Thursday 27 January 2022
[Dr Rupa Huq in the Chair]
I beg to move,
That this House has considered humanist marriages in England and Wales.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Dr Huq. I am grateful to the Backbench Business Committee for granting this debate in response to my application just last week. I appreciate the Committee’s immediate response to the application, but inevitably, many of the supporters I named have been unable to rearrange their diaries to speak this afternoon. However, there is support on this issue from a broad section of the political spectrum, and I hope the quality of the debate will do justice to that support.
From my own party, we have support from my hon. Friends the Members for Crewe and Nantwich (Dr Mullan), for Gillingham and Rainham (Rehman Chishti), for Newcastle-under-Lyme (Aaron Bell), for Thirsk and Malton (Kevin Hollinrake), for Wycombe (Mr Baker) and for Shipley (Philip Davies), from my hon. Friend the Member for Vale of Clwyd (Dr Davies), who I see is in his place, and from my hon. Friend the Member for Dewsbury (Mark Eastwood).
Today, 53 members of both Houses have written to the Lord Chancellor urging immediate legal recognition of humanist marriages, in the light of the recent move to recognise outdoor civil and religious marriages, which, as I will explain, has removed the last vestige of the arguments put forward by the Government for not getting on with what would be a welcome reform for so many people in our country.
Humanist weddings are non-religious wedding ceremonies that are conducted by humanist celebrants. Humanists UK defines a humanist as a non-religious person who trusts
“the scientific method when it comes to understanding how the universe works”
and does not rely on
“the idea of the supernatural…makes their ethical decisions based on reason, empathy, and a concern for human beings and other sentient animals”
“believes that, in the absence of”
“an afterlife and any discernible purpose to the universe, human beings can act to give their own lives meaning by seeking happiness in this life and helping others to do the same.”
Humanist ceremonies are a manifestation of what gives our lives meaning—the meaning we create for ourselves and the happiness we bring about in others. Ceremonies, then, are a reflection of what will be most meaningful to the participants. They are built around the idea that the best ceremonies are all about the participants—their beliefs, their values, their family, their friends and their wider place in the world—and they recognise the need to be inclusive of all those attending and their diverse religions and beliefs.
I chair the all-party parliamentary humanist group with the noble Baroness Bakewell, and the secretariat is provided by Humanists UK. Humanists UK trains and accredits celebrants, particularly in conducting weddings. Such celebrants are trained specifically in how to make ceremonies as meaningful as possible for the participants, and their expertise and experience contributes to making these important moments in our journey through life of the greatest relevance and meaning to those who choose them.
The process of creating a thoughtful, meaningful and personal wedding ceremony for a couple is extensive. It is not unusual for a humanist celebrant to spend 35 to 40 hours—often even more—working closely with the couple. That is quite a lot longer than the average for most people who preside over weddings, who, in many cases, may turn up only for the marriage itself. That is because the process the humanist celebrant is engaged in is lengthy and is focused on getting to know the couple well, finding out what matters to them collectively, and helping them explore what most matters to them about each other, so that the ceremony can be as meaningful, and have as strong and lasting an impact as possible. The impact of the ceremony is reinforced by the ceremony’s being in the location most meaningful to the couple. That often means the kinds of places that already get approved as premises for civil marriages; it could be the family’s back garden, or their local beach or park. I have even heard of couples choosing to have their wedding in the very spot they met or got engaged.
The consequence of this process is that humanist marriages are more likely to last. All parties recognise the public policy benefits of stable relationships, which ought to make the legal recognition of humanist marriages an uncontroversial public good. I understand that many couples, if not most, stay in touch with the humanist celebrant who conducted their wedding for years afterwards. They highly value the process in which they engaged in getting to the wedding day and the relationship that they built with the celebrant. I rather doubt that most participants in civil marriages are still in touch with the registrar who conducted their marriage or, frankly, can remember their name.
The training to become a humanist celebrant provided by Humanists UK is an extensive process, and those who embark on it do so with no guarantee of success. Humanists UK courses run for several months and include an induction day, residential training sessions, coursework and a mentor to support the training from the outset. Once accredited—many who start the programme are not—celebrants become part of a growing national network. They are quality assured and regulated by a code of conduct, and they have a transparent complaints procedure and mandatory ongoing professional development. A former Registrar General for England and Wales, Paul Pugh, has trained to be a humanist celebrant with Humanists UK in order to conduct funerals. He certainly believes that the training provided is rigorous enough to merit legal recognition for Humanists UK celebrants, as do the Northern Ireland Executive, who also deal with Humanists UK.
Given all this, it can hardly be a surprise that humanist marriages have taken off in jurisdictions where they have been legally recognised. In Scotland, they gained recognition as long ago as 2005. In 2019, they made up some 23% of all marriages—a truly impressive figure that I understand even includes some Members of this House. In 2012, such marriages gained recognition in the Republic of Ireland, where they now account for 10% of all marriages. Since 2018, they have gained legal recognition in Northern Ireland, Jersey and Guernsey. It is early days, but I understand that the number of humanist marriages in Northern Ireland—regardless of one’s impression of religious adherence and people’s enthusiasm for it in the Province—is following precisely the same trajectory as in Scotland and Ireland.
That brings me to England and Wales, where, at present, there is no legal recognition of humanist marriages. That means that couples who have a humanist wedding—around 1,400 do so with Humanists UK every year—must also have a civil marriage separately in order to gain legal recognition. That can be a big financial burden; if the couple wish to have their wedding and marriage at the weekend, many local authorities will charge upwards of £500 for a civil marriage. That is a burden that religious couples do not face.
In addition, many local authorities are making it increasingly difficult for people to access a cheaper ceremony. There is a statutory option of around £50 that local authorities must offer, but many have taken such options off their websites. Some restrict marriages to just one registry office—for example, North Yorkshire, which is the biggest authority in the country, restricts them to just Harrogate—and many severely limit what such ceremonies can entail. Humanists UK tells of local authorities restricting attendance to the couple and their two adult witnesses, meaning that if they have children, they cannot attend. Some have banned having flowers or even exchanging rings.
Either way, such couples face distressing questions from their loved ones about which is their real marriage or when their wedding anniversary is. It is very sad that the wedding that they wish to see as their real act of commitment is not the one that the state enables—and for what purpose? Why do we not have legal recognition here? I think there are two ways of answering that question. One is to reflect on what has happened over the last decade and the justifications that the Government have given at each point in time for their behaviour, and the other is to think about what might have been going through the Government’s mind but has not been made a matter of record.
The Government gained the power to extend legal recognition of humanist marriages all the way back in 2013. The power was given to them by Parliament through the Marriage (Same Sex Couples) Act 2013, and it was clear at the time that there was a majority in both Houses in favour of using that power. Indeed, what the Government said at the time suggested that they intended to do so. All that stood in the way was that the relevant part of the 2013 Act mandated that the Government must consult on the matter first. Indeed, it was proper that the Government did so to determine how best to use that order-making power. The Government duly consulted in 2014, and the consultation found over 95% of people in favour of a change in the law.
