HC Deb 04 November 2002 vol 392 cc117-24

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. Woolas]

10.1 pm

Mr. Chris Bryant (Rhondda)

With all the votes, it feels as though we have run a marathon in the past few minutes.

I am told by one hon. Friend that I have won the award for the most obscurely named Adjournment debate this year, and the title does indeed conjure up images of Dickens' Circumlocution Office. The moments of birth, death and marriage are some of the most tender in people's lives, but they are also points at which the state touches people's lives, day in, day out. It is often forgotten that it is not only the civil registration of marriages that is governed by state legislation: all marriages in church and religious ceremonies are covered as well. It is worth bearing it in mind that, in 1999, 263,515 marriages took place in England and Wales, so the number of people touched every single year by parliamentary legislation is significant.

In a former world, there was a different dispensation: the Church provided for all hatching, matching and dispatching. The Church—as opposed to the state started to intervene in marriage in 313, so it has been directly involved in such matters for a long time. In the former world, a fact of significant interest to the state when legislating on marriage in particular was that the vast majority of people remained resident in one place throughout their whole life, so the system that arose covering, for example, the publication of banns of marriage was eminently suitable for the villages of England, Scotland, Wales or Northern Ireland in the 10th or 11th centuries, and remained suitable up until perhaps the mid-19th century. Since then, however, things have changed, and now many of our constituents may, throughout the course of their life, reside in 10, 15 or even 20 constituencies.

One of the most significant changes to have occurred in recent years is to marriage. The number of people who choose to get married not in church but in a civil service has grown dramatically.

Mr. Tom Harris (Glasgow, Cathcart)

It might help to reinforce my hon. Friend's argument, with which I agree, for him to learn that only last week I was invited by my researcher, Mr. Donald Campbell, to act as his best man at his wedding next June on top of a mountain near Aviemore.

Mr. Bryant

I am not sure which mountain near Aviemore that might be, but I am sure that there could be no better best man than my hon. Friend. He may be interested to know that that option would not be available to his researcher if he were living in England or Wales because the law prohibits people from marrying at the top of a mountain, in their back garden or anywhere else other than specially licensed premises. My hon. Friend has neatly made my point.

The number of church marriages is falling dramatically: 34 per cent. of all marriages in England and Wales in 1989 were performed in churches in either the Church of England or the Church in Wales, but by 1999 the figure had fallen to 25 per cent. So, across a 10-year period, there has been a significant fall.

Across the span, over the past 170 years since civil registration began in 1837, many understandings about birth, death and marriage have changed. People's understanding of suicide and how the law should deal with it has changed dramatically. Whereas 170 years ago—even 50 years ago—suicide was primarily considered a sin and therefore to be treated as illegal, meaning that people had to be buried separately from consecrated ground, nowadays most people would consider the mental health rather than the criminal issues involved.

The change in the law in 1994 that allowed marriages to take place not just in registry offices but on approved premises resulted in 1999 in the marriage of 37,709 people on approved premises around the land. The vast majority of them took place in hotels, which are doing a nice trade as a result, but we have not yet seen full liberalisation, which I hope we might see soon.

Other understandings have changed. Even 30 years ago, the understanding of stillbirth was very limited. It is only in the past few years that people have realised that giving the child who was born dead a name and providing an opportunity for proper bereavement are essential to the long-term mental health of the couple involved. There is still some way to go in the registration process, as I shall say in a moment. There has also been a large falling away in the number of baptisms conducted by all the Churches—for a series of reasons, which I shall not go into.

For all those reasons, I am delighted that the Government have published an excellent although perhaps slightly under-read White Paper, "Civil Registration: Vital Change". I presume that "vital" in that context is a pun. Intriguingly, the White Paper has been issued under the auspices of the Treasury. I am sure that the Minister will later tell us why it was not a Home Office document. I also presume that many of the issues that will be addressed in legislation to come will reform the Marriage Act 1949 and subsequent amendments to it, especially the Marriage Act 1994, but I should like to describe a few areas in which the Government should be encouraged in their move towards change. I shall go through them in life order, as it were, starting with birth.

I mentioned the marked falling away of the number of baptisms over the past 100 years. It is important none the less that there should be an opportunity in today's society to recognise the moment of birth. I am sure that many families would welcome a formal opportunity—a rite of passage, as it were—to invite friends and family to an officially recognised naming ceremony. I am glad to see that that is in the Government's White Paper and I urge them to take that idea forward. I know that many registrars are keen to establish that new service.

