HC Deb 13 February 1970 vol 795 cc1602-53

Order for Second Reading read.

11.16 a.m.

Mr. Victor Goodhew (St. Albans)

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

It is a strange feeling to find oneself proudly proclaiming paternity for a parliamentary Measure after 10 years of enforced sterility—sterility resulting from failure to find favour in the eyes of the Goddess Fortuna on the occasions of previous annual ballots when your box, Mr. Speaker, on being opened, was found, like Pandora's, to contain nothing but hope for the hon. Member for St. Albans. However, now that the fickle woman—I mean Fortuna, not Pandora—has smiled benignly upon me, I hope the House will not strangle our parliamentary progeny at birth but send it into the world with its blessing.

Although the Bill is simple in intention and limited in scope, it is somewhat elaborate in drafting, which will be apparent to hon. Members when I take the House through the Bill. The main aim is to fill a gap in the existing law by making provision for deathbed marriages for non-Anglicans, the position being that Anglicans at present are provided for. The type of case I have in mind concerns a betrothed couple one of whom may be smitten by a deadly illness or involved in a motor accident and be in danger of dying from the injuries. In such a case at present an Anglican could get married before the death, whereas a non-Anglican could not.

The present position is that except by a special licence of the Archbishop of Canterbury no marriage can lawfully be solemnised, otherwise than according to the usages of the Jews or the Society of Friends, in a place which is not a church of the Church of England, a place of public worship of some other denomination which has been registered for marriages or the office of a superintendent registrar. The special licence of the Archbishop of Canterbury meets the needs of Anglicans, enabling an Anglican marriage to be solemnised at any time and in any place. Thus, a bedside marriage in hospital or in a private house could normally be arranged for members of the Church of England without difficulty, but there is no similar power of dispensation for any other form of marriage—

Mr. Leo Abse (Pontypool)

If I may interrupt the hon. Gentleman, he says that there is no difficulty for an Anglican. But it depends upon what class he belongs to and whether he has got £25 available. When the hon. Gentleman says that he is extending to non-Anglicans something which is enjoyed by Anglicans, I hope he realises that he means a particular class of Anglicans who are in a position to pay the high fee demanded by the Archbishop of Canterbury's office.

Mr. Goodhew

I am not attempting to interfere with the powers of the Archbishop of Canterbury. If the hon. Member, who is good at introducing Private Members' Bills, would like to tackle that problem, no doubt he will find an opportunity to do so. The fact remains that at present this is a dispensation which is available to Anglicans but not to members of other churches. Anyone who is not an Anglican is unable to marry in the sort of emergency which I have described.

The law goes back to the Ecclesiastical Licences Act, 1533, when the licensing power was taken from the See of Rome and given to the Church of England. Indeed, it was part of the break from Rome. But today there are not only Roman Catholics but members of other Churches and adherents of other religions who are all deprived of the dispensation that is available to Anglicans. As an Anglican myself, I regard this as quite wrong and quite unjust.

The Bill, therefore, seeks to remedy this lack by means of the introduction of Registrar-General's licences. The Bill will probably affect only a very small number of people, but it is with minorities, however small, that this House and in particular private Members should be concerned. I emphasise that the Bill is in no way likely to affect—and it does not affect—the rights of the Archbishop of Canterbury to issue his special licence for marriage according to the rites of the Church of England. The Bill specifically precludes the Registrar General from issuing his licence for such a marriage ceremony, but it does empower him to do so for all other religious or civil ceremonies.

On all non-Anglican marriages the present law imposes certain restrictions both on place and time. A non-Anglican religious marriage or a civil marriage must be solemnised in the area in which one or other of the parties to that marriage resides and it requires that a minimum of one clear weekday must elapse before the giving of the notice of marriage and the wedding. The Bill proposes to abolish both those restrictions—the former restriction expressly and the latter by implication—for marriages which the Registrar-General is empowered to license.

These are defined in Clause I which provides that any marriage, other than a marriage solemnised according to the rites of the Church of England or the Church in Wales, which could be solemnised on the authority of a certificate of a superintendent registrar may be solemnised on the authority of the Registrar-General's licence elsewhere than at a registered building or the office of a superintendent registrar.

Clause 1(2) defines the circumstances in which the Registrar General may issue his licence, namely, where: one of the persons to be married is seriously ill and is not expected to recover and cannot be moved to a place at which under the provisions of the Marriage Act 1949 … the marriage could be solemnised".

Mr. Eric Lubbock (Orpington)

Does not the hon. Gentleman think that this is rather dangerous, in that one of the parties wishing to be married might know that the other was on the point of death, but in order not to distress that person, would not want to inform him or her of it, although both were agreeable to applying for a licence? But under Clause 1(2) the applicants would have to say in the application that one of them was not expected to recover.

Mr. Goodhew

I was anxious about those words myself and it may well be that they could be varied in Committee in order that the position could be made less definite. It might be sufficient to say that it was a serious illness and there was a possibility of one of the parties not recovering. But I was anxious to ensure that there was no thought of extending generally the idea of marriages taking place in premises other than those registered for that purpose. But I accept what the hon. Member for Orpington (Mr. Lubbock) says and this is something which might be looked at in Committee if I have the agreement of the House to the Second Reading of this Bill.

Clauses 2, 3 and 4 deal with the question of notice and of the evidence of capacity and of consent and the way in which applications should be made to the Registrar-General. They provide for notice of the intended marriage to be given to the local superintendent registrar, that is, the one in the area in which the wedding is to take place, so that investigations may be made locally to establish that the parties are free to marry and that the necessary pre-conditions for the grant of a Registrar-General's licence are fulfilled. These pre-conditions include the question of there being no lawful impediment and of there being consent in the case of a marriage in which one party is a minor and there being sufficient reason as to the illness of one of the parties.

Clause 5 preserves the right of caveat —that is the right of anyone knowing of an impediment to the marriage to put a halt to the procedure. Clause 6 deals with the question of minors and it applies to the marriages under Registrar-General's licence the provisions of the principal Act of 1949 relating to parental consent to the marriage of minors. Clause 7 provides for the licence to be issued if the Registrar General is satisfied that sufficient grounds exist, unless there is any lawful impediment and unless the issue of the licence has been forbidden, in the case of a minor, by a person whose consent is required.

Clause 8 provides for the Registrar-General's licence to be valid for a period of one month. This is because it is felt that that in most cases, these marriages would take place very quickly after the issue of the licence, by the very nature of the circumstances existing, and therefore it would be unnecessary to provide for the normal period of three months. On the other hand, there may be cases where there is not the immediate urgency and where it might be necessary to wait until the sick party becomes fit, for the time being, to undertake the strain of a marriage ceremony. Therefore, it seemed that one did not want to shorten the period too greatly, and it was thought that a month would be just about right, but I am not wedded to that period in any way.

Clause 9 requires the marriage to be solemnised in the place stated in the licence. That is a normal requirement and it is intended to guard against clandestine marriages by making it necessary for the place of solemnisation to be announced before the marriage actually takes place, so that it is known in advance.

Clause 10 prescribes the manner in which the marriage is to be solemnised and the circumstances in which the presence of a registrar is required. There is provision for either a religious ceremony of a non-Anglican order or a civil ceremony, and that is the only part of the Bill which could affect an Anglican. If an Anglican had been divorced, and was therefore not likely to be able to obtain a special licence from the Archbishop of Canterbury to be married according to the rites of the Anglican Church, he would be able to marry by civil ceremony.

Mr. David Weitzman (Stoke Newington and Hackney, North)

Would the hon. Gentleman explain why there appears to be a contradiction in the Bill. In Clause 10(4) there is a prohibition against any person who is a clergyman within the meaning of Section 78 of the principal Act solemnising a marriage under the Bill, whereas Clause 11 specifically allows it. There seems to be an obvious contradiction here.

Mr. Goodhew

In Clause 10, the clergyman within the meaning of Section 78 of the principal Act is a clergyman of the Church of England or the Church in Wales, whereas the other term is intended to refer to clergymen in other Churches. But, if there is an error in drafting, that again is something which can be looked at in Committee.

Clause 11 provides that where parties have had their marriages solemnised by a civil ceremony by the superintendent registrar they may, if they wish, follow this by asking a clergyman or a minister of the denomination to which they belong to read or to celebrate a marriage ceremony of that denomination. This is put in because it is followed by a subsection which makes it clear that the provisions of the principal Act of 1949 apply in as much as if there is a civil ceremony first this is registered and the second ceremony is merely a religious ceremony which follows it and it does not supersede the civil ceremony.

Clause 12 applies those provisions of the principal Act by virtue of which the validity of a marriage cannot be challenged after its solemnisation on the ground that the parties had not in fact resided in the appropriate district or that the consent required by law to the marriage of a minor had not been given. This also merely brings the Bill into line with the 1949 Act.

Clause 13 deals with void marriages and applies, with the necessary modifications, the provisions of Section 49 of the principal Act, which declares that, if parties knowingly and wilfully intermarry in contravention of certain requirements of the law, the marriage shall be void.

Clause 14 provides for the issue of a document by a superintendent registrar stating that the Registrar-General's licence has been granted, and for delivery of the document before the marriage to the person by whom it is to be solemnised. It is felt that in some cases of great urgency it might not be possible for the licence to be sent by post by the Registrar-General to the superintendent registrar in the district concerned in time for the date of the wedding. If it be a matter of great urgency, it is envisaged that in such cases the Registrar-General would telephone to the superintendent registrar in the district concerned telling him that the licence had been granted, and the superintendent registrar would be empowered to write the document which would then be produced as the necessary evidence for the marriage to take place.

Clause 15 deals with registration and provides for marriages on the authority of the Registrar General's licence to be registered in accordance with the appropriate provisions of the principal Act.

Clause 16 provides for penalties of up to five years' imprisonment for certain deliberate contraventions of the law by persons solemnising marriages. These penalties are similar to those laid down in the principal Act of 1949 for similar offences. However, subsection (3) is important in that it relieves those solemnising marriages on the authority of a Registrar-General's licence from certain penalties which they would otherwise incur under the principal Act, since the principal Act provides, first, that there shall be a period of permitted hours during which marriages may take place—from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m.—and this is waived in the circumstances covered by the Bill, and, second, the principal Act requires that marriages shall take place in a building registered for that purpose, from which requirement also we are breaking away under the Bill.

