That the Bill be now read a second time.
My Lords, the purpose of this Bill is to correct a clear and historic injustice. When a couple are married and that marriage is registered, there is currently provision only for a father’s name to be recorded. This is an archaic practice and unchanged since Victorian times, when children were seen as a father’s property and little consideration was given to a mother’s role in raising them.
As we approach the centenary of the Representation of the People Act, it is only right that we consider how existing legislation excludes, or does not recognise, the contribution made by women. This Bill allows for this important and symbolic change to be made. As I am a bishop in the Church of England, it is important to note that the Bill will allow mothers’ names to be included when registering all marriages, not just those taking place in Church of England churches. I also draw your Lordships’ attention to an identical Bill introduced in the other place by the second church estates commissioner, Dame Caroline Spelman. We are hoping that between us appropriate time will be given so that this change can be made.
A marriage officially recognises the start of a new family. Including parents’ names on marriage registers gives children an opportunity to recognise the contribution of their parents in bringing them to that day. It is only right that mothers are recognised in their role just as much as fathers. Unsurprisingly, and as many Members of this House are aware, calls for reform of this system of marriage registration are not new. Indeed, in August 2014, the then Prime Minister David Cameron announced his support for a move to facilitate the inclusion of mothers’ names on marriage registers, and Members in the other place from all major parties have supported Early Day Motions in favour of the change. Much to the amusement of the staff in my office, a number of magazines written for what one might call the stylish woman have been interested in, and supportive of, my Bill. However, that should not be surprising. I imagine that many Members of this House who have been married themselves or whose children have married will have been shocked that only the father’s details are recorded. As someone who has performed hundreds of marriages, it seems to me wholly unreasonable that mothers are systematically overlooked on this special occasion.
The Church welcomes this change and has been working for many years with the Home Office and General Register Office on the finer points of its implementation. We have also solicited feedback from the Dean of the Arches, archdeacons and diocesan registrars.
Interestingly, I have also received a great deal of correspondence from genealogists, who are anxious for this change to be made. They find the current system of registration very frustrating as it registers only one half of the family tree. I believe that the Bill I have put forward is the best way to enact this necessary change. But, unfortunately, to enact the change is not as simple as creating another box for mothers’ names on marriage certificates, as has previously been proposed. To do so would require 84,000 hard-copy marriage registers, located around the country, to be replaced at a cost of roughly £3 million. It would also not solve the problems that arise when 84,000 hard-copy registers serve as the formal legal record. Books can be easily lost or damaged, and an opportunity for fraud exists when blank registers and certificate stock are stolen. Thus, the Bill also provides for marriages to be registered electronically, as is already the case in Scotland and Northern Ireland. The General Register Office already has a system for this sort of electronic registration, and, apart from set-up costs, no wheels need to be reinvented.
Before I outline one or two further details of the Bill, I will mention what it does not intend to do. It does not alter who can get married, where they can get married or who can perform that marriage. The Bill does not propose any changes to marriage ceremonies or the Church of England’s doctrine of marriage. These are all far greater questions, but they all fall outside the scope of this quite narrowly focused Bill. I understand that some Members of this House may have strong feelings on some of the other issues, but respectfully submit that I hope that these concerns will not get in the way of this simple and important change being made, which many people have wanted for such a long time.
I will also comment on the way in which this change will be enacted. It has been drawn to my attention that there may be some anxiety either in this House or in the other place about the power the Bill grants the Secretary of State to,
“make provision in relation to the registration of marriages in England and Wales”,
by regulation. Concern has been expressed that this constitutes a Henry VIII clause. Before your Lordships take a view on the constitutional appropriateness of the power provided for in the Bill, I humbly submit that the Bill is very bounded, both at Clause 1(1) and in the accompanying Explanatory Notes. The powers enacted by the Bill are simply those required to make this change in the simplest and most logical manner possible.
I am also extremely grateful to all Members who have come to speak in today’s debate, and I hope that I will gain their support so that this necessary change can be made. I beg to move.
My Lords, I gently remind those taking part in this debate of the advisory Back-Bench speaking time and urge them to follow the excellent example of the right reverend Prelate.
My Lords, I congratulate the right reverend Prelate on bringing forward the Bill and on his explanation of its purpose and the clauses. I warmly welcome the Bill. We are advised that the Home Office assisted in the drafting of the Explanatory Notes; I hope, therefore, that this means that when the Minister comes to respond, she will be able to indicate both that the Government support the Bill and explain how that support will be demonstrated.
As the right reverend Prelate set out, for almost two centuries wedding certificates have featured the names and occupations of the spouses, plus the names and occupations of their fathers. Today we have the chance to begin the work to ensure that the details of the couple’s mothers can be included too, on a new online schedule-based system. The Bill puts right what most people would be astonished can still be the case in 2018—that the father’s details can be recorded for posterity but not the mother’s.
