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Registration of Marriages Regulations 2021

Volume 811: debated on Tuesday 23 March 2021

Motion to Approve

Moved by

That the draft Regulations laid before the House on 22 February be approved.

Relevant document: 48th Report from the Secondary Legislation Scrutiny Committee

My Lords, these regulations amend the Marriage Act 1949 to enable the introduction of a schedule-based system for the registration of marriages in England and Wales, which will reform the way in which marriages are registered in the future.

Couples will sign a marriage schedule at their marriage ceremony instead of a paper marriage register, and all marriages will be registered by registration officers in a single electronic marriage register. For marriages taking place in the Church of England or the Church in Wales, after ecclesiastical preliminaries an equivalent document called a “marriage document” will be issued. This will remove the requirement for the 84,000 paper registers currently in use in register offices and around 30,000 religious buildings.

It should be noted that a schedule system is already in place in Scotland—this has been the case since 1855 —and in Northern Ireland. When civil partnerships were introduced in England and Wales in 2005, the opportunity was taken to modernise the registration process and use a schedule-based system. Civil partnerships have always been registered in an electronic register.

Modernising the registration process facilitates updating the marriage entry to allow for the details of both parents of the couple to be recorded instead of just the father’s name and occupation, as is currently the case. Moving to a schedule-based system is the most cost-effective way to achieve this change and will make the system of registration more secure and efficient.

The regulations amend the seldom-used Marriage of British Subjects (Facilities) Acts 1915 and 1916 so that they no longer apply in England and Wales. The regulations also make a consequential amendment under Section 5 of the Immigration and Social Security Co-ordination (EU Withdrawal) Act 2020 to amend the Marriage Act to specify the evidence that must be provided by an individual when giving notice of a marriage for immigration purposes. I beg to move.

My Lords, I declare an interest as a priest in the Church of England, one of a small number of Lords temporal who conduct marriages, and so directly affected by these regulations. I hope that this is one of those times when an inside view will add something different.

These regulations make two significant changes to the way in which marriages are registered in England and Wales. I am not opposing them, but I have had representations from clergy worried about the lack of notice. One said:

“We feel a bit stunned about the timing of these changes. We were told some time ago that they were planned and then everything went quiet, and it seems like a strange time to be introducing them now, with a very short lead-in time, with many churches just reopening and the Covid guidance on weddings (and other things) likely to change again soon.”

Another said that it was proving difficult, as he was

“trying to tell brides what their ceremonies will look like now as we have a bulge of weddings in this middle of the passage of this legislation. Not enough time for transitional arrangements.”

The registration process changed on 4 May and, a few weeks later, these regulations changed the processes for marrying people subject to immigration control. EEA citizens without settled or pre-settled status will no longer be able to be married after the calling of banns or the issuing of a common marriage licence, but will have to give notice at a register office and be issued with a superintendent registrar’s certificate. This has been the process for other foreign nationals since 2015, but these changes are likely to result in a significant increase in weddings where clergy have to use this new process because so many weddings of EEA nationals take place, as opposed to others. Can the Minister help me explain to clergy why, two years after the primary legislation went through, they are getting so little notice?

Secondly, where is all the guidance? I met a wedding couple just last Wednesday to discuss their wedding, and at that point there was no official guidance or training available. The training has since appeared, but it is just a series of slides with someone reading a script in the background, and only clergy may watch it, even though in many parishes, lay people are involved in taking wedding bookings; that is from the GRO. Can the Minister explain why?

It is good that mothers’ names can be recorded in the register. The training touches on this and helpfully says:

“In some cases questioning the parentage of a bride or groom may give rise to upset, and the aim of our guidance will be to ensure that any questioning on this aspect is done well before the marriage and not on the day itself.”

I am sufficiently well trained that I was not planning to question the parentage of a bride or groom on their wedding day, but if it is to be done well before the marriage, where is the guidance? We are assured that Guidance for the Clergy will be updated in advance of going live, but it was not on GOV.UK yesterday. Can the Minister tell the House when it will be issued?

