HL Deb 25 July 1994 vol 557 cc558-65

5.25 p.m.

Baroness Seccombe

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

It is my pleasure and privilege to pilot the Bill through this House. It has successfully completed its passage through another place where it was introduced with flair and enthusiasm by my honourable friend Mr. Gyles Brandreth, the Member for Chester City, and where it received all-party support.

I am sure that the word "marriage" conjures up in many of your Lordships' minds the picture of a village church, wedding bells and a perfect summer day. Perhaps the first and most important point I can make is that this Bill is not concerned with any religious wedding, only civil weddings. Such civil weddings account for just over half the marriages in England and Wales. It sets out to give couples who choose such a wedding more choice over the venue for their marriage. The Bill amends the Marriage Act 1949 and the Marriage (Registrar General's Licence) Act 1970, carrying forward popular recommendations contained in the White Paper, Registration—Proposals for Change, which was published in 1990.

It is a simple Bill with two important measures. Clause 2 would enable couples to marry in any register office in England and Wales. Clause 1 would allow local authorities to license additional, suitable—I stress the word "suitable"—premises. Currently couples wishing to marry in a register office have to do so at the office for the area in which one or the other of them lives. In today's world where mobility is a way of life, people have often moved away from the family home but wish to return there for their marriage. This they cannot do. They are thus denied the chance to marry in the area where many of their relatives and friends live and where they have grown up.

First, therefore, the Bill proposes to remove these restrictions and to allow couples to marry in any district of their choice. A wedding is a very special day in anyone's life. It may be that the relations and guests are too numerous for the size of a register office. Alternatively, the couple may wish to have a setting which reflects the dignity and solemnity of the occasion.

Therefore, the second proposal contained in the Bill would allow, for civil marriages only, local authorities to license additional premises in their area for the ceremony to take place. For example, they may decide to license a stately home, an hotel or other suitable accommodation. There would be a fee set locally to recover the cost to the local authority of the inspection and approval process.

There would be a number of safeguards. A code of practice has been drawn up which sets out the type of building which may be used. The Bill also provides for the making of regulations stipulating the procedures to be adopted. For example, few of your Lordships, I imagine, would wish to see the arrival in Britain of a Las Vegas style wedding parlour, and the Bill would not allow such a development. Nor would it become possible for people to marry in their own homes or in open spaces out of doors.

Wherever couples choose to marry there will be no change to the existing arrangements whereby formal notice of a marriage is given to the superintendent registrar of the district or districts where each of the couple lives. That will ensure that any local objection can continue to be raised in the area where the parties are best known. But the Bill would give couples who so wish an opportunity to celebrate their marriage in style and have a real day to remember.

Having just celebrated 44 years of married life I can only say that I believe in the institution of marriage absolutely and recommend it wholeheartedly. It is the mainstay of stability in our society today and I understand that it is even more popular than ever.

Moved, That the Bill be now read a second time.— (Baroness Seccombe.)

Lord Graham of Edmonton

My Lords, before noble Lords whose names are not on the list of speakers take advantage of their opportunity to speak in the gap, perhaps I may respectfully draw their attention to the fact that as recently as last year the House laid down that those who take advantage of that opportunity should seek to ensure that, as the Companion suggests, any such speech should be brief. When that was specified, the understanding of "brief" was that a speech should not last for longer than three minutes.

5.30 p.m.

The Earl of Balfour

My Lords, I apologise to both my noble friend Lady Seccombe and the noble Baroness, Lady Jay of Paddington, for not having put down my name earlier. I rise to raise only two points. First, as there is no "extent" clause in the Bill, I hope that it does not extend to Scotland. Indeed, I do not think that it should extend to Scotland. Secondly, as this is the first marriage legislation to be introduced since the Marriage Act 1949, the usual expression in legislation to recognise similar legislation is, "This Act may be cited with the (other) Act as the 'combined Acts'". That is all that I wish to say.

The Lord Bishop of Sheffield

My Lords, I apologise for intervening at this point. Perhaps I did not read the right papers and was simply too late to be able to put my name down as one of those wishing to speak.

