Second Estates Commissioner leads debate on reforming marriage registration certificates

On 8th December 2015 the Second Church Estates Commissioner, Rt Hon Caroline Spelman MP, held a debate in Westminster Hall about the reform of marriage registration certificates. Mrs Spelman said that certificates should be updated to bear mothers’ as well as fathers’ names and that the process ought also to be part of a wider overhaul of the registration system. She announced her intention to bring forward a Private Member’s Bill to that effect and that an internal consultation within the Church had shown support for the proposal. Her remarks introducing the debate and responding to others are reproduced below, but the full debate can be read in Hansard here.

 

SpelmanMarriagedebate081215 bMrs Caroline Spelman (Meriden) (Con): I beg to move,

That this House has considered marriage registration certificates.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Brady. The latest intelligence that I heard is that we might have a vote at 2.45 pm, but of course we are on a running three-line Whip, so we will just have to see.

I am happy to have secured a Westminster Hall debate on this important subject. Since 1837—the beginning of Queen Victoria’s reign—marriage certificates in England and Wales have included the names of the spouses’ fathers, but not their mothers. I know that I am not alone in finding this state of affairs unacceptable in our modern society. Indeed, the Prime Minister said as much in August 2014.

The issue has attracted calls for reform from many Members: the hon. Member for Brighton, Pavilion (Caroline Lucas) has tabled two early-day motions on the subject, each of which attracted 100 signatures; a petition on change.org was signed by more than 70,000 members of the public; and the hon. Member for Neath (Christina Rees) has introduced a private Member’s Bill in an attempt to secure the inclusion of mothers’ names on marriage certificates. I believe that the Second Reading of that Bill is scheduled for 22 January, and it underlines the point that this is clearly an issue that concerns Members from across the House and requires urgent attention and reform.

The Church of England recently held an internal consultation exercise of archdeacons and legal officials to gauge the views of the clergy about changing the way we do marriage registration. It received an overwhelmingly positive response. It cannot be that difficult to change the format of marriage certificates so that the mothers’ details can be captured, can it?

I understand that the problem lies with the practicalities of the current system of marriage registration, which has not changed since 1837. Marriages are registered in register books, which are held in churches and other religious premises as well as in register offices. There are around 84,000 open register books in more than 30,000 churches and religious buildings. Marriage certificates are simply an exact copy of the marriage register entry, so under the current registration system changing the content of the marriage certificate would mean first changing the content of the register books. In order to do that, all 84,000 books currently in circulation would need to be replaced, at a cost of around £3 million.

Christina Rees (Neath) (Lab): I am well aware that that is one of the sticking points, but as the right hon. Lady will be aware, there is a space next to where the details are recorded, which could be used to record the mother’s details without the need to replace all the books.

SpelmanMarriagedebate081215 cMrs Spelman: I quite understand the hon. Lady’s point, but as she will see in the course of my speech, there is an opportunity to step forward, right into the 21st century, in the way that we register marriages, which will secure the mother’s name on the register. If she will bear with me, I think she will see that some other benefits could flow from a practically different way of registering marriages.

If we ended up having to replace the books, few would disagree that it would not be a good use of that sum of money. There is another, more efficient way that marriages could be registered, which is to adopt a system very similar to that which already exists in England and Wales for the registration of civil partnerships and which is already in use for the registration of marriages and civil partnerships in Scotland and Northern Ireland.

Under the alternative system, known as the schedule system, marriages are registered in a single electronic register instead of in marriage register books. Changes to the form of the register entry can be made easily without the need to replace all the register books. Instead of signing a register book at the ceremony, the newlyweds sign a document that is then returned to the register office to be entered in the existing electronic register so that a marriage certificate can be issued.

Having all marriages registered online would create a central database without the need for any further administrative processes, but changing the way we register marriages requires a change to primary legislation. Depending how this debate goes, it is my intention to introduce a marriage registration Bill, which may look remarkably like the one that the hon. Member for Neath proposes to introduce. I would be very happy to make copies of that as soon as possible. There is a great desire across the House to find the best possible vehicle to make the change.

Dr Rupa Huq (Ealing Central and Acton) (Lab): I congratulate the right hon. Lady on bringing the important subject to the House. On Friday, we debated the Riot (Damages) Act 1886, and some Members here were present. That Act has not been changed since 1886, which is quite recent compared with the legislation that the right hon. Lady mentioned. I understand that the Home Office Minister, James Brokenshire, said in October that there would be a timetable in due course. Does the right hon. Lady have any insider information as to whether there has been any progress on that?

