On Friday, the Civil Partnerships, Marriages and Deaths (Registration Etc.) Bill was read a second time in the House of Lords and committed to a Committee of the whole House. Replying to the debate for the Government, the Minister of State at the Home Office, Baroness Williams of Trafford, said that the Bill included “many important issues that the Government fully support”.
On the issue of registration, moving to a schedule system was the most efficient and economical way to introduce changes in marriage registration in England and Wales:
“The basis of a schedule system is that the couple and their witnesses sign a marriage schedule instead of signing the marriage register book.”
– which is what happens in Scotland. She confirmed that the changes to be prescribed by the Registrar-General in secondary legislation would allow for “the different family circumstances in society today” – eg, the recording of the mother’s name as well as the father’s on the schedule.
On humanist marriages, she was much less forthcoming. The Marriage Act 1949 provided for a premises-based marriage system and the Government considered that
“legislating in this way would create an anomaly for most couples, who cannot marry outdoors and are restricted to marrying in a register office, or approved premises such as hotels. That is all I will say about humanist marriages for the moment.”
Which, as I have no doubt said before, is not very convincing: you can marry out of doors in Scotland (I did so myself) – so why not in England and Wales? And what is so sacrosanct about a premises-based marriage system anyway?
On opposite sex civil partnerships, while the Government had some reservations about the drafting of Clause 2 of the Bill, she confirmed the Prime Minister’s announcement on 2 October 2018 that it would extend civil partnerships to opposite sex couples:
“I am pleased to say that this firmly remains the intention of the Government, and we look forward to opposite-sex couples being able to form civil partnerships as soon as possible.”
There were, however, no plans to extend civil partnerships to brothers and sisters (for which, see Burden and Burden v United Kingdom  ECHR 723): “We will ensure that the extension is restricted to opposite sex couples in intimate relationships”. The Government was working to draft a new amendment to the Bill which it hoped to table in Committee:
“This will hopefully address the concerns about the current shape of the clause and ensure that the Bill can deliver a comprehensive and robust opposite-sex civil partnership regime as soon as possible.”
As to same-sex marriage in Northern Ireland – which is not in the Bill – while she supported it, it was a devolved issue for the Northern Ireland Assembly. Which, again, is no great surprise, but ignores the fact that the UK Parliament could perfectly well legislate on the matter if it wished, devolved issue or not.
She re-emphasised the Government’s commitment to the NHS providing the safest and highest-quality care possible. Registration and certification could be an important part of acknowledging a pregnancy loss for some bereaved parents and the Government fully supported Clause 3, which provides for a report on whether the law should be changed to require or permit the registration of pre-24-week pregnancy losses. The Government had already begun work to produce a report on the issue.
On Clause 4, which would place a duty on the Secretary of State to prepare and publish a report on whether and, if so, how the law ought to be changed to enable or require coroners to investigate stillbirths, the Government supported the proposal. It had already agreed to consider extending coronial jurisdiction to stillbirths and to look at the possibility of a role for coroners that could support what was already happening in the NHS. It was developing its proposals and would publish them soon.
Finally, in answer to an intervention by Lord Lexden about the scope of the forthcoming Law Commission consultation on wedding law, she told the House that
“officials are working through all the policy issues before the content of any consultation is determined. Therefore, I have to tell my noble friend that I cannot say any more at this stage”.
Bill read a second time and committed.