Equalities Spokesperson, Baroness Stowell responds to the Humanist marriages amendment

During the House of Lords Committee Stage of the Marriage (same sex couples) Bill, amendments were tabled to allow Humanist weddings to take place for same sex couples.  There was virtually no opposition to this idea but the Government believed that the amendments would cause other problems and these are explained by Equalities Spokesperson, Baroness Stowell in her summing up here.  The amendment was then withdrawn for the time being.

Baroness Stowell of Beeston: My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Harrison, for introducing the amendment and for explaining how important it is to humanists that they be allowed to conduct their own marriage solemnisations, according to their beliefs, by someone who shares their beliefs and in any place of their choosing, which could include the outdoors. I have no doubt that a celebration conducted by the sister of the noble Baroness, Lady Thornton, in the way that she described is one that would be enjoyed by those involved.

I am grateful to all noble Lords who have contributed to this debate and talked about the importance of humanist weddings being able to take place. I feel that this issue warrants a careful reply from me. I want to cover quite a bit of ground in my reply, so I hope that the House will indulge me if I am not as speedy as noble Lords might like me to be, but I think this is important.

First, it is important for me to remind noble Lords about the purpose of this Bill. It is about allowing people to marry who currently cannot marry, and the only people who cannot marry at this time are gay and lesbian couples. When we decided as a Government to bring forward legislation to allow that to happen, we decided to do so by making as little change as possible to existing marriage law. The noble Baroness, Lady Thornton, has described quite clearly how different humanists might celebrate their weddings, so I will not go through all the details. However, it is important to make the point that humanists can marry in England and Wales. They might not be able to have at this time the wedding celebration that they would like but, even if they do not want to follow the route that the noble Baroness suggested, where some people go first to a register office and then have a separate celebration, because humanists are non-religious, they have the option, within a civil marriage at a register office, of being able to adapt that service to include vows and readings that reflect their humanist beliefs and values. Although that might not be ideal, they are not alone in sometimes having to adapt their arrangements.

Baroness Thornton: The noble Baroness needs to acknowledge that humanism is a system of belief. It is quite wrong to suggest that, because humanists do not want to have a religious wedding, somehow it is all right for them to have an adapted civil service. That is not the point here. The point is that humanists want to have a ceremony that is a humanist ceremony, based on their beliefs and their value system.

Baroness Stowell of Beeston: I accept that point. Forgive me if I was suggesting anything that was not respectful of what humanists are seeking to achieve. I absolutely understand the point that the noble Baroness

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is making. I was trying to explain that some people who follow a religious faith might argue that because humanists, although belonging to a belief organisation, are not religious, they have some opportunity to adapt a civil ceremony in a way that a religious person would not be able to.

Lord Harrison: The amendment sets out the conditions whereby it would be permissible in the particular case of the BHA. It should be recognised that that would be a barrier to other groups which might describe themselves as religious—as has been wrongly suggested in the press—such as the Jedi.

Baroness Stowell of Beeston: I understand the point that the noble Lord is making. As I said when I began, there is quite a lot for me to cover in responding to this issue. I beg the noble Lord’s indulgence to allow me to go through my response. I assure him that I will cover everything, giving this matter the justice and the seriousness that it deserves. The point I was trying to make, which has been mentioned in different debates over the past few weeks in the context of this Bill, is that, for a range of people who want to get married, not just humanists, not everyone is able to have a religious ceremony or the ceremony that they desire. For instance, we heard only the other night, when the noble Lord, Lord Martin, was speaking, about a Scottish MP, a member of the Church of Scotland, who was therefore not able to marry in St Mary Undercroft and had to go to a register office first. I am simply making the point to the noble Lord that things are not so straightforward. It is not the case that everything is okay in one scenario and different in another. However, let me move on. I was just trying to make that point.

On my original point about the Bill and allowing same-sex marriage, although it might seem a counterintuitive thing for me to say, clearly for us to allow same-sex marriage to take place is a big change, but we are able to make that change in the framework of existing marriage law.

7.30 pm

Lord Harrison: We are proposing this under the existing requirement in Section 27 of the Marriage Act 1949. We did so on the advice of colleagues from the church and also from Ministers in order to ensure that this would not require major change.

Baroness Stowell of Beeston: I will cover that point in the course of my response.

