New Clause 3 - Marriages according to usages of approved organisations

Marriage (Same Sex Couples) Bill – in a Public Bill Committee at 9:15 am on 12 March 2013.

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‘(1) In the Marriage Act 1949, after section 47, insert the following section—

“47A Marriages according to usages of approved organisations

(1) The Registrar General may by certificate approve organisations to solemnise marriages according to their usages provided that any such organisation—

(a) is a registered charity concerned with advancing or practising a religion or belief, including a non-religious belief;

(b) does not possess or have the use of any registered place of worship; and

(c) appears to the Registrar General to be of good repute.

(2) In the certificate referred to in subsection (1) the Registrar General shall designate an officer of the organisation (“the principal officer”) to appoint persons for stated periods of time to act as registering officers on behalf of the organisation, and may impose such conditions as seem to him or her to be desirable relative to the conduct of marriages by the organisation and to the safe custody of marriage register books.

(3) The principal officer shall, within the prescribed time and in the prescribed manner, certify the names and addresses of the persons so appointed to the Registrar General and to the superintendent registrars of the registration districts in which such persons live, together with such other details as the Registrar General shall require.

(4) A marriage shall not be solemnised according to the usages of an approved organisation until duplicate marriage register books have been supplied by the Registrar General under Part IV of this Act to the registering officers appointed to act on behalf of the organisation.

(5) If the Registrar General is not satisfied with respect to any registering officer of the approved organisation that sufficient security exists for the safe custody of marriage register books, he or she may in his or her discretion suspend the appointment of that registering officer.

(6) A marriage to which this section applies shall be solemnised with open doors in the presence of either—

(a) a registrar of the registration district in which the marriage takes place; or

(b) a registering officer appointed under subsection (2) whose name and address have been certified in accordance with subsection (3) and of two witnesses;

and the persons to be married shall make the declarations and use the form of words set out in subsection (3) or (3A) of section 44.

(7) A marriage solemnised according to the usages of an approved organisation shall not be valid unless there is produced to the superintendent registrar, at the time when notice of marriage is given, a certificate signed by the principal officer or a registering officer of the approved organisation that each person giving notice of marriage is a member of the said organisation.

(8) A certificate under subsection (7) shall be for all purposes conclusive evidence that any person to whom it relates is authorised to be married according to the usages of the said organisation and the entry of the marriage in a marriage register book under  Part IV of this Act, or a certified copy thereof made under the said Part IV, shall be conclusive evidence of the production of such a certificate.”.

(2) Schedule [Consequential amendments—Marriage according to usages of approved organisations] has effect.’.—(Stephen Williams.)

Brought up, and read the First time.

Photo of Stephen Williams Stephen Williams Liberal Democrat, Bristol West

I beg to move, That the clause be read a Second time.

Photo of Gary Streeter Gary Streeter Conservative, South West Devon

With this it will be convenient to discuss the following:

New schedule 1—‘Consequential amendments—Marriage according to usages of approved organisations—

The following amendments are made to the Marriage Act 1949

(1) In section 26 (marriages which may be solemnised on authority of superintendent registrar’s certificate) in subsection (1) after paragraph (c) there is inserted—

“(ca) a marriage conducted under the auspices of an approved organisation;”.

(2) In section 35 (marriages in registration district in which neither party resides) after “the Society of Friends” there is inserted “or of an approved organisation”.

(3) In section 43 (appointment of authorised persons) in subsection (3) after “the Society of Friends” there is inserted “or of an organisation authorised by the Registrar General under section 47A”.

(4) In section 50 (person to whom certificate to be delivered), in subsection (1) after paragraph (d) there is inserted—

“(da) if the marriage is to be solemnised according to the usages of an approved organisation, a registering officer of that organisation”.

(5) After section 52, the following section is inserted—

“52A Interpretation

In this Part of this Act “approved organisation” has the meaning given to it in section 67.”.

(6) In section 53 (persons by whom marriages are to be registered), after paragraph (b) there is inserted—

“(ba) in the case of a marriage solemnised according to the usages of an approved organisation, a registered officer of that organisation;”.

(7) In section 54 (provision of marriage register books by Registrar General), in subsection (1) after the words “the Society of Friends,” there is inserted “registering officer of every approved organisation”.

(8) In section 55 (manner of registration of marriages)—

(a) in subsection (1) after the words “the Society of Friends” there is inserted “or of an approved organisation”; and

(b) in subsection (1)(b) after the words “the Society of Friends” there is inserted “or of an approved organisation” and after the words “the said Society” there is inserted “or organisation”.

