a powerful case. There are now 2,500 humanist weddings a year in Scotland. It is now the third most popular form of marriage that we have in Scotland, yet the Attorney-General has suggested that these weddings are somehow illegal under European law. However, the UK is the signatory to European human rights treaties, so what he says is a lot of nonsense. Will the hon. Lady confirm that the UK is the signatory to the European human rights treaties and that, if these weddings are illegal in England, they must also be illegal in Scotland?
The last thing that I want to do is interrupt the hon. Lady’s flow, but I want to reply very briefly to what was just said. I am not suggesting in any way that what is happening in Scotland is unlawful. Instead, I am highlighting that there is a serious defect in the amendment. Given the discriminatory nature of the favour it gives to humanists as opposed to other secular organisations, it would have the consequence of making the measure incompatible with the convention rights. I think that that is obvious when we examine the amendment.
It may be challengeable under the convention, but I do not think we know at all whether such a challenge would be successful.
Let me develop some aspects of the case for humanist weddings. So far this has been a rather unpleasant and legalistic debate, and in the same spirit as our debates on same-sex marriage, I want to make the case that the House should feel joyful about humanist weddings and celebrate them.
For those who are concerned about protections, the new clause provides that the Registrar General could issue a certificate to any organisation that
“(a) is a registered charity principally concerned with advancing or practising the non-religious belief known as humanism;
(b) has been in continuous existence for five years; and
(c) appears to the Registrar General to be of good repute.”
That provision addresses some of the wilder claims that unlikely organisations would or could either qualify or mount a human rights challenge.
The details are closely modelled on the existing law, and they were drafted following conversations with the Government—although perhaps not conversations in which both sides fully understood each other—and address the specific points rightly raised by Ministers in Committee, when the hon. Member for Bristol West (Stephen Williams) first proposed the amendment. We have taken as much account as possible of the concerns that we believe the Government have about this proposition, and we are therefore disappointed and startled to see a whole new front of opposition opened up this afternoon.
I think that it is fair to say that the Churches are not displaying tremendous enthusiasm for this proposal. I am sure the hon. Gentleman will appreciate that it is not easy for the official Opposition to carry out extensive consultations, but the issue was raised in Committee, when we took evidence from some of the Churches, and I detected no great appetite or enthusiasm from them for further discussion of this kind of proposal.
Of course, we would like the Government to adopt this proposal and take it forward wholeheartedly and in a way that delivers a robust and settled legal right to humanist weddings. In the absence of that, we simply need to take the evidence of the number of people who are coming forward asking for a humanist ceremony, the number of humanist ceremonies that are taking place and the very high popularity they enjoy both among those who participate in them and those who attend them.
Let me read the remarks of one couple:
“A humanist wedding offered us the chance to make the wedding ‘ours’, it enabled us to construct our own vows and create a ceremony that felt immediately very personal to both us and our guests, it also portrayed exactly what marriage meant to us and how we see our marriage growing in the future.”
We should be celebrating that in the context of this Bill, and I greatly regret that a sense of celebration is being lost as a result of the way that this afternoon’s debate is proceeding.
I should declare an interest: I am a member of the BHA. Is the hon. Lady aware that civil registrars are increasingly offering full ceremonies, so we already have a secular alternative, and this proposal does not make a new one but just adds one that a lot of people want?
I am disappointed in that question. Secular and humanist are not the same. I am not a humanist. I would want a purely secular ceremony were I to be marrying, but others want a ceremony that reflects their beliefs. Humanism is recognised as a strand of belief. A ceremony to accommodate that deep-held feeling has to be organised and provided if we are to meet the legitimate desires of our humanist friends and neighbours.
The hon. Lady will be well aware of my opinions and views on this matter. In Committee evidence, there was among the Churches and other religious organisations an overwhelming majority opposed to humanist weddings. Is she saying we should ignore that vast strand of public opinion—the many millions of people who oppose this—in favour of a small minority?
No, not until I have dealt with the question fully. I do not believe the hon. Gentleman has evidence of millions of Church members opposing this proposal. I fully accept that there is quite likely to be a lack of enthusiasm among those at the top of the Church hierarchy, but I would not necessarily take even that for granted in all cases. Many people, including people of faith, attend humanist weddings, and value and celebrate their participation in them, either as family or friends.
I will give way to the hon. Gentleman; he is next.
Many people of faith—I think this is the position of Ministers—who believe marriage itself to be a ceremony of huge social value and importance would welcome a humanist marriage ceremony founded on belief and commitment in preference to a secular ceremony or to no ceremony at all.
I am grateful to the hon. Lady for giving way, and I must point out that my hon. Friend the Member for Redcar (Ian Swales) was supporting humanist marriage. As a churchgoer and a Christian, I was privileged to be able to have a ceremony that I believed reflected my faith and my beliefs. I think it is vital that people with humanist beliefs who are not Christian and not churchgoers have the opportunity to have a celebration that reflects their beliefs. It is extraordinary that anyone of faith should oppose someone else having such a ceremony, and I do not understand such objections.
I am grateful for that welcome and helpful intervention and for the intervention from the hon. Member for Redcar (Ian Swales).
Concerns and doubts have been expressed about the quality of the service, if I may call it that, that humanists would offer, but the British Humanist Association runs a long-established ceremony service. We have already identified that many people, including many of us, have already attended humanist weddings and some of us might have attended humanist funerals or baby-naming ceremonies. There is a very long and extensive experience in this country of participation in such ceremonies and to my knowledge no adverse comment or criticism of them has been made at all—indeed, quite the reverse.
It is also important to note that the British Humanist Association is extremely concerned about maintaining the highest quality. It trains, accredits, insures and provides a form of continuing professional education for its hundreds of celebrants throughout the country. Perhaps we should therefore not be surprised that the ceremonies attract high satisfaction as a result; more than 95% of clients, if I may call them that, give them a five-out-of-five rating. That is not an experience that all people report from their registry office or other wedding.
Humanist weddings, in particular—this is based on the testimony of those couples who have had one—are greatly valued as reflecting those couples’ beliefs and allowing the ceremony to be devised, in collaboration with the celebrant, in a way that meets their own wishes. I have read some letters over the course of the past few weeks from couples who write eloquently about how much the ceremony has meant not only to them but to their relatives and friends. I am sure that over the past week or so, many right hon. and hon. Members will also have heard from the 3,000-plus humanists in this country, including many couples who have had a humanist wedding, about the importance of the ceremony to them. It is clear that we already have in this country a precious form of ceremony that is highly valued by many couples, and my new clause would simply seek to recognise and acknowledge that in law.
I have one fairly fundamental disagreement with the British Humanist Association, which is that I think they are wrong about God, but I fully believe that we need to acknowledge humanist weddings. Two generations ago, the established Church did not allow nonconformist Churches to hold burial rites in their churchyards. This is a dangerous precedent. As an Anglican, I do not feel in any way offended in my faith by knowing that humanists can celebrate weddings in such a way.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that intervention. The Secretary of State has been extremely eloquent throughout the passage of the Bill about the importance that she personally attaches to marriage, so I say to her that my proposal goes with the grain of her position by seeking to extend marriage to more couples precisely because they share that sense of its importance and want to value it.
The whole Bill is about equality, although I recognise that it is predominantly about equal marriage for lesbian, gay, transsexual and, indeed, bisexual people. My new clause is also about equality; it is about the equal recognition of humanist marriages. We should remember that they are already legal in many countries, where they contribute to an increase in the number of marriages, going with the grain of the Secretary of State’s ambitions to strengthen and extend marriage in our society. In Scotland, for example, the number of marriages has been rising in recent years, with an increase of more than 1,500 between 2009 and 2011, more than half of which are accounted for by humanist marriages.
There is plenty of evidence of public demand for reform. I believe that this proposal is a reform that disadvantages no one and costs the public purse close to zero. In an age of equality, it removes an unnecessary injustice based on religion or belief, and it will strengthen the institution of marriage, going with the grain of Ministers’ intentions for the Bill. I believe that today we need to move forward to introduce legal humanist marriages in our country, as they have been successfully introduced in other countries across a range of legal jurisdictions. If the Government have concerns, we need to see a written view from the Attorney-General about those objections, so that they can be scrutinised not just by amateur Scottish lawyers such as me, but by properly qualified expert human rights lawyers and others. That would allow us to see in detail the reasoning behind the view that he has expressed at the Dispatch Box.
Will the hon. Lady give way?
I will not, as I am just coming to a conclusion.
If during this afternoon’s debate the Government can provide undertakings that they will put before us that full, reasoned legal opinion and give us the time properly to test and explore it, so that the concerns can be taken forward appropriately when the Bill reaches the House of Lords, we will of course be happy to take that time to ensure that the legislation is wholly fit for purpose. Without those detailed explanations, it is difficult for us to accept that there is some endemic objection in principle to introducing humanist marriage into English law, and that I is why I have tabled new clause 15.
Let me start by saying that I have great admiration for humanists. My mother was a Quaker and I was brought up and educated at a Quaker school. I often think that Quakers are simply humanists who believe in God—[Interruption.] If the hon. Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant) is going to heckle throughout my speech, he will just indicate the discourtesy he shows for the views of anyone who disagrees with him. If we heard a little less from him, we would all do a lot better.
As the House will know, when the Bill was introduced the Church of England and other faith groups did not greet it with unalloyed joy. However, we sought to engage constructively with Ministers and officials and they constructively engaged with us. Ministers and the Government made it clear at the outset that they wanted to ensure that faith groups that did not wish to perform same-sex marriages would not be obliged to do so. The legislation therefore has at its heart protections for faith groups such as the Church of England, the Roman Catholic Church, Muslims and others who do not wish to perform or celebrate same-sex marriages. That is enshrined in the quadruple lock for the Church of England, because of canon law, and in the other locks for other faith groups. Those locks are essential to ensuring the freedoms that the Government made clear at the outset would be there to protect faith groups.
I am going to give way to the hon. Lady, but let me finish the point because it is important.
In Scotland, there is celebrant-based marriage, whereas the protections in marriage in England are based on buildings. If new clause 15 is passed, it will in effect unpick all the protections in the Bill that relate to the locks and to the protections for other faith groups.
The Speaker acknowledged earlier that he was an anorak. There are degrees of anorakism in the House, and I too am a bit of an anorak, in the sense that I believe that if public Bills that will make substantial changes to public law are to be introduced, there should be proper consultation. As the hon. Member for Stretford and Urmston (Kate Green) honestly and properly acknowledged, there has been no consultation with faith groups on the proposed provisions, which would completely unpick the protections in the Bill that Parliament has sought to give to faith groups.
I do not see why faith groups should be singled out for consultation. If there is to be consultation, it should include those of no faith, and other organisations too. I do not understand at all how this proposition unpicks locks which are intended to protect religious institutions and individual celebrants within those institutions. I simply do not understand that, and I do not accept that marriage under English law is confined to religious institutions that have premises. As I say, English law also provides for Jews and Quakers to conduct marriages according to their own rites.
My point is that no one has been consulted. I was not praying in aid just faith groups. The hon. Lady has not consulted anyone, but she might at least seek to consult those faith groups for which there are protections enshrined in the Bill—unless she is saying that she is not impressed by the protections to ensure that faith groups are not compelled to perform same-sex marriages if they do not wish to do so. When the debate first started, many of the representations that I received were from people of faith who were concerned that this was a slippery road which would lead to their being obliged at some time in the future to undertake same-sex marriages in churches even if they did not want to do so, and I do not think it helps if the hon. Lady gives even a scintilla of a suggestion that that might be the direction of travel.
The protections are very important. There are historic reasons why Quakers and Jews are treated differently, but they are faith groups. Indeed, Quaker marriages are not celebrant-based, because there are no celebrants in the society of friends. In a sense, the hon. Lady wants to have it both ways. The new clause relates to non-religious organisations, yet it seeks to apply the protections that refer to religious organisations. We therefore have a sort of bolt-on, whereby the hon. Lady is claiming for the humanists, who are clearly not in a religious organisation, the protections in the legislation for religious organisations.
I think that the hon. Gentleman has now accepted that he was not correct to say that all marriage in this country is tied to place, because as has been discussed, that is not the case for Jews and for Quakers. He has consistently made the case that the Church of England and other groups should be able to produce ceremonies in their way. Can he explain why, while believing that the Church of England should be protected and allowed to have its ceremonies in its way, humanists should not be allowed to have their ceremonies their way? I can assure him that humanists—the British Humanist Association—are not seeking protection from same-sex marriage; they very much welcome it.
