‘“recognised” means recognised according to the ordinary customs and usage of the organisation. In the event of a dispute between the members over which person or persons are recognised for the purpose of giving consent for the purposes of this section, the Secretary of State shall consult all members of the relevant religious organisation to determine which person or persons are recognised. This shall include power to order a ballot of members in which a quorum of 66 per cent. shall be required and recognition shall be determined by a majority vote.
“members” means those whose names have appeared on a formal membership roll kept by the relevant religious organisation for a period of at least 12 months prior to written consent being given. If no such roll is kept, then the members shall be deemed to be those who have attended worship at the place of worship for a majority of services of worship during the 12 months prior to written consent being given.’.
Welcome back to umpiring our test match, Mr Hood. I welcome the progress that we are making. In his innings, the Minister of State took five sittings to move us to clause 2. The Under-Secretary of State for Women and Equalities has moved us to yet another clause in rapid time—we have now moved to the more free-flowing stroke play of the new Minister.
Amendment 51 is in my name and that of my hon. Friends. It is confessional time. The amendment is somewhat clumsy and may lead to some tedium on the part of some members of the Committee—[Hon. Members: “Hear, hear.”] It is amazing to get such endorsement from across the Committee. We are now getting to key elements of the Government’s legislation, effectively the nuts and bolts of the lock and how it will be applied. The amendment seeks—somewhat clumsily, I admit—to define terms about recognition of the authorities and the consent that would apply when dealing with issues of registering buildings. I urge the Government to confess their own clumsy attempt to redefine marriage, which by necessity leads to the clumsiness in the Bill of attempting to define how religious premises are registered.
As the Government are intent on redefining marriage, and if they intend to persist in legislating for same-sex marriages in places of worship, they need to make sure that the legal framework they put in place is absolutely secure and clear for everyone to understand. Clause 4, which adds new section 26A to the Marriage Act 1949, provides for the proprietor or trustees of a place of worship to apply to be able to solemnize same-sex marriages.
The Minister and other members of the Committee may well ask what all the fuss is about with clause 4, because the provisions are based on regulations for civil partnerships in churches that have been in force for a year. It is also the case that those regulations were not subject to a debate on this side, despite the outstanding efforts of my hon. Friend the Member for Gainsborough (Mr Leigh). They were dealt with by secondary legislation—later in the Committee we will consider proposals to deal with a host of issues by way of secondary legislation. We now have the opportunity to probe and to consider whether that is a good thing.
When the parallel regulations for civil partnerships were in the other place, Baroness Butler-Sloss, who is much experienced in the family division, supported them, but described them as “sloppy”. We have the same sloppiness in the regulations. One also has to understand that those regulations are bedding in. It is still early days and it is appropriate to raise potential problems with the application of clause 4. I also notice that the 2005 regulations state:
“Nothing in these Regulations places an obligation on a proprietor or trustee of religious premises to make an application for approval of those premises as a place at which two people may register as civil partners”.
I have looked high and low in the Bill to see whether there is a similar statement in relation to the clause or schedule 1 and have not found it. Will the Minister explain why there is not a similar statement in the Bill to the statement on the registration of civil partnerships?
I will come to other questions, but I want to flesh out some of the concerns that are out there. Often proprietors or trustees will be different in a place of worship from those with other authorities, such as, in a religious context, spiritual authorities. In addition, clause 4 requires consent from the relevant governing authority. We have to unpack those definitional terms to see whether the Government have themselves unpacked them. Have they decided that they need to package them back into this relatively ill-defined form and leave it to the religious organisations to deal with the issue themselves? Alternatively, it might be appropriate to get this right and clear in the Bill now.
What does “recognised” really mean? What does it mean for members of a religious organisation to recognise an authority that is competent to give consent on something as important and potentially divisive as same-sex marriage? Who are the members of a religious organisation? Some Churches will have a formal, written list of members, who have had to go through a formal process to achieve that status. In other Churches that use an electoral roll, the list of members may not bear much resemblance to those who turn up on a Sunday morning or evening. Some Churches’ religious groups have formal systems of membership, but others regard it almost as an article of faith not to do so. The amendment is an attempt, somewhat clumsily, to define “recognised” and “members”, and to give the Government an opportunity to respond with their view on the matter.