Finally, when the marriage document or schedule is signed, the regulations say that the clergyman—sic—has a legal duty to get it to the local register office within 21 days. By the way, why can it not say “clergyperson”? Can the Minister confirm that the legal duty falls on the clergyperson who officiates at the marriage, not the vicar of the church in which it happens, although he or she will also need to keep a record of the marriage? These may not be the same people. A couple may want a particular priest from their childhood or even an ordained parent to take the wedding, who might live at the other end of the country, making it inconvenient to deliver a schedule or document to the local register office. Can the Minister clarify the penalty for not delivering it on time? The Explanatory Memorandum makes no mention of penalties but there is a reference deep in the regulations to a fine at level 3 on the standard scale, so I would be grateful for confirmation.

The training tells officiating clergy that it is their legal duty to get the document or schedule to the register office, but you may

“with the consent of the couple, ask someone else, such as a family member, to return it on your behalf.”

Does this mean that the couple must give their consent for someone other than the priest to deliver the certificate? If someone else does it, is the officiant still liable if it goes astray? Can it be posted if they are not local? Who is liable if it then does not arrive?

These may seem small details, but couples plan their weddings a long way ahead and in meticulous detail. At wedding meetings, we go over every single minute of the ceremony. I am sure the Church was consulted and has been flagging up to local dioceses that these changes would happen at some point, but I am pretty sure that the urgency did not come from the Church. Therefore, can the Minister understand how unhelpful it is for this to happen with so little notice and for us to be six weeks from D-day and still with no detailed guidance available? Why were the regulations not brought forward six months ago? If that was impossible, why can their implementation not be delayed, allowing for more preparation? I hope that the Minister can answer all my questions today, but if she needs to write on anything, can she commit to doing so quickly, preferably within a week? After all, we have only six weeks until this becomes law.

My Lords, I draw the attention of your Lordships to the issue of marriage registration in some sections of the Muslim community in the United Kingdom.

As many of your Lordships are aware, the marriage ceremony in a Muslim wedding is known as the nikah. It can be performed by any Muslim. However, in the UK, an imam from a local mosque is usually asked to perform this duty, and normally he would issue a marriage certificate at the end of the ceremony, but these marriages are not officially recognised until they are registered with the local registrar.

Many families have two separate wedding ceremonies, one in a mosque, at a private residence or in a wedding hall, and a separate one at the registrar’s office. In some places, the local mosques have arranged with the registrar to join them at a recognised wedding venue and register the marriage on the same day. There is no issue with either of those practices. The issue that I have come across is with those wedding ceremonies or nikahs held at a mosque, a wedding hall or at a private residence, where an imam would lead a ceremony and issue a certificate but the registrar is not aware of those weddings and they are not registered with them—hence, those weddings have no legal status.

Since there is no compulsion on registration of a marriage with an official registrar in the religion of Islam, many people do not bother with registration, and thousands of Muslim marriages in the UK are not registered. I am personally aware of many such marriages. Most of these couples are living a happily married life, but problems strike in cases of post-marriage disputes—over divorces, inheritance, pension rights and so forth. Usually, but not exclusively, it is the female left in a disadvantaged position in such cases. To protect the rights of those engaged in these unrecognised marriages, can the Minister tell the House what steps the Government are taking to work with Muslim faith leaders and local registrars to ensure that all marriages taking place in the UK are formally recognised?

My Lords, I thank the Minister for introducing these regulations. This is indeed a historic event, the first changes to the content of a marriage register since 1837. It is a pleasure to be here today, having had the privilege of successfully taking the Civil Partnerships, Marriages and Deaths (Registration etc) Bill through this House in 2019. I give special credit to my honourable friend the Member for East Worthing and Shoreham, Tim Loughton, who so successfully secured and piloted the Bill through Parliament in the first instance and has worked so hard to champion these issues. True to form, he spoke passionately about these regulations and raised several probing questions in Committee in the other place earlier this month. While I do not want to repeat everything that was said, I hope that the Minister will use this debate to clarify and inform the House on some of the points that he raised.