Clause 17 deals with fees, providing that fees to be prescribed by Order of the Secretary of State shall be payable to the Registrar-General, to the superintendent registrar and to a registrar. The power of the Secretary of State to fix fees is similar to the provision made under the Public Expenditure and Receipts Act, 1968.

Clause 18 provides for the Registrar-General, with the approval of the Secretary of State, to make regulations prescribing anything required by the Bill to be prescribed. This power is similar to those already conferred on the Registrar General by Section 74 of the 1949 Act.

Clause 19 saves the existing powers of the Archbishop of Canterbury in relation to special licences and the validity of marriages solemnised under those special licences.

Clause 20 gives the Short Title, and deals with construction, citation and extent. Also, it provides for the date of commencement of the Bill. At this point, I have to say that the Short Title which I selected before I became involved in the drafting of the Bill is far from ideal. It is somewhat clumsy as well as lengthy, and it is a little misleading, since the Statutes refer to regisprovides for marriages on the authority tered buildings and to registered offices, whereas licensed or unlicensed premises are often thought of in an entirely different connection and context. Therefore, if the House agrees to give the Bill a Second Reading, it will be my hope to amend the Short Title. It has been suggested that "Marriage (Registrar General's Licence) Act, 1970" would be more suitable than the Title which I first selected.

As the House will have observed, what appeared originally to be a simple intention has in implementation turned out to be a somewhat complicated matter. As a lone back bencher, I should have paled before the daunting task of putting into statutory form my very modest aims were it not for the most willing help and advice given to me by the Registrar-General and his department and by the Department of the Clerk of the House. I acknowledge with gratitude the major part which they played in the preparation of the Bill.

As I have said, despite the elaborate and somewhat complicated structure of the Bill, it is a modest but, I believe, humane Measure, aimed at abolishing an unintended discrimination which exists in our present marriage laws, and has existed, indeed, for 437 years. Perhaps it is a good aim for a back bencher to feel that he can manage to achieve in ten years what has been left undone for 437 years.

There will, I hope, be few who will need to avail themselves of the provision of the Bill. Nevertheless, there will always be occasional tragic cases in which betrothed persons, faced with the sudden serious illness of one of them, will wish to be married either in a hospital or in a private house before death parts them. The carrying through of this wish should not, in my view, depend upon their being Anglicans. For this reason, I hope that the House will give the Bill a Second Reading.

Mr. Speaker

I remind the House that, as so often on a Friday, this is a nonparty occasion. It will help me to balance the debate if hon. Members who wish to oppose the Second Reading will let me know.

11.35 a.m.

Mr. John Fraser (Norwood)

I endorse the speech of the hon. Member for St. Albans (Mr. Goodhew). It is good that the House should from time to time devote itself to discussing marriage as well as to discussing divorce. Perhaps we spend too much time being fixated or fascinated by divorce and, indeed, what I might call "polymonogomy", that is, taking one wife many times.

A person may be born anywhere and may die anywhere. I wonder whether the Bill goes far enough in providing for marriage anywhere. Perhaps it should be possible for people to be married, if not anywhere, at least in a wider range of places than are permitted at the moment. To illustrate my basic point about the need to license marriages in premises not at present recognised for the purpose—apart from the case of persons who are seriously ill—I take an example from my own constituency. The problem in my borough is that the marriage offices are in a sad state and show no signs of recovery. I am speaking here about a problem faced by a minority, though none the less a large minority. About 1,200 or 1,300 people a year are married by civil ceremony in Lambeth out of a total population of ⅓ million. They are married in a building which is really just a converted house surrounded by redevelopment. There are two yellow bands—one is the wedding ring, and the other is the "No parking" restriction outside.

I had a look at our marriage office this morning. The rooms are totally unsuitable. The smaller of the two measures 18 ft. by 12 ft., the other 20 ft. by 12 ft. When not being married in a church, people want to have a place which is dignified and gracious to which their friends can come and witness the ceremony. At this marriage office, however, it is impossible to have 60 or 70 people present to witness the ceremony. They have to be put in two separate rooms. What is more, on a Saturday, when several marriages take place, people are all crowded together, circulating between one room and another, the rooms being divided by a stairway and a public lavatory.

This is not to say that the registrar at the marriage office and the staff at the town hall do not try to do their best to make the place dignified and to make the best of the marriage ceremony. On the other hand, it is not fair to ask more than 1,000 people a year to have their marriages solemnised in such circumstances. True, a good many people in London will spend a large part of their married life in overcrowded houses, but in Lambeth they have to get married in one crowded room as well.

At present, there is a legal impediment against marriages being carried out anywhere else. As I say, for the ⅓ million people of Lambeth there is one registry office, and it is a great pity that marriages cannot take place in more dignified, more gracious and more spacious premises because of the present restrictions of the law. If a couple wish to be married by a civil ceremony in the town hall, in council chamber, in the assembly hall, or even in the mayor's parlour, all of which are more spacious than the present marriage rooms at the registry office in Brixton Road, they cannot do so.

Mr. Abse

It may be a desperate remedy, but if they were converted to Judaism or Quakerism, they could be married elsewhere than in the dreary registry office to which my hon. Friend refers.

Mr. Fraser

Yes, but I should be in a little difficulty in urging that solution to the problem in a multi-religious and multi-racial community such as mine. The solution to the problem which I suggest is a widening of the provisions of the present Bill to ease the situation in areas such as mine. I do not suggest that we should establish blacksmiths' shops as alternative premises, but I should like to see an alternative arrangement possible under the law so that there could be a registrar's office situated in one part of the borough at which the marriage ceremony could be carried out, with, in addition, a relaxation of licensing so that marriages could be held in more dignified halls elsewhere. The register would not be kept in these other premises, but they would be more suitable for the ceremony itself.

On a Saturday morning not only are there several marriages taking place in crowded rooms with people mingling with one another—people do not marry the wrong person, but it is croweded enough—but there are other people coming in to register births, others coming to register deaths and others to give notice of marriage. Notice of marriage is supposed to be given in private and secluded circumstances. I cannot remember the statutory words, but there should be only two people in the room. The place is totally unsuitable.

I hope that in Committee the Bill might be amended to deal with that particularly difficult situation. People are entitled to dignity and the right kind of surroundings when they get married. Perhaps the homes from which they have come and the homes to which they will go do not make the best of marriage. We all know that bad housing makes for bad marriages. But let us do something to improve the ceremony and widen the scope of the Bill to allow ceremonies to be held in better premises.

11.40 a.m.

Sir Cyril Black (Wimbledon)

My name appears as a sponsor of the Bill, but as there is a great deal of business before us, I want to make only a short speech in welcoming it. I think that the great majority of the hon. Members will also welcome it, and I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for St. Albans (Mr. Goodhew) both on introducing it and on the very clear way in which he has commended it to the House.

There is a good deal of technical matter in the Bill which is perhaps somewhat difficult for laymen to follow. I assume that in due course we shall receive the advice of the Home Office, which I believe to be the appropriate Department to deal with the technical questions.

I am glad that my hon. Friend emphasised that the Bill contained the necessary safeguards, because it is important that it should. I take the point made by the hon. Member for Norwood (Mr. John Fraser), and no doubt in Committee we can consider it, as it clearly should be considered. But I do not think that most people in this country want to open the door to such an extent that eccentric people can have their marriages performed in eccentric circumstances. One reads on occasion that in the United States people wish to be married up in balloons, in lion cages at zoos, or surroundings of that kind.

Mr. Lubbock

What conceivable harm would it do to anybody else if I chose to get married in a balloon or a lions' cage?

Sir C. Black

It is not so much a question of the harm it would do to other people; it is the harm it would do to the institution of marriage and the regard the public should have for the institution of marriage. I cannot for a moment believe that the people of this country or hon. Members would wish to pass legislation which would enable eccentric habits of that kind to be formed by people in this country.

Mr. Weitzman

Does the hon. Gentleman agree that under the Bill there is a power to order a marriage to take place in a balloon or in a lions' cage?

Sir C. Black

It is hardly likely in the only circumstances in which the Bill could operate that a marriage could take place in such circumstances.

Mr. Lubbock

But if the lion-tamer had just been bitten by the lion and was in danger of dying, those circumstances could arise.

Sir C. Black

Eccentric minds can, of course, apply themselves to all kinds of unlikely situations. I am making the point that I would like the Bill to safeguard the community at large against eccentric minds being able to indulge in eccentric happenings, such as the hon. Gentleman described.

I welcome the Bill because it rectifies an injustice. One of the main duties of the House is to seek to rectify injustice, and the fact that the injustice has existed for more than 400 years makes it all the more reasonable for us to be applying our attention to a small but important alteration in the law. I think that it is admitted that as the law stands non-Anglicans are at a disadvantage, and that whatever the feeling may have been among the members of various Churches 400 years ago the overwhelming majority of the public were then members of the Church of England and the problem was entirely different.

I have no right, as a Free Churchman, to attempt to speak for the Church of England or the Archbishop of Canterbury, but I am certain, judging by the Archbishop of Canterbury's whole atti- tude toward the ecumenical movement, that he would be the first to approve of legislation which had the effect of rectifying an injustice under which non-Anglicans still suffer. From inquiries I have made, I find the welcome for the Bill just as strong among Anglicans as among members of other religious communities. We are living in an ecumenical age and a continuance of the present injustice is inconsistent with the ecumenical spirit.

I have been for many years a member of the Free Church Federal Council, which is a federation of all the main Free Church bodies in this country. I took the opportunity of consulting them about the Bill, and I have been informed by the Secretary of the Free Church Federal Council that, subject always to the Government's being satisfied that the Bill contains suitable safeguards to see that we are not opening a larger door than the sponsors desire to open, the Council would most certainly welcome the Measure and would hope very much that it may be put upon the Statute Book.

11.48 a.m.

Mr. Leo Abse (Pontypool)

The hon. Member for Wimbledon (Sir C. Black) has pointed out that there is other business on the Order Paper. That will not hurry me along. Only Mr. Speaker will hurry me along, because I take the unfashionable view that marriage is a little more important than abortion.

I congratulate the hon. Member for St. Albans (Mr. Goodhew) on the careful way in which he has presented the Bill. I commiserate with him on his having found it necessary to present us with a very complicated and sophisticated Bill containing 20 Clauses when seeking to put a simple and humanitarian Measure before us. The reason for this is the jungle that our marriage law is in. My first reservation, upon which I want some assurances, stems from the fact that it is very dangerous practice to seek to deal with an undoubted anomaly when the whole of our marriage laws are replete with anomalies and contain discrimination for and against wide groups of people.

