Bishop of St Albans welcomes Civil Partnerships, Marriages and Deaths (Registration Etc.) Bill

On 18th January 2019 the House of Lords considered the Civil Partnerships, Marriages and Deaths (Registration Etc.) Bill at its Second Reading. The Bishop of St Albans, Rt Revd Alan Smith, spoke in the debate:

The Lord Bishop of St Albans: My Lords, I thank Tim Loughton MP and the noble Baroness, Lady Hodgson of Abinger, for bringing this Bill forward in the Chamber today. It is a complex Bill because it brings together a number of different issues and therefore the danger is that it could fall because a group of people does not like one particular bit of it. I know just how hard it has been working on just the focused registration of marriage part of it, let alone the other focuses. For that reason, I will resist the temptation to widen the debate beyond the scope of the Bill; for example, to explore the points made by the noble Lord, Lord Collins of Highbury. I do so because I want us to focus absolutely on what we are trying to deliver. That does not preclude us from having other debates on the points he has made but I do not believe that they are relevant today. Indeed, the danger is that it will confuse matters if we go beyond the scope of what we are trying to do.

As has already been spelled out, the proposals in Clause 1 reflect almost exactly my own Registration of Marriage Bill, which passed through this House with support from your Lordships. Perhaps I may say how grateful I am to the considerable number of people who were immensely helpful. It was only my second attempt to get a Private Member’s Bill through. I am a complete novice at this and I discovered just how complex it is to move a Bill on. I was therefore delighted to have the huge help of so many Members of your Lordships’ House. As has also been mentioned, we decided to do something which I am told is very unusual. We developed a pincer movement with Dame Caroline Spelman MP introducing a Private Member’s Bill with almost exactly the same words in the other place, because we were so determined to move this very focused piece of legislation on and try to get it into law.

The Bill before us today originated in the other place but both the respective Bills have passed through one of the two Houses and both share a core belief that marriage registration needs to be updated and modernised. Clause 1 would correct a clear and historic injustice. When a couple is married and the marriage is registered, currently there is provision only for the fathers’ names to be recorded. It is an archaic practice, unchanged since Victorian times, when children were seen as the father’s property and little consideration was given to the role of the mother, in particular any sense of them having joint responsibility.

In England and Wales the law currently requires all marriages to be registered once they have taken place. Following the marriage ceremony, the person responsible for registering the marriage, such as a registrar or a member of the clergy of the Church of England, registers the marriage in a marriage register book and handwrites the marriage certificate. I have done that myself many times. Another aspect which features in both my Bill and this Bill is the modernisation of the system of marriage registration. For too long the system has been solely paper-based. Certificates are an exact copy of the register entry, with the prescribed particulars registered for marriages including details only of the fathers but not the mothers of the couple.

Leaving aside the obvious benefits of digitalisation, which is already available to couples in Scotland and Northern Ireland, there have been calls from both within and outside Parliament for the mother’s details to be included in marriage registration. For my own Bill, the Church consulted internally and won support from senior clergy across the Church. It has also worked for many years with the Home Office and the General Register Office on the finer points of its implementation.

Incidentally, I have been surprised by the unexpected support of groups of people who would not normally spend time engaging with the minutiae of parliamentary legislation. Genealogists, for example, have reacted with a huge sense of relief. I have received quite a number of letters from genealogists saying, “It is about time because it is so much harder to trace families back in this country where the mother’s name is not recorded at this key point”. Elsewhere, I have been glad to amplify the voices of feminists and women’s groups on this important issue.

Last year we marked the centenary of women’s suffrage, so surely it is time to bring the registration of marriage into the present age. I hope that we will all support the Bill.


Baroness Hodgson of Abinger (Con): My Lords, this is my first time proposing a Private Member’s Bill and I therefore ask that your Lordships be gentle with me as I find my feet…Making changes to how marriages are registered and moving to a schedule-based system has previously been the subject of debate. The right reverend Prelate the Bishop of St Albans, who is also with us today, introduced identical measures in the Registration of Marriage Bill, which was debated in this House last year. That Bill is currently in the other place, awaiting a Second Reading. It has been apparent during the debates that the provisions in the clause have cross-party support. Moving to a schedule system similar to the one that has been in place in Scotland since 1855, and which also applies in Northern Ireland, will enable changes to be made to the marriage register entry much more easily in future, without the need to replace all the paper marriage registers. I believe that there are around 84,000 marriage registers in use across register offices, churches and other religious buildings.

Baroness Anelay of St Johns (Con)…I support all the provisions in the Bill but, in the interests of time, given that two Private Members’ Bills are waiting in the wings, I will address my remarks only to the first part of the Bill, which enables the registration of the names of the mother of each party to a marriage or civil partnership. I congratulate the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of St Albans, who has worked hard, with good grace and patience, to bring forward this reform. Of course, he started by introducing his own, more narrowly focused, Registration of Marriage Bill last January. I spoke at its Second Reading in strong support of its objectives…

Baroness Scott of Needham Market (LD): My Lords, I add my thanks to the noble Baroness for introducing the Bill today and to Tim Loughton for having the determination to steer it through the Commons. He is building on the work done by others, and I am particularly pleased to see the Bishop of St Albans in his place today after everything he did last year…

The Minister of State, Home Office (Baroness Williams of Trafford) (Con): My Lords, I start by thanking my noble friend Lady Hodgson for bringing her first Private Member’s Bill forward so eloquently. It includes many important issues that the Government fully support.

Clause 1 seeks to bring forward changes to the way marriages are registered in the future. Under present legislation, the marriage register entry provides space for the name of the father of each person in the couple to be recorded, but of course not that of the mother and this, unbelievably, has been the case since 1837. As my noble friend said, this topic was the subject of a debate in this House last year—I was the Minister who responded to it—when the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of St Albans brought forward a Bill containing identical marriage provisions. I would also like to acknowledge the long-standing work of my right honourable friend Dame Caroline Spelman, who has been tireless in her efforts to address this anomaly and introduced identical private provisions on more than one occasion in another place to ensure that the marriage certificate reflects the important role of both parents…

…The noble Lord, Lord Collins, talked about blessings in, for example, the Church of England, which was also mentioned by the noble Baroness, Lady Thornton. We quickly referred to the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of St Albans to provide expert advice on this. It would be a matter for a minister in the individual church. As a divorced Catholic, I was not able to get remarried in a Catholic Church, but my local priest absolutely understood my desire to have a blessing in my local church and absolutely beautifully obliged in that instance…

Baroness Hodgson of Abinger:…I acknowledge all the previous work put in on the change to marriage registration by the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of St Albans and Dame Caroline Spelman, which has contributed so much to this Bill.

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