Northern Ireland Assembly Flax Flower Logo

This report was not approved formally by the Committee prior to the suspension of the Assembly on 14 October 2002, but is published by order of the Speaker.

Committee for
Finance and Personnel

Tuesday 10 September 2002

Marriage Bill:
Committee Stage
(NIA 18/01)

Members present:

Mr Molloy (Chairperson)
Mr Beggs (Deputy Chairperson)
Mr B Bell
Mr Close
Mr Hussey
Mr R Hutchinson
Mr M Morrow
Mr Weir


Ms H Morrow ) Evangelical Alliance
Rev Gary Haire ) Christian Guidelines
Ms A Laird ) Christian Action, Research
and Education (CARE)

The Chairperson: I welcome you here today.

Ms Laird: CARE is a diverse Christian charity that aims to deliver practical compassion along with Christian insight to society through several welfare projects and public policy works. We focus on five major areas: bioethics, citizenship, education, family and the media.

The Evangelical Alliance is represented by Heather Morrow. It is the umbrella body that brings together Britain’s 1·2 million evangelicals, existing to promote unity and truth among its members and to represent their concerns and priorities to the Church, the state and society.

Rev Gary Haire represents Christian Guidelines, a charity that works throughout the island of Ireland with the aim of providing Christian guidelines through counselling and training to encourage and empower people in their daily lives.

All three organisations welcome the opportunity to present evidence on the Marriage Bill. For the most part, we endorse the proposed changes, but we have two concerns: first, the legislation does not define marriage and, secondly, it does not incorporate any practical initiatives to support marriage. We believe that defining marriage and incorporating practical initiatives to support it is consistent with the objective outlined in paragraph 7 of the explanatory and financial memorandum and goes some way towards fulfilling them. Paragraph 7 states that the effect of changes in the Bill would be

"to make getting married a more attractive prospect for couples, and a further step in strengthening the commitment of stable families."

However, the Minister said that the Bill does not deal with, nor is it intended to deal with, the concept of marriage. That causes us some concern, because the divorce consultation document stated that although the Department of Finance and Personnel would like to support marriage, it did not feel that the divorce legislation was the appropriate place in which to do so. Although we do not agree with that conclusion, it leaves us in the awkward position that if the Family Law (Divorce etc.) Bill will not deal with supporting and strengthening marriage, surely the Marriage Bill must do.

Heather Morrow will now outline our concerns on the definition of marriage.

Ms H Morrow: The Marriage Bill is a timely opportunity to incorporate fully into our legislation our common definition of marriage. Surely it is good practice to ensure that both parties to a contract are made fully aware of the details of the agreement. If a definition was considered important enough as to be included in the explanatory and financial memorandum, surely it deserves reiteration in the Bill itself, with the one small amendment that we propose.

Lord Penzance set down the legal definition of marriage in 1866:

"I conceive that marriage…may for this purpose be defined as the voluntary union for life of one man and one woman, to the exclusion of all others."

Another version was introduced into the civil marriage ceremony in 1947, following the recommendation of the Committee on Procedure in Matrimonial Causes, chaired by Lord Denning. It said:

"Marriage according to the law of this country is the union of one man with one woman voluntarily entered into for life to the exclusion of all others."

The purpose was to emphasise the solemnity of the occasion and to express clearly the principle that marriage is a personal union, for better or worse, of one man with one woman, exclusive of all others for life.

The Law Reform Advisory Committee report No. 11 states:

"Northern Ireland law only recognises as a valid marriage the voluntary union for life of one man and one woman to the exclusion of all others. In its inception it must be for life."

Two of the four MLAs who spoke during the Bill’s Second Stage — the Chairperson of this Committee, Mr Molloy, and the Rev Dr Ian Paisley — expressed their conviction that marriage is intended to be permanent. However, only the principles that marriage is a voluntary union of one man and one woman and that it is to the exclusion of others are in the Matrimonial Causes (Northern Ireland) Order 1978. The third principle that

"in its inception it must be for life"

is not set down in legislation. That may explain why the marriage ceremony in a registrar’s office here does not state that the union should be for life.

The Bill is an opportunity to bring Northern Ireland into line with England and Wales and to create a useful precedent by enshrining a universal working definition of marriage that includes the lifelong dimension. The stated intention of the Marriage Bill is to rationalise and to simplify. The inclusion of such a definition would be an important foundation for achieving those goals.