If no definition exists, that may lead to problems. We are legislating for religious organisations to be able to opt in. The explanatory notes state:
“Subsection (4) of new section 26A defines what is meant by the ‘relevant governing authority’. This definition leaves it open to religious organisations to define their governing authority as they wish for the purpose of giving consent to religious marriage of same sex couples.”
That is in the permissive spirit of the Bill—many people would say that it is quite appropriate and proper, and that no legislation should get in the way of such a decision. I would not want us to have a list of approved religious organisations, as some European member states do. That would not be appropriate or right, because the state should not get involved in such matters. It is important, however—not least to give us some clarity in the debate—for us and for the authorities that determine applications to understand what is a bona fide religious authority, so that the authorities are not taken for a ride.
The legislation defines who can give genuine religious consent for the purpose of registering a place of worship for same-sex marriages. That is the only mechanism that a Church or denomination has for allowing or preventing the use of its premises for same-sex marriages, so it is important that we get this right. We do not want to create problems in Churches because the Bill lacks clarity.
A rogue element in a Church might decide to take action in relation to consent and authority if there is limbo. Every Church has its rogue elements, just like most organisations—and, indeed, political parties. For example, the majority of Conservatives do not support same-sex marriage, but there is a minority rogue element in the party that is advancing it in the name of all Conservatives. Similarly, a rogue element in a Church that is in the minority among voting members might want to do something similar.
I have some questions for the Minister on such rogue elements. According to whatever consultation has taken place, does each religious organisation in the country have an authority that is, in the words of clause 4, “recognised by the members”? Do such bodies always have a mandate to make such a decision and provide consent? Has consultation taken place during the rapid passage of the Bill that provides the Minister with full assurance that all angles have been considered? What about trustees of a Church building who disagree with the Church elders about opting in? Who will arbitrate between the elders? Who is the recognised authority of the Church and who the trustees? Who is the recognised authority of the building?
The Government estimate that there are around 30,000 registered places of worship, which belong to some 40 different faith groups, not including the Church of England or the Church in Wales. How many have been consulted specifically on the clause, and what was their response?
The main issue is the importance of governance and ensuring that applications to register a building for same-sex marriages are properly determined by the authority. The local registry office will receive the application, and, as I understand it, it has no legal basis on which to assess or reject an application. If an application is made by the proprietors and accompanied by something that appears to indicate consent, that is apparently enough to register the Church for same-sex marriages.
One might argue that that is appropriate in the permissive world in which we live—the hon. Member for Rhondda has referred to the live and let live Bill. In some ways that extends to the relevant recognised body—the relevant recognised is apparently whatever the applicants say it is. If, for example, they do not like the position of the other religious leaders and authorities, they could cite the consent of a particular splinter group that reflects their own beliefs.
We could argue that it is up to the registered organisations to sort it out themselves, but should we leave that uncertainty in the Bill when we have the opportunity to provide clarity? The local register office at the town hall that receives the application, and the Registrar General himself when it is sent to him, will be none the wiser. If they suspect that the consent is not genuine the statute gives them little scope for rejecting it. If the applicants say, “We are the members. This is the body we recognise,” is there any way to assess the applications and say, “You need consent from a different body”? There is as yet no guidance on assessing who the members are and how the religious authority is recognised in that organisation.
An amendment was proposed some time ago to publish the details of those Churches and premises that would be opting in. That would have provided some clarity, not least for the registrar, who could therefore understand who was applying and see that there was an authority and that the matter had been publicly aired. In the evidence session, we heard from the Unitarian Church, which has some several thousand members—
Indeed—it has 5,000 members. Unitarian Church representatives told us that it would be left to individual congregations to decide whether they wanted to register same-sex marriages. Some of them might want to; others might not. It was suggested that many of them would want to. What if a group from within a congregation of Unitarian Churches took a strongly different view from the majority of members? It might be quite a small number given the small membership of the Unitarian Church. What if they cited the consent of the denomination rather than the local church? How would that be assessed by the local register office?
Church structures are complicated and there are probably many examples. The Baptist Union represents many thousands of members. Its decisions over Church buildings involve the Baptist Union Corporation, trustees, Church members and charity trustees who are made up of the minister, deacons and elders. They all have different legal responsibilities in relation to the premises and Church activities generally. Has the Minister consulted the Baptist Union about whether these arrangements take account of the peculiarities of its structures?
