[Mr Graham Brady in the Chair]
I beg to move,
That this House has considered marriage registration certificates.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Brady. The latest intelligence that I heard is that we might have a vote at 2.45 pm, but of course we are on a running three-line Whip, so we will just have to see.
I am happy to have secured a Westminster Hall debate on this important subject. Since 1837—the beginning of Queen Victoria’s reign—marriage certificates in England and Wales have included the names of the spouses’ fathers, but not their mothers. I know that I am not alone in finding this state of affairs unacceptable in our modern society. Indeed, the Prime Minister said as much in August 2014.
The issue has attracted calls for reform from many Members: the hon. Member for Brighton, Pavilion (Caroline Lucas) has tabled two early-day motions on the subject, each of which attracted 100 signatures; a petition on change.org was signed by more than 70,000 members of the public; and the hon. Member for Neath (Christina Rees) has introduced a private Member’s Bill in an attempt to secure the inclusion of mothers’ names on marriage certificates. I believe that the Second Reading of that Bill is scheduled for 22 January, and it underlines the point that this is clearly an issue that concerns Members from across the House and requires urgent attention and reform.
The Church of England recently held an internal consultation exercise of archdeacons and legal officials to gauge the views of the clergy about changing the way we do marriage registration. It received an overwhelmingly positive response. It cannot be that difficult to change the format of marriage certificates so that the mothers’ details can be captured, can it?
I understand that the problem lies with the practicalities of the current system of marriage registration, which has not changed since 1837. Marriages are registered in register books, which are held in churches and other religious premises as well as in register offices. There are around 84,000 open register books in more than 30,000 churches and religious buildings. Marriage certificates are simply an exact copy of the marriage register entry, so under the current registration system changing the content of the marriage certificate would mean first changing the content of the register books. In order to do that, all 84,000 books currently in circulation would need to be replaced, at a cost of around £3 million.
I am well aware that that is one of the sticking points, but as the right hon. Lady will be aware, there is a space next to where the details are recorded, which could be used to record the mother’s details without the need to replace all the books.
I quite understand the hon. Lady’s point, but as she will see in the course of my speech, there is an opportunity to step forward, right into the 21st century, in the way that we register marriages, which will secure the mother’s name on the register. If she will bear with me, I think she will see that some other benefits could flow from a practically different way of registering marriages.
If we ended up having to replace the books, few would disagree that it would not be a good use of that sum of money. There is another, more efficient way that marriages could be registered, which is to adopt a system very similar to that which already exists in England and Wales for the registration of civil partnerships and which is already in use for the registration of marriages and civil partnerships in Scotland and Northern Ireland.
Under the alternative system, known as the schedule system, marriages are registered in a single electronic register instead of in marriage register books. Changes to the form of the register entry can be made easily without the need to replace all the register books. Instead of signing a register book at the ceremony, the newlyweds sign a document that is then returned to the register office to be entered in the existing electronic register so that a marriage certificate can be issued.
Having all marriages registered online would create a central database without the need for any further administrative processes, but changing the way we register marriages requires a change to primary legislation. Depending how this debate goes, it is my intention to introduce a marriage registration Bill, which may look remarkably like the one that the hon. Member for Neath proposes to introduce. I would be very happy to make copies of that as soon as possible. There is a great desire across the House to find the best possible vehicle to make the change.
I congratulate the right hon. Lady on bringing the important subject to the House. On Friday, we debated the Riot (Damages) Act 1886, and some Members here were present. That Act has not been changed since 1886, which is quite recent compared with the legislation that the right hon. Lady mentioned. I understand that the Home Office Minister, James Brokenshire, said in October that there would be a timetable in due course. Does the right hon. Lady have any insider information as to whether there has been any progress on that?
Nor can I, off the top of my head. The hon. Member for Ealing Central and Acton (Dr Huq) might have been present at Prime Minister’s questions—I think it was the week before last—when her hon. Friend the Member for Hampstead and Kilburn (Tulip Siddiq), who is here today, secured a promise from the Prime Minister that if we cannot succeed in getting marriage registration certificates changed through private Members’ legislation, the Government will do so through Government legislation. Maybe like the Riot (Damages) Act, which the hon. Member for Ealing Central and Acton described—clearly I missed the action on Friday—this subject is an example of something that is really good to come from the Floor of the House of Commons. It is something that we feel strongly about and it is an example of a good opportunity for private Members’ legislation.
My draft Bill would contain powers to amend the Marriage Act 1949 by regulation, subject to the affirmative resolution procedure, to make provision concerning the registration of marriages in England and Wales. The Bill would not make mention of marriage certificates or the inclusion of mothers’ names for an important reason: the Bill would be an enabling measure. If enacted, the actual content of the marriage register, and therefore marriage certificates, which are a copy of the entry, would need to be prescribed in regulations made by the Registrar General with the approval of the Secretary of State.
Simply updating the marriage entry to include the mother’s name in addition to the father’s would not go far enough in today’s fast-changing society. Already, some families do not have a legally recognised mother and father, but instead have a mother and a second female parent, or, as in surrogacy cases, two legally recognised parents. In fact, there have always been cases that the current form of the register failed to accommodate properly, including where a child had been brought up by a guardian and might not know his or her father. As family composition continues to change, the marriage register must be capable of adapting.
I congratulate my right hon. Friend on securing this important debate. I just want to clarify something. I completely get the point about the need for electronic progress. An electronic certificate is an interesting idea and perhaps one that would allow us to take a more modern approach, reflecting current social mores. However, would it mean that when people got married and signed the register in the side antechamber, the mother’s name would still not appear in that book?
No, I can reassure my hon. Friend on that. The mothers’ names will appear. I can tell hon. Members that, personally, there is no stronger motivation for me than to ensure that the mothers’ names can appear on the marriage certificate. Unfortunately, my mother is long gone, but when it comes to the marriages—hopefully—of my children in due course, I shall take particular satisfaction if allowed, as a mother, to appear on the certificate. I expect that every other mum in the room feels exactly the same.
The right hon. Lady is making an interesting point. That, in fact, happened to me. My father died when I was a teenager and I could not put my mother’s name on the marriage certificate. I had to have a deceased parent on it, which is slightly strange. It seems that the Bill of my hon. Friend the Member for Neath (Christina Rees) is already on the table and we could be debating it, so could the points made by the right hon. Member for Meriden (Mrs Spelman) not be included as amendments when it is in Committee?
That is certainly one way of doing it. I will need to look closely at the Bill tabled by the hon. Member for Neath. I would be more than happy for us to work together. It would be good if all of us who have sought to bring about the change support it on the Floor of the House. That is our endeavour, and it is what we should seek to achieve.