Cross-party work has been done on this for some years to achieve this move towards equality in the registration of details on marriage in England and Wales. However, in the past, as the right reverend Prelate set out in detail, it was argued that changing the paper certificates would be too expensive. Indeed, it would mean producing hard copies of the registers if we were simply to go ahead without legislation and without consideration of cost. To add the mother’s name would mean producing those hard-copy registers at an estimated cost of £3 million. The solution in the right reverend Prelate’s Bill to create a digital register is therefore most welcome. It removes the objection on cost grounds.
The Bill also has a practical impact. It removes the opportunity for criminal gangs to steal blank registers and certificate stock to create a false identity. I note that the impact assessment was prepared back in October 2015 and that it states that in the previous 12 months there had been 12 burglaries in church buildings, causing the loss of marriage registers and certificate stock. Can the right reverend Prelate or the Minister update the House on those figures for the period since October 2015?
I have only one further question, which I would be grateful if the right reverend Prelate might address when he responds to this debate. He might perhaps say a little more about the powers conferred by regulations in Clause 1. Clause 1(4) empowers the Secretary of State to amend the Marriage Act 1949 to create a specific criminal offence aimed at enforcing the registration of marriage. It passes the buck, so to speak. This House recently expressed its concern in debates on a government Bill about new criminal offences being created via regulations or statutory instruments. I would not wish to see any difficulty in passing the Bill; therefore, I would be grateful if the right reverend Prelate could take this opportunity to dispel any concerns others might have.
I also congratulate my right honourable friend Dame Caroline Spelman on her work on this matter and on securing a Second Reading debate in another place. There has been some puzzlement in the press about why there are two Bills. As a past Chief Whip, I am not puzzled in the slightest. It is wise for the right reverend Prelate and my right honourable friend to take this course, because it has several advantages—which I wish I had taken when I put forward a Private Member’s Bill. It gives a greater chance not only of securing a Second Reading debate but of smoothing the successful passage of the Bill; it gives an early indication of the strength of support in both Houses; and it can identify and address any concerns expressed by parliamentarians.
As we know, Private Members’ Bills face notoriously choppy waters as their sponsors seek to make progress to Royal Assent. In another place, there has often been an objection to Lords starters being passed simply because they originate from an unelected House. A single cry of “no” is enough to kill a Bill outright at Second Reading.
That happened to me when I sponsored a national heritage Bill in 2001. Having had good scrutiny in this House, it passed to the Commons, where it was summarily rejected. However, that was not the end of the story. I had a great sponsor there in Sir Sydney Chapman. He did not give up. Perhaps I could say that he “spoke to the people concerned” who were against the Bill and they changed their minds. Another date was found and it became the National Heritage Act.
I hope that the cross-party support for this Bill and the fact that a No. 2 Bill is tabled in the Commons will ensure that nobody seeks to jettison this Bill when, as I hope it will, it reaches another place. I wish it an untroubled and speedy passage.
My Lords, I have pleasure in supporting the Registration of Marriage Bill and hope that it receives a smooth passage through Parliament. I thank the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of St Albans for initiating the Bill and particularly for his clear exposition of the case. As he mentioned genealogists, I should perhaps declare my interest as a fully paid-up member of findmypast.com.
I speak as an outsider. I was married in Peckham register office and have no direct experience of the process that the right reverend Prelate described. I am not a member of a church and, if civil partnerships had been available to heterosexual couples, that would have been my personal preference.
It is fair to say that preparing for this debate has been a complete education for me—both fascinating and exasperating. How can it take so long to do anything in this country? I was fantasising that, if we had given the job of sorting the bureaucracy surrounding marriage to the Brexiteers, it would have kept them out of mischief for a decade.
I see that there have been noble attempts in the recent past to change things. They have all failed, probably because of a combination of too little parliamentary time and too little priority, and possibly because it has been in the “too difficult” in-tray. We have an opportunity to simplify a procedure, hopefully before the 200th anniversary of the legislation in 2037. As the noble Baroness, Lady Anelay, said, let us use the 100th anniversary of votes for women to make the change and add both parents’ names to the marriage certificate. I had to do a double-take when I saw that mothers’ names were not included, and most people whom I have spoken to were not aware of that either. I understand that, as has been said, in Victorian Britain the father would be seen as the head of the household, but in this day and age that is becoming extraordinary.
I understand that there are draft regulations, but so far I have not been able to access them. When she replies, will the Minister give an assurance that they will be available before Committee? The Explanatory Notes and impact assessment, as well as the Library note, were extremely useful, and I have now become best friends with RON, otherwise known as Registration Online. I understand that it is proposed to put “parent” on the form, rather than “mother” or “father”. Just as there are guidelines at present on the definition of “father”, I am reassured that there will be careful definitions covering all aspects of the description of “parent”.
One anxiety that I had and which has already been expressed by the noble Baroness, Lady Anelay, was about the transfer of responsibility to register the marriage to the married couple, with the possibility of fines being imposed for failing to carry out their responsibility. The right reverend Prelate’s office very kindly checked with the GRO, which said that in Scotland, where this system exists, the penalty for failing to register has not yet had to be used. I do not have any information about Northern Ireland, where the system also exists, but I imagine that the same is the case there.
