Skip to main content

Marriage: Humanist Ceremonies

Volume 768: debated on Thursday 21 January 2016


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what plans they have to establish humanist marriage ceremonies in England and Wales.

My Lords, the Government gave an Answer to the noble Baroness on 2 June last year saying that given the broader implications for marriage law, they would consider the next steps after the Law Commission had reported in December on its preliminary scoping study of the law concerning how and where people can marry in England and Wales. The Government are carefully considering the report and will respond in due course.

I thank the Minister for his Answer. He will understand why I keep returning to this because Scotland is a long way for one to go for one’s children to have a humanist marriage. Two gay people can now marry in a church but they cannot have a humanist wedding in England and Wales. It is two and a half years since this House agreed that it thought that should happen. Can the Minister say whether it would be possible, and indeed preferable, for a modest extension of the law to accommodate humanist marriage rather than overhauling marriage law, as recommended by the Law Commission report? If Scotland and other countries can do this in a simple way, should England and Wales not be able to do so as well?

What Parliament decided, in Section 14 of the Marriage (Same Sex Couples) Act 2013, was of course that the Secretary of State should arrange a review, which the Secretary of State did—that is the Law Commission review—and that he has a power rather than a duty to make the order which the noble Baroness refers to. It is of course quite right that Scotland has operated a different arrangement, whereby you may go to a registry office and have a schedule permitting you to get married anywhere. Marriages have taken place on the top of a mountain and in the middle of a loch, identified only by a GPS reference. However, these are serious matters. The Government think it necessary to consider marriage as a whole and it is interesting that the Law Commission’s thorough report does in fact not recommend simply activating that order-making power, as the noble Baroness will have seen.

My Lords, following that answer, can the Minister confirm that the system in Scotland is that the celebrants are registered rather than the locations where the ceremonies take place? That is the material difference. However, opinion polls consistently show public support for humanist marriages, so can he tell us why the Government keep trying to kick this into the long grass rather than using the powers that they have to bring it about?

The noble Baroness is quite right of course that it is a celebrant-based system. A schedule is issued by the register office stating where the marriage can take place, and the celebrant then goes back to the register office and the matter is registered there. The Government have considered the matter and will continue to do so, and will bear in mind the very cogent representations that have been made on behalf of humanists. At paragraph 3.20 of its report, the Law Commission said that,

“activating the statutory order-making power to permit marriages according to the rites of non-religious belief organisations is simply not, in our view, a viable option”.

The Government have to take that into account and consider the integrity of marriage as well as, of course, the wishes of individuals.

My Lords, is my noble friend aware that Islamic religious marriages are recognised in the UK in law only if they are conducted overseas and not in the United Kingdom? This anomaly is the main reason why women turn to sharia councils when their marriages fail, an issue which my right honourable friend the Prime Minister was discussing earlier this week. If he is aware of that, and if the recognition of these marriages would stop references to sharia councils and indeed the practice of polygamy, why will the Government not adopt this provision? They have been aware that this is a solution as far back as 2011.

These are complicated issues. As my noble friend quite rightly says, the Home Secretary has initiated a general inquiry into the use of sharia councils. One area of particular concern is the circumstances in which marriages take place and the fact that there are some people in the Muslim community for whom marriage can be used somewhat oppressively. It is certainly important that all the information is available before we come to any conclusions.

I find this very difficult to understand. Why, if it was right to have a review of marriage generally, did we have the same-sex marriage Act but not allow the same for humanists? There is an unacceptable discrepancy there, and I speak as someone who is not a humanist.

It is not of course, as the noble Baroness would confirm, that we do not allow humanist marriage—a civil marriage can take place followed by a humanist ceremony. The gravamen of the complaint is that they cannot take place simultaneously.

My Lords, speaking as a humanist, may I ask the Government what the majority of respondents to their consultation on this subject of humanist marriage thought about it?

The vast majority—well over 90%—were in favour of humanist marriage. Humanists represented by far the greater majority of those who responded to the consultation. Pagans and naturists also responded—the latter, for some reason, were particularly keen on outdoor ceremonies, which might be challenging at this time of year.

My Lords, it seems to me that the Minister is taking the Law Commission view ahead of Parliament. It was this Parliament that decided that the Secretary of State should have this power. Is it not now time to move on that?

I respectfully reject what the noble Baroness says. She is quite right that it is a matter for Parliament, and it is also a matter for the Government to consider. The Law Commission has produced a very valuable and thorough report—as I am sure she will agree, having read it—which provides material for the Government to consider. The report was only produced just before Christmas. After considering that report, the Government will then make a decision.