I am not convinced. This subject lends itself to private Members’ legislation, as do a number of private Members’ Bills that come through the House, otherwise why would we bother with the private Members’ ballot? This is a really good subject for a private Member’s Bill, and legislating with the Whip on is a fall-back position. As the Prime Minister has said, if private Members cannot secure the measure in this Session, the Government will do so in the next Session.
I do not want to burst the right hon. Lady’s bubble, because she has far more experience of this place than I do, but I have served on the Procedure Committee for six years. The Committee has conducted a thorough inquiry into private Members’ Bills and, unfortunately, my bubble was burst when I discovered that not one private Member’s Bill that was not a hand-out Bill has become law since, I think, 1962.
That is not quite true. In my 18 years here, private Members’ Bills have become law, but I agree that good private Members’ legislation is too often blocked for one reason or another. We should look to Mr Speaker, who always says that he is a champion of the Back Benchers, and ask the hard question, “Which Back Benchers?”
One purpose of today’s debate is to draw out the concerns and other things that might be barriers to legislating to make this change—I suspect that everyone in this room is broadly aligned on achieving the change. We may not have the people who might be disposed to block the measure, for whatever reason, but I have made sure that all Members of the House are aware that we are holding this debate today. Members have an opportunity to raise their objections so that we can tease them out and smooth the way for this measure to become law.
The right hon. Lady is being very patient in giving way. Again, I put it to her that an actual Bill is being drafted by specialists in the House. That Bill covers all the points and has cross-party support, and it would be a wasted opportunity not to have this debate in Committee.
I secured this debate so that I could run through my concerns in advance of thinking about what form a draft Bill should take to address those concerns. It may be that, after our debate in Westminster Hall today, we look at one made earlier and take the view that, actually, it is the best vehicle. This debate is a precursor to supporting private Members’ legislation and, in my capacity as the Second Church Estates Commissioner, I am trying to raise concerns brought out in the Church of England consultation, which is another dimension to the debate. If the hon. Lady and other Members bear with me, I will highlight some of the points raised in the consultation.
Having waited two centuries to change the register entry, it is important that we do not introduce inflexible measures that would require further primary legislative change in the relatively near future. We should not be over-specific in a Bill, but should make the changes through regulations—I made that point earlier. Will the Minister confirm that, in prescribing the marriage entry in future, consideration will be given to accommodating all family situations?
It might help if I outline some of the more detailed existing steps involved in registering a marriage and the changes I would make through regulations if I were to introduce a private Member’s Bill. The regulations, which would amend the Marriage Act 1949, would of course be made under the affirmative procedure, so they would be debated on the Floor of both Houses.
Couples wishing to marry in England and Wales may follow either civil or ecclesiastical preliminaries, which is a jargonistic word for things such as the reading of banns. Some consultees in the Church of England expressed concern that ecclesiastical preliminaries might be abolished, but in my view they should definitely not be abolished. I do not think there is any proposal that the reading of banns should be abolished. Ecclesiastical preliminaries are available to those wishing to marry in the Church of England or the Church in Wales, which would not change. Couples would still be able to have their banns called or to obtain a common or special licence in exactly the same way as they can now. Clergy would continue to certify a marriage by their signature—clergy sought particular assurance from me on that point.
The only change to marriages following the ecclesiastical preliminaries is that, before the ceremony, the member of the clergy who is to solemnise the marriage would be responsible for ensuring that a document, called a “marriage document,” is completed and contains all the details required to be entered in the marriage register. The marriage document would still be signed. After the marriage had been solemnised, the newlyweds and their two witnesses would sign the marriage document, just as they currently sign the register. Indeed, the couple may be photographed at the signing of the marriage document in what is, after all, the classic wedding photo.
The couple would be responsible for ensuring that the signed document was returned to the register office within three days to be registered, and a marriage certificate could then be issued. The couple would not have to return the document to the register office personally, as they will hopefully be on their honeymoon; they could post the document or ask someone else to return it. In Scotland, it is traditionally the duty of the best man to return the signed document on the couple’s behalf—we might say that there is no such thing as a free speech.
Civil preliminaries to marriage are available to everyone, including couples wishing to marry in the Church of England or the Church in Wales and those intending to marry in a civil ceremony according to other religious rites. At present, each party to a proposed marriage gives notice of marriage to the superintendent registrar in the district in which they have resided for at least the past seven days. After a waiting period of 28 days, and provided that there is no impediment to the marriage, the superintendent registrar to whom notice was given will issue each party with a certificate for marriage that must be taken to the marriage and authorises the marriage to proceed. The waiting period of 28 days can be extended to 70 days for certain couples subject to immigration control.
Under the proposed new system, instead of two certificates for marriage, a couple would be issued with a single document called a “marriage schedule,” which would act as the authority for the marriage to proceed and would contain all the information required to be registered. As for marriages following ecclesiastical preliminaries, the schedule would be signed by the couple after the ceremony and returned to the register office to be registered. The proposed changes would not affect the point at which a couple are married, which happens once a couple have said the appropriate marriage declarations in their marriage ceremony. As now, the validity of a marriage does not depend on the marriage being registered, although it would be a legal requirement to register it.
I am sure that any couple would want to register their marriage and obtain a certificate, and the experience in Scotland has been exactly that. The changes would mean that churches and other religious buildings registered for marriage would not hold open marriage register books and would not need to issue marriage certificates. However, the clergy of the Church of England would still be required to maintain records of marriages solemnised in church, and other religious groups may wish to maintain their own records, too. Indeed, during the consultation in the Church of England, the clergy particularly emphasised the pastoral importance of keeping a record of marriages so that relatives can visit and see the record for themselves. There is great interest in genealogy and family history, as we know from many television programmes. Marriage provides an important opportunity for the clergy to speak with family members about personal things, and keeping a record of it is important to family life.
As well as facilitating change to the register entry, the proposed changes would have other significant benefits. First, they would greatly increase the security of marriage registers—that addresses the books issue somewhat—as, at present, register books and blank certificate stocks are held in some 30,000 religious premises in England and Wales, where, sadly, they may be stolen, with obvious security implications. Under the proposed scheme, certificates would only be issued from register offices, and the register itself would be securely held electronically.
Secondly, the administrative burdens of registering marriages would be greatly reduced. Under the current regime, all those responsible for registering marriages, including members of the clergy and persons authorised on behalf of religious groups, are required to submit copies of all the marriages they register to the superintendent registrar of the district for onward transmission to the Registrar General. That is so the Registrar General can maintain a central index and register of all marriages that have taken place in England and Wales. It is an early 19th-century process and is cumbersome in the modern age. Under the proposed new system, there would simply be no need for the returns to be made.
Finally, the proposed system is expected to generate significant cost savings not only for central Government but for local authorities, which have responsibility for registrars and superintendent registrars, and for religious groups. Overall, the system is expected to generate savings of approximately £30 million over 10 years, although, as I said, that is not the principal reason for making the change.