I also take this opportunity to pay tribute to Linda Edwards and her team in the civil registration directorate at the General Register Office, who have worked so long and hard on this issue and been so enormously helpful. I also reiterate thanks to those on all sides of this House who took part in the Bill.

I understand that everything has been hugely impacted by the coronavirus pandemic but I still question that it has taken so long to bring forward these changes. The Bill became an Act in February 2019 with strong government support and became law after Royal Assent last May. I agree with views already expressed by others that the position should have changed soon after that, especially in light of the fact that the Act includes a sunset clause which provided that if the changes were not made in just over a year, the legislation would fall and we would have to start all over again. It is indeed disappointing that this has taken so long.

As noble Lords will know, there are four sections of the Civil Partnerships, Marriages and Deaths (Registration etc) Act 2019: marriage registration, extension of civil partnership, report on registration of pregnancy loss, and coroners’ investigations into stillbirths. These regulations address only the first two issues, and while I emphasise that this is most welcome—indeed, as a mother, I still find it most extraordinary that it has taken so long for mothers legally to be allowed to sign the register—I would like to use this debate to seek clarity on progress on the other two issues.

Previously described as the Bill of hatches, matches and dispatches, this light-hearted reference, while apt, perhaps did not convey the emotional and personal impact wrapped up in the fourfold practical purpose of the Act. During the initial debates, one could not fail to be moved by the sensitive issues and some of the personal stories and speeches that were given, not least those relating to coronial investigation of stillbirths, an issue that has touched me personally. Can my noble friend the Minister therefore please update the House on what progress there has been on the consultation under the Act for coroners to be able to investigate babies who die at birth without independent life?

Similarly, what progress has there been on the consultation under the Act for registration of children who are stillborn before the arbitrary and artificial existing 24-week threshold? I had been given to understand that the Minister in the other place was going to write to Tim Loughton to explain progress on these two consultations, but I gather that no letter has yet been forthcoming. However, I expect that my noble friend the Minister will have anticipated my raising these questions in the light of the debate in the other place and my Written Questions tabled last week, so I very much hope that she is in a position to give the House a detailed update.

That aside, I give my wholehearted support to the regulations before us today. They are indeed a historic and much-needed step forward, better reflecting family circumstances in society today. I very much hope that colleagues in this House will give these regulations their support and consequential safe passage, as indeed they did with the Act.

My Lords, I too welcome these regulations and I hope that they indicate that the Government are in a mood to consider further changes to our arrangements for weddings in this country—as, it is clear, does the noble Lord, Lord Hussain, and the noble Baroness, Lady Hodgson of Abinger. My particular request to the Government is that they should look again at the restrictions on where a wedding can take place. We will be faced, I hope, with a considerable surplus of weddings once the restrictions are lifted but anyway, if we were allowed to hold weddings in the open air much more easily or in moving locations, that would provide creative venues and a much-needed increased capacity for ceremonies and would be a contribution to the recovery of places such as Sussex after the Covid epidemic as well as a great delight for those who were allowed to take advantage of them. If the Government are prepared to think of going in this direction, would they be prepared to hold an online meeting with me and officials from Sussex to discuss what might be possible?

My Lords, I welcome many aspects of the Registration of Marriages Regulations and look forward to the guidance, eloquently detailed by my noble friend Lady Sherlock—I commend her expertise to the House—and the forthcoming Law Commission report due to be published in August, particularly with reference to weddings and their registration.

I am pleased to be speaking in this debate and my primary focus is to draw the House’s attention, as I have done previously, to the hundreds of thousands of unregistered marriages and the detrimental effect of such decisions, which have left countless women in particular and their families, when separated or divorced, facing destitution and without fundamental legal protection and rights. I agree with the sentiments and questions of my noble friend Lord Hussain. This is a grave matter of ensuring equality and opportunity to safeguard hundreds of thousands of British-born women, and a smaller group of men, for whom there are no legal remedies or entitlement when marriages break down.