My hon. Friend is wrong. I have made it quite clear throughout that English marriage law is buildings-related, except, for historic reasons, where it relates to Quakers and Jews; it has never been celebrant-related.
Let us consider the Scottish example. In Scotland we have seen pagan weddings celebrated, spiritualist weddings celebrated, and weddings celebrated by the White Eagle Lodge. That is a question on which our constituents should properly be consulted. I cannot speak for other Members of the House, but I have had enough problems in my constituency with same-sex marriage. If I go back to the shires of Oxfordshire and tell constituents that Parliament is about to endorse pagan marriage in England, they will think that we have lost the plot completely. If they think that the Opposition support pagan marriage and masonic marriage, they really will think we have lost the plot.
The hon. Lady is a lawyer so, with the greatest respect, she has no excuse for not listening to the advice of the Attorney-General. He made it clear to the House—any hon. Member would follow the logic very straightforwardly—that it would not be possible in the Bill to give privileges to one non-faith organisation, the humanists, without its being challenged by other similar non-faith groups, such as the pagans or the secularists, who have had weddings celebrated in Scotland. Pagans would say, “We are allowed to have marriages north of Hadrian’s wall. Why cannot we have marriages south of Hadrian’s wall?”
I strongly object to what the hon. Gentleman is suggesting—that we in Scotland could not care less about marriage. We have had 2,500 humanist weddings per year. Marriage is important to people in Scotland. The only thing we want to do is extend it to people who love each other.
Nothing that I have said could possibly be construed as implying that Scotland is not concerned about marriage. The fact is that under a celebrant-based system, pagan marriages take place in Scotland. [Interruption.] The hon. Member for Perth and North Perthshire (Pete Wishart) asks what is wrong with that. There has been no consultation in England as to whether or not the people of England would wish to have pagan marriages celebrated in England. I am afraid that, if he cannot understand that, there is a great deficit in democracy so far as he is concerned.
The new clause as drafted, which has been exhaustively considered by the advisers of the British Humanist Association and passed by the Department, has its own version of a triple lock, one part of which states that the organisation in question, such as humanism, must be registered as a charity. I do not believe that the charity commissioners of England and Wales would register as a charity Jedi knights, white knights, druids, pagans or anyone else whom the hon. Gentleman wishes to conjure up, so they would not come under the provisions of the new clause.
The House will know, because it is a matter of record, that I am a freemason. Freemasons are registered as a charity. I do not know whether people in England want to see the introduction of masonic weddings. As the new clause has not been properly consulted on, and there has not been time for proper consideration of all its ramifications, it leads the hon. Gentleman into all sorts of areas that have not been properly construed. There has been no proper opportunity for the House to take the advice of the Attorney-General.
I say to the hon. Member for Rhondda that during the past couple of days I have been a bit confused as to which are wrecking amendments and which are not. I am still trying to work out whether the amendment tabled by my hon. Friend the Member for East Worthing and Shoreham (Tim Loughton) was a genuine amendment or a wrecking amendment. I am really not quite sure whether this new clause is a genuine amendment or a wrecking amendment, because it is difficult to see how Parliament, and certainly the other place, could allow the Bill as amended by the new clause to go forward without a serious delay while there was proper consultation to think through the ramifications.
I think the hon. Gentleman united the House in confirming that he is confused. We all agree with him; he is clearly confused. If he thinks that the new clause would lead to pagan weddings, can he explain why the Bishop the Chester—the Anglican, Church of England, Bishop of Chester—supports it? Would it not make sense for us to allow this to go forward to the House of Lords so that the Bishop of Chester can speak on the matter?
First, the only point that I am confused about is whether this is a wrecking amendment. Secondly, in this House I speak for the Church of England, not the Bishop of Chester, and as the hon. Gentleman knows, with 44 diocesan Bishops, it is usually possible to find at least one Bishop who will have a view contrary to the other 43. Let me put it on record, lest there is any scintilla of doubt, that the Church of England is strongly opposed to the new clause, not because we do not love or like humanists, but simply because it would unpick the locks in the Bill, which, when we started, were important to ensuring the protections of faith groups in the context of this legislation.
Notwithstanding the Bishop of Chester, does my hon. Friend agree that some very clear problems arise from the new clause, which could indeed turn out to be a wrecking amendment? Is it not therefore inconsistent for the Labour Front-Bench spokesmen yesterday to have promoted a review on extending civil partnerships, but on an apparently similarly problematic amendment such as the new clause before us not to mention such a review? Surely on that score it is a wrecking amendment.
I want to conclude by making a further and serious point.
Those of us who were opponents of the Bill and who voted against it on Second Reading have taken on good faith—and it has been delivered in good faith by the Government and the proponents of the Bill—that there would be protections for faith groups and that they would not be compelled to carry out same-sex marriages if they did not wish to do so. My understanding was that that approach was supported by the Opposition Front-Bench spokesmen as well. With legislation of this kind it is important that people feel confident that it will not in some way be unpicked in the future, and that the protections for faith groups will endure, irrespective of any change of Government.
The Opposition Front Bench’s approach this afternoon causes me concern. I point out that the Church of England has been wholly approachable to the Opposition—of course it would be—throughout the Bill’s passage. It is a matter of some concern that at no time have the official Opposition, who have adopted the new clause—it has not been moved by a Back Bencher; it has been proposed by a member of the shadow Front-Bench team—sought to consult the Church of England or other faith groups, as the hon. Member for Stretford and Urmston has acknowledged and admitted, on the import or impact of the new clause.
In every way, this is a bad new clause. It is bad because it has not been properly consulted on; it is bad because it will unpick the protections—
No, I am about to finish. [Interruption.] I have given way to the hon. Gentleman on a number of occasions. I am sure that he can make his own speech in his own time.
The new clause is bad, because it will unpick the protections enshrined in the Bill, and it is bad because it will lead to unforeseen consequences, upon which no one in this country has been consulted. If Opposition Front Benchers really believe that the new clause is tenable, I challenge them to consult their constituents and ours on whether people in England want to see the prospect or possibility of pagan marriages taking place in England.
I welcome the debate. I strongly support new clause 15 and the associated amendments, and believe that it would be a massive, progressive step if the provisions were enacted. I declare an interest as vice-chair since 1997 of the all-party parliamentary humanist group, and as an active member of the British Humanist Association. In that sense, I have a vested interest, but even if I were not a humanist, I would passionately support the proposal to permit humanist weddings.
Hon. Members are calling out numbers to me—600 in England and 2,500 in Scotland. Why something is so easy in Scotland and so difficult in England is beyond me to imagine.
One point that the hon. Member for Banbury (Sir Tony Baldry) made quite strongly concerned democracy. Democracy is not dictatorship of the majority. Our kind of democracy accepts freedoms for minorities as well. The humanists are a substantial and significant minority, of whom I am proud to be one. Over the past decade, between the past two censuses, there has been a substantial increase in those professing no religion, and a significant proportion of those people have become humanists. If a number of those professing no faith understood that there was an alternative way of living according to some strong ethical beliefs, they could become humanists themselves. They would only need to find out more about humanism, and they might well become humanists and want a humanist marriage.
I thank the hon. Lady for her intervention, but I suspect that similar arguments were displayed when Catholics became emancipated in 1829. It was argued that it would undermine the constitution, that we have an established religion, and so on—all sorts of arguments against. When progressive changes are made, a year later such pettifogging arguments are forgotten.
To reinforce the point made in the earlier intervention, there is a great deal of sympathy for the proposed provisions. I went recently to a humanist funeral and it was a marvellous ceremony. I do not think that Government Members would argue otherwise. As the hon. Gentleman acknowledged, protecting minorities is important, and a great deal of care and thought has gone into the locks in this Bill to protect people of faith and to give them reassurance. The concern is that this Bill is the wrong vehicle in which to make this change, because by implementing a change for the humanist minority, one unpicks the protections in the Bill for people of faith.
At some time, somebody can explain to me the difficulties. I just do not accept those difficulties. It is a simple thing to allow a significant proportion of our population to be married according to their own beliefs, in the same way that other people are married according to their beliefs. I cannot see that it threatens anyone else in so doing.
A couple of hon. Members have said that the new clause would unpick the locks, but they have so far failed to say in what way—I hope that the hon. Gentleman agrees—because we already have exemptions for Jews and Quakers, who are not tied to a place. Does he also agree that if Members are to claim that, they should do more than simply asserting it to be true? They should try to provide some sort of evidence and reason why they think it is true.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his intervention. Those Members sitting on the Government side of the Chamber will no doubt explain that in their speeches, and I will listen with interest.
I like to equate humanism with other belief systems, some religious and some non-religious. It is interesting that in France, a strictly secular country with a strong separation of the state and religion, humanists are treated in the same way as religious organisations. Humanists cannot attain any kind of support at all from the state, in the same way that Churches cannot, because if they did so the Churches might try to claim it as well; so they are treated in the same way.
In my constituency, which has many religions and strong support for them, we have a council of faiths that does wonderful work in bringing people together. It has produced a colourful pamphlet showing a rainbow spectrum of different beliefs and belief systems, including humanism, so it treats humanism on a par with other belief systems. I think that we should do the same by allowing humanists to be married.
I want to intervene while the Attorney-General is in the Chamber. Was the hon. Gentleman, like me, astonished when the Attorney-General advised at the Dispatch Box that extending rights to a particular group of people could somehow fall foul of the Human Rights Act?
I will say this one last time. It has nothing to do with the merits or otherwise of wanting to extend marriage to humanist or secular groups. The way the amendment has been drafted confined it to groups promoting humanism, but there are many other secular groups. The local tiddlywinks club might wish to become a registered charity and to conduct weddings, so by its very nature, and for that reason, it is discriminatory, and by being discriminatory it is in serious danger, I suggest, of violating article 14 of the European convention on human rights. I can only say that. It might be curable, and there might be all sorts of other things that can be done—[Interruption.] Well, not in this House. As matters stand, the amendment is in that condition. I made that point simply to help the House.
I thank the Attorney-General for that intervention. No doubt Scotland will be drummed out of the convention for what it has done.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Stretford and Urmston (Kate Green) on her powerful speech, which I think she made extremely well. I only wish that she had been given more time to go through all the detailed objections, which the British Humanist Association has answered at length, but of course there is not always time in debates to answer every question. I assure hon. Members that the BHA has dealt with all the objections it has heard so far. [Interruption.]
I want first to speak to new clause 15 and to express my full support for it. After doing so, I will link that with new clause 14, which stands in my name, and the comments I made yesterday on amendment 10 and why it could and should have been dealt with separately.
In expressing my support for new clause 15, I remind the House of my early-day motion 667, tabled in September 2010, which called for humanist marriages to be allowed in England and Wales in exactly the same way as in Scotland. That is something I believe as a liberal, and also because I was extremely fortunate in having the honour of being best man at the wedding of two humanist friends, Derek and Louise, in September 2007. It was an honour to play a role in that ceremony. I was moved by what an appropriate, fitting and solemn ceremony it was. They were married exactly the way they wanted to be, according to their beliefs. They were equally happy to participate in my Catholic wedding a few years before.
As a liberal, I believe that each and every one of us has the right to marry according to our own beliefs. The problem with how the Bill is currently drafted is that we are allowing a situation to continue in which some religions—to be more precise, some sects of some religions—have access to a civil marriage ceremony while other religions, sects of religions and belief-based systems do not. To me, as a liberal, that is simply not justifiable. My opinion is simply that each and every citizen of this country, of all belief systems and religions and none, should have the same right to equal recognition of their relationship.
New clause 14 stands in my name and that of my hon. Friend the Member for Bristol North West (Charlotte Leslie), whose support and common-sense approach on this I appreciate. The simple reality is that if the Government had approached this matter in a more rational and common-sense way, the debate we are having now would be entirely unnecessary. Many Members on both sides of the House—interestingly, they include many who have concerns about the Bill and many who fully support it—believe that we should be making a proper separation of the belief-based recognition of a relationship, whether humanist or religious, from the state’s right to confer legal rights and legal recognition on individuals. The trouble is that the Bill, as drafted, conflates and confuses the two. Even worse, it enshrines the confusion we have heard about, such as the various marriage Acts replacing each other, and adds even more layers of complexity, which means legal confusion. At the same time, there is the absurd situation in which the Bill is having to specify in law that some Churches may not marry certain people and having to put in place protections for other Churches so that they do not have to do so. Of course, if we had a proper separation of civil and marriage, those things would simply not be necessary.
