All 2 Baroness Williams of Trafford contributions to the Registration of Marriage Bill [HL] 2017-19

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Fri 26th Jan 2018
Registration of Marriage Bill [HL]
Lords Chamber

2nd reading (Hansard): House of Lords
Fri 29th Jun 2018
Registration of Marriage Bill [HL]
Lords Chamber

Committee: 1st sitting (Hansard): House of Lords

Registration of Marriage Bill [HL]

Baroness Williams of Trafford Excerpts
2nd reading (Hansard): House of Lords
Friday 26th January 2018

(6 years, 5 months ago)

Lords Chamber
Read Full debate Registration of Marriage Bill [HL] 2017-19 Read Hansard Text Read Debate Ministerial Extracts
Baroness Williams of Trafford Portrait The Minister of State, Home Office (Baroness Williams of Trafford) (Con)
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My Lords, I congratulate the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of St Albans on bringing forward and outlining the purposes of what is quite a narrowly defined Bill, which will reform the way marriages are registered and enable updating of the marriage entry to allow for the inclusion of mothers’ names. This is a very important issue that the Government fully support, and I am grateful to him for bringing forward the Bill to remove the current inequality in marriage entries.

As the right reverend Prelate and other noble Lords have said, the then Prime Minister gave a commitment in 2014 that the content of the marriage entry would be updated to include the details of both parents of the couple. The marriage entry clearly does not reflect modern Britain and it is high time it was updated. Statistics show that there are currently some 2 million single parents in the country, around 90% of whom are women. As it stands, if any of their children were to get married they would be able to include only their father’s details in the marriage entry, as the noble Baroness, Lady Gale, said in her concluding remarks. Their mother’s details would not be included, even though they had brought them up as a single parent.

As the right reverend Prelate explained, moving to a schedule system is the most cost-effective way to bring about this change. As the noble Baroness, Lady Gale, said, a schedule system has been in place in Scotland since 1855, and it is also in place in Northern Ireland. The same system is already used in England and Wales for civil partnerships. It just would not make sense to update the content of the marriage entry by amending and replacing the 84,000 bound marriage registers currently in use in registry offices, and approximately 30,000 churches and other religious buildings. If any amendments were required in the future, they would need to be replaced again. It would not be cost-effective to update the marriage entry in this way.

To reprint the marriage registers alone would cost £1.9 million. Along with other costs associated with recalling all the current registers and dispatching new registers, this would bring the total cost to around £3 million, on top of the ongoing costs associated with maintaining a paper register system. Changes would also be required to the IT system and to ensure the appropriate training and guidance is provided to registration officers and all the religious bodies affected by the changes.

The changes proposed in the Bill would mean that marriage entries would be held in a single electronic register rather than in thousands of books, making the system more secure, more efficient and far simpler to administer and amend, if necessary. As a result, there would no longer be any need for bound marriage registers and certificate stock to be held in churches or other religious buildings. My noble friend Lady Anelay of St Johns asked about the number of burglaries in the past 12 months. There are a number of burglaries each year from religious premises. The move to a schedule system will remove the risk of registers and blank certificate stock being stolen in order to create an identity from the marriage records to use for fraudulent purposes. Provisional figures for the past 12 months show that there were eight burglaries involving marriage registers in church buildings.

Moving to a schedule system would be the biggest reform of how marriages are registered since 1837 and would move away from the outdated legislation currently in place. As I am sure noble Lords agree, when considering how the marriage entry is updated we will need to ensure that the needs of all the different family circumstances in society today are taken into account.

