HL Deb 12 February 2003 vol 644 cc751-3

8 p.m.

Lord Williams of Mostyn rose to move, That the draft order laid before the House on 4th December 2002 be approved.

The noble and learned Lord said: My Lords, the purpose of the order is to reform, simplify and consolidate the existing procedures for marriage. It implements recommendations made to the Government by the Law Reform Advisory Committee for Northern Ireland, to which I pay full credit. It is virtually identical to the Marriage Bill considered in some detail by the Northern Ireland Assembly. The Bill received widespread support from a variety of interested parties. It was welcomed on a cross-party basis during its passage in the Assembly, where it had undergone debate on the Floor and detailed scrutiny from the relevant Assembly committee.

The order has essentially three main aspects. First, there is the introduction of a new system of universal civil preliminaries based upon the use of the marriage schedule. This will put the law in Northern Ireland on a generally similar footing to that operating in Scotland. It replaces the existing complicated system.

Secondly, there will be a new statutory scheme of authorised officiants who will be able to celebrate religious marriage. Religious bodies have welcomed this move which shifts the emphasis from the registration of buildings for religious marriages. That was commended by the Law Reform Advisory Committee as a more suitable and flexible model.

Thirdly, there is a relaxation of the current rules relating to civil marriage venues. It will no longer be necessary for a civil wedding to take place in the local registration office. This, too, has been welcomed in Northern Ireland and gives couples wishing to marry a greater freedom of choice. I beg to move.

Moved, That the draft order laid before the House on 4th December 2002 be approved.—(Lord Williams of Mostyn.)

Lord Glentoran

My Lords, I thank the noble and learned Lord for bringing this order before us. To save repetition, I thank him for all the orders that he is about to bring and all that he is about to do. I assure the House—I say it now so that it goes into Hansard once—that I have not read the orders in detail, but I have read all the Explanatory Notes. I have taken some advice from outside parties and done my best in a short space of time to know what is being discussed. I have done my best to ensure that there are no particularly provocative matters in these orders.

Until now, and onwards, I suspect, the legal situation regarding marriage in Northern Ireland has been different from that in England. I think that that is a pity. As I understand it, it is now coming well into line with the situation in Scotland. However, I have to declare an interest in that I have been married more than once. The issue is complicated, and made more costly and difficult to tidy up, for those who marry more than once and have to go this way and that in order to marry in a jurisdiction in Ireland, in Scotland or in England. I hasten to add that I have not done the tour. I am not being frivolous. I believe that this is a good order.

In another place, my honourable friend David Wilshire, backed by Lady Hermon, asked a large number of leading questions. From my reading of Hansard from another place, he received pretty satisfactory answers from the Minister. I therefore believe that we should welcome this order.

Lord Shutt of Greetland

My Lords, I, too, welcome this order and the other orders. Perhaps—to take a leaf out of the book of the noble Lord, Lord Glentoran—this is something that should be said only once. These orders have been given some consideration by the devolved Assembly. Devolution means devolution, as far as I am concerned, and the content of these orders is what the Assembly wants. I hope that we return soon to real devolution. If it does not happen, we may have to second guess what the Assembly might have thought. The Assembly has done much work in discussing these orders. These are the orders that the Assembly would have passed had it been functioning. I therefore support this order.

Lord Maginnis of Drumglass

My Lords, I welcome the order. During the Second Reading of the original Bill in the Assembly, the former Minister of Finance and Personnel pointed out that the main statute on the formalities and preliminaries which must be undertaken for a marriage to take place in Northern Ireland was more than 150 years old. Having periodically been added to by subsequent legislation, it had become quite convoluted and difficult to follow. On that basis, I welcome the consolidation, modernisation and simplification brought about by this order.

I particularly welcome the provision in Article 18 which will allow people suffering from serious injuries or terminal illness to marry in a hospice or hospital. That is a sensible and compassionate innovation. The order is intended to simplify, codify and modernise the fragmented and piecemeal legislation that has existed for many years. With that in mind, I should like to impress on the noble and learned Lord the need to provide strict and clear guidelines to district councils for setting criteria and nominating places where marriages can take place. With no fewer than 26 district councils currently in existence in Northern Ireland, there is clear potential for implementation of the legislation to be rather inconsistent from one district council to another. I support the order and look forward to hearing the Minister's comments on those issues.

Lord Williams of Mostyn

My Lords, like all noble Lords, I am happy to see my noble friend Lord Maginnis back in his place after a brief absence, the reasons for which he was kind enough to inform me of. I shall take on board the points that have been raised and ensure that the appropriate officials bear them in mind.

On Question, Motion agreed to.