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Humanist Marriage Ceremonies

Volume 794: debated on Thursday 22 November 2018


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what plans they have to enable humanist marriage ceremonies.

My Lords, marriage is a complex area of law that needs systematic review to enable any reform proposals to be delivered fairly and consistently. We are working with the Law Commission to draw up terms of reference for the wider review of the law on marriage ceremonies, announced in the recent Budget. The Government welcome the report of the All-Party Parliamentary Humanist Group, the APPHG, and are carefully considering its findings.

My Lords, given that some 1,900 of the respondents to the Government’s consultation were in favour of humanist marriage, and given that in Scotland more marriages are now humanist in kind than religious, might the Government go one step further than they did earlier this month when they allowed humanists to represent those in the Armed Forces to attend at the Cenotaph as part of the ceremony recognising the wars of the past? Might they go forward with some verve and fervour to ensure that humanist marriages are permissible throughout the United Kingdom?

My Lords, I pay tribute to the noble Lord, Lord Harrison, for his tireless work in this area. As I mentioned, we are carefully considering the report from the APPHG and we have commissioned this wider review. In 2015, there were over 245,000 marriages in England and Wales, and in Scotland, as the noble Lord mentioned, we have seen that humanist marriages are attractive to many couples. It is therefore absolutely critical that we do not embark on piecemeal reform, which may lead to inconsistencies between groups—for example, between non-religious belief organisations and religious belief organisations. I look forward to seeing the Law Commission review in due course.

My Lords, the Minister says that she is concerned about inconsistencies. Is she aware that, as the result of a judgment of the Court of Appeal in Northern Ireland in June this year in Laura Smyth’s case, humanist marriages are now lawful in Northern Ireland? Can there really be a justification for treating people in England and Wales differently from people in Scotland and in Northern Ireland?

My Lords, it is indeed called devolution. We are not looking to treat people differently. We are looking to reform the marriage ceremonies for all people to make sure that there is equality and that there is parity between different groups.

My Lords, my noble friend is well aware of the disparity, which has just been pointed out, between Northern Ireland and Scotland, where humanist marriages are permitted, and England and Wales, where they are not. Will she tell the House what steps the Government are taking to rectify this injustice? Consultation with the Law Commission simply will not do, because as long ago as 2013, when the Marriage (Same Sex Couples) Act was passed, the Secretary of State was given power to make humanist marriages legal by statutory instrument. Will she please ask him to exercise that power forthwith?

My noble friend will know that that is a permissive power, not an obligation. Following the 2013 Act, the Law Commission undertook a scoping study in 2015. It concluded that exercising the 2013 power is not a viable option because of the difference that would then appear between the different sorts of groups. The Law Commission is a statutory independent body. It makes sure that the law is fair, modern, simple and cost-effective. I do not believe that we should ignore its recommendations. We should listen to what it has to say and look at all marriage ceremonies across all sorts of organisations and reach a sensible and appropriate conclusion.

My Lords, everyone likes a good wedding and it should be the happiest day of your life, but, as has already been discussed, we know that humanist marriages are not legally recognised and couples have to have a separate civil ceremony. Aside from the human rights implications and the fact that humanist marriages are recognised in Scotland, Northern Ireland and the Crown dependencies, there is evidence that in Scotland, where 19% of weddings are humanist, the sharp decline in marriages has been reversed and the increase in divorce rates has fallen. So whether it is permissive or not permissive, does the Minister agree that it is good thing and a good time for England and Wales to catch up?

As has she. I take on board exactly what the noble Baroness is saying. All I am saying is that all these points are being taken into consideration. We understand the comments that have been made in your Lordships’ House today. Obviously we are making progress on this, but we must wait for the Law Commission review.

My Lords, the Government have spent a very long time considering this mild, progressive and very popular proposal. Where does the opposition come from?

My Lords, it is not a question of opposition; it is a question of making the law right and fair for everybody. It is not right to prioritise one sort of organisation over another sort of organisation. We need to make sure that all marriage ceremonies are fair for everybody.

My Lords, I remind the Minister that the Law Commission in 2015 also said that to deny humanists marriage is fundamentally unfair. She did not read that bit.

My Lords, nobody is denying humanists marriage. Humanists and, indeed, any couple can make private, non-legal arrangements following a civil ceremony. What we want to do, and I am sure the noble and learned Baroness would agree, is to make sure that the law is right and that we take into account all possible considerations from humanists and many other groups which also want to see a change in the law.

My Lords, does my noble friend agree that talk about getting England and Wales, the largest country of the United Kingdom, into line with the others is a lot of nonsense? Devolution is there to provide that the various parts of the kingdom can go their different ways. So why should we have to come into line with the others?

My Lords, I welcome my noble friend back to his place in the House—and to his activities, so watch out, particularly on Europe and humanism. Five years ago, I stood at this Dispatch Box and called for legal humanist marriages. There was support for that across the House, as there has been today. It is not acceptable that, five years and two reviews later, nothing has happened. I do not accept that marriage is complex, actually. If other countries can have humanist weddings, then I do not see why England and Wales cannot. My question for the Minister is: how can a Government who are in favour of choice and fair competition allow the vested interests of those who conduct marriages at the moment to sway what would be fair competition for humanists and allow all those people who want to have this type of marriage to have it?

My Lords, I do not feel that there are vested interests at stake here at all. Returning to the issue of marriage law, it is complex; indeed, in England and Wales it is more complex than in Scotland because we base our marriage law on the building rather than the celebrant, which makes it far more complicated. That is why we are doing this review. I hope all noble Lords will bear with us while we do the review, and I look forward to making progress in this area.