My noble friend Lady Anelay and a number of noble Lords wanted clarification of the powers conferred by regulations in Clause 1(4). In a debate on a government Bill, this House recently expressed its concern about new criminal offences being created by regulations and statutory instruments. The Registration of Marriage Bill contains powers enabling the Secretary of State to amend the Marriage Act 1949 and other enactments in order to bring marriage registration in line with the process for civil partnerships in England and Wales as well as marriages and civil partnerships in Scotland and Northern Ireland. Clause 1(4) empowers the Secretary of State to amend the Marriage Act 1949 to create a specific criminal offence. This offence is modelled on an existing offence in Section 24(2)(e) of the Marriages (Scotland) Act 1977 and will be committed if a party to a marriage fails to comply with a notice requiring him or her to deliver a signed marriage schedule or document to enable the registration of the marriage. The offence would be punishable on summary conviction by a fine not exceeding level 3 on the standard scale, which is currently £1,000, as the noble Baroness said.

It should be noted that for all civil marriages and religious marriages at which a registrar attends, the signed schedule will be retained by the registrar at the marriage ceremony and taken back to the register office for entry into the marriage register. This accounts for around 75% of all marriages, so it is not envisaged that the offence will be used extensively. No issues have been identified in other jurisdictions with signed schedules being returned to the register office. In fact, traditionally the best man or a family member takes responsibility for ensuring that the marriage is registered.

Although a new offence is created, it is also proposed to remove or reduce the scope of other registration offences in the Marriage Act 1949. At present, it is an offence under Section 76(1) for any person to refuse or without reasonable cause to omit to register any marriage as required under the Act. This offence is potentially committed by a number of people responsible for registering marriages, including registrars, members of the clergy, authorised persons and specified persons in the Jewish and Quaker religions. Under the Bill, only registrars will be responsible for registering marriages so this offence will have a far narrower field of application.

In addition, those currently responsible for registering marriages are required under Section 57 of the 1949 Act to make and deliver to the superintendent registrar a certified copy of entries made in the marriage register book or a certificate stating that no entries have been made since the date of the last certified copy in the previous quarter. It is an offence under Section 76(2) for a person who is required to make these quarterly returns to refuse or fail to deliver any such copy or certificate to a superintendent registrar. Under the Bill, the requirement to make quarterly returns and the associated offence will become redundant and so can be removed.

Although the Bill introduces a new offence at Clause 1(4), it is not considered that the introduction of this proposed new offence or the reduction or removal of existing offences will have any appreciable impact on the justice system. The Ministry of Justice has been consulted about this proposed offence and has not raised concerns to date.

The noble Baroness, Lady Meacher, and other noble Lords including the noble Baroness, Lady Bakewell, asked about humanist marriage. I need to be very clear that the scope of this Bill does not include solemnisation of marriages.

Baroness Bakewell Portrait Baroness Bakewell
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The issue is not solemnisation but registration, which the Government have shown no opposition to. They merely ask for consultation; the consultation approves. They refer to the Law Commission; the Law Commission approves. It is not an issue on which the Government are offering any opposition; it is simply a matter of implementation according to their judgment.

Baroness Williams of Trafford Portrait Baroness Williams of Trafford
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Perhaps I may continue to explain. The Bill only includes provisions to introduce a schedule system and to change how marriages are registered to facilitate the changes to the marriage entry to include both parents. That is the scope of the Bill. It is very narrowly about marriage registration and not about solemnisation. It is not intended at all to include wider marriage reform.

Lord Garel-Jones Portrait Lord Garel-Jones (Con)
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As the Minister will be aware, every single person who spoke in the debate supported the admirable measure being introduced by the right reverend Prelate. In future discussions, would she—and just as importantly the right reverend Prelate—at least be prepared to consider that the inclusion of humanist marriage does not damage the Bill but actually enhances it?

Baroness Williams of Trafford Portrait Baroness Williams of Trafford
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My Lords, the point I am making is that to amend the existing law on marriage to make provision for legally valid humanist ceremonies would involve a huge range of issues.

Baroness Meacher Portrait Baroness Meacher
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It is already in law that humanist marriages should be recognised legally—all it needs is a ministerial order. It does not need, in a sense, to be in this Bill. What would be wonderful would be an assurance from the Minister that she will take forward the need—with some urgency, five years on—for a ministerial order and have it done. It does not need any further legislative change.