I am therefore pleased that the Law Commission in its consultations throughout the country cited the work of the Register Our Marriage—ROM—campaign, which, alongside many leading organisations, is supportive of the Law Commission’s proposal to modernise the marriage laws. It is asking the Government to amend and modernise the Marriage Act 1949 and require all persons, regardless of their faith, to register their marriage according to the law of the land. This would send a powerful message and clarity to all parties who enter marriage. It would also remove significant imbalances of power between couples and prevent pain and suffering, as well as enabling legal support. In that context, I thank Aina Khan OBE once again for her relentless efforts and for her comprehensive briefing which underpins this contribution.

I welcome much of the regulations. An important aspect worth noting is that for the first time, as the noble Baroness, Lady Hodgson, stated, mothers’ names will be recorded by acknowledging both parents. This has been an outrageous anomaly to be remedied given that it is the mothers who gave birth to both partners. I very much welcome those amendments and proposals. I also note that no other institutions will be able hold blank copies of marriage certificates, which it is proposed will be centrally held and registered, and details of marriages will be held centrally on a marriage register. That is indeed welcome news.

Finally, I have a request and a question to the Government and the Minister. In the light of the expertise our Government have developed in the past year in reaching out to communities with public health information, will the Minister assure me and this House that public education and materials on the proposed changes will be made available to all senior schools, colleges and universities, which may empower many women in particular to make informed choices and decisions, and protect and uphold their human rights?

My Lords, I thank the Minister for introducing these regulations. They are very welcome in that they allow both parents’ details to appear on a marriage certificate rather than just those of the father, as has been the case in the past. This promise was made by the then Prime Minister David Cameron in 2014. Can the Minister explain why it has taken seven years to bring about this change, as the noble Baroness, Lady Hodgson of Abinger, also asked? The change from a hard-copy marriage register to an electronic system of registering marriages, with its added flexibility and cost savings, is also welcome.

Can the Minister explain why the Government did not take the opportunity to introduce a uniform system across all marriages, whereby the superintendent registrar in the district where the marriage is to be solemnised issues a marriage schedule for a couple and their witnesses to sign at the marriage ceremony, which is then returned for the information to be entered into the electronic marriage register, and a marriage certificate is then issued? Why is an exemption being made for the Church of England and the Church in Wales, whereby a member of the clergy will issue a marriage document instead of the marriage schedule issued by the superintendent registrar? Marriage certificates will now be issued only by register offices, so why not marriage documents? The noble Baroness, Lady Sherlock, has outlined how confusing this dual system is going to be.

The Explanatory Memorandum states, as the Minister has said, that the Marriage of British Subjects (Facilities) Acts 1915 and 1916 are seldom used and that their removal will enable a smooth transition to the new registration system. However, I cannot see immediately how these Acts would hinder the introduction of the new system. Can the Minister help on this point? How often are they used and what will be the impact on those who might have used the Acts?

The change to Section 28B of the Marriage Act 1949 that requires evidence of nationality to also include evidence of status or pending application for status under the EU settlement scheme is understandable. However, can the Minister remind the House what conditions other than marriage to a UK citizen have to be fulfilled before a foreign national spouse can remain in the United Kingdom? Why are the protections against sham marriage not sufficient? I look forward to the Minister’s reply.

My Lords, I am delighted to support the regulations before the House. I welcome the modernisation of the system, which allows the details of a mother and father to be documented together and provides flexibility for necessary future changes. This is a modernising measure from the technological perspective and the values perspective; I am pleased to see both. It is also interesting to note from the Minister’s speech that it has taken only 166 years to follow the lead of Scotland in this regard; I am pleased to see that we have finally got there.

My noble friend Lady Sherlock referred to the speed of these changes—that we have waited so long—and their going on to the statute book two years ago. That could cause some problems for couples and celebrants: the priests, vicars and registrars who marry people. It would be good if the Minister explained why there is this haste at the last minute, having taken so long in the first place. This is important. I have been married only once—I have no intention of getting married again, having been happily married for the past 17 years —and unless you are actually involved in marrying people, you do not know about these changes. It is important to understand why we are moving so quickly at the last minute.

