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4 Nov 2002 : Column 117—continued

Mr. Bryant: I am not sure which mountain near Aviemore that might be, but I am sure that there could be no better best man than my hon. Friend. He may be interested to know that that option would not be available to his researcher if he were living in England or Wales because the law prohibits people from marrying at the top of a mountain, in their back garden or anywhere else other than specially licensed premises. My hon. Friend has neatly made my point.

The number of church marriages is falling dramatically: 34 per cent. of all marriages in England and Wales in 1989 were performed in churches in either the Church of England or the Church in Wales, but by 1999 the figure had fallen to 25 per cent. So, across a 10-year period, there has been a significant fall.

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Across the span, over the past 170 years since civil registration began in 1837, many understandings about birth, death and marriage have changed. People's understanding of suicide and how the law should deal with it has changed dramatically. Whereas 170 years ago—even 50 years ago—suicide was primarily considered a sin and therefore to be treated as illegal, meaning that people had to be buried separately from consecrated ground, nowadays most people would consider the mental health rather than the criminal issues involved.

The change in the law in 1994 that allowed marriages to take place not just in registry offices but on approved premises resulted in 1999 in the marriage of 37,709 people on approved premises around the land. The vast majority of them took place in hotels, which are doing a nice trade as a result, but we have not yet seen full liberalisation, which I hope we might see soon.

Other understandings have changed. Even 30 years ago, the understanding of stillbirth was very limited. It is only in the past few years that people have realised that giving the child who was born dead a name and providing an opportunity for proper bereavement are essential to the long-term mental health of the couple involved. There is still some way to go in the registration process, as I shall say in a moment. There has also been a large falling away in the number of baptisms conducted by all the Churches—for a series of reasons, which I shall not go into.

For all those reasons, I am delighted that the Government have published an excellent although perhaps slightly under-read White Paper, XCivil Registration: Vital Change". I presume that Xvital" in that context is a pun. Intriguingly, the White Paper has been issued under the auspices of the Treasury. I am sure that the Minister will later tell us why it was not a Home Office document. I also presume that many of the issues that will be addressed in legislation to come will reform the Marriage Act 1949 and subsequent amendments to it, especially the Marriage Act 1994, but I should like to describe a few areas in which the Government should be encouraged in their move towards change. I shall go through them in life order, as it were, starting with birth.

I mentioned the marked falling away of the number of baptisms over the past 100 years. It is important none the less that there should be an opportunity in today's society to recognise the moment of birth. I am sure that many families would welcome a formal opportunity—a rite of passage, as it were—to invite friends and family to an officially recognised naming ceremony. I am glad to see that that is in the Government's White Paper and I urge them to take that idea forward. I know that many registrars are keen to establish that new service.

In the world of the internet, it would also be helpful if people were able to register a birth online. There are thousands of other things to be getting on with at the time of a birth without having to worry about finding a register office and going along to it.

Miss Anne Begg (Aberdeen, South): Before my hon. Friend goes through the other six of the seven ages of man, I want to draw to his attention a reform that I would like to the registration of births, which is to do with people who have changed sex during their lifetime. I have a constituent who was born a boy but had an

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operation and is now living as a woman. She would like to change her birth certificate to reflect her new sex. Does my hon. Friend agree that that reform is long overdue in this country?

Mr. Bryant: I thank my hon. Friend. I wholly agree with the point that she makes, which has been made to me by a couple of my own constituents. The Minister may want to return to the matter later.

Pursuing further the issue of weddings, I am aware that, in a sense, I am one of the least likely people in the Chamber to be talking about weddings, though I am reminded of some words of Noel Coward:

The present law is still relatively restrictive, compared with many other countries, and compared with most people's expectations of the law. So, for instance, one is allowed to get married only between 8 am and 6 pm, and only in certain places. The law also allows only certain fairly perfunctory services. I know that many people do not want to go for a church service, but would like a service that is a full recognition and which has all the weight and dignity of a decent service; and they have sometimes felt that the services offered by registry offices do not quite meet that necessity.

I would welcome the Government's move towards the celebrant-based understanding of registration—that is, instead of registering the place where one gets married, one registers the person who is to do the marrying. In terms of guaranteeing the dignity of the service, the most important issue is whether the person standing in front of the couple on behalf of society and of the people can conduct the ceremony with due dignity. People should have the freedom to choose where they want to get married, whether on the stands of the Millennium stadium or the top of a mountain in the Rhondda. Wherever they want to get married, they should be able to make that choice, while at the same time ensuring the dignity of marriage. Without that moment of dignity, the whole institution of marriage is undermined, which I am sure no hon. Member wants to happen.

There are specific issues that the White Paper does not address substantially. The Government may intend to introduce another White Paper. I understand that the Church of England expects them to do so later this year. As there is not much more of the year left, I do not know when that would happen. There are still some anomalies in relation to religious weddings, which are provided for in legislation. For instance, there are no restrictions on the times when Jews and Quakers can get married, or on the places in which they are allowed to get married. The main way in which ordinary members of the public can get married anywhere they want, if they can persuade the Archbishop of Canterbury to allow them to do so, is by getting hold of an archbishop's special licence. That is used in certain circumstances, but not as widely as it might be.

There are other anomalies. The residency requirement that is laid on church weddings to enable people to apply for a common licence, if they are to get married in their local parish church or if they are on the electoral roll, is crying out for amendment. From my

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former days as a vicar, I know that many vicars who have pretty churches are happy to enable anyone to qualify to be on their electoral roll, regardless of their attendance at the church. I do not want to issue calumnies about the clergy, but we may need to help the clergy to be a little more honest in the matter.

I support the Church of England's recommendation—I wonder whether the Minister would like to comment on this—that instead of a residency requirement or the electoral roll requirement, it would be better to prove a demonstrable connection between the couple who are applying to get married in a particular church, and that church.

On the subject of deaths, I have already mentioned the issue relating to stillbirths. Many hon. Members will know of families who have been somewhat distressed by the process of registration, or in some cases the absence of a process of registration, of their stillbirth. Although the national health service and many other organisations have moved on in providing support for couples, it is important that we move towards providing a simpler system which looks more like the registration of a death than the registration of a birth and of a death.

It should also be possible for couples to register a still birth in the hospital where it happened—a system that is now operated by some hospital trusts around the country. If couples are to register a still birth through a registrar, they should do so by appointment rather than by having to turn up in a room where people might be celebrating the birth and registration of a newborn child or a marriage. It would be more sensitive to introduce separate waiting rooms and an appointments system. It would also be a good idea to waive the registration fee for those registering a still birth, and it is obviously important that those involved in registering still births are given some help, understanding and training in the issues that they might encounter.

One tiny issue of which the White Paper takes note is the problem of people who die at sea. I hope that the Government will address it, not least because a distant relative of mine died in that way. As I am sure the Minister is aware, those who die at sea but do not die on a ship cannot have their death registered in the same way as others. The problem applies in respect of remarkably few people every year, but is none the less very distressing for the families concerned.

The Government mentioned several times in the White Paper the move towards making available the archives of the registers on the web, which I welcome. As genealogy is one of the most popular pastimes in Britain today—one has only to visit a computer store to see how many different software applications are available to enable people to build their family tree—it would be good if we could provide those engaged in research and ordinary members of the public with the opportunity to access all that information on the web as soon as possible. I hope that the Treasury will not be niggardly or parsimonious—I am sure that it would never want to be—in allowing that to happen.

I am grateful for the opportunity to raise these issues and I hope that this debate has not been as dry as parchment, as some hon. Members suggested to me earlier that it might be.

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10.17 pm

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