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House of Lords Hansard
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Covid-19: Wedding Venues
24 June 2020
Volume 804

Question

Asked by

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To ask Her Majesty’s Government when weddings will be able to take place in venues which enable social distancing and comply with other COVID-19 precautions.

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My Lords, I am sure my noble friend would welcome that, following the Prime Minister’s Statement yesterday, from 4 July, wedding ceremonies and civil partnership ceremonies will be able to take place in England. Venues should ensure that they are Covid-19 secure, with clear social distancing in place. People should still avoid having a large ceremony and should invite no more than 30 close family members and friends.

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My Lords, I do indeed welcome the announcement that my noble friend refers to. The Government are supporting commitment by lifting the ban on weddings, but marriages also need supporting. The Government were unable to express their commitment to do that in the Divorce, Dissolution and Separation Bill, but will not bring that Bill, when enacted, into force until autumn 2021. What commitment will my noble friend make that this Government will have enhanced support in place for marriages under strain by the time no-fault divorce is available?

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Well, my Lords, my noble friend has gone a bit wider than the Question before the House, but I can assure him that the Government are committed to supporting marriage. As the Lord Chancellor said in another place, the Government will work hard to co-ordinate and bring together the strands of policy of various departments and ensure we have a suitable family policy that is fit for the 2020s.

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My Lords, it is with great delight that we received news yesterday that weddings will once again be permitted. This will be an enormous joy to many couples and families all across England. As the Minister will know, hymns are most often a focal point of a wedding service. Given yesterday’s announcement about live performances, can he give us any more detailed guidance about singing in churches, both choral and congregational?

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My Lords, I very much understand the point that the right reverend Prelate makes, but the scientific advice at the moment—not only in relation to churches, I may say—is that singing generally, because of its impact, carries the risk of spreading Covid, so it should be avoided in all public spaces.

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My Lords, I understand that 80% of weddings are civil rather than religious ceremonies. What advice can the Government give to wedding venues faced with an avalanche of postponements and cancellation demands from couples who, on the one hand, are not prepared to compromise on the format with regard to social distancing, face masks, et cetera, and yet on the other have been led to believe by the CMA that they will get all their money back if they cancel their weddings?

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I would say to my noble friend that we have only just moved into a new phase, which people are welcoming, in which marriages can actually take place. For a number of months, weddings have not been allowed and managers have had to confront that question. I am afraid that the position must remain that venue managers themselves will have discretion over when they consider it safe to open. Also, the officiant at a wedding, whether in a church or a secular setting, needs to be content that it is safe to proceed.

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My Lords, once weddings resume, there will no doubt be a huge backlog of demand for registrars that could easily stretch through to the end of next year. One way the Government should seek to ease that demand is by extending legal recognition to humanist marriages, which would mean that couples who want a humanist wedding would not also have to have a civil ceremony to gain legal recognition. Humanist marriages are already legally recognised in Scotland, Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland. Will the Government commit to acting now to bring about similar recognition here?

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No, my Lords. The current rules on marriage are set in primary legislation. This has not been changed and the Government have no plans to change it.

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My Lords, I have a young friend for whom the cancellation of her wedding and the subsequent negotiations were a nightmare. That must have been true of thousands of others. Of course, I appreciate the decision that had to be taken, but cannot help but feel that there was a failure to be creative by allowing vicars and registrars to marry people in private gardens, and so on. There is a much broader question of the costs of weddings arising from the law not permitting marriages at home—unlike, for example, in the US. When will the Government, in these challenging times, make it easier and cheaper for people to marry at home or a place of their choice, especially to clear the backlog and let the people affected get on with their lives?

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My Lords, again, I understand the point. I do not want to add to my reputation for eccentricity by admitting that my wife and I delayed our marriage because the late Lord Callaghan unexpectedly delayed the anticipated election in 1978. I fully understand the frustration that many young couples face. On the noble Baroness’s wider point, wedding venues are governed in legislation, and altering it is not currently on the Government’s agenda.

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My Lords, I understand the reasoning for yesterday’s change in advice, but clearly some of the Government’s advisers were not happy with it. In making the decision, did the Government carry out a risk analysis, and is it freely available? What will be the loss to the local economies as a result of a season of cancelled weddings? What impact will it have on the already beleaguered hospitality sector?

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My Lords, the announcement the Prime Minister made is fully guided by scientific advice, and I do not accept what the noble Baroness said. I remind her that this was an announcement to open up proceedings to permit weddings, so it should not provoke more cancellations—indeed, it should enable more weddings.

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My Lords, I welcome the announcement yesterday—my daughter is due to be married in August. Do the Government have any plans to ensure that registration of marriages, which must be 28 days before the wedding, covers those who already have weddings booked, or might they be able to introduce emergency measures to make sure that those who have weddings already booked do not find they cannot proceed due to the difficulty in catching up on registrations of the marriage?

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My Lords, my noble friend raises an important practical point. The 28-day waiting period before weddings is set in primary legislation and has not changed, but if there are exceptional circumstances in which it is believed that the waiting period should be shortened, upon giving notice one can ask for consideration from the Registrar-General to do so. The impact of Covid-19 is identified as an exceptional circumstance, but each application will have to be considered as an individual situation.

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My Lords, I note my interest in a heritage wedding venue, where all 2020 weddings have been postponed. Wedding venues and, more importantly, their local vendors and suppliers face a long, uncertain struggle. Every garbled government announcement causes further uncertainty for the businesses and for those couples who are so desperate to wed. When will the Government provide a clear roadmap for restarting this key industry, which is such an important thread in our social fabric?

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My Lords, the Government have announced important measures to assist the hospitality industry from July and to enable weddings. I remind the noble Earl that we are still in a Covid emergency and the Government have to proceed cautiously.

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I too welcome the decision and we wish all the couples well, including of course the young Ms Altmann. Will the Minister do what he can to ensure that all the deposits and costs lost because of cancellations are repaid to the couples, who obviously had no say over the loss of their weddings, an issue highlighted by Which? and the CMA? Secondly, I regret the Minister’s rejection of any thought being given to permitting humanist marriages, which would obviously save the couples having to have a second, civil wedding. I urge him to take time to think again.

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My Lords, I said that the Government have no time for primary legislation on this matter, and that is the position. As for private commercial arrangements between citizens and venues, I cannot give any guarantee that the Government will interfere in those.

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My Lords, the time allowed for this Question has elapsed. That concludes the hybrid proceedings for the present.

Sitting suspended.