Mr Graham Brady (in the Chair): Just before the right hon. Lady continues, may I remind Members not to use the names of other Members of the House?

Dr Huq: Sorry, I could not remember his constituency.

SpelmanMarriagedebate081215 dMrs Spelman: Nor can I, off the top of my head. The hon. Member for Ealing Central and Acton (Dr Huq)might have been present at Prime Minister’s questions—I think it was the week before last—when her hon. Friend the hon. Member for Hampstead and Kilburn (Tulip Siddiq), who is here today, secured a promise from the Prime Minister that if we cannot succeed in getting marriage registration certificates changed through private Members’ legislation, the Government will do so through Government legislation. Maybe like the Riot (Damages) Act, which the hon. Member for Ealing Central and Acton described—clearly I missed the action on Friday—this subject is an example of something that is really good to come from the Floor of the House of Commons. It is something that we feel strongly about and it is an example of a good opportunity for private Members’ legislation.

My draft Bill would contain powers to amend the Marriage Act 1949 by regulation, subject to the affirmative resolution procedure, to make provision concerning the registration of marriages in England and Wales. The Bill would not make mention of marriage certificates or the inclusion of mothers’ names for an important reason: the Bill would be an enabling measure. If enacted, the actual content of the marriage register, and therefore marriage certificates, which are a copy of the entry, would need to be prescribed in regulations made by the Registrar General with the approval of the Secretary of State.

Simply updating the marriage entry to include the mother’s name in addition to the father’s would not go far enough in today’s fast-changing society. Already, some families do not have a legally recognised mother and father, but instead have a mother and a second female parent, or, as in surrogacy cases, two legally recognised parents. In fact, there have always been cases that the current form of the register failed to accommodate properly, including where a child had been brought up by a guardian and might not know his or her father. As family composition continues to change, the marriage register must be capable of adapting.

Julian Knight (Solihull) (Con): I congratulate my right hon. Friend on securing this important debate. I just want to clarify something. I completely get the point about the need for electronic progress. An electronic certificate is an interesting idea and perhaps one that would allow us to take a more modern approach, reflecting current social mores. However, would it meant that when people got married and signed the register in the side antechamber, the mother’s name would still not appear in that book?

Mrs Spelman: No, I can reassure my hon. Friend on that. The mothers’ names will appear. I can tell hon. Members that, personally, there is no stronger motivation for me than to ensure that the mothers’ names can appear on the marriage certificate. Unfortunately, my mother is long gone, but when it comes to the marriages—hopefully—of my children in due course, I shall take particular satisfaction if allowed, as a mother, to appear on the certificate. I expect that every other mum in the room feels exactly the same.

Valerie Vaz (Walsall South) (Lab): The right hon. Lady is making an interesting point. That, in fact, happened to me. My father died when I was a teenager and I could not put my mother’s name on the marriage certificate. I had to have a deceased parent on it, which is slightly strange. It seems that the Bill of my hon. Friend the Member for Neath (Christina Rees) is already on the table and we could be debating it, so could the points made by the right hon. Member for Meriden (Mrs Spelman) not be included as amendments when it is in Committee?

Mrs Spelman: That is certainly one way of doing it. I will need to look closely at the Bill tabled by the hon. Member for Neath. I would be more than happy for us to work together. It would be good if all of us who have sought to bring about the change support it on the Floor of the House. That is our endeavour, and it is what we should seek to achieve.

Wayne David (Caerphilly) (Lab): I recognise and commend the right hon. Lady’s desire for the proposal to be made on the Floor of the House, but she must accept that in purely practical terms it would be far better if the Government gave a clear lead.

Mrs Spelman: I am not convinced. This subject lends itself to private Members’ legislation, as do a number of private Members’ Bills that come through the House, otherwise why would we bother with the private Members’ ballot? This is a really good subject for a private Member’s Bill, and legislating with the Whip on is a fall-back position. As the Prime Minister has said, if private Members cannot secure the measure in this Session, the Government will do so in the next Session.