The blunt and brutal fact is that each year the law and the Church together conspire to make perjurers of thousands of young people who are about to enter into holy matrimony. Lies are required as the preliminary to the sacred vows. Thousands of marriages in Britain each year begin with a deceit, the swearing of a false declaration by a bride or bridegroom that could, in theory at any rate, attract a heavy fine or a sentence of up to seven years' imprisonment. This wretched preliminary to a ceremony intended to have such binding and holy significance comes from our out-of-date marriage laws, which are rooted in a time when most people were born and lived and died in the same parish.

The demands which are placed by the existing law on residential qualifications almost compel strategems and evasions, for they are totally unsuitable for a mobile community. Indeed, that can be said of all our marriage laws. For example, a young man from Leeds who wishes to marry a young woman from Bristol may wish, for the convenience of all the relatives and guests, to hold his marriage ceremony and celebration in London. He can rarely do so without becoming involved in manoeuvres designed to overcome the existing residential qualifications.

Only too often, for generous or mercenary motives, bishops, vicars and ministers become parties to the shabby game. For many reasons these blemishes in the law make our marriage laws a scandal. They rest not on the parent Act, to which the sponsor referred on a number of occasions as the 1949 Measure, because that was only a consolidation Act. They rest on provisions which were considered desirable in 1837, since when the population has increased fourfold, has become extremely mobile, has clustered in huge urban areas and is no longer habitually churchgoing.

That the outmoded laws about which I am complaining—and with which the Bill deals with only one very small facet—have never been adapted to the needs of a modern community has been due not only to the inertia of the legislators and to tardy lawyers but to the vested financial interest of the Church, for which ecclesiastical special licences and common licences in 1970 represent dispensations—I hope that I can say this without causing discomfort to the hon. Member for Chelmsford (Mr. St. JohnStevas)—discredited just as they were in mediaeval times.

Whatever difficulty the young worker in a factory in my constituency may have of meeting the requirements necessary to enable him to marry a girl from Swansea in Cardiff, no such difficulty stands in the way of the well-heeled and well-connected.

I am not so cautious as is the sponsor in trying to appease the Archbishop of Canterbury. I never have been and it is right that the community should know these facts, because for £25 a time dispensation is granted out of the Archbishop of Canterbury's office so enabling a religious marriage to be celebrated at any convenient time—all the times mentioned in the law go by the board—and at any convenient place.

Each year more than 300 such dispensations are given. This is clear if one studies the statistics. For those lacking a little in their connections or money, there is a second grade dispensation available which, although not obviating all the difficulties, enables the parties to be married immediately; that is, after the issue of the authority of a bishop.

The House should be reminded that nearly 10,000 marriages are celebrated each year under the ecclesiastical common licences. These cost the applicants two-an-a-half times as much as they are required to pay if they publish banns or are married by certificate at a registry office. For such Church of England marriages, a common licence dispenses with the publication of banns and removes altogether the element of publicity and waiting period.

If the waiting period and publicity prescribed by the law for non-licenced marriages is necessary to enable any impediment to be brought to light, what possible justification can there be for letting anybody who can afford it escape the waiting period by paying a higher fees?

Bigamy is not the special prerogative of the less affluent. If measures are needed to protect the community from the crime of bigamy, then nobody, churchman nor agnostic, should be able to find a way around the existing regulations. The truth is that the regulations are farcical. If somebody wanting a registry office marriage is prepared to pay an extra 25s. he can thereby avoid the publicity which is given by the display of notices on a notice board and reduce the waiting period from 25 days to one day.

What possible rationale can there be for marriage laws which vary according to the size of one's purse. How can anybody any longer take seriously measures which are designed to reveal any impediment to a marriage such as the publishing of banns or the displaying of notices when this state of affairs exists?

In the social conditions existing in this country before this century these measures were doubtless quite effective, except in cases of the most deliberate fraud. But with the decline in churchgoing and since the publication of banns reaches a very small proportion of the population—even a smaller proportion sees the notices which are displayed at registry offices—all our marriage law regulations have become a gigantic bluff. They do not enhance the dignity of the Church, of the law or even of the marriage. To cap it all they are a clumsy and often inefficient method of record-keeping.

In my constituency there are 79 parish churches and 37 authorised chapels. Throughout the country a similar situation prevails. This often means that, through carelessness or because so few marriages may have taken place in an authorised establishment, the search for a marriage certificate can become a Herculean task. In not a few cases some of the registration books have not been filed in registry offices since 1837.

I have reservations about the Bill because it is a piecemeal way of tackling the problem of our marriage laws. It is time that the whole mumbo-jumbo of these archaic laws was swept away. The community should take a social decision about what delay, if any, is regarded as wise before allowing a ceremony to take place. The community should, I believe, allow anybody to marry where-ever he or she may please in whatever town and in whatever establishment is selected.

The hon. Member for Wimbledon expressed concern about other people's eccentricity. I am sure that he regards me as idiosyncratic, just as I assure him that I regard him. However, that does not mean that I would wish to deprive him of any ceremony in which he might wish to participate.

The truth is that the people who would now no doubt describe a ceremony in a lion's cage as being eccentric are perhaps not so different from those who, in 1837—when the right was being given to free churchmen and others to be able in certain circumstances to enjoy their marriage ceremonies wherever they wished—regarded the idea of anybody wanting to marry anywhere other than in church as extraordinarily eccentric. The problems which the hon. Gentleman has been describing in his constituency in Lambeth stem from a hang-over of that old climate of opinion that register office marriages are second-class marriages. I am sure that this is an opinion which, unfortunately, still exists, and it stems from our marriage laws which give a special place to certain ecclesiastical rights, and allow the notion to exist that there is some ambience of guilt and shame about a register office.

It is shameful that so many local authorities are still so cheeseparing that the register offices at which marriages are conducted are little more than shabby holes in the wall. I agree with the hon. Gentleman the bride at a register office is entitled to the same sense of occasion as a bride in a church. Times have changed. Nearly 150,000 marriages take place each year in these offices, not far short of the numbers that are celebrated in church and religious institutions. The register office bride should be able to cherish her memory of her marriage, but some of the dingy, down-at-heel register offices which exist guarantee that she will recall her great day as a perfunctory ceremony conducted amidst squalid surroundings.

It is not surprising that those who have been aware of the state of our marriage laws, and of our register offices, have for years been agitating for changes in our laws. Some of us have sought to arouse public opinion to something which is more than a nuisance, more than vexatious, something which is really quite repugnant, and I am concerned that when, at last, as a result of the views which have been expressed, the Law Commissioners have been called into the matter, at this moment the House should be presented with a Bill which is only fiddling with the matter.

As the hon. Gentleman appreciates, I am fully in sympathy with his desire that in the special circumstances which he has adumbrated facilities should be available for people who want to marry on their death-bed should be able to do so, but this is a curious way of tackling a problem which, fortunately, after long agitation, has been referred to the Law Commissioners, who, as the House may know, are starting upon a review of our marriage laws.

I hope that the Government spokesman will make it clear that any benevolent neutrality which the Government may show towards this matter will in no way clog or slow down the investigatory work that is being done, and that the Bill will in no way inhibit them from implementing any recommendations which may come out of the Law Commissioners' report. What view do the Government take of this curious little attempt to chip away at the many aspects of the real problem facing us? What view do the Government take of the 20 Clauses of the Bill which have had to be formulated to deal with a very small problem?

Before I give my full support to the Bill I should like to hear from the Government when they expect the Law Commissioners' report to emerge, and whether the Bill in any way conflicts with what was intended when the referral was made to the Law Commissioners. However sympathetic I may be to the Bill, I should not want anything to occur which would prevent the bringing about of what is long overdue, a marriage law to match our modern and pluralistic community which does not want marriage laws to continue because of vested interests in the church or anywhere else. It is upon the statement which I expect from the Government that I shall finally decide whether to support the Bill.

12.6 p.m.

Mr. Eric Lubbock (Orpington)

The hon. Member for Pontypool (Mr. Abse) has raised a number of important issues which go wider than the Bill but which, nevertheless, it is essential to discuss so that we can see the Bill in perspective.

The hon. Member for Pontypool thinks that the report of the Law Commissioners is of some importance. The Law Commission Report of December, 1969, said that it was in a position to initiate a reform of the provisions of the English law, and that it intended to put the necessary study in hand in the near future. The hon. Gentleman may have some knowledge which is not available to me. As I understand it from the hon. Gentleman, the Law Commission has embarked on this task, and I reinforce his demand that the Government spokesman should give us the fullest possible information about the progress of this study before we come to decide on the Bill.

I do not go as far as the hon. Gentleman in saying that my attitude to the Bill will depend on what the official Government spokesman says, because I fully support the objectives of the hon. Member for St. Albans (Mr. Goodhew). I do not think that just because a long study has been embarked upon by some official body—be it a Department or the Law Commission—the House should be inhibited from taking action to deal with what we recognise as anomalies, and which are accepted as such by all the religious authorities and by people outside the House who have been good enough to give us this advice.

If we always accepted the hon. Gentleman's proposition, we should make very little progress indeed, because it is the habit of Governments to set up Royal Commissions, inquiries, and Departmental investigations as a means of postponing action, and, if anything, a Bill of this kind will help to prod the Law Commission into speeding up the work which the hon. Member for Pontypool mentioned.

Mr. Abse

The Law Commission has never needed any prodding. It has never been used as a delaying department. It is an institution which usually reports fairly speedily. It is usually the House which falls behind in implementing the Law Commission's recommendations. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman would not want to do the Law Commission a disservice by describing it as a delaying institution.

Mr. Lubbock

My remarks were intended to refer to Governments. I agree that the Law Commission has put through a gratifyingly large amount of work, and that it has done a splendid job on many occasions. It has been of tremendous value in reforming our Statute law, but there is, here, a question of priorities.

The Annual Report of the Law Commission says that there are many other subjects under investigation, and the Law Commission might be tempted, in spite of the hon. Gentleman's advice and the importance which he attaches to a review of our marriage laws, to give its attention to other matters first, and therefore this debate can perhaps help in that way. The Law Commissioners will no doubt read what hon. Members say today and take note of the views expressed.

