Previous SectionIndexHome Page

4 Nov 2002 : Column 121—continued

The Financial Secretary to the Treasury (Ruth Kelly): I pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Rhondda (Mr. Bryant) for bringing his attention and that of the House to these important matters.

As my hon. Friend said, civil registration is an important service that touches everyone at some time during his or her life. It ensures the civil status of every person, protecting individuals as well as society as a whole. However, as he pointed out, the current system dates back to the 19th century. The needs of society, families and individuals have changed dramatically since then, and it is important that civil registration adapt to reflect those changes and support today's society.

My hon. Friend thought that it was perhaps a little odd that a Treasury Minister should be present to deal with these matters. Perhaps I should explain why. As he is aware, the registrar-general is responsible for administering the law relating to the registration of births, deaths and marriages in England and Wales. The registrar-general's office forms part of the Office for National Statistics, and I am the sponsor Minister for national statistics. In that role, I am also responsible for civil registration.

The Government consultation paper XSupporting Families", which was published in 1998, recommended that there should be a review of the civil registration system in England and Wales. It also promoted the idea of a wider role for registration officers, to include the provision of services associated and linked with the registration of births, deaths and marriages. The registrar-general was asked by the Government to take forward that review, following which he published a consultation paper, XRegistration: Modernising a Vital Service", in 1999. The review does not extend to fundamental marriage law, although Ministers agreed that the registrar-general could consult on widening the choice of places of marriage.

There were almost 1,000 responses to the consultation. Together with other evidence, they were used to formulate a new policy framework for civil registration. Subsequently, on 22 January this year, the Registrar-General published the White Paper XCivil Registration: Vital Change", which details the Government's proposals for improving civil registration in England and Wales.

The Government's proposals, as set out in the White Paper, will give more choice in using registration services—choice about where and how to register a birth or death and where one can get married, as well as the wider choices of new services such as baby naming and marriage reaffirmation. These proposals will improve the service that users receive. They will allow change and innovation to continue in future and they will make full use of modern technology, about which I shall say more. They will help also to maximise the benefits that this can bring to individuals and organisations while continuing with the necessary safeguards.

My hon. Friend suggested that we should make civil registration records available in electronic form over time on the internet. That is precisely what we propose to do. Over time, we hope that all existing records of births, marriages and deaths will be computerised. Looking forward, it is intended to develop a system

4 Nov 2002 : Column 122

based on web technology for the future collection of civil registration information. That system will incorporate technologies that are up to date, robust, flexible and efficient. It will also contain features to maintain security of the data, and to authenticate users where that is necessary.

The Government have chosen to distinguish between historical records—those relating to people born more than 100 years ago—and records relating to people born within the past 100 years. We propose to fund the computerisation of the latter group of records, although some of the information will be treated as confidential. These historical records are to be made fully open and available to the public. The Government recognise that family history is a popular hobby. We have said that we would support not-for-profit organisations investing in the introduction of electronic access to these records.

I move on to marriage law and the wider role that is envisaged for registration officers. As I have explained, fundamental marriage law is outside the scope of the civil registration review and is the responsibility of the Lord Chancellor. Respondents to the registrar-general's consultation paper supported the prospect of greater freedom to marry in places other than those currently approved for marriage. It is widely acknowledged that many of the current restrictions on the time or place of marriage, which have been in place since 1837, are no longer appropriate in today's society.

I wish to reassure the House that we intend that the solemnity and dignity of marriage should be upheld in the proposals that we put forward. The registrar-general will continue to issue guidance about how that solemnity and dignity should be retained during the marriage ceremony.

As for Church of England marriages, currently the rule is that in most cases a couple who want such a marriage must go to the parish church of the place where one or both of them live, or are on the church electoral roll. However, it is not always easy to determine whether a person is Xresident" in a particular place at a particular time. I understand that one of the problems has been different views on precisely what residence means. For example, the general view is that a student who is living elsewhere during term time may still be Xresident" at his or her parents' home. Another example is where a couple wish to marry in the parish where one of them grew up and where his or her parents still live, even though he or she has a home elsewhere throughout the year.

