§ Order for Second Reading read.
§ SIR RICHARD WEBSTER (Isle of Wight)
If the House will give me their attention for a few minutes I will put before them the main provisions of 211 this Bill. I shall do so with considerable confidence, because, judging from the suggestions that have been made to me from a great many quarters, all the objections raised to the Bill can be well dealt with in Committee. Hon. Members are aware that at the present time, except in the case of Jews and Quakers and marriages in the Established Church, the attendance of a Registrar is required at marriages, and that by the Acts of 1836 and 1856 certain words have to be said in the presence of the Registrar. Now, for a great many years complaints have been made by Nonconformist Bodies, who have places of worship which are licensed for the solemnization of marriages, concerning this requirement; and I must say that, from the information that has reached me since the time I began to look into this matter, there does seem to me to be in many cases a substantial grievance. There is no doubt whatever that at times marriages have been obliged to be postponed, and that complaints have been made that Religious Bodies do not desire to have present at their services persons who are not in sympathy with the religious ceremony which is being performed. Under these circumstances, I have had to consider, in bringing in this Bill, what was the best way in which this grievance could be met; and I desire to put very briefly before the House the three courses which might have been adopted, and to show why I have taken the course I have adopted. It was suggested in the year 1880 by a Bill brought in by Mr. Blennerhassett, Mr. Errington, and the present Patronage Secretary to the Treasury (Mr. Arnold Morley), that the grievance might be met by making all the ministers who were ministers of the chapels licensed for the solemnization of marriages, practically speaking, Registrars of Marriages; but I ask the House to consider for a moment what that would lead to. It would lead to an enormous multiplication of register book forms in the various towns; it would lead to very great confusion and inconvenience. I think I may say that not one of the Nonconformist Bodies from whom I have received suggestions has suggested that this course should be resorted to. Another course is to allow marriages to be solemnized by any religious minister, provided the sanction of the Superintendent 212 Registrar or of the District Registrar has been obtained. That, again, is a course which I could not, so far as I was able to form a judgment, suggest, and for this reason—that it is most important there should be some safeguard that marriages are performed by persons who are responsible. Under these circumstances, it occurred to those who have advised with me in this matter that the proper course should be that there should be present a representative minister recognized as being connected, in some way or other, either with the building in which the ceremony takes place, or with the sect according to whose religious ceremony the marriage is solemnized; and that he should be, to a certain extent, responsible for the return to the Registrar General or to the Superintendent Registrar of the certificate of marriage which he would fill up, and which would be signed by him and the parties present as witnesses. Therefore, I have by this Bill proposed that it shall be lawful for any Governing Body desiring that marriages shall be solemnized in their chapels or in their places of worship without the attendance of the Registrar to nominate a minister who shall be able to solemnize marriage without the attendance of the Registrar, and who shall return to the Superintendent Registrar or District Registrar a certificate of the marriage in the form which is in the Schedule to the Bill. I may say at once that to the general principle which I have ventured to embody in the Bill I have, practically, received no serious objection. But it has been suggested—and these points, I think, can be well dealt with in Committee on the Bill—that the Bill does not give sufficient relief to those Religious Bodies who have no ministers permanently attached to their chapels or places of worship, but whose ministers have the superintendence of more than one place of worship. I fully recognize that that class of the community ought also to be considered, and ought to have the benefits of the Bill. I understand that in the case of every such body there is, practically speaking, a safeguard in the recognition of some Governing Body. I shall be willing to bring up a clause to extend the provisions of the Bill to the ministers of such communities, providing those who understand the matter will only assist me in securing the safeguard 213 that we may still have a responsible person present at the marriages. I should have suggested some clause of the kind; but it was a difficult matter for me to deal with, as I, of course, was not thoroughly acquainted with all the rules of the various communities, and I felt such an improvement would be better suggested in Committee by some Member of the House who was well acquainted with the circumstances. It is also suggested that, as I have not provided for the case of vacancies or ministers being absent, I have kept alive the power of the Registrar to attend; but here, again, I am perfectly willing to take care, if I possibly can, that a clause is inserted which will enable a registered minister, though not attached to the chapel, to perform the service in the absence of the particular minister who happens to be registered in respect of the chapel. I think that when the House considers the Bill carefully they will see that, practically, it meets all the objections which may be raised from this point of view. I may add that the Bill will reduce the expenses of marriage at least one-half, and possibly ultimately even still more; and I should also like to mention that a question has been raised as to whether or not I have acted wisely in providing that the forms which I propose should be issued by the Superintendent Registrar—whether it would not be more prudent that they should be issued by the District Registrars of the various places. That is a matter for the decision of those who best understand the working of the matter. Either course will be equally convenient from my point of view, and I shall be only too glad to consider any suggestion made on the subject; if it is thought desirable that it is better that the forms shall be issued by the District Registrar instead of by the Superintendent Registrar I shall be pleased to make the alteration. I am most anxious not to trespass too long on the House at this hour (1.20); and therefore I will only say that I have ventured to move the second reading of this Bill to-night because I do feel, from the support I have received from a large number of recognized representatives of Nonconformist Bodies, there is very little in the principle of the Bill to which anyone can object. I believe every objection can be met in Committee; provisions can be 214 inserted to protect every interest it is desirable to protect, and to extend to all Nonconformist Bodies which we desire to recognize the benefits of the Bill. I apologize, in one sense, to the House for having made my statement briefly—I hope I have made it clearly. I trust the House will see fit to pass the Bill, because I do feel we shall thereby do much to remedy a grievance which has been seriously felt in many places, and, at the same time, be able to cheapen marriage without in any way impairing the security which at present attends it.