The point still stands—I will explain why in a moment—that in order to allow organisations to marry in the way that is covered in this amendment, although it seems like a small change, it requires a change in existing marriage law that has wider implications for our system of regulation of marriage law in England and Wales. The noble Lord, Lord Harrison, and other noble Lords have referred to the contribution that my right honourable friend the Attorney-General made during the debate on Report in the other place when he made it clear that if the amendment that was being debated at that time was passed, it would make the Bill incompatible with the European Convention on Human Rights. The amendment in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Harrison, is broader in scope and therefore does not raise the concern that the Attorney-General

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raised during the debate in the other place. However, at that time and consistently, the Government have been clear that the proposals put forward by the British Humanist Association have wider implications for marriage law. The Government are concerned because of those wider implications. There has been a lot of focus on the Attorney-General’s response to that specific amendment put forward on Report, and how that would have made the Bill at that time incompatible with the European Convention on Human Rights. However, that was not the only issue that the Government have raised, and continue to raise, about this proposal. I will explain all this in the course of my response.

Lord Lester of Herne Hill: I am sorry to interrupt and I hope I am not being a nuisance by doing so. Is not one reason in favour of these amendments that they would make our law compatible with Articles 9 and 14 of the convention by removing a discrimination which needs to be removed?

Baroness Stowell of Beeston: I was trying to make the simple point that the concern that the Attorney-General raised at that time has been addressed. That amendment was very narrowly defined around humanist belief. This amendment is much broader in scope because it is not narrowly restricted just to the British Humanist Association. However, that does not remove from what is at issue for the Government: that by introducing a change this amendment would have wider implications for marriage law in England and Wales. I intend to explain this to noble Lords.

As we have acknowledged throughout our debates on the Bill, marriage is clearly an important institution and a legal recognition through which the state confers rights and obligations. We therefore need to regulate carefully the process by which we allow this important legal status to be established.

Baroness Thornton: I am very puzzled by what the noble Baroness is saying. She is now saying that there are other grounds. In the Commons—and it is on the record in Hansard—the Minister specifically said that the letter that she would send to the British Humanist Association would be comprehensive and would cover all the Government’s concerns. This amendment and the discussions that the British Humanist Association has had since then, in good faith, have met all those points. I am very puzzled as to why the noble Baroness is now leading us into what sounds like the answer, “The Government have concerns about other matters”. It seems like we will never reach the end of this.

Baroness Stowell of Beeston: I do not have the copy of Hansard in front of me for the debates that took place in the other place. However, I am confident that my right honourable friend the Secretary of State, Maria Miller, made it clear in those debates that there were other concerns about this proposal that went beyond those raised by the Attorney-General on that specific amendment at that time. In the letter that my right honourable friend sent to Kate Green, she was also clear that there were issues of principle which went beyond the narrow point that the Attorney-General raised in those debates.

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Beyond civil marriages, which now form the majority of marriages, where we give other organisations—that is, other religious faiths—this power to marry, the authorisation is subject to specific safeguards that are well established and embedded in current law. In the case of religious ceremonies—though I absolutely understand that the British Humanist Association is not a religion but a belief organisation—registration is generally linked to a particular building or, in the case of Quakers and the Jewish religion, by a longstanding arrangement that took account of the particular position of those religious organisations. Historians in this House will know that the Marriage Act 1753 recognised the Jewish faith and Quakers as having a special status, which they have retained since that time.

For every other religion except the Church of England and the Church in Wales, a building must first be registered as a place of worship, then a place of marriage. If that is agreed to, the supervising registrar attends all marriages for a year to ensure that compliance with all regulations takes place, including safekeeping of duplicate marriage registers in the relevant premises to accurately register marriages. Religious faiths have very little freedom because the integrity of marriage in England and Wales relies on this system to ensure that marriages are not registered that should not be, and that status is accurately recorded.

The amendment of the noble Lord, Lord Harrison, would mean that eligible non-religious belief organisations could hold marriages wherever they wished and have greater freedom to appoint those who conduct and register marriages. As the noble Lord says, the amendment does not specifically define the British Humanist Association but goes wider in order to address the concerns that were raised by the Attorney-General.

I will be absolutely clear on the point that the noble Baroness was pressing me on earlier. Our concerns are not about entry to the system of marriage, but spring from opening a new route to marriage and a new system of regulation. In the course of this debate, noble Lords have expressed views on religious groups who can marry now. However, the key point is that they must all comply with the existing system in terms of their being approved. I do not suggest for one moment that there is any concern about any of the groups we may be discussing. However, the reason why the system we have is so important, and why we consider that there would be wider implications if we were to change the way in which we authorise people to marry, is because that could have an impact on things such as, for example, the way we are able to police sham marriages conducted by criminal wedding arrangers.