Some clergy apply stricter criteria than others in these cases when deciding whether the person concerned is also resident in the parish where the couple wish to marry, and instead of calling banns may, I understand, require the couple to obtain an Archbishop of Canterbury's special licence. I am advised that such a licence can permit a marriage at any time and in any place, and without the calling of banns or the completion of any other marriage preliminaries. The archbishop is responsible for laying down the criteria to be applied in deciding when to grant a licence, but the detailed procedure is determined by the faculty office. Licences are granted, for example, to permit marriages outside the parish in which the couple live, in a private chapel or, in an emergency, where one of the couple is ill.

4 Nov 2002 : Column 123

As the House is aware, it is not for the Government to speak for the Church of England or the Church in Wales. However, I am advised by the Lord Chancellor that the General Synod of the Church of England decided in July that the Church should also move to a more flexible set of principles on where marriages may take place.

The Church proposes to preserve the ancient right of a parishioner to marry in the church of the parish where he or she lives, but at the same time to create a range of well defined cases in which a couple can marry in some other place of worship where they have a Xdemonstrable connection".

While the details are still being worked on, a good many couples who in the past would have needed to obtain an archbishop's special licence to marry should no longer need one. The proposals tie in closely with those of the Government, and the Church will work with us to bring about the changes.

The Church does not intend to abolish the special licence procedure, which has not, it believes, outlived its usefulness. It will still be needed as a means of allowing special flexibility in exceptional cases; a similar provision exists for civil marriages in the form of the registrar-general's licence.

The special licence procedure will also be used to permit marriage in places other than places of worship. However, I am advised that the Church is clear that that should not mean a free-for-all, which would permit marriages in unsuitable venues. In our White Paper, the Government explained that the registration service is ideally placed to act as a focal point for information about services associated with births, deaths and marriages, such as social security benefits, marriage preparation and probate. The new support and advisory services will be complemented by the provision of celebratory services such as baby naming, the reaffirmation of marriage vows and civil funerals. Like my hon. Friend, I believe that there is a genuine opportunity for local authorities to develop those services innovatively to meet the needs of their communities, now and in future. A wider role for the registration service will improve on the current piecemeal approach by local authorities and will be underpinned by the proposed national standards.

Baby naming ceremonies give parents who prefer a secular ceremony the opportunity to celebrate the birth of their child publicly and show their commitment to its upbringing. The Government will expect local authorities to ensure that a baby naming service is available.

Some couples wish to celebrate key wedding anniversaries by reaffirming their marriage vows. The Government support the provision of secular marriage reaffirmation ceremonies and will expect local

4 Nov 2002 : Column 124

authorities to ensure their availability. That will provide couples with an alternative to equivalent religious ceremonies and will form a natural and appropriate extension to the role of the registration service.

The Government acknowledge that it may be appropriate for local authorities to offer other celebratory services. The law will be designed to respond to emerging public demand so that local authorities can innovate and extend their services to fulfil the changing needs of their communities.

My hon. Friend also mentioned still births, currently defined in legislation as children who are born after 24 weeks. There is already provision for their registration. Proposals in the White Paper will make that registration easier and give parents more options about the way in which to provide that information.

As my hon. Friend acknowledged, making the necessary changes to registration is long overdue. It will not be easy and it will not happen overnight. Changes to legislation will be made through order-making powers in the Regulatory Reform Act 2001. It contains wide powers, matched by tough safeguards, for reforming legislation on a regulatory regime such as that which relates to civil registration.

As I hope I have made clear, the proposals for reforming civil registration reflect the Government's wider agenda for modernising public services. We aim to improve and simplify services and to introduce greater flexibility and more choice. Modernising civil registration is an important part of the Government's aim of focusing public services directly on people's needs. Above all, it is important that the public receive a better service at such important moments of their lives.

I thank my hon. Friend for presenting the matter for consideration. I assure him that the Government are determined to introduce major reforms to the civil registration service in England and Wales.

Next Section

IndexHome Page