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

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 12:32 pm on 2nd February 2018.

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Photo of Kevin Foster Kevin Foster Conservative, Torbay 12:32 pm, 2nd February 2018

I hear the hon. Gentleman’s disappointment, but I will make sure I speak briefly because I am also quite a fan of the next Bill on the Order Paper, so I have no intention of performing one of my longer Friday orations. I shall focus on the nature of the Bill.

When we consider private Members’ Bills on Fridays, I regularly speak about whether they are needed, whether they are not just something that sounds good but might actually make a real difference, and whether the proposals are proportionate to the issue. In the case of this Bill, all those tests are satisfied. We only need to hear some of the evidence from our constituents about those who get married, including me. When people get married, at the end they are presented with the formal register. I listed the fact that my father was a painter-labourer in Devonport dockyard, and my wife Hazel listed the fact that her now-deceased father was a farmer, and of course that was it. Given that my mum could not be at my wedding—she died four years ago this week—it was actually very sad that she could not even have the recognition of being part of the day via the inclusion of her name and profession on the certificate.

As my hon. Friend the Member for East Worthing and Shoreham rightly said, this law dates back to an era when married women were viewed as chattels of their husband. The idea was that they were physically the property of their husband. In fact, they had no persona of their own legally; by law, they were their husband. That continued right the way up to the 1880s. People may be wondering whether there was some sort of enlightenment during the 1880s that meant that law was abolished. In fact, it was abolished after a court ruled that everything written by a female author was actually legally by her husband, so the author went and ran up a whole load of debts. When the creditors sued, the court ruled in exactly the same way, saying that all those signatures were legally her husband and he had to pay every single bill. Funnily enough, the provisions were abolished very soon after that and married women were given their own legal identity. It is certainly a reminder of a time that no longer exists.

My hon. Friend Maggie Throup pointed out the social history and information that we get from items such as wedding and birth certificates. I had a little bit of a surprise when I looked at my grandfather’s birth certificate. In fact, this is a story that Stephen Pound will probably quite like. It turned out that my great-grandfather was a Canadian soldier. We all said, “He never went anywhere near Canada, so how was he a Canadian soldier?” It turned out that he was an Irish Roman Catholic who was prepared to join the fight against imperial Germany, but did not wish to join the British Army. At that time, the compromise for these men was to say, “Well, you’re going off to the same place anyway. If you want to go with the Canadians or one of the other dominion armies, off you go.” So he was signed up for the Canadians, even though he had never set foot in Canada. Obviously, my great-grandfather’s views on the Union were very different from mine. That is an example of what people can find out, and the social history that is not captured by these wholly outdated provisions.

I am interested to hear that the Bill will give us the opportunity to bring in a more modern system of marriage registration. There are those who view marriage not as a loving commitment and not as I see it—as something that myself and Hazel celebrated before God—but as an opportunity to abuse the immigration system. A more modern registration system will help to deal with that, which is welcome, while removing the archaic provisions of only listing a father on the certificate.

On opposite-sex civil partnerships, I am open to the evidence. I am not as opposed to them as my hon. Friend Michelle Donelan. It was the right choice for myself and Hazel to have our wedding in church, as that is what we strongly believe in, but I recognise that it is not everyone’s choice and neither should the law force people to marry in church. Since 1833, people have not been forced to get married in church. I also recognise that there are people local to me who want to have a civil partnership. I do not see a particular problem with people making this choice, so I will look at the evidence from the consultation and we will see whether it affects the provision.

The only thing that I would slightly caution is the argument about the views of the Roman Catholic Church, although it is not really for me, as an Anglican, to get into this argument too much. The idea is that if someone was divorced they could have a civil partnership rather than a marriage. I did not find that particularly convincing because my understanding is that the Church would still see it as a partnership in the same way as a civil marriage. In reality, what makes the difference is whether the Church would allow marriage in a church. Of course, the position of divorcees in the Church of England has changed in recent years: it was once very unlikely that divorcees would be able to remarry in the Church of England, but parish priests are now much more likely to exercise their discretion based on many quite reasonable grounds. For example, I do not think that any of us would seriously believe that Christ would call someone to stay in an abusive relationship. None of us believes that is the case, so it is right that we make this change.

I very much welcome the provision to change registration of births. I hope that it will provide comfort; hearing the powerful stories today confirmed that for me. I particularly welcome the provision to allow coroners the power to investigate stillbirths. A coroner’s inquiry gives a unique opportunity to examine what went wrong—not necessarily to apportion blame, but actually to find out what went wrong, to learn lessons, to give comfort to all involved and to come to a decision. Therefore, it is welcome that their powers are extended in this way. Again, there is obviously a lot of detail to go into. I am sure that a discussion will be needed with the devolved Administrations, particularly in Wales, about how exactly this will work. However, I think that this welcome provision will bring closure to many people.

It is appropriate that this Bill gets its Second Reading. The only concerns can be dealt with in Committee and perhaps on Report if Members have specific areas that they wish to tweak. It would not be proportionate to try to block the Bill, because it tackles issues that reflect, first, changing society and, secondly, changing medical knowledge. The original provisions on coroners were passed in an era when it would have been very hard to work out what was going on inside the human body. That is now possible with modern scanning and testing techniques, so coroners can look at real evidence. Given the impact on people, giving them the ability to register what was to them not just a statistic or a number in a hospital but a child is totally the right step for us to take. I fully welcome the Bill, and I am sure that it will get its Second Reading in the very near future.