What happened next was where things went off script for people who were anticipating the opportunity to have their marriage and wedding in the way that they wanted. Instead of proceeding to draft the required statutory instrument, the Minister responsible for marriage at the time, Simon Hughes, decided to refer the matter to the Law Commission for further investigation. The Government’s response to the consultation gave the following justification for that decision:
“One key difficulty concerns where belief marriages would take place… allowing belief marriages to take place at unrestricted locations would create a further difference in treatment in our marriage law”
“would create an inequality for the majority of religious groups and couples who are restricted to their registered place of worship. Registration services report a growing demand for outdoor marriages, and the Government is aware that allowing belief marriages in unrestricted locations may also be seen as unfair by couples who are neither religious nor humanist but who also may want a greater choice of marriage venues.”
Marriage law at that time allowed for marriages to happen outdoors if they were conducted by Quakers, Jewish groups, the Church of England or the Church in Wales. Forms of marriage other than deathbed marriages were restricted to either registered places of worship in the case of religious marriages, or register offices and other indoor approved premises in the case of civil marriages. Relatedly, it was said that the kind of piecemeal legislation being sought, and the added complexity that it would bring, was undesirable given the apparent inconsistency in existing marriage law.
The inconsistency in marriage law is clearly problematic, but I hope that colleagues will see from what I have said why outdoor weddings are particularly important in the humanist tradition. At any rate, the inconsistency does not seem to me a good justification for blocking recognition of humanist marriages as a whole. None the less, that key difficulty was used as justification to refer the whole question to the Law Commission to examine further. The Government stated:
“We wish to avoid any negative consequences that may result from undertaking further piecemeal legislation… The Government will therefore ask the Law Commission if it will begin as soon as possible a broader review of the law concerning marriage ceremonies.”
That is where the issue got firmly stuck in the long grass. In 2015, the Law Commission produced its report. It did not conduct the broader review it had been tasked with; instead, it simply concluded that, although the fact that humanist marriages were not legally recognised was unfair, the inconsistency around outdoor marriages and concerns about piecemeal reform justified its asking to do a second and even more thorough review of marriage law as a whole.
Now, the Government did not appear to have an immediate appetite for that, as they did not respond to the Law Commission proposals for some two years. When they did finally respond, in 2017, they said no to taking things further. That was the end of the road until 2018, when a humanist couple threatened litigation over the failure to extend legal recognition to humanist marriages. It is a pretty sad state of affairs that a stated Government intention to move in this area in 2013 had, by 2018, resulted in the human rights courts having to be engaged in trying to establish this right for humanists in England and Wales. Shortly after that, the Government announced they would, after all, be commissioning the larger Law Commission review. There was then a further year’s delay while the Government and the Law Commission worked to agree the terms of reference for that review.
Perhaps, if my hon. Friend the Minister is familiar with “Yes Minister”—I appreciate that that was my generation’s early-evening television rather than his—he will see that there is a certain pattern emerging. The review was meant to conclude last year, but it has been delayed further by the pandemic, and it is now expected to conclude in July.
I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this debate. He is making some excellent points. I am here having met my constituent Dawn Davies, who is a celebrant; I know that she has been frustrated by the timescales that my hon. Friend has just outlined. Assuming that the Law Commission report does come forward in July this year, when does he anticipate that there might be legislation forthcoming for England and Wales?
Well, here, of course, we are in the hands of the Minister and his colleagues in Government. I am afraid that I have lost count of the number of Ministers—Ministers of State, Under-Secretaries of State and Justice Secretaries—I have engaged with on this issue over the last few years, but it is really quite a lot. I hope that I can convince the Under-Secretary of State for Justice, my hon. Friend the Member for Corby (Tom Pursglove), that he is going to be the one to finally get this done.
The case that I seek to make is that delay is no longer tolerable, fair or reasonable. In the end, the law will take its course in the courts if people are forced to go to the European Court of Human Rights to achieve their convention rights, when it is so evident what is happening in the rest of the country. I am absolutely confident that the Minister and the Justice Secretary will clearly understand the arguments and the situation, and will finally get on and deliver this long-overdue reform.
Not all the delays are the fault of the present Government, which came to power only after the second Law Commission review got under way. One can speculate as to why the previous two Governments did not bring about legal recognition. Prime Minister David Cameron acted bravely in grasping the nettle and bringing in same-sex marriages long before many other similar jurisdictions did. However, there may have been some feeling about religious groups’ displeasure with that measure, and that may have had some influence on the appetite within Government to bring about further reforms of marriage law. Of course, those reactions are now quite unjustifiable.
That is ironic, because the Second Church Estates Commissioner, my hon. Friend the Member for South West Bedfordshire (Andrew Selous), said in his reply to me at oral questions this morning that the Church of England is not aware of any religious groups that oppose legal recognition of humanist marriages, and that in principle the Church of England is in favour of humanists having this power. It would have been better if my hon. Friend’s answer had been clearer and less equivocal—he referred back to all the practical difficulties for the Government that have been observed over the years since 2013—but it was useful to get it on the record that the Church of England is, in principle, in favour.
This Government are a strong champion of freedom, for both individuals and in terms of freedom of choice. As long as nothing moves on this issue, Her Majesty’s Government are continuing to obstruct this freedom for humanists, and for a growing share of the population who belong to no religion. Her Majesty’s Government have at the forefront of their agenda the need to level up different regions of the United Kingdom to provide equal opportunities for all. This situation is a plain example of where England and Wales need levelling up so that their citizens can enjoy the same freedoms and opportunities already enjoyed by the citizens of Scotland and Northern Ireland.
Finally, I turn my attention to what has happened under this Government, which inherited a court case from the previous Administration. Six couples were taking the matter before the High Court. They claimed discrimination, given that religious couples can have legally recognised marriages in line with their beliefs. The judge in that case agreed, ruling that
“the present law gives rise to…discrimination.”
She wrote that
“the discrimination suffered by the Claimants is real: the difference of treatment they experience in seeking to manifest their humanist beliefs through the ceremony of marriage is a matter of substance, not merely one of form.”
She also ruled that the Secretary of State for Justice could not
“simply sit on his hands”
and do nothing. However, given the ongoing Law Commission review, she also said that the Government’s refusal to act immediately could be justified at this time. She did so because she considered that the desire of the defendant—the Justice Secretary—
“to consider any reform on a wholesale, rather than piecemeal, basis”
was a legitimate aim. She wrote:
“In the present case, the Government has identified concerns as to the potential consequences of addressing one area of unequal treatment without doing so as part of a more general reform. Specifically, in relation to the treatment of humanist and other non-religious belief marriages, particular issues were identified relating to the location where the ceremony might take place…these were matters seen to potentially give rise to new species of discrimination if reform was only undertaken on a piecemeal basis.”
From that, she concluded:
“Although I may deprecate the delay that has occurred since 2015, I cannot ignore the fact that there is currently an on-going review of the law of marriage in this country”.
That brings us to what then happened last year. In June, the Government extended legal recognition to outdoor civil marriages on an interim basis. In December, they launched a consultation on making that move permanent, making the same move for religious marriages. Both can be done by statutory instrument. The moves limit marriages to outdoor parts of approved premises, but I understand that such a limitation is something that humanist celebrants would be happy with, on an initial basis, as a way to get things going for them.
These moves by the Government tear up the objection to piecemeal reform in general terms that the Government and their predecessors have given for not wanting to enact legal recognition of humanist marriages before the Law Commission completes its review this July. They can only maintain an objection to piecemeal reform if they do not undertake such piecemeal reform. These moves are the very piecemeal reform that the Government said was the reason why they could not enact legal recognition of humanist marriages.
Now that outdoor marriages are under way for others, what possible reason is left not to lay the statutory instrument bringing about recognition for marriages conducted by Humanists UK celebrants? Such a reform need only be interim. The law could be drafted explicitly with the intention that it is superseded by whatever follows the Law Commission review, if anything does. Legal recognition must follow that review, as I have explained. That is what the High Court ruled in 2020.
Making that change would remove an unnecessary burden for the 1,400 couples a year who have a humanist wedding at present, despite the fact that they have to have a double ceremony, with a civil marriage administered separately. For those couples, it would be particularly welcome.
During the pandemic—we do not know where the rules on that will take us; we are on a positive trend at the minute, but we have had some disagreeable surprises over the last two years—we have seen the whole problem for the wedding industry play out. Giving couples the opportunity to make their marriages really meaningful, by committing their resources to a ceremony that really means something for them, would be of obvious economic benefit for an important part of our hospitality sector. That change would greatly enhance the freedom of choice for the hundreds—if not thousands—of other couples who want a humanist wedding but decide that they simply cannot afford one because of the lack of legal recognition. Evidence from Scotland points to the legal recognition of humanist marriages coinciding with the end of the long-term decline in marriage numbers. Surely, more people getting married is something that this Government should strongly support. Indeed, I would imagine that every political party would want to support that. We ought to be trying to get that done now, as soon as possible, given the delays we have suffered.
Legal recognition would also help to deal with the current backlog and demand for civil registrars caused by the pandemic delaying many marriages. There simply are not enough registrars to go around, so many couples are reporting difficulties in being able to get married when they want. Expanding the range of people who can conduct legally recognised marriages would definitely assist in that.
All of that, as I have said before, will be a welcome boost to the wider wedding industry: the venues, the florists, the caterers, the photographers, the cake-makers, and so on—the cake-makers are very much at the forefront of our minds at the moment. Many of those are small, local businesses. Having more marriages is good for the economy and for families, and is clearly a matter of public policy when the public benefit is clear in every sense.
A possible statutory instrument to enact legal recognition has already been drafted. A previous Lord Chancellor suggested that I arrange for that to happen, so it was prepared in consultation with the counsel for domestic legislation. We have done it. The Government do not even need to it themselves; they just have to check our work.
The measure is modelled on the existing provisions for the Society of Friends. It applies specifically to Humanists UK, as the only organisation providing humanist weddings in England and Wales, and one that undoubtedly has the processes in place, and the good repute, to guarantee that ceremonies will be solemn and dignified, with no risk of sham weddings. That is not to say, however, that if another organisation was to emerge, with the sufficient standing and good repute to also merit it, it could not also gain legal recognition through another order—nor that a different system might come into place after the Law Commission review.
There is no good reason for further delays. The Government’s own actions have now removed whatever vestige of the thinnest of arguments that remained standing in the way of this reform, which would mean so much to so many who get married in the future. To what purpose are we adding to the now nine years’ worth of couples who have not enjoyed that freedom since Parliament gave the Government the power to deliver it?
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairship, Dr Huq. I congratulate the hon. Member for Reigate (Crispin Blunt) on securing this important debate, and the Backbench Business Committee on granting it.
I declare that I am a humanist, and a member of Humanists UK. I believe that people have one life, and that they shape it in the here and now. As we strive for a tolerant world, where rational thinking and kindness prevail, we must stand together against all forms of discrimination. In that vein, it is discriminatory that humanist weddings are still not legally recognised in England and Wales.
As we have heard, humanist marriages gained legal recognition in Scotland in 2005, the Republic of Ireland in 2012 and in Northern Ireland in 2018 following a Court of Appeal ruling concluded that a failure to do so would breach human rights. The popularity of humanist marriages speaks for itself. It is the most popular form of belief-based wedding in Scotland, the second most popular in the Republic of Ireland, and the fastest-growing type in Northern Ireland.
We heard much from the hon. Member for Reigate as he outlined what humanist weddings are in broad terms. I want to focus on the experience of couples who have had humanist weddings in order to illustrate what they are, build greater understanding and highlight the injustices caused by the present law. I am grateful to Humanists UK for providing me with examples that illustrate the range of people’s experiences. Some of the examples come from the recently published “The Little Book of Humanist Weddings”, of which I have a copy, and I can talk about the examples today with kind permission from the authors.
I very much agree with the point made by the hon. Member for Reigate about ceremonies and the importance that they have at significant points in our lives. Every couple is different, so what is meaningful to them is unique, and that is why every humanist wedding is unique. As humanist celebrant Laura Gimson has said,
“I used to think we all loved in roughly the same way, but actually the specificity of love is what keeps my job as a celebrant so interesting. It’s such a joy to uncover the many and varied ways that we humans show our fondness for one another.”
As celebrant Zena Birch has said, the preparations that go into a humanist wedding are just as important for the couples as the wedding itself. She says:
“A humanist marriage does start off with a celebration and a party, just like all weddings. But the preparation that goes in beforehand enhances the intentions of the celebration and focuses both the couple and their guests on what is important and at the heart of this rite of passage.”
As has been pointed out, it is no wonder humanist marriages are so successful in producing sustained relationships.
One important aspect is picking the right location. To quote Zena again:
“With all of this forethought something that very rarely gets chosen offhandedly is where my couples wish to hold their ceremony. Over the years I have had the privilege to be welcomed into some extraordinary spaces and what most of them have in common is that the locations themselves hold meaning and relevance to the couple. Be it from a charmingly romantic perspective... where my couple shared their first kiss…To locations which hold an emotional poignancy…a beach where the bride had previously scattered her dad’s ashes…In lieu of a place of worship, these locations hold an equal import to my couples.”
Then there is the question of who attends. In the words of celebrant Ewan Main:
“No one human being is an island. We are all, as individuals, connected to others, and community with others is one of the most important things in leading a happy life. What is true of us as individuals is also true of us as couples. The community that surrounds you is one of the things that sustains your relationship. Guests at a wedding—if they’re really valued, trusted guests—really do care about what’s happening at the front, because it’s a little bit about them too. I like to comment in weddings, sometimes, on the fact that everyone sitting in this room together now has one thing in common that they didn’t before. A marriage grows from and reflects connections, and it makes new ones too.”
Weddings often commence with the journey down the aisle. As Zena Birch says:
“As with all traditions, it is possible to bring this one up to date. By using this moment to ask whoever has accompanied the walk down the aisle ‘do you affirm x and x’s choice to get married’ as opposed to ‘who brings this woman to wed this man’ you are honouring a tradition and making it relevant all at the same time. You are also showing, right from the outset, that every word spoken, in this case the question posed and the answer received, has been thought through, is appropriate, relevant and honest. There are no echoey, empty words for the sake of it in a humanist ceremony script. There is no reason why you can’t pose this same question to all sets of parents, setting the tone right from the very start: that words matter and that equality is acknowledged.”
Then there is the script. As celebrant Janette Smith said:
“At the heart of a humanist wedding ceremony is not a sermon, but a sharing of your story, the unique retelling of what drew you together, told to those who genuinely care—because you as a couple are the thing every single guest has in common. By interweaving the story of your relationship origin and development, the highs and the lows…the moments guests themselves will recognise being part of, everyone in the gathering will be invested in the outcome.”
In the words of celebrant Hester Brown:
“I ask couples to think, ‘What do I really want to promise to my partner? And what would I like to be promised? Which of these are essential?’ and to discuss it with each other. It provides a valuable opportunity to find out whether your partner’s hopes and needs are compatible with yours. And, perhaps, to be inspired by the potential and new horizons they open to you. At the heart of humanism is the knowledge that we are deeply dependent on other people for our happiness and, at the same time, we need to be free. The songbird comes and sings beautifully to the princess, but when she puts it in a cage, it falls silent.
I think the most important thing I tell my couples is that equality and kindness are at the heart of the humanist vision of marriage. Respecting the other’s space to learn and grow. Two independent people choosing to spend their lives together because their love gives them courage and hope, gives them a home. Not facing in on each other but walking along life’s path together, hand in hand.”
The ceremony can contain various symbolic actions intended to bind the couple together, including hand-fasting, which is the tying together of couples’ hands with ribbons or cords, with different threads symbolising different things. The family can be involved in the untying. The ceremony can include some traditionally religious or cultural rituals that stop short of acts of worship and are not included for religious reasons but pay tribute to a certain heritage none the less.
Ceremonies can also include the blending of sands. Two of the claimants in the 2020 court case were Jennifer McCalmont and Finbar Graham from Carrickfergus in Northern Ireland, where, as we have heard, humanist marriages are legally recognised. Even so, they chose to have their humanist wedding on the beach in Devon, where they first went on holiday together, and near where Jenny’s parents live. For them, that was the most meaningful location to get married. They could think of no location where they would rather wed than Northam beach, and they felt so strongly about the matter that they decided to launch a legal case to change the law in a jurisdiction where they do not reside to match the law in the jurisdiction where they do. Unfortunately, the case did not succeed, so they had to go ahead with their wedding without legal recognition, but as part of their ceremony, they took sand from their beach in Carrickfergus and blended it with the sand from the beach in Northam, symbolically blending the two locations that were of most significance to them.
It is possible to give the exchange of rings extra significance, as Laura Gimson recounts:
“S and J’s ceremony took place in the centre of a circle of poplar trees in the garden of their family home. J had managed to fell a branch from one of the trees a few months earlier, and had tiny pieces of poplar wood inlaid into their wedding rings. As they exchanged them, they shared vows about how their wedding bands weren’t about status—they weren’t meant to be shiny and perfect and they weren’t a symbol of ownership. Instead, their rings would serve as a reminder of the exact place and time that they made the choice to live their lives side by side.”
Why have a humanist wedding? Laura Lacole was the claimant in the court case that led to legally recognised humanist marriages in Northern Ireland, and as a result she had the first one there with her husband Eunan O’Kane. She explained to the court:
“I am a person that acts on my beliefs and values. It is only natural then, for me to seek to have those beliefs and values expressed through my marriage ceremony... My desire to have a legally valid humanist marriage is central to my own humanist identity. The act of getting married is, of course, deeply personal and is bound up with my humanist beliefs, values, and aspirations. Humanists do not, in general, have weekly communal gatherings (like a church might) and so my marriage ceremony provides me with a rare, communal, event at which I can express and celebrate my humanism with my husband to be and our family and friends.”
What of the problem of having to have two ceremonies, which was set out earlier? In 2018, the all-party parliamentary humanist group surveyed local authority websites to see what they were offering, and consulted humanist celebrants for their experiences. The results were published in the APPG’s “Any lawful impediment?” report. The issues identified in the report included difficulties booking same-day ceremonies, and many local authorities charging £500 or more for a weekend ceremony. There were difficulties with same-building ceremonies, or with the presence of the humanist celebrant at the legal ceremony. Both situations should be allowed, but there were reports of registrars objecting to them, and claiming sometimes that they might invalidate the legality of the civil marriage.
There were tales of registrars threatening approved premises’ licences because of the number of humanist ceremonies being performed, and of registrars more generally trying to warn couples off having humanist ceremonies. There was widespread evidence of registrars not offering cheap, no-frills ceremonies on their websites. Many of them restricted the times and locations at which such ceremonies were available, or how quickly they were available. For example, such ceremonies were restricted to one room in one council building, or to just Tuesday mornings once a month. A staggering 90% of registrars did not offer such ceremonies at the weekend.
Many registrars restrict what can happen at no-frills ceremonies, for example limiting the number of guests to just the two required witnesses, which is particularly challenging if the couple has young children, or disallowing the presence of flowers or even the exchange of rings. So, can the Minister say what conversations they may have had with the Secretary of State for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities with regard to those actions by local authorities?
Finally, it seems plain to me that the only way really to fix these problems is to change the law on humanist marriages and I hope that the Minister is convinced that that change cannot come soon enough.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Reigate (Crispin Blunt) on securing this debate and thank the Backbench Business Committee for granting it. The hon. Member explained very clearly what humanist beliefs are, and also talked about the care taken and the research conducted by a humanist celebrant in working with a couple to prepare for a marriage ceremony. He also set out the history of such marriages very clearly.
The most important point to make is that it is clear that the Government have undermined their own argument that all changes should wait until some sort of wholesale reform of marriage legislation. They have done so by making the temporary provisions for outdoor weddings into permanent ones. Therefore, that sets a precedent and blows out of the water the idea that everything has to wait for something that may never actually happen.
Of course, where there is a will, there is a way. The hon. Member mentioned the use of statutory instruments; indeed, in good “Blue Peter” fashion, he has one that he had prepared earlier all ready for the Minister. However, there are of course many precedents of the Government including a specific section on one topic in a Bill that mainly deals with rather different subject matter. Some Bills are the classic Christmas tree, with provisions to deal with all sorts of different matters included in them. I feel sure that the necessary will to make this change is what is needed and then an appropriate vehicle can be found, and that the skills of those drafting the Bill would prevent any problems with unintended consequences, which again has been given as an excuse for not making this change now but instead leaving it for some larger reform of marriage law.
Indeed—again, that was very well put.
We know that in Scotland, of course, under a Labour Scottish Government legal recognition was given to humanist marriages back in 2005; in the Republic of Ireland, it was given in 2012; and in Northern Ireland, it was given in 2018. In Wales, we do not have the devolved power to legislate for humanist marriages, but the Welsh Government are very supportive of the legal recognition of humanist marriages and would very much—
Does the hon. Lady share my frustration that in Wales—the country of both Nye Bevan, who was a committed humanist, and of course the late First Minister of Wales, Rhodri Morgan, who I believe was among the first to be given a state humanist funeral in the Senedd—we have not seen progress sooner, especially given that, as she has just pointed out, the Welsh Government are also supportive of the change that is being sought?
Indeed—that was very well outlined by the hon. Member. The support is there from the Welsh Government and the humanist tradition is also there in Wales. So this change is something we would very much welcome and want to see.
Of course, people may say, “Oh well, a couple can go and have their civil marriage and then they can have the celebration of their choosing afterwards”. But I would argue that that does not really give the humanist viewpoint and ceremonies the same status as that given to the religious viewpoint and ceremonies. Indeed, the High Court has ruled that that lack of legal recognition is, in fact, discrimination.
Why should humanists have to feel that they are second-class citizens and that their celebration does not count? Why should they have to wonder, as the hon. Member for Reigate pointed out, which is the date of their wedding anniversary if the civil ceremony took place on one day and their own celebration took place on another day?
As has also been noted, the legal recognition of humanist marriages in Scotland resulted in the number of couples opting for a humanist wedding increasing to over 6,000 in 2019—more than 20% of the total—and there are now more humanist marriages than Christian marriages in Scotland. Legal recognition gives humanist weddings a status, and more people then feel confident about seeking out the humanist option for a wedding, because they believe it is real and do not feel that it is somehow not good enough, does not really count or is second-class. It has the genuine status that obviously everybody would wish their wedding and marriage to have.
Our laws in respect of religion are very outdated and do not reflect the current beliefs of the population. Here in Parliament, both with the Church of England bishops in the House of Lords and the format of Prayers in the Commons, we are made very conscious on a daily basis that we still have an established church: the Church of England. However, the British Social Attitudes Survey of 2018 shows that only 12% of the population are Anglican, with some 52% of the population describing themselves as non-religious. Of course, the Church in Wales was disestablished over 100 years ago, back in 1920.
Our legislation has a lot of catching up to do in order to reflect the society we live in. We now have a majority of the population—some 52%—who have to make do with second best for what is one of the most important moments in their lives. What happens is that many people who have no religious belief end up in religious settings because of the convenience, which should not have to be the case. It should not have to be that because they cannot get themselves halfway across North Yorkshire, they opt for something local instead, or for something that does not reflect their background and beliefs.
I have attended humanist funerals that were planned by families and that respected the fact that the deceased did not have a belief in the afterlife. Those are recognised as legitimate funerals. I have attended humanist civic ceremonies for incoming mayors or chairs of local councils. Those are recognised as appropriate ceremonies and, again, reflect the beliefs of the people taking part. My hon. Friend the Member for Luton South (Rachel Hopkins) has described the preparation that can be made for a humanist wedding, the thought that goes into it, and the beliefs that the people have—all those make it a very special moment. To deny people the idea that it is the genuine ceremony, the genuine act and the marriage itself, is an insult to the work and preparation and the feelings that they have.
Let us get on with it now and have legal recognition for humanist marriages. We recognise that we are in a particularly difficult situation at the moment, post covid, with so many having had to put off the opportunity to have weddings—sometimes once, twice or even three times. As has been mentioned already, having celebrants who are able to deliver a legal marriage would mean less pressure on registrars, and it would help to clear the backlog. On that note, I say once again to the Minister that this matter is something that could be resolved very quickly and easily and be well supported by Members across the House.
Thank you, Dr Huq; it is really good to see you in the Chair. I apologise for my late arrival—I had another commitment —and thank you for your indulgence in allowing me to speak. I congratulate the hon. Member for Reigate (Crispin Blunt) on securing the debate, and I am sorry that I missed most of his speech.
I do not doubt it.
I declare an interest as a vice-chair of the all-party parliamentary humanist group and a member of Humanists UK.
The UN Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Religion or Belief, Dr Ahmed Shaheed, recently conducted a survey of marriage laws around the world. He found that, broadly speaking, there are four approaches. The first, which is the most common, is for the state to legally recognise only civil marriages, or perhaps to not even recognise any ceremony at all and simply have the state involved in signing the paperwork entirely separately from any ceremonial aspects. That is seen in most European countries, including—most famously—France but also Germany; across much of Asia, with China, Korea and Japan taking the non-ceremonial approach; in most of Latin America; and across much of Africa.
The second approach is to recognise only religious marriages. That is the case across much of the middle east, north Africa, Iran, Indonesia and Malaysia. In Dr Shaheed’s view, that is not human rights-compliant because it denies couples the chance to have a marriage at all unless it is religious, and in some cases only of a certain religion. The third approach is for the state to recognise religious and civil marriages but not humanist marriages. As we have heard, that is the approach in England and Wales. It is easy to assume that, because that is the situation here, it is quite typical of the situation everywhere else, but that is not the case. In fact, it is seen only in a few European countries, with the nearest to us probably being Denmark, and—possibly due to the colonial inheritance—in a number of Commonwealth countries in Africa, the Caribbean and in parts of Canada.
Finally, the fourth approach is to also legally recognise humanist marriages. That is now the situation in the large majority of our neighbours, namely Scotland, Northern Ireland, the Republic of Ireland, the Channel Islands, Norway and Iceland, and also the US, Australia, New Zealand and other parts of Canada. Common to all the countries in the latter section is that they started off recognising only religious and civil marriages but moved to recognising humanist marriages either because of political will and political pressure or following court cases, as was the situation in Northern Ireland and parts of the US. That demonstrates that we are perhaps more isolated than we might realise.
It is also worth knowing what Dr Shaheed thinks of each approach, in terms of human rights. Recognising only civil marriages may not be as flexible in giving people what they want. Famously, in France, it is common for Catholic churches to be situated opposite town halls, so that a wedding party can easily transition from the civil marriage to the religious ceremony. None the less, that is seen by Dr Shaheed as lawful, because it treats everyone equally, regardless of their religion or belief; he does not believe that approach violates international human rights treaties. As already mentioned, recognising only religious ceremonies is wrong, compelling people to take part in religious acts or denying them the right to marry at all.
However, in Dr Shaheed’s view, recognising only civil and religious marriages also represents discrimination on the basis of religion or belief. It treats religious people more favourably than humanists, offering the former a privilege that is denied to the latter. That privilege does not have to be offered to any religious or humanist group, but where it is, it should be offered to all. That is the case in the US and Ireland. It can also be seen in the universal periodic review of the UK conducted by Dr Shaheed’s predecessor Asma Jahangir as long ago as 2008. In that review, she wrote that
“humanists made the criticism that in practice there are institutional and legal examples of discrimination against non-religious believers…while humanist weddings are legal in Scotland since June 2005, marriages conducted by humanist celebrants are not recognized in the law of England and Wales.”
That was in 2005—17 years ago—and nothing has changed since.
The correctness of Dr Shaheed’s assessment can be seen in the judgment of the High Court in the 2008 case, R (Harrison and others) v. Secretary of State for Justice, in which the judge found that
“there is a continuing discriminatory impact upon those who seek to manifest their humanist beliefs through marriage…the discrimination suffered by the Claimants is real: the difference of treatment they experience in seeking to manifest their humanist beliefs through the ceremony of marriage is a matter of substance, not merely one of form…I have found that—subject only to the question of justification—the present law gives rise to article 14 discrimination in the Claimants enjoyment of their article 9 rights.”
She rules that the Secretary of State for Justice cannot
“simply sit on his hands”
and do nothing. The judge also said that she had given the Government the benefit of the doubt that they would reform marriage law after the Law Commission review. She wrote:
“Although I may deprecate the delay that has occurred since 2015, I cannot ignore the fact that there is currently an on-going review of the law of marriage in this country that will necessarily engage with the wider concerns that have been raised.”
She found that,
“the Defendant’s stated desire to consider any reform on a wholesale, rather than piecemeal, basis”
was a legitimate aim, because,
“the Government has identified concerns as to the potential consequences of addressing one area of unequal treatment without doing so as part of a more general reform. Specifically, in relation to the treatment of humanist and other non-religious belief marriages, particular issues were identified relating to the location where the ceremony might take place…these were matters seen to potentially give rise to new species of discrimination if reform was only undertaken on a piecemeal basis.”
That was the Government’s defence, but they have undermined that legitimate aim through their action on outdoor civil and religious marriages. That is not to say that I do not welcome the reforms to enable outdoor marriages—I do—but merely to say that it leaves the Government with no excuse to not also legally recognise humanist marriages.
What I find most difficult to understand about the Government’s position is that the judgment in that case is legally binding case law that the Government must follow. Even before the outdoor marriage reforms, it was the case that the Government must extend legal recognition to humanist marriages after the Law Commission review is over. Yet the Government’s repeated position, in response to all letters, parliamentary questions and other approaches since the 2020 judgment, has been to simply say:
“The Government will decide on provision for non-religious belief marriage in light of the Law Commission's recommendations.”
Even in the light of the judgment, the Government have not committed to acting at the end of the review, only saying that they will decide whether to act once the review is over. How can that position possibly be tenable, given the very clear judgment from the High Court?
I have three questions for the Minister. Will the Government today commit to legally recognising humanist marriages at the earliest opportunity? Failing that, will they commit to doing so after the current review? If so, how soon do they intend to bring that legislation into force? These are really important questions about ending discrimination in this country, to give everybody a fair chance.
What a pleasure to speak in a debate chaired by my constituency neighbour, Dr Huq, I think for the first time. I congratulate the hon. Member for Reigate (Crispin Blunt) on bringing this important debate forward. I was intending to speak in it, before I was elevated—if that is the right word—to the spokesperson position. He has championed this issue, and others. Only this week, I was lobbied by the National Secular Society on his Education (Assemblies) Bill. He is the apostle of the secular, but never of the mundane.
I thank my hon. Friends the Members for Luton South (Rachel Hopkins), for Llanelli (Nia Griffith) and for Manchester, Withington (Jeff Smith), who have all spoken eloquently, with examples of how humanist marriage works and their own testimony as humanists. They have also, which has been a common theme in the debate, emphasised the logic of where the issue is going and the unfairness of the current situation.
There is really only one point for the Minister to address, which is to explain the puzzle of why the Government are dragging their feet. I hope we will hear a clear exposition on that. In the words of the letter from 53 MPs—including myself—that we have heard referred to, humanist couples in England and Wales simply ask to have the same freedom of choice to marry in line with their beliefs as their religious counterparts. I hope the Minister does not disagree with that.
I have another quote, this time from my hon. Friend the Member for Stretford and Urmston (Kate Green), about putting right
“a long-standing injustice in a simple and uncontroversial way.”—[Official Report, 21 May 2013; Vol. 563, c. 1074.]
The door is open, more than ajar, and the Government have only a small step to take through it. My hon. Friend said those words in a debate on the Marriage (Same Sex Couples) Act 2013, to which she, from the Labour Front Bench, was proposing an amendment that would have extended legal recognition to humanist marriages. That is now nine years ago. As has been the case throughout, she was supported by colleagues from across the House.
Labour supported similar amendments during the passage of the Bill through the House of Lords. Its efforts led to section 14 of the Marriage (Same Sex Couples) Act 2013, which gives the Government the power to enact legal recognition of humanist marriages by order. In other words, most of the groundwork has been done. Looking back at Hansard, I am struck by the fact that during an earlier debate, when the late Lord Eden of Winton was objecting to the attempt to get humanist marriage into the Bill, my noble Friend Baroness Thornton, speaking for the Labour Front Bench, intervened on him to ask:
“Does the noble Lord think that the humanists need to wait another 19 years for another Bill to come passing by?”—[Official Report, House of Lords, 19 June 2013; Vol. 746, c. 303.]
Well, we are nine years later already, so nearly half of that time has elapsed, and humanists are still waiting.
The Government have been reviewing the matter ever since, with several more years anticipated before they are prepared to legislate. They have not even committed to do so all this time later—the Minister could put that right today. In the face of the High Court decision in Harrison, which now looks a little disingenuous, given the position the Government took in that case, it looks as if Baroness Thornton’s question will sadly prove prescient.
In November last year, I spoke for the Labour Front Bench in the main Chamber on the Marriage and Civil Partnership (Minimum Age) Bill. There has been a piecemeal approach to marriage reform over the last few years. I mentioned in that speech that there had been good movement and progressive legislation on civil partnerships and same-sex marriage.
One Bill that I was involved in was a private Member’s Bill introduced by the hon. Member for East Worthing and Shoreham (Tim Loughton) and, indeed, enacted. It permitted opposite-sex couples to have civil partnerships. That was a peculiarity in the law and perhaps something that needed addressing. Again, it was a long struggle. My constituents Charles Keidan and Rebecca Steinfeld fought a four-year battle, going as far as the Supreme Court, for their right to have a civil partnership. The Government do not move easily on these matters, but they move in the end, and I wonder why they have to make it so difficult. With that in mind, my advice would be to learn from their past mistakes and stop dragging their feet by giving legal recognition to humanist marriage, instead of there being further delay.
To answer my question as to why humanists have been made to wait, in 2014 the Government conducted a consultation exercise about extending legal recognition in that way. The result was 95% in favour, but again the Government kicked it into the long grass. At that time, an article in The Sunday Times on the matter quoted a senior Government source as saying:
“Lynton Crosby and the Tories have basically said ‘no way’. They think this is a fringe issue and are saying, ‘why would we do this?’”
If that was an accurate report, Mr Crosby and his colleagues were wrong both to be so dismissive of the fundamental rights and freedoms of humanists and to think it was a fringe matter, given that humanist marriages have proven, even without legal status, to be hugely popular and have grown greatly in popularity in those jurisdictions where they are legally recognised.
As I mentioned, Labour has pledged to give legal recognition to humanist marriage, and that has been its consistent position for many years now. The Government have undermined their own position by introducing outdoor civil and religious marriages, as we have heard. Why are they okay? Why was that change made just a few week ago, but humanist marriage reform is not seen to be a priority? Why have humanists been at the back of the queue for so long, and what reason is there for making them wait any longer?
It is not only Labour that supports humanists and humanist marriages. As I said, colleagues from across the House support legal recognition of them—not just the Members who signed the letter that was published today but those who subscribed to speak in the debate, even if some of them have been unable to attend. The hon. Member for Gillingham and Rainham (Rehman Chishti), who was for quite a period the Prime Minister’s special envoy for freedom of religion or belief, introduced a Bill to bring about the legal recognition of humanist marriage in 2020. He said:
“The lack of legal recognition of humanist marriages in England and Wales is discrimination, pure and simple.”
I am glad to have jogged the hon. Gentleman’s memory. To continue with the quotation, the hon. Member for Gillingham and Rainham went on to say:
“This matter has been under review for some seven years now”—
this was two years ago—
“and that’s more than long enough. My Bill would bring about legal recognition of humanist marriages within three months of its passage, thus enabling the many who want a legally recognised humanist marriage to be able to have one now. It would not prevent further changes to the law, after the completion of the present Law Commission review, but would remedy the present discrimination.”
It seems certain that there would have been majority support for such a move, were the Government to have given it sufficient parliamentary time two years ago.
That support can be seen around the rest of the UK. We have heard that humanist marriages were introduced in Scotland in 2005—under a Labour Government, I might add—when the Registrar General identified that he could bring them about by reinterpreting existing legislation that applied to religious marriages. Sadly, the wording of the law in England and Wales renders such an approach here impossible.
Support can also be seen in Northern Ireland, where humanist marriages have been legally recognised since 2018. That was initially brought about by a court case that was necessary as a result of Government inertia during the lengthy collapse of the Executive. However, I understand from Northern Ireland humanists that since the resumption of power sharing they have had nothing but friendly and supportive meetings with Members of the Legislative Assembly and Ministers from all parties.
It is worth noting that the Northern Ireland Executive is currently consulting on introducing legislation to put humanist marriages on a firmer statutory footing, rather than relying on the court decision, as at present. That strikes me as a sensible way to go about things: fix the fundamental discrimination of the lack of legal recognition of humanist marriages as early as possible, get such marriages going, and then look to develop legislation to put them on the firmest possible footing. Such an approach avoids nine years and counting of consultation, and of disappointment for couples such as Kate Harrison and Christopher Sanderson—Kate being the lead claimant in the 2020 court case. They are waiting for a change in the law before getting married, mirroring the example of my constituents in the civil partnership case, who had to wait years simply to get something that most people regard as a basic human right. They have been waiting for far too long.
We have heard about Wales. Unfortunately for the Welsh, marriage law is not a devolved matter. Last year, the Labour Government in Wales wrote to the UK Government demanding immediate legal recognition of humanist marriages or, failing that, for marriage law to be devolved so that the Welsh Government could act where the UK Government have not. It is manifestly past time for the UK Government to act. I hope that they will now do so.
The law is discriminatory. It treats humanists as second -class citizens. It imposes additional financial burdens on them. The excuse that the Government wish to comprehensively address the issue is clearly wrong because they are approaching matters in a piecemeal way. It would be extremely simple to make the change. On that basis, I simply ask the Minister whether he can confirm what the Government will do—not waiting for the Law Commission initially—to bring humanist marriages into legal effect as quickly as possible. I have received numerous letters from constituents this week and last week—like many Members present, I am sure—in anticipation of the debate, all asking those questions and others.
This is not the only issue outstanding; I also mentioned, the last time we debated marriage, the issue of common-law marriage. I am not suggesting that we wait until we sort that problem out, because that is a problem that affects 3 million couples—6 million people. It has quite significant, and in some cases devastating, financial effects on people who believe they have security but find out upon the death of a partner, or after separation, that they simply do not. There are a lot of further steps that the Government need to take, but that is not a reason for holding up the simple, straightforward and uncontroversial step of giving legal status to humanist marriages. I hope we will hear from the Minister today that that is about to be done with great speed and enthusiasm.
It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Dr Huq. I start by thanking my hon. Friend the Member for Reigate (Crispin Blunt) for securing this debate, and for the way he has gone about representing his strongly held convictions on this issue. He is a tireless campaigner on the matter. I am grateful to colleagues from across the House who have attended the debate this afternoon to make the case for humanist marriage. I know that many right hon. and hon. Members who hold very strong views on this are not here this afternoon but regularly make the arguments for humanist marriage. I have no doubt that they will speak to me about it in the weeks and months ahead.
Marriage will always be one of our most important institutions, and the Government want to encourage the stability and commitment in family life that marriage and civil partnership provides. A wedding day is one of the most important days of a couple’s lives, and I understand that they want it to be personal and to reflect their beliefs and preferences—that will make their day all the more memorable. I have heard, and I recognise, the depth of feeling on the issue.
I personally see huge benefits to marriage: the commitment that marriage brings—that people are making that commitment to one another—and all the positive benefits that there are for children in a committed, loving family environment. That is very important and something that I am incredibly mindful of. I say that as someone who is not married, and has not been married—who knows what will happen in that regard in the future.
I thank the Minister for his generous remarks about me and others, and also for what he has just said in a personal capacity. I cannot quite see any reason why he cannot say that as a member of Her Majesty’s Government. Surely, that must reflect our Government policy as well.
It is fair to say that the Government certainly support the institution and the principle of marriage. I wanted to reflect my own personal sentiments in that regard, and to pick up on the point made by the shadow Minister, the hon. Member for Hammersmith (Andy Slaughter), about there being a perception in some quarters that the issue of humanist marriage is a fringe issue. I want to provide my hon. Friend with reassurance that, as the Minister responsible for marriage, I do not see this issue through that lens—that would not be right. There are many people in this country who feel very passionately about this and who want to see reform. It is fair to say that I am mindful of their views and of the strength of feeling with which they express them. I will set out in further remarks what the Government’s intentions are.
We must consider very carefully the implications of any changes to the law in this area. Currently, couples can marry in England and Wales through a civil ceremony conducted by a superintendent registrar or a registrar, or through a religious ceremony conducted by authorised members of that religion. Humanists have asked for provision that would not be available to all groups. It would allow them to marry in a place meaningful to them, without restriction on the location of the ceremony. Other groups would not have the same choice, as the law on marriage solemnization is generally based largely on the building in which the relevant marriage takes place. We therefore need to consider the implications very carefully.
I hear what the hon. Gentleman suggests. If I may, I will continue to make my argument and pick up on some of those points as I progress.
According to Humanists UK, 1,050 ceremonies are conducted by its celebrants in England and Wales each year. By comparison, according to the most recent Office for National Statistics publication on the topic, 186,614 civil marriages and 48,181 religious weddings took place in 2018.
I certainly take on board the hon. Lady’s point. Colleagues here this afternoon have made that argument in very strong terms, and it is one that I am mindful of. I also note the individuals who decided not to get married and to wait and see what the Government’s next steps will be following publication of the Law Commission’s report.
In 2014 the Government published a consultation paper and response assessing the potential merits of provision for non-religious belief marriages. It concluded that the matter was complex, and that by allowing humanists to solemnise marriages in unrestricted locations, the Government would create a provision for humanists that would not be available to all groups. To ensure that we consider the implications of changing the law on marriage for all groups, we invited the Law Commission to undertake a review, which is currently under way and is expected to report in July.
The Government remain committed to considering the case for more comprehensive and enduring reform to marriage law once the Law Commission has completed its fundamental review of the law in this area. Options being explored by the Law Commission include offering couples greater flexibility on the form of their own ceremonies; allowing the ceremony to take place in a much broader range of locations; and providing a framework that could allow non-religious belief organisations, such as humanists, and independent celebrants to conduct legally binding weddings.
As part of the review, the Law Commission will consider how marriage by humanist and other non-religious belief organisations could be incorporated into a revised or new scheme that is simple, fair and consistent for all groups. Legislating to allow humanist marriages now would pre-empt the Law Commission’s report, which is expected to provide a framework that could allow for humanist weddings. Although I recognise the frustration that many have felt while waiting for the publication of the Law Commission’s report, it is right that we do this properly through a wholesale reform of marriage law, which can provide for humanist marriage while preventing disparity from being created with other groups.
By looking at the law comprehensively, the Law Commission will be able to ensure that, in so far as possible, groups and couples are all subject to the same rules and the same level of regulation. The Law Commission’s recommendations are expected to eliminate the current situation where a couple with one set of beliefs is legally permitted to marry in one type of location—for example, in a private garden—but a couple with another set of beliefs is not. That reform is not possible by only authorising humanist weddings. The Government will carefully consider the Law Commission’s recommendations when the final report is published, and it is right for us to await the outcome of that.
Separately, since July 2021, couples have been able to have their civil marriage and civil partnership proceedings in the open air in the grounds of buildings such as stately homes and hotels that are approved, or become approved, for civil ceremonies. Outdoor ceremonies were made possible because the Government laid a statutory instrument at significant pace when covid was at a peak in order to give couples more choice of settings, and to support the wedding and civil partnership sector. I think all of us would recognise that that was an important step to take in the context of the pandemic when individuals did of course still want to get married and when there were important considerations for businesses up and down the country. That was the right thing to do.
I am proud that couples were given a lifeline to enable them to have some semblance of normality on their big day when there were restrictions in place. Some have said that was an example of piecemeal reform, but that is not the case. It was a measured response to the most significant public health crisis this country has faced, allowing couples and their loved ones to celebrate their special days safely.
One of many venues to have benefited from the statutory instrument was Hodsock Priory, which said:
“Guests love it as it feels romantic and is COVID safe. It’s a positive experience and asset to our venue.”
As the statutory instrument has effect only until 5 April 2022, it is right that we make these changes permanent.
This week, the Government’s consultation on outdoor marriages and civil partnerships closed. The Government are fulfilling their commitment to carry out a full public consultation on outdoor weddings and to lay a further instrument to make the current time-limited changes permanent in spring 2022. This will continue to provide flexibility and choice to couples, venues and the wider wedding industry, in a sector in which almost 75% of all weddings are civil ceremonies and more than 85% of those are held on approved premises—a sector that has been hit hard by the pandemic.
When the Government announced the temporary measures for civil ceremonies in June 2021, they also committed to legislate to enable outdoor religious marriage when parliamentary time allowed. The outdoor marriage and civil partnerships consultation also sought views on the proposal. This proposed reform to religious wedding ceremonies is being considered to maintain parity between couples seeking a civil or religious wedding by providing similar choice and flexibility and allowing such ceremonies to take place outdoors.
I think we are all grateful for the Minister’s sentiments, but I am not sure that we are persuaded by his arguments. Even if we are moving in the right direction, it is going to be another couple of years if we wait for the Law Commission. There is nothing to stop an interim provision, which—if the Minister is concerned about disparities—could limit humanist weddings to approved premises in the same way as civil or religious ceremonies. That would mean that thousands of couples who want to get married and may have been waiting years to do so could go ahead now. It seems unnecessarily harsh to make them wait that length of time, even if the Government do get there in the end.
It is my understanding that humanists can get married by their chosen celebrant on approved premises, but that the superintendent registrar and registrar must be present. To allow that to take place without the superintendent registrar or registrar would require an affirmative statutory instrument, which, by itself, would take around eight months to deliver. It would not be an immediate change.
The hon. Gentleman will know that I always try to set expectations in the House at a reasonable level. I do not think it is right to set unrealistic expectations about such things. That is the situation, as I understand it, were we to go down the route he advocates.
I reiterate my thanks to my hon. Friend the Member for Reigate—I know he will continue to engage with me on these matters, and I will certainly welcome such opportunities—for bringing this important issue to the House’s attention. I wish to reassure him and other hon. Members present that this issue is very much on my radar. The provision of humanist marriages is something that I will carefully consider. However, it needs to be done when the time is right and through proper consideration of all the issues involved. By waiting until the Law Commission provides its recommendations in July 2022, we will have a clear and comprehensive view of the opportunities associated with comprehensive reform to marriage law and options to address the concerns raised during this debate.
As I said at the outset, I am mindful of the strength of feeling in the House on this issue, as well as the strength of feeling among individuals in all our constituencies. My own constituents have written to me about this issue over the last week or so, in advance of the debate, and I am grateful to them for contacting me as their local MP. I am mindful of their strength of feeling. I give the House the undertaking that when the Law Commission produces its report, as the Minister responsible, I will of course want to take a look at it in very short order, progress with these reforms, see what the commission recommends and make informed decisions about how best to proceed.
I thank all hon. Friends and colleagues who have taken part in the debate. I listened to my hon. Friend the Minister with great interest. I am obviously pleased with the positivity he expressed personally around marriage. I made the point in an intervention that I am pretty certain that his is the Government position, as much as it is the position of all the Front Benches in the House.
The statistics the Minister used about what has happened with marriages in England and Wales bear quite interesting analysis if we simply project the Scottish experience on to them. We might need to look at this again, but certainly, about 10,000 couples a year will want to take advantage of the opportunity to have a humanist celebrant conduct the most important service and celebration of the most important legal relationship in their lives. Whereas it might be only 1,400 today, a very large number of people every year are not able to exercise the freedoms that they deserve.
That takes us to the other elements of the Minister’s speech. One could hear the legal drafting that had gone on of the pre-emptive defence of the Government’s position, piecemeal reform having ripped away the defence that was offered against the judgment in the Harrison case in 2020. As my hon. Friend continues his consideration of this area, let us get immediate relief to all the tens of thousands of people who are potentially engaged in this issue before there is conceivably time for primary legislation to be passed to address marriage reform in substance. There are loads of interesting things we can do. We can do the statutory instrument. We know that we can do these things at pace. I cannot see the public policy concerns that we should not get this done for the next two or three years for all those people who want to take advantage of it. We will certainly focus hard on making those arguments for him and his colleagues to consider.
I know how determined my hon. Friend and his colleagues in the Ministry of Justice will be to get this done in the way that is intended. If we have to wait for the Law Commission response and the Government response, and then for the Government to present primary legislation to Parliament and for Parliament to pass it, an awful lot of people will not be able to exercise the freedoms that he and I should want for them and would support. This really is urgent. It could be done in isolation, before the Law Commission reports, as the hon. Members for Manchester, Withington (Jeff Smith) and for Hammersmith (Andy Slaughter) suggested with respect to approved premises.
I hope that the Minister takes ownership of this matter and enables all the people who want to take advantage of humanist weddings to do so. I look forward to continuing to press these arguments, and to his active consideration of the issue. There is widespread interest, as is made clear by the letter to the Lord Chancellor today signed by so many parliamentary colleagues from both Houses, and by the strength of support for the application for this debate. I believe that the tone of the debate has reflected that, too. I look forward to engaging with the Minister and his colleagues further.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered humanist marriages in England and Wales.