I hope that hon. Members will agree that replacing the existing marriage register books to add the mother’s name would be an efficient way to resolve the present inequality, righting a wrong that has been allowed to continue for too long. The introduction of the new registration processes would create a modern, cost-efficient, secure and adaptable system while remedying an historic inequality. I hope that hon. Members will welcome the proposals.
I am delighted that the right hon. Member for Meriden (Mrs Spelman) has secured this debate. As has been pointed out, I presented a private Member’s Bill on 4 November to change the marriage certificate in England and Wales, and notwithstanding the now-abandoned rule against anticipation, I am pleased to have the opportunity to speak on this important matter.
I presented the Bill on 4 November, so I assume that all those here will have had ample time to read it. It is not a long Bill, and its beauty is in its simplicity; it makes necessary changes without overcomplicating the situation. The Bill would amend the Marriage Act 1949 and the Civil Partnership Act 2004 to make provision for the recording of the name and occupation of the mother of each party to a marriage or civil partnership for registration purposes, and to require such information to be displayed on marriage certificates and civil partnership certificates and for connected purposes in England and Wales. It would cement those requirements in primary legislation, which is important.
My hon. Friend is making an important point about the Bill that she introduced. Does she agree that it is a matter for the Government to discuss the details of the Bill, just as elements of my 10-minute rule Bill have been accepted into primary legislation? Points made by the Second Church Estates Commissioner, the right hon. Member for Meriden (Mrs Spelman), could also be incorporated, either in discussions with the Government or certainly after Second Reading.
I agree totally. It can be discussed and agreed in due course, because there is widespread support in this debate for the measures. The sooner we get on with it, the better. The reason why we want to put the change into primary legislation is that, as a regulation—as it is in respect of civil partnerships—it could be changed at any time. We need to cement the regulation relating to civil partnerships as well.
As the right hon. Member for Meriden said, the Bill is the result of a long campaign. A petition in January 2014 on change.org in January 2014 collected more than 70,000 signatures. A campaign on Twitter followed with the hashtag #MothersOnMarriageCerts, which had heavy coverage from the BBC, the Telegraph’s Wonder Women journalists and the New Statesman, which is a varied segment of the press to be supporting such a change. In August 2014, campaigners pressed the Prime Minister on the issue, and he agreed that it was high time the system was updated.
I apologise for my keenness to intervene. My hon. Friend mentioned the Prime Minister. I think that he said at the time that marriage certificates do not reflect modern Britain. Given that he declared recently at Prime Minister’s questions that he is now a feminist, is that not an example of how he seems to say one thing and do another? There has been zero progress on this important subject since August 2014.
I agree with everything that my hon. Friend the Member for Ealing Central and Acton (Dr Huq) says. In January this year, the Minister for Immigration, the right hon. Member for Old Bexley and Sidcup (James Brokenshire), said in response to press inquiries that he was
“continuing to develop the options that will allow mothers’ names to be recorded on marriage certificates as soon as practicable.”
But still nothing has been done and this outdated practice continues.
In 2012 alone, 262,240 marriages took place in England and Wales, a 5.3% increase from the number of marriages in 2011. Unfortunately, we cannot calculate how many marriages have taken place since August 2014, because the Office for National Statistics stopped counting in 2012. However, it is safe to extrapolate that hundreds of thousands of marriages have taken place while the Government have failed to act. That is hundreds of thousands of instances in which women have been accorded second-class status. In a developed country in the 21st century, that beggars belief.
Does the hon. Lady appreciate that the announcement of the private Member’s Bill prompted, among other things, the Church of England consultation of the clergy, which only concluded just before the 4 November deadline? The consultation was among some of the practitioners most directly involved, and it is relevant to the discussion of what form some of the changes should take. It probably feels as though it has taken a very long time, but it is not when compared with the two centuries that we have allowed to elapse without putting the mother on the certificate. Getting it right is important. Often, when private legislation is introduced, it prompts action, which is what has happened here.
I am grateful to the right hon. Lady for acknowledging that the Bill prompted action and a consultation. Her offer to work together is encouraging. She mentioned that the practice has been changed in Scotland and Northern Ireland and for civil partnerships, so I cannot see why it cannot be done in England and Wales. Why delay further?
My daughter Angharad may one day get married—who knows? I had better wave to her—and if she does, I sincerely hope that my name will feature on her marriage certificate. My hon. Friend the Member for Hampstead and Kilburn (Tulip Siddiq), we are delighted to hear, will soon give birth to a daughter. She has raised this important issue during Prime Minister’s questions and has rightly called for women not to be written out of history.
My final appeal is for support for the Bill that I have presented, which will have Second Reading on 22 January. Its beauty is in its simplicity. We can make any changes that might need to be made to embrace further family set-ups. We might not know how families will be composed in future, but I am sure that that can be taken care of in Committee. We need to move forward without delay.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Brady, and to speak in this debate, which we are all grateful to the Second Church Estates Commissioner, my right hon. Friend the Member for Meriden (Mrs Spelman), for securing. I should probably declare an interest, given that two members of my staff intend to get married—not to each other—in the next year, so I was under a certain amount of pressure to attend this debate. We talk of nothing but wedding dresses in the office.
It is almost 19 years since I married my husband on a cold and frosty December day. Since then, the idea of marriage has evolved considerably, but it remains important to many of us. It is noticeable that the mothers in this debate—I hesitate to call it “the audience”—go particularly shiny-eyed when we talk about our daughters getting married. As the mother of a 14-year-old and a 12-year-old, I am already thinking of those happy days that I hope will happen one day—but not too soon.
We should recognise that families today look very different to how they looked even 20 years ago, when I thought about getting married, and extremely different to how they looked two centuries ago, so I will focus on how we adapt to that change.
I did not declare my interest as a mother before; I do so now.
The hon. Lady makes an excellent point that the constitution of families has changed dramatically. Is she aware that, according to Gingerbread, there are now 2 million single parent households, which is 25% of all families with children, and 90% of those single parents are women? Given those figures, this erasing of women from history, as my hon. Friend the Member for Hampstead and Kilburn (Tulip Siddiq) has called it, seems even more anomalous.
The hon. Lady makes a point that I will come on to shortly.
First, however, I will again quote the Prime Minister, from his speech to the Relationships Alliance summit, which I referred to earlier. He said:
“We all know that a strong family begins with a strong relationship between two loving people who make a deep and lasting commitment to each other…in Britain we recognise and value the commitment that people make to each other. And that’s just as vital whether the commitment is between a man and a woman, a man and a man or a woman and another woman.”
As we have heard from other Members this afternoon, it was in that same speech that the Prime Minister announced plans to address the “inequality in marriage”, to enable mothers’ names to be included on marriage certificates as well as fathers’ names.