One could say the same about the Fellowship of Independent Evangelical Churches and a number of such organisations, and Church-based groups that have a large number of independent Churches and premises. They could help the Government deal with some of these practical issues. Have such conversations taken place? There may well be a Church denomination that has mixed views about a same-sex marriage. How can we be sure that one wing will not give consent for the denomination as a whole, even though such a decision may be unrepresentative?
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that intervention. He may wish to catch your eye, Mr Hood, to make a contribution on the Baptist Union’s submission, but my point is generally on the level of consultation and consideration given to a number of views. Some we heard in the evidence sessions, but there are a whole host more that are coming through every week to the Committee in written form. Others have come to us directly to say that their voice is not being properly heard on issues of real practical concern.
I have a few more questions for the Minister on this amendment. What if a group claims to be independent in its application—that does not require consent from the wider body—when that was not in fact the case? Can local authority registrars be reasonably expected to have a sufficient grasp of all the different interests, systems and hierarchies of religious bodies in Britain so as to be able to handle potential controversies without a better statutory framework for doing so? What will constitute sufficient evidence of consent? Schedule 1 says that a letter is enough, but given the internal tensions that could well arise around this controversial and sensitive issue, should there not be some additional requirement to verify the issue of consent?
Clause 4 is the anchoring provision for schedule 1, which we will come to in a moment. The explanatory notes state:
“Schedule 1 inserts provisions into the Marriage Act to deal with the details of registering buildings for marriage of same sex couples according to religious rites and usages”.
I am looking for those details in the Bill, but I cannot find them. It may be a case of saying, “Problems have not arisen up to now on the registration of civil partnerships,” but the point has been clearly made that we are dealing with a new situation—the redefinition of marriage—that is raising different controversies and issues within Church groups. We cannot compare like with like.
I am drawing towards the conclusion of my remarks. Has any particular guidance been given to the local authority registrars, rather than just to the Church organisations, on the approval mechanism? What will happen if local authority registrars unknowingly approve an application to register a church for same-sex marriages when there has been no proper consent? Will there be penalties for the authority? Will any issues be raised by someone making a bogus application? Will marriages registered under that bogus registration be invalid? Will any other issues arise? Have the Government considered that issue, and is there any guidance on anything else that may flow from that?
In terms of individual religious premises seeking registration, much will hinge on who is considered to be the responsible trustee or proprietor of the property. What about congregations that meet in buildings they do not ultimately control? We will come on to consider the shared building arrangements in some detail, but what do they do when a same-sex couple asks to use their building for a wedding when there are conflicting issues and beliefs among the different denominations in the building? The proprietor will have registered it, but those who use the premises may profoundly disagree. What would happen? Could there be problems affecting the couple who come for that same-sex marriage ceremony? Will there be concerns about a rogue element or a majority side causing problems at the door? That may sound somewhat fanciful, but it is important to know whether the Government have considered it.
Many independent Churches operate in buildings that they do not own, or have trustees from a separate Church building, and that needs to be dealt with in the Bill. The Government have to ensure that those differences are accounted for by the denomination. The Government may well say that they would not want to interfere, but it is important, if we are going to have a place of worship being open for same-sex couples for ceremonies, that we provide a framework that accounts for the different practical issues that may arise.
I ask the Government to provide that clarity so that we can move on and ensure that we have a system that is not simply about local authorities assessing the suitability of a hotel to hold weddings, because this is not in a similar vein. We are dealing with a whole new set of circumstances, and they need to be dealt with. I urge the Government to think carefully and provide reassurances that they have thought about this, that my amendment is not necessary and—I doubt it—that the clause is fit for purpose.
I rather loved this amendment: not in the sense that I would vote for it, but because it reminded me of when I was doing my theology degree and we did hermeneutics and epistemology. We got on to definitions and I remember that my theology tutor at Oxford was a man who was Scottish but had studied and worked for most of his life in America. He always used to start his lecture—forgive me, Mr Hood—on that by saying, “Sometimes, people ask me, ‘What is the meaning of God?’ But maybe we should be asking ourselves, ‘What is the meaning of meaning?’” Frankly, that is what this amendment says: what is the meaning of meaning? Talk about rabbit holes to disappear down with Alice in Wonderland, eating cakes and drinking potions and getting larger and smaller.