§ Motion made, and Question proposed, "That the Bill be now read a second time."—(Sir Richard Webster.)
§ MR. ILLINGWORTH (Bradford, W.)
It may be thought that this Bill should pass without any comment from this side of the House; but I venture to submit that this is a most important question, affecting the civil position and the religious feelings of an immense number of people in this country. I think, with very great respect to the hon. and learned Gentleman the late Attorney General (Sir Richard Webster), that this is a measure which ought to have been in the hands of a responsible Government, who really could have dealt with it at a time when it would have been possible for what passed to have come to the knowledge of those most deeply interested. Now, I ask whether, at half-past 1 o'clock in the morning, it is reasonable to enter upon a discussion of this question? Although the hon. and learned Gentleman has apologized for the length of time he occupied in proposing the second reading, I think he would have been justified in going far more into detail than he did. In the first place, the hon. and learned Gentleman has left us altogether in doubt as to the character of the communications he has received, and as to what Bodies he has received the intimations and suggestions that have come into his hands. Without intending to be in any way disrespectful to the hon. and learned Gentleman, I must say I should have thought he was hardly the man to whom the different Nonconformist Bodies would forward statements as to their wants. ["Oh!"] I do not wish to throw, for one moment, any doubt upon the good faith of the hon. and learned Gentleman and those whose names are on the back of the Bill; but 215 it is absolutely necessary that I, or some other Member in the same position as myself, should rise and appeal to the House to adjourn the debate upon this subject. It is impossible, Sir, that a discussion of this character can really reach those who are interested. The hon. and learned Gentleman, has not told us how many thousand places of worship this Bill will affect, or how many thousand ministers and marriages per annum will come under the operation of the measure; and therefore I do say that the House has done everything that is necessary to-night in allowing the hon. and learned Gentleman to make his statement in moving the second reading, and that time ought to be allowed for the representations of those who are so deeply interested in the question to reach hon. Members. When such time has been allowed we can enter upon the discussion of the Bill on the second reading, and determine whether the Bill in its present form may be allowed to go forward. Besides, there are other Bills of a similar character either before the House or shortly to be advanced to the second reading stage, and it may be necessary that this and those other Bills should go to a Select Committee. Furthermore, the hon. and learned Gentleman has left the House altogether in the dark as to what is the custom in Scotland and Ireland. It is found there are methods of registration and of conducting marriages in Scotland and Ireland which are more consonant with the feelings of the people than the cumbrous system which prevails in this country. Surely we are entitled to have under consideration the form of marriage prevailing in both Scotland and Ireland; and if the hour were not so late I would venture to take up this very material point. Sir, in my judgment the attention of Parliament and the country requires to be brought back to this one point. By the law as it at present exists Parliament has given to all persons seeking to be married in this country the right to go through a civil ceremony only, without any religious ceremony superadded. All the safeguards that the State requires in the carrying out of this most important engagement are secured under this civil form of marriage. If that be the case, I want to know why Parliament should trouble itself about the religious ceremony, or 216 about what is called the solemnization of marriage? I do not wish to cast any slight upon the religious service; no doubt there are persons who attach more importance to marriage when it is accompanied by religious ceremony. There are other points the hon. and learned Gentleman has not explained. In his kindness and consideration in making all registered ministers quasi-servants of the State he has brought them under severe penalties. There is a £10 penalty provided in one clause, and in another clause there is a felony staring in the face ministers who undertake this duty. Why, surely, when there are such pitfalls and such dangers ahead as there are in this Bill, it is not a reasonable thing that the House should be asked to accept the second reading of this measure at this hour of the morning (1.30). I only wish to say, in conclusion, I am sure thousands of ministers and thousands of those who marry at Nonconformist places of worship would think we were failing in our duty in allowing a Bill of this character to pass the second reading stage without adequate time being given for its deliberate consideration. I beg to move that this debate be now adjourned.