Baroness Williams of Trafford Portrait Baroness Williams of Trafford
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What the noble Baroness says is quite helpful, and I am very happy to discuss this matter further. The point I am making today is that this is a very narrowly drawn Bill, and to expand on it in any way would risk the Bill in its passage through your Lordships’ House. I am simply pleading with noble Lords to stick to the content of the Bill. We can certainly have discussions about humanist marriages outside the Chamber, but this is the plea I am making. I am not denigrating in any way what noble Lords have said, but the minute we start adding to or amending Bills like this, the more we are in danger of them not securing their way through.

The noble Baroness, Lady Donaghy, asked to see draft regulations before Committee. It is our aim to make a draft of the affirmative regulations available before Committee. The noble Baroness also asked for clarification on the definition of parent. The regulations will prescribe who can be included under the headings for both sets of parents of the couple in the marriage entry. This will enable us to keep pace with societal developments as well as family composition changes.

The noble Baroness, Lady Bakewell, asked if there was an intention to reform marriage law. This Bill simply modernises marriage registration, as I have said, and facilitates changes to the register entry to allow the inclusion of both parents’ names. This Bill is not at all intended to include wider marriage reform.

My noble friend Lady Morris of Bolton asked a very valid question about what is put in the entry if you do not know who your parents, particularly your father, might be. There will be provision for both parents to be included in the marriage entry, and the option to leave this blank, as is the case now, I understand.

My noble friend Lady Seccombe asked for assurances that the cost of the marriage certificate will not be raised, as she is concerned that any additional costs and processes will discourage people from marrying. Fees for marriage certificates are set at a cost-recovery basis, using HM Treasury guidance, and are reviewed annually. The provisions of the Bill would not directly lead to an increase in costs.

The noble Baroness, Lady Flather, was, I think, so perfectly content with the Bill that she just thought she would talk about sharia marriages. But I think she knows that the scope of the Bill is narrowly about marriage registration.

Baroness Flather Portrait Baroness Flather
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I just want to say, I do not expect that to be in this Bill—and I have no intention of putting it into this Bill—but I wanted to draw attention to this matter. I would be very grateful if the Minister would allow me to come to talk to her.

Baroness Williams of Trafford Portrait Baroness Williams of Trafford
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My Lords, anyone can come to talk to me about any issue pertaining to the Home Office—I give that assurance on the Floor of the House. I know what the noble Baroness’s intentions are.

My noble friend Lady Seccombe asked for assurances on security, which is a high priority, as she says. The proposed changes will increase the security of marriage records, which is very important. Currently, the requirement for open marriage-register books and for blank certificates to be held in churches and other religious buildings means they can be a target of theft, as we have heard. The solution in this Bill should minimise that public protection risk, as marriage registers are currently held in some 30,000 different religious buildings. The certificates themselves will still be printed on paper with secure features, in the same way as now.

The noble Baroness, Lady Gale, asked for the timetable for the changes to be confirmed. Subject to the successful passage of the Bill, implementation will involve, clearly among other things, affirmative regulations being made, system changes and training and guidance for local registration services and those who solemnise marriages. We will aim to implement these reforms as soon as possible following Royal Assent.

We have had an excellent debate today and I know that noble Lords recognise the importance of taking forward these changes, which will modernise the process of registering marriages.

Registration of Marriage Bill [HL]

Baroness Williams of Trafford Excerpts
Committee: 1st sitting (Hansard): House of Lords
Friday 29th June 2018

(6 years ago)

Lords Chamber
Read Full debate Registration of Marriage Bill [HL] 2017-19 Read Hansard Text Read Debate Ministerial Extracts Amendment Paper: HL Bill 19-I Marshalled list for Committee (PDF, 66KB) - (27 Jun 2018)
Lord Blunkett Portrait Lord Blunkett (Lab)
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My Lords, I shall not hold up the Committee. As a Methodist, and having sat through Second Reading and heard the right reverend Prelate this morning, I just wanted to say how grateful I am for a masterclass in how the Church of England operates.