Jenny Chapman (Darlington) (Lab): I do not want to burst the right hon. Lady’s bubble, because she has far more experience of this place than I do, but I have served on the Procedure Committee for six years. The Committee has conducted a thorough inquiry into private Members’ Bills and, unfortunately, my bubble was burst when I discovered that not one private Member’s Bill that was not a hand-out Bill has become law since, I think, 1962.

Mrs Spelman: That is not quite true. In my 18 years here, private Members’ Bills have become law, but I agree that good private Members’ legislation is too often blocked for one reason or another. We should look to Mr Speaker, who always says that he is a champion of the Back Benchers, and ask the hard question, “Which Back Benchers?”

One purpose of today’s debate is to draw out the concerns and other things that might be barriers to legislating to make this change—I suspect that everyone in this room is broadly aligned on achieving the change. We may not have the people who might be disposed to block the measure, for whatever reason, but I have made sure that all Members of the House are aware that we are holding this debate today. Members have an opportunity to raise their objections so that we can tease them out and smooth the way for this measure to become law.

Valerie Vaz: The right hon. Lady is being very patient in giving way. Again, I put it to her that an actual Bill is being drafted by specialists in the House. That Bill covers all the points and has cross-party support, and it would be a wasted opportunity not to have this debate in Committee.

SpelmanMarriagedebate081215 eMrs Spelman: I secured this debate so that I could run through my concerns in advance of thinking about what form a draft Bill should take to address those concerns. It may be that, after our debate in Westminster Hall today, we look at one made earlier and take the view that, actually, it is the best vehicle. This debate is a precursor to supporting private Members’ legislation and, in my capacity as the Second Church Estates Commissioner, I am trying to raise concerns brought out in the Church of England consultation, which is another dimension to the debate. If the hon. Lady and other Members bear with me, I will highlight some of the points raised in the consultation.

Having waited two centuries to change the register entry, it is important that we do not introduce inflexible measures that would require further primary legislative change in the relatively near future. We should not be over-specific in a Bill, but should make the changes through regulations—I made that point earlier. Will the Minister confirm that, in prescribing the marriage entry in future, consideration will be given to accommodating all family situations?

It might help if I outline some of the more detailed existing steps involved in registering a marriage and the changes I would make through regulations if I were to introduce a private Member’s Bill. The regulations, which would amend the Marriage Act 1949, would of course be made under the affirmative procedure, so they would be debated on the Floor of both Houses.

Couples wishing to marry in England and Wales may follow either civil or ecclesiastical preliminaries, which is a jargonistic word for things such as the reading of banns. Some consultees in the Church of England expressed concern that ecclesiastical preliminaries might be abolished, but in my view they should definitely not be abolished. I do not think there is any proposal that the reading of banns should be abolished. Ecclesiastical preliminaries are available to those wishing to marry in the Church of England or the Church in Wales, which would not change. Couples would still be able to have their banns called or to obtain a common or special licence in exactly the same way as they can now. Clergy would continue to certify a marriage by their signature—clergy sought particular assurance from me on that point.

The only change to marriages following the ecclesiastical preliminaries is that, before the ceremony, the member of the clergy who is to solemnise the marriage would be responsible for ensuring that a document, called a “marriage document,” is completed and contains all the details required to be entered in the marriage register. The marriage document would still be signed. After the marriage had been solemnised, the newlyweds and their two witnesses would sign the marriage document, just as they currently sign the register. Indeed, the couple may be photographed at the signing of the marriage document in what is, after all, the classic wedding photo.

The couple would be responsible for ensuring that the signed document was returned to the register office within three days to be registered, and a marriage certificate could then be issued. The couple would not have to return the document to the register office personally, as they will hopefully be on their honeymoon; they could post the document or ask someone else to return it. In Scotland, it is traditionally the duty of the best man to return the signed document on the couple’s behalf—we might say that there is no such thing as a free speech.

Civil preliminaries to marriage are available to everyone, including couples wishing to marry in the Church of England or the Church in Wales and those intending to marry in a civil ceremony according to other religious rites. At present, each party to a proposed marriage gives notice of marriage to the superintendent registrar in the district in which they have resided for at least the past seven days. After a waiting period of 28 days, and provided that there is no impediment to the marriage, the superintendent registrar to whom notice was given will issue each party with a certificate for marriage that must be taken to the marriage and authorises the marriage to proceed. The waiting period of 28 days can be extended to 70 days for certain couples subject to immigration control.

