Marriage: 16 and 17-year-olds

Church Commissioners – in the House of Commons on 31st October 2019.

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Photo of Pauline Latham Pauline Latham Conservative, Mid Derbyshire

What assessment the Church of England has made of the potential merits of ending marriages involving 16 and 17-year-olds.

Photo of Caroline Spelman Caroline Spelman The Second Church Estates Commissioner, Chair, Draft Parliamentary Buildings (Restoration and Renewal) Bill Committee

The legal position is that 16 and 17-year-olds are entitled to have their banns published and to marry in church. I am sure that all Members who have been to an Anglican wedding will be familiar with the moment during the service when the priest asks whether anyone has an objection to the marriage. That is part of the marriage process. When a young couple are preparing for marriage, they are prepared by the priest for the very profound decision that they are making. However, those of such a tender age constitute only a very small percentage of the number who marry in Anglican churches.

Photo of Pauline Latham Pauline Latham Conservative, Mid Derbyshire

May I echo the words of my hon. Friend Fiona Bruce and reiterate that my right hon. Friend will be missed when she leaves this place?

Does my right hon. Friend agree that, given the international reach of the Anglican communion, the Church of England’s support for ending marriages between 16 and 17-year-olds in the UK would send a powerful message to other jurisdictions and faith communities around the world?

Photo of Caroline Spelman Caroline Spelman The Second Church Estates Commissioner, Chair, Draft Parliamentary Buildings (Restoration and Renewal) Bill Committee

As I mentioned earlier, the Anglican communion covers a very large number of nations and a very large number of people whose cultural norms differ from our own, but aid agencies often handle the issue of child marriage very effectively through their health and education programmes. I particularly commend the work of the Mothers Union in this respect. Its members are active in, for instance, southern Sudan with finance and literacy programmes to ensure that families do not rely on dowry payments as a way to sustain themselves. Dioceses in Kenya work with the community to prevent child marriage, and there are similar arrangements in Ghana. The Mothers Union also has initiatives to tackle child marriage in the United States of America, because in 13 states there is no minimum age for marriage.

Photo of Tim Loughton Tim Loughton Conservative, East Worthing and Shoreham

May I, too, pay my tribute to my right hon. Friend? She and I entered the House on the same day in 1997, as did you, Mr Speaker. We have shared many worthwhile causes, and she will be greatly missed. One of those causes was, of course, marriage certificates, whether for marriages between 16 and 17-year-olds or for any other marriages. As a result of my Civil Partnerships, Marriages and Deaths (Registration etc) Act 2019, mothers’ names will at last be added to those certificates.

Will my right hon. Friend update us on the progress that is being made ahead of the digital registration that is to be introduced? Is it the case that in certain churches, the Church of England has given its agreement to the manual writing of hard-copy certificates until the necessary technology is available? That, I am sure, would be a welcome common-sense measure.

Photo of Caroline Spelman Caroline Spelman The Second Church Estates Commissioner, Chair, Draft Parliamentary Buildings (Restoration and Renewal) Bill Committee

I thank my hon. Friend for his kind words. We did indeed enter Parliament together, and in those early weeks when we did not really have an office, and we were adjusting to the long-hours culture, and we missed our children—I was pining for mine—he was kind enough to make me hot cocoa late at night. I have not forgotten those early times.

Let me update the House. My hon. Friend was the Member of Parliament who landed the prize of securing a change in the law of 1837 that did not allow mothers the same right as fathers in terms of marriage registration, but progress is slow on the accompanying regulation. My hon. Friend may wish to join me in putting some pressure on the future Government to complete that process, because there are practical steps that can be taken in the short term. The Church has offered to allow existing registration books to be used, and where it says “father”, the name of the mother can be added in brackets. If it is to take a while to take marriage registration into the digital age, many mums who are hoping to have that new right can achieve it in the short term by means of a simple practical solution.