I commend my hon. Friend for tabling new clause 14 and for advancing the argument that I hope to make later in relation to new clause 18, if you call me to speak, Mr Deputy Speaker. One of the Bill’s real failings is that it does not address the need to separate, for the purposes of marriage, the secular and the religious. Had we gone down that road, there would have been a much better resolution and many more people would have found it far less difficult to deal with this legislation.
I thank my right hon. Friend for that pertinent contribution. I support his new clause 18 and the similar way in which he is trying to deal with this issue. It cannot be right that certain people of some religions and, in the case of humanism, belief systems, have the right to access a civil marriage ceremony according to their beliefs while others do not. The Bill, as drafted, will continue to allow that. I am afraid that, as with civil partnerships, it will enshrine the existing inequality in the law, and that cannot be right in something that is supposed to be about equality.
Would the new clause, in essence, abolish marriage and civil partnerships and replace it with civil union? If so, what would be the status of someone who is currently married? Would they become unmarried and move into a civil union?
Technically, in terms of the law, absolutely. As I said yesterday, the new clause cannot be seen in isolation; it has to be seen with amendment 10, which sought the repeal of the Marriage Act 1949. It must also be linked with the amendment that I tabled to remove clauses in the Matrimonial Causes Act 1973 and to repeal the Civil Partnership Act 2004. The point is that there would be one single definition of a legal recognition for relationships.
I am not necessarily dictating whether this should be called a union, a marriage, or, as Peter Tatchell suggests, a civil commitment pact. I am not particularly interested in the language. Some people feel very strongly that we should call it marriage; others, including my hon. Friend the Member for Cambridge (Dr Huppert), do not like the word “marriage”. That is a debate to be had. The point is that what we need to do, and what the Bill should have sought to do, is give all citizens of this country the right to one single recognition by the state of their union. Of course, that would apply to everyone in an existing marriage or an existing civil partnership. Everyone would have the one single recognition through the state, and the legislation would have been drafted to achieve that. That answers the hon. Gentleman’s question very simply, but we are now moving into technical legal questions. In reality, this change would require a separate Bill, but it is currently proposed as a new clause.
Would my hon. Friend’s proposals mean that Methodists, Catholics and others who fought for many years for the right to conduct a marriage ceremony that was valid in law would lose that right and have to go along to the town hall to get validation for the marriage that they had conducted?
I believe that Methodists and Catholics should have exactly the same rights as humanists, Baptists, Jews and Quakers. That is my whole point. I do not accept that some religions should have the right to access a civil marriage ceremony but not others; as a liberal, I find that indefensible. My right hon. Friend has to accept, as do I and all right hon. and hon. Members, that marriage is being redefined; the state has chosen, through its Parliament, to do that. Therefore, now is the time to deal with the complex, multi-faceted and, indeed, confusing and discriminatory current marriage laws and to carry out the reform properly, which is not happening.
I suspect that there is also a practical dimension to my right hon. Friend’s question, and I am happy to address that. In order to have the necessary separation between civil and religious ceremonies, we would need to ensure that no religious minister was able to convey the rights of legal marriage. Nevertheless, it is perfectly possible, either through the presence of a registrar at a belief-based or religious marriage ceremony, or by another process, to have that conveyed at the same time. If my right hon. Friend is arguing against that separation, he is defending the situation that the Government are proposing, which will mean having to legislate on what certain Churches may or may not do and needing a complex system of law to ensure that other Churches, including the one he belongs to, are not then forced to do things they do not want to do. If we have a proper separation, none of those things is necessary, and surely that is the sensible way to proceed.
I have had support from all sorts of different sources, including ministers from Churches of various denominations and other religions who are saying that this is indeed a sensible way to proceed. On the Gay Leeds website there is an article by Colin Ross in which he says:
“This seems a very sensible approach to me, I am a gay man and not religious. If I wanted to spend my life in a loving relationship recognised by the state I want to be able to do that—without any religion having their opinion on it—but what is more I want to have the same rights as everyone else. The current Marriage (same sex couples) Bill does not offer equality, the legislation is flawed it still doesn’t provide equality especially in respect of pension rights when one partner dies and issues affecting the Trans community, likewise the Civil Partnership legislation was not about equality—as it neither gave equality to marriage and also did not allow opposite-sex partners to have Civil Partnership as well.”
Similarly, in the release that he put out today under the headline, “Gay marriage bill is not full equality”, Peter Tatchell says:
“Instead of bringing same-sex couples fully within the ambit of existing marriage law, the bill leaves some aspects of marriage law different for gay and straight married couples. Although these are relatively minor, they violate the fundamental principle of marriage equality for all.”
He goes on to say:
“While this may be a progressive reform of marriage legislation, it makes the law unequal. If we want marriage equality, that’s what the bill should give.”
We should also have equality of religions and belief systems, and the Bill does not achieve that either.
I welcome the debate on this subject; we had a shorter debate in the Bill Committee. The hon. Gentleman is clearly explaining that redefining marriage raises lots of complications. Perhaps if we had gone back to first base and had a longer, more considered consultation about the redefinition of marriage, although perhaps not quite as long as the one we are about to have on civil partnerships, we could have reached a more consensual view about the state’s involvement in unions. Has he made any representations to the Church of England? Would not his new clause have an impact on the relationship between Church and state, particularly with regard to the right of every parishioner to get married at their local church?
My hon. Friend is touching on the elephant in the room, which is the establishment of the Church of England. That is another matter that is worthy of debate. There will be different views, and I hope that he is prepared to take part in that debate. I am trying to show that it is possible to separate civil marriage and religious and belief-based ceremonies without necessarily having the effect that he suggests. This involves the constitution as well as the Church of England. I suggest to him—I do not know if he would agree—that the Church of England is now in a most odd and uncomfortable position as a result of the way in which the Bill has been drafted. Similarly, it is not a particularly happy situation for other Churches. That would not necessarily be the case if we had the separation that I propose.
I will continue to pursue this matter beyond the passage of the Bill, which will of course receive its Third Reading tonight. I share my hon. Friend’s view that had we had a proper and fuller consultation—this is not so much about the time period as about the intent and scope of the Bill—we could perhaps have looked seriously at sweeping away the current framework and coming up with one that is properly radical and fit for purpose, and gives all our citizens the same rights whether they are religious, humanist, or of no belief.
If we want true and exact legal recognition of all adult couples and to convey the same rights to them all, we will not achieve that as things stand this evening. If we want to have clear and proper respect for freedom of conscience, we will not achieve that this evening. Those things are still possible if amendments are made. I ask hon. Members to consider the amendments. I do not intend to press new clause 14 to a vote, but I hope that the views that I have expressed have been heard and that the Secretary of State and her colleagues will note the support that they receive from all parts of the spectrum on this issue.
It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Leeds North West (Greg Mulholland) and his interesting comments.
I rise primarily to support new clause 15, which would allow people to have humanist marriages if they so choose. Members will know that that is an established option in Scotland, chosen by about 2,500 couples a year. About 600 couples in Wales and England choose to have a humanist wedding without it becoming a legal marriage.
Religions do not have a moral monopoly on marriage. Different religions have different moral views linked to their faith, and the humanist tradition has its own secular but moral conception of what is right. The members of the humanist community want to be able to join in moral partnerships in which they may express and celebrate their personal ethics, and for those bonds to be recognised in law. There is nothing wrong with that. Like many Members, I have been lobbied by people in my constituency on this matter. Brian Cainen, who conducts various humanist ceremonies, including funerals, is very concerned and passionate about this, as are many people who approach him to ask about the options that are available.
I was drawn into this debate by my interest in the issue, but I was disappointed by the level of emotion expressed by the hon. Member for Banbury (Sir Tony Baldry), who seemed to suggest that humanist ceremonies were some sort of pagan ritual, whereas we are talking about moral, ethical people who want to pursue their own ethics.
I did not say that. Those of us who oppose the Bill have tried hard, so far as is possible, to make it work within the context of the protections that we have sought. When the Bill was introduced, faith groups were promised protections. It seems to me that we should finish the passage of the Bill where we started and ensure that those protections are still in place. That is all that I am asking for, no more and no less.
I accept that the assurances that have been offered to faith groups should be delivered and guaranteed, but what we are talking about is widening the franchise of equality so that people can be married whether they are of different sexes or the same sex and whether they are humanists or people of faith. As I said, faith groups do not have a moral monopoly. A quarter of people say that they have no religion—obviously, the situation is changing over time—and there is no reason why such people should not be embraced within the fraternity of marriage.
I am much taken with the idea of having some form of humanist marriage, but I am worried that by agreeing to such marriages, we would cause problems for religious marriage. That makes me think that perhaps we are rushing the proposals through too quickly and that we should perhaps slow down or stop and think again.
Clearly, we are here to debate the Bill. The people who push for delays and referendums tend to be those who oppose the Bill in any case. The debate on same-sex marriage has been going on for a long period, and not just in this House at this time. In the run-up to the Bill, there has been an enormous amount of discussion in faith communities, among people of no faith and in political communities. Internationally, we have seen equal marriage proposals move forward in a number of developed countries. I think that we have a role to play in providing leadership.
Does my hon. Friend agree that although the concerns that are being raised about process may be quite legitimate, many of us are concerned that it might be many years before we have another opportunity to debate and vote on this issue?
I very much agree with that important point. We are all aware of the political difficulties in the Conservative party and the differences within the coalition and across the House. Same-sex marriage is an important measure and it is imperative that we deal with it now. If it does not happen now, political complexions may change as we approach the 2015 election and we might miss the opportunity. People may make the calculated gamble that if the issue is pushed into the long grass, it will stay there. Thousands of people want us to move forward on same-sex marriage, a large and growing community of people want us to move forward on humanist marriage and, as we have heard Government Members say, there are people who want us to move forward on civil partnerships. I hope that the review on that matter makes rapid progress and that the options are provided in a fully informed way.
I was very surprised by the Attorney-General’s intervention in which he seemed to say that new clause 15 would be in breach of article 14 of the European convention on human rights and would open the door for people who wanted to marry in the name of tiddlywinks. That was very peculiar. I am a member of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe, to which the European Court of Human Rights has regard. I have not heard it suggested in any serious chamber that there ought to be parity between the rights of those who want humanist weddings, which are already an option in Scotland, and those who demand tiddlywinks marriages.
I am not a tiddlywinks expert, but I am a humanist. I am a member of the British Humanist Association and the all-party humanist group. The hon. Gentleman may be aware that there has been a judgment on the what test should be for serious beliefs in such cases. The judgment in Grainger plc v. Nicholson states:
“The belief must be genuinely held, must be a belief and not an opinion based on present available information and a weighty or substantial aspect of human life and behaviour”.
None of that could really apply to tiddlywinks.
I am grateful for that intervention. It elaborates the point that we should not spend too much time talking about tiddlywinks. However, it was brought up by the Attorney-General and I thought that I had better deal with the matter because he said that his best criticism of new clause 15 was that it would be in breach of article 14 of the European convention on human rights. That seems very unlikely, to put it mildly. It is scraping the barrel and was a bizarre thing for the Attorney-General to say.
I realise that the intention behind new clause 14 was to start a discussion, but it would abolish marriage and civil partnership and replace them with civil union. People who had been married in good faith would wake up one day and find that they were no longer married. That is not something that we should seriously consider. In the cut and thrust of political dialogue, it was famously said that people who went to bed with Nick Clegg might wake up with David Cameron. This proposal is akin to that idea. One day people would be married and suddenly, after a change in the legislation, they would no longer be married.
After a reasonably intelligent start, it is disappointing that the hon. Gentleman is making silly, petty party political comments. I say again that there should be and would be one way of recognising all adult couples, including those who are already married or civil partnered. He is being slightly mischievous in another way, because those who believe themselves to be married in the eyes of one religion, Church or belief system would continue to do so, as happens now, regardless of whether the state regards them as married or not.
I am sorry that the hon. Gentleman is slightly lacking in a sense of humour. My point about waking up with David Cameron was not meant as a sharp political point. I am sure a lot of his colleagues would be very happy to wake up with David Cameron.
On the serious point—there is a serious point—I realise that the hon. Gentleman is making a genuine point about the need for absolute equality in marriage and civil partnership and asking why, if that is not happening, we do not have civil union. I see the logic of that, but I was simply making the case that in practice, if that came in now and we essentially abolished marriage, people would wake up in a slightly different relationship from the one they anticipated when they made their vows. In parallel, I was making a perhaps not very funny joke about people voting Liberal and ending up with a coalition Government.