I should like to give general support to the Bill. It seems a sensible measure. I should have thought that all Christian people would support anything that helps to make a wedding day a great and happy event.

I am less enthusiastic about Clause 2. We have endless difficulties explaining to people why they cannot be married in the church of their choice. If they can marry in the stately home of their choice, it will be even more difficult to explain why the ancient legislation about residence means that they cannot simply choose a church. Perhaps one day further legislation will be needed to remove more of the geographical restrictions on where people can be married.

One of the benefits of the Bill to the Church is that it will remove the widely held but false view that if you want a big wedding it has to be in a church and if you want a small wedding it cannot be in a church because a church means a big wedding. I hope that under the provisions of the Bill we shall come again to see that the place for a big wedding with perhaps not too much Christianity in it is the stately home, but that the wedding for ordinary folk who want to be married in the sight of God is a cheap wedding in their local parish church. I support the Bill.

Lord Skelmersdale

My Lords, the right reverend Prelate congratulated my noble friend Lady Seccombe on introducing the Bill. I should like to add my congratulations to his. It was I who in 1988 presented such provisions as part of a Green Paper proposal in draft form to my right honourable friend the current Chancellor of the Exchequer when he became Minister for Health and was at the same time the Minister responsible for the Office of Population Censuses and Surveys. He finally presented the Green Paper in 1989. It was translated into a White Paper in January 1990, since when there has been a pretty deathly hush.

Both the Green and White Papers covered other matters, two of which have been acted upon. One was the redefinition of the word "stillbirth". The other was the introduction of the qualification for registration officers. That shows that, on the whole, they were popular measures.

The right reverend Prelate mentioned choice. That is exactly what we are talking about—and more power to my noble friend's elbow for introducing this measure which widens choice for many people. I believe that my noble friend said that it would affect rather over half of the people who are married in England and Wales in any one year.

I have always recognised that there should be some control over where people are allowed to get married. Some people think that the top of Blackpool Tower might be a nice place to get married. Other people might suggest Blackpool beach. I would not recommend anybody to get married on Blackpool beach in October while the party conference season is on because it is my recollection that it is normally blowing a gale and pouring with rain at the same time. Nonetheless, the Bill presents an exciting opportunity.

I hope that the right reverend Prelate is right and that there will come a time when we can change the law— perhaps the right reverend Prelate will pursue this—to allow people to get married in the church of their choice. I can see no good reason why they should not as long as some sort of control is maintained.

I am conscious of the strictures of the noble Lord, Lord Graham of Edmonton, but I should like to point out that that White Paper also proposed the registration of deaths by declaration. Although that proposal was accepted by the Government, it seems to have disappeared into a large black hole. I wonder whether my noble friend the Minister will be able to say something about that and about the other proposals in that White Paper in relation to future legislation. In the meantime, I really do congratulate my noble friend Lady Seccombe.

Lord Teviot

My Lords, like my noble friend Lord Skelmersdale, I welcome the Bill which was so ably introduced by my noble friend Lady Seccombe. My noble friend Lord Skelmersdale mentioned the Green Paper which he introduced. Perhaps I should point out that this proposal (and the other proposals that he mentioned) came out of a scrutiny report that was produced some time in the 1980s. That report has been sitting around for quite some time.

I remind your Lordships that the Office of Population Censuses and Surveys—or the Registrar General's Department, whatever you like to call it—was set up under the 1836 Act. Very little in that Act has been changed. It was a very good piece of legislation— probably because of the legislators of that time. The scrutiny report went into everything thoroughly in order to bring the provisions up to date. Although the origins of that scrutiny report were interesting, I shall not go into them, but suffice it to say that it happened by accident.

However, those are piecemeal matters, and I should like to ask my noble friend the Minister whether parliamentary time can be given to this Bill which basically is non-controversial, non-contentious and useful social legislation.

I should like to raise a further point arising from those recommendations. I suggest that the registers of births, marriages and deaths which are over 75 years old should be opened up to, and seen by, the public, probably at the Public Record Office. I recognise that my noble friend might be unable to answer that now and I accept that she may reply by way of Oral or Written Answer. However, I raise those points to show that many other important matters arose from that scrutiny report and the Green Paper.