I have discussed this issue at length with one of my constituents, who has been in a relationship for a considerable time; in fact, we are all eagerly awaiting her engagement as well. She pointed out that she is estranged from her father, who subjected her and her siblings to sexual abuse over a number of years, and has not seen him since she was 10. As a result, she would not want his name to be included on her own marriage certificate.
I looked into this matter and I understand from guidance from the General Register Office and from my own diocese in Oxford that
“If either party does not wish to put their father’s details in the Register or they do not know who their father is, you should not put ‘unknown’ or leave the column blank. You should put a horizontal line through both columns to show that no information was given.”
Although that would reflect in some ways my constituent’s wishes, it would also mean that there would be no mention of her mother, who understandably had to act as both mother and father to her during the very difficult circumstances of her upbringing. I feel strongly that a marriage certificate should recognise such a scenario.
There is a rare exception by which a mother’s details can be included; it is if she has been authorised by a court as the sole adopter. Then a couple can make a special request to have her details put on the register and in the certificate. The other way that it can be done is via a loophole, whereby the mothers’ names can be included if the mothers are witnesses, but that is the only other way I can see round this problem.
I thank the hon. Lady for that intervention. Sadly, this matter involving my constituent never came before a court, so it is not possible to resolve it in that way. It is now important that we move forward to reflect the fact that families do not look how we once thought they always would.
My hon. Friend is making a very powerful speech and I was greatly interested in her significant point about survivors of abuse and their involvement in this situation. In that regard, is it not, frankly, just a bit of a farce that we have to look for loopholes in order to recognise women on a marriage certificate? Would she like to reflect on that?
I could not agree more. Personally, however, I am not sure whether including the mother’s name on a certificate goes far enough. In the speech that I referred to earlier, the Prime Minister also set out his plans to make adoption by same-sex couples more straightforward. That is important because increasingly we are seeing same-sex couples with children who will eventually want to get married themselves. In such circumstances, they will not have a “father’s name” and a “mother’s name” to note on the certificate, but might have two fathers or two mothers.
I wonder whether this is the moment to go one step further and provide two fields on certificates for “Parent 1” and “Parent 2”, or whatever terminology we see fit to use, after consultation. It seems to me that that would cover most scenarios. I would be interested to hear from the Minister what consideration has been given to such a suggestion.
Of course, any change is a step in the right direction. It must be possible, given that the mother’s name, surname and occupation are already included on a civil partnership schedule, to include those details in wedding certificates. I simply add that, given it has taken us this long to get this far, I hope that we will not have to wait a similar length of time before we recognise different forms of parental relationship.
It is a pleasure to serve under you, Mr Brady.
The arguments for changing marriage certificates have already been well articulated by several Members today and I thank the Second Church Estates Commissioner, the right hon. Member for Meriden (Mrs Spelman), for securing such an important debate. She joins other Members who have gone before us in trying to make changes, in this place and in their own way, for gender equality.
For many of us, the reason for wanting to rectify the situation is deeply personal. I was fortunate enough to be brought up in a home with two loving parents, who had different impacts on me in different ways. Although my politics has been formed by my life in England, a lot of my cultural background and history has been shaped by my mother’s experience of being a political asylum seeker who came to this country in the 1970s and settled in the constituency that I now represent here in Westminster.
Strangely enough, I actually got married here in Parliament, with my mother next to me, and yet I could not put her name on my marriage certificate. That was a great shame: in the most democratic institution in the world, I still could not put my mother’s name on the marriage certificate.
Putting the gender issue aside, families such as mine—families with complex histories or histories that we want to be reflected on what is the most important day of our lives, other than being elected of course—want to put the mother’s name on the marriage certificate. We want to account, in official documents, for the way we travelled to this country.
This issue has a long history, but there can be absolutely no doubt about where public opinion is on it. I simply cite the example from back in 2002, when the then Labour Government issued a White Paper and there was a consultation. One of the things that came across clearly back then was the overwhelming support among ordinary members of the public for the change that we are discussing. Does my hon. Friend agree that what was true then is even truer now?
I absolutely agree.
I have also found that men and women who are interested in family history often find it very difficult to trace it through a family line and official documentation. It is about time that situation changed.
However, my main reason for raising this issue in Prime Minister’s questions is the sheer number of my constituents from Hampstead and Kilburn who have written to me about it. In particular, I will highlight the case of a single mother who wrote to me recently. She was brought up by her mother and has had no contact whatever with her father. She told me that she was devastated to learn that the outdated practice that we are discussing is still a requirement of marriage. She said:
“When I get married, I will be expected to put my absent father’s name and profession on my marriage certificate whilst my mother who brought me up will not be included.”
It puts a dampener on this important day in someone’s life—when they are getting married—if they cannot acknowledge the person who raised them.
We must remember that our discussions today reflect the deeply held anxieties of the people we represent in our various constituencies.
I want to draw my hon. Friend’s attention to The Daily Telegraph, which is not normally sympathetic to the Opposition—it has been known as the “Torygraph”. Its Wonder Women section backs a campaign on this issue, and a report in the paper in October included a quote that sounds very similar to the one my hon. Friend read out. Someone who is interviewed in the report says:
“I cannot believe it that in a developed country such a primitive reality would stare me in my face in the UK. I am deeply distressed”.
Well, if the Torygraph says it, we must agree with it. I agree with my hon. Friend, who puts a lot of hours into managing her life and her son—he is 11 years old and a delight.
I should point out that my constituent’s case is not a stand-out case. As my hon. Friend pointed out earlier, there are now 3 million lone-parent families in the UK—an increase of 500,000 over the past decade. According to the Office for National Statistics, there are now 2.5 million lone-mother families, compared with 437,000 lone-father families. The number of families with single mothers is therefore significantly higher than the number of families with single fathers. Although circumstances will differ from family to family, we need to bear those figures in mind while we fight to rectify the injustice we are talking about.
When I spoke to colleagues about marriage certificates and other issues, several of them—particularly one from London—talked about the large amount of correspondence they receive about certificates in general. Although the issue I want to raise is slightly different from the subject of the debate, I want the Minister to be aware of it.
It is virtually impossible to put fathers on birth certificates if they die before the birth of their child. Such cases are for another day, but I would like the issue to be reviewed. In one case, a father died a month before his child was born, and the mother is having to go to court to put his name on the certificate. She is having to deal not only with her grief following her bereavement, but with the fact that her child’s birth certificate will not mention her partner’s name. Will the Minister meet me and my London colleague to discuss the issue and see whether the Government will launch a comprehensive review into the various injustices that seem to occur with official documentation as a whole?
We operate in a political culture where policies do see U-turns. Earlier today, I was pleased that our Justice Secretary said that the criminal courts charges will be reversed. We also have the example of tax credits. If those polices can go through U-turns, almost on a whim, is it not possible to implement a policy that has been talked about endlessly? Early-day motions have been tabled, and questions have been asked at Prime Minister’s questions and at other times on the Floor of the House. We do not want the public to think that gender equality is not among our top issues. We must make sure that this change in policy gets through.
