Civil Partnerships, Marriages and Deaths (Registration etc.) Bill

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 10:58 am on 2nd February 2018.

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Photo of Victoria Atkins Victoria Atkins The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department, Minister for Women 10:58 am, 2nd February 2018

There is a sense of urgency—very much so. If my hon. Friend will forgive me, I will not be drawn into precise time limits because I would not wish to undermine in any way the academic research that will be undertaken, but there is a very great deal of urgency. We hope that we will have a proportionate amount of data from the pieces of work that I have set out by September next year.

I turn to the subject of marriage. In the Home Office, sadly we very often have to deal with the very worst of humanity, so it is a positive pleasure to talk about civil partnerships and marriage, and to celebrate happy and—one hopes—long-lasting relationships. As someone who is very happily married to a long-suffering husband, I know the irritation that can happen at the ceremony when people realise that the marriage certificate does not provide for the inclusion of mothers. The Government fully support the correction of this issue, and I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for East Worthing and Shoreham for drawing it forward.

At this point, I should welcome Karen Lee to her place on the Opposition Front Bench. Although I have only been a Minister for eight weeks or something like that, may I give her just a little piece of advice? Hearing and judging the tone of the House is a very important role for those on the Front Bench. She will have noticed that there is a great deal of consensus in the Chamber today, so perhaps we did not need to drag the discussion into, “He said”, “She said”, and so on.

The long title of the Bill refers to only mothers being added to certificates. We need to ensure that when the marriage entry is updated it allows for all the different family circumstances in society today—for example, same-sex parents. Indeed, my hon. Friend the Member for Banbury set out the pressures that can be present in family circumstances and the need for marriage certificates to reflect that. We need to make sure that we have a system in place that enables the marriage register to be capable of adapting. My hon. Friend suggested that perhaps people could simply strike through the marriage certificate to include the mother’s name. I implore people not to do that. This is a technical, legal document, and doing so may mean that it is not valid, so the happy couple will have to go through another ceremony. We will work very hard on this.

I thank my hon. Friend the Member for East Worthing and Shoreham for agreeing to amend clause 1 of his Bill in Committee to insert the provisions of the Registration of Marriage (No. 2) Bill in its place. That important Bill is the long-standing work of my right hon. Friend Dame Caroline Spelman, who has been battling for years to have this anomaly in our marriage ceremony and celebrations corrected. I place on record my thanks for her commitment to ensuring that the marriage certificate reflects the important role of both parents.

When the Registration of Marriage (No. 2) Bill is added to this Bill, the provisions will form the way in which marriages are registered in England and Wales, moving from a paper-based system to registration on an electronic register. I know that some will worry immediately about what that means for the all-important photographs that we show off of the end of a happy marriage ceremony. I assure the House that we will still be able to have the photograph of signing a document at the ceremony. Wedding photographers need not worry: brides and grooms will get that all-important photograph with the document and their signatures.

Moving to a schedule system is the most efficient and cost-efficient way of updating the marriage entry. It would be the biggest reform of how marriages are registered since 1837, moving away from the outdated legislation currently in place. To the joy of my colleagues in the Treasury, it will also introduce savings of about £33.8 million over 10 years. Some concern has been raised about the use of Henry VIII powers in the Registration of Marriage (No. 2) Bill. We would be content for the Bill to be amended to include a sunset clause limiting the use of the powers to a period of three years, allowing for the legislation to be amended to introduce a schedule-based system. Once implemented, that would allow for any amendments required to deal with any unintended consequences.

Having dealt with civil partnerships and marriage, I now move on to the subject of registering stillbirths. I must acknowledge the very hard work and commitment of my hon. Friends the Members for Colchester (Will Quince) and for Eddisbury (Antoinette Sandbach), and the hon. Members for Lewisham, Deptford (Vicky Foxcroft) and for Washington and Sunderland West, who have campaigned so effectively to ensure that these losses are felt within this Chamber and that our legislation reflects them as well.

The Government’s ambition is for the health service to provide the safest, highest-quality care available anywhere in the world. I am sure that we would all acknowledge the excellent NHS staff working tirelessly on a daily basis to help us achieve this ambition. Nevertheless, when it does occur—I would like to ensure that Opposition Front Benchers pay due respect to this section of the Bill—the loss of a pregnancy is a heart-rending tragedy for families that stays with them for the rest of their lives. Many of the care considerations for parents experiencing a stillbirth—that is, when a baby is born after 24 weeks’ gestation—will be similar for those experiencing a late miscarriage. Local policies, however, may affect the type and place of care offered or available depending on the gestation when baby loss occurs.

Currently, parents whose babies are stillborn after 24 weeks’ gestation can register the baby’s name and receive a certificate of registration of stillbirth. When a pregnancy ends before 24 weeks’ gestation, however, there is currently no formal process for parents to be able to register their loss legally. Some expectant parents find this to be not just distressing but devastating. The Department of Health and Social Care recognises the need to do more to support families affected by a miscarriage. Some families may want their loss to be acknowledged and registered. Others, however, may feel distressed at any mandatory requirement to do so in the circumstances of their grief. This issue must therefore be approached with great care and sensitivity.

Accordingly, I am pleased that clause 3 will provide for the Government to review this issue and to look at whether current law on registration of stillbirths should be changed to allow for the registration of pregnancy loss before 24 weeks’ gestation. As part of this review, we will seek views and evidence from all interested parties. I hope that colleagues across the House will contribute to that review.

I now move on to coroners’ investigations.