(9) In section 57 (quarterly returns to be made to superintendent registrar), in subsection (1) after the words “the Society of Friends” there is inserted “or of an approved organisation”.

(10) In section 59 (custody of register books) after the words “the Society of Friends” there is inserted “or of an approved organisation”.

(11) In section 60 (filled register books) in subsection (1), paragraph (b), after the words “registering officer of the Society of Friends” there is inserted “or of an approved organisation”; after the words “members of the Society of Friends” there is inserted “or of the said organisation”, and after the words “the said Society” there is inserted “or organisation”.

(12) In section 63 (searches in register books) after the words “the Society of Friends” there is inserted “or of an approved organisation”.

(13) In section 67 (interpretation of Part IV), there are inserted in the list of definitions the following—

““approved organisation” means an organisation approved by the Registrar General under section 47A of this Act;” and

““registering officer of an approved organisation” means a person whom the principal officer of the said organisation certifies in writing under his or her hand to the Registrar General to be a registering officer in England or Wales of that organisation;”; and in the definition of “superintendent registrar” after paragraph (b) insert—

“(ba) in the case of a marriage registered by a registering officer of an approved organisation, the superintendent registrar of the registration district which is assigned by the Registrar General to that registering officer;”.

(14) In section 75 (offences relating to solemnisation of marriages) in subsection (1), paragraph (a), after the words “the Society of Friends” there is inserted “or of an approved organisation”; and in subsection (2), paragraph (a), after the words “the Society of Friends” there is inserted “or of an approved organisation”.’.

Amendment 1, in title, line 4, after ‘overseas’, insert

‘to permit the Registrar General to permit certain charitable organisations to solemnise marriages.’.

Photo of Stephen Williams Stephen Williams Liberal Democrat, Bristol West

Good morning, Mr Streeter, and all members of the Committee, at what looks as if it is going to be our last sitting—not simply our last day—unless the debate on new clause 3 takes rather longer than I think it should. Depending on what the Minister says in response, I shall not necessarily press the new clause to a Division.

The main purpose of the new clause—I accept that this might not be readily apparent from reading its legalese text—is to facilitate humanist weddings. I put on record my thanks to the British Humanist Association for its considerable help in drafting the new clause and for the advice and background information that it has given. I know that the association has also shared a briefing with members of the Committee.

The British Humanist Association conducts about 600 weddings a year in England and Wales. That is more than the Quakers and the Unitarians, which have often been mentioned in our deliberations. The big difference between the weddings conducted by the association and Quaker and Unitarian weddings—and, indeed, any other weddings—is that they do not have legal force, which means that people who have had a humanist wedding, and have enjoyed their special day together in front of their family and friends, subsequently have to attend the registry office and go through another ceremony to get their marriage registered so that their humanist ceremony can have any legal meaning at all. Alternatively, they leave it at the humanist ceremony, but that means that their marriage does not have legal force. I know people who have had a humanist wedding and regard themselves as married, but who chose not to enter into a civil marriage because they objected to that particular institution, and they currently have no legal protection.

The British Humanist Association has kindly given me various testimonials from people who have been through its wedding ceremonies, and I shall quote one to illustrate the problem:

“Unfortunately, as the law stands, we have to get married again, in a Registry Office, in order for our union to be legally recognised. To us it seems unnecessary to stand in a poky little room, to go through by rote, with someone to whom we have no personal connection, making vows we have already made. Our Humanist ceremony was our real wedding, the registry office will be a mere formality. We would much prefer not to have to do the ceremony a second time. Whilst it does not negate the Humanist ceremony, we feel the second wedding is a bit of a farce”.

There are many testimonials along broadly the same lines. The new clause would remove that anomaly for the large number of people who undergo humanist weddings and the perhaps larger number of people who might want to take advantage of a humanist wedding, but are not currently attracted by the existing offer of religious ceremonies or a civil marriage.

As we all know, the current law is essentially based on the place where a marriage can be solemnised—either in a parish church in England or Wales, or a place of worship of another denomination that has registered its premises for the solemnisation of marriage. Civil marriage can be solemnised either in a registry office or in approved places such as hotels and so on. The only exceptions to those provisions are for Jews and Quakers, which we have heard about many times in our deliberations. New clause 3 would create a third exception to allow the Registrar General to appoint people to conduct marriages within an organisation according to their usages—essentially basing another organisation on the same legal footing that already exists for the Quakers and Jews.