Under the proposed new system, instead of two certificates for marriage, a couple would be issued with a single document called a “marriage schedule,” which would act as the authority for the marriage to proceed and would contain all the information required to be registered. As for marriages following ecclesiastical preliminaries, the schedule would be signed by the couple after the ceremony and returned to the register office to be registered. The proposed changes would not affect the point at which a couple are married, which happens once a couple have said the appropriate marriage declarations in their marriage ceremony. As now, the validity of a marriage does not depend on the marriage being registered, although it would be a legal requirement to register it.

I am sure that any couple would want to register their marriage and obtain a certificate, and the experience in Scotland has been exactly that. The changes would mean that churches and other religious buildings registered for marriage would not hold open marriage register books and would not need to issue marriage certificates. However, the clergy of the Church of England would still be required to maintain records of marriages solemnised in church, and other religious groups may wish to maintain their own records, too. Indeed, during the consultation in the Church of England, the clergy particularly emphasised the pastoral importance of keeping a record of marriages so that relatives can visit and see the record for themselves. There is great interest in genealogy and family history, as we know from many television programmes. Marriage provides an important opportunity for the clergy to speak with family members about personal things, and keeping a record of it is important to family life.

As well as facilitating change to the register entry, the proposed changes would have other significant benefits. First, they would greatly increase the security of marriage registers—that addresses the books issue somewhat—as, at present, register books and blank certificate stocks are held in some 30,000 religious premises in England and Wales, where, sadly, they may be stolen, with obvious security implications. Under the proposed scheme, certificates would only be issued from register offices, and the register itself would be securely held electronically.

Secondly, the administrative burdens of registering marriages would be greatly reduced. Under the current regime, all those responsible for registering marriages, including members of the clergy and persons authorised on behalf of religious groups, are required to submit copies of all the marriages they register to the superintendent registrar of the district for onward transmission to the Registrar General. That is so the Registrar General can maintain a central index and register of all marriages that have taken place in England and Wales. It is an early 19th-century process and is cumbersome in the modern age. Under the proposed new system, there would simply be no need for the returns to be made.

Finally, the proposed system is expected to generate significant cost savings not only for central Government but for local authorities, which have responsibility for registrars and superintendent registrars, and for religious groups. Overall, the system is expected to generate savings of approximately £30 million over 10 years, although, as I said, that is not the principal reason for making the change.

I hope that hon. Members will agree that replacing the existing marriage register books to add the mother’s name would be an efficient way to resolve the present inequality, righting a wrong that has been allowed to continue for too long. The introduction of the new registration processes would create a modern, cost-efficient, secure and adaptable system while remedying an historic inequality. I hope that hon. Members will welcome the proposals.


 

Christina Rees (Neath) (Lab): [extract]…

In January this year, the Minister for Immigration, the right hon. Member for Old Bexley and Sidcup (James Brokenshire) said in response to press inquiries that he was

“continuing to develop the options that will allow mothers’ names to be recorded on marriage certificates as soon as practicable.”

But still nothing has been done and this outdated practice continues.

In 2012 alone, 262,240 marriages took place in England and Wales, a 5.3% increase from the number of marriages in 2011. Unfortunately, we cannot calculate how many marriages have taken place since August 2014, because the Office for National Statistics stopped counting in 2012. However, it is safe to extrapolate that hundreds of thousands of marriages have taken place while the Government have failed to act. That is hundreds of thousands of instances in which women have been accorded second-class status. In a developed country in the 21st century, that beggars belief.

Mrs Spelman: Does the hon. Lady appreciate that the announcement of the private Member’s Bill prompted, among other things, the Church of England consultation of the clergy, which only concluded just before the 4 November deadline? The consultation was among some of the practitioners most directly involved, and it is relevant to the discussion of what form some of the changes should take. It probably feels as though it has taken a very long time, but it is not when compared with the two centuries that we have allowed to elapse without putting the mother on the certificate. Getting it right is important. Often, when private legislation is introduced, it prompts action, which is what has happened here.

Christina Rees: I am grateful to the right hon. Lady for acknowledging that the Bill prompted action and a consultation. Her offer to work together is encouraging. She mentioned that the practice has been changed in Scotland and Northern Ireland and for civil partnerships, so I cannot see why it cannot be done in England and Wales. Why delay further?..


