First Standing Committee
on Delegated Legislation
Monday 16 December 2002
[Mr. Bill O'Brien in the Chair]
(Northern Ireland) Order 2003
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Northern Ireland (Mr. Ian Pearson): I beg to move,
That the Committee has considered the draft Marriage (Northern Ireland) Order 2003.
I intend to keep my remarks relatively short because, both during consultation and when legislation on the subject was being considered by the Northern Ireland Assembly, these proposals underwent lengthy and detailed scrutiny.
The order started its journey in 1998, when the topic of marriage preliminaries and formalities was referred to the law reform advisory committee for Northern Ireland. Mo Mowlam, then the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, considered that the existing law was anomalous, complex, outdated and possibly discriminatory; she asked that eminent committee to give its recommendations on how the law should be changed. It did so in December 2000, following a lengthy consultation exercise, and I place on record my thanks for its excellent work.
The vast majority of the committee's 32 recommendations were incorporated into a Marriage Bill. Prior to suspension, the Bill was debated by the Northern Ireland Assembly, and the scrutiny committee was about to issue its report. I am pleased to say that the Bill was widely welcomed. It received broad cross-party and cross-community support, and it was expected that the Assembly would pass it without further substantive change.
Lady Hermon (North Down): I welcome you to the Chair, Mr. O'Brien, and I hope that you enjoy our proceedings. I also take my first opportunity to congratulate the Minister on his new post in the Northern Ireland Office.
Consultation was indeed widespread, and the Bill had cross-community support among the many and varied parties in the Assembly, which was not yet suspended. It would help to know the response of the Churches.
Mr. Pearson: I thank the hon. Lady for her welcome to what I hope will be a short-lived ministerial career in the Northern Ireland Office—short-lived, because we want the devolved institutions up and running again as quickly as possible. As far as I am aware, there is broad support among religious groups for the order. In essence, and except for some minor changes that I shall mention in a moment, the order is the same as the Bill considered by the Assembly.
I turn briefly to the main features of the order. The emphasis is on equality, which is underpinned by the
Column Number: 004
introduction of a system of universal civil preliminaries to be used for all marriages, which will replace the existing complicated procedures, which apply in different ways to different denominations and religions. In addition, the law on civil marriage venues will be relaxed to allow people to marry in a greater variety of locations, subject to the approval of the venue by the local authority. I believe that Northern Ireland couples will welcome the additional choices opened by that provision; they have been available for some time in England and Scotland.
For religious marriages, the order changes the current scheme under which buildings are registered to the more satisfactory and flexible arrangement of a register of religious officiants. The order also consolidates and updates certain other ancillary matters so that the reader can find the practical provisions relevant to most marriages in one statute.
I said that some minor changes had been made since the legislation was introduced in Bill form to the Assembly. One makes specific provision for circumstances in which a registered officiant is not available; that was done following comments by the Assembly's Committee for Finance and Personnel. I am sorry to say that I have been unable to include a definition of marriage, as proposed by the Committee, as it is outside the scope of the order. However, the definition of marriage is already well settled in common law.
The Assembly's third point was about using an alternative to the term ''officiant'' that would be more suited to the doctrines of the Religious Society of Friends. The point will be taken up in regulations so that alternative designations favoured by other denominations can also be recorded, in line with the order's overall principle of equal treatment.
The order therefore closely resembles the legislation carefully considered by the Assembly. It has the support of all the political parties in Northern Ireland and is welcomed in religious and secular circles. Accordingly, I have no hesitation in commending it to hon. Members.
Mr. David Wilshire (Spelthorne): I start by saying what a pleasure it is to serve under your chairmanship, Mr. O'Brien. I also welcome the Minister. I, too, hope that his term in the Northern Ireland Office will be short. It would be churlish of me to say that I hoped that all Labour Ministers would be in office for only a short time, and if I say that I hope that the Minister's term in office will be short, I do so only for the purposes of this afternoon's proceedings and because I, like everyone else, want the devolution arrangements to be reinstated in Northern Ireland.
I offer two apologies. First, my hon. Friend the Member for Solihull (Mr. Taylor) is detained in his constituency. He is the official Opposition spokesman on the matters that we are discussing and he tenders his apologies for his unavoidable absence. The second apology is from me. Foolishly, it was decided to give me a job in opposition, but I was put in the Whips Office to keep me quiet. Hon. Members who have heard speeches of mine in Committee will understand
Column Number: 005
what a wise move that was. This will probably be my one and only outing, and my career will be shorter than the Minister's. Nevertheless, I shall try not to make too much of a meal of it.
Like others in the House and elsewhere, I am aware that those who debate marriage should have a 100 per cent. success record themselves. For obvious reasons, I do not, and people know my circumstances. None the less, we all have a contribution to make, however imperfectly we may have worked out our own arrangements. There are still useful things that we can say.
I shall make one or two general comments and then ask the Minister some questions about the order. As English Members of Parliament, we should all welcome any move that brings Northern Ireland legislation into line with that in Great Britain. Many of us believe that Northern Ireland is an integral part of the United Kingdom and we welcome any measures that reinforce that understanding.
The fact that there is cross-party—and, in particular, cross-tradition—support for the order is interesting and reassuring. As an Englishman who has been very involved in Northern Ireland over the years, I know that much of the difficulty with which we must contend comes from the two traditions' different religious persuasions. It is reassuring and interesting to find both traditions saying much the same about an issue that touches greatly on their faith, and I welcome that development.
Speaking solely for myself, however, I am concerned by paragraph 2 of the explanatory memorandum, which says that the order does not deal with the concept of marriage. I beg to differ. Anything that addresses arrangements for secular marriage makes it easier, by definition, for there to be a secular civil relationship, rather than a religious one. That raises issues about whether marriage is founded in faith or legal convenience. Clearly, that is beyond the order's scope, but I simply make the point that I am not at all sure that the explanatory memorandum is as correct as it should be.
In introducing the order, the Minister said that the draft had undergone lengthy and detailed scrutiny. I understand that, but I as have said before in Committee, that is no reason not to consider such orders thoroughly. I make no apology for believing that we should consider the order thoroughly, although I have no wish to divide the Committee. In their wisdom, the Government have decided to end devolution, at least temporarily, and place responsibility fairly and squarely with the House. We were not involved in the lengthy and detailed scrutiny, and we owe it to the people of Northern Ireland to make sure that we understand, because for the time being we are the people who have to take decisions.
The Minister said that the vast majority of the recommendations—I believe that there were 32—had been adopted, though he referred to two that had not. It would helpful if he could say whether other recommendations were left out, and why.
I have a number of questions for the Minister about the draft order. He partly anticipated my first query.
Column Number: 006
In article 2, where the definitions are, there is no definition of marriage. That caught my eye. The Minister said that that was outside the scope of the order. That may be so, but it is surely in the Government's hands to put whatever they want within the scope of the order, if that is necessary. If it is felt to be important, the scope of the order can be varied and a definition can be included. I find the situation strange—everything else seems to be defined, even some minor matters. I expected a definition of marriage to be in the order. It might be satisfactory to rely on common law, but in an ever changing world, where social views alter so rapidly, that leaves me somewhat nervous. It would be helpful if the Minister could reflect upon whether such a definition might be included.
Article 4(3)(a) refers to
''the names of the parties''.
I wonder why there is no mention of either the addresses of the parties or the venue for the marriage. We are detailing what must be publicly available, presumably so that the records are correct and those who want to object can do so. Given that there are lots of people with the same names in Northern Ireland, as elsewhere, it would be helpful to know where Joe Bloggs or whoever lived, so as to ensure that one could complain about the right person.