The irony is that it is not as if we have a straightforward piece of legislation here. The Government have put one element in the clause and another element in the schedule, which means that, to understand what will actually happen, one has to start from clause 4(1)—section 26A(2) of the Marriage Act 1949—to realise that the appropriate system is under section 43A, which is then described in schedule 1 on page 15. That says:
“a certificate, given by the applicant and dated not earlier than one month before the making of the application, that the persons who are the relevant governing authority in relation to the building have given written consent to marriages of same sex couples as mentioned in section 26A” so we have to go back again. That certificate has to be provided in order for the relevant place to be used.
Of course, that completely and utterly conflicts with the amendment tabled by the hon. Member for Enfield, Southgate, because he has devised, for any Church or religious organisation that there may be out there, a system for deciding on this issue. Omnipotence is not really the word—it is almost a cathedratic, papal assumption that he has taken where he will determine how every organisation in the country, other than the Church of England and those prescribed for elsewhere in law, comes to a decision on same-sex marriages. One could presume that that will apply to every other decision those organisations make, on transubstantiation or the virgin birth or whatever else.
I say to the hon. Gentleman that he is doing a diligent job, but it is completely and utterly unnecessary and, actually, it restricts religious freedom in a way of which he would not be proud if the amendment were carried. So, for his own sake—to save himself from himself—I beg him to withdraw the amendment.
It is always a pleasure, a joy and an experience to follow the hon. Member for Rhondda. He always gives a bit of a theology lesson. I thought that I knew a bit about it, but I knew not nearly as much as he has inflicted on the Committee in the last few weeks. We know a lot about his distinguished career at Oxford—we hear about that almost hourly—and his last contribution reminded me of a programme called “The Good Old Days” that expired back in the ’80s where Leonard Sachs was the compère of a good old-fashioned musical—[ Interruption. ]
—music hall and cabaret performance that was on television. He distinguished himself by coming up with a whole load of superlative words, which were often alliteratively put, and not many people knew what any of them meant. The hon. Gentleman is a spangle in the eye of Leonard Sachs; he has excelled himself with the words that he has imposed on the Committee. None of us has the remotest idea of the meaning of half of them.
May I provide some help? Does my hon. Friend know that we have just experienced someone who can be described as a sesquipedalian—someone who uses polysyllabic words? Would he say that the hon. Gentleman is a sesquipedalian, or an ultracrepidarian —someone who does not know what they are speaking about?
I did Latin and studied classics at university, but I am a bit lost. It is a great loss to the Committee that the Lord Commissioner of Her Majesty’s Treasury, my right hon. Friend the Member for New Forest West, is not allowed to contribute, given his huge experience of these matters in the Prayer Book Society, for which he previously worked, and his huge knowledge of theology. However, we will wade on on our own.
I can see you would like me to move on to amendment 51, Mr Hood. Despite being wowed by the concern that the hon. Member for Rhondda showed for our well-being, we think that the amendment addresses potential problems with the Government’s assumptions about how local authorities will know whether someone saying that they represent, and have been mandated by, a Church actually does represent, and has been mandated by, that Church. It seems incredible that the Bill is short on detail about how those things will work in practice, as it is on an awful lot of other things. It does not inspire confidence that this issue has been exhaustively thought through, and that the Government’s assumptions have been tested to check that all eventualities are adequately catered for.
The Government’s approach to this question is perhaps based on their previous approach to civil partnerships, for which local authorities are provided with access to a list of Churches that have formally given notice of their consent to opt in to the civil partnership registration process. Given the fact that hardly any Churches actually opted in, apart from a tiny number of non-mainstream Churches that represent relatively small numbers of followers, it is comparatively straightforward for local authorities to know who has and who has not opted in, and who in those Churches has the authority to commit the Church to such an opt-in.
However, that is unlikely to be the case for same-sex marriage, and further investigation and questioning is necessary. It can be fairly confidently predicted that the situation over time will become quite controversial and potentially messy, with claim and counterclaim being made about who has the authority to speak for Churches in committing their memberships to opting in to the system for conducting same-sex marriages. The expectation that local authorities will have the knowledge and resources to establish with certainty who exercises the proper legal responsibility for such decisions within each of a vast array of Churches, with their myriad forms and varieties of government and locations, represents a major challenge for local authorities, which will be responsible for policing the Bill. They cannot be expected to verify consents without a clear method of establishing the proper authority in cases of dispute and controversy. The hon. Member for Rhondda started by saying he liked amendment 51, which is an improvement on “I hate it”—
Thank you, Mr Hood.