New clause 3 would insert new section 47A into the Marriage Act 1949 under which:

“The Registrar General may by certificate approve organisations to solemnise marriages according to their usages provided that any such organisation…(a) is a registered charity concerned with advancing or practising a religion or belief, including a non-religious belief…(b) does not possess or have the use of any registered place of worship; and…(c) appears to the Registrar General to be of good repute.”

Although it would be up to the Registrar General, the British Humanist Association seems to me to be of good repute because it has a good existing track record.

The British Humanist Association conducts not only the 600 weddings in England and Wales to which I referred, but 8,000 funerals—a much larger number—and I have been to a humanist funeral recently. Humanist weddings have had legal force over the border in Scotland since 2005, however. In 2011, which is the latest year for which we have data from Scotland, there were 2,486 humanist marriages, which places such marriages third on the list after civil marriage, of which there were 14,083, and marriages by the Church of Scotland, which registered 5,557 marriages. The figure for humanist marriages is notably well ahead of that for the Roman Catholic Church—much in the news today—which celebrated 1,729 marriages, so after only six years, humanist weddings in Scotland had overtaken weddings provided by the rather longer established Roman Catholic Church. There is also precedent from countries with a very comparable history to our own, such as Australia and New Zealand, and from Ontario in Canada. In Ireland, the Dail passed the Civil Registration (Amendment)  Act 2012, which provides for marriages that are “secular, ethical and humanist”, so there is now an anomaly between Northern Ireland and the Republic.

Photo of David Burrowes David Burrowes Conservative, Enfield, Southgate

This is an important debate, but why there is a difference in Scotland? Is it because the focus is on the celebrant rather than the place of worship or the premises? Indeed, I believe that the previous Government wanted to go down that route in 2002.

Photo of Stephen Williams Stephen Williams Liberal Democrat, Bristol West

I thank my hon. Friend for his intervention. As we know, the Bill affects only England and Wales. Although we have heard much about Northern Ireland, the Bill does not affect Northern Ireland or Scotland because marriage is a devolved matter. For many centuries, marriage law in Scotland has been prepared on a different basis from the law in England and Wales, but I think my hon. Friend is right to say that more emphasis is placed on who conducts marriages than on where they are conducted.

As I understand it, the 2005 change came about because the Registrar General for Scotland used emergency powers to authorise people temporarily to conduct the equivalent of civil marriages. I also understand that the Scottish Parliament will seek to formalise that procedure when it legislates for same-sex marriages and the general reform of Scottish marriage law. Although humanist weddings in Scotland result from that edict rather than a legislative change, they have full legal force and they have proven to be very popular—and not only with people in Scotland. We have all heard of people eloping to Gretna Green, and some people from England and Wales are choosing to have a humanist marriage in Scotland.

We need a provision for people who do not want to have a state civil marriage or to go through a religious ceremony, but nevertheless hold certain beliefs about their place in society and the conduct of their lives. The British Humanist Association defines humanists broadly as people who trust science rather than religious belief. They do not believe in the supernatural, so they follow scientific beliefs about how the universe was created and the evolution of life on Earth. There is certainly an ethical dimension to how they conduct their lives—through reason, empathy and concern for others. As they believe that our life on Earth is precisely that and there is no after life, they give more meaning to what they do during their lives to bring happiness to themselves and, perhaps more importantly, to others. I guess that means that humanists do not go around establishing chantries, as people used to do to ensure that future generations would pray for their souls.

When I spoke to new clause 1, I said that its purpose was to close the wheel of equality by making civil partnerships open to opposite-sex couples as well as to same-sex couples. New clause 3 would complete the marriage wheel of equality. Although the Committee has been divided on some things, I think that we all agree that marriage is a good institution, and I believe that the institution of marriage should be available to everyone—whether same-sex or opposite-sex couples—who wants it to be solemnised in a particular type of ceremony. As I said about new clause 1, if the law were changed in the way suggested by new clause 3, it would do absolutely no harm to society whatsoever, but it would bring much happiness to many of our fellow citizens.

Photo of Chris Bryant Chris Bryant Shadow Minister (Home Affairs)

It is a great delight to be here for the final countdown.

To pick up on the hon. Gentleman’s concluding sentence, if only one could say of the Lib Dems that they will never do any harm to humanity—[Interruption.] It is nice to be able to unite the coalition again.

I rise to support the new clause and new schedule because, in the end, I think of myself as a Christian humanist. In fact, I have conducted several humanist funerals.

Photo of Chris Bryant Chris Bryant Shadow Minister (Home Affairs)

Well, that is the Church of England: all things to all men. I hear the hon. Member the Son of the Archdeacon’s chuntering—[ Interruption. ] He is still chuntering, Mr Streeter.