Tulip Siddiq (Hampstead and Kilburn) (Lab): [extract]…

We operate in a political culture where policies do see U-turns. Earlier today, I was pleased that our Justice Secretary said that the criminal courts charges will be reversed. We also have the example of tax credits. If those polices can go through U-turns, almost on a whim, is it not possible to implement a policy that has been talked about endlessly? Early-day motions have been tabled, and questions have been asked at Prime Minister’s questions and at other times on the Floor of the House. We do not want the public to think that gender equality is not among our top issues. We must make sure that this change in policy gets through.

This is not the first injustice the Government have been slow to correct. However, there is something rather surreal about the Prime Minister demanding a change, and that change still not happening.

Mrs Spelman: Of course we can make this party political, but is it worth it? We have waited two centuries for this change, during which time the Labour party has been in power and had ample opportunity to make a change, and my party has finally also got into power, after a long wait. Could we not just drop this party political approach? That is what annoys people about politics. I am just saying, “Come on. We can do this as private Members. Let’s do this. Let’s do it differently.”

Tulip Siddiq: I do not want to make things party political, but I do want to put pressure on the Government to change this policy. If putting pressure on them is the way to do that, that is what we need to do. The debate is not just about correcting a bureaucratic policy; it is another step in the fight against the gender discrimination that still blights Britain today. If it is possible to put pressure on the Prime Minister and the Minister sitting in front of me, I would like to take the opportunity to do that….

…As I said at the beginning, I am grateful to the right hon. Member for Meriden for calling the debate, because this is an important issue. I am pleased that men and women from different parties are here today, which reflects how passionately we feel about this issue.

Finally, I have a few points. This issue may seem simple when compared with other issues.

Mrs Spelman: To be clear, there is nothing in the Bill introduced by the hon. Member for Neath (Christina Rees) about the practicalities—certainly from the clergy’s point of view—and the electronic registration process. I was just trying to put the practitioners’ view, and that is why I am not suggesting that we simply take the hon. Lady’s Bill off the shelf. There is also the wrinkle that the Bill is very specific, with its reference to the mother. If we do things by regulation, as I suggested, we can deal with all the subsequent changes in family composition. I was genuinely trying to put those points across in holding the debate.

Tulip Siddiq: I will not speak about the Bill introduced by my hon. Friend the Member for Neath (Christina Rees), but I am happy to let her intervene if she wants to.

Christina Rees: The point is that regulation can be changed at any time; if these things are put in primary legislation, they cannot be. As I said, I welcome discussion, and we can change my Bill in Committee. The Bill will have its Second Reading on 22 January, and it addresses the main points. I think we should move forward with that….


Anne McLaughlin (Glasgow North East) (SNP): [extract]…

We are all aware of the emotional and financial investment that people put into their wedding days. Weddings are full of symbolism, and are a public statement of commitment, but what does the symbolism of such blatant inequality say about our society? I remember my dad talking about giving me away—incessantly talking about giving me away. My disinterest in marriage was frustrating to him, but it allowed him to regularly tell people how he would be happy to give me away to whoever wanted to take me. I laughed, obviously—I had no choice—and I always knew that, for his sake, should I ever give in and get married, I would allow him to give me away. In the back of my mind, though, I always felt uncomfortable with the suggestion that I was his—or anyone’s—property.

Mrs Spelman: My sister reminded me on Sunday that as early as the 1960s Church of England ministers saw the light and began to allow a mother to give her daughter’s hand in marriage if the father was not there. There are human ways, therefore, of addressing the patriarchal tendency to see the act as a man’s privilege.

Anne McLaughlin: Interestingly enough, my father passed away a number of years ago and it fell to my mother to remind me that my sister had allowed her to give her away. I suppose my point is that no one is anyone else’s property, but there should be equality if someone is someone else’s property and they have to be given away. I do not feel comfortable with it at all, but it is simply a tradition and one that many are happy to go along with. Not allowing the mother’s name and occupation to appear on the marriage certificates of her children is a different matter, and I cannot understand why it has to be so complicated.

I again congratulate the right hon. Member for Meriden on securing the debate and I look forward to hearing from the Minister. I hope that he will do what I believe the hon. Member for Hampstead and Kilburn suggested, and just get on with it.