5.38 p.m.

Baroness Jay of Paddington

My Lords, I start by saying how pleasant it is to have such an agreeable and happy Bill at this stage of the Session and one which seems to be attracting support from all sides of the House.

As we all know, the old-fashioned cliché was that good marriages are made in heaven. Today's cliché is more often that they are solemnised in cold unfriendly register offices against a background of dusty artificial flowers. Therefore, I welcome this simple Bill which, as has already been said, will give the more than 50 per cent. of those who marry who opt for civil marriages much greater choice about where their ceremony takes place.

It is particularly important that that extra flexibility will include the town or district of the wedding as well as the building in which it is to take place. Young people often move away from home to work but may want, for that major event, to return to a place with family or sentimental roots. They may choose to be married in a place where they enjoyed a romantic holiday together. In any case, there seems to be no reason not to extend that type of choice without undermining the serious nature of the occasion.

Of course, as other noble Lords have already said, there are some choices which could undermine the serious nature of the event. I am glad that the wedding opportunities which have been widened in the Bill have not been widened to such extent that a marriage becomes merely an occasion for throwing a frivolous or extravagant party or creating a rather competitive show with friends. For example, my son told me at the weekend what he has seen to be the fashionable custom in the Cayman Islands where marriages are solemnised regularly on a shallow reef a few hundreds from the beach. There the bridegroom wears a dinner jacket and swimming flippers and the bride a veil and swimming costume. Your Lordships will be familiar with the press coverage of show business weddings in hot-air balloons and outdoor casinos. I hope that "suitable premises" will be defined sufficiently tightly so as to exclude that kind of occasion.

Having said that, I regret the fact that the Bill does not extend the reform to marriages in gardens. I gather from the remarks of the noble Baroness, Lady Seccombe, that neither does the Bill extend to marriages in private homes. Some of the most happy and attractive wedding ceremonies I have attended in the United States have been held in beautiful gardens. If we are to continue having summers like this one, it seems a pity to be unable to hold ceremonies outdoors.

I know that my honourable friend Mr. Harry Cohen tried to introduce such an amendment to the Bill in another place, but was persuaded to withdraw it. Mr. Brandreth, the sponsor of the Bill in another place, advanced against the amendment what seemed to me to be the slightly odd argument that marriages should not be allowed to take place behind the bushes. But the real objection, as I understand the debates, was that gardens and parks are not public places within the meaning of the Marriage Act. That seems to be the main argument also against using private homes which, again, are often the most suitable places for civil weddings to be held.

The Bill is too limited in that way. If the discretion for deciding what are suitable places is to be left to local authorities it might be within the spirit of the Bill if the accompanying regulations were to allow gardens and private homes to be included. It would also be helpful to know whether the regulations will ensure oversight of how local authorities decide which places are suitable, because I fear that otherwise many local authorities will merely take the easy way out and opt to retain the register office where weddings have always been held in probably a rather gloomy setting.

Perhaps I may end this brief contribution on a personal note. I was married four months ago in a typically antiseptic 1950s register office. The lighting was unattractively fluorescent, even for brides many years younger than I am, and the most obvious wall decorations were prominent signs to the nearby toilets. My husband and I were very fortunate because close friends and family created another much warmer more meaningful ceremony later in the day. That was held in a flower-filled room where we were able to combine the ceremony with a delicious meal. How much better it would have been, as well as more convenient for us all, if the legal ceremony and the celebration of a personal kind had been combined in one event. I only wish, like the noble Lord, Lord Skelmersdale, that the Bill, which follows the recommendations of the White Paper published four years ago, had been introduced earlier. However, as it is, I welcome its belated appearance and wish it a speedy passage so that next spring others in my position will no doubt benefit from it.

5.43 p.m.

