Naming Ceremonies and Parental Responsibilities

– in the House of Commons at 4:51 pm on 23rd May 1995.

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Photo of Frank Field Frank Field Chair, Social Security Committee, Chair, Social Security Committee 4:51 pm, 23rd May 1995

I beg to move, That leave be given to bring in a Bill to empower registrars of births to conduct civil naming ceremonies and to require registrars to make available to certain mothers and fathers parental responsibility agreements. In seeking leave to introduce a naming ceremonies Bill, I assure the House that it is not a panic measure in response to the discovery that certain of our colleagues in the House seem unaware of the names by which most of us know them. It attempts to deal with a much longer-term trend in our society.

Long before we had any sense of nationhood, long before we had any comprehension of what statehood meant and even before we saw signs of government in Britain, parents would present their children for baptism. The Church taught that it was a sacrament. In those days, parents as easily understood what that meant as parents today find it difficult to comprehend the meaning of such events.

As well as celebrating a sacrament, baptism was an event to welcome a child into the community. As we have had a statement today on the remains of our great warship building yards, it is perhaps appropriate that I draw examples from our sea-going power to illustrate what has happened to the numbers being presented for baptism.

When the British expeditionary forces set sail in the first world war, practically every person in that contingent would have been baptised. When the boats left for the D-day landing, again practically every soldier and sailor would have been baptised. When we went down to the sea in great ships to engage in the Falklands war, only one third of those engaging in that conflict had been baptised.

The reasons for such a dramatic change are twofold. All organisations in decline have a tendency to be caught by fundamentalists, and the established Church is no exception. Priests increasingly refuse to baptise children who are presented by their parents. For example, last week a priest refused to baptise a child because the parents were not married, as if the position of the parent were relevant to what was to be discharged to the child. There is also a more important factor that Matthew Arnold described as the great roar as the tide went out on belief in this country.

The Bill does not pretend that it can deal with those mighty forces at work in our society, but it is an attempt to put in place an alternative to baptism, which is less frequently used than hitherto. It is a short Bill, which would allow registrars at registry offices to carry out civil naming ceremonies.

First, the Bill lists the powers of the registrar. Secondly, it lists where civil naming ceremonies can take place. Thirdly, it lists the duties and the rights of parents. That is particularly important, as increasing numbers of parents who present their children for baptism are not married. It is crucial that fathers who sign birth certificates know that, should the cohabitation split up, their legal rights would be far inferior to legally married fathers.

Although the Bill does not specify it, such a ceremony would be an occasion for both sides of the family to come together and celebrate the great event of the birth of a child and to welcome that child into the community.

It is not my idea. In a week when it is important for us all to declare the sources of the information that we use, I am happy to put it on record that the idea comes from Michael Young, who is known in the other place as Lord Young of Dartington. He is the great social entrepreneur of this century. Among his ideas, he thought of the Consumers Association, the Open university and perhaps 1,000 other useful social inventions. He also played a part in bringing forth the Family Covenant Association, whose raison d'être is to encourage ideas and make available information about alternative naming ceremonies.

Finally, the Bill is not an attempt to force people to use it as an alternative to baptism. I regret that the Bill is necessary, but it is an attempt to widen choice and, above all, to take the best from the baptismal service into the secular, to ensure that each and every child is welcomed into the wider community and that parents and sponsors are aware of their duties to that child.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill ordered to be brought in by Mr. Frank Field, Ms Angela Eagle, Mr. Greg Pope, Ms Diane Abbott, Mr. Alan Howarth, Mr. Malcolm Wicks, Mr. Hugh Bayley and Mrs. Diana Maddock.