The Bill, useful though it may be, is only a small step towards the kind of reform which we would like to see brought about, and I thought that the hon. Member for St. Albans underlined that when he said that the provisions which we are seeking to remedy are those of the Ecclesiastical Licences Act, 1533, an Act passed 437 years ago. I do not accept what the hon. Member for Pontypool said about the recent developments in the mobility of the population, and so on, having brought this problem to the fore. It has been there, lurking beneath the surface, for many years. The problem of difference between the treatment of Anglicans and all other religions, which was not a problem at the time the 1533 Act was passed because everyone was compelled by the King to come into the Church of England, is not a new one. It has been with us ever since the latter half of the eighteenth century, and certainly the first half of the nineteenth century, with the growth of Nonconformist religions and, more recently, the departure of people from churches of all kinds and the growth of agnosticism.

I agree with the hon. Member for Norwood (Mr. John Fraser) about widening the scope of the Bill. He hit the nail on the head, and I would like to reinforce his remarks. Many people get married in church simply because it is the only available place that has some dignity and grace. They do not go there because they are truly religious. In parish magazines we constantly read the pronouncements of vicars that they will marry only those people who have been regular worshippers at their churches. They are not prepared to assist people who come along at the last moment and say that they would like to be married in church although they have no connection with the Christian religion.

I sympathise with this attitude on the part of ministers, but if the alternative is to go to some sleazy little register office that has no dignity and no grace—so that the woman has nothing that she can look back on with any pride for the rest of her married life, as signalling what is the most important day of anybody's life—people will want to go to church. That is why so many non-Christians take this step.

I therefore heartily endorse what the hon. Member said about widening the scope of the Bill. In my opinion this could be done without amending the Long Title, which is, fortunately, in broad terms—to permit marriages on unlicensed premises. As drafted, the benefits of the Bill will apply only to people on the point of death. There is nothing to prevent the hon. Member for Norwood putting down Amendments in Committee to widen the scope of the Bill in the sense described.

It is rather important to know what the Government's attitude is before we reach the end of the debate—not that anybody will vote against the Bill but because we should like to hear the Government spokesman saying that he is not only sympathetic with the objectives of the promoter but is prepared to consider extending the scope of the Bill in Committee in the way requested by the hon. Member for Norwood. That would be of great benefit. Even if the House finally decided that it was better to confine the Bill to its present narrow terms, the discussions in Committee would be of great benefit to the Law Commission in its deliberations.

Mr. Abse

Does the hon. Member appreciate that this is a matter for local authorities and not the Government? As the law now stands, the state of registry offices is a matter for local authorities and, as such, the question is likely to be determined by the rates paid to local authorities.

Mr. Lubbock

I was going to deal with that point. I am grateful to the hon. Member for raising it. I do not believe that the ratepayers should have to foot the bill for the construction of "marriage palaces" of the kind that we have heard of in the Soviet Union. I see no reason why people should not be allowed to have the marriage ceremony conducted in a place like a hotel, where there could be dignified and graceful surroundings and where no expense would be imposed on ratepayers or taxpayers. Most marriages are solemnised over the weekend, and if we were to provide large buildings in every major centre and in quite small towns—buildings to be used solely for the purposes of marriage services—they would be empty for five-sevenths of the week, and it would be asking a lot of the overburdened ratepayers to finance such an enormous operation.

Mr. Weitzman

Surely there is no need to provide extra accommodation in that way. There are town halls. They have spacious rooms where marriage ceremonies could be carried out in a dignified fashion.

Mr. Lubbock

The hon. and learned Member is making exactly the same point that I am making. If people were permitted to get married in town halls or hotels the problem would not arise. Receptions are held in those places. It is the general custom for the parents to take accommodation in an hotel so that they can receive the guests who have attended the ceremony and give them some hospitality. I am asking why we should not extend the scope of the Bill so that, in addition to having receptions in such places, the marriage ceremonies could also be conducted there.

In my opinion the illustrations given by the hon. Member for Wimbledon (Sir C. Black) were a little far-fetched. He said that people might want to be married in a balloon or in a lion's cage. Why should they not be allowed to do so, if that is what they want? I am in favour of extending freedom rather than continu- ally restricting it. I would not wish to get married in one of those places if I were to have my wedding ceremony all over again, but if a person wishes to have his ceremony conducted there I cannot see why he should not do so.

I agree with the hon. Member for Pontypool that it is no more eccentric now to make such a suggestion than, in the middle of the nineteenth century, it was to suggest that people could get married in a place other than an Anglican church. Our ideas and horizons are moving forward and widening as we go forward in time. Restrictions should not be placed upon the venues chosen by people who are going to derive benefit from the Bill.

There is another argument for widening the scope of the Bill. In spite of the assurance that Clause 1(2) can be modified in Committee, it is not altogether satisfactory if the right to be married on unlicensed premises depends upon a statement by either party that one of the parties is seriously ill and is not expected to recover. Most of us have had cases occurring in our own families where a person is seriously ill and is not expected to recover, but where none of the relatives wishes to inform him of that fact; indeed, it may be undesirable, on medical grounds, to do so. In such cases, the party who knows of the other's medical condition and would like to have the marriage solemnised is not able to go to the hospital and say, "Shall we get married in the next few weeks? You are bound to be in hospital for the next couple of months. We need not delay. Under the Measure passed by the House of Commons we can now get married in hospital", because a statement must be submitted to the Registrar-General that one of the parties is not expected to recover—which means, presumably, that both parties will be aware of the statement's having been made, which could have a depressing effect on the person in hospital and under the threat of a fatal disease.

The other point that worries me is the length of the procedure involved, which the hon. Member outlined. It may be that this is inevitable. It would have been helpful to have an Explanatory Memorandum covering the 12 Clauses. Although the idea is a simple one, the hon. Member readily admitted that after having put it into statutory phrases it has come out rather complicated, and difficult for the layman to follow. As I understand it, under the terms of Clause 2(1) notice must first be given to the Registrar-General in the prescribed form and then, under the terms of Clause 4, the Registrar-General may give directions to the superintendent registrar to verify any evidence submitted in respect of capacity and consent.

All these procedures may take a lot of time. If the hon. Member's main object is to benefit those who are under threat of death I ask him to consider whether there is not some way of cutting short these procedures by getting rid of some of the red tape. The hon. Gentleman may say that this is a Committee point, and perhaps it is better examined by lawyers upstairs than by laymen on the Floor of the House, but it is an important point to mention on Second Reading, so that he can have early notice of it.

Mr. Goodhew

The notice has to be given not to the Registrar-General but to the local superintendent registrar. Clauses 2 to 4 would enable this to be done locally, and would enable the superintendent registrar to communicate with the Registrar-General over the 'phone, so that the latter can decide whether he wants any further proof or is satified with the conditions and immediately says that a licence can be granted. This should be looked at in Committee if it is felt that it would take too long, but I am sure that it is not as cumbersome and time-consuming as it looks.

Mr. Lubbock

I know that the hon. Member said that questions of evidence might be dealt with between the superintendent registrar and the Registrar-General on the telephone, and he might be able to satisfy the Committee that machinery exists for this procedure to be gone through quickly. I only mention this because it occurred to me on looking through the Bill.

The hon. Member has done a very useful service to the House with this Bill. Minor though it may be, affecting only a few people, it is none the less worth passing. He is quite right that we in this House should he concerned not only with the vast majorities of the population, but also with tiny minorities, however small, who have been disadvantaged under our legislation. This is one of the greatest features of this Parliament, that we always have time to examine the problems of small minorities. So I congratulate the hon. Member on the hard work which he has obviously put into drafting this Bill. I hope that it will go through Committee and reach the Statute Book and so benefit the seriously ill and perhaps many others.

12.22 p.m.

Mr. Will Howie (Luton)

I would point out to the hon. Member for Orpington (Mr. Lubbock) that, in 1533, by no means everybody was compelled to join the Church of England. It was only those who were actually within arm's reach of Henry VIII—a fairly long arm, admittedly; but some managed to escape from it—and I am happy to say that some of us have managed to keep out of the Anglican persuasion ever since.

I would congratulate the hon. Member for St. Albans (Mr. Goodhew), a parliamentary neighbour of mine, on his work in bringing forward this complicated and difficult Bill, on which he has done a great deal of work. But in supporting him in general, I am a little sorry that his aim seems to have been unduly modest. He seems to have limited the extension of freedom rather more than might be reasonable. I am not at all sure that I wish to support strongly a Bill—I will not oppose it—whose purpose is merely to permit people to be married on unlicensed premises if they are seriously ill, are not expected to recover and cannot be moved.

That is an important thing to want to do, but to mount the whole paraphernalia of the Parliamentary Bill for that narrow purpose seems to me, if not to waste an opportunity, at least not to make the most of it. That one category might have been included among a much wider range of categories which could have used the kind of powers which the hon. Member has in mind. I see no reason why "unlicensed premises" in the Long Title should not include licensed premises in the other sense of that term. They are proper places to go to to be married—

Mr. Weitzman

And for refreshments.

Mr. Howie

Yes, these premises are often associated with weddings in many other ways and they seem to offer a convenient way of being married.

Mr. Weitzman

My hon. Friend mentioned that the Bill was limited in its purpose. Does he agree with the limitation to persons who are not expected to recover? For instance, there are people who are lame or chronically sick and who cannot leave their homes. Why should not they be included?

Mr. Howie

I agree entirely. I thought that that was implicit in my comment. I hope to demonstrate that I think that anyone should be allowed to get married pretty well anywhere.

I was about to speak about the place of solemnisation of the marriage as being important under the Bill, because it has to be reported in the representations to the Registrar. I recall that the poet Robert Burns is thought—I am not sure how accurately—to have undergone a solemnisation of marriage with Highland Mary standing across a stream in Ayrshire, and exchanging, I think, a Bible—

Mr. James Hamilton (Bothwell)

That is quite right.

Mr. Howie

The Whip confirms that I am right. However, since I am an Ayrshire man and he is no more than a Lanarkshire man, he is perhaps getting a bit above himself.

That marriage is said to have been solemnised by an exchange of Bibles and an exchange of an oath across the stream not very far from Ayr, with no witnesses present apart from the two involved in the transaction. The fact that there were not witnesses raises a difficulty which I do not wish to dwell on too heavily.

But this brings me to the really important part of a marriage, which is the pledge between the people concerned. Whether the pledge is made on licensed premises or unlicensed premises, whether those concerned can be moved or whether they are seriously ill—in any situation that is the key to the whole business. The remainder, the civil contract or the religious ceremony, are important matters in themselves and obviously offer protections of a wide variety of kinds, but it is not they which make the marriage and it is not these contracts and ceremonies which make the marriage secure.