In the world of the internet, it would also be helpful if people were able to register a birth online. There are thousands of other things to be getting on with at the time of a birth without having to worry about finding a register office and going along to it.

Miss Anne Begg (Aberdeen, South)

Before my hon. Friend goes through the other six of the seven ages of man, I want to draw to his attention a reform that I would like to the registration of births, which is to do with people who have changed sex during their lifetime. I have a constituent who was born a boy but had an operation and is now living as a woman. She would like to change her birth certificate to reflect her new sex. Does my hon. Friend agree that that reform is long overdue in this country?

Mr. Bryant

I thank my hon. Friend. I wholly agree with the point that she makes, which has been made to me by a couple of my own constituents. The Minister may want to return to the matter later.

Pursuing further the issue of weddings, I am aware that, in a sense, I am one of the least likely people in the Chamber to be talking about weddings, though I am reminded of some words of Noel Coward: I've sometimes thought of marrying—and then I've thought again. The present law is still relatively restrictive, compared with many other countries, and compared with most people's expectations of the law. So, for instance, one is allowed to get married only between 8 am and 6 pm, and only in certain places. The law also allows only certain fairly perfunctory services. I know that many people do not want to go for a church service, but would like a service that is a full recognition and which has all the weight and dignity of a decent service; and they have sometimes felt that the services offered by registry offices do not quite meet that necessity.

I would welcome the Government's move towards the celebrant-based understanding of registration—that is, instead of registering the place where one gets married, one registers the person who is to do the marrying. In terms of guaranteeing the dignity of the service, the most important issue is whether the person standing in front of the couple on behalf of society and of the people can conduct the ceremony with due dignity. People should have the freedom to choose where they want to get married, whether on the stands of the Millennium stadium or the top of a mountain in the Rhondda. Wherever they want to get married, they should be able to make that choice, while at the same time ensuring the dignity of marriage. Without that moment of dignity, the whole institution of marriage is undermined, which I am sure no hon. Member wants to happen.

There are specific issues that the White Paper does not address substantially. The Government may intend to introduce another White Paper. I understand that the Church of England expects them to do so later this year. As there is not much more of the year left, I do not know when that would happen. There are still some anomalies in relation to religious weddings, which are provided for in legislation. For instance, there are no restrictions on the times when Jews and Quakers can get married, or on the places in which they are allowed to get married. The main way in which ordinary members of the public can get married anywhere they want, if they can persuade the Archbishop of Canterbury to allow them to do so, is by getting hold of an archbishop's special licence. That is used in certain circumstances, but not as widely as it might be.

There are other anomalies. The residency requirement that is laid on church weddings to enable people to apply for a common licence, if they are to get married in their local parish church or if they are on the electoral roll, is crying out for amendment. From my former days as a vicar, I know that many vicars who have pretty churches are happy to enable anyone to qualify to be on their electoral roll, regardless of their attendance at the church. I do not want to issue calumnies about the clergy, but we may need to help the clergy to be a little more honest in the matter.

I support the Church of England's recommendation—I wonder whether the Minister would like to comment on this—that instead of a residency requirement or the electoral roll requirement, it would be better to prove a demonstrable connection between the couple who are applying to get married in a particular church, and that church.

On the subject of deaths, I have already mentioned the issue relating to stillbirths. Many hon. Members will know of families who have been somewhat distressed by the process of registration, or in some cases the absence of a process of registration, of their stillbirth. Although the national health service and many other organisations have moved on in providing support for couples, it is important that we move towards providing a simpler system which looks more like the registration of a death than the registration of a birth and of a death.

It should also be possible for couples to register a still birth in the hospital where it happened—a system that is now operated by some hospital trusts around the country. If couples are to register a still birth through a registrar, they should do so by appointment rather than by having to turn up in a room where people might be celebrating the birth and registration of a newborn child or a marriage. It would he more sensitive to introduce separate waiting rooms and an appointments system. It would also be a good idea to waive the registration fee for those registering a still birth, and it is obviously important that those involved in registering still births are given some help, understanding and training in the issues that they might encounter.

One tiny issue of which the White Paper takes note is the problem of people who die at sea. I hope that the Government will address it, not least because a distant relative of mine died in that way. As I am sure the Minister is aware, those who die at sea but do not die on a ship cannot have their death registered in the same way as others. The problem applies in respect of remarkably few people every year, but is none the less very distressing for the families concerned.