As I said, we have the opportunity to simplify a procedure, save on costs and improve security. At present, criminal gangs obtain access to blank documentation and use it to provide false evidence of a marriage taking place. The fact that there is one robbery every month should be an important incentive to remove the requirement for blank registers and certificate stock to be held in churches and religious buildings. Although changes to the content of the register entry could be made by secondary legislation, as has already been said, any change would necessitate replacement of all 84,000 marriage register books currently in use in 30,000 religious buildings. The change to an electronic system will enable the form and content of the marriage register entry to be easily amended to include, for example, the details of both parents of the couple without having to replace all marriage register books. That is why this primary legislation is so necessary. Similar Bills have had support from various Ministers and the Fawcett Society has said it would be “another step forward”.
I understand that the Church of England is not the only institution which will be affected by the passing of the Bill but, as long as it is the established Church, surely Parliament has an obligation to facilitate a long overdue improvement. I wish the Bill all speed.
My Lords, I wholeheartedly support the Bill and congratulate the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of St Albans on sponsoring it. It is long past the time when mothers’ names should have appeared on marriage registers and I share the view of the noble Baroness, Lady Donaghy, that it is truly remarkable that it has taken all these many years to reach this point.
I particularly support the comments which I believe will be made by the noble Baroness, Lady Bakewell—the speaking order is not ideal but we will manage—about the need for legal recognition of humanist marriages and the opportunity for this Bill to bring that about.
I introduced the amendment to the same sex marriage Act 2013 which provided for legal recognition of humanist marriages. The objective of my amendment was taken up by the Government, who tabled their own amendment making provision in law for humanist marriages to be legally recognised, a move that had broad support in both Houses. This is nothing controversial. The limitation of the Government’s amendment, however, was that it required a ministerial order to bring this provision into being.
Since then I have patiently attended many meetings with Ministers who have assured us that they are making progress. However, we are now in 2018 and this section of the 2013 Act remains to be brought into effect. The aim of the noble Baroness, Lady Bakewell, as I understand it, is simply to ensure that progress is made on this issue. Legal recognition of humanist marriages would be hugely popular and would require nothing else except adding the term “humanist marriages” in some document which already provides special provisions for Quaker marriages. It is not exactly complex or time consuming. Given Brexit, I understand that one cannot have time-consuming matters, but this is not one of those.
When humanist marriages are already overwhelmingly popular in Scotland, Ireland and elsewhere, surely it is past time that legal recognition is given in this country. I therefore hope there will be a consensus across the House that, five years after the law permitting legal recognition of humanist marriages was passed, a small amendment to this Bill to activate this provision should be agreed.
My Lords, I welcome the Bill wholeheartedly and congratulate the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of St Albans on sponsoring it. It is very welcome.
How could one not have realised for so long that mothers’ names have not been on marriage certificates? What an extraordinary accident of history that that has not been acknowledged. I relish the idea of putting the 84,000 marriage registers out of order and digitalising the process. It is well overdue as an enterprise.
As the noble Baroness, Lady Meacher, has already said, I am using the occasion to raise an issue where this Bill, by amendment, could bring to fruition a long-hoped-for reform of marriage laws, which I understand is within the scope of this Bill—the legal recognition of humanist marriages in England and Wales.,
Let us revisit the history, because it is very telling. As we have heard, five years ago the Marriage (Same Sex Couples) Act promoted major debates in the House of Commons and in this House in which many spoke in favour of such recognition, but the Government did not act as we had hoped. Their own amendment gave a power in the future that is enshrined in Section 14 and which mandated the Government to consult. They did so and found that more than 90% were in favour of registering humanist marriages. They asked the Law Commission to do a scoping exercise. The commission did so and emphasised the unfairness of the situation as it exists. There has been consultation and there has been inaction.
Elsewhere, things have changed. In Scotland, legal recognition of humanist marriages was passed in 2005 and by 2016, 17% of marriages in Scotland were humanist. This is a popular format for people of humanist belief—I will expand on that term in a moment. Humanist marriages were given recognition in the Republic of Ireland in 2012 and by 2016, 7% were humanist. Northern Ireland is similar to England, so civil and religious marriages are legal but humanist marriages are not, or at least not yet. Last summer, the High Court in Belfast ruled that under Article 9 of the European Convention on Human Rights, recognition must be extended to humanist marriages. That decision has been stayed pending an appeal to the Attorney-General for Northern Ireland and a decision is expected soon. Meanwhile Jersey has issued a new draft law which is expected as soon as next week. Change is afoot to recognise with generosity and sincerity a commitment to acknowledge humanist marriages.
Humanism and a humanist marriage are not the same as a civil ceremony. Humanists have a set of moral beliefs that command huge respect throughout the belief communities of this country. Humanist beliefs involve an acknowledgement that we can live ethical and fulfilling lives on the basis of reason and humanity. These beliefs are recognised and widely held in this country. They put the burden of moral behaviour on the here and now in this world. It is an increasingly popular way of expressing a spiritual outlook that does not acknowledge the supernatural, and it is recognised by many of my Christian friends.