Baroness Cumberlege

My Lords, I too am grateful to my noble friend Lady Seccombe for the clear and concise way she has introduced the Bill. It will be seen by many in your Lordships' House as a useful and popular measure. It will help to meet the wishes of many members of the public—those who have yet to marry and wish to do so by civil ceremony—by extending the choice of place available. All the world loves a lover and weddings are both a celebration of love and, for many, the start of family life. It is a day of joy and the start of a commitment for life.

The Bill aims to allow more choice as to where civil, non-religious, marriages may be held, while maintaining the seriousness and the dignity of marriage. It does not entertain the bizarre. I can reassure the noble Baroness, Lady Jay, that registrars who conduct marriages will not be obliged to don scuba-diving suits to marry people under water, or to go up in hot-air balloons. The place must be registered with a local authority as somewhere where marriages can be held regularly. The places must be known to the public so that valid objections can be made, and they must be in buildings which have no recent or continuing religious connections. Local authorities will require those buildings to conform with fire regulations, to comply with health and safety aspects, and so on. The ceremonies will be civil weddings, and quasi-religious marriages will not be allowed. The Registrar General, the Association of County Councils and the Association of Metropolitan Authorities have produced a code of conduct and I am sure that they will be good arbiters of the dignity and seemliness of marriage.

This is a popular Bill which we would want to see given a Second Reading by your Lordships. It removes tiresome regulations that civil ceremonies have to be conducted in the register office and gives people a freedom of choice. Owners of suitable places will have to apply to register with their councils, and I have heard mentioned that some stately houses and castles might be considered, though it would be nice to see a very wide choice of suitable buildings being registered. The cost of the registrar travelling and presiding at those ceremonies will be covered fully by their scale of charges and the existing arrangements for a standard civil marriage in the register office itself, where notice of marriage will be posted for public scrutiny, will be retained.

The Bill is not a comprehensive change of all aspects of marriage. No established rights are removed. There are no provisions in the Bill to cover ceremonies devised by humanists, witches, or gay people. It is quite simple and allows merely for a wider choice of location.

I can assure my noble friend Lord Balfour that the legislation relates to the law only as it applies to England and Wales. It is not relevant to Scotland. I shall look into the drafting to take account of his second point. I am grateful to the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Sheffield for his support and that of the Anglican Church. I understand that those views are shared by other Christian denominations, as voiced through the Churches Main Committee.

The Bill is restricted to civil marriages. I understand that provision already exists in certain circumstances for couples to marry in religious buildings outside their district of residence. If it is the right reverend Prelate's wish that that provision should be extended further, I can do no more than support my noble friend Lord Skelmersdale in his advice. I am very grateful to him and my noble friend Lord Teviot for the parts they played in bringing the Bill to fruition. With regard to the second point made by my noble friend Lord Skelmersdale about the remaining recommendations of the White Paper, some have already been implemented and others related directly to the structure and organisation of the local service and may well best be addressed after the reorganisation of local government of England and Wales.

The noble Baroness, Lady Jay, asked why civil marriages could not take place out of doors and at any time. The Bill proposes only procedural changes to civil marriage. Any wider change, such as anywhere or outside the current times (between 8 a.m. and 6 p.m.) would be fundamental and beyond the scope of such a measure. The noble Baroness asked also why marriages could not take place in private homes. Two of the principles of marriage law in England and Wales are, first, that the public should have access to the premises, and, secondly, the premises should be known as registered for that particular purpose. It is our intention to retain those principles so that any objection to a marriage can be raised during the ceremony. We have therefore ruled out private homes as approved places for a marriage to take place. Of course there are exceptions at the moment and those will continue for the housebound, the detained and those who are seriously ill who can already marry where they live.

In conclusion, the Government give the Bill their full support. If we can offer a toast to civil marriage it will be, "Long may it last".

Baroness Seccombe

My Lords, I am grateful to all noble Lords who have taken part in the debate for the interesting points they have raised and for their support. I offer a special thanks to my noble friend Lady Cumberlege for welcoming the Bill. I hope that all noble Lords will welcome and endorse the measures contained in the Bill and in so doing enable more couples to celebrate their marriages in the place and manner of their choosing. I now ask the House to give the Bill a Second Reading. I commend the Bill to the House.

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