The thing which makes the marriage and makes it secure is the pledge between the people involved, with whatever exchange of troths they think reasonable in their own circumstances. So I must dissent entirely from the comments of the hon. Member for Wimbledon (Sir C. Black). I say nothing further than that at the moment. It is quite appropriate that people should carry out marriages or pledges of troth in whatever circumstances they themselves feel fit, and what they feel fit might appear eccentric to us, because we in Parliament are a very staid bundle of people—

Mr. Brian Walden (Birmingham, All Saints)

Speak for yourself.

Mr. Howie

I can speak for no one but myself, but we are a very staid and solemn bundle of people, and what appears eccentric to us might appear ordinary, humdrum and everyday to the great majority of the population. We should pay no attention to that part of the hon. Member's speech.

Still talking of the place of solemnisation, I should like to remind the House that it is not uncommon over a large part of the world for marriages to be carried out in the home. This matters, because the central part of the marriage is the plighting of the troth between the two people. Marriage is not only a matter of contract and ceremony and passion: it is a matter of domesticity, and the centre of domesticity is the home. Over a substantial part of the world—Scotland, for instance, and also the United States and many other places—it is normal and natural for people to be married at home. Ministers of religion in their ordinary work go to people's homes to carry out marriage ceremonies. I think that my parents were married at home. I was not present, but it was a near thing. Perhaps they were married in the Co-operative hall. This kind of venue is fairly common in working class circles in Scotland to this day.

Mr. Donald Dewar (Aberdeen, South)

It is universally common. It is not a prerogative of the working class.

Mr. Howie

I agree. All sorts of people are married in all sorts of places. I should like the Bill to cover marriages conducted in such places as the home as one of the ordinary ways in which people are married rather than in curious circumstances.

I question why the Bill does not apply to members of the Church of England or the Church in Wales. In terms of the Bill extending freedom to conduct marriages in the kind of places that I have mentioned, it would seem reasonable that the right to be married in the home should be extended to members of the Church of England as well as to other groups mentioned.

Mr. Abse

So far as I can ascertain —and I keep making the point—the only reason why it is not extended to the Church of England is that the Archbishop of Canterbury wants to keep his £25 a year fee.

Mr. Howie

The Archbishop of Canterbury once wrote a letter to me. I think that probably it was a mistake, and I shall not approach him in the same way as my hon. Friend the Member for Pontypool (Mr. Abse). It is not a question of his wanting to hang on to the £25, but the question that I wish to raise is related to that matter.

The fee involved in this kind of transaction is dealt with in Clause 17(2). I wonder what relationship it bears to the £25 which the Archbishop of Canterbury appears to deem necessary. I regard £25 as rather a lot of money, even for getting married. I hope that the fee involved will be much more nominal. I am not sure that the amount should be left to the Secretary of State. We have trouble from time to time when Private Members' Bills involve the State in the expenditure of money. In this case, all that we are doing is regulating the amount which people must pay. Many Bills state the amount involved rather than leave it in the air. I should like to know what the hon. Member for St. Albans has in mind and what relationship the fee has to the Archbishop of Canterbury's fee of £25, which I regard as far too high and excessive.

Mr. Goodhew

The Archbishop of Canterbury's fee is £25 presumably to discourage marriages in places other than churches of the Church of England, because he has complete discretion about the time and place. I do not seek that. However, if it were decided by the House or the Secretary of State that a much lower fee than £25 should be charged in this category of case, I should be very surprised if the Archbishop of Canterbury did not feel inclined to charge the same fee in the same type of case. But I cannot speak for him.

Mr. Howie

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman. That is a very reasonable explanation. The difficulty is that the right to escape from marriage in church is more easily achieved by better-off people than poorer people. None of us would regard that as reasonable

I am worried about the point raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Pontypool and the hon. Member for Orpington about the Law Commission and its report on the general law of marriage, which is a much more important matter. I notice that the Bill, if it becomes an Act, will come into force on 1st January, 1971, which is less than a year from now. Can my hon. Friend the Joint Under-Secretary of State at the Department of Health and Social Security say whether the Law Commission's report is expected before the date of the commencement of the Bill? If it is expected before the Bill would come into operation, it might be a good idea not to proceed with the Bill but to refer it to the Law Commission. I say that with the kindliest of intentions. I am not trying to damn the Bill. If, on the other hand, the report is not expected for some time beyond the date of the commencement of the Bill, we might be inclined to support it.

Mr. Gdodhew

It is a question not just of the Law Commission's report but of the Government deciding to take action. Perhaps the hon. Gentleman, like me, knows that sometimes, even when promises have been made, things do not happen.

Mr. Howie

I do not think that I should pick up the rough end of that stick. However, the hon. Gentleman is correct. The behaviour of the Government subsequent to the report is the key rather than the report itself.

Generally I support the Bill, but it does not go anything like far enough. If it goes to Committee and I am on the Committee, I shall table Amendments to remove sizeable bits of it and to extend it to a much wider section of the public. In that way, it will be greatly improved and will justify even more than it does now the use of Private Members' time to which the hon. Member for St. Albans has put it.

12.37 p.m.

Mr. Norman St. John-Stevas (Chelmsford)

I join in the congratulations which have been rightly showered on the head of my hon. Friend the Member for St. Albans (Mr. Goodhew). I welcome the news which he brought us—the evangelium, if I may call it—that the Title of the Bill is to be changed, because it is misleading. Several people who have approached me, as a sponsor of the Bill, were under the misapprehension that it authorised marriages in places other than public houses, and they were puzzled by it. It is a Bill of wider intent. It is intended to benefit the marrying classes in general. Therefore, although it is likely to have a narrow impact, a lot of people are potentially involved.

We are grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for St. Albans for the lucid speech with which he introduced the Bill and for the excellent way in which he has drafted it. It has been extremely professionally drafted and is very clear, in contrast to other Bills which we have had such as the Abortion Bill, if I may choose a neutral example, which was not as well drafted as this Bill.

The purpose of the Bill is to extend an Anglican privilege to those who are not Anglican. This is a truly ecumenical act, as was pointed out by my lion. Friend the Member for Wimbledon (Sir C. Black). We would expect ecumenism from one who represents St. Albans. After all, St. Alban was the first English martyr. We must hope that the present Member for St. Albans attains the height of sanctity achieved by his distinguished patron without necessarily gaining a martyr's crown. This is a genuine contribution to ecumenical life in Britain, and I hope that it will evoke a response from the Catholic authorities to revise their canon law of mixed marriages between Anglicans and Catholics, which works such great injustice to Anglicans today.

The Bill concerns the death-bed marriage, which is a very unusual situation. Nevertheless, however small the minority concerned, it should not be considered too small to be cared for by this House, particularly when it is meeting in the Friday capacity of an assembly of private Members. I welcome the opportunity of facilitating anything that will bring happiness to people in this situation.

The Bill will be welcomed by Catholics in Britain. I cannot speak officially for the Pope, for Cardinal Heenan or other prelates, any more than my hon. Friend can speak for the Archbishop of Canterbury, but I think it will be generally welcomed by the Catholic community, and it is in that spirit that I have supported it.

I do not wish to delay the House for more than a minute or two, because this is not a controversial Bill, although an element of controversy has been injected into the discussion by the hon. Member for Pontypool (Mr. Abse) who, despite the attire, partly of Anglican purple, with which he is decorated, has taken the opportunity to pursue his vendetta against the Archbishop of Canterbury. I wish to defend the Archbishop from the animadversions that have been made upon him, and I would like to ask the hon. Gentleman—

Mr. Abse

I thought the hon. Gentleman was about to ask me something—

Mr. St. John Stevas

Yes, it may be a rhetorical question, so I cannot guarantee to give way. I would like to ask him whether he has had any contact with the Archbishop of Canterbury about this? Has he asked the Archbishop what his personal views are? It is unfair to the Archbishop of Canterbury to imply that he is sitting at Lambeth poring over the marriage fees as they come in and rejoicing in the subscriptions of £25 to the Church of England. The truth is that this is a situation which he inherited on reaching office. This has been the fee for a long time, and an adequate reason was given by my hon. Friend the sponsor of the Bill that it is intended as a deterrent. The special licence is intended for special occasions, and if it was used on every occasion it would defeat its own purpose, so there is a reason behind the £25 fee. My hon. Friend has been less than fair to the Archbishop, and I will gladly give way in the hope that he will now make an amende honorable.

Mr. Abse

I certainly have not had any discussions with the Archbishop of Canterbury, neither has the Archbishop of Canterbury consulted me. It is quite wrong to suggest that there is a vendetta. There is a history to this question of places where marriages can be conducted. An hon. Member in 1965—

Mr. Speaker

Order. The hon. Member for Pontypool (Mr. Abse) has made a speech. His intervention must be brief.

Mr. Abse

Another hon. Member in 1965 brought in a Bill which incurred the ire of the Church precisely because it had an effect, among other matters, on the fee of £25. The hon. Member for Chelmsford (Mr. St. John-Stevas) is speaking without knowledge of a long history of battle on this issue.

Mr. St. John-Stevas

I am doing nothing of the kind. I know of and have followed the long relationship which has existed between the hon. Gentleman and the Archbishop of Canterbury. In view of the way in which the Archbishop of Canterbury has emerged from some of these encounters with the hon. Gentleman, I think that His Grace is very wise not to initiate correspondence with him on this point.

My second point is one which has been made by several hon. Members, including the hon. Member for Pontypool, about the drabness of register office weddings. This point was also made by the hon. Member for Norwood (Mr. John Fraser), who gave us a graphic description of how one was married in darkest Lambeth, and the hon. Member for Orpington (Mr. Lubbock) said that there was no grace in a register office wedding. I do not know whether that was a theological or an aesthetic allusion. Unfortunately he has vanished and is unable to enlighten me on this matter.

Certainly there is no reason why a marriage in a register office should be a drab and dreary affair. A marriage should always be as cheerful as the circumstances allow. In the nature of things a church wedding must be a more solemn occasion than marriage in a register office. This is particularly so because of the recent change in the divorce law resulting in the rather sharp division between a church marriage and a register office marriage, not perhaps in the effects of the law but in the sort of marriages they are. A register office marriage is really a contract of convenience which may be dissolved at the will of the parties. A church marriage can never be that. When one considers the difference in nature between these two events, one cannot bridge that gap merely by having more cheerful surroundings for the register office wedding.