The delegated legislation we are dealing with may well, in years to come, be of interest to historians and genealogists because we will be able to see what the mother’s occupation was. When people look back in 100 years’ time, there will be some valuable information about what was going on in Britain at this point and in the years going forward.

The noble Lord, Lord Hussain, raised the important issue of post-marriage disputes in the Muslim community where the marriage has not been registered. That is a fair point, which I hope the Minister can help with. We want to avoid people who become destitute having further problems. Also, the noble Baroness, Lady Hodgson of Abinger, asked important questions about stillborn children; I hope that the Minister can respond. Having said that, I am delighted to support the changes before the House today.

My Lords, I thank all noble Lords who have spoken in this debate. One of the most common questions, put by the noble Baronesses, Lady Sherlock and Lady Kennedy, and the noble Lord, Lord Paddick, is why it has taken so long to see any action on this point. The Home Office has been considering options for updating the marriage entry to include the mother’s name, but it has not been straightforward. Any changes obviously require funding, system changes and legislation, all of which must be considered before bringing forward any proposals. Of course, we have had the huge matters of Brexit and the pandemic to contend with. The noble Baroness, Lady Sherlock, asked about the date of implementation. That was announced when the regulations were laid, on 22 February. That was seen as a good time, before we move into peak wedding season, to bring forward these changes. I suspect that a backlog of marriages is about to come forward.

The noble Baroness also asked about the Church. I take the opportunity to thank the Church of England, in particular the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of St Albans; I know that officials from the Church of England and the Church in Wales have been working closely with us throughout the policy development. They are very much in favour of these reforms because they will bring a number of efficiencies to the existing registration process. They have been very positive indeed. I can also tell the noble Baroness that the guidance for clergy will go out as soon as possible. The term “clergy” is a long-standing one and we have left as it stands. However, I understand the point she made.

The noble Baroness also asked about the various “what ifs” in terms of the timeline. If the schedule or the document is not returned to the register office within the specific timescale, the superintendent registrar will contact the relevant person to advise that the marriage must be registered and to make arrangements for that to happen. It will be an offence not to return the signed schedule or document to the register office. Regarding what would happen if it gets lost or damaged in the post, if the document is damaged before it has been registered by the registrar general, if they are satisfied that the marriage has been solemnised, they will authorise the schedule document to be reproduced and arrangements will be made with the couple, their witnesses and the person or persons who officiated at the marriage to sign another schedule or document, so that the marriage can be registered and the marriage certificate issued.

The noble Lord, Lord Hussain, and the noble Baroness, Lady Uddin, made very good points about the legality of marriages in the Muslim community. We heard a lot about this issue when considering the Domestic Abuse Bill—people with a niqab not having their marriage legalised, and the problems that that can cause. I recognise the point that was made. Of course, these regulations are only about marriage registration and not wider marriage law. I will write to the noble Baroness regarding the progress of coronial inquests into stillbirth because I do not have the up-to-date position on the timelines.

My noble friend Lord Lucas asked about where weddings can take place. As far as I know, weddings can be held in an awful lot of places; we are spoilt for choice. However, I will write to him if I have any further updates. I can also say to the noble Baroness, Lady Uddin, that question and answer sessions will be taking place in April on this issue.

The noble Lord, Lord Paddick, was asking about the difference in systems. As a Catholic, I know that there has always been a difference in systems. The C of E is, obviously, the established Church. We have not removed the ecclesiastical preliminaries for the Church. The marriage document will contain the same information as the marriage schedule, and we are not introducing universal civil preliminaries; we are just keeping in place what is already in place for the Church of England. He also asked me—this is not part of the regulations, I think—about the other obligations on a prospective spouse. Clearly, there are rules on salary specifically for residency.

I think that covers about everything, but if I have not covered anything I shall write to noble Lords. I finish by thanking my noble friend Lady Hodgson for the work she has done on this. I also particularly thank the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of St Albans, the Church of England and the indomitable Linda Edwards, who has aided so efficiently the passage of what is, as the noble Lord, Lord Kennedy, said, a welcome statutory instrument.

Motion agreed.