This is not the first injustice the Government have been slow to correct. However, there is something rather surreal about the Prime Minister demanding a change, and that change still not happening.
Of course we can make this party political, but is it worth it? We have waited two centuries for this change, during which time the Labour party has been in power and had ample opportunity to make a change, and my party has finally also got into power, after a long wait. Could we not just drop this party political approach? That is what annoys people about politics. I am just saying, “Come on. We can do this as private Members. Let’s do this. Let’s do it differently.”
I do not want to make things party political, but I do want to put pressure on the Government to change this policy. If putting pressure on them is the way to do that, that is what we need to do. The debate is not just about correcting a bureaucratic policy; it is another step in the fight against the gender discrimination that still blights Britain today. If it is possible to put pressure on the Prime Minister and the Minister sitting in front of me, I would like to take the opportunity to do that.
This is not party political. In the country we live in, there is still a deeply entrenched gender pay gap. There is still violence against women, and that is a major cause of death every year. Women are still disproportionately hit by cuts to local government budgets. That is the reality of the situation—it is not party politics.
I suppose I should declare an interest as well, as the mother of a 21-year-old daughter. However, to pick up the point about party politics, I should add that the civil service is independent. As my hon. Friend the Member for Caerphilly (Wayne David) said, there was a White Paper somewhere in the bowels of the civil service, and change was about to be made to the Regulatory Reform Act 2001. However, the Bill introduced by my hon. Friend the Member for Neath (Christina Rees) is now on the table, and it has cross-party support. Therefore, this debate did not have to happen—the machinery, the process and the legislation are already there.
I agree with my hon. Friend. As I said at the beginning, I am grateful to the right hon. Member for Meriden for calling the debate, because this is an important issue. I am pleased that men and women from different parties are here today, which reflects how passionately we feel about this issue.
Finally, I have a few points. This issue may seem simple when compared with other issues.
To be clear, there is nothing in the Bill introduced by the hon. Member for Neath (Christina Rees) about the practicalities—certainly from the clergy’s point of view—and the electronic registration process. I was just trying to put the practitioners’ view, and that is why I am not suggesting that we simply take the hon. Lady’s Bill off the shelf. There is also the wrinkle that the Bill is very specific, with its reference to the mother. If we do things by regulation, as I suggested, we can deal with all the subsequent changes in family composition. I was genuinely trying to put those points across in holding the debate.
The point is that regulation can be changed at any time; if these things are put in primary legislation, they cannot be. As I said, I welcome discussion, and we can change my Bill in Committee. The Bill will have its Second Reading on 22 January, and it addresses the main points. I think we should move forward with that.
I thank my hon. Friend.
I will just make a few final points. It is worth noting that countries such as Thailand, Bangladesh, Spain and France have already changed their laws so that mothers can be included on marriage certificates. Mothers’ names are already included on certificates in Scotland and Northern Ireland, which brings home the injustice for all of us. I want to make sure that changing the policy on this issue forms part of the patchwork of equality I hope all of us will champion in Parliament.
If my daughter gets married—she has the choice of whether to get married—she can have just her father on her marriage certificate if she wants, or she can have her mother on it if she wants. However, I want the option to be there, because if she cannot have her mother on her marriage certificate, she will have to write to her MP—which is me.
It is a great pleasure, as ever, to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Brady. Let me congratulate my right hon. Friend the Member for Meriden (Mrs Spelman) again on bringing forward this subject for debate and on the expertise she has shown as the Second Church Estates Commissioner.
My right hon. Friend is my neighbour, but there is another lady in my life I would like to pay tribute to: my mother. My mother brought me up as a lone parent—my father left when I was very young. She often worked two or three jobs to keep a roof over our heads and to ensure that I was clean and ready for school. Despite all the hours she worked, she always made sacrifices in that regard. My politics were formed very much by my mother’s hard work and self-reliance. She is a great example in my life.
When I was married last year—rather late in the day—I had the great pleasure of my mother being there as a witness. She had a fantastic hat, whose dimensions were such that I imagine it could be seen from space. It was a great sadness to me that her name could not appear on the marriage certificate. I was completely unaware of that. I was involved in politics, but in local campaigning and not in the minutiae of legalistic matters that I am involved in today. Until I arrived at the wedding I was completely unaware of the situation, and although obviously I did not make a fuss or a big deal out of it, I just thought it was a ridiculous anomaly that the person who had played the greatest role in my life should not, on my special day, have her name appended to the record of the event.
I had a similar experience when I got married many years ago. My father died when I was a young teenager and my mother brought me up. The father of my husband-to-be had also died many years before. The two mothers came to the ceremony but their names could not be on the certificate. That was when I realised it was a great injustice. I agree with what the hon. Gentleman says about someone being confronted with that on the happiest day of their life.
That shows the importance of the Bill that the hon. Lady has introduced. We bring a lot of our own experiences to this place, and from that negative thing she has made something very positive. I welcome the private Member’s Bill, and perhaps the hon. Lady and my right hon. Friend the Member for Meriden, in her capacity as Second Church Estates Commissioner and with her tremendous expertise, can come together to discuss and make progress with the matter. My right hon. Friend, with the Church, speaks with compassion about this matter.
We have been here before, with the 2002 White Paper. I believe that the idea was to make the change without primary legislation, and that it was decided that it could not happen by what I believe would have been a statutory instrument—I am still getting used to the terms. It was very unfortunate that that never came about. It would have been good to pass legislation then, although it would still have been happening many years later than it should have. Regardless of who is in power and of whether there is any party political aspect to the matter, I ask hon. Members to put those things behind us and focus on the issue now.
I welcome the review. My hon. Friend the Minister for Immigration has been discussing the matter and I look forward to hearing the response to the debate from the Minister who is present today. My hon. Friend the Member for Banbury (Victoria Prentis) made a significant point about survivors of abuse, and I have a constituent who is in a similar position. She is in a serious relationship and looking towards marriage, but in her background is an abusive father and there are issues about what that person’s place is in her life. We need to be sensible of that issue—and the idea that we can get rid of it with two broad strokes of the pen across the paper is ridiculous.
We must work together across the parties, with expertise. Let us have the change that would, frankly, get us into the 20th century and, with civil partnerships and the recognition of same-sex relationships and marriage, move things forward into the 21st century.
It was Scotland’s national bard, Robert Burns, who wrote:
“While Europe’s eye is fix’d on mighty things,
The fate of Empires and the fall of Kings”—
there is more of it, and I could give Members all of it if they want, but I will not. [Hon. Members: “Go on!”] I will just get to the good bit—or the interesting bit; it is all good:
“Amid this mighty fuss just let me mention,
The Rights of Woman merit some attention.”