Mr. Simon Mahon (Bootle)

As the hon. Gentleman is talking about church weddings and register office weddings, can he explain the phenomenon in my constituency of people who get married in the register office—which was rather dull until we brightened it up—having their wedding photographs taken on the steps of the church opposite?

Mr. St. John-Stevas

It would be presumptuous of me to attempt to explain anything that occurred in the hon. Gentleman's constituency. This is a sign, in attenuated form, of a desire to have some higher sanction on a marriage than merely the presence of the State. Many people want it both ways. They want to have the aesthetics of the religious marriage without the religious commitment.

I merely make the peripheral point that one cannot have the solemnity in a register office marriage but this is no reason for being married in a dull and drab way. I hope that one result of the debate will be that those members of local authorities who read HANSARD regularly will be moved to do something in this respect. That is what I might call a pious hope.

In conclusion, may I once again congratulate my hon. Friend, but warn him, though I feel it is unnecessary, against the siren voice of the hon. Member for Luton (Mr. Howie), who asks him to abandon this Measure in favour of a more comprehensive Measure which might or might not come later. I think my hon. Friend would be unwise to trust to the speed of the Government, or indeed to the Law Commission, however well intentioned—

Mr. Howie

I accept what the hon. Gentleman says about not waiting too long in this respect, but my real plea to the hon. Member for St. Albans (Mr. Goodhew) was not that he should abandon his Bill but that he should widen it so that those who wished could get married in whatever holes and corners they thought fit.

Mr. St. John-Stevas

That might amount to the same thing because—as my hon. Friend, being a much more experienced hon. Member than I, knows very well—if a Private Member's Bill is too wide it may vanish altogether. Therefore, perhaps it is better to stick to a narrow point and have the glory of having established the one point rather than, like Icarus, flying too high and falling into whatever channel happens to be available.

I therefore again congratulate my hon. Friend and encourage him to continue with his Bill; not to change it too much but to seek to establish this one point of change which would, I think, improve the law, and be of benefit, ecumenically, to the country.

12.51 p.m.

Mr. Edward Lyons (Bradford, East)

I, too, take this opportunity of congratulating the hon. Member for St. Albans (Mr. Goodhew), particularly on the very felicitous way in which he has introduced his Bill. I follow with some diffidence the hon. Member for Chelmsford (Mr. St. John-Stevas), who is always so entertaining. I may not be able to entertain the House half as well, but I should like to express some misgivings about the Bill.

It may be worth saying that although the basic point of the Bill is small, its Long Title is so all-embracing that under it one could alter the marriage law of England from top to bottom.

I hope that those hon. Members who eventually determine to support the Measure will resist the temptation to produce a lot of Amendments to it.

The Bill causes me misgivings because it is widely assumed, as it has been again today, that its effect will be wholly good. I am a lawyer, and perhaps one gets a little cynical, but I consider that the Bill would make dying bachelors a highly marketable commodity. Perhaps my hon. Friend the Joint Under-Secretary of State for the Department of Health and Social Security will be able to tell me whether, as I imagine, widow's benefit is immediately payable even though a person has been married for only a week. If that is the position, there is every incentive for a dying man to be kind to the widow next door, or to some other such person. Has any calculation been made of the cost, in an increasingly sophisticated society, of more and more people becoming aware of the advantage of marrying a dying man?

The Paymaster-General (Mr. Harold Lever)

It could conceivably have other advantages, apart from the receipt of widow's pension.

Mr. Lyons

Certainly. Till death do us part becomes virtually meaningless in terms of marrying a dying man.

The whole thing could be used as a weapon of revenge and malice in the hands of a man determined that his first wife should not be able to make a satisfactory claim, for example, under the Inheritance (Family Provision) Act. At present, if a man keeps his ex-wife out of his will she is still entitled to ask the court for a share in the estate. The court, while it cannot take into account the existence of a woman with whom the dead man lived out of wedlock, must take into account for financial provision the woman with whom he lived in wedlock. One can imagine a man, not having had the decency—or the courage, perhaps—to marry the woman with whom he has lived for many years, on his deathbed taking the view that he is prepared to marry her provided he does not have to live with her, and in order to prejudice the claims of the first wife and the children of the first marriage.

There is a doctrine in law known as undue influence. One worries about the pressures that can be exerted on a man who is sick unto death who may be very old, who may be wealthy, and who may he a bachelor or a widower. How does one protect him or his estate from the effects of a marriage under this Bill? It is said that the authorities have to be satisfied under the Bill that, in effect, the man is of sound mind, but registrars and superintendent registrars do not know the individual. They see him only, presumably, at the ceremony in his home. There is no real way of ensuring that that sick person has not been prevailed upon, for financial reasons, to marry the person wishing to marry him; pressure, in other words, coming from the wife or from someone on her behalf, so that not only can she have a widow's pension, if she is over 50—and shortly it will be over 40 if proposals now under consideration are enacted—but can also inherit his estate.

There is provision for a caveat—a notice of argument that there are grounds why the marriage should not take place —but will people hear of this project for a marriage? Will the interested people even learn of it? The curious thing is that this Measure takes away the precaution, which now exists under the Marriage Act, 1949, that one or other of the parties to the marriage must have had a normal place of residence in the area for 15 days before notice of marriage. The Bill waives that precaution, presumably because it is expected that the man will be in hospital, or suddenly taken there, but that also lends itself to abuse, because a man could be transported to an area completely foreign to his native environment and there wed with no friend present.

I do not say that that will be a very likely occurrence. We do not follow the practice of Scotland, where we have heard that people who are hale and healthy, sound in wind and limb, can marry at will. We say that the only people who shall be married in this relative secrecy, compared with a public place, are those who are not in a position to protect their own interests—the very sick. That is something which we should consider.

Mr. Goodhew

This position applies equally in the case of the Anglican who gets a special licence from the Archbishop of Canterbury.

Mr. Lyons

That may not be a justification.

I make it clear that I am not hostile to the Bill, but it seems to me that for every case where a useful and benevolent purpose is served there can be cases where the motivation is unworthy. If there is one good man in Sodom and Gomorrah he must be saved. Likewise, if this Measure will benefit only a small minority of people, we must accept it, even though abuse may occur. The same can be said of the whole social security system.

We recognise what is called a common law marriage, a marriage which can take place without a minister or registrar being present; that is, as long as it takes place abroad. If a Briton abroad marries if they are both present, if they intend by the ceremony to be bound and if they subsequently live together, the British a woman who may be a foreigner, then courts will often recognise such a marriage, although there may not be a document in existence to support the ceremony.

One way of dealing with the problem with which we are concerned might be to recognise, in the case of very sick people, common law marriages which, if they take place in this country, are not at present recognised. In other words, if there has been an informal ceremony coupled with years of living together, that could be sufficient evidence to cause the marriage to be recognised. I appreciate, however, that that might be too vague and that its application could go too wide.

I am not completely happy with Clause 1. Although The Registrar General"— must be satisfied that one of the persons to be married is seriously ill… and will not recover, the licence that will be granted will extend for only one month. If the parties marry after the expiry of that period, they are liable to be prosecuted and imprisoned for up to five years, according to Clause 16.

Under the 1949 Act a licence has an effective life of three months. We here seem to be introducing a further anomaly, allowing a licence to run for three months for a well person and for only one month for a sick person who, in any case, is said to be dying.

How much confidence does the hon. Member for St. Albans have in the opinion of doctors or in the judgment of registrars, particularly if they say that they are satisfied that a person is definitely going to die? If, in the opinion of a doctor or registrar, a man will definitely die, then if that man lives for a fifth week following the grant of a licence—the licence will have a life of only one month—it will become improper for him to marry.

What will happen if a man in that position is unconscious and unable to give any response for four weeks yet, after that dire state, is able in the fifth week to marry? The licence will have run out and a new one will have to be sought. If we believe that the doctors and registrars will do their job properly, we must accept their word and assume that the man will not recover. In these circumstances why not allow such a licence to extend for the extra days or weeks?

The Bill is also somewhat harsh in placing the burden of proof on those applying to marry, for they must show that the man or woman must die and not that he or she may die. Clause 1(2) says: The Registrar General shall not issue any licence…unless he is satisfied that one of the persons…is not expected to recover… This means that if a doctor certifies that the man may recover—in other words, if there is some doubt about his dying—that man will die unmarried because the burden of proof falling on him has not been discharged. In Committee we can examine this matter in detail and perhaps alter the wording of the provision. I believe that the balance should be in the other direction and that if a man may die he should be entitled to qualify under the Bill.

With these reservations, I welcome the Measure and wish it luck. It will come into operation on the same day as the new easier divorce laws take effect, 1st January, 1971. I suppose, therefore, that those who marry when their judgment is impaired by illness will, if they survive, have an easy remedy to put an end to the marriage.

1.5 p.m.

Mr. Brian Walden (Birmingham, All Saints)

My name appears on the Bill as one of its supporters. I therefore came to the House prepared to speak at length about the Measure, which I would have done had it not been for the speech of my hon. Friend the Member for Pontypool (Mr. Abse). While I did not agree with everything he said, I agreed with many of his remarks and, since he expressed them so much better than I could, it would be tedious repetition of I were to go over the ground again.

Like him, I am concerned about the principal Act which the Bill is amending. As my hon. Friend said, the Marriage Act, 1949, was a consolidation Measure of an early 19th century enactment; the 1837 Act. I will not go into that matter, as I had intended to do, although I shall refer to one Section of the early Act because I wholeheartedly agree with the view of my hon. Friend the Member for Pontypool that our marriage laws are a conglomeration of mumbo-jumbo which, by their operation, produce a great deal of injustice and take no account of the mobility of the population, the beliefs of the people or the way in which things develop in a modern society.

My real purpose in speaking is to congratulate the hon. Member for St. Albans (Mr. Goodhew) for introducing the Bill. He has done an excellent job and in this respect I dissent from the suggestion of my hon. Friend the Member for Pontypool that because the Bill does not completely revise the 1949 Act it is, therefore, a piecemeal Measure which merely chips at the problem.

