On 1 December, the Government responded to a question in the House of Lords on humanist marriage: Hansard records the following exchange, [1 Dec 2014 Vol 757 (66) Col. 1112]:
Question: Asked by Lord Harrison
To ask Her Majesty’s Government when they intend to publish their response to their consultation on humanist marriage.
Lord Ashton of Hyde (Con): My Lords, the Government have consulted on whether the law should be changed to allow legally valid humanist and, potentially, other non-religious belief marriages. We are considering the responses we received and the implications for marriage law and practice if a change were to be made. We plan to publish the Government’s response to the review before 1 January 2015.
Lord Harrison (Lab): My Lords, given what now appears to be the insincere government pledge to see this legislation through before the next general election, will the Minister nevertheless acknowledge that what is being asked for in terms of solemnising humanist marriage is no more and no less than what is properly accorded to our Jewish and Quaker colleagues and to other belief groups? Does the proposal for humanist marriage not also conform to the families test of ensuring that all legislation and policy developed by the Government strengthens and develops strong and stable families?
Lord Ashton of Hyde: I do not accept that we have not done everything that we said we would do. During the passage of the Marriage (Same Sex Couples) Bill in 2013, it was agreed that there would be a consultation. That has taken place. It lasted for 12 weeks and the replies have come in. We agreed that we would provide an answer by 1 January 2015.
Lord Garel-Jones (Con): My Lords, does the Minister agree that there is now overwhelming evidence that humanist marriages fulfil the Government’s new families test and that they support strong and stable marriages? For example, legalisation of humanist marriages in Scotland has led to a net increase in the number of marriages, and a quarter of belief-based marriages in Scotland are now conducted by the Humanist Society.
Lord Ashton of Hyde: My Lords, the Government take the issue very seriously, which is why they had a consultation that lasted for 12 weeks, from June to September this year. There were 1,901 responses. When the decision has been made, which will be by the end of this year—by 1 January 2015—we will see how seriously the Government have taken it.
Baroness Whitaker (Lab): My Lords, can the Minister confirm that the responses to the consultation indicated overwhelming support for humanist marriages?
Lord Ashton of Hyde: No, I cannot confirm that. We are evaluating the responses and an official answer will be given by the end of the year.
Baroness Barker (LD): Have the Government analysed the rate of humanist marriage in Scotland and in European countries? Have they formed an estimate of how many people in England would be likely to wish to avail themselves of the facility of humanist marriage?
Lord Ashton of Hyde: I can tell my noble friend that in Scotland there were 3,052 humanist marriages in 2012. There are estimated to be 600 to 800 humanist marriages which are not legally valid at the moment, although 80% have civil marriages as well.
Baroness Meacher (CB): My Lords, when all that the proposal seeks to do is extend the current practice for Jewish and Quaker marriages to humanists, does the Minister accept that this is not a major change in the law? In view of the overwhelming support in the consultation for this change, would the Minister agree that there is no reason not to go ahead before the election?
Lord Ashton of Hyde: I do not know that there was overwhelming support. The responses are being evaluated at the moment, and there will be an announcement by the end of the year.
Baroness Thornton (Lab): My Lords, I am not sure whether the Minister was in the House at the time but there was overwhelming support in both Houses of Parliament for the amendments. In July 2013, the noble Baroness the Leader of the House, who was then the responsible Minister, gave an assurance to the House that the orders enabling humanist marriages to take place would be laid well ahead of the general election. I would like the Minister to guarantee that that timetable could be met. Will the Government also recognise, as they did with the orders enacting same-sex marriage, that giving a timetable to those who are making arrangements to get married is rather important? Will the date when a humanist wedding is possible be in May, June or July, or at some other point next year?
Lord Ashton of Hyde: I cannot give that undertaking because the decision will be made by the end of the year and we will then have to see what is decided. At the moment, I cannot tell what that decision will be.
Baroness Butler-Sloss (CB): My Lords, it seems to me that the Government have been rather slow with this. There was considerable discussion on the same-sex marriage Bill, when I spoke in favour of the humanists having marriage. We have so changed the concept of marriage that I cannot for one moment understand why we are not just getting on with it. I very much hope that the Government will pick this up and get to the right result, which is to give humanists a marriage before the next election.
Lord Ashton of Hyde: I do not accept, I am afraid, that we have been slow. We are doing what we said we would in the Act. We said that we would give an answer by 1 January 2015; that was in the legislation. We said that we would consult; we did, and that is what we are going to do.
Baroness Hussein-Ece (LD): My Lords, is it not the case that thousands of people now opt for humanist funerals? Is this not simply about extending that freedom of choice for people to have a humanist marriage, should they wish?
Lord Ashton of Hyde: I think that there is a difference, both in law and fact, between a funeral and a marriage.
Noble Lords: Oh!
Lord Ashton of Hyde: There is probably a joke there somewhere. We did what we said we would do in the Act. We have consulted this year and agreed that we would come up with an answer by 1 January 2015. That was in the Act and that is what we are going to do.
The Ministry of Justice consultation Marriages by Non-Religious Belief Organisations was launched on 26 June 2014 and ended on 18 September 2014, with a commitment to publish a response by 1st January 2015 at: http://www.justice.gov.uk. Whilst we could not comment on the sincerity, or not, of the government commitment to introduce this legislation before the next general election, we would observe that there are parallels with the inclusion of “caste” as a protected characteristic under the “race” criterion of the Equality Act 2010, another issue that it was forced to concede following overwhelming support for the measure in the House of Lords.
Updated 2 December 2014