Baroness Williams of Trafford Portrait The Minister of State, Home Office (Baroness Williams of Trafford) (Con)
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My Lords, I thank the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of St Albans for his continued support in bringing forward changes to the way in which marriages are registered. Under present legislation, the marriage register entry provides space for the name of the father of each of the couple to be recorded but not that of the mother, and that has been the case since 1837.

This situation is outdated and it is widely accepted that changes are required to address this inequality. There has been growing pressure both from within Parliament and from the public for reform. For example, an online petition attracted in excess of 70,000 signatures. However, it should be noted that when deciding how the marriage entry should be updated we will need to ensure that we allow for all the different family circumstances in society today—for example, same-sex parents.

The most efficient and economical way to introduce these changes is to reform the way in which marriages are registered in England and Wales by moving to a “schedule”- based system similar to that in place for marriages and civil partnerships in Scotland and Northern Ireland and for civil partnerships in England and Wales.

The basis of a schedule system is that the couple sign a marriage schedule instead of the marriage register book. Couples will still be able to have that all-important traditional photo taken after the ceremony with their witnesses, but instead of signing the marriage register they will sign the marriage schedule with their witnesses. The schedule will contain all the information to be entered into the electronic marriage register maintained by the Registrar-General.

Those marrying in the Church of England or Church in Wales will still be able to marry by ecclesiastical preliminaries—for example, the publishing of banns or the issue of a common licence. Where ecclesiastical preliminaries are used, the member of the clergy will issue a “marriage document” similar to the schedule issued by the superintendent registrar, which will be returned to—

Lord Cormack Portrait Lord Cormack
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Why cannot we use the traditional word, “register”? Why do we have to go in for “schedule”?

Baroness Williams of Trafford Portrait Baroness Williams of Trafford
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I think that it is because we are dealing here with the legality rather than the tradition. I understand my noble friend’s point, but I would hope that such a small but important matter did not derail this important Bill. I am not for a moment suggesting that that is my noble friend’s intention; I understand his point.

Moving from a paper-based system to registration in an electronic register will facilitate the updating of the marriage entry to include both parents of each of the couple without having to replace all register books and it would introduce savings of £33.8 million over 10 years. The changes which the right reverend Prelate seeks are not controversial and have received a lot of cross-party support, hence the support in the Chamber today.

As the Bill contains delegated powers. I advised at Second Reading that the Home Office would produce and publish illustrative regulations prior to Committee to demonstrate to noble Lords how the powers in Clause 1 would be used. I can confirm that the draft regulations were made available in the Library of the House on 17 April.

I must emphasise that the regulations are an early draft and further drafting is required. We would welcome any comments from noble Lords on the content. It is our aim to be transparent during the process of amending the Marriage Act 1949 as we move towards the introduction of the schedule system.

We will continue to work with all key stakeholders, including the Church of England, in developing the policy. I will make further drafts of the regulations available in the Library in due course. I assure noble Lords that the changes to the Marriage Act will be made using the affirmative resolution procedure, ensuring they are debated in both Houses of Parliament and providing parliamentary oversight.

My noble friend Lord Blencathra expressed concern at Second Reading about the use of delegated powers in the Bill. To address those concerns, I can confirm that Home Office officials have been working with the right reverend Prelate to make technical amendments to Clauses 1 and 2 to limit the use of delegated powers to introduce these changes and to provide noble Lords with some reassurance as to how the powers are intended to be used.

The scope of the enabling language in Clause 1 will be narrowed to reflect the policy intent of the Bill to replace the current paper-based system with an electronic schedule-based system. Amendments required to primary legislation will be limited to the Marriage Act 1949. The broad power in Clause 1(2), which gives the Secretary of State the power to amend, repeal or revoke provisions in other Acts of Parliament, will be removed. As the right reverend Prelate has already explained, it is also proposed to include a sunset clause in the Bill limiting the power for the Secretary of State to make regulations which amend primary legislation to a period of three years beginning on the day on which the regulations are first made.

