Church Commissioner Questions: Marriage Registration, Religious Minorities in Egypt

On 7th December 2017 MPs put questions to Rt Hon Dame Caroline Spelman MP, the Second Church Estates Commissioner, on the Bills she and the Bishop of St Albans are sponsoring to enable mothers names to be registered in equal terms alongside fathers on marriage certificates, and on attacks on religious minorities in Egypt.

Marriage Certificates: Equal Registration

Gillian Keegan (Chichester) (Con): What recent discussions the Church of England has had with the Government on enabling mothers to be registered on an equal basis with fathers on marriage certificates. [902808]

 Wendy Morton (Aldridge-Brownhills) (Con): What recent discussions the Church of England has had with the Government on enabling mothers to be registered on an equal basis with fathers on marriage certificates. [902809]

Tim Loughton (East Worthing and Shoreham) (Con): What recent discussions the Church of England has had with the Government on enabling mothers to be registered on an equal basis with fathers on marriage certificates. [902814]

The Second Church Estates Commissioner (Dame Caroline Spelman): I have had many recent discussions with Departments, particularly the Home Office, not least because of my Registration of Marriage (No. 2) Bill, which is in train. There is an identical Bill before the House of Lords that would achieve the same purpose of allowing mothers to sign marriage certificates. I am not precious about which Bill gets to the finishing line first—we just need to do it.

Gillian Keegan: There is agreement among Members on both sides of the House and across Government that the situation needs to change, so will my right hon. Friend make representations to our colleagues in government about their previous commitment to use Government time to get one of the Bills passed?

Dame Caroline Spelman: Yes. Many Members on both sides of the House have sought to achieve that end. I commend my hon. Friend the Member for Charnwood (Edward Argar) for promoting an identical Bill, as well as the hon. Member for Neath (Christina Rees)—I want to emphasise that this is a cross-party issue—who presented a previous Bill. I received a letter from the Prime Minister in April in response to one that I sent. She absolutely acknowledges the commitment made in 2014 by her predecessor to achieve this, and recognises the need for primary legislation to make sure that the details of both parents can be on the certificate.

Wendy Morton: The signing of the register is a really valued part of the marriage service in churches right across the country. Will my right hon. Friend reassure me that that will remain unchanged?

 Dame Caroline Spelman: Yes, I reassure my hon. Friend that the registers will remain in the vestry for that all-important photo. Under the proposed new system, on which the Church has consulted, vicars will download a marriage certificate, which will be signed by the couple, as is currently the case, and the vicar will complete the form by filling in the parents’ names, which explicitly gives the possibility of mothers being on the certificate in the future.

Tim Loughton: I am grateful for my right hon. Friend’s comprehensive answer, which leaves me little more to add, other than to ask whether she and the Church of England will support my Civil Partnerships, Marriages and Deaths (Registration Etc.) Bill, which is due for Second Reading on 2 February 2018 and includes those exact requirements. Will the Church of England also agree to back equal civil partnerships, through their extension to opposite-sex partnerships, as set out by the Bill?

Dame Caroline Spelman: The Church has no fixed view on equal civil partnerships but, in general, if they are for stable, committed and long-lasting relationships, they are likely to be beneficial, especially when children are involved. Personally I support that, and for that reason I have rolled my Bill beyond the date for the consideration of my hon. Friend’s Bill to give him an opportunity to make progress.

Mr Barry Sheerman (Huddersfield) (Lab/Co-op): I have three daughters with children. They and many of my constituents want me to ask why this simple step forward for equality has taken so long.

Dame Caroline Spelman: I ask myself the very same question. There have been several attempts and undertakings, including by the previous Labour Government in 2002. I urge colleagues on both sides of the House to do everything they can to make sure that we achieve this change in the law and give fair wind to the Registration of Marriage (No. 2) Bill.

Dr David Drew (Stroud) (Lab/Co-op): It is good to hear what the right hon. Lady has to say. Will she also talk to the Church about making it easier for people to get married in church and, indeed, to have their children baptised? That would be real equality.

Dame Caroline Spelman: When answering that question on previous occasions, I have given examples of how churches reach out to the surrounding community so that the thought of getting married is not intimidating. It does not need to be expensive, either—getting married in church is probably the least part of what it actually costs to put on a wedding. I can point the hon. Gentleman towards our materials to encourage people to get married in church.

Jim Shannon (Strangford) (DUP): Given that 25% of households are single-parent households, and that 90% of those are mother-led households, does the right hon. Lady agree that the marriage certificate must take into account that large section of people who are overlooked, yet in real life watch over everything in the home?

Dame Caroline Spelman: The hon. Gentleman makes a very important point, which really came out in the Westminster Hall debate that I secured. A number of hon. Members who are themselves the children of a single parent—in most cases, the mother—were really disappointed to find out at the moment they got married that their mum, who had done everything possible to bring them up, was not, under existing law, able to sign the certificate as the parent. That is a very strong reason why the situation needs to change.

Edward Argar (Charnwood) (Con): My right hon. Friend’s commitment on this issue is well known, and it is clear that both sides of the House are very supportive of what she, I and others have tried to achieve. Following her answer to my hon. Friend the Member for East Worthing and Shoreham (Tim Loughton), can she reaffirm that the Church, as it set out to me when I brought forward my private Member’s Bill, remains supportive of what we are trying to achieve?

Dame Caroline Spelman: I would like to clear up any possible misunderstanding that the Church is in any way against making this change: the reverse is true. The Church has consulted on changing the marriage registration process. It will save money through the practical reality of moving to an electronic register. The General Register Office is in favour of making the change, and there is cross-party and institutional support—let us just get it done

Egypt: Attacks on Religious Communities

Vicky Ford (Chelmsford) (Con): What steps the Church of England is taking to support religious communities in Egypt as a result of the recent attacks against Coptic and Islamic communities in that country. [902817]

The Second Church Estates Commissioner (Dame Caroline Spelman): The Church supports ecumenical agencies such as Embrace the Middle East. That, in turn, has supported four projects, including for the Coptic Evangelical Organisation for Social Services in Cairo, which supports more than 2 million Egyptians in more than 100 rural and urban communities.

Vicky Ford: What steps is the Church taking to highlight the importance of a cross-Department approach to tackling the persecution of religious minorities, especially Christians abroad, not simply because that is the right thing to do, but because it is important for our security at home?

Dame Caroline Spelman: The Church regularly facilitates opportunities for Church representatives to speak to Government Departments. Only this week we facilitated a visit by a bishop from Zimbabwe, who spoke to Foreign Office Ministers. I draw my hon. Friend’s attention to the interesting speech made by the Bishop of Peterborough on 5 December, in which he talked very much about the hidden victims of persecution. I think that she will find comfort in the bishop’s speech with regard to awareness of how this plays at home.

Fiona Bruce (Congleton) (Con): Does my right hon. Friend agree that the many displaced middle east Christians need support to ensure that they have safe environments in which to live and flourish? Hopefully, they will be able, in time, to return to their home communities. Will she join me in commending Open Doors for its global seven-year campaign, “Hope for the Middle East”?

Dame Caroline Spelman: I certainly commend Open Doors. I recommend to Members next Wednesday afternoon’s “Hope for the Middle East” event in the Terrace Pavilion, where Open Doors will be encouraging us all to support the plight of those people.

As that was probably the last question to me before the recess, may I wish everybody a happy Christmas? Let us not forget that Jesus was carried in his mother’s arms all the way to Egypt, fleeing persecution, so while we celebrate, let us also remember those who are forced to flee from persecution.