Photo of Gary Streeter Gary Streeter Conservative, South West Devon

Order. It might help if I remind the Committee that sedentary interventions are never helpful.

Photo of Chris Bryant Chris Bryant Shadow Minister (Home Affairs) 9:30, 12 March 2013

So there.

I conducted one humanist wedding on Wittenham clumps. As the hon. Member for Bristol West rightly says, it had no standing in law—it was merely a congregation of people. The couple felt that it was their moment of marriage, but they had to go to a registry office to perform the legally binding element.

One aspect of this that the hon. Gentleman left out is that a couple who are of different religions or denominations will choose a humanist service for a funeral or the naming of a child, rather than going down the route of one or other of their two denominations. However, the vast majority of humanist weddings occur when both individuals eschew religious views. None the less, there are cases when one partner might be Buddhist with the other from the Church of England or whatever.

When I was conducting funerals as a Church of England vicar, on the five or six occasions I was asked to perform a humanist ceremony, it was nearly always because the family wanted to recognise the views of the person who had died, but were unable to reconcile which religious denomination to support. They seemed to think that an Anglican vicar was more or less the same as a humanist and so that was okay.

I understand why some people might think that the proposal is opening the door to anybody being able to get married and abandoning regulation, but I would say that all the normal provisions that exist in law would still apply to humanist ceremonies: that marriages can take place only between 8 am and 6 pm; that the faces of the people being married must be seen; that there will be witnesses; that there will be a proper registration; and that marrying more than one person is not possible, and all the rest. The provision seems to be a simple extension of the rules that already apply to the Jewish religion, Quakers and other Christian denominations, so it would be odd not to extend them to humanists, and we shall therefore support new clause 3.

Photo of Stephen Doughty Stephen Doughty Labour, Cardiff South and Penarth

It is pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Streeter, on the last day of Committee proceedings.

I support the strong and compelling case made by the hon. Member for Bristol West and my hon. Friend the Member for Rhondda. I also commend the British Humanist Association, Labour Humanists and others who have been in touch with many Members about the proposal.

The hon. Member for Bristol West mentioned doubling-up, whereby humanists have to go through a second wedding. Some have referred to it as a procedure, but I think it is a problem. The new clause would be a simple way of addressing that. I have been persuaded by several humanists who have approached me in my constituency. The former Assembly Member for Cardiff South and Penarth, Lorraine Barrett, is a humanist celebrant and has spoken to me on many occasions about her wish for the proposal to be accepted. An increasing number of my constituents choose humanist ceremonies, including funerals and namings, as mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for Rhondda. Given the increasing numbers of people who wish to take advantage, I feel comfortable supporting the new clause and I am keen to make its provisions available.

The hon. Member for Bristol West made a strong point when referring to the situation in Scotland, and, as he said, there is a long list of countries where this option has been made possible: Australia, New Zealand, Ontario in Canada, Norway and others. They have shown the way forward by allowing this for humanists and I think that we should do the same.

I read with great interest a number of the submissions that we received from humanists. I received a particularly strong letter from a humanist celebrant called Hannah Hart—I am sure that she wrote to many others on the Committee. She simply said:

“I honestly consider I have the best job in the world.”

Humanists all have in common their desire to mark their commitment with dignity and sincerity. I very much hope that we will be able to afford them that dignity and sincerity by accepting the proposals.

Photo of Helen Grant Helen Grant The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Women and Equalities

Good morning, Mr Streeter. It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship on this, our last day of Committee proceedings.

New clause 3 would introduce the concept of an approved organisation and make it possible for such organisations to solemnise marriages anywhere open to the public, including outdoors. It would do so by introducing the concept of registering a celebrant who may solemnise marriages, rather than a building in which they may take place. The proposals reflect the concerns of several organisations, notably the British Humanist Association, whose members cannot marry in a legally recognised ceremony according to their beliefs under the current law of England and Wales. The Government have been in discussion with the British Humanist Association and are of course very sympathetic to its situation, but do not believe that the proposed changes are the right way to address those particular concerns. They would result in a significant change to the fundamental structure of marriage law in England and Wales; they go far wider than the scope of the Bill and would change the position for marriages of both same-sex and opposite-sex couples.