I am most grateful to the noble Baroness. Along with other speakers, I strongly support this admirable Bill which has been introduced by the right reverend Prelate. I hope that he and the House will be able to accommodate the amendment which is being moved by the noble Baroness.
I will move the amendment when, as I hope, the Bill goes through to the next stage. It is time to legally recognise such sincere marriages where people come together with a shared set of beliefs that simply have not yet gained recognition in England and Wales.
My Lords, it is a pleasure to make a brief contribution in support of this small but highly significant Private Member’s Bill on the registration of marriage. I pay tribute to the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of St Alban’s for introducing the Bill into your Lordships’ House and to my right honourable friend Dame Caroline Spelman for tabling it another place. They are to be congratulated on their wonderful collaboration in ensuring that this Bill secures a Second Reading as soon as possible.
Just over a year ago my daughter was married, so from recent personal experience, I know that from being at the heart of all the wedding preparations, decision-making and stress, when it came to the document that gave legal status to the marriage, my name and my son-in-law’s mother’s name were airbrushed out of the picture, as is the case for all other mothers. It is time that this anomaly was put right, and moving from a paper-based system to an electronic one will allow this to happen.
My thinking, and chatting to my daughter and friends—my daughter was appalled; she had not realised my name was not on her wedding certificate—raised a question to which I do not know the answer. As my mother taught me that if you are unsure you should always ask the question, even if it seems glaringly obvious, here goes: under the present law, what happens if someone does not know who their father is? Is there simply a gap, or does the certificate say, “Father unknown”? At least by adding the mother’s name to the register, in the vast majority of cases one relative would be named on the marriage certificate.
I realise that when something seems simple, it is not always easy to rectify. There can be unintended consequences and costs, but the way the Bill seeks to overcome that is to be congratulated. The means by which this is to happen—the signing of a certificate that is then handed to the registrars for input on to the electoral register—has another benefit, in that it will still allow for those lovely photographs of signing the register, which are often some of the most special in a wedding album.
I do not know whether your Lordships are watching the BBC documentary “A Vicar’s Life”, which follows three vicars in Hereford and south Shropshire. If not, I suggest that you get it on catch-up. One of the vicars, Nicholas Lowton, has important documents stolen when thieves break into his church and take an old box. They later discard the documents, which are found in a field and returned to the church damp. I now know from watching that episode that to stop mildew growing on important papers that have got wet, you simply cover them up and put them in the freezer—an important life skill that we should all be aware of. But it made me realise that, lovely as they are, paper-based records are vulnerable, so there is another benefit to the electronic register as well as certificates, which could be stolen.
Finally, I pay tribute to the country’s registrars. They were enormously helpful when my daughter was married and I wish them well in accommodating the changes the Bill will bring when, as I sincerely hope it will, it reaches the statute book. I give it my wholehearted support.
My Lords, this will be another brief contribution. I add my congratulations to the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of St Albans. In 1994 I had the privilege of piloting a marriage Bill through this House. As a result of that legislation, couples were able to choose where a civil marriage could take place, in addition to a register office, and that location had to be a suitable one. It also ended the practice whereby a suitcase was left in a property near the site of the marriage ceremony to prove residency in the appropriate area. Each Bill brings forward legislation to modernise customs and conventions that have existed for centuries. I believe this Bill is a further step in that direction, which I commend.
The Registration of Marriage Bill amends the legal document so the mother’s name will be included as well as the father’s. I am delighted by this inclusion, which, as we have heard across the Chamber, is long overdue. However, I have two very minor questions for the right reverend Prelate. The first concerns ensuring that the certificate given to couples is a secure document that cannot be hacked or interfered with by some clever, computer-literate person. After all, a marriage certificate is a financially valuable document at certain times in our lives, and security is a high priority.
Secondly, I would not wish the cost of marriage to be raised—we all remember that it used to cost seven and sixpence—which always seems to happen if changes occur. This process seems a little more bureaucratic, which is disappointing, and the extra duties required of couples could mean that they decide against marriage. That could result in fewer people entering into matrimony, which I am sure is not what the Church or other authority would wish.
I am a keen advocate of marriage. I was married for 58 years and dearly wish that families could share such happiness as I have been blessed to have. I give wholehearted support to the Bill.
My Lords, I speak as someone who in his youth thought marriage would become obsolete by the time he grew up, but that was not to be. I welcome the Bill, especially the fact that the mother’s name will be added to the father’s name, but I wonder, in the days of IVF and such things, whether the concept of mother and father would be applicable with such certainty everywhere. Perhaps we will need another Bill in another 10 years to clarify that.
I speak as a humanist, and practically all that I wish to say has been said by my noble friend Lady Bakewell. I shall therefore say just that I welcome the introduction of the mother’s name, I welcome the conversion to online registration, and I wish that the noble Baroness’s amendment receives as much support as the Bill.