The Government mentioned several times in the White Paper the move towards making available the archives of the registers on the web, which I welcome. As genealogy is one of the most popular pastimes in Britain today—one has only to visit a computer store to see how many different software applications are available to enable people to build their family tree—it would be good if we could provide those engaged in research and ordinary members of the public with the opportunity to access all that information on the web as soon as possible. I hope that the Treasury will not be niggardly or parsimonious—I am sure that it would never want to be—in allowing that to happen.

I am grateful for the opportunity to raise these issues and I hope that this debate has not been as dry as parchment, as some hon. Members suggested to me earlier that it might be.

10.17 pm
The Financial Secretary to the Treasury (Ruth Kelly)

I pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Rhondda (Mr. Bryant) for bringing his attention and that of the House to these important matters.

As my hon. Friend said, civil registration is an important service that touches everyone at some time during his or her life. It ensures the civil status of every person, protecting individuals as well as society as a whole. However, as he pointed out, the current system dates back to the 19th century. The needs of society, families and individuals have changed dramatically since then, and it is important that civil registration adapt to reflect those changes and support today's society.

My hon. Friend thought that it was perhaps a little odd that a Treasury Minister should be present to deal with these matters. Perhaps I should explain why. As he is aware, the registrar-general is responsible for administering the law relating to the registration of births, deaths and marriages in England and Wales. The registrar-general's office forms part of the Office for National Statistics, and I am the sponsor Minister for national statistics. In that role, I am also responsible for civil registration.

The Government consultation paper "Supporting Families", which was published in 1998, recommended that there should be a review of the civil registration system in England and Wales. It also promoted the idea of a wider role for registration officers, to include the provision of services associated and linked with the registration of births, deaths and marriages. The registrar-general was asked by the Government to take forward that review, following which he published a consultation paper, "Registration: Modernising a Vital Service", in 1999. The review does not extend to fundamental marriage law, although Ministers agreed that the registrar-general could consult on widening the choice of places of marriage.

There were almost 1,000 responses to the consultation. Together with other evidence, they were used to formulate a new policy framework for civil registration. Subsequently, on 22 January this year, the Registrar-General published the white Paper "Civil Registration: Vital Change", which details the Government's proposals for improving civil registration in England and Wales.

The Government's proposals, as sot out in the White Paper, will give more choice in using registration services—choice about where and how to register a birth or death and where one can get married, as well as the wider choices of new services such as baby naming and marriage reaffirmation. These proposals will improve the service that users receive. They will allow change and innovation to continue in future and they will make full use of modern technology, about which I shall say more. They will help also to maximise the benefits that this can bring to individuals and organisations while continuing with the necessary safeguards.

My hon. Friend suggested that we should make civil registration records available in electronic form over time on the internet. That is precisely what we propose to do. Over time, we hope that all existing records of births, marriages and deaths will be computerised. Looking forward, it is intended to develop a system based on web technology for the future collection of civil registration information. That system will incorporate technologies that are up to date, robust, flexible and efficient. It will also contain features to maintain security of the data, and to authenticate users where that is necessary.

The Government have chosen to distinguish between historical records—those relating to people born more than 100 years ago—and records relating to people born within the past 100 years. We propose to fund the computerisation of the latter group of records, although some of the information will be treated as confidential. These historical records are to be made fully open and available to the public. The Government recognise that family history is a popular hobby. We have said that we would support not-for-profit organisations investing in the introduction of electronic access to these records.

I move on to marriage law and the wider role that is envisaged for registration officers. As I have explained, fundamental marriage law is outside the scope of the civil registration review and is the responsibility of the Lord Chancellor. Respondents to the registrar-general's consultation paper supported the prospect of greater freedom to marry in places other than those currently approved for marriage. It is widely acknowledged that many of the current restrictions on the time or place of marriage, which have been in place since 1837, are no longer appropriate in today's society.

I wish to reassure the House that we intend that the solemnity and dignity of marriage should be upheld in the proposals that we put forward. The registrar-general will continue to issue guidance about how that solemnity and dignity should be retained during the marriage ceremony.

As for Church of England marriages, currently the rule is that in most cases a couple who want such a marriage must go to the parish church of the place where one or both of them live, or are on the church electoral roll. However, it is not always easy to determine whether a person is "resident" in a particular place at a particular time. I understand that one of the problems has been different views on precisely what residence means. For example, the general view is that a student who is living elsewhere during term time may still be "resident" at his or her parents' home. Another example is where a couple wish to marry in the parish where one of them grew up and where his or her parents still live, even though he or she has a home elsewhere throughout the year.