Under the new clause, approved organisations would be able to solemnise marriages without registering a building for that purpose. A duty would be placed on the Registrar General to make judgments about which organisations are of good repute. That in itself would be problematic, given the range of organisations that might wish to be approved. There is a further concern about same-sex marriages in particular. As the Committee has discussed at length, the Bill introduces protections for religious organisations and individuals who may not wish to be involved in marriages of same-sex couples for reasons of conscience. Those protections would not apply to approved organisations under the proposals.

Photo of Stephen Williams Stephen Williams Liberal Democrat, Bristol West

The Minister said that the Registrar General might find it difficult to decide who is of good repute, which would come under subsection (1)(c) of proposed new section 47A of the Marriage Act 1949. Surely the Registrar General will be protected and have a very good starting point, given that paragraph (a) says that the organisation should be

“a registered charity concerned with advancing or practising a religion or belief, including a non-religious belief”.

I was on the Bill Committee for the Charities Act 2006, when we debated at great length what constituted organisations that had an obvious charitable purpose, including professions of religion or belief. Surely any organisation that has met the exacting requirements of the 2006 Act should quite obviously be of good repute.

Photo of Helen Grant Helen Grant The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Women and Equalities

I hear what the hon. Gentleman says. However, a subjective decision would have to be made, which could make the Registrar General particularly vulnerable. That may not be fair in each individual situation.

We would need to consider very carefully, through dialogue with potentially affected organisations, whether they wished for the protections I mentioned. The inability to hold legally valid humanist marriages in England and Wales, including the option of holding marriages outdoors, is one of several issues in our marriage law that merit further consideration. It would not be right, for instance, that humanists should be able to solemnise their marriage in the open air when that option is not available to many others who may also wish to marry in that particular way. The Government believe that such issues must be examined in a careful and co-ordinated manner, rather than for individual aspects to be dealt with in isolation. Any changes need to be considered in relation to the totality of marriage law, and should seek as far as possible to address all provisions that need to be changed, not just one particular issue.

On fairness and having two ceremonies, humanists are not being treated differently from other organisations and religious bodies. For example, Muslims and Hindus, whose places of worship are not registered to conduct marriage, and some Catholic churches that are not registered for marriages, also have to have two separate ceremonies.

Two hon. Members raised issues in relation to Scotland. Scots marriage law is different from marriage law in England and Wales in significant ways. My hon. Friend the Member for Enfield, Southgate asked about the reasons for such differences. I can tell him that they are partly cultural and partly historical.

On the Jewish religion and the Quakers, they have special provisions made for them in marriage legislation. They are not required to register their buildings as a place of worship and they have considerable freedoms that the Government do not want to undermine.

Lastly, I want to put on the record that the British Humanist Association has been very supportive of the same-sex marriage proposals. I had a long conversation with the chief executive, Mr Andrew Copson, and I know that humanists are disappointed not to be able to conduct the ceremonies themselves. However, we will continue to listen, engage and seek views on introducing more widespread reforms in due course. We will, of course, consider amendments to marriage law when an appropriate legislative opportunity arises.

Photo of Stephen Williams Stephen Williams Liberal Democrat, Bristol West

Is the Minister saying that the new clause as currently drafted is flawed in some way and that if something better constructed came along on Report the Government would back it? Or is she saying that the Government have no intention of backing it while the Bill progresses through Parliament?

Photo of Helen Grant Helen Grant The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Women and Equalities

No, I am saying that the Bill is not the right vehicle. As the Government have made clear, the Bill has one fundamental purpose: to open up the existing institution of marriage to same-sex couples. It changes marriage law only as far as is necessary to enable same-sex couples to marry. The Bill must not be thrown off its path by attempts to make wider changes to fundamental marriage law in England and Wales. I therefore ask hon. Members to withdraw the amendments.

Photo of Stephen Williams Stephen Williams Liberal Democrat, Bristol West

I am disappointed by the Minister’s response. Those of us who have been here for some time and who have sat on various Bill Committees are used to Ministers saying that amendments and new clauses are not correctly drafted because a Member has not thought of this or that, although the Government are sympathetic. They recommend that we come back with a better amendment on Report, or to expect the other place to sort it out for us. As an elected Member, I am tired of leaving things to the other place, because we elected representatives should get it right in the first place. In nearly three years, I have never voted against the coalition Government on anything. I am disappointed by what the Minister has said and I think we should test the opinion of the Committee.

Question put, That the clause be read a Second time.

The Committee divided: Ayes 7, Noes 7.

Division number 10 Decision Time — New Clause 3 - Marriages according to usages of approved organisations

Aye: 7 MPs

No: 8 MPs

Aye: A-Z by last name

No: A-Z by last name

Question accordingly negatived.