The amendment is designed to supply clarity when there are competing claims about who is legally competent to speak for a particular Church or faith organisation. It is unrealistic to assume that such clashes will not occur. My hon. Friend the Member for Enfield, Southgate set out some of the factions within various organisations that have already given rise to disputes. We know that within the small number of Churches that have said that they will carry out same-sex marriages there are voices insisting, “Not in my name.” Those voices say that the governing body does not speak for the rank and file. From the opposite perspective, it is apparent that there will be intensive lobbying and attempts to persuade Churches that do not want to opt in to the gay marriage process to change their minds. We may well see in due course claims that the dissenting voices speak for the majority or claims that the leadership of the relevant Churches does not represent the rank and file.
We are already seeing such things happening. Even in the Church of England, groups who are committed to changing its clear position on the matter have asserted that they will do everything they can to challenge the decision made by the Church, even to the extent of threatening to defy their Church and perform versions of same-sex ceremonies notwithstanding its official position. Indeed, I can think of one member of the clergy in my constituency who is quite adamant that he should be allowed to—and wants to—carry out same-sex marriages within the Church of England.
The response of the Government in such circumstances might be that that is purely a matter for the internal processes of individual Churches and no concern of theirs. They might say that clergymen who perform same-sex ceremonies in defiance of Church authorities are acting illegally, and that it is up to the Church to deal with them. They might be right, but expecting local authorities to appreciate internal politics and complex structures of Churches when claims and counterclaims are being presented is almost certainly expecting too much.
Consequently, there needs to be some form of fall-back that can be brought into play not only to assist local authorities, but to inform the courts if such disputes become legal battles—something that we can almost inevitably anticipate happening in the future. The amendment would achieve a degree of uniformity crossing the boundaries of the various different local authorities that are expected to police matters. While it would be a shame if legal disputes over such matters were headlined in our courts in the future, the reality is that when the Government decided to legislate for Churches in internal Church systems and politics, they left the matter open to legal challenges.
We are proposing the amendment so that there is a little more clarity in the process involved in ensuring that those who claim to speak for certain Churches or religious bodies have the authority to so commit their memberships. In short, the amendment would clarify how a local authority would go about recognising a Church’s mandate to opt into a same-sex marriage system, when that is open to doubt or challenge. It would help to establish whether applications are in accordance with the respective Church’s usual and constitutional methods of reaching such decisions.
However, when there is an ongoing dispute between members of the religious body as to which person has the appropriate authority to give the necessary consent, it is possible that the Secretary of State might need to become involved, as it is unlikely that local authorities could investigate and resolve such complex conflicts themselves. Because of the intensely controversial nature of the issue, unresolved disputes are inevitable.
In the event of an ongoing dispute, amendment 51 would require the Secretary of State to become involved because of the associated high stakes and the complexity of the issues raised. That may help to ensure a consistent approach across both central and local government, but there is a real risk of fragmentation and the matter is open to ideological differences of approach by different local authorities. There will always be varying levels of expertise and resources to allocate to such time-consuming and unfamiliar areas. Local authorities that are seen to favour one side or the other—it might be Brighton in such cases—are likely to be challenged, so surely it makes obvious sense to set out a clear statutory fall-back process for when such disputes occur.
In effect, the Secretary of State will have the ultimate responsibility to investigate and assure him or herself that due process has taken place in the Church or religious body reaching its decision, and that the properly authorised persons have accurately communicated the Church’s position. When there is doubt over whether due process has been followed and members of the religious body, for example, allege improper activity or manipulation of internal processes, the Secretary of State should have the power to order a ballot of Church members as set out under the amendment.
