It is an honour to take part in this debate, but I must confess that I was slightly confused by the remarks made by Karen Lee, because as I see it, this is not a matter to politicise; these are complicated moral issues that we are finding our way through together, consensually. Some of the best things I have done since I have been in this House have been done on a cross-party basis and on these very difficult issues.
I thoroughly support, in its entirety, this Bill put forward by my hon. Friend Tim Loughton, but, unusually for an MP, I am going to confine my remarks to the three areas of it of which I have personal experience. I will therefore leave the issue of civil partnerships to others whom I know want to talk about that.
The inequality of marriage certificates was one of the first issues I came across as a constituency MP when I entered the House back in 2015. We had an excellent debate in Westminster Hall, at which many hon. Members here today were present, where I spoke about a terrible story of my constituent, whose father subjected her and her siblings to sexual abuse over a number of years. She has not seen him since she was 10. Were she to get married now—I believe that the current law is one of the reasons why she has not got married—she would very much want to leave the “father” field blank, while her mother, who, as a heroine, brought her up and helped her and her siblings cope with the legacy of this awful abuse, would get no mention. That is simply wrong.
This Bill will ensure that the Secretary of State undertakes a full review of the system. I accept the need to look for efficiencies and to find ways to create a more secure system for the maintenance of marriage records. We must also consider what terminology we use to recognise all forms of parental relationship. Inevitably, that will take time. As a former church warden, I am familiar with the current register system, and I see no reason why we cannot give celebrants and registrars the ability to cross out “father” and amend at their own discretion, or simply to add to it, at least until that review has concluded. Next week, we mark the centenary of women’s suffrage, and I am afraid that it all feels rather archaic standing here discussing such a glaring yet rectifiable inequality.
Although I accept that, on all sides, we have been slow to deal with marriage certificates, in the three years I have been here the Government have been ambitious in their approach to stillbirths. I am really pleased with the progress we have made, although it does not go nearly far enough, towards halving the number of stillbirths by 2025. The all-party group on baby loss is a force of nature, and I pay great tribute to my hon. Friends the Members for Colchester (Will Quince) and for Eddisbury (Antoinette Sandbach), Mrs Hodgson and indeed the former Member for Ipswich. We were all there in the middle of the night starting this group, determined to make things better. We were soon joined by the passion of Patricia Gibson and then that fabulous speech by Vicky Foxcroft did so much to help our cause. I am proud that we must take some credit for the fact that the way we talk about miscarriages, stillbirths and neonatal loss is changing. As a group, we know there are strong views on the way in which stillbirths are registered and investigated. For me at least, it seems that much should depend on the wishes of the parents. Fear of touching on painful subjects—although, as my hon. Friend the Member for East Worthing and Shoreham made clear, there is no need to upset the abortion laws over this—and talking about them must not render us incapable of reflecting a situation where babies born younger and younger are, happily, now living. Real people are suffering by our failure to address these difficult issues. A mother who has been through labour and is going through lactation, often for a significant number of weeks, for a baby who is stillborn before 24 weeks will of course feel that his or her life should be properly recognised and recorded. I am hopeful that our group will have a great deal of input into the report the Secretary of State will undertake should this Bill progress today.
I was in the House in November for the Secretary of State’s statement on the Government’s new strategy to improve safety in NHS maternity services. Worrying about maternal safety, particularly of those who use the Horton General Hospital in my constituency, keeps me awake at night. Unfortunately, we all know that things can and do go wrong. Bereaved families deserve answers, and are often motivated by a burning desire to ensure that what happened to them will never happen to another family. At the moment, as we know, coroners in England do not have the power to investigate a stillbirth, yet in Northern Ireland, in 2013, the Court of Appeal held that coroners do have such a jurisdiction. I know, through talking to members of MBRRACE-UK—Mothers and Babies: Reducing Risk through Audits and Confidential Enquiries across the UK—that in the vast majority of cases it will not be appropriate for a coroner to investigate a stillbirth. However, in the cases where relations with a hospital have broken down, where there is no faith in internal investigations or where there are wider learning points from a death, this may in a very small number of cases be appropriate.
In my previous career, I used to represent the Government in military inquests, and it strikes me that there is considerable potential for us to provide specialist training to a cadre of coroners brought in to deal with this extremely sensitive area, in much the way that we did having learnt from the introduction of inquests in military situations. I hope we can rely on our Ministers for joined-up, cross-departmental thinking as the work progresses. My hon. Friend the Member for East Worthing and Shoreham has kindly met me and Bliss in advance of today’s debate to scope out views. If this Bill progresses, I look forward to engaging with the review that will follow.
This is a sensible and humane Bill, which we, as a cross-party group of Members, should all unite behind. It merely aims to right long-standing anomalies in the law, and it is a real pleasure to support it.