§ MR. BUCHANAN (Edinburgh, W.)
Mr. Speaker, I second the Motion, and I do so on a special ground. I wish to make an appeal to the House and the Government that they will allow this Order and the subsequent Orders of the Day to be postponed till another day, because there is a Motion on the Paper in the name of my hon. Friend the Member for the Central Division of Edinburgh (Mr. J. Wilson), and this is the very last day, according to the statute, on which it can be considered by the House. It is now half-past 1 o'clock in the morning, and therefore I ask that the House will allow my hon. Friend to bring forward his Motion concerning the Fettes Endowment Scheme. I appeal to the Government to give us their assistance in this matter.
§ Motion made, and Question proposed, "That the Debate be now adjourned."—(Mr. Illingworth.)
THE SECRETARY OF STATE FOR THE HOME DEPARTMENT (Mr. CHILDERS) (Edinburgh, S.)
I am one of those who support the Bill on principle, as it removes a very decided 217 objection to the present regulations concerning the solemnization of Nonconformist marriages; it gets rid of the obligation to have a Registrar present. While I think the object is a good one, I am bound to say I think the Bill will require a great deal of amendment in Committee. There are several points to which the hon. and learned Gentleman (Sir Richard Webster) has himself referred which will, in Committee, receive a great deal of consideration. Now, after hearing the speech of the hon. Gentleman the Member for Bradford (Mr. Illingworth), and having regard to the fact that the Bill must be discussed on the second reading far more than it has been discussed to-night, and that there is a Motion on the Paper with respect to the Fettes Endowment Scheme which must, if it is to be discussed at all, be discussed to-night, this being the last day allowed by statute for its consideration, I think it would be well that the discussion upon the second reading of this Bill be postponed. I shall support the second reading.
§ SIR R. ASSHETON CROSS (Lancashire, S.W., Newton)
I am sorry to hear the suggestion of the right hon. Gentleman, because the principle of the Bill is exactly what he stated. There is a difficulty as to the attendance of Registrars at Nonconformist chapels. ["Order!"] I am going to say why I think the second reading should not be postponed; Mr. Speaker will call me to Order if I am out of Order. The principle of the Bill is agreed to on all hands; but it is quite clear that when we get into Committee some alterations will be necessary. My hon. and learned Friend (Sir Richard Webster) has pointed out some of them, and I have no doubt the hon. Gentleman the Member for Bradford (Mr. Illingworth) will point out more. It will be much better to discuss the measure on going into Committee than to adjourn the debate now and resume it at this point, because when we have passed this point we shall know the Amendments hon. Members propose, for they will be on the Paper. If we are allowed to take the second reading of the Bill simply on the ground that it confirms the principle that the presence of Registrars at Nonconformist chapels during marriage ceremonies shall no longer be necessary, when we get into Committee we can discuss the details. I 218 think the Bill should now be read a second time.
§ MR. CARVELL WILLIAMS (Nottingham, S.)
I must demur to the statement of the right hon. Gentleman that the principle of the Bill is accepted on all hands. So far as I am aware, not a single Nonconformist Body has yet expressed an opinion upon it. They have not yet had an opportunity. I have reason to know, however, that arrangements are being made to enable the Nonconformists to take the matter into full consideration. They will be greatly astonished if they learn to-morrow that this House has affirmed the principle of the Bill by reading it a second time. I hope the hon. and learned Gentleman (Sir Richard Webster) will be content with having made his statement; and, if he does not assent to the Motion for Adjournment, I trust the House will take the matter into its own hands and insist on an adjournment.
§ MR. SEXTON (Sligo, S.)
If the House intends to discuss the Motion of the hon. Member for Edinburgh (Mr. J. Wilson) it would be prudent not to continue this discussion further.
§ Motion agreed to.
§ Debate adjourned till Monday next.