This Friday is the 25th anniversary of section 28, which gives us a stark reminder that time has moved forward but we still have not made all that much progress. Gay people are still abused at school, for instance—where my children go to school, the word “gay” is used in an abusive way. We need to move forward and provide equality before the law. I appreciate that we are going to end up with equality for same-sex marriage and that there will still be work to do on civil partnerships, but in the meantime we need to move forward on the humanist agenda, whose delivery is already established in Scotland.
I agree with the hon. Gentleman’s sentiment that we need to make progress, but speaking as a supporter of the Bill, I am concerned about the advice that we have received that it may not be the right vehicle to meet humanists’ desires on marriage, even though many Members on both sides of the House wish to do so. The problem is not opposition to that aim, but the risk that the Bill is not the right vehicle and that by including such a provision, we would unpick the locks carefully assembled to protect religious minorities.
It is important that we have this debate. My view comes from looking at the detail of the Bill and from the fact that humanist marriage is already established in Scotland and seems to be working well. It seems to me that the Bill provides an obvious opportunity to introduce equality between humanists in Wales, England and Scotland sooner rather than later. I do not see that as a problem.
I fundamentally disagree with the hon. Gentleman’s point. He made fun of the advice given to us by the House’s most senior Law Officer. I obviously do not sit on the Government Benches, but I have the highest regard for the Attorney-General’s advice, and he told us clearly that supporting an extension only to humanists would be discriminatory. We have the European convention on human rights, and I say hooray for that—I am in favour of it—but how does the hon. Gentleman excuse the fact that the new clause applies only to humanists rather than having broader coverage? It is discriminatory.
The status quo is discriminatory in any case, which is why we are asking for equality for same-sex couples. Humanist marriages occur in Scotland without being challenged in the European Court, so there have been test cases. Like others, I am free to make jokes about the Attorney-General; he has no planet-sized brain that should intimidate us, and his reference to tiddlywinks invited scorn and ridicule, which I thought it was reasonable to supply. On that hilarious note, I will bring my comments to a close.
I rise to reassure the hon. Member for Luton North (Kelvin Hopkins) that there is support for him on the Government Benches and to encourage the hon. Member for Stretford and Urmston (Kate Green) to press the new clause to a vote and not be put off by the blandishments that she may hear from my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State. I say that because I am suspicious when I cannot hear a single argument against the principle of a proposal—there is agreement that it is absolutely reasonable and a proper extension of rights to humanists—but we get a barrow load of technical or legal difficulties and risks, and the idea that there has not been time for consultation. The idea that we do not have the opportunity during the passage of the Bill through both Houses of Parliament to sit down and address the technical objections to this suggestion and others, and to get the Bill right before it finally hits the statute book, does not reflect terribly well on us as legislators or on the advice that we can command.
My hon. Friend the Member for Battersea (Jane Ellison) said that the Bill was not the right vehicle for addressing the matter, but I do not think that we will see another marriage Bill coming down the track any time soon. Ministers’ enthusiasm for re-engaging with the issue, after going through the joy of the past 18 months of consultation and processes, will be a little limited. That was why, yesterday, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State suggested a five-year time bar before the issue would be reconsidered. That was overturned at the insistence of the Opposition, whose amendment she accepted. I rather suspect that that time-limitation arrangement was suggested because Ministers have been somewhat scarred by the process of the Bill.
That makes it more important for us to take advantage of this opportunity to deal with some fundamental points that seem glaringly obvious to me. It seems glaringly obvious that humanists ought to be allowed to conduct marriage ceremonies and that the arguments that my hon. Friend the Member for Leeds North West (Greg Mulholland) has put forward yesterday and today ought to be addressed. We should take this opportunity to have a fundamental look at how marriage is delivered and to divide civil and religious marriage properly, so that we have dealt with all the problems that we are now wrestling with.
The hon. Member for North Down (Lady Hermon) prayed in aid the advice that we heard from the Attorney-General, but I have to say that although I am a very great friend of my right hon. and learned Friend the Attorney-General and have huge admiration for his work and his intellect, I have never heard such nonsense on stilts put forward under the guise of independent and wise advice. It was certainly not the product of careful consideration, because it has come to the House at rather short notice. On reflection, his rather strange division between secular people and religious people, with the former not deserving the same consideration for the protection of their rights, would itself fall foul of any convention on human rights worth its name.
My right hon. and learned Friend ought to have the opportunity to give rather more considered advice as the Bill proceeds through Parliament. I am sure that when it is considered in another place and then comes back to this House, if there is satisfaction that his arguments hold water, the hon. Member for Stretford and Urmston and her colleagues who tabled the new clause will be happy to consider them again. We need to address the technical and legal objections that are being made to a measure to which I have heard no Member put forward principled opposition.
Again, I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for taking an intervention. I am not making this up; I am reading in black and white article 14 of the Human Rights Act 1998, which states:
“The enjoyment of the rights and freedoms set forth in this Convention—”
that includes the right to marry, which is one of the fundamental rights guaranteed by the convention—
“shall be secured without discrimination on any ground”
within the United Kingdom. It could not be clearer. The advice of the Attorney-General is that if new clause 15 is accepted and extends only to those who are humanists, that is discrimination and in breach of article 14. Will the hon. Gentleman address that point?
If the Attorney-General’s advice is correct, there is a slight problem because existing laws are already discriminatory in that respect and vulnerable to challenge by the European Court of Human Rights. As I said earlier, it is preposterous to make the point that extending human rights and the right to marry to a group of people will somehow fall foul of the European Court of Human Rights, if our existing laws—which are more restrictive—do not already fall foul of that Court and would be challengeable in that regard. That is why I have a problem with that point. Humanists have a proper belief system and deserve protection under the charter and our laws, just like anyone else.
That is characteristically generous of my hon. Friend. He said that there were no principled objections to the new clause, but may I try him on this one? He supports the Bill and wants there to be same-sex marriages, which is its purpose. I am sure that he also wants to ensure that no faith group that does not wish to conduct same-sex marriages is obliged to do so. The Bill sets in place a number of protections, and moving from a buildings-based system of marriage to a celebrant-based system, which the new clause would introduce, would simply unpick all the protections that have been built up through the course of the proposed legislation. If the protection of other groups is not a principled objection, I am not sure what is.
My hon. Friend speaks for the Church of England in this House and his principled objection is that it should have special protections. I frankly do not think that a quadruple lock is necessary; for me a single lock ought to be perfectly satisfactory. He and I will therefore differ on the practicalities of the protections that need to be given to religious organisations. He does not object to the principle that humanists ought to be allowed to carry out marriages—I have not heard him say that—but he is concerned that the consequences might pose a risk to protections for other religious groups to carry out marriages in the way that they want. I hear and understand that argument, but I think that it is probably technically deficient.
In the time that the Bill will take to be considered in another place, and before it returns to the House, it is perfectly possible for all of us who want the Bill to proceed to test these propositions and see whether they undermine the protections that we seek to put in place. I do not believe that they do, and simply asserting that they would does not satisfy me. I want to understand that such arguments have merit. I do not believe that they do, but I am open to considering the arguments further, which is what we should do.
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman, but may I help him with the tiddlywinks issue? The Attorney-General has referred to this issue as a comparator for humanism, but there is settled legal opinion in the European Court of Human Rights, the British judicial system and the Equality Act 2010 that the protected characteristic of a religion or a belief applies not to an individual belief or the fact that a few people get together, but to a whole belief system that has a structure and is organised and settled. That is why I am certain that the Attorney-General is wrong in the advice that he has given.
The hon. Gentleman is making a powerful speech and is generous in giving way. There is an issue of how to deal with legal advice. Does he agree that the law is capable of being constructive and not just a constraint and that it would therefore behove the Attorney-General and the Government to come up with ways to change the new clause to make it compatible with the law, rather than saying, “This doesn’t work; try again.”?
To be fair to the Attorney-General, that is precisely what he said. He thought it would be perfectly possible to address these issues. He raised objections to the House. I happen not to agree with or believe them, but he said that it should be possible to address the issues being raised. Unless Members are prepared to stand up in the House and say that they oppose humanists being allowed to carry out marriages in principle and explain to me and the rest of the country what their reasons are, we owe it to humanists to do our damndest during the passage of the Bill to enable them to enjoy the ability to marry under their belief system with the same rights that we give to others.
Earlier in my political life I was Minister of Finance and Personnel in the Northern Ireland Executive, and in that capacity, bizarrely, I had responsibility for the Office of Law Reform and for registration. I worked to bring forward measures that were about changing how civil registration and civil law on marriage related to the different religions in Northern Ireland, because it related very differently. Unlike what the hon. Member for Banbury (Sir Tony Baldry) said in his description of the law on marriage in England, which was that it is entirely related to premises or property, the situation in Northern Ireland meant that for Catholics, as long as a marriage was conducted by an episcopally-ordained priest—it did not matter where—the state recognised it. For the Church of Ireland, only the premises mattered.
Under powers that came from the old position of Lord Lieutenant General in Ireland from the 17th century, I had to sign if a new Church of Ireland church was created. There was a wonderful vellum scroll and illuminated manuscript—so much so that I was able to tell my wife that I felt like a lay bishop in the Church of Ireland. For Presbyterians it was different again: the persons were recognised, for the conduct of marriage, within the geography of a given presbytery, and marriage was not confined to a particular building or anything else.
We brought forward measures to try to equalise things, and in many ways we borrowed from changes made in Scotland. Some of the Churches were shaky on it at the time, but the smaller Protestant Churches were glad of our changes, because many that could conduct marriages on their premises only if a civil registrar was also present to verify it, were then able to conduct them under their own auspices and integrity of their rites and rituals.
At that time I made it clear to my officials that if demand emerged in relation to humanists or another belief system, we would have to address that. It did not emerge during the debates at the time, but I support the principle of it. I have said about other aspects of the Bill that all equality should be equal; the problem that some of us have with this Bill is that it is not equal in all cases in its central thrust of extending equality to same-sex couples. I supported the Bill on Second Reading and continue to support it, but I appeal to colleagues to stop jumping and hopping about here and there on the issue of when they want equality, and when they support and respect belief systems.
I have no problem with this Bill or any other measure respecting the belief system of humanism, and ensuring that people can achieve that. That is happening with legislation in the south of Ireland. I represent a border constituency. I am a Catholic who is part of a cross-border diocese. As a result of the Civil Registration (Amendment) Bill which passed the Oireachtas, later this year and certainly next year humanist marriages will be conducted in Ireland just over the border from my constituency. Just as many people who are married in church go over the border for those weddings, so too will people from my city for humanist weddings. I therefore have no principled opposition to new clause 15.
The legislation in Ireland gives the registrar general the capacity to recognise a secular body, which can in turn appoint people who would be registered to solemnise marriages. Like new clause 15, the Irish measure defines a secular body as one that must exist for at least five years and as a charity. The body cannot have profit making as one of its purposes. The legislation also describes such a body as
“an organised group of people who have secular, ethical and humanist beliefs in common.”
The Irish Attorney-General felt that that term would cover against any allegation that the provision was so specific that it related to one existing organisation only—the Humanist Association of Ireland. The Irish Attorney-General therefore found a way around—there is a specific and clear definition, but it is not open to the challenge that it is exclusively defined, which seems to be what the UK Attorney-General was saying. Those who support the principle of new clause 15 might want to look at the Irish wording as things progress.
It is right that hon. Members should be accommodating of a belief system that is not properly recognised in our marriage system and that they want such a belief system to be recognised in the Bill, but they should think about the speed with which they rejected emblematic, conscience amendments yesterday. People with other distinct belief systems feel a wee bit under threat and are concerned about slippery slopes. There was an attempt yesterday to make a concession and offer comfort by recognising such belief systems, but hon. Members decided they would not do so. Today, there is an opportunity to accommodate another belief system. Many hon. Members who rejected the accommodation of people’s belief systems yesterday back today’s proposal. I wish they would have supported both measures.
As ever, the hon. Gentleman brings an interesting perspective from his experience. Regardless of the many different views—it is important to say that there are not just two views—it is incredibly disappointing that the Government, despite saying they would engage and listen, have accepted not a single amendment in Committee or on the Floor of the House. I am afraid that that is not an appropriate way in which to make a big change of this nature. Does the hon. Gentleman share my concern?
I absolutely share the hon. Gentleman’s concern. That will be one of the difficulties. The fewer amendments that are accepted in the House, the bigger the excuse for the other place to take longer, and to go more deeply and more wide ranging with amendments. People should be able to see that the House has given the Bill due consideration and added to it in a number of respects. If people wanted belt-and-braces protections in the Bill, and apps and widgets, to make them feel more secure and comfortable, why not give them? We should want people to feel more comfortable with the passage of the Bill, no matter what their reservations about its provenance. That is why I support amendments that make more people, such as humanists, feel included in the equality that the Bill extends.