I do not agree with that because if one examines the 1949 Act one finds that it is an enormous document containing 80 Clauses and 60 Schedules. Some of its provisions are beyond belief, though I will come to that later. If the hon. Member for St. Albans had tried, as a private hon. Member, with the facilities available to a private hon. Member—I have had some experience of this—to undertake a complete revision of the 1949 Act, he would have had my deepest sympathy but he would have had no prospect of success. This is, therefore, a valuable Measure and I cannot believe that any sensible Anglican, and certainly not the Anglican clergy, could have any objection to it. Indeed, I understand that there is no such objection.

The Bill will perform a valuable service for a small number of people who do not wish to be married by the Anglican rite but who wish to have what is commonly called a death-bed marriage. For this reason the Bill is to be welcomed, and I hope that the Government will give it not only what my hon. Friend the Member for Pontypool described as "benevolent neutrality", but will assist its passage through Committee and guarantee it a date back on the Floor of the House, particularly since it is largely an uncontroversial Measure.

Some arguments have been adduced against the Bill, and these can be considered in Committee. I join my hon. Friend the Member for Pontypool in saying that it is time that our whole marriage law was changed. Hon. Members who are married can claim some expertise on the subject. Those who have been married more than once might claim to be great experts. Certainly we have great experience, though perhaps we have little wisdom.

All hon. Members must deal in their constituencies with people involved in the bringing about of a marriage and sometimes with the problems involved in the dissolution of one. I have always been somewhat vague about some of the licences that can be obtained, how they can be obtained, and so on. I have frequently had to go to colleagues who are lawyers to answer constituency queries. As an example of why confusion arises, I should like to read to the House just one Section from the principal Act, the Marriage Act, 1949, page 24, Section 40(2). This is the marriage law of this country: In order to distinguish the certificates to be Issued for marriages by licence from the certificates to be issued for marriages without licence, a watermark in the form of the word 'licence', in Roman letters, shall be made and manufactured in the substance of the paper on which the certificates to be used for marriage by licence are written or printed, and every certificate to be issued for marriage by licence shall be printed with red ink and every certificate to be issued for marriage without licence shall be printed with black ink, and such other distinctive marks between the two kinds of certificates as the Registrar General may from time to time think fit shall be used. Mediaeval is the word for that subsection!

I have had experience of the United States and, although I am by no means a total admirer of that society, I believe that in most states the marriage laws are more sensible than ours. I see no reason for these restrictions on the place of the marriage, nor do I see why anybody other than the State itself—and even then the fee should be only nominal—should receive any fee for the ceremony to be carried out. In a modern world it makes no sense to have various cautionary measures to ensure publicity, objection and the pleading of impediment.

Although I support the Bill, I press the Minister, even though he cannot say very much on this matter today, to make sure that his colleagues realise the substantial body of opinion among hon. Members who agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Pontypool in thinking that it is time the marriage laws were brought in touch with marriages in a modern industrial society, that the guarantee given for delay and impediment are largely worthless, and that the various sanctions placed about certificates and restriction of places are offensive and should not be there at all. The whole matter could easily be rectified, amended, and put in a form corresponding to the situation that now exists without detracting from those, probably a minority in these days, who think that marriage is a sacrament and who wish to receive it in sacramental form. There is no reason that people of that persuasion should be affected by the kinds of suggestions made by my hon. Friend the Member for Pontypool. I would make a plea to the Government to take some action in future on this matter.

1.14 p.m.

Mr. Mark Carlisle (Runcorn)

I, like almost every other hon. Member who has spoken in this debate, start by welcoming the Bill on behalf of hon. Members on this side of the House. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for St. Albans (Mr. Goodhew) not only on his success in bringing forward this Bill, but for the most entertaining speech with which he introduced it.

The Bill is limited in scope, despite its range and length, but it is aimed at clearing up an anomaly in the law relating to those who are members of the Church of England and those who are not. The Bill has received a general welcome in this debate. Certain Committee points have been raised by the hon. Member for Bradford, East (Mr. Edward Lyons) and the hon. and learned Member for Stoke Newington and Hackney, North (Mr. Weitzman) and other hon. Members.

I do not regard it as a criticism that the Bill is limited. Private Members presumably have to decide whether they will take on something that is tremendously dramatic and large, with a considerable possibility that it would never reach the Statute Book, or whether the best course is to make use of private Members' time to get through a Bill dealing with a small limited issue but which, with support on all sides of the House, has a good chance of enactment and will put right a matter of distress to a small minority of people.

With respect to the hon. Member for Pontypool (Mr. Abse), I feel that the line chosen by my hon. Friend the Member for St. Albans is the better and more productive use of private Members' time. In saying that I am fully aware of the tremendous success of the hon. Member in this regard in recent years, but he will agree that a Bill that sought to do anything very much larger, coming at this time in the Session, would have little hope of being enacted.

I believe that a far wider review, and indeed amendment, is required of the marriage laws, having listened to the hon. Member for Birmingham, All Saints (Mr. Walden) read that wholly lucid and clear passage from the Marriage Act, 1949. Its complexity was such that I thought for a moment we were dealing with the Land Commission Act. I myself come from the North-West of England, my wife from Cornwall and we were married—lawfully married—in London. But I am not sure whether it did not amount to a subterfuge in our having a residential address here. These matters, of course, require to be looked at, but it cannot be expected of a private Member to take on the complicated task of attempting to redress the whole of our marriage laws. This must be a matter for the Government, in consultation with the Law Commission. Therefore, my hon. Friend is to be cangratulated for seeking to put right a small wrong in the clear determination that he has a good chance of correcting it by getting this Bill through the House.

Private Members should be concerned with minority issues and minority views. One knows the sorts of circumstances which from time to time arise about bedside marriages, involving people who may have been living together for many years and for some reason have not married, but who at the last moment become anxious to regularise—if that is the right word—their union by going through a form of marriage. The ability to be able to get married, even when one of the parties to the marriage is in danger of never recovering from illness, gives enormous comfort to that person who is dying and equal comfort to the other spouse. Since this opportunity has always been open to members of the Church of England, surely it is right that similar opportunities should be open to members of other faiths, or to those who hold no particular religious views. I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Wimbledon (Sir C. Black) that the purpose of this Bill is to rectify injustice as it relates to those who are not members of the Church of England.

I will not seek to join issue with the hon. Member for Pontypool in defence of the Archbishop of Canterbury. Since the Archbishop has had the advantage of having been defended by such an eminent Roman Catholic as my hon. Friend the Member for Chelmsford (Mr. St. JohnStevas), I do not think he needs the support of a mere lay member of the Church of England. I understand that the Archbishop of Canterbury in appropriate circumstances waives the £25 fee. Furthermore, I suggest that the £25 was instituted many years ago and has probably never been increased to take account of the drop in the value of money.

I turn to the point raised by the hon. Member for Norwood (Mr. John Fraser). I agreed very much with his comments about the standard of registry offices. It is a great pity that so many register offices in this country appear to be extremely dingy, dismal buildings and, although I do not want people to be able to engage in extremely eccentric forms of marriage, I think there is a strong argument that other buildings should be made available for register office mar-suitable than the present register offices.

I do not know whether the hon. Member for Norwood knows this, but in Manchester when the courts are full the register office also acts as the divorce court. As a barrister, one has the rather galling experience of having a conference with a client immediately prior to an undefended divorce case in a room in which there is a notice saying "Guests are requested not to throw confetti in this building".

A considerable amount could be done to improve our register offices and I see no reason why a licensed room should not be made available in the town hall. Indeed, I see no objection to the suggestion that a room should be set aside for this purpose in certain hotels.

Now that the hon. Member for Luton (Mr. Howie) has returned to the Chamber, I should like to say that I should not like the Bill to be so widened in scope that it would enable anyone to get married anywhere. There is much to be done in clearing up the marriage laws and in improving the standard of register offices, but it would not enhance the dignity of marriage if we got to the stage where people could get married in an extremely eccentric manner.

Mr. Howie

Why be a spoilsport? What I was reminding the House of was the fact that over a large part of the world people can get married in their own homes or in their parents' homes. There is nothing eccentric about that, neither do I think there is anything undignified about it. Indeed, there is a good deal that is sensible in it.

Mr. Carlisle

The problem arises when we try to draw a line between allowing marriages to take place in reasonable surroundings and allowing people to engage in eccentric fads such as getting married in balloons.

Mr. Howie

They do it all over the world.

Mr. Carlisle

Coming back to the Bill, there is an argument for considering some widening of the laws to allow the chronic sick, for example, to be married in their own homes.

There is nothing else that I wish to say other than to repeat that I believe the Bill has the support of all the Churches. The congratulations of this House are due to my hon. Friend the Member for St. Albans for his perseverance in this matter, because he raised it first in a Ten-Minute Bill in the previous Session of Parliament. I hope it will commend itself to the Minister and to the House in general, and that my hon. Friend will be able to get the Bill enacted during the current Session, by that means showing that he has righted an injustice to certain people in this country.

1.24 p.m.

The Joint Under-Secretary of State for the Department of Health and Social Security (Dr. John Dunwoody)

The Government welcome this Bill as providing a means of helping an admittedly small number of people, but people with a real need, which cannot be met within the existing law relating to the solemnisation of marriage.

The House will know that the Chairman of the Law Commission, Mr. Justice Scarman, and the Registrar-General have recently set up a working party to inquire into the formal requirements for the solemnisation and registration of marriages in England and Wales and to propose what changes are desirable.

No doubt, in due course we shall have other proposals for changes, but I am glad that the hon. Member for St. Albans (Mr. Goodhew) has taken the opportunity to deal with one of the special difficulties which beset people who find themselves in circumstances where they cannot meet the normal requirements of our Marriage Laws.

A number of hon. Members raised various points. My hon. Friend the Member for Pontypool (Mr. Abse) raised the question of the Law Commission's role in this field and asked me if I could give an idea about the time scale of the Commission's present investigations. I understand that the Law Commission hopes to produce a preliminary paper for comment by interested parties within about six months. As soon as the reactions to this paper are received and considered, the Law Commission will produce a report. It is not possible to be dogmatic about how long that will take, but one hopes it will be possible by the end of this year. I agree with one or two hon. Members who have said that even though the report may be readily available in the not too distant future, it is not necessarily a good reason for us not to support legislation of this kind at this moment.

My hon. Friend the Member for Norwood (Mr. John Fraser) referred to register offices, particularly in his own constituency, and by implication all over the country, and to what he felt to be their unsatisfactory state. This point was endorsed by a number of other hon. Members, including the hon. Members for Chelmsford (Mr. St. John-Stevas) and for Runcorn (Mr. Carlisle). There has been criticism of register offices in general and in particular of one in Lambeth.