My Lords, this is a very interesting occasion, because I cannot criticise anything. I would have liked to say something critical, but the right reverend Prelate’s Bill is so sensible and necessary that there is nothing to say in criticism—I am sure that some minor improvements may be made if it goes to Committee, but the Bill is necessary.
Such a long time ago, when the mother’s name was left out, how was one to know whose child it was? The noble Baroness, Lady Morris, has already referred to that in a sideways way. The only person who knows whether they are a parent of that child is the mother, not the father, yet the mother is left out.
I have no criticism to make, but I want to bring up something else, because one rarely gets an occasion when one can bring up something which I think is pretty serious. I am sure that noble Lords know that many marriages in this country have no registration. All Muslim sharia marriages have no registration. This is not right. It means that women have no rights under such marriages; they have no status, and they are thrown out by their husbands without anything. If you then say to the men, “Why don’t you do something about looking after your ex-wife and children?”. They say, “Why? The state will do that. Why should we do it?”. In every respect, it is wrong that anybody who comes to live in this country should not have a marriage registered properly. The sooner the Government pay attention to that, the better it will be for all those Muslim women who have no rights and for the state which has to look after the families of men who get away without doing anything. I know that this issue is not part of the Bill, but it is an occasion to raise it. We have talked about humanist marriages and I would like to talk about sharia marriages. Sharia is not proper law. It changes from country to country, and it almost changes from imam to imam making judgments. We have to be extremely careful, and some thought should be given to this matter.
My Lords, I add my thanks to the right reverend Prelate for introducing this small but very important Bill. The Civil Registration Service is one of the hidden administrative gems of this country. Every year, up and down the land, around 1 million births, marriages and deaths are recorded. It happens routinely, usually without drama, but provides the legal, evidential base for our very existence and its accuracy is key. Civil registration was introduced in 1837 and is administered by registrars in 174 local authorities as well as the General Register Office up in Southport.
When civil registration was introduced, the system drew heavily on the framework that was already in use for the recording of baptisms, marriages and burials. The keeping of church registers had been pretty haphazard until 1538, when Thomas Cromwell ordered that each priest should keep a record of the baptisms, marriages and burials in the parish. Later, they were required to be kept on parchment, because it was more durable, and held in a secure parish chest. Copies were made regularly and sent to the bishop, and Rose’s Act of 1812 standardised this information on pre-printed forms which included only the father’s name and occupation. Civil registration drew on this experience.
In the case of marriages, copies from local events are sent to superintendent registrars and then to the Registrar-General, who holds the central repository. Mistakes are not commonplace but they do happen. Indeed, serious family historians faced with a discrepancy will go back to the local original in case an error has crept in. Each time an entry is manually copied there is more scope for error, and under the current arrangements these are very complex to correct. The system basically serves us well, but in various ways it simply has not kept pace either with social change and expectation or with technological development. The Bill deals very well with two examples of that, namely digitisation and a recognition that the role of women has changed somewhat since 1837.
Back in 2002, the Government published a White Paper called Civil Registration: Vital Change. It proposed widespread reform, mostly through the use of regulatory reform orders, but very little progress was ever made with these vital changes, despite extensive public consultation. A few changes were made under the 2016 Act, under which a pilot scheme now allows historical copies of certificates to be provided by PDF, which is very useful for family historians, and the Digital Economy Act 2017 will allow for electronic verification between public authorities and the GRO. However, that is pretty much it, so I really support the proposals contained in the Bill.
Every noble Lord has emphasised the sheer lunacy, almost, of excluding mothers from the marriage certificate, so I do not think I need do anything other than wholeheartedly agree with that. Noble Lords may have gathered that I am something of an enthusiast for this topic: this comes from my interest, shared with the noble Baroness, Lady Donaghy, in family history. As such, I tend to take a long view of these things. One of the most vexing questions for serious researchers is the standard of proof to which you work: adding more detail, particularly adding the mother’s name to a marriage certificate, is really important as a great piece of extra validation for future generations of family historians. However, it goes further than that, because when you get serious about family research it is not about the perennial question you are asked: “How far back can you go?”. What you are really interested in is how your ancestors lived and what they did. The details on civil records are really important in understanding that. Future generations will know that much more about their female ancestors. That is important because genealogy always defaults to the male line, simply because the surname remains constant. The writing out of the mother in marriage records just adds to this diminution of the female line, despite the fact that, as the noble Baroness, Lady Flather, pointed out, it is the only line that comes with biological certainty.
Government has been moving to digital systems for some time now, and civil registration should not be an exception. The Bill deal with marriage records. If it is passed, the Government should consider how to progress with birth and death records, but for now we should welcome the beginning of a digital parish chest. The Bill will allow the updating of the marriage entry and the positive equality aspects we have talked about. We should be mindful that, beyond the provision of mothers’ names, the Bill allows us to future-proof civil registration so that later parliamentary decisions can be dealt with; for example, recognising those who have two female or two male parents, or, as the noble Baroness, Lady Morris, pointed out, no legally recognised father.