Hon. Members should remember that we had a choice yesterday on civil partnerships for opposite-sex couples. The issue was ducked. We were told that the matter could be complicated and that there could be a review. I would like the people who supported that measure to feel included in the effort to extend equality in the Bill. I hope that that happens if the matter is raised in the other place. I do not believe that this will be the last the House sees of the Bill. The Bill will come back to us, because people are saying that we are being selective in adding to the Bill and widening its scope.
Some hon. Members argued against the civil partnerships amendments yesterday even though they support the principle of equality in civil partnerships. They argued that such a measure was not germane to the Bill, and that it took us beyond the Bill’s scope. However, the same people want an extension for humanist marriage—I agree with them—even though other hon. Members say that there is a risk and that it could raise far more complicated issues. The Attorney-General and the Government are not the only ones who must answer questions as to the inconsistency or strength of their argument. I have noted a lot of inconsistency in the House on how far we go to respect belief systems.
I continue to support the main purpose of the Bill. I ask hon. Members to be more accommodating in respect of all belief systems than they have been so far. Hon. Members who have Church-related objections to the Bill have strong objections to how I have voted and how I will continue to vote, but perhaps I am lucky, because none has been swivel-eyed and none has argued with pious prejudice. There have been measured objections. They wanted the protection clauses because they are concerned that their faith and their sense of the love of God will be the new love that dare not speak its name. That is what makes people worried and discomfited. I want hon. Members to give full equality, consideration and comfort to humanists, and full respect for their belief systems. I also want those things for all Christians.
I am happy to follow the hon. Member for Foyle (Mark Durkan). I agree with a huge number of his comments. He and I have voted similarly pretty well throughout the passage of the Bill.
I want to pick up on a comment the hon. Gentleman made towards the end of his speech. He and I voted for new clause 10 on the implementation of civil partnerships for straight couples. I voted for the new clause not because it was a wrecking amendment but because I believe in the principle. I signed it before the Government tabled their new clause proposing a review and before Labour tabled its amendment. If people look at my record, they will see that I have argued for that position over many years, yet it is suggested that I was trying to block the Bill. The hon. Gentleman has a similar view to mine.
The proposals appear to be linked, Mr Deputy Speaker. I thank my hon. Friend for that proposal and many others he has made, and for his much-respected work. We do not agree on every single item, but his record is one of which the Liberal Democrats and Parliament should be proud.
Let me put my position on the record. I believe, have believed and was brought up to believe that marriage is ordained by God. I believe that marriage is traditionally ordained by God to be between one man and one woman. I believe that marriage was set up by God for the creation of children. I believe that it was to link the biological needs of children with their biological parents. I believe that it was for biological complementarity. I believe that it was for gender complementarity, and that it was a gift of God in creation. That is why I have taken a traditional Christian and other-faith view on how marriage has traditionally been—for one man and one woman—which was the case long before we legislated for such things in this country and made them the law of the land.
Will the right hon. Gentleman give way?
Order. We are not talking about infertile couples. Unfortunately, we are on the humanist part of the Bill, and that is what we will discuss. Fortunately or unfortunately—depending on which way we look at it—we must try to speak to the amendments if we can. I hope, Mr Hughes, that you are not going to tempt many others down another track.
I will not, but with respect I want to say a word about humanism and speak to my new clause 18, which is in this group, on the difference between the church and the state.
Let me say to the hon. Member for Hackney North and Stoke Newington (Ms Abbott) that of course marriage is never only for the production of children. Many people get married without that intention, and it might be impossible for some. That is not the argument. In the theological tradition, one purpose of marriage is to have children, and that is not possible, biologically, between two men or between two women. Some churches believe that marriage is a sacrament or holds another special position.
We move from that position of faith to one where we legislate. My right hon. Friend the Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Sir Alan Beith) intervened earlier to make it clear that Methodists, Quakers, Jews and the Free Churches had to fight for the right to perform marriages in their churches. Now, places that have nothing to do with churches or faiths are licensed to carry out marriages—civil marriages became possible. The position of registrar was set up and people are able to have entirely civil marriages in a registry office. That is still the case. Marriages can be held in a place that is entirely civil—in a state-authorised location—or in a place of worship, which can also include the legislative provisions that the state requires.
In all my time in the House, I have argued that we should try to separate those two things. New clause 18 suggests a way of doing that, just as new clause 14, tabled by my hon. Friend the Member for Leeds North West (Greg Mulholland), does. I believe in the disestablishment of the Church of England. I am a member of the Church, but I believe in its disestablishment. Just as the Church in Wales has been disestablished, I have always believed that in England we should separate as much as possible the activities of the Church and the activities of the state. Marriage, therefore, between a man and a woman in a Christian or religious sense is different from marriages, partnerships or unions that are secular, or between people of the same sex.
I pray in aid the view, which has been quoted already, of the hon. Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant). It was referred to in the Public Bill Committee and goes back to what he said in 2004. When he was asked whether he agreed with the proposition about same-sex marriage, which is at the heart of the Bill, he answered:
“I do not support that; I believe that marriage is an institution that is ordained of God and should be celebrated between a man and a woman. However, I also believe that two men or two women can have a relationship that in many ways mirrors that between a man and a woman but is not identical. Therefore, I believe that we should have in law separate institutions that reflect that reality.”—[Official Report, Standing Committee D, 21 October 2004; c. 68-70.]
That has always been my position too. We should give equal rights to gay and straight couples to form partnerships, unions or relationships that give the same pension rights and status, but are not the same as the traditional marriage between a man and a woman.
Colloquially, people talk of equal marriage, and I understand that. People who are in civil partnerships talk of being married, and of their husbands and wives. We are not going to be able to put the clock back, which is why new clause 18 talks about “civil marriage” and not civil union. Many of my Christian friends say that that is an unacceptable compromise, because the Christian view of marriage cannot be changed by calling it civil marriage. We have to wrestle with that issue and sort it out, because we could have civil marriage that is different from faith, Christian or religious marriage, and I think that people would reasonably understand the difference.
I respect my right hon. Friend on many things, but I disagree with quite a lot of what he is saying. Is he genuinely saying that he would deny faith groups, which believe marriage should truly be equal, the ability to do that, because of his personal belief? Is he refusing to allow them to call it a proper marriage or a faith marriage?
If my hon. Friend will bear with me, I do not believe that and I am not arguing that. They should of course be entitled to hold that view.
This group of amendments seeks to give humanists the right to have humanist weddings. I support that proposal. I understand the objection to the technical drafting, and perhaps that needs to be considered. However, the principle—my hon. Friend the hon. Member for Reigate (Mr Blunt) made the point—of allowing humanist weddings seems to me to be the right one. The hon. Member for Foyle argued that that is what happens over the border in Ireland. Humanists have a belief, and therefore they should be entitled to have weddings according to their belief. Constituents have argued for that, it happens already in Scotland, and, like other people, I too have been to a humanist ceremony—not a wedding, but a funeral.
As a light intervention, we should not be overly afraid of the word “pagan”. My dear late mother, who lived in a village in Herefordshire, in her latter years went to a pagan wedding in the orchard in Hampton Bishop. She said it was one of the most enjoyable weddings she ever attended. Of course, there was a civil ceremony beforehand. People should be allowed to have the practice they want, including humanist weddings.
That is a good question. The hon. Lady, as a former Southwark councillor, knows well the communities I represent. The short answer is that we could do it one of two ways. We could either do what is done in many countries on the mainland of Europe, which is to require everybody to have a civic ceremony first. In France or Belgium, people go the town hall, have the civil ceremony and then go to their church, mosque, temple or synagogue and have their faith ceremony. Secondly, one could separate, in the place of worship—the black-led church on the Old Kent road, my own church or any other—the civic part of the ceremony from the faith part. That is not done in the same way at the moment. In my church in Bermondsey people do not see clearly the distinction between the two parts. The couple going to the church on the Old Kent road would believe they were being married in the eyes of God. They would also want to be married in the eyes of the law. It could be done in either of those ways.
What do I want new clause 18 to achieve? For heterosexual couples, I want us to allow a humanist wedding, a civil marriage or a civil union, and civil partnerships. For same-sex couples, I want full, equal civil rights as a married couple, to be called either a civil marriage or a civil union. I want them to have civil partnerships, too. I hope also that we will not allow the easy transfer between civil partnerships and civil marriage, going from one to the other by signing a form, which is the weakness of clause 9.
New clauses 18 and 14 seek to address an issue that the House has not so far wrestled with: would it not be better to seek to address the need to separate, for these purposes, the faith and belief of people of faith that marriage is ordained by God, and the civil responsibility of the state to provide a place where people can come together and perform a ceremony in the eyes of the law? It is pity that we have not addressed it. I will judge the mood of the House on whether to put that to a vote. I am sure it will be addressed in the other place. I hope we can give everybody equal status in the eyes of the law, and, coming back to the intervention from my hon. Friend the Member for Cambridge (Dr Huppert), the right for each faith group to decide whether to regard heterosexual couples and same-sex couples as able to be married in the context of their faith, which we should allow to all faiths, as well as to those with no faith at all.
I apologise, Mr Deputy Speaker, for having to leave the Chamber earlier.
On Second Reading, I was in a minority among Labour Members in voting against the Bill. I voted against it not because I did not want to see equality, but because, as some saw it, people’s faith and beliefs were being challenged. Again, today, I acknowledge the need to respect people’s faiths and beliefs, but I feel that that should extend to humanist beliefs and that humanists should have the option of a humanist marriage ceremony.
Given the volume of correspondence I received in the lead-up to Second Reading, I would say that this Bill is the most controversial I have been involved in since entering the House in 2011. When it was presented on Second Reading, I was made very aware of my constituents’ concerns, and like many Members I was inundated by e-mails, letters and phone calls in which people overwhelmingly expressed their fear that their beliefs, faith and religious freedoms were being challenged. I have not received that level of correspondence over today’s new clauses.
As a result of the number of inquiries I received, I took time to scrutinise the Bill, and I found cause for concern. The religious communities felt vulnerable and at risk of having their faith and their freedom to practise their faith threatened by the Bill. The Churches felt that they would be legally bound to carry out same-sex ceremonies, even to the point of being threatened with legal proceedings if they refused. It would not have been fair to place the Churches in such a position, so I concluded on Second Reading that I could not support the Bill. I voted against it not because I was not committed to equality—I most certainly am—but because I did not want the religious communities put in that position. It was not an easy decision to take.
I kept my constituents up to speed as the Bill progressed through Committee, and to date the response to the changes made and the reassurances given to the Churches in Scotland has been nothing but positive. The opt-in gives religious communities the assurance that their faiths will be respected and that they will have the right not to conduct same-sex marriages if it is against the teachings of their Church.
I have been contacted by some via the wonder that is Twitter. One person wrote that we should vote for the Bill because fairness trumped faith. I have to tell that person and the House that nothing trumps faith, but I will support the Bill, as amended, through Parliament because respect, understanding and equality must be delivered for all, including humanists seeking the right to a humanist marriage ceremony.
I have seen the Bill divide generations over their understanding and acceptance of this issue. I concede that it will not be the case with every family, but I have two sons who cannot understand why this equality has not been introduced before. They ask, “Why? Why has Parliament not addressed this before?” My parents, who have been married for 55 years, also ask, “Why? Why is this changing now?”, and they are worried. They wonder if it will change or adversely reflect on their own long marriage. I tell them that it will not and that in the months and years ahead people will be asking why we did not introduce this equality before. In time, they will be reassured that the Bill will strengthen, not weaken, marriage.
My hon. Friend is making an interesting speech, and I think we can all identify with what he says about the change between generations, but change happens. Only yesterday, we heard that the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland voted to allow gay ministers to be ordained, if the congregations so choose. That is a major change illustrating that equality is now regarded as important even by the national Church of Scotland.
Order. The hon. Members for Inverclyde (Mr McKenzie) and for Ayr, Carrick and Cumnock (Sandra Osborne) are making valid points, but they are Third Reading points and not relevant to the new clauses on recognising humanism, which we need to deal with before we get to Third Reading. I would be grateful if the hon. Gentleman did not get teased down the route the hon. Lady wants him to go down and instead referred specifically to the new clauses.
Like my hon. Friend the Member for Reigate (Mr Blunt), I wish to speak in favour of new clause 15, although I will try not to duplicate the points he made so very well.