The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Refugees (Richard Harrington): It is an honour to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Brady. I may be competing with the Division bell shortly, but I leave such matters to your judgment. I congratulate my right hon. Friend the Member for Meriden (Mrs Spelman) on securing this debate, but I will get to the point. Many Members have raised good points, and everyone is right: the Prime Minister made a commitment in his speech to the Relationships Alliance summit. It is obvious to anyone that it is high time that the system was reformed, and reformed quickly. I do not think there is any dispute about that. The system was established the year that Queen Victoria came to power. It was also the year that Rowland Hill decided that we might be able to fold up paper and put letters inside and post them. It is now 2015 and it is absurd that the system has not changed.

The hon. Member for Darlington (Jenny Chapman) made a point about there being no private Members’ Bills, apart from Government ones, that had become law in her time. Respectfully, there are good exceptions to that. One of the main ones came from my hon. Friend the Member for Warwick and Leamington (Chris White), who is in his place behind me. His Public Services (Social Value) Act 2012 was enacted in the last Parliament. Putting that to one side, there is a good precedent in this field with the Marriage Act 1994, which started as a private Member’s Bill. It allowed homes and hotels to be used for marriages.

Jenny Chapman: I am delighted to hear what the Minister is saying. It is news to me. Does he mean that we can assume that the Government will give a fair wind to any of the private Members’ Bill before the House on this topic? Will they give them Committee time and not use any of the techniques well known to the Minister to prevent the Bills from becoming Acts?

Richard Harrington: As the hon. Lady will know, I cannot speak for every private Members’ Bill. The 1994 Act was brought forward by Gyles Brandreth, then a very well known MP. I had better make progress.

There is no question but that the Government want to see the issue remedied. The question is whether the private Member’s Bill of the hon. Member for Neath (Christina Rees) can be, as many have suggested in this Chamber and elsewhere, the piece of legislation that is needed. I point out that many Members here seem to have children of marriageable age who are currently unmarried: I have two boys aged 24 and 21. I am pleased to say that the hon. Member for Walsall South (Valerie Vaz) is a good personal friend of mine, and I think we should discuss the matter outwith the Chamber.

Getting back to the important point, can the private Member’s Bill be adapted? I would very much like to say yes. The Bill requires the Secretary of State to consult and then to make regulations setting out the marriage register entry, including the mother’s and father’s name, but it does not reform the whole registration process. It would simply require the replacement of tens of thousands of books at a cost of £3 million. The Bill does not take account of different family circumstances, where there may not be a mother and father. Members have mentioned many particular cases relating to that. It also does not give flexibility for the future. After we have amended the law, the matter may not be again for another 100 or 200 years, so we have to get things right.

Christina Rees: Will the Minister work with me to make the private Member’s Bill cover the things he mentions better? Can we work together to move it forward on 22 January?

Richard Harrington: I cannot pledge to work with the hon. Lady on the Bill, because I am not convinced that it is the right way to deal with the matter, although many of the points and sentiments in it are right. What we need—I assure her that this will be progressed quickly—is a vehicle that will transform the whole system of marriage registration for the digital age, so that all the points and everything that is changing in society can be taken into consideration. I assure her that that is not in any way meant to be disrespectful to what she is trying to do. I am not against any of the sentiments or saying that anything within the Bill is wrong, but we need a comprehensive solution. I assure her that this is not Government waffle. We have to deal with the matter for once and for all, quickly and properly. I would like to be able to say that her Bill is the vehicle for that, but I do not believe that it could be. A combination of the hon. Lady, my right hon. Friend the Member for Meriden and some of our discussions could get to a vehicle that could deal with things quickly—I have every reason to believe that.

I would like to say that it makes sense to have a simple amendment of the current marriage register. Like so many of the things that we get involved in—I find this when speaking to constituents—we think that the matter is simple and that we know the solution, but this matter is much more complex than that. We do not want to have to change the system again and again. We want a comprehensive solution with a framework for the modern digital economy, where—we hope everything will be transformed in this way—people will get a certificate quickly with all the relevant details and where there will be no need for replacement certificate stock to be sent to thousands of different churches and other institutions.

Also, the solution should minimise the public protection risk of marriage registers being held in some 30,000 different religious buildings. Every year criminal gangs steal registers and certificate stock for all sorts of different purposes, and it is time that the system was modernised for once and for all. It would cost up to £3 million simply to replace the materials. A simple solution of just filling in the empty box was suggested, but that would lead to all sorts of mistakes and inaccuracies. While the suggestion is perfectly well-intentioned, I do not think it is very practical.