The noble Lord is shaking his head. I stress that I understand the reason why the amendment is drafted as it is, but because it would allow for other organisations there are implications that we need to consider.

Baroness Thornton: Are these implications deal breakers or are they administrative and technical details that could be cleared up? Is the noble Baroness going to say anything positive here?

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Baroness Stowell of Beeston: The responsibility I have as the Minister responding to this debate is to make clear that something which on the face of it seems quite straightforward would significantly change our marriage law. We have to consider the implications of that before a decision could be made as to whether to change this law. The system we have of registering and authorising people to marry based on religious premises has been in existence since 1898. To introduce a new system for new organisations to be authorised in a different way is a significant change. If we are going to make that change we need to make sure that we have properly considered all the implications.

Lord Alli: There is huge respect for the Minister in this House and for the way in which she has conducted the passage of the Bill. We all want the Bill to go through. However, the noble Baroness should take the temperature of the House and of the other place. There is a will in both Houses that this should go through. You see this sometimes when the Front Bench are making their response: the explanation of why it should not go through has been crafted by the Civil Service and does not feel like one any of us understand. The unintended consequence argument, the argument that it could delay the Bill and a whole range of financial arguments are the standard set of arguments put forward generally to stop amendments going through. We would be very sympathetic if we understood what was worrying the Government about this amendment but as yet I, like many others, am lost as to what it is that cannot be done in the timeframes that we are talking about.

Lord Garel-Jones: Before my noble friend replies to that, she will, I am sure, have observed that not a single voice in your Lordships’ House has been raised against these amendments. She will have observed that the right reverend Prelate, while unable yet to tell us precisely what the position of the Church of England would be, spoke with, one could say, sympathy towards the position. I think what we are all asking is that if the Ministers, both my noble friend and the Secretary of State in the other place, were to say to the civil servants that they would like to find a way of accommodating this, we know that they could it. We would really like an explanation as to why that cannot be done.

Baroness Stowell of Beeston: I was about to conclude my remarks in any case. I am grateful to my noble friend. The noble Lord is right that there has been a great deal of support from all sides of the House, as there was in the other place. Of course I acknowledge that but I am still obliged as the Minister responsible for the Bill to explain when an amendment is put forward that it will have a significant effect—as we think this one could have—so that noble Lords are aware and properly apprised of the seriousness of the issues at stake. While the British Humanist Association and a lot of this House feel strongly that this change should be made, there has not been the kind of consultation and proper consideration of the impact of making that change and that has to take place.

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7.45 pm

Lord Lester of Herne Hill: I am trying to helpful. Why can the Government not adopt the same approach as the previous Government on sexual orientation discrimination, or that of the present Government on caste discrimination, and say that there should be a proper consultation and then have a power included in the Bill to deal with this by regulations with the affirmative resolution procedure, with proper exceptions put in for things such as sham marriages?

Baroness Stowell of Beeston: I am not in a position to offer to noble Lords today the kind of specific response that my noble friend has suggested.

Baroness Butler-Sloss: I have sat listening to this for an extremely long time. I do not have any views at all about whether humanists should have a marriage. I have heard very good reasons why they should and I have not heard any reasons why they should not. That seems to me quite an interesting point. No one has stood up and said there should not be a humanist marriage. Can the Minister at least say—and it is 7.45 pm—that she will take it away and have a look at it. Then she could come back on Report or before and say, “No, we are not going to do it”. She is not going to make any progress in the House at this moment with her arguments, because nobody is going to accept them if the Government do not go away and have another look at it.

Baroness Stowell of Beeston: Very briefly, before I finally sit down, of course everybody would support humanist marriages. The point is—please let me finish making this point—that it would require a change in law that would have implications that have not been fully thought through. That all said, having listening to the debate today, I will of course report back to my ministerial colleagues and ensure that they reflect further on the points made in this debate.

Lord Harris of Haringey: My Lords, I am in severe danger of letting the nice side of my character come to the fore at this conclusion to the debate. I sincerely thank those from all sides who have risen to support the amendment. I thank the right reverend Prelate for his constructive approach. I invite him to have discussions with me and the British Humanist Association himself, rather than sending an official.

I have watched the Minister struggle. I would like to struggle with her. I want to get round a table and discuss this matter and find the solution that this House most clearly needs. In the mean time, I beg leave—and give notice that I shall bring it back it back on Report—to withdraw this amendment, showing the nice side of my character to the whole House.

Amendment 19A withdrawn.