Under the present law the register office is provided by and at the expense of the local authority. The Registrar-General and the local authority associations have for some time been trying to raise standards, and I think we all agree that it is right that this should be done because it is appropriate that a register office, where such an important ceremony as marriage takes place, should be of an adequate standard. Some of the criticisms are, no doubt, justified. Efforts are being made to raise standards, for it is appreciated that they are not as high as they might be in all the circumstances.

My hon. Friend the Member for Bradford, East (Mr. Edward Lyons) asked a number of questions about widows' benefits. He asked in particular how long a woman need be married before she would be entitled to claim widows' benefit. I understand that she must be married for a period of three years before being entitled to benefit. Therefore, perhaps some of my hon. Friends' fears were misplaced.

The hon. Member for Wimbledon (Sir C. Black) implied that the Home Office had a responsibility for this piece of legislation. I can assure him that that is not so. The reason for my static posture on this bench is that nearly everything that we are discussing has to do with the Department of Health and Social Security. The Registrar-General and his Department are the responsibility of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State.

Coming back to the Bill, it is designed to help couples who wish to be married urgently because one of them is suffering from some illness or other serious condition which is likely to result in death, and who find that the person who is ill is not fit to be moved to a church or register office for the marriage ceremony. At present the only way of dealing with this situation is for the parties to ask the Archbishop of Canterbury to issue his special licence which allows the marriage to be solemnised in any convenient place. This would include a hospital ward or the bedroom of the dying man or woman. The Archbishop's special licence is, however, available only as an authority for a marriage which is to be solemnised according to the rites and ceremonies of the Church of England. There is at present no similar provision for people who, for one reason or another, do not wish to marry according to the Anglican provision.

The absence of any provision similar to the Archbishop's special licence for persons wishing to marry in some other way seems to arise from the social circumstances at the time of the 19th Century Marriage Acts, which are still the basis of our marriage law now consolidated in the Marriage Act of 1949. In 1844, there were 132,249 marriages recorded in England and Wales. Of these, 120,009 were solemnised in the Church of England. There were only 3,446 marriages in the Register Office, 2,280 marriages in Roman Catholic churches and 6,339 among the other Christian denominations. Thus the vast majority of marriages at that time took place in the Church of England. On the other hand, in 1967 there were 386,052 marriages in England and Wales and, although there were 173,278 marriages according to the rites and ceremonies of the Church of England and the Church in Wales, there were no less than 131,576 marriages in register offices, 4,305 in Roman Catholic churches and 36,191 in the buildings of other Christian denominations.

These figures confirm what we all know from our own experience that today a majority of people, about 53 per cent., getting married have the marriage ceremony in some other way than in the Established Church or the Church in Wales. It is clearly desirable that the provision which the marriage law makes for those anxious, or at least willing, to be married according to the rites and ceremonies of the Church of England should be matched by a provision for those who are prevented by reason of religious beliefs or conscience from accepting the service of the Church.

Mr. Abse

I am sure that my hon. Friend is doing it unwittingly, but he seems to be creating the impression that the Archbishop's special licence is one which comes into effect only in circumstances similar to these covered by the Bill. It must be appreciated that it is a general licence which can be obtained for other reasons and this Bill is certainly not extending anything of that character to non-Anglicans.

Dr. Dunwoody

I do not in any way suggest what my hon. Friend was implying. Of course the Archbishop's licence is available in a much wider range of circumstances, but it does apply to those who wish to use the Church of England ceremony and enables people to be married when one of them is on his death-bed at that moment, whereas those who for one reason or another do not wish or are prevented through no fault of their own from using the Church of England ceremony are debarred from that facility. The numbers are small but there is a genuine need and a genuine problem here.

Another circumstance, again touching the Archbishop's licence, which is, unfortunately, likely to complicate the circumstances of the kind of marriage that we have in mind is the possibility that one of the couple has been divorced and has a former spouse still living. Even if the couple wanted an Anglican marriage ceremony the Archbishop in those circumstances would not be able to issue his special licence. In 1837 the possibility that an urgent marriage involved a person who had been divorced was almost non-existent. There are now nearly 50,000 marriages a year where one or both of the parties has been divorced. Again we have a quite dramatic change in the situation.

There may well be cases where the divorce has been delayed until one of the couple has been struck down by illness or accident. The proposed licence of the Registrar-General will deal with such cases although the parties, even if members of the Church of England, will have to accept either a civil marriage or the ceremonies of some other denomination.

No hon. Member is likely to ask why it matters whether a dying person is able to get married before he or she dies. I do not propose to speak of the emotional satisfaction or comfort which the marriage might bring to the couple themselves. There are also circumstances when the marriage is important to others. If a couple have been living together for years in a faithful but unlawful association, there may be children who may be legitimated by the marriage. In other cases, the marriage may assist in seeing that the dying person's wishes as to the disposal of his estate are not affected by legal disputes which may even cause the estate to be dissipated in the costs of legal action.

The Bill does not provide, as does the Archbishop's licence, relief for people who are fit to travel to the appropriate register office or other building but wish for reasons of sentiment or convenience to marry elsewhere. This raises much wider and more controversial issues and will no doubt be considered by the Working Party to which I have referred. Nor does the Bill provide for such cases where the parties are prepared to go to the appropriate building but want to be married more urgently than the law permits. Those who wish to be married according to the rites and ceremonies of the Church of England have the power to be married urgently by seeking either the Archbishop's special licence or even by a common licence. Although a common licence issued by the diocesan registrar or surrogate does not permit marriage in a building where the marriage could not otherwise take place or outside the normal hours for the solemnisation of marriages which are now from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m., it may be issued on the day of application if the ecclesiastical authorities are satisfied on the necessary question of capacity to marry and consents.

People wishing to marry in these ways are obliged to give notice to the superintendent registrar and one clear week day must elapse between the day on which notice is given and that on which the superintendent registrar's certificate and licence may be issued and the marriage solemnised. While there seems to he a variety of circumstances in which a reasonable case for urgency could be made out the present Bill will create no further difficulties in the way of later changes should further consideration indicate the need for a Registrar-General's licence to meet other needs.

I would emphasise—and this was a point raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Pontypool—that I do not visualise that the passage of this Bill will in any way obstruct or cause difficulties in any subsequent legislation that the House may feel is right.

This Bill applies only to England and Wales.

Mr. Lubbock

I rather think or suspect that the hon. Gentleman is going to overlook my point, and as the hon. Gentleman is a doctor perhaps he could consider it. I am concerned about the effect on the seriously ill or dying patient of being a party to the knowledge of his fatal illness as he has to be if his application is to be submitted to the superintendent registrar.

Dr. Dunwoody

There is a possible difficulty here. It need not necessarily be that the person who was mortally ill would realise that, because a marriage ceremony was taking place, he was mortally ill. It is not necessary for the party who is seriously ill to be told and it is possible for the other party to deal with all the official side of things. There is a problem here. On the other hand, it is rightly this particular group of people whom the Bill is intended to help. Because we are identifying the group whom we want to help, this difficulty arises. My personal experience is that people in these circumstances might well already know or wish to know that their lives are in danger and at risk and this would perhaps be the reason why they were particularly eager to be married.

Mr. Carlisle

Would not the hon. Gentleman agree that it is usually people who are aware that they are likely to die who are anxious to make use of the possibility of going through the marriage service before they do die?

Dr. Dunwoody

This would be commonly so although not perhaps universally so.

As I said, this Bill applies to England and Wales only. This is not the only reason but it is one which prevents me from following up some of the remarks made by my hon. Friend the Member for Luton (Mr. Howie). I do not think that I should like to get embroiled in some of the Scottish procedures. In Scotland there is already provision for the issue of a sheriff's licence in cases of urgency and marriages are not legally restricted to churches or register offices although they are the usual places.

This Bill does not affect the powers of the Archbishop of Canterbury under the Ecclesiastical Licences Act of 1533 to issue his special licence, which will remain the only authority for a marriage according to the rites and ceremonies of the Church of England to be solemnised anywhere other than a church or chapel where it might have been solemnised following banns or the issue of a common licence.

The Bill imposes on the Registrar-General the duty of considering applications for licences under the terms of the Bill and issuing such licences where he is satisfied with the facts. Although the number of these applications is likely to be small, the service must always be available. The Registrar-General has assured me that he will readily under- take the task of ensuring that he, or one of his senior officers, is always available to deal with any urgent application.

The Registrar-General is given power to deal with objections to the issue of his licence and to dispense with the need for obtaining consent of the parents of a minor where the parents are absent or inaccessible or where the person whose consent is required is under some disability which prevents his dealing with the matter. This applies to these cases powers which the Registrar-General or the superintendent registrar has in normal cases.

The degree of urgency may not always permit the transmission of a document from the Registrar-General to the person who is to solemnise the marriage. In such cases, the Registrar-General will advise the local superintendent registrar by telephone to issue a suitable document of authority.

Superintendent registrars, who will be asked to make local inquiries on behalf of the Registrar-General and assist persons wishing to obtain this new licence, and registrars who will have to attend to see that the marriages are promptly and correctly placed on record, have a long tradition of service to the public. I am sure that, on those very rare occasions when any one of them will be called upon to help in these sad circumstances, they will perform the task with their customary efficiency and their customary courtesy and sympathy.

The hon. Gentleman is to be congratulated on tackling a subject which involves more than the normal difficulties of drafting. The Marriage Acts are detailed and, because they deal with a very important aspect of personal status, are full of safeguards designed to ensure that, after a marriage is solemnised, there is at least no doubt as to its formal validity. For that reason, the Bill may appear somewhat long and complicated to give effect to what is essentially a simple proposition. I am sure that the hon. Member will not take it as unfair criticism that, while he has carried out his task excellently, the drafting is not all that might have appeared in other circumstances. But this is something that can be resolved in Committee. I am, however, assured by the Registrar-General that he does not at present see that there is likely to be any difficulty in working the Bill. If the House gives it a Second Reading, we shall be able to consider the drafting in more detail in Committee.

If it becomes law, the Bill will operate from 1st January 1971. No time will be lost in making the necessary regulations. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Social Services will be required to fix fees for the licences granted. These fees will be fixed having regard to the fees charged for other marriage licences.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill accordingly read a Second time.

Bill committed to a Standing Committee pursuant to Standing Order No. 40 (Committal of Bills).