I am delighted to offer my wholehearted support to those looking for gender equality on marriage certificates. I commend those in the House and outside it who have campaigned on the issue for many years now, and I congratulate the right hon. Member for Meriden (Mrs Spelman) on leading the debate.
I did not feel that the hon. Member for Hampstead and Kilburn (Tulip Siddiq) was being particularly party political. There is a general acceptance in the Chamber that the situation we are debating has existed for 178 years, in which time there have been Governments of different hues. Everyone has played a part in that, and we are all now playing a part in doing something about it.
In Scotland, as has been mentioned, there is space for both parents to sign the wedding certificate. That has been the case since registrations began in 1855. In fact, the certificates also list the occupations of both parents and allow for the possibility of same-sex parents. All of that is sensible and is a reminder that Scotland, with a distinct Church and legal system in the years after the treaty of Union, also had distinctive features with regard to marriage. It was customary in earlier times, as is becoming increasingly fashionable in the 21st century across the UK, for Scots brides to retain their original surname—I hate the term “maiden name”—instead of taking their husband’s. I am not claiming that in Scotland we are always ahead of the times—most of the time we are; I simply make the point that we would do well to remember that customs and their attendant paperwork are not set in stone. The current certificates are simply a poor reflection on our Victorian forebears.
Why, then, am I, a Scottish Member, speaking today? Clearly there is nothing to stop my constituents getting married and registering that marriage in England, and many of them do. More importantly, the issue is about equality of status for men and women, and that is of course a universal issue. It is clear to all right-thinking people that the recording of paternal names but not maternal ones on marriage certificates is an anachronism that has survived far too long. At best it speaks of the patently sexist Victorian view of the man as the head of the household, and at worst it treats women as little more than property to be transferred from one household to another. Then again, if someone who states publicly that the best place for a woman is on her back can be shortlisted for BBC sports personality of the year, perhaps we have not moved on quite as much as we should like to think since Victorian times.
I confess that when I saw the debate coming up I wondered whether it really merited a full 90 minutes—simply because it is about something that should go without saying—but I was wrong and I think it does deserve the time. The issue may seem relatively minor to some people, but it says something about attitudes to women. The fact that this practice is still going on is insulting and hurtful. It is another example of women being written out of history. We are invisible. We exist, but we are not important enough to be remembered or acknowledged. Historians and genealogists support what the right hon. Member for Meriden is calling for today. They tell us that it has historically been harder to track down female bloodlines because of this anachronism.
It is bad enough that women who achieve great things on a large scale are not as well acknowledged or remembered as men who do the same—or not, as the case may be. I was delighted to read yesterday that at long last the funding has been secured to erect a statue in memory of a hero of mine, Mary Seacole, the self-taught Jamaican-born nurse of Scots Creole descent who set up the British Hotel, where she nursed thousands of wounded soldiers in the Crimean war. That has been a long time coming and it is bad enough that it took so long, but there are thousands of women—some would call them ordinary women—whose achievements have affected fewer people but who have been the lifeline for their families or their communities. Those are the women who sacrifice everything to support their husbands’ careers, and the mothers who put aside all selfish thoughts to concentrate on building a secure life for their children. We have heard many Members referring to those things today.
That is exactly the point I was coming on to. The idea that mothers who bring up the doctors, plumbers, teachers and joiners of the future, and the community campaigners who give hope to their neighbours by refusing to stop caring about their neighbourhoods, are treated like they never existed when it comes to their children marrying is not acceptable. Women are not less important than men; they are equally important. An anachronism it might be, but it is time to sort it out, and we have agreement across the House.
As has been mentioned, in August last year the Prime Minister said:
“it’s high time the system was updated”,
and in January of this year the Immigration Minister said:
“We are continuing to develop the options that will allow mothers’ names to be recorded on marriage certificates as soon as practicable.”
We have heard some explanation today as to why it is taking so long, but I still gently ask: how difficult can it be?
We are all aware of the emotional and financial investment that people put into their wedding days. Weddings are full of symbolism, and are a public statement of commitment, but what does the symbolism of such blatant inequality say about our society? I remember my dad talking about giving me away—incessantly talking about giving me away. My disinterest in marriage was frustrating to him, but it allowed him to regularly tell people how he would be happy to give me away to whoever wanted to take me. I laughed, obviously—I had no choice—and I always knew that, for his sake, should I ever give in and get married, I would allow him to give me away. In the back of my mind, though, I always felt uncomfortable with the suggestion that I was his—or anyone’s—property.
My sister reminded me on Sunday that as early as the 1960s Church of England ministers saw the light and began to allow a mother to give her daughter’s hand in marriage if the father was not there. There are human ways, therefore, of addressing the patriarchal tendency to see the act as a man’s privilege.
Interestingly enough, my father passed away a number of years ago and it fell to my mother to remind me that my sister had allowed her to give her away. I suppose my point is that no one is anyone else’s property, but there should be equality if someone is someone else’s property and they have to be given away. I do not feel comfortable with it at all, but it is simply a tradition and one that many are happy to go along with. Not allowing the mother’s name and occupation to appear on the marriage certificates of her children is a different matter, and I cannot understand why it has to be so complicated.
I again congratulate the right hon. Member for Meriden on securing the debate and I look forward to hearing from the Minister. I hope that he will do what I believe the hon. Member for Hampstead and Kilburn suggested, and just get on with it.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship for the first time, Mr Brady.
I, too, start by congratulating the right hon. Member for Meriden (Mrs Spelman) on securing this important debate, and I take heart at her repeated emphasis of the fact that she wants to work collaboratively. I agree with her. The debate has shown that there is cross-party agreement and support, but we need to consider how to make the legislation reflect the intention. I urge the right hon. Lady to work collaboratively with my hon. Friend the Member for Neath (Christina Rees) because we have the prime opportunity of the Second Reading of her Bill coming up on 22 January.
It was interesting that the right hon. Member for Meriden elaborated on the practitioner’s view and on some of the practical problems. I appreciate that she was looking to move the debate forward from the gender point, but as that is where we are at the moment I will stick with it as the theme.
The current system of marriage registration asks for the names and occupations of the fathers of the bride and groom, but not those of the mothers and, as my hon. Friend the Member for Caerphilly (Wayne David) stated, it has been Labour policy to end that unacceptable inequality since 2002. The then Labour Government released a White Paper proposing wide-ranging reforms to marriage registration, including the adding of mothers’ names to certificates. That is still our position today, and I want to set out why it is so important that the reform is finally implemented.
Inequality in marriage certificate details is a 19th-century anachronism, as our marriage registration is still based on the 1836 marriage registry system. That is a slightly different date to the one that the right hon. Member for Meriden gave, but I take heed. It goes without saying that marriage today is very different from what it was then—whether it was 1836 or 1837. I think we can all agree that society has changed for the better: women are no longer forced to hand over their property to their husbands; divorce is no longer the exclusive preserve of men; and women are no longer forced to surrender their right to consent, or not consent, to sex with their partners. In short, the past 200 years has seen great emancipation for married women and some of the grossest gender inequalities within marriage have been eliminated.