What this is not is a Bill about marriage itself. While I and my party fully support humanist marriages, this Bill is not about that. I urge the noble Baronesses, Lady Bakewell and Lady Meacher, and the noble Lord, Lord Desai, to be very careful about opening this up to a broader sphere. As the noble Baroness, Lady Flather, said, she might want to bring something in about sharia marriages, but there is a danger that the Bill would become unworkable and we would lose it. That would be a pity; debates here and in another place have demonstrated widespread support and we should give it a speedy passage.
My Lords, I thank the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of St Albans for bringing this Bill before us today, and thank him very much for our meeting earlier this week, which I found very helpful.
This Bill is much welcomed, and it has been welcomed all around the House today. Many regard it as a matter of equality. It will update the current system of registering marriages, which has not changed since 1837, and bring it into the 21st century. Moving from the paper-based system to an electronic-based system is common sense, and should make them much more secure, as well as ensuring that all marriages will be electronically registered. It is expected that that system could save money in the long term, estimated at around £31 million in the first 10 years.
I would like to seek clarification, as others have said, on Clause 1(4), where it says that if a person fails to deliver the,
“signed marriage schedule or signed marriage document, the regulations may provide that a person who fails to comply with such a requirement—
(a) commits an offence, and
(b) is liable on summary conviction to a fine not exceeding level 3 on the standard scale”,
which is currently set at £1,000. I know that my noble friend Lady Donaghy raised that, as did the noble Baroness, Lady Anelay. In the Bill it says that it is an offence, but in the Explanatory Notes it says that it would be a criminal offence. I am no legal expert on this, but I hope that we can have some explanation for that. I understand that the clause is based on the Scottish model from 1977, but it has never been used, and that if people slip up and do not send the certificate back in time they get a reminder and no other action is taken.
Many will be aware of the campaign to add the mother’s name to the marriage certificate. Like other noble Lords, I think this move is long overdue. Successive Governments have failed to address the fundamental inequality in marriage registration certificates in England and Wales, where the names and occupations of the fathers of the bride and groom are included but the mothers’ are not. The Prime Minister at the time, David Cameron, promised to act on this, at the Relationships Alliance summit in 2014, where he said the system did not reflect modern Britain and should be updated. That was four years ago. In January 2015 the then Immigration and Security Minister, James Brokenshire MP, said that the Government would continue to develop options that would allow mothers’ names to be on marriage certificates as soon as practicable. That was three years ago. He also said, in answer to a Parliamentary Question in 2015, that the Home Office would work,
“with all interested parties to confirm the most efficient and effective way to enable mothers’ names to be recorded on marriage certificates. Achieving this is likely to require additional funding and changes to legislation, IT systems and administrative processes. The Government will confirm a timetable for the introduction of the changes in due course”.
Has that work been carried out, as that commitment was made three years ago?
If we look at the contrast with registering civil partnerships, which came into law in 2004, the mothers’ details are included on the registration certificate. Scotland and Northern Ireland already include their details. I was surprised by this, but Scotland has included mothers’ names since 1855. There were no such things as computers then; it was all done by paper and pen. If it could be done in 1855, I would have thought it quite easy to do it much earlier than we are talking about doing.
In 2014, as many people will be aware, the Change.org campaign gathered 70,000 signatures on a petition that said:
“Marriage should not be seen as a business transaction between the father of the bride and the father of the groom”.
The Fawcett Society joined in this campaign and said:
“Requiring that marriage certificates recognise mums … would be another … step forward”,
in gender equality.
As my noble friend Lady Donaghy mentioned, and as I believe others did, we should have both parents’ names on the marriage certificates. Since we now have civil partnerships and same-sex marriages, one day some children of those couples will no doubt get married. I believe that the Bill will cover having their parents’ names on their marriage certificates as well. The Bill is a welcome step forward. As we mark the centenary of women getting the vote, what better measure could the Government take than to ensure it becomes an Act of Parliament by the end of 2018, as a tribute to all those who have campaigned and are still campaigning for equality for women?
My Lords, I congratulate the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of St Albans on bringing forward and outlining the purposes of what is quite a narrowly defined Bill, which will reform the way marriages are registered and enable updating of the marriage entry to allow for the inclusion of mothers’ names. This is a very important issue that the Government fully support, and I am grateful to him for bringing forward the Bill to remove the current inequality in marriage entries.
As the right reverend Prelate and other noble Lords have said, the then Prime Minister gave a commitment in 2014 that the content of the marriage entry would be updated to include the details of both parents of the couple. The marriage entry clearly does not reflect modern Britain and it is high time it was updated. Statistics show that there are currently some 2 million single parents in the country, around 90% of whom are women. As it stands, if any of their children were to get married they would be able to include only their father’s details in the marriage entry, as the noble Baroness, Lady Gale, said in her concluding remarks. Their mother’s details would not be included, even though they had brought them up as a single parent.
As the right reverend Prelate explained, moving to a schedule system is the most cost-effective way to bring about this change. As the noble Baroness, Lady Gale, said, a schedule system has been in place in Scotland since 1855, and it is also in place in Northern Ireland. The same system is already used in England and Wales for civil partnerships. It just would not make sense to update the content of the marriage entry by amending and replacing the 84,000 bound marriage registers currently in use in registry offices, and approximately 30,000 churches and other religious buildings. If any amendments were required in the future, they would need to be replaced again. It would not be cost-effective to update the marriage entry in this way.
