HL Deb 09 July 1990 vol 521 cc74-7

7.24 p.m.

Viscount Brentford

My Lords, I beg to move that this Bill be now read a second time.

The Bill carries on the theme that we have been discussing, although by accident and not intent. It relates to places where marriages can be conducted but excludes places of worship of the Church of England, Quakers, Jews and by a later addition the Church of Rome. The present law requires that before a building can be registered as a place where religious marriages may be solemnised it must, first, be certified as a place of religious worship; secondly, be declared by 20 householders to be their usual place of public religious worship; and, thirdly, be a separate building. The Bill deals with the requirement that it should be a separate building.

The law has been in place for about 200 years. When it was considered some 150 years ago the then Solicitor-General said in a debate in another place that the phrase "separate building" is meant to imply a building which has no internal communication with any other. The object of the old law was to stop the spread of clandestine marriages. They were becoming a common occurrence and were, for instance, being celebrated in the Fleet Prison chapel by clergymen who were imprisoned there for debt. Sir Robert Peel, as he then was—I do not know whether I should refer to him as my late noble friend—continued to be concerned about clandestine marriages. He drew attention to the fact that there were many dissenters whose religious worship was performed in rooms or apartments. He did not approve of marriages being held in such places. The separate building proviso was inserted as a means of continuing to reduce the opportunity for clandestine marriages.

It is accepted that marriage needs to be a public event. However, I suggest that the separate building requirement is an anachronism which works against the interests of many people who are precluded from marrying in the building where they normally worship because it is not separate. In recent times the problems have become more acute because the emphasis is now on including religious buildings as part of a community or cultural centre. That trend is to be welcomed. However, the church part of such centres is normally interconnected with other parts and therefore it cannot be registered for marriages. During the past two years 19 applications for the registration of buildings have been rejected because the buildings were not separate. I have in my file various quotations from newspapers ridiculing that fact.

The effect of this two-clause Bill is supported by the Churches Main Committee, the Free Churches Federal Council and all those with whom I have had contact on the subject. It will enable Christian and non-Christian people alike to marry in buildings where they regularly worship. The Bill simply deletes the reference to the need for separateness in Section 41 of the Marriage Act 1949 and carries out certain other consequential amendments. I beg to move.

Moved, That the Bill be now read a second time. —(Viscount Brentford.)

7.29 p.m.

Lord Hampton

My Lords, I apologise for the fact that my name does not appear on the printed list. I shall speak only briefly. I am sure that all noble Lords are grateful to the noble Viscount for presenting the Bill so clearly. When people worship regularly in a building it is only reasonable that they should be allowed to marry there. As has been said, that is the aim of the Bill for Christians and non-Christians alike. I understand that it has overwhelming cross-party and all-party support. We on these Benches wish it a speedy passage into law.

Baroness Ewart-Biggs

My Lords, I notice that the sponsor of this Bill in another place called it a brief, worthy and uncontentious piece of legislation. I would go further and say that it is an admirable proposal. It ends an anomaly. The Bill is of enormous practical use and advantage. Therefore, from this side of the House, I am happy to support it.

7.30 p.m.

Baroness Blatch

My Lords, perhaps I may congratulate my noble friend Lord Brentford on bringing this Bill forward for our consideration today. The Bill is short and straightforward and it makes a small but important change to the marriage law of England and Wales; under it many couples would become able to marry in the buildings where they regularly worship. They cannot do this at present where the building is not a separate building, because the present law prevents it being registered for the solemnisation of marriages.

As my noble friend said, this restriction, which incidentally does not apply to the Established Church, Quakers, Jews or Roman Catholics, was included in early 19th century legislation as a way of preventing the clandestine marriages which were then seen as a major social problem. Clandestine marriages were thought more likely to take place undetected if they could be conducted in part of a building, often containing many rooms where different, unrelated activities also took place, rather than in a building given over wholly to the practice of religious worship.

The requirement for a building to be separate is not appropriate in modern times, and it increasingly causes problems which could not have been anticipated at the time the legislation was enacted. Many religious bodies today seek to provide wider community benefits in their buildings, and accordingly the place of worship is built as part of a community or cultural centre. This may contain a dining room to provide meals for the elderly, or a bookshop, or a games hall for youth groups: churches are often linked to sheltered housing accommodation. At the moment such interconnections can preclude the building being registered as a place where marriages may be solemnised.

As my noble friend said, the Registrar General has had to reject 19 applications from the trustees of such buildings over the past two years. In some cases there has understandably been adverse public reaction. The religious bodies concerned find it extremely hard to accept that their more community centred approach has debarred their building from registration for marriages, and they may become even more aggrieved when they find that other denominations are not similarly restricted. The members of their own religious community are similarly unhappy to learn that they cannot marry where they regularly worship. Yet the present law, I must emphasise, gives the Registrar General no discretion at all. Therefore the law has to be applied in those hard cases.

The Bill being considered today will remove this quite unnecessary restriction. Meanwhile it does not affect in any way the fundamental law, which the Government support; that is, that unfettered public access to marriage ceremonies must continue. The Bill has the support of the Churches Main Committee, the Free Churches Federal Council and individual denominations both Christian and non-Christian. The Government endorsed the removal of the separate building requirement in the White Paper, Registration: proposals for change, which was published on 31st January and therefore offer their full support to the Bill. I commend it to this House.

7.32 p.m.

The Lord Bishop of Peterborough

My Lords, I apologise for not putting my name down to speak in this debate. I speak on behalf of those who officiate on such occasions. Although it does not affect the Church of England, we warmly welcome this Bill for other Churches for which the anomaly has undoubtedly been a handicap. I must add that we are dealing with the desires of those who are marrying. Wherever they may worship regularly, the attraction of Gothic buildings and four-part harmonic choirs is greater than anything covered by this Bill. Having said that, I wish to add my support to this small but generous Bill.

7.33 p.m.

Viscount Brentford

My Lords, I am grateful for the support from the noble Lord, Lord Hampton, the right reverend Prelate and my noble friend the Minister. I commend the Bill to the House.

On Question, Bill read a second time and committed to a Committee of the Whole House.

Viscount Long

My Lords, I beg to move that the House do now adjourn during pleasure until 8.25 p.m.

Moved accordingly, and, on Question, Motion agreed to.

[The Sitting was suspended from 7.34 unti18.25 p.m.]