HL Deb 26 April 1995 vol 563 cc911-3

Lord Young of Dartington asked Her Majesty's Government:

Whether they will introduce legislation empowering Registrars of Births to conduct civil naming ceremonies; and whether they will require registrars to make available to cohabiting couples who both sign birth certificates parental responsibility agreements which recognise that fathers as well as mothers have legal rights and duties in relation to their children.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department of Health (Baroness Cumberlege)

My Lords, the Government have no plans to change the law in respect of the duties and responsibilities of registrars. However, consideration will be given to introducing an information leaflet which registrars will be asked to issue to all parents who register a birth outside marriage, explaining among other things about the making of a parental responsibility agreement under the Children Act 1989, the Children (Northern Ireland) Order 1995, or such arrangements as may be introduced under the Children (Scotland) Bill which is presently before another place.

Lord Young of Dartington

My Lords, I thank the Minister for that Answer, in particular her comment about the joint responsibility agreement. Is she aware that there are large and ever-growing numbers of cohabiting parents and that if Church baptism is ruled out for them there is no ceremony for welcoming new-born children into the world and affirming a parental commitment to their welfare? Despite what the Minister said at the beginning of her Answer, is she prepared to say that the Government will at least consider allowing registrars to conduct civil naming ceremonies, as they already conduct civil marriages? That would be a logical next step.

Baroness Cumberlege

My Lords, primary legislation would be required. Before taking that step, the Government would have to consider very carefully before coming to any definitive view.

The Earl of Clanwilliam

My Lords, does my noble friend agree that the problems would be overcome if the couples got married?

Baroness Cumberlege

My Lords, that could be a solution for some but perhaps not for others.

The Lord Bishop of Lichfield

My Lords, does the Minister accept that while we on these Benches strongly support all measures to strengthen family life, in particular parental responsibility—and it is not invariably the case that baptism is refused to the children of cohabitees—we are nevertheless bound to have reservations about a civil naming ceremony which seems to adopt many of the features of Christian baptism while emptying them of their spiritual content? Would it not therefore be preferable for the Churches to redouble their efforts to reach out and encourage parents to consider bringing their children to baptism rather than adopting a confusingly similar imitation which is deprived of its full spiritual meaning?

Baroness Cumberlege

My Lords, if there were any suggestion that primary legislation was to be introduced, the Government would wish to consult widely with all sections of society, including the Churches. I believe that the issue of baptism is for other authorities rather than the Government.

Lord Dormand of Easington

My Lords, as the Marriage Act 1994 is now on the statute book, would it not be logical for the Government to encourage the step forward described by my noble friend Lord Young? More importantly, when will the Government realise that 25 per cent. of the population of this country hold no religious beliefs? Does the noble Baroness agree that those people should be recognised and should not have placed before them such obstacles as have been mentioned today?

Baroness Cumberlege

My Lords, there is nothing to stop couples holding the kind of ceremonies that they desire. The Question requires that the registrar should be involved. Registrars are statutory officers and at present their duties and responsibilities are limited to those set out in the Acts relating to marriage and registration. As I have said, primary legislation would be required, which would be a big step.

Lord Jenkins of Putney

My Lords, if registrars can consecrate a marriage what is to stop them from consecrating the product of marriage? Is that not sensible? May we take it that the view expressed by the right reverend Prelate is the view of the Church, or is there some discussion and dissent on the subject?

Baroness Cumberlege

My Lords, of course, registrars do not consecrate a marriage. Marriage is a sacrament and it is usually carried out by religious leaders. With regard to the second point, that is very much a matter for the Church.

Lord Teviot

My Lords, is my noble friend aware that the Births and Deaths Registration Act 1836, which has been left almost intact, has worked extremely satisfactorily for more than 100 years?

Baroness Cumberlege

Yes, my Lords.

Lord McIntosh of Haringey

My Lords, the Minister rightly said that any change in the responsibilities of registrars would be a matter for primary legislation. Is she aware that Mr. Frank Field in another place and my noble friend Lord Young of Dartington are proposing to introduce legislation on that issue in Parliament? Can she give any indication of whether the Government will treat that Bill with anything other than outright opposition or will they wish at best a fair wind for such a small but useful additional piece of legislation?

Baroness Cumberlege

My Lords, I am well aware that Mr. Frank Field and the noble Lord, Lord Young, are intending to introduce that legislation. As I have said, it will require a great deal of consultation before the Government make up their mind either way. At the moment, we are prepared to produce a leaflet which will ensure that unmarried couples have an opportunity to accept joint parental responsibility because, at present, parental responsibility lies with the mother. That is a way in which to encourage fathers to be involved.

Lord Harmar-Nicholls

My Lords, in order to avoid any misunderstanding, does the Minister understand from the intervention of the Front Bench spokesman opposite that if the noble Lord's party had the power, it would introduce the legislation necessary to implement the provisions referred to in the Question?

Baroness Cumberlege

My Lords, we shall try to ensure that the party opposite does not gain that power.

Lord McIntosh of Haringey

My Lords, I do not believe that that issue can be allowed to pass. Will the Minister inform her noble friend that when I make a comment from the Dispatch Box about a proposed Private Member's Bill, that is not in any way in conflict with the convention to which we adhere; namely, that the Opposition as such does not take a view on Private Member's Bills?

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