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Bishop begins bid to change law on marriage registration in England and Wales

Posted on: January 26, 2018 4:52 PM
The Bishop of St Albans, Dr Alan Smith, moves his Registration of Marriage Bill through its second reading in the UK’s House of Lords.

A change in the law to allow the names of couples mothers to be included in the official registers of marriages in England and Wales is a step closer after a Church of England bishop successfully steered a Bill through its second reading in the House of Lords – the upper house of the British Parliament. At present, marriage registers include only the name of the couple’s fathers. The Bishop of St Albans, Alan Smith, described this as “a clear and historic injustice” and “an archaic practice and unchanged since Victorian times, when children were seen as a father’s property and little consideration was given to a mother’s role in raising them.”

Bishop Alan is one of 26 Church of England bishops in the House of Lords: The Archbishops of Canterbury and York, and the Bishops of London, Durham and Winchester are the five senior member of the Bishops’ Benches. The other 21 places are taken by diocesan bishops in order of seniority, with a temporary transitional measure which sees qualifying female bishops placed higher in the succession list. This afternoon, Bishop Alan became the first bishop to steer a Bill – draft legislation – through its second reading stage in more than 30 years. It now progresses to the detailed clause-by-clause committee stage.

The Bill itself is small. It does not stipulate how the change is to be made, but gives the Secretary of State power to make the change through secondary legislation known as Regulations. The Second Church Estates’ Commissioner, the MP for Meriden Dame Caroline Spelman, is promoting an identical Bill through the House of Commons. That Bill is due to receive its second reading on 23 February. The Second Church Estates’ Commissioner is a non-governmental position. The post-holder is the link between the House of Commons and the Church of England. To become law, the Bills will need to clear second reading, committee and third reading stage in both Houses of Parliament.

Bishop Alan stressed that the Bill only concerned the registration of marriages, rather than the definition of marriage. “The Bill does not propose any changes to marriage ceremonies or the Church of England’s doctrine of marriage,” he told Peers during this afternoon’s debate. “These are all far greater questions, but they all fall outside the scope of this quite narrowly focused Bill.

“I understand that some Members of this House may have strong feelings on some of the other issues, but respectfully submit that I hope that these concerns will not get in the way of this simple and important change being made, which many people have wanted for such a long time.”

He said: “As we approach the centenary of the Representation of the People Act”, which gave women the right to vote in the UK for the first time, “it is only right that we consider how existing legislation excludes, or does not recognise, the contribution made by women. . .

“A marriage officially recognises the start of a new family. Including parents’ names on marriage registers gives children an opportunity to recognise the contribution of their parents in bringing them to that day. It is only right that mothers are recognised in their role just as much as fathers.

“Unsurprisingly . . . calls for reform of this system of marriage registration are not new. Indeed, in August 2014, the then Prime Minister David Cameron announced his support for a move to facilitate the inclusion of mothers’ names on marriage registers, and Members [of Parliament] from all major parties have supported Early Day Motions in favour of the change.

“Much to the amusement of the staff in my office, a number of magazines written for what one might call the stylish woman have been interested in, and supportive of, my Bill. However, that should not be surprising. I imagine that many Members of this House who have been married themselves or whose children have married will have been shocked that only the father’s details are recorded. As someone who has performed hundreds of marriages, it seems to me wholly unreasonable that mothers are systematically overlooked on this special occasion.”

He said that the Bill was also supported by genealogists, “who are anxious for this change to be made” because present records present “only one half of the family tree.”

The Bill was welcomed by the Government. Home Office minister Baroness Williams of Trafford told Peers that, if the Bill became law, the government would “aim to implement these reforms as soon as possible.”

A date for the Bill’s committee stage has not yet been published.