To reprint the marriage registers alone would cost £1.9 million. Along with other costs associated with recalling all the current registers and dispatching new registers, this would bring the total cost to around £3 million, on top of the ongoing costs associated with maintaining a paper register system. Changes would also be required to the IT system and to ensure the appropriate training and guidance is provided to registration officers and all the religious bodies affected by the changes.
The changes proposed in the Bill would mean that marriage entries would be held in a single electronic register rather than in thousands of books, making the system more secure, more efficient and far simpler to administer and amend, if necessary. As a result, there would no longer be any need for bound marriage registers and certificate stock to be held in churches or other religious buildings. My noble friend Lady Anelay of St Johns asked about the number of burglaries in the past 12 months. There are a number of burglaries each year from religious premises. The move to a schedule system will remove the risk of registers and blank certificate stock being stolen in order to create an identity from the marriage records to use for fraudulent purposes. Provisional figures for the past 12 months show that there were eight burglaries involving marriage registers in church buildings.
Moving to a schedule system would be the biggest reform of how marriages are registered since 1837 and would move away from the outdated legislation currently in place. As I am sure noble Lords agree, when considering how the marriage entry is updated we will need to ensure that the needs of all the different family circumstances in society today are taken into account.
My noble friend Lady Anelay and a number of noble Lords wanted clarification of the powers conferred by regulations in Clause 1(4). In a debate on a government Bill, this House recently expressed its concern about new criminal offences being created by regulations and statutory instruments. The Registration of Marriage Bill contains powers enabling the Secretary of State to amend the Marriage Act 1949 and other enactments in order to bring marriage registration in line with the process for civil partnerships in England and Wales as well as marriages and civil partnerships in Scotland and Northern Ireland. Clause 1(4) empowers the Secretary of State to amend the Marriage Act 1949 to create a specific criminal offence. This offence is modelled on an existing offence in Section 24(2)(e) of the Marriages (Scotland) Act 1977 and will be committed if a party to a marriage fails to comply with a notice requiring him or her to deliver a signed marriage schedule or document to enable the registration of the marriage. The offence would be punishable on summary conviction by a fine not exceeding level 3 on the standard scale, which is currently £1,000, as the noble Baroness said.
It should be noted that for all civil marriages and religious marriages at which a registrar attends, the signed schedule will be retained by the registrar at the marriage ceremony and taken back to the register office for entry into the marriage register. This accounts for around 75% of all marriages, so it is not envisaged that the offence will be used extensively. No issues have been identified in other jurisdictions with signed schedules being returned to the register office. In fact, traditionally the best man or a family member takes responsibility for ensuring that the marriage is registered.
Although a new offence is created, it is also proposed to remove or reduce the scope of other registration offences in the Marriage Act 1949. At present, it is an offence under Section 76(1) for any person to refuse or without reasonable cause to omit to register any marriage as required under the Act. This offence is potentially committed by a number of people responsible for registering marriages, including registrars, members of the clergy, authorised persons and specified persons in the Jewish and Quaker religions. Under the Bill, only registrars will be responsible for registering marriages so this offence will have a far narrower field of application.
In addition, those currently responsible for registering marriages are required under Section 57 of the 1949 Act to make and deliver to the superintendent registrar a certified copy of entries made in the marriage register book or a certificate stating that no entries have been made since the date of the last certified copy in the previous quarter. It is an offence under Section 76(2) for a person who is required to make these quarterly returns to refuse or fail to deliver any such copy or certificate to a superintendent registrar. Under the Bill, the requirement to make quarterly returns and the associated offence will become redundant and so can be removed.
Although the Bill introduces a new offence at Clause 1(4), it is not considered that the introduction of this proposed new offence or the reduction or removal of existing offences will have any appreciable impact on the justice system. The Ministry of Justice has been consulted about this proposed offence and has not raised concerns to date.
The noble Baroness, Lady Meacher, and other noble Lords including the noble Baroness, Lady Bakewell, asked about humanist marriage. I need to be very clear that the scope of this Bill does not include solemnisation of marriages.
The issue is not solemnisation but registration, which the Government have shown no opposition to. They merely ask for consultation; the consultation approves. They refer to the Law Commission; the Law Commission approves. It is not an issue on which the Government are offering any opposition; it is simply a matter of implementation according to their judgment.
Perhaps I may continue to explain. The Bill only includes provisions to introduce a schedule system and to change how marriages are registered to facilitate the changes to the marriage entry to include both parents. That is the scope of the Bill. It is very narrowly about marriage registration and not about solemnisation. It is not intended at all to include wider marriage reform.
As the Minister will be aware, every single person who spoke in the debate supported the admirable measure being introduced by the right reverend Prelate. In future discussions, would she—and just as importantly the right reverend Prelate—at least be prepared to consider that the inclusion of humanist marriage does not damage the Bill but actually enhances it?
