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Viscount Bridgeman: Clearly, I should have intervened much earlier! I am grateful to the Minister for his very helpful reply. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

[Amendments Nos. 37 and 38 not moved.]

11 p.m.

Baroness Williams of Crosby moved Amendment No. 39:

Page 15, line 8, at end insert ("and must at the same time send a copy of this report to the parties to the proposed marriage").

The noble Baroness said: I hope that at this hour of the night in moving Amendment No. 39 I shall be as lucky as the noble Viscount. Under Amendment No. 39, when a registrar provides information to the Secretary of State as required under Clause 20 he is required to send a copy of that report to the parties to the proposed marriage. The amendment is based on the proposition that it is only right and proper that those who are subject to what may be a substantial constraint should be made aware of the nature of the argument that is made against them and should be given the opportunity to refute it, if they can, and to advance facts that may allow the Secretary of State to think again.

We are profoundly concerned that without such a provision, the terms of the European convention, in particular those relating to the right to privacy and to marriage, may be breached in circumstances in which there is, or may well be, a perfectly innocent explanation of what the registrar suspects. Registrars are not qualified to make easy judgments of this kind. Up to now, their functions have been very different. If Members of the Committee look at the advice that is being given to registrars--I have had only a brief opportunity to do so--they will see that it suggests that they will have quite a long time to cross-question the couples who come before them. On the face of it, that does not appear likely. Registrars are also expected to ask questions which it will be very difficult for them to put.

In particular, I am troubled that the other aspects of the Government's policies, in particular the attempt to explain to couples who are about to marry the importance of understanding the significance of what they are undertaking, including responsibility for any future children, are not compatible with the semi-investigative role now being thrust on registrars. I ask the Government to think very seriously about whether registrars of marriage are the appropriate people for this kind of operation.

To some it may appear quite right that there should be an opportunity to investigate marriages which it is suspected are marriages of convenience. Many of us are aware that such marriages occur. However, careful consideration must also be given to whether it is more appropriate for immigration officers to question that

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relationship at the point at which the married partner who is not a British national asks for a change in status to recognise the fact that he or she is the spouse of a British citizen. That seems to be a good opportunity--which already exists--to go into such matters; and it appears to be much more a task for an immigration officer than a registrar.

We are also concerned about the possibility of arguments under the convention with regard to discrimination on religious grounds, as Anglican ceremonies have been exempted from the scope of Clause 20. I have every possible respect for the Anglican Church, but I can well understand that Roman Catholics, members of the Free Church, Moslems or Hindus may well object to that provision on the basis that their marriage ceremonies are just as solemn as those of the Church of England. Therefore, it could be argued that this provision has a certain discriminatory aspect to it.

We argue that the provision of the report to the married couple will give them an opportunity to make their case along the lines that I have suggested. More broadly, I point out--I suspect that my noble friend will have a little more to say on this matter on clause stand part--that it appears to be extremely unwise to place this responsibility on registrars because it conflicts with their other functions. At the end of the day, it is an unwarranted extension into the area of marriage by someone who is connected officially with the ceremony of marriage, given that an immigration officer can make such inquiries.

I conclude with a brief remark. I am married to a non-British citizen. I refer to the assiduity with which the British and American authorities--the tax authorities and heaven knows who else--pursue us to discover whether we are still married (having been married for 11 years), whether we are still cohabiting, and whether we are still behaving properly towards one another. Immigration authorities are well qualified to go into those details. After a while one begins to suspect that if one goes away for an evening to a conference the immigration authority of one country or another will immediately suggest that one has become separated, and announce that one is no longer entitled, in my case, to a green card, and in my husband's case to permission to stay; and therefore we suspect that at any moment the roof may fall in. I beg to move.

Lord Alton of Liverpool: The Minister was able to respond in positive terms to the noble Viscount, Lord Bridgeman. I was happy to add my name to Amendments Nos. 36 and 38. Although I had not added my name to the amendment tabled by the noble Baroness, Lady Williams of Crosby, Amendment No. 39, I am in equal sympathy with the sentiments she expressed.