In such a ballot, a majority vote of two thirds would be required to authorise the religious body either to opt in or opt out of the same-sex marriage registration system. We can debate the merits of requiring a majority of two thirds, but the principle is practical. One argument in favour is that it is necessary to protect situations in which a religious body—perhaps one that is relatively small in numbers—is infiltrated by relatively large numbers of activists seeking to destabilise the Church from its subtle position and take over the decision-making processes by its sheer numbers. I can think of examples of when political parties and local associations have been infiltrated by certain Church organisations trying to overturn the policy and, indeed, the candidate selection of that local party. Although that may seem a bizarre scenario to many people, given how the issue has been so heavily polarised and politicised, it is something that could happen in future. Accordingly, to prevent that happening, it is necessary to define statutorily what is meant by membership of a religious body.
Church membership is an almost infinitely varied category among the thousands of Churches and other religious groupings in the United Kingdom. Some memberships are strongly confessional, well defined and have legal implications. Other forms of membership are relatively loose, open and virtually self-defining by the act of turning up. Accordingly, the amendment seeks to ensure that those entitled to claim membership—
The difficulty is that nearly every Church—in fact, I think every Church—accepts that a member of a Church is a baptised member of a Church. In many Churches, baptism comes at birth. According to the hon. Gentleman’s definition, recently baptised babies would be allowed to vote. Is that really what he is proposing?
No, because, as with any organisation or voting threshold, there would be an age threshold or something like that attached to it—an age of competency, an age of adulthood or whatever.
We are setting out a principle. That is why I have said that a two-thirds majority or something similar needs to be set out. This is in the absence of any dispute resolution procedure whatever. That is the problem. The obvious thing would be for members of a Church to become voting members when they reach adulthood. In the Church of England—from memory—to become a voting member of a parochial church council, a member has to reach adulthood. They would not be allowed to vote as a child. Such structures already exist in some Churches. It is not as though we are having to create something completely new. It is a question of adapting and building on structures that already exist in some of the larger Churches. The principle remains the same, whoever the voting body is.
We know that there is little that remains sacred and that legal disputes are becoming almost everyday features of the religious scene. If the Bill is enacted, Parliament, as we have said before, owes a special duty of care. In the United States, for example, we regularly see public legal disputes about the direction Churches should follow, with high profile controversies about ownership of religious buildings and the like. Such scenarios are now starting to be seen in Scotland with high profile disputes affecting the Church of Scotland, where Churches are increasingly being seen as out of step either with their governing bodies or with their memberships.
I am sure that the Government, quite rightly, will be reluctant to become involved in such conflicts. However, they cannot now avoid responsibility when it is the Government who have opened up the whole can of worms that inevitably will accompany the legislation if it is passed. To legislate for the intra-denominational conflict created by the Bill by requiring denominational consent and to then say in effect, “Go and sort it out yourselves” is not responsible, but that is what will arise.
Amendment 51 would insert provisions to regulate the recognition of the relevant governing authority of a religious organisation whose written consent to marriages of same-sex couples is needed. It is required to apply for the registration of its place of worship for that purpose, and the amendment seeks, where there is a dispute over the recognition of the governing authority, to impose a requirement on the Secretary of State to consult members of the religious group and provide for the holding of a ballot in which 66% of members cast their votes. Members are defined as people who are on a formal membership roll for 12 months or who have attended the majority of services given over the period of 12 months.
The Government do not believe it is right to seek to regulate the internal governance of religious organisations in such a way. It is probably a matter for the governing body of a religious organisation to determine in its own way. The Bill gives sufficient clarity about what is required, and is clear about whether a religious organisation has consented to marriage of same-sex couples. If there were a dispute about the identity of the relevant governing authority, that would be a matter for the religious group to resolve internally.
If a religious organisation could not agree what was its governing authority, it would not be possible for it to provide the necessary written consent to apply for registration of its place of worship for the solemnisation of marriages of same-sex couples. The religious protections in the Bill ensure that registration of buildings for same-sex marriages can take place only where the proper consent has been given.
I think that the Minister is saying that the default position is that, unless someone can prove that their Church is prepared to apply for an opt-in and go through all the hurdles, that opt-in will not happen. What about a Church that has gone through the hoops, has opted in and wants to opt out again? How would the Government recognise such a change of qualification?
It is for the religious organisation to decide. I have made it clear that it is not for the Government to interfere. I will say a little bit more about the issue that my hon. Friend raised when dealing with points made by Committee members.
