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Marriage and Religious Weddings

Volume 804: debated on Tuesday 30 June 2020


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government, further to the Integrated Communities Strategy Green Paper, published on 14 May 2018, what progress they have made on their commitment to “explore the legal and practical challenges of limited reform relating to the law on marriage and religious weddings”.

My Lords, the Government continue the exploration of limited reform and non-legislative options that they began in detail last spring. We are doing so with the greatest care. Any proposals affecting how religious groups are permitted to conduct marriages must be thoroughly assessed for their fairness to all religious groups, and for how far they could achieve the change of practice intended.

My Lords, I remain deeply concerned because we have seen no evidence of any significant progress since I asked a similar Oral Question nine months ago, on 23 October. Given the strong recommendations of the Casey review, the sharia law review and the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe, and given the number of Private Members’ Bills that I have submitted since 2011 with cross-party support and the support of Muslim women’s groups, will the Minister give an assurance at last that government legislation will be introduced as a matter of urgency? So many Muslim women in this country are suffering in ways which are unacceptable and make our suffragettes turn in their graves.

My Lords, I am not in a position to give such an undertaking. The issues raised are considered in the Integrated Communities Action Plan.

My Lords, to what extent does the right to practise one’s religion, subject to a proviso, affect the right to maintenance and property during marriage and on divorce or separation?

My Lords, if a religious ceremony of marriage or purported marriage does not conform to the requirement of Lord Hardwicke’s Act of 1753 or the marriage Act of 1836, then there will be no marriage. In these circumstances, a couple would be regarded as cohabiting and that would clearly have an impact upon any circumstances in which they ceased to cohabit.

My Lords, it is seven years next month since the same-sex marriage Act was passed, enabling Governments to bring about legal recognition for humanist marriages by ministerial order. Since then, successive Ministers have been very supportive but have had a series of reviews rather than taking action. Meanwhile, 6,000 couples who have had humanist weddings have also been required to have a second marriage ceremony with a registrar to get legal recognition of their ceremony. This cannot be justified. Will the Minister help to achieve legal recognition of humanist marriages, which has the support of the majority in all religious groups?

My Lords, the Law Commission is proposing to look at the matter of where and in what circumstances marriage should be celebrated. I understand that its consultation document will be available in September.

My Lords, following the question of the noble Baroness, Lady Meacher, can I press the Minister on this issue? Provision for legally recognised humanist marriages was overwhelmingly supported in the government consultation. What are the real obstacles to our having equal rights with Scotland?

The major obstacle is the fundamental difference between the law of marriage in Scotland and that in England. The law of marriage in England and Wales, as determined since Lord Hardwicke’s Act, depends upon the place of celebration as well as the celebrant. That is not the position in Scotland, where it is not necessary to identify the location for the marriage ceremony.

My Lords, is there any evidence of girls being married before reaching the legal age at which marriage is permissible, particularly during the Covid emergency of recent times, and is the situation regularly monitored here and abroad to ensure that this does not happen to girls settled in the United Kingdom?

My Lords, any purported marriage to a person under the age of 16 would be void and of no effect. A marriage of an individual between that age and the age of 18 would of course require parental consent.

My Lords, for some years, I have spoken in this House in support of the Register Our Marriage campaign led by Aina Khan OBE, whose commendable work has established the urgent need for legal recognition of any marriages conducted with religious ceremonies. This is not the case at present, as noble Lords have said, which significantly impacts many vulnerable women, who often only become aware when the marriage dissolves that they have little or no marital and financial rights. Will the Minister agree to meet—even on Zoom—with me, interested Members of Parliament and the legal and community experts of the ROM team, to gain greater insight into resolving these outstanding anomalies and eradicating their harmful impact, given that the laws on marriage are due to undergo further and imminent changes?

My Lords, the position is that there is a very real social issue, but not a legal issue, with regard to this matter. It is not possible simply to say that we will acknowledge all religious ceremonies of marriage, of any kind, as legally enforceable. That would actually expose people to greater harm in the long term. I am perfectly content to meet with the noble Baroness and others to discuss this matter. It would be sensible to defer such a meeting until we have the Law Commission’s terms of reference and consultation document in September of this year.

My Lords, I am sure my noble and learned friend accepts that the role of politicians and indeed government is to ensure that the law responds to the needs of a changing community. Therefore, could he explain why, despite 10 years of government policy consensus on religious marriages—that Muslim women in particular deserve the same protection as other married women—the Government still fail to put that protection in place?

First of all, those who undergo only a sharia ceremony are not in marriage; that is the source of the problem we have to face here. That is more a social issue than a legal one, and it requires education and information more than legislation.

Do the Government not realise how urgent reform is in this area? Not only are religious marriages continuing to take place, with all the drawbacks outlined by my noble friend Baroness Cox—the Minister is right to say that this must be stopped by education—but lockdown has shown the need for simpler weddings and more certainty in formalities, to increase choice, lower cost and ensure legality. Will the Government make time for statutory reform soon, encompassing those reforms and whatever the Law Commission comes up with in its timely work on weddings, which has a broader scope but will include discussion of religious-only marriages and the consequences for couples who do not comply with the requirements?

My Lords, the Law Commission review will consider the law on how and where marriages may take place in England and Wales. The terms of reference for that project have already been published and we look forward to the consultation paper and the results of that consultation.

My Lords, the evidence is not only that underage marriage is sanctioned by parents, but that any woman defying parental orders can suffer violent death. We have to understand that it is not just a matter of the law of marriage but of the legal human rights of underage children, especially girls, to have protection from their families. The Government must do something about that part of the law and not just wait for the Law Commission.

My Lords, there is an issue to be addressed with regard to what amounts to forced marriage. Since 2014 that has been a specific criminal offence, and since 2017 we have ensured that those who come forward in these circumstances receive lifelong anonymity.

May I ask the Minister how the Government measure the effectiveness of awareness campaigns to educate socially isolated Muslim women and girls on the benefits of a civilly registered marriage?

My Lords, there is no absolute means by which one could accurately measure that, so it is necessary to engage with these communities and to analyse feedback from them in order to ascertain the extent of the problem. I readily acknowledge that there is a very real issue with regard to the Muslim community’s tendency, in many cases, to undergo a sharia ceremony rather than a legal marriage.