I wish to underline some of those points which I believe should be considered by the Government between now and Report stage. I should like to hear more from the Government about what they think is a sham marriage. Many of us remember the endless arguments about the primary purpose rule. We were troubled at the time about how others perceived a

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marriage compared with those who were entering into the marriage. Different people have different views in a country where the divorce rate is about 44 per cent, and fast approaching the American norm where half of all marriages end in divorce. People today have differing views about what a marriage entails. We live in a more secular environment. We need to have clearer guidance from the Government as to what they mean by a sham marriage.

I agree with the noble Baroness, Lady Williams, about the use of registrars, rather like lorry drivers or airline pilots, to enforce immigration law. It is undesirable to have those secondary figures being given additional responsibilities. I wonder what the registrars said about it if they were consulted prior to the legislation being laid before us.

The noble Baroness is right. It is offensive to Moslems, Hindus and Christians from other denominations, who enter what they believe to be valid marriages--to some the only marriage for the remainder of their lives--to be told that the person who marries them will not ask those questions because they have not been recognised as an exempt category. An element of discrimination is being introduced into the Bill. What advice have the Government been given about the claims which could be made against them under the anti-discriminatory legislation for having decided to introduce marriage in those terms?

I refer back to the proceedings before the 1996 legislation. Constituents gave me examples of how their love letters had been aired at tribunals and immigration appeal hearings in order to test the nature of their relationship. It is deeply offensive that people's personal relationships should be looked at in those terms. I fully understand that there will be people who will try to circumvent immigration rules for many reasons. But to go through every person's reasons for getting married, and constantly to have them in fear that because someone casts doubt on the reasons for the marriage in the first place, their reasons for being here may be invalidated is iniquitous.

Furthermore, if two people's married relationship breaks down, it builds into the equation another reason why someone can pursue subsequently, in perhaps a vindictive way, the other marriage partner in that broken marriage by saying that the primary purpose was not one of a lasting intent but simply to obtain citizenship.

Those questions should be explored properly before we proceed with the incorporation of this clause into the Bill. Although I realise that there will not be a vote on it in Committee today, I hope that the Government will give the matter more consideration before we agree to incorporate the provision at Report stage.

Earl Russell: I have only one reservation about my noble friend's amendment: I have not yet given up hope of living to see a freedom of information Act make it unnecessary.

The statement of damaging reflections about other people is something for which there should be a degree of accountability. Many people, freed from that

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accountability, are capable of indulging in flights of fancy at quite considerable length. In this context, the question arises: will any derogatory reflections about a couple or either member of a couple submitted under this clause enjoy either absolute or qualified privilege in law in the event of possible proceedings for libel?

It also seems that the clause may create a conflict of influence for registrars. They have a responsibility to the couple who are getting married at what one believes is likely to be, for many, an important and solemn moment. That may conflict with the responsibility that the clause confers on registrars to cast suspicion on the motives for undertaking a ceremony. That, in turn, bears on the difficulties that the Government have got themselves into regarding the Church of England.

I would have some sympathy with those difficulties if I were not starting from the premise that the Government should not have begun here in the first place. Parish priests in the Church of England were ex officio registrars long before there were civil registrars. For them, as for any Christian clergy, marriage is a sacrament. Therefore, they have particular spiritual responsibilities towards those with whom they are dealing. I believe that it is perfectly possible that, when faced with their sacramental duties or a duty to the state about which they may have--at best--mixed feelings, Church of England clergy might take the line that their sacramental duty comes first.

I understand why the Government felt that they could not ask Church of England clergy to undertake these duties. However, if they do not ask the clergy to undertake these duties, they are committing discrimination that is plainly contrary to Article 14 of the convention when taken in conjunction with Article 8--that is, the discrimination article in conjunction with the right to family life--and Article 12, the right to marry. So the Government lose either way. They really should not have started from this point in the first place.

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