My Lords, the point I am making is that to amend the existing law on marriage to make provision for legally valid humanist ceremonies would involve a huge range of issues.
It is already in law that humanist marriages should be recognised legally—all it needs is a ministerial order. It does not need, in a sense, to be in this Bill. What would be wonderful would be an assurance from the Minister that she will take forward the need—with some urgency, five years on—for a ministerial order and have it done. It does not need any further legislative change.
What the noble Baroness says is quite helpful, and I am very happy to discuss this matter further. The point I am making today is that this is a very narrowly drawn Bill, and to expand on it in any way would risk the Bill in its passage through your Lordships’ House. I am simply pleading with noble Lords to stick to the content of the Bill. We can certainly have discussions about humanist marriages outside the Chamber, but this is the plea I am making. I am not denigrating in any way what noble Lords have said, but the minute we start adding to or amending Bills like this, the more we are in danger of them not securing their way through.
The noble Baroness, Lady Donaghy, asked to see draft regulations before Committee. It is our aim to make a draft of the affirmative regulations available before Committee. The noble Baroness also asked for clarification on the definition of parent. The regulations will prescribe who can be included under the headings for both sets of parents of the couple in the marriage entry. This will enable us to keep pace with societal developments as well as family composition changes.
The noble Baroness, Lady Bakewell, asked if there was an intention to reform marriage law. This Bill simply modernises marriage registration, as I have said, and facilitates changes to the register entry to allow the inclusion of both parents’ names. This Bill is not at all intended to include wider marriage reform.
My noble friend Lady Morris of Bolton asked a very valid question about what is put in the entry if you do not know who your parents, particularly your father, might be. There will be provision for both parents to be included in the marriage entry, and the option to leave this blank, as is the case now, I understand.
My noble friend Lady Seccombe asked for assurances that the cost of the marriage certificate will not be raised, as she is concerned that any additional costs and processes will discourage people from marrying. Fees for marriage certificates are set at a cost-recovery basis, using HM Treasury guidance, and are reviewed annually. The provisions of the Bill would not directly lead to an increase in costs.
The noble Baroness, Lady Flather, was, I think, so perfectly content with the Bill that she just thought she would talk about sharia marriages. But I think she knows that the scope of the Bill is narrowly about marriage registration.
I just want to say, I do not expect that to be in this Bill—and I have no intention of putting it into this Bill—but I wanted to draw attention to this matter. I would be very grateful if the Minister would allow me to come to talk to her.
My Lords, anyone can come to talk to me about any issue pertaining to the Home Office—I give that assurance on the Floor of the House. I know what the noble Baroness’s intentions are.
My noble friend Lady Seccombe asked for assurances on security, which is a high priority, as she says. The proposed changes will increase the security of marriage records, which is very important. Currently, the requirement for open marriage-register books and for blank certificates to be held in churches and other religious buildings means they can be a target of theft, as we have heard. The solution in this Bill should minimise that public protection risk, as marriage registers are currently held in some 30,000 different religious buildings. The certificates themselves will still be printed on paper with secure features, in the same way as now.
The noble Baroness, Lady Gale, asked for the timetable for the changes to be confirmed. Subject to the successful passage of the Bill, implementation will involve, clearly among other things, affirmative regulations being made, system changes and training and guidance for local registration services and those who solemnise marriages. We will aim to implement these reforms as soon as possible following Royal Assent.
We have had an excellent debate today and I know that noble Lords recognise the importance of taking forward these changes, which will modernise the process of registering marriages.
My Lords, I thank noble Lords for this very helpful debate. I was particularly keen, and grateful, to hear the wide range of concerns from various parts of the House. We have had such a comprehensive response on many of the technical answers to questions that I do not think I need to add to them. I shall just say one or two things very briefly.
I absolutely recognise that there is concern about humanist marriages. I stress, however, that, having taken advice, I have been told again and again that, if we are going to get this very simple but really key win, the more the Bill is amended the less likely it is to get through. I have been approached with many requests to put all sorts of things in it and the advice I keep getting from very experienced Members of your Lordships’ House is to keep it absolutely simple. I am also slightly puzzled, as the noble Baroness, Lady Meacher, has conceded that it does not need to be in this Bill, if I understood what she said a few moments ago—perhaps we could talk about it afterwards.
As I said at the beginning, this is an opportunity for us to correct a clear and historic injustice. I have found myself in touch with all sorts of people with whom I do not necessarily get in touch very often. We have had articles in The Stylist—can you imagine?—and Good Housekeeping, and an online platform for young women called The Pool, which I have never even heard about before, has got involved. Every single one of these people has said, “Please, please can you get this change through?”. I simply note the passionate desire for us to get this through. I do not believe it will unless somehow we can find common cause together. I am of course happy to talk to anyone, and when the regulations are published we will look at those in detail.
In the light of those comments, and with thanks to all my noble colleagues, I ask the House to give the Bill a Second Reading.
Bill read a second time and committed to a Committee of the Whole House.