As many in the Chamber will know, I have been a strong supporter of equal marriage from the outset. Indeed, in 2010 I wrote to the Prime Minister asking for legislation to be laid before the House. While we are talking about equal marriage rights, it seems logical that we should address the issue of humanist marriages at the same time. As my hon. Friend the Member for Reigate said, it could be a decade before we revisit this issue. There has been talk about the percentage of various people in the last census, but in a recent YouGov poll, 67% of people—two thirds of the population—said they had no religion. Those in a huge section of our society in England are being denied the opportunity to make a full-scale commitment to one another. Their only option is a register office marriage.
As we have said before, that is not so in Scotland, where it has been legal to have a humanist marriage since 2005. Indeed, last year more people took that route than entered into Roman Catholic marriages, and the expectation is that the figure will pass the number of Church of Scotland marriages in 2014. Clearly there is a huge demand for this change in the law. If my postbag is any indication, I would expect similar numbers to be reflected in England; I can report that I have had many letters in support of humanistic marriages and none against. As has been mentioned, it is also possible to have a humanist funeral—just not a marriage, in the eyes of the law.
For those who are opposed, there is often a fundamental misunderstanding about what humanism is. I did not know much about the definition either until a few years ago. My father was diagnosed with cancer and was told he had six months to live. He calmly set about putting his affairs in order, which included his funeral arrangements. I was surprised when he put down the details of the humanist funeral he wanted. He was an exceptionally honest, hard-working man, well respected in the community and living by what we all know as Christian values. He did not go to church, but then again the majority of people do not.
Throughout recorded history, there have been non-religious people who have believed that this life is the only life we have, that the universe is a natural phenomenon with no supernatural side and that we can live ethical and fulfilling lives on the basis of reason and humanity. They have trusted to the scientific method, evidence and reason to discover truths about the universe and have placed human welfare and happiness at the centre of their ethical decision making. Today, people who share these beliefs and values are called humanists and this combination of attitudes is called humanism. Many millions of people in Britain share this way of living and of looking at the world, but many of them have not heard the word “humanist” and do not realise that it describes what they believe.
Just to be clear, a humanist, roughly speaking, has come to mean someone who trusts the scientific method when it comes to understanding how the universe works; rejects the idea of the supernatural, and is therefore probably an atheist or agnostic; makes ethical decisions based on reason, empathy and concern for human beings and other animals; and believes that, in the absence of an afterlife and any discernible purpose to the universe, human beings can act to give their lives meaning by seeking happiness in this life and helping others to do the same. That definition is important, because we have heard a lot about how Jedi knights and so on will be able to do this. We have also heard other definitions and talked about tiddlywinks, but it is important to realise that these are real, strong, belief cultures.
My hon. Friend is making an excellent speech in favour of humanist weddings. I agree with him in principle, but is he not concerned, being a believer in equal marriage—as I know he is—about the Attorney-General’s advice that if we accepted the new clause, we would threaten the religious guarantees that we have given the Church of England?
Of course I have total respect for the Attorney-General’s opinions, but as we all know, in law and legal advice, there is no firm decision or certainty until something goes to court. Like my hon. Friend the Member for Reigate, I have yet to hear a cohesive argument for why what my hon. Friend the Member for Stourbridge (Margot James) describes would be the case. Just saying it time and time again does not make it right. If someone can say why that would happen, we would of course listen. The last thing I want to do is delay the implementation of same-sex marriage, as my hon. Friend will know, but we are in danger of missing a huge opportunity to extend equal marriage to a huge section of our population who at the moment are being ignored.
People ignore legal advice for all sorts of reasons. I am saying that I would like that legal opinion to be put to the test. We should not simply say, “Oh well, if that is the case, we will just sit back and not do this.” It is up to us to find a way of doing it. I do not happen to think that that interpretation is the correct one, and I would like to see it put to the test, as would many other people.
It is evident from what is happening in Scotland that there is a huge latent demand for humanist marriages, as well as for equal marriages. If humanism was right for my father, I for one would like to see equal marriages extended to include humanist marriage ceremonies. I would find it odd if those who supported same sex equal marriage did not also support equal marriage for others, which is why I am supporting the new clause.
It is a great pleasure to follow the excellent speech by my hon. Friend the Member for Hove (Mike Weatherley). I also want to pay huge tribute to the hon. Member for Stretford and Urmston (Kate Green). It has been a great pleasure to work with her during the passage of the Bill, and her speech today set the scene extremely well. I pay tribute to her, although I am not sure whether that will help or hinder her future plans. I thought that she did extremely well.
There are two issues that we need to debate today. One is the principle of whether we should allow humanists to conduct weddings; the other relates to the process of how we might get there. This is all made much more complicated because our marriage laws are incredibly complicated. They have exceptions and exemptions all over the place. The Second Church Estates Commissioner, my hon. Friend the Member for Banbury (Sir Tony Baldry), who speaks for the Church of England, and who I imagine knows the Marriage Act 1949 quite well, has spoken of how the rules are all tied to places. Section 26 of the Act states that marriages may be solemnised in
“a registered building…in the office of a superintendent registrar”,
“on approved premises”.
It also permits
“a marriage according to the usages of the Society of Friends (commonly called Quakers)”
“a marriage between two persons professing the Jewish religion according to the usages of the Jews”.
So we already have an exception and, as far as I can tell, the world has not fallen apart since those provisions were passed in 1949. They have worked without any problems. There are other areas of marriage law that are just complicated. We do not have a simple, clear system, and we are not going to get one as a result of any legislation that we pass today. That will involve further work.
Let me turn first to the question of principle. Is there a desire to allow humanists to conduct weddings? This was mentioned by the hon. Member for Reigate (Mr Blunt). If any Member here in the Chamber disagrees with the principle of humanists being allowed to conduct weddings, I would be grateful if they intervened on me to say so. If no one expresses such a view, we will take it that there is no dissent on that principle.
The hon. Gentleman is presuming; the fact those people who are currently in the Chamber do not express disagreement with him does not mean that he is right or that they all agree. That is blatantly obvious.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his comment. He is absolutely right to suggest that we cannot speculate accurately about the views of the people who are not in the Chamber. It is clear, however, that no strong views have been expressed that challenge the principle of holding humanist weddings, and I hope that that will be useful if this is discussed further in another place. There has not been a strong chorus of speeches here expressing disagreement with the principle. The hon. Gentleman is right to say that the views of all 650 Members have not been taken into account, however. It would be helpful to know whether the Secretary of State supports humanist weddings in principle. She is welcome to intervene on me to give me her view on that. There is a desire for this change among the general public. Indeed, most people I have spoken to have been surprised to learn that humanist weddings are not allowed.
There are problems with how the process would work. People who had a humanist wedding would have to have a register office wedding first. Some registrars are very helpful, and make it easy for that to happen. They make it a seamless experience. Others, however, are difficult. They ensure, for example, that the events take place in different locations, thus breaking up the ceremony, to the detriment of people who should be having one of the happiest moments of their life. Some people who have a humanist wedding celebration do not have a legal wedding. I presume they know that they are not legally married, but that can cause problems for them. So there are concerns about the way in which the process works at the moment.
We know that this is a pro-marriage step. We have heard a lot from the Government and the Minister to say that the aim of the whole Bill is to support marriage. We know that that is what it does. We know that in Scotland between 2005 and 2011 there was a very large increase in the number of humanist weddings—the figure I have for the increase is 2,404—and there was a small decrease of 418 in civil weddings. Overall, that is a very large number of extra weddings. That is surely something that a pro-marriage Government would thoroughly want to support.
The hon. Gentleman is making some strong points. Anecdotally, in my constituency, a former member of the Welsh Assembly who is a humanist celebrant tells me that from her experience, if the provisions were made legal, the numbers would increase. She certainly sees a demand from the people of Cardiff South and Penarth.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for making that point. I should declare that I am a member of the British Humanist Association and an officer of the all-party parliamentary humanist group, and I have spoken to a number of people who have confirmed that there is a demand for this to happen. People wish to do humanist marriage and there does not have to be a majority before we think that it is the right thing to do.
What are the problems? This takes us to the process of how to get there. The Second Church Estates Commissioner, the hon. Member for Banbury, and others have asserted that this would unpick the lock. What I never heard—perhaps we will hear it from the Minister—is exactly why the locks that protect faith groups would be unpicked by allowing humanists to act as registrars for a wedding. It is really not clear. I have heard it implied that it is because this would involve celebrants and it would not happen at a registered place. We have heard that Jews and Quakers are already exempt from the requirement to have a registered place. If the lock has already been unpicked by that, why should it be a problem? We have simply not heard any detailed analysis; it seems that people are saying things because they have been told that they are true. That is not really good enough.
I am concerned about the process that has brought us here. The Second Church Estates Commissioner—sadly, he is not in his place—suggested that the proposal was put through at the last minute and there was not enough time to deal with it adequately. I tabled my amendment initially on 5 February, immediately after Second Reading. I vividly remember it because I was slightly annoyed that somebody else had tabled another amendment before I had even got to the Table for mine. I was delighted that it received support from across the House and that my hon. Friend the Member for Bristol West (Stephen Williams) led on it in Committee with the support of the Labour Front-Bench team.
There was time from 5 February to make comments, and comments were made. There was detailed discussion, for example, between the British Humanist Association and Government officials. A couple of comments were made about how the provision would fit in with the locks and, interestingly, about its breadth. My original amendment would have allowed all approved organisations to participate, with a few safeguards, and did not specify humanism. The Government advice from the meetings with officials was that that should be changed. I know that the Minister disagrees, but it is entirely consistent with the letter and I was very specifically told by the BHA that it was given the advice to limit the provision to humanism.
I am happy to read out again the relevant section from the Minister’s letter:
“I note the changes that have been made to narrow the scope of the amendments to cover humanist organisations only, as we discussed.”
The letter went on to say that
“we remain of the view that”
“cannot be dealt with in isolation”.
That is simply not consistent with the idea that the Government had no role in this.
I am sorry, but I must complete what the letter sent by the Under-Secretary of State for Justice, my hon. Friend the Member for Maidstone and The Weald (Mrs Grant), said. It went on to state clearly that
“the Marriage (Same Sex Couples) Bill is the wrong mechanism to effect the changes to marriage law that you desire. Therefore the Government is unable to support your amendments.”
I am quoting directly from the letter. That clearly shows no opaqueness in the situation. I think that the hon. Gentleman’s previous comments were not entirely consistent with what is written in the letter.
I thank the right hon. Lady for reading out the rest of the letter, and I am happy for anybody to see it; I see that her Parliamentary Private Secretary has copies of it. She is right that it did not say that the Government supported the amendment or that they had another way of delivering it; it does not say, “Here are amendments that could make it work.” It says that the Government do not support the change because it is the wrong mechanism; it does not say, “We see you have now reduced the scope and we are very worried about this because we think you should broaden it back out again to be ECHR-compliant.” It is quite clear that the strong impression formed by the BHA from the meetings—I am sure there will be minutes—is that it was given strong advice to tighten the amendment. If that is not the case, it is hard to understand why it would choose to change the original version, which is obviously available for anyone to read. There has been ample time for the Attorney-General to consider the new clause, to be consulted on it and to be asked for his ruling on whether it would accord with the European convention on human rights. Strangely, however, that did not happen until the very last moment.
There have been other meetings. For instance, we had a detailed discussion with the Minister of State, Department for Culture, Media and Sport, the right hon. Member for Faversham and Mid Kent (Hugh Robertson), and I thank him for his time. As he will no doubt recall, the objections that were expressed did not centre on the fact that the new clause would make the whole Bill non-compliant with the convention, but there was talk of the cost of updating the computer system to allow an extra field for humanist weddings. He is nodding. A number of other issues were raised: for example, concern was expressed about the possibility that the measure would allow humanists to conduct weddings out of doors, which members of other faiths are not allowed to do under our marriage law unless they are Jews or Quakers.
I find it truly bizarre that if there is concern about challenges with regard to the proposals before us, there is not fundamental concern about challenges to legislation under which the rules governing Jews and Quakers differ from those governing any other group. We have plenty of legislation that singles out the Church of England and the Church of Wales, because they are, or were, connected to the state. I would be grateful if the Minister, or anyone else, could tell me how many times the fact that Jews and Quakers are listed, but not Hindus, Sikhs or any other group, has been subject to a legal challenge. In fact, that simply has not happened.