Ultimately, the current system of marriage certification is a symbol of another unseemly aspect of the 19th-century idea of marriage. Marriage then was considered to be a transactional, and indeed a financial, relationship between the father of the bride and the father of the groom. That is why, historically, the fathers’ names appear on the certificate. That is as outdated as the dowry. Thankfully, we no longer see marriage in transactional terms, although, as the hon. Member for Glasgow North East (Anne McLaughlin) said, the language of fathers giving their daughters away is still around. Marriage in the 21st century is a choice that both partners freely make to spend their lives together, with both partners equal in the relationship, and it is important that our marriage certificates reflect what we now think marriage is about, rather than the misogynistic morality of the 19th century.
I ask the Minister to consider a specific issue that highlights some of the problems we have. Unfortunately, the current marriage certification system can encourage the use of the divisive and judgmental language of Victorian morality. On the Government’s Passport Office website, in the section explaining the details of various legal documents, there is an annotated picture of a standard marriage certificate. The box about the father states:
“These details are vital for checking you have the right certificate. No name would suggest illegitimacy.”
It is not appropriate for a Government publication to describe a family without a father as illegitimate, and I hope that the Minister will look at that.
A person’s wedding day is one of the most important days of their life, and sharing the moment with their entire family is one of the things that makes it so special. A lot of brides and grooms are surprised, and disappointed, when they find out that the marriage certificate they sign, at what can be a really special moment in a wedding, does not include their mothers’ details. I pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Hampstead and Kilburn (Tulip Siddiq), the hon. Member for Solihull (Julian Knight) and my hon. Friend the Member for Neath who beautifully and powerfully spoke about how the blocking of the most important person in their life—their mum—on their big day affected them. I also pay tribute to the mums, for all they have done—and to their hats. We have to work together to get rid of the inequality.
The situation is particularly hard for brides and grooms who have primarily been brought up by single mums. Their guardians and most important loved ones are arbitrarily excluded from an important moment of the wedding, and the signing of the certificate can act as a reminder of absent fathers—some Members have spoken of the kind of father people do not want to remember on their big day—and that just cannot be right.
When I was researching my speech, I came across a moving testimony that made exactly that point. A young woman who signed a petition to Parliament on the issue wrote on the petition website:
“I have just got engaged, and having been brought up by a single mum I am devastated to learn that this outdated practice is still a requirement of marriage. When I get married, I will be expected to put my absent father’s name and profession on my marriage certificate whilst my mother who brought me up will not be included.”
The current system is letting down that young woman badly. As has been said, the issue affects millions of people, as one in four children are now brought up by single parents.
Changing marriage certificates should not be a difficult reform to achieve. As the hon. Member for Banbury (Victoria Prentis) pointed out, the mother’s name, surname and occupation are already included on civil partnership certification, and on marriage certificates in Northern Ireland and Scotland. The reform to marriage certification in England and Wales is long overdue.
In August 2014 the Prime Minister promised to address the matter about the certificates:
“At the moment, they require details of the couples’ fathers, but not their mothers. This clearly doesn’t reflect modern Britain - and it’s high time the system was updated.”
I could not agree more with what the Prime Minister said then—18 months ago—but it is now more a year later, and we are still waiting. The Immigration Minister—I googled him; he is the right hon. Member for Old Bexley and Sidcup (James Brokenshire)—stated in January that the Government are
“continuing to develop the options that will allow mothers’ names to be recorded on marriage certificates as soon as practicable.”
I hope the Minister puts me in the right place on this, but it appears that no progress has been made over the course of the year, which is disappointing to say the least.
In the absence of Government action, it has fallen on Back Benchers to take the initiative. Early-day motion 446 was tabled in September this year by the hon. Member for Brighton, Pavilion (Caroline Lucas), and it expressed many of the sentiments that we have heard today. Members from all major parties have signed the motion. I pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Neath, who currently has a private Member’s Bill before Parliament that would deal with the issue legislatively. Members from across the House have supported that Bill. Second Reading is scheduled for 22 January 2016, and I hope the Bill will move forward to Committee. It will certainly have the full support of Opposition Front Benchers.
As important as Back-Bench initiatives are, we all know they need Government support and backing if they are to bring about the necessary change in the law. My hon. Friend’s Bill will need proper parliamentary time to make progress, and I urge the Minister to facilitate that. He has indicated that implementing changes to marriage registration is also likely to require a new IT system, as we rely on a paper-based model. If the Government seriously back reform, the Home Office needs to show that it is willing to provide those resources, or at least to consider whether changes can be made to the paper-based system without having to implement a new IT system. Also, the Government have access to experts in legal drafting, who should support Back Benchers with any technical issues that need to be cleared up.
If the Government do not offer serious support, it will be just another issue on which they are willing to talk about supporting equality, but are not willing to take the necessary action to bring it about. Unfortunately, thus far all we have seen is delay and warm words from the Home Office. All the people who feel excluded by the current marriage registration process deserve better than that, and I hope the Minister will give them reassurance.
It is an honour to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Brady. I may be competing with the Division bell shortly, but I leave such matters to your judgment. I congratulate my right hon. Friend the Member for Meriden (Mrs Spelman) on securing this debate, but I will get to the point. Many Members have raised good points, and everyone is right: the Prime Minister made a commitment in his speech to the Relationships Alliance summit. It is obvious to anyone that it is high time that the system was reformed, and reformed quickly. I do not think there is any dispute about that. The system was established the year that Queen Victoria came to power. It was also the year that Rowland Hill decided that we might be able to fold up paper and put letters inside and post them. It is now 2015 and it is absurd that the system has not changed.
The hon. Member for Darlington (Jenny Chapman) made a point about there being no private Members’ Bills, apart from Government ones, that had become law in her time. Respectfully, there are good exceptions to that. One of the main ones came from my hon. Friend the Member for Warwick and Leamington (Chris White), who is in his place behind me. His Public Services (Social Value) Act 2012 was enacted in the last Parliament. Putting that to one side, there is a good precedent in this field with the Marriage Act 1994, which started as a private Member’s Bill. It allowed homes and hotels to be used for marriages.
I am delighted to hear what the Minister is saying. It is news to me. Does he mean that we can assume that the Government will give a fair wind to any of the private Members’ Bills before the House on this topic? Will they give them Committee time and not use any of the techniques well known to the Minister to prevent the Bills from becoming Acts?
As the hon. Lady will know, I cannot speak for every private Member’s Bill. The 1994 Act was brought forward by Gyles Brandreth, then a very well known MP. I had better make progress.