Concern has been raised that the powers in Clause 2 may delegate matters currently provided for in primary legislation. Amendments to Clause 2 will limit the scope to making regulations under Section 74(1) of the Marriage Act. I reassure the noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, and the House that these regulations are intended only to supplement the current provisions in the Act.

I know that noble Lords recognise the importance of taking these changes forward to modernise the process of registering marriages, and I hope that the amendments made to the Bill will provide some reassurance to them of the value we place on parliamentary scrutiny throughout the legislative process.

I want finally to answer a question posed by the noble Lord, Lord Rosser. When the Bill was drafted, the policy was not so advanced and the powers in the Bill provided flexibility. We have been working closely with Home Office officials to develop policy further, which has allowed us to make these changes.

Lord Bishop of St Albans Portrait The Lord Bishop of St Albans
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I am grateful to the Minister for her summary and for responding to the two points made by the noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, and the noble Lord, Lord Rosser. More importantly, I should point out that part of the problem in the early stages, where I have been grateful to have advice from all sorts of people, is my sheer personal ineptitude in understanding what I might have been proposing. Somebody in my position without legal training does not always understand the breadth of what is offered. I am sorry about that. We have been grateful for the clarity with which the committee pointed out some of the implications. That is why we worked hard to try to get through this very simple legislation.

There is clamour from all over the place for this very simple, focused change, particularly from young women, who are horrified and astonished that it has not happened already. What caught me by surprise was a number of genealogists writing to me to point out that we are out of step with many countries and that, over the decades, this change will make a huge difference to people’s ability to understand their background. I hope that we can fully support it.

--- Later in debate ---
Lord Rosser Portrait Lord Rosser
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I shall just add, in light of what the noble Baroness, Lady Morris of Bolton, has just said, that my noble friend Lord Faulkner of Worcester is seeking assurances on this point, as I understand it, and I sincerely hope that those assurances can be given.

Baroness Williams of Trafford Portrait Baroness Williams of Trafford
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My Lords, I hope that I can now give those assurances. I am very grateful to the noble Lord, because he distinguished very much between the argument for another day, which is about same-sex marriages in churches, and the very important point of children of same-sex parents on the register: it is not called the register, of course, but we will probably continue to call it the register.

As the noble Lord pointed out, the Marriage (Same Sex Couples) Act 2013 made provision for couples of the same sex to enter into a marriage. However, under Sections 3 and 4 of the Act, the provisions to solemnise marriages of same-sex couples do not apply to marriages taking place in the Church of England. As with all other religious ceremonies, there is no compulsion on an individual to solemnise a marriage where the reason is that it concerns the marriage of a same-sex couple.

The provisions in the Bill do not seek to make any changes to marriage preliminaries, or to how or where marriages can be solemnised; it simply seeks to change how marriages are registered, moving from a paper-based system of registration to an electronic register. The electronic system of registering marriages will apply to all marriages, irrespective of whether the couple are of the opposite sex or of the same sex.

I have just received a note containing the answer to the point made by my noble friend about the move to a schedule system not creating differences between the registration process for opposite-sex and same-sex couples. To clarify, by the names of the parents it will say “Mother/Father/Parent” for both parents. That will apply to children of opposite-sex couples, same-sex couples and whatever we have to come.

Lord Bishop of St Albans Portrait The Lord Bishop of St Albans
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My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Baroness for clarifying those matters. It only remains for me to say, in response to the noble Lords, Lord Faulkner of Worcester and Lord Cashman, that of course the wider debate about the nature of marriage is going on right across society, but particularly in the Church of England and in other churches. That will continue. That, of course, is not the focus of the Bill today; that will come back at other points, there will be all sorts of discussions in the General Synod and so on, and they will continue. I am grateful to the noble Lords for stating their view on that, but this is particularly about registration and therefore I hope that we can give this the green light and the go-ahead to speed through.