I respect the Attorney-General’s position, but I do not understand how he can have formed his opinions. I hope that we will be able to see a detailed analysis, from him or from the Minister via him, explaining exactly what the objections are. Above all, however, I believe passionately that the law could be constructive. The Government do not have to agree with humanist weddings, and they do not have to agree that this is the best way to legislate, but if they are acting in good faith in relation to the concerns that are being raised, I hope that they will say not just what the problems are but how they could be fixed, because many of us want them to be fixed.
I do not mind whether this wording is retained or other wording is introduced. I do not mind if an amendment is tabled that merely adds an extra line specifying humanists beneath the words
“professing the Jewish religion according to the usages of the Jews”.
I do not mind if the Government present, or find time for, another Bill to deal with the issue. I simply want humanist weddings to take place. I hope that the Minister and the Attorney-General will not just erect barriers, but will help this Parliament to do what it clearly wants to do.
I echo my hon. Friend the Member for Cambridge (Dr Huppert) in paying tribute to the shadow Minister, the hon. Member for Stretford and Urmston (Kate Green). In Committee, the debate took place the other way around: I spoke to the amendment first, and she spoke second.
It has been a pleasure to work across and among parties on this issue, because it is not a divisive issue. We all genuinely want to correct what we consider an anomaly in the law. I am, however, deeply disappointed that we have found ourselves where we are today. As my hon. Friend said, the Second Reading debate took place on 5 February, and the sitting of the Bill Committee during which I proposed the original amendment took place on 12 March. I know that two Departments are considering the Bill, and that No. 10 and the Deputy Prime Minister have been involved as well, but there has been quite a lot of time for the issues to be resolved.
It is disappointing that today, almost at the eleventh hour and 59 minutes, the magic bullet, or nuclear weapon, of the Attorney-General has been wheeled out to tell us that the new clause falls foul of the European convention on human rights. That was never put to us on Second Reading or in Committee, or during the many bilateral private discussions which have taken place between the various parties and Ministries that have been involved in putting the new clause together.
Other, spurious, objections have been made at various times. It has been said, for instance, that the new clause would create an exception. However, as a number of people have pointed out, the law in England and Wales already makes exceptions for the Jewish community and for Quakers. Even more spurious objections have been presented, and leaked to the Daily Mail. Another thing that I find deeply disappointing is that both the Daily Mail and The Sun specifically named both the hon. Member for Stretford and Urmston and me as being in favour of Jedi weddings—or the pagan ceremonies in Scotland about which we heard earlier from the hon. Member for Banbury (Sir Tony Baldry), who speaks for the Church of England.
Indeed; the force is not with those arguments!
The other argument that has been put forward is that this Bill is the wrong vehicle at the wrong time. I ask this of the Government Front-Bench team: if not now, when? Marriage Bills are not introduced in this place very often. I am sure the hon. Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant) will correct me if my chronology is wrong, but I think that since the Reformation there was a marriage Bill in the reign of George III to deal with clandestine marriages, there was civil registration in 1837, divorce was legalised in 1857 and there was one marriage law in the 20th century, which was in 1949—and that is it in the whole sweep of hundreds of years of history of this Parliament debating law. This is our opportunity in the first decade of this century to try to get it right.
There was more legislation before that as well, not least the Book of Common Prayer, which lays down specific aspects. My main point, however, is that the Hardwicke Act of 1753 tried to rectify the situation that people did not need a Church of England vicar, a minister of religion or a building in order to get married, and that all they needed to do was plight their troth. That is why the situation was tidied up. Unfortunately, a near-monopoly was then given to one religion, and the Quakers and the Jews were allowed in at that point.
I suppose I did tempt the hon. Gentleman to intervene, although I did also say “since the Reformation”. As a genealogist in my spare time, I am also very familiar with the Hardwicke Act of 1753.
So, to return to my point, if not now, when? The Government have not addressed that question to our satisfaction. Instead, we are left with a suspicion that there is no good will and no intention to allow a clear pathway towards humanist weddings being given legal status.
The new clause has been very carefully drafted and redrafted since the Committee stage to take account of the objections, of which we were aware at that time. It clearly says that this right will only be granted to an organisation that is a
“registered charity…advancing…the non-religious belief known as humanism”.
It also says the registered charity must have existed for five years and the Registrar-General must be satisfied it is “of good repute.” We have heard of many other locks in the course of our discussions of this Bill, but this is surely a triple-lock that ought to satisfy everyone.
When we were considering whether opposite-sex couples should be allowed to enter into civil partnerships, it was asked where the evidence was that people would want to do that. In the context of this new clause, there is clear evidence that there is demand for humanist weddings north of the border, where they are now the third most popular means of getting married, and some of the people who are getting married in Scotland are from England and Wales, because they cannot legally do so in Bristol or anywhere else in England or Wales. This new clause certainly meets a need, therefore.
Our current law is completely out of step with society. Sometimes Parliament has to give a lead and bring the public with it. In this instance, however, we are in danger of being seen as behind the grain of public opinion and of public demand for humanist marriage to be legalised. I hope that at the last minute, when the Secretary of State speaks in a few moments, we will grasp victory out of the jaws of defeat.
What I do not want to hear from the Secretary of State is the same old situation from the Government of “Heads we win, tails you lose.” I hope we do not get into that situation. There is good will among parliamentarians of all parties to legalise humanist weddings, and I hope we will take a step towards achieving that today.
We have had a robust and impassioned debate on a subject about which people feel very strongly. I must make it clear from the start that it is not, and continues not to be, the objective of this Bill to extend marriage to belief groups, which is, to all intents and purposes, what many of the amendments in this group would do. I do, however, join other Members in paying tribute to the hon. Member for Stretford and Urmston (Kate Green), who is representing the Opposition on these proposals, because she spoke with passion and eloquence about the importance of humanist ceremonies in celebrating marriage.
The hon. Lady is right to say that for many people who undertake such ceremonies, they can be an important way of marking and celebrating such an event, but it is important to make the point that neither is this the time nor is the Bill the place to make the sorts of changes she is advocating, unless she wants to risk the objective of the Bill, which is to extend marriage to same-sex couples. Humanists can already marry, but same-sex couples cannot, and that is the unfairness that the Bill is designed to remove.
I shall have to disappoint my hon. Friend the Member for Cambridge (Dr Huppert) by saying that I think there is some principled opposition to the amendments in this group. Indeed, my hon. Friend the Member for Banbury (Sir Tony Baldry) stated some strong and principled objections. The Government’s argument, which I will set out, also contains principled objections.
New clause 15, new schedule 1 and amendments 19, 20 and 21 are intended to enable humanists, but no other belief organisation, to conduct legally recognised marriages in ceremonies according to their beliefs. That is not a simple change but a fundamental shift in the system of regulation that safeguards the institution of marriage. The amendments would create a manifestly unfair and inequitable position that was vulnerable to legal challenge—a point that the Attorney-General made eloquently in his interventions. They would also undermine the quadruple lock in the Bill designed to protect religious organisations that do not want to conduct same-sex marriages, as my hon. Friend the Member for Banbury pointed out.
The amendments would create a new route to marriage—a two-tiered system—and we simply cannot support them. They would unravel the foundations of marriage law and require the introduction of a celebrant-based system for marriage, instead of the current buildings-based system. There would be far-reaching consequences to making such a fundamental change. For example, a move away from a premises-based system to a celebrant-based one would mean that any organisation that successfully applied could hold marriages wherever it wished. In Scotland, where there is a celebrant-based system, members of organisations that we in England and Wales would not traditionally associate with undertaking marriage have been given the authority to do so. Hon. Members have already mentioned the White Eagle Lodge, pagans and the Spiritualists’ National Union, which have been able to conduct marriages. It is entirely up to the authorities in Scotland to enable that to happen, but the House must understand that that would be the potential outcome if the amendments were incorporated into the Bill.
The hon. Member for Luton North (Kelvin Hopkins) made several important points about Scots law, the Council of Europe and whether there would be an issue for Scotland. Scots law is not incompatible with the ECHR, as other belief organisations can conduct legal marriages. That is our point, and in a way he has proved my point for me: the amendments would not enable that, that is why they would leave the Bill in a very difficult position.
There are many points on which I would love to tackle the Secretary of State, including the idea that the amendments are allowing everybody in one version, and not enough people in another, and that either way they fail the Goldilocks test. She makes the case, as I understand it, that if we allowed a route that was not premises-based, it would mean completely redoing marriage law. Does she accept that marriage law already has routes for Jews and for Quakers that are not premises-based, and that to have a route that is not premises-based simply cannot fundamentally weaken marriage law, as it would have done so since 1949 and before then?
My hon. Friend reads my mind, because I was about to go on to that very point. He is right: it is important that we recognise that those of the Jewish faith and Quakers have a particular position, and we have been accommodating their needs since marriage was first regulated in this country back in 1753, as the hon. Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant) mentioned. That is a long-standing historical arrangement designed to respect and accommodate ancient and religious traditions. My hon. Friend will understand that because it has been established in time, it cannot be changed retrospectively and it is therefore entirely consistent with the position set out by the Attorney-General.
May I make a tiny bit of progress before taking my hon. Friend’s intervention?
Furthermore, it is not legally possible to restrict the approved organisations approach only to humanism. There can be no basis to justify a difference of treatment between one belief organisation and another, and if we did so we would be vulnerable to legal challenge—the very point that the Attorney-General made. If the amendment were accepted, I would have to consider whether I could sign a section 19(1)(a) statement, indicating that in my view the provisions of the Bill are compatible with the European convention on human rights, on the introduction of the Bill in another place. I would probably have to sign a section 19(1)(b) statement that I cannot state that in my view the provisions of the Bill are compatible with the convention, because of the different treatment of humanists and other belief organisations. That is clear, it is a statement of fact and it is entirely consistent with the situation outlined by the Attorney-General.
As my right hon. and learned Friend the Attorney-General said, the amendment would clearly make the Bill incompatible with the European convention on human rights. This is a complicated issue that could be looked at further in the other place, but I want to make it clear to the House today that if the issue is discussed in the Lords, further information can be provided if that is requested and required. I am happy to write to the hon. Member for Stretford and Urmston, and to place a copy of my letter in the Library, setting out the legal objections offered to the House today. I hope that would help to inform proceedings in the other place. I would be happy to copy the letter to the Liberal Democrat spokesman.
May we ask that that letter sets out in detail the Government’s objections in the context of the convention on human rights, and that there will be no gaps? It seems to us that new objections have emerged even in the course of the debate this afternoon, so I would be grateful for the right hon. Lady’s assurance that that will be a comprehensive statement of the Government’s concerns in relation to the European convention on human rights.
I am happy to say that the letter would be a comprehensive statement of the concerns that I have. I have covered many of those today, but I will consider whether there are any that I have not included for reasons of time. I am happy to be as helpful as I can.
My right hon. Friend has advanced the rather preposterous proposition that the United Kingdom’s accession to the European convention on human rights is now acting to limit the rights of members of our population—humanists—to conduct marriages. That goes to the central point. I will be happy if she can give the House the assurance that the Government are in principle in favour of humanists conducting marriage, and that they will use the resources at their disposal to find a way of getting that on to the statute book. If it is not going to happen in the course of the Bill—I do not want the Bill delayed, any more than anyone else—at least the Government can make that statement of policy intent.
My hon. Friend may not have fully understood the argument being put forward by the Attorney-General. The issue is that the amendments discriminate in favour of one group over another. Humanists are being singled out for particular treatment. I am very happy to set out the argument fully. This is a different situation from—
Will my hon. Friend allow me to respond to his intervention before he intervenes on me again?
This is a particularly difficult area. Marriage law and the principles behind it have evolved over many centuries, as the hon. Member for Rhondda pointed out. Yes, there are anomalies in some areas, but we are talking about a particular set of amendments relating to humanists and the problem that would be faced if they were incorporated in the Bill. It is not the Government’s policy to extend marriage in the way that my hon. Friend is talking about. Humanists can already get married. The Bill is all about ensuring that people who cannot currently get married—same-sex couples—are able to do so. That should be the focus of our discussions.
I also draw hon. Members’ attention to the confusing and contradictory nature of the amendments. Is humanism non-religious, as suggested in the definition of approved organisations in new clause 15? If so, would the protections in the Bill for religious organisations apply? There was some confusion about that, particularly as to whether this would allow the marriage of same-sex couples. Or is humanism religious, as suggested in amendments 20 and 21, which add reference to approved organisations to the definition of a “relevant religious organisation”? Are we clear what humanism means in legislative terms, and who the definition would catch? The amendments simply highlight some of the problems that would arise from trying to shoehorn a new category of marriage into the current legal framework.