There is no question but that the Government want to see the issue remedied. The question is whether the private Member’s Bill of the hon. Member for Neath (Christina Rees) can be, as many have suggested in this Chamber and elsewhere, the piece of legislation that is needed. I point out that many Members here seem to have children of marriageable age who are currently unmarried: I have two boys aged 24 and 21. I am pleased to say that the hon. Member for Walsall South (Valerie Vaz) is a good personal friend of mine, and I think we should discuss the matter outwith the Chamber.
Getting back to the important point, can the private Member’s Bill be adapted? I would very much like to say yes. The Bill requires the Secretary of State to consult and then to make regulations setting out the marriage register entry, including the mother’s and father’s name, but it does not reform the whole registration process. It would simply require the replacement of tens of thousands of books at a cost of £3 million. The Bill does not take account of different family circumstances, where there may not be a mother and father. Members have mentioned many particular cases relating to that. It also does not give flexibility for the future. After we have amended the law, the matter may not be again for another 100 or 200 years, so we have to get things right.
I cannot pledge to work with the hon. Lady on the Bill, because I am not convinced that it is the right way to deal with the matter, although many of the points and sentiments in it are right. What we need—I assure her that this will be progressed quickly—is a vehicle that will transform the whole system of marriage registration for the digital age, so that all the points and everything that is changing in society can be taken into consideration. I assure her that that is not in any way meant to be disrespectful to what she is trying to do. I am not against any of the sentiments or saying that anything within the Bill is wrong, but we need a comprehensive solution. I assure her that this is not Government waffle. We have to deal with the matter once and for all, quickly and properly. I would like to be able to say that her Bill is the vehicle for that, but I do not believe that it could be. A combination of the hon. Lady, my right hon. Friend the Member for Meriden and some of our discussions could get to a vehicle that could deal with things quickly—I have every reason to believe that.
I would like to say that it makes sense to have a simple amendment of the current marriage register. Like so many of the things that we get involved in—I find this when speaking to constituents—we think that the matter is simple and that we know the solution, but this matter is much more complex than that. We do not want to have to change the system again and again. We want a comprehensive solution with a framework for the modern digital economy, where—we hope everything will be transformed in this way—people will get a certificate quickly with all the relevant details and where there will be no need for replacement certificate stock to be sent to thousands of different churches and other institutions.
Also, the solution should minimise the public protection risk of marriage registers being held in some 30,000 different religious buildings. Every year criminal gangs steal registers and certificate stock for all sorts of different purposes, and it is time that the system was modernised once and for all. It would cost up to £3 million simply to replace the materials. A simple solution of just filling in the empty box was suggested, but that would lead to all sorts of mistakes and inaccuracies. While the suggestion is perfectly well-intentioned, I do not think it is very practical.
As the shadow Minister mentioned, we have to make the necessary IT changes with the correct resources. It is not a question of trying to save money with the new system, although once it was set up, it would probably save a lot of money and be much more efficient over the decades. Costs would be incurred. It is not just about making the system more cost-effective, although it will be over the longer term.
I want to mention some of the contributions made by various Members. The hon. Member for Rotherham (Sarah Champion) made a point that, although not specific to the debate, surprised me. She asked me to look into the subject of illegitimacy on the Passport Office website. I will do that and I will respond as quickly as I can. I was astounded to hear what she said.
There have been so many good contributions, although I disagree with what the hon. Member for Hampstead and Kilburn (Tulip Siddiq) said about the Prime Minister’s feminism, because he is very much a feminist. However, the point that she made about the deceased father on the birth certificate is valid and I will write to her on that subject when I have had a chance to look into it.
My hon. Friend the Member for Banbury (Victoria Prentis) talked about a constituent and what form the marriage certificate should take, but it is not a simple matter. At the moment, our officials at the Home Office are working with key stakeholders to ensure that the needs of all different types of families are met. It is not simply a case of making a one-off change to include the mother. The matter affects different types of families, and the change needs to be done properly.
I smiled when the hon. Member for Glasgow North East (Anne McLaughlin) mentioned Seacole, the Scottish lady, and explained her background. A big chunk of the Home Office is named after Mary Seacole. I do not know whether the hon. Lady has visited, but she is welcome to come and look at the plaque. Of course, she is right. We are not talking about the contributions of women to society, because that is taken as read and is obvious. The concept of property in Victorian times would be laughable if it were not so serious, because it blighted women’s development for centuries. If we explain that to our kids, they simply cannot understand such concepts. I have shown children and visitors from my constituency the pictures in the Committee rooms of men—all men—in Parliament, but they cannot imagine such a situation. I can only say that what the hon. Lady said is absolutely right.
The serious point to make is that the Government are not simply playing with the issue in order to kick it into the long grass and say, “Well, it is one of those things.” It is very serious. It is absolutely absurd that the law has not been changed before. It is absurd, whether under a Conservative, coalition or Labour Government, that it has taken from the 1830s to today to even look at the matter. I know that people like the tradition of the marriage certificate. I have one, as have many people in this room, but we should keep the best bits of tradition and amend accordingly.
I ask for the brief patience of hon. Members. The issues are sometimes personal to us and our constituents, as highlighted in the debate, but I ask for brief patience because the Government are determined to get this right.
I believe we have an imminent vote, so I will be quick. The hon. Member for Glasgow North East (Anne McLaughlin) asked a poignant question: did the debate merit 90 minutes? Given that we are right up against the clock, I think the answer is a resounding yes. At the very least, most women and girls have absolutely no idea that they are discriminated against until it is too late. It is a handful who write to us, plus we have the poignant cases that we as Members of Parliament come across and the very telling personal stories of colleagues present for whom the moment has gone. Our mothers have not been able to put their names on our marriage certificates. That grieves us, but in their memory and for ever we want to change that. That is the message that comes out of this debate.
The only difference between the approach that I propose and the approach in the Bill produced by the hon. Member for Neath (Christina Rees)—I do not underestimate the amount of work that goes into producing a private Member’s Bill, having tried to do so myself three times—is that she is focused on the narrow point about putting the mother on the certificate. Sometimes that is the right approach to change legislation, because it has more chance of succeeding, but my approach has the practitioners’ thoughts standing behind it: are there other things we could do at the same time to ensure that in perpetuity we have a change that does not discriminate against anybody in society in terms of their rightful place on a marriage certificate in the future?
As the Second Church Estates Commissioner, it behoves me to point out that whatever change we make to the law must work for people of all faiths and none in our society. That is incredibly important. It has to be properly thought through. That is why I maintain we should try very hard to make sure we keep this cross-party approach and, in that spirit, I am more than happy to continue working with the hon. Member for Neath and her colleagues on this issue. Together we can put right such inequality, but we are impatient. The Minister begs a little patience of us; very little is what we are prepared to give him. The change needs to be made as soon as possible in the memory of all those we hold dear and those who in future will join our families. This matter needs to be put right. I thank all hon. Members for their contributions to this debate.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered marriage registration certificates.