Alison Laird will now speak about the practical initiatives to support marriage.

Ms Laird: First, I will summarise some of the evidence in CARE’s submission indicating the value of strengthening marriage. Stable marriages are good for the economy and employers: on average, married individuals work harder, earn more and save more. Marriages build stable and less violent communities: research has shown that married men are less likely to be victims or perpetrators of crimes. Marriage provides a reliable basis from which men and woman can develop occupationally and fulfil parental responsibilities. Other responsibilities might include looking after elderly relatives. Marriage is good for children, providing a stable environment for love and affection from both parents. Marriage is also good for your health: on average, married men and women are healthier, live longer and have fewer emotional problems. The value and cost-effectiveness of supporting marriage has already been recognised in England and Wales. A 1998 discussion paper stated that

"sustaining well-functioning families through supporting marriage is a legitimate public interest, because society benefits from the well-being of its members and has a responsibility to invest in its children, on whose welfare its future depends."

Several American states insist that a couple wishing to marry — through a religious or civil ceremony — must complete a marriage preparation course before a licence will be issued. The divorce rate has dropped by up to 25% in the towns in which that scheme is carried out.

The Irish Government fund marriage preparation courses and subsidise couples attending marriage preparation courses facilitated by Christian Guidelines on behalf of the Church community. Marriage preparation and promotion in Northern Ireland are not funded.

We strongly recommend that the Marriage Bill incorporate a provision modelled on section 22 of the Family Law Act 1996, which enables the Lord Chancellor to make grants in connection with

"(a) the provision of marriage support services;

(b) research into the causes of marital breakdown;

(c) research into ways of preventing marital breakdown."

That has enabled the Lord Chancellor to ask Sir Graham Hart to carry out a wide-ranging review of the state of marriage in England and Wales. The review concluded that marriage support services can save marriages and help couples to improve their relationships. Marriage support was shown to be valuable to couples and cost-effective for Government and other public agencies. Hart’s view was that the voluntary sector should take the lead in initiating the practical initiatives but that the Government should provide leadership in financial and policy objectives.

The Lord Chancellor has responded to the findings by increasing the Department’s annual allocation to marriage and relationship support, from £3·2 million to £5 million, and has established a new advisory group on marriage and relationship support to advise the Minister on a strategy for spending the increased allocation.

Rev Gary Haire: Hart’s report stated that there was no statutory definition of marriage support services, but, in practice, the defining feature was its focus on the relationship between the adult couple as distinct from the family unit as a whole, the specific needs of the children, or the relationship between parents and children.

Christian Guidelines provides counselling for couples or individuals whose marriages or relationships are in difficulty, and a face-to-face meeting with a counsellor is the normal means of delivery. Most agencies prefer to meet the husband and wife together, although occasionally we see them individually. Some agencies provide telephone counselling, but that is usually only the first means of contact.

The range of other marriage support services on offer includes education about marriage and relationships for children and young people through the personal, social and health education (PSHE) frameworks in schools or through the youth services. It also provides marriage preparation for couples intending to marry, looking at the key areas of communication skills, conflict management, financial responsibilities, children and parental responsibility and intimacy, and care and maintenance for healthy marriages, which is sometimes called "marriage enrichment". That includes a crisis response service for people who have already attended a marriage preparation course and an information service.

Let me give you one example: a few years ago a couple who had attended one of our courses and found it very helpful had begun to struggle after just four years of marriage. Constant avoidance of conflict was taking its toll on the relationship, and neither partner was willing to deal with the issues. Given that habitual avoidance of conflict is one of the prime predictors of divorce, things did not seem good. However, when the couple revisited some of the basic communications skills and conflict management techniques that they had been taught during the course and began to apply those principles to their relationship, they were able to resolve their difficulties. Today they have a stronger and more vibrant relationship than before. That leads me to ask why we often tend to worry about the end of a marriage, and not the beginning

At present the Northern Ireland registrar’s role is restricted to ensuring that the legal requirements associated with marriages, births and deaths are complied with. However, with the advent of individual interviews of couples, naming ceremonies, rededication of vows, special licences, marriage vocation, et cetera, registrars now spend more time with couples. Some registrars in England have come to realise that this provides them with a marvellous opportunity to introduce couples to the concept of relