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Humanist Marriages

Volume 762: debated on Tuesday 2 June 2015


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government whether they plan to give legal recognition to humanist marriages in England and Wales, and if so, by what date.

My Lords, the previous Government consulted on whether the law should be changed to allow non-religious belief organisations, including humanists, to conduct legal marriages. They concluded that there were broader implications for marriage law and asked the Law Commission whether it would conduct a review of the law on marriage ceremonies. The Law Commission is now undertaking a preliminary scoping study and is due to report by December. The Government will then consider the next steps.

It is quite remarkable that the Government felt that humanist marriages were such a threat that they had to call in the Law Commission to do their work. I do not think that the Minister's explanation is really very convincing. Why should the review delay humanist marriages, given that legal recognition is a simple measure, as has been proved in Scotland? Would he care to write and explain to my children why they would have to go to Scotland if they wished to have a legally recognised humanist marriage ceremony?

As the noble Baroness and the House will be aware, there is nothing to prevent humanists getting married and then having a humanist ceremony.

The quarrel, as I understand it—if the noble Baroness will allow me to continue—is that it is felt that both those ceremonies should take place at the same time. There having been a consultation, there was no consensus across the key stakeholders. The consultation raises a number of significant issues of a broader nature; in particular, the National Panel for Registration was concerned about the risk of forced and sham marriages. That is also a concern, incidentally, in Scotland, where there is a different system, based on the celebrant rather than the registration buildings and where there is also concern and a consultation about that very issue.

During the 10 years of humanist marriages in Scotland, some 20,000 such marriages have taken place, which is more than the number of Catholic marriages and, by the end of the year, will number more than Church of Scotland marriages. Will the Minister agree to look into the popular demand for such marriages in England and Wales with a view to implementing the legislation that the previous Government passed, on the assumption of a recommendation to implement by the Law Commission?

I can assure the noble Baroness that the Law Commission will talk to officials in Scotland on the issue as part of its scoping work on marriage law reform in England and Wales. In Scotland, Ministers were concerned about the qualifying requirements for a celebrant; they are concerned about the reputation, dignity and solemnity of marriage as well as combating sham marriages and civil partnerships. Although, of course, it must be immensely frustrating for those who want a humanist marriage at the same time as the celebration, this is part of an overall consideration by the Government as to the way forward.

My Lords, the practice of polygamy is a growing issue in the United Kingdom. Will my noble friend confirm that an Islamic marriage in the United Kingdom is not legally recognised and say what the Government intend to do to move towards legal recognition? That would provide essential protection specifically for women on the breakdown of that marriage and would also, as a by-product, deal with the issue of bigamy.

My noble friend is no doubt correct about the real worry of polygamy. Certainly, that is a matter of concern for the Government. We are looking, as I indicated generally, at what is necessary to have appropriate formalities as to marriage, and I shall convey my noble friend’s concern to the Government.

Will the Minister say whether there are any practical barriers to the legalisation of humanist marriages? After all, at the other end of the spectrum people are perfectly free to have humanist funerals. I have been to quite a few very moving ceremonies. Surely couples who want a humanist celebration of their marriage should be allowed that freedom of choice.

There are limited legal requirements in relation to the registration of death, and anyone is free to mark the passing of an individual by whatever means they like, including in a humanist ceremony. For many hundreds of years marriage in England and Wales has been based on having taken place in a registered building, and there needs to be serious thought about the implications of changing the law.

In his earlier reply, the Minister said that “key stakeholders”—plural—were being consulted. Since this refers to humanist marriages, who other than humanists are key stakeholders in this issue?

Certainly humanists are key stakeholders. They took a significant part in the consultation. More than 60% of responses were from humanists or individuals who responded as part of a perfectly appropriate campaign, and I can assure the noble Lord that they will be consulted.

My Lords, as a Christian who found the changes we made to the meaning of marriage in the previous Parliament somewhat difficult, I completely accept that the law has now been changed. I find it difficult to understand any logical objection to what the noble Baroness is calling for this afternoon. I hope that we can have an early decision on this and hope that my noble friend can reassure me.

I understand what my noble friend says about the approach to marriage which this House approved in the Marriages (Same Sex Couples) Act. It was a significant achievement of the Government. I understand the sense of frustration that he may feel that the Government are not moving swiftly enough. I assure my noble friend that while due speed will be shown in looking at this, because of the wider implications, it is necessary to consider this matter thoroughly.

My Lords, I apologise for my eagerness to ask the Minister my question, which may have seemed discourteous. Does he not recall that there was a substantial measure of support for the legal recognition of humanist marriage and does he not therefore think it would be just to allow it the same grace that is allowed to the Jewish and Quaker communities?

The exception for the Jewish and Quaker communities is based on the state of affairs in 1753. I agree that there are certain anomalies based on historical facts. There is no feeling on the part of the Government to discriminate against humanist marriages. It is simply a question of looking at the matter overall so that we can make our law consistent.