As the shadow Minister mentioned, we have to make the necessary IT changes with the correct resources. It is not a question of trying to save money with the new system, although once it was set up, it would probably save a lot of money and be much more efficient over the decades. Costs would be incurred. It is not just about making the system more cost-effective, although it will be over the longer term.

I want to mention some of the contributions made by various Members. The hon. Member for Rotherham (Sarah Champion) made a point that, although not specific to the debate, surprised me. She asked me to look into the subject of illegitimacy on the Passport Office website. I will do that and I will respond as quickly as I can. I was astounded to hear what she said.

There have been so many good contributions, although I disagree with what the hon. Member for Hampstead and Kilburn (Tulip Siddiq) said about the Prime Minister’s feminism, because he is very much a feminist. However, the point that she made about the deceased father on the birth certificate is valid and I will write to her on that subject when I have had a chance to look into it.

My hon. Friend the Member for Banbury (Victoria Prentis) talked about a constituent and what form the marriage certificate should take, but it is not a simple matter. At the moment, our officials at the Home Office are working with key stakeholders to ensure that the needs of all different types of families are met. It is not simply a case of making a one-off change to include the mother. The matter affects different types of families, and the change needs to be done properly.

I smiled when the hon. Member for Glasgow North East (Anne McLaughlin) mentioned Seacole, the Scottish lady, and explained her background. A big chunk of the Home Office is named after Mary Seacole. I do not know whether the hon. Lady has visited, but she is welcome to come and look at the plaque. Of course, she is right. We are not talking about the contributions of women to society, because that is taken as read and is obvious. The concept of property in Victorian times would be laughable if it were not so serious, because it blighted women’s development for centuries. If we explain that to our kids, they simply cannot understand such concepts. I have shown children and visitors from my constituency the pictures in the Committee rooms of men—all men—in Parliament, but they cannot imagine such a situation. I can only say that what the hon. Lady said is absolutely right.

The serious point to make is that the Government are not simply playing with the issue in order to kick it into the long grass and say, “Well, it is one of those things.” It is very serious. It is absolutely absurd that the law has not been changed before. It is absurd, whether under a Conservative, coalition or Labour Government, that it has taken from the 1830s to today to even look at the matter. I know that people like the tradition of the marriage certificate. I have one, as have many people in this room, but we should keep the best bits of tradition and amend accordingly.

I ask for the brief patience of hon. Members. The issues are sometimes personal to us and our constituents, as highlighted in the debate, but I ask for brief patience because the Government are determined to get this right.


Mrs Spelman: I believe we have an imminent vote, so I will be quick. The hon. Member for Glasgow North East (Anne McLaughlin) asked a poignant question. Given that we are right up against the clock, I think the answer is a resounding yes. At the very least, most women and girls have absolutely no idea that they are discriminated against until it is too late. It is a handful who write to us, plus we have the poignant cases that we as Members of Parliament come across and the very telling personal stories of colleagues present for whom the moment has gone. Our mothers have not been able to put their names on our marriage certificates. That grieves us, but in their memory and for ever we want to change that. That is the message that comes out of this debate.

The only difference between the approach that I propose and the approach in the Bill produced by the hon. Member for Neath (Christina Rees)—I do not underestimate the amount of work that goes into producing a private Member’s Bill, having tried to do so myself three times—is that she is focused on the narrow point about putting the mother on the certificate. Sometimes that is the right approach to change legislation, because it has more chance of succeeding, but my approach has the practitioners’ thoughts standing behind it: are there other things we could do at the same time to ensure that in perpetuity we have a change that does not discriminate against anybody in society in terms of their rightful place on a marriage certificate in the future?

As the Second Church Estates Commissioner, it behoves me to point out that whatever change we make to the law must work for people of all faiths and none in our society. That is incredibly important. It has to be properly thought through. That is why I maintain we should try very hard to make sure we keep this cross-party approach and, in that spirit, I am more than happy to continue working with the hon. Member for Neath and her colleagues on this issue. Together we can put right such inequality, but we are impatient. The Minister begs a little patience of us; very little is what we are prepared to give him. The change needs to be made as soon as possible in the memory of all those we hold dear and those who in future will join our families. This matter needs to be put right. I thank all hon. Members for their contributions to this debate.

Question put and agreed to.

Resolved,

That this House has considered marriage registration certificates.