I do not think that the Secretary of State quite addressed the question put by the hon. Member for Reigate (Mr Blunt), which was whether in principle—if there was a way that did not involve the Bill, did not have ECHR problems and did not cause any other problems—she and the Government would support the concept of humanist weddings.
I am really rising because I am so shocked at the concerns about the extra amendments, which again were inserted at the suggestion of Government officials. The BHA has changed this to suit the Government, and the Government then complain about the changes.
I can be very clear. It is not coalition policy to undertake the actions that the hon. Gentleman outlines. I have already dealt with the comments made about the work of my officials. Most individuals who have been dealing with my officials have found their work incredibly diligent and helpful. I am sorry that he does not feel that that has been the case in this instance.
New clause 14 would create a new status of civil union and repeal the Marriage Act 1949. That would prevent the creation of any new marriages: put simply, England and Wales would no longer recognise marriage within the law. It seems that the intention here is that civil unions would replace marriages—a change that would affect everyone who wants to marry in England and Wales in the future. That is simply not a position that the Government can support.
Conversely, the Bill is about strengthening marriage, and the Government strongly oppose any measure that would undermine marriage. New clause 14 would damage the important institution of marriage beyond repair. It would to all intents and purposes abolish it. I therefore note and welcome the intention of the hon. Member for Leeds North West (Greg Mulholland) not to press the new clause to a vote. It is not something that we could support if he were to do so.
I thank my right hon. Friend for that kind acknowledgment. The new clause was very much an attempt to show that we should be separating the state recognition of marriage from the religious. That is the point, not what it is called in the end. We are changing the institution of marriage through the Bill anyway, so to do so properly and more succinctly is something that should be explored in the other place.
I do not believe that we are changing marriage. Marriage is one state, which we are enabling a new set of individuals to access, so I do not agree with my hon. Friend’s argument. This is not about changing marriage; it is about ensuring that more people can get into it.
I will make some progress, because we have another string of amendments to get through.
The effect of new clause 18 and amendments 58 and 59 would be to require all marriages not conducted through a religious ceremony to be called civil marriages. The intention seems to be to separate marriage conducted through civil and religious ceremonies into two distinct institutions. Let me be clear that there is one legal institution of marriage in England and Wales that couples —all couples, we hope, as a result of the Bill—can join through either a religious or a civil ceremony. The new clause would create a separate type of marriage without any consideration of the legal impact. The legal consequences of such a new distinction are completely unclear.
New clause 18 contains no reference to same-sex couples, so it does not seem to require that such couples should be limited to access to civil marriage only, which might be thought to have been the purpose of distinguishing between religious and civil marriage for legal purposes. That is simply not something the Government can support. We all want couples to be able to access the important and single institution of marriage, and that is what the Bill is about. The Bill has one clear and straightforward purpose: opening up the existing institution of marriage to same-sex couples. It is not designed for the sort of fundamental changes proposed in the new clause.
Does the Minister not accept, however, that there are many people who believe that the civil status of coming together in marriage should be open to straight and gay couples alike, but that people of faith and faith groups should be free to define what they understand as marriage? Some of them would permit same-sex marriage, but some of them take a different view and would not.
I entirely agree with what my right hon. Friend says and think that is what the Bill delivers. It delivers the ability of civil marriage to accommodate same-sex couples and enables religious organisations that wish to opt into that to do so, but allows others not to if that is what they choose. That is an important and fundamental principle of the Bill that I think reflects what he has just said.
I believe that the changes proposed in the amendments are an unnecessary and potentially unhelpful diversion from the important objective we are trying to achieve: removing the unfairness that excludes same-sex couples from being able to marry. We must remain focused on that objective and not be sidelined into discussions on other issues at this point. I ask hon. Members not to press these amendments, so that we can proceed to discuss the next group.
I thank all right hon. and hon. Members who have contributed to this interesting and, at times, passionate debate. I pay particular tribute to the hon. Member for Cambridge (Dr Huppert), who tabled the amendment that led us to new clause 15, and the hon. Member for Bristol West (Stephen Williams), who first tabled it in Committee, for the work we have been able to do across parties to bring the proposal to the Floor of the House this afternoon.
Despite the fact that the proposal has been before the House in some form or other since 5 February, as the hon. Member for Cambridge pointed out, it seems that the legal doubts expressed this afternoon by the Attorney-General have come to us rather late in the day. That does not mean that we do not take them extremely seriously; of course we do, but it would have been helpful to know that discussions were taking place with officials, whether or not they were proactively suggesting that such changes to the original proposal would help to strengthen it. The fact that discussions took place some weeks ago means that it is a matter of particular regret that the legal difficulties with the proposal were not highlighted earlier.
The Secretary of State said that my amendment and, I think, others in the group were unnecessary. For humanists, it is not unnecessary at all. Yes, they can choose to have a civil marriage and a humanist ceremony, but they do not have available to them a ceremony that they feel would properly recognise them as marrying one another and making that public commitment in front of family and friends. That is the discrimination that we seek to address. However, I take very seriously her wish, which she knows we share very strongly, to see this Bill proceed. We do not want it to be delayed or have its development and progress inhibited by arguments about these proposals.
I want to pick up on one or two of the objections that were raised not only by Ministers but by other hon. Members around the Chamber, suggesting that there are still genuine uncertainties about what is and is not provided for in current law and what we now seek to achieve. If the Secretary of State is willing to come forward with a statement of the Government’s legal concerns, that would be extremely helpful in properly facing off all the objections that have been raised in time for them to be understood and considered before the Bill is debated in the House of Lords. We do not want a re-run of objections arriving late or being raised without justification. It is clear from what has been said today that many hon. Members would like the Government’s position to be fully argued in good time for a fully informed debate in the House of Lords.
Some Members, particularly the hon. Member for Banbury (Sir Tony Baldry) and the Secretary of State, have said repeatedly that these proposals in some way undermine the quadruple lock that has been put in place. The Secretary of State suggested that that is because it is not clear whether the protections that it affords would apply to humanists, and if so, that might undermine the protections for religious organisations. If so, it would be extremely helpful to understand exactly how that is. We would be grateful if the Secretary of State fully clarified that in the letter that she says she will make available to the House.
A misunderstanding has come up repeatedly this afternoon. We recognise that the system in England is different from the system in Scotland, which registers celebrants. The system in England is not based only on the registration of premises for Jews and Quakers, for example. There is no requirement for them to hold their ceremonies in certain premises, but they are required to hold ceremonies in accordance with their usages. What is more, the amendment would not attach registration to celebrants. It is about registering organisations, and one form of organisation in particular—that which is a belief organisation, a charitable organisation or a humanist organisation that secures the approval and authorisation of the Registrar General. It is very clear which kind of institution we are trying to cover.
The most serious objection is the human rights objection, which, sadly, only emerged at the beginning of this afternoon. I would be grateful if any hon. Member who participated during the earlier stages of the Bill and who remembers differently could correct me, but I do not recall the human rights objection being raised at any point before this afternoon. Of course it is vital that we take account of the Attorney-General’s concerns and advice on this matter; it would be utterly irresponsible of us not to do so. However, even the Attorney-General’s advice changed over the course of this afternoon. At the beginning of the afternoon, he said that there was a problem with the proposal because it could apply so widely that any organisation, including a society for the promotion of tiddlywinks, might potentially be discriminated against if it were not authorised to carry out marriages as well. I think that he rowed back from that later on and acknowledged that only belief organisations would be authorised. He was right to say that the possibility of discrimination between different belief organisations is the central human rights issue that must be addressed.
Let me make it quite clear that it has to be a belief organisation because unless there are some grounds for belief, I assume that there is no reason for carrying out a ceremony. I am sorry if my point sounded flippant, because it was not intended to be. My point was that belief organisations can be very wide in their scope and are certainly not confined to humanism.
I appreciate the Attorney-General’s concern that there could be human rights challenges on those grounds. It would be useful to know how he assesses the chances of such a challenge being successful and to understand on what basis a challenge might be argued. It would also be useful to know what precedent there is of such challenges being successful elsewhere.
I am prepared to wait for the fully analysed opinion to be presented to the House. I welcome the Secretary of State’s commitment to provide that in good time before the Bill proceeds through the House of Lords. I hope that she will take note of our interest in having a proactive opinion, as the hon. Member for Reigate (Mr Blunt) said, that identifies how any defects in the proposal could be cured, as the Attorney-General has mentioned. Given the commitment from the Secretary of State, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the motion.
Clause, by leave, withdrawn.
Conversion of civil partnership into marriage
I beg to move amendment 15, page 10, line 24, at end add—
‘(9) Where a civil partnership formed under part 1, section 96 of the Civil Partnership Act (Civil Partnership with former spouse) is converted into a marriage under this section—
(a) the civil partnership ends on the conversion, and
(b) if both partners so elect, the resulting marriage is to be treated as having subsisted since the marriage dissolved under Schedule 2 of the Gender Recognition Act 2004 was formed.’.
With this it will be convenient to discuss the following:
Government amendments 25 to 39.
Amendment 49, in schedule 4, page 33, leave out from line 42 to line 4 on page 34 and insert—
‘(2) Omit sub-paragraph (1).’.
Government amendments 40 to 47.
Amendment 13, in schedule 5, page 36, leave out lines 10 to 37 and insert—
‘Section 4 (successful applications): for subsections (2) and (3) substitute—
“(2) The certificate is to be a full gender recognition certificate if—
(a) the applicant is not a civil partner and does not request an interim gender recognition certificate,
(b) or the applicant is a civil partner who does not request an interim gender recognition certificate and the Panel has deceided to issue a full gender recognition certificate to the other party to the civil partnership.
(3) The certificate is to be an interim gender recognition certificate if either—
(a) the applicant is a party to a protected civil partnership and the other party to the civil partnership has not made an application under section 1(1).
(b) the applicant is a party to a protected civil partnership and the Panel had decided not to issue a full gender recognition certificate to the other party to the civil partnership,
(c) or the applicants is party to a protected marriage, requests an interim gender recognition certificate and the application includes a statutory declaration of consent from the applicant’s spouse.
(3A) If a gender recognition panel issues a full gender recognition certificate under this section to an applicant who is a party to a marriage or civil partnership, the panel must give the applicant’s spouse notice of the issue of the certificate.”.’.
Amendment 14, schedule 5, page 39, line 39, leave out
‘(by virtue of section 4(2)(b) or (4A)’.
Amendment 18, in schedule 5, page 40, line 18, at end insert—
‘One-off compensation payment to couples whose marriages were annulled to permit a person to obtain a gender recognition certificate
9A Schedule 4 (Effect on Marriage): at beginning insert—
“(1) This section applies to a formerly married couple whose marriage was annulled in order to permit one or both partners to that marriage to obtain a full gender recognition certificate, provided that—
(a) the marriage was annulled following the coming into force of the Gender Recognition Act 2004, and
(b) the formerly married couple either—
(a) (i) formed a civil partnership with each other within six months of the annulment of their marriage, and continue to maintain their civil partnership, or
(ii) have continued to live together as a couple in the same household since the annulment of their marriage.
(2) The couple shall be compensated from public funds to the amount of £1,000 by way of apology for the distress and costs incurred as a result of the annulment of their marriage.”.’.
Amendment 22, in schedule 5, page 40, line 18, at end insert—
‘Reinstatement of marriages annulled to permit a person to obtain a gender recognition certificate
9A Schedule 4 (Effect on Marriage): at beginning insert—
“(1) This section applies to a formerly married couple whose marriage was annulled in order to permit one or both partners to that marriage to obtain a full gender recognition certificate, provided that—
(a) the couple have continued to live together in the same household since the annulment of their marriage, and
(b) both partners to the former marriage give notice to a registrar that they wish their marriage to be reinstated.
(2) When notice is given under (1)(b), the marriage shall be reinstated with effect from the date the couple give notice to have it reinstated.”.’.
Amendment 16, in schedule 5, page 40, leave out lines 30 and 31 and insert—
‘(a) the registration of qualifying marriages,
(b) the registration of qualifying civil partnerships,
(c) the issue of replacement marriage certificates displaying the new details of the parties to the marriage but maintaining the original date,
(d) the issue of replacement birth certificates where the application is shown on the certificate, with the consent of the other parent named and—
(i) where the child has reached 16 years of age, the consent of the child to whom the birth certificate relates,
(ii) where the child has not yet reached the age of 16 years, the consent of the other parent named on the birth certificate, where present.’.
Government amendment 48.
Amendment 12, schedule 7, page 50, line 37, at end insert—
‘24A Section 12 (grounds on which a marriage is voidable): omit paragraph (h).’.