Lords backs Bishop of St Albans’ bill on marriage registration

On 26th January 2018 the Registration of Marriage Bill [HL], a Private Member’s Bill by the Bishop of St Albans, Rt Revd Alan Smith, was debated at Second Reading in the Lords. It received the backing of Government all other parties, and having passed Second Reading now proceeds to Committee. The speeches of the Bishop opening and closing the debate, and the Government Minister’s reply are reproduced in full below:

Second Reading

12.42 pm

Moved by

The Lord Bishop of St Albans: That the Bill be now read a second time.

The Lord Bishop of St Albans: 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.


Closing speeches:

The Minister of State, Home Office (Baroness Williams of Trafford) (Con): 
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.

Baroness Bakewell: 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.

Baroness Williams of Trafford: 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.

Lord Garel-Jones (Con): 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?

Baroness Williams of Trafford: 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.

Baroness Meacher: 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.

Baroness Williams of Trafford: 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 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.

Baroness Flather: 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.

Baroness Williams of Trafford: 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.


The Lord Bishop of St Albans: 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.