Some clergy apply stricter criteria than others in these cases when deciding whether the person concerned is also resident in the parish where the couple wish to marry, and instead of calling banns may, I understand, require the couple to obtain an Archbishop of Canterbury's special licence. I am advised that such a licence can permit a marriage at any time and in any place, and without the calling of banns or the completion of any other marriage preliminaries. The archbishop is responsible for laying down the criteria to be applied in deciding when to grant a licence, but the detailed procedure is determined by the faculty office. Licences are granted, for example, to permit marriages outside the parish in which the couple live, in a private chapel or, in an emergency, where one of the couple is ill.

As the House is aware, it is not for the Government to speak for the Church of England or the Church in Wales. However, I am advised by the Lord Chancellor that the General Synod of the Church of England decided in July that the Church should also move to a more flexible set of principles on where marriages may take place.

The Church proposes to preserve the ancient right of a parishioner to marry in the church of the parish where he or she lives, but at the same time to create a range of well defined cases in which a couple can marry in some other place of worship where they have a "demonstrable connection".

While the details are still being worked on, a good many couples who in the past would have needed to obtain an archbishop's special licence to marry should no longer need one. The proposals tie in closely with those of the Government, and the Church will work with us to bring about the changes.

The Church does not intend to abolish the special licence procedure, which has not, it believes, outlived its usefulness. It will still be needed as a means of allowing special flexibility in exceptional cases; a similar provision exists for civil marriages in the form of the registrar-general's licence.

The special licence procedure will also be used to permit marriage in places other than places of worship. However, I am advised that the Church is clear that that should not mean a free-for-all, which would permit marriages in unsuitable venues. In our White Paper, the Government explained that the registration service is ideally placed to act as a focal point for information about services associated with births, deaths and marriages, such as social security benefits, marriage preparation and probate. The new support and advisory services will be complemented by the provision of celebratory services such as baby naming, the reaffirmation of marriage vows and civil funerals. Like my hon. Friend, I believe that there is a genuine opportunity for local authorities to develop those services innovatively to meet the needs of their communities, now and in future. A wider role for the registration service will improve on the current piecemeal approach by local authorities and will be underpinned by the proposed national standards.

Baby naming ceremonies give parents who prefer a secular ceremony the opportunity to celebrate the birth of their child publicly and show their commitment to its upbringing. The Government will expect local authorities to ensure that a baby naming service is available.

Some couples wish to celebrate key wedding anniversaries by reaffirming their marriage vows. The Government support the provision of secular marriage reaffirmation ceremonies and will expect local authorities to ensure their availability. That will provide couples with an alternative to equivalent religious ceremonies and will form a natural and appropriate extension to the role of the registration service.

The Government acknowledge that it may be appropriate for local authorities to offer other celebratory services. The law will be designed to respond to emerging public demand so that local authorities can innovate and extend their services to fulfil the changing needs of their communities.

My hon. Friend also mentioned still births, currently defined in legislation as children who are born after 24 weeks. There is already provision for their registration. Proposals in the White Paper will make that registration easier and give parents more options about the way in which to provide that information.

As my hon. Friend acknowledged, making the necessary changes to registration is long overdue. It will not be easy and it will not happen overnight. Changes to legislation will be made through order-making powers in the Regulatory Reform Act 2001. It contains wide powers, matched by tough safeguards, for reforming legislation on a regulatory regime such as that which relates to civil registration.

As I hope I have made clear, the proposals for reforming civil registration reflect the Government's wider agenda for modernising public services. We aim to improve and simplify services and to introduce greater flexibility and more choice. Modernising civil registration is an important part of the Government's aim of focusing public services directly on people's needs. Above all, it is important that the public receive a better service at such important moments of their lives.

I thank my hon. Friend for presenting the matter for consideration. I assure him that the Government are determined to introduce major reforms to the civil registration service in England and Wales.

Dr. Brian Iddon (Bolton, South-East)

Does my hon. Friend agree that the views of registration officers should be taken into account and that security of the records is important?

Ruth Kelly

I agree. I appreciate my hon. Friend's interest in the welfare of registration officers. We have consulted them closely in developing the proposals, and we intend to take account of their views. We agree that there is a balance to maintain between security of, and open access to, the relevant data. We are committed to finding an appropriate balance.

As I said, we want to respond to emerging public demand and we hope that local authorities will be in a position to take advantage of the new proposals.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at twenty-nine minutes past Ten o'clock.