On relevant definitions, I will repeat for the third time that it is not right for the state to interfere in such matters; it is for religious organisations to sort them out. Many religious organisations are content with that arrangement and will use the definition provided to good effect. That came out during the evidence session, when Sarah Anticoni, responding to my hon. Friend the Member for Enfield, Southgate, said of the relevant governing authority that
“currently there are three. We are using now as a good opportunity to clarify them into five”.––[Official Report, Marriage (Same Sex Couples) Public Bill Committee, 12 February 2013; c. 76, Q194.]
The amendment goes to the heart of the opt-in procedure, and I believe that Committee members will accept that. I have seen and heard general satisfaction with that procedure. In answering my question to Michael Bartlett of the Quakers and Derek McAuley of the Unitarians, Mr Bartlett said that he was comfortable with that and Mr McAuley said that he was happy with the procedure.
The Minister draws attention to the evidence from the Unitarians and the Quakers. Has she had conversations or consultations with the wider church community, which is numerically greater and is not happy with the current provisions? Those organisations have different facets and individual ministers within denominations may have issues about whether they will be forced to do something they do not want to do.
We have conducted an extensive consultation and there have been extensive discussions, which are ongoing. I will cover the point raised by my hon. Friend if he bears with me.
My hon. Friend asked where the Bill says that religious organisations are not required to opt in. I refer him to clause 2(1), in particular, which states that there can be no compulsion to opt in.
In relation to the organisations that have been consulted—he is concerned about those—we have had a wide-ranging consultation with religious organisations. We have spoken to and consulted the Catholic Bishops Conference, Unitarians, Methodists, Baptists, the United Reformed Church, Sikhs, Churches Together in Wales and the Evangelical Alliance.
On the matter of publication of buildings in the opt-in, buildings registered for same-sex marriages will be published on a list in separate form from the existing list of registered buildings for marriages of opposite-sex couples and the Registrar General will be obliged to publish that list. In relation to the point about guidance, the General Register Office will provide guidance and training for registrars in preparation for the provisions permitting same-sex marriage coming into force.
Returning to the questions about the detail and whether it is sufficient, we believe that the Bill gives adequate clarity on what is required for consent for same-sex couples to marry. I will say—and also cover it in my speaking note—that in the event of dispute or confusion it would ultimately be for members of the Church to decide who is competent for that purpose. Thus, it is for the Church to decide. If it cannot, there will of course be no registration.
I still have not received an answer to my earlier question. I think I understand how a Church goes through the procedures set down by the Government in order to qualify to hold same-sex marriages on its premises. I think I understand that it is not just up to the Church. It has to comply with various criteria set down in the Bill and subsequent regulations by the Government. Therefore, Government have a part in this. What I still do not understand is what happens when a Church decides to de-register but there is a dispute within that Church and there is a split. What happens and whom would the Government recognise as to whether that Church has de-registered for same-sex marriages or continues to be able to conduct them?
There are often disputes between Churches, as there are between groups of MPs. There are often disputes between groups of people. One has to have a little trust, faith and belief in their abilities to be reasonable and work out such things.
Forgive me, Mr Hood. I do not think that I can add any more to what I have already said in the speech with regard to the procedure, apart from saying again that it is a matter for those religious organisations to reach an agreement and move forward.
I do not think I can add any more, so I am going to push on. It would not be right for the Secretary of State to have a role in resolving internal disputes within religious organisations, nor do we want to create additional burdens for religious organisations. That would be the exact result of the amendment. I therefore urge my hon. Friend the Member for Enfield, Southgate to withdraw it.
This has been a helpful debate. I did not table the amendment in the expectation of pressing it to a vote: I wished to draw from the Government assurances that would clarify what would happen down the line, as we are moving into new terrain. I am not wholly convinced by the Minister’s response. Although there has been some consultation, I am not convinced—the Government have moved from a position in which religious organisations were excluded from conducting same-sex marriages to a new one in which religious organisations are allowed to opt in or out of conducting same-sex marriages—that there has been adequate consultation and consideration of the different scenarios that will arise in local areas, with different denominations and ministers opting in and out and exercising their responsibilities in religious premises. I am concerned that there has not been enough thought or consideration. I urge the Government during the passage of the Bill to continue—as they say they will—to consult different denominations, and to take that seriously. The Government have indicated that they will publish guidance. I urge them to do so before the Bill concludes its passage through the House, so that everyone can see how clear that guidance is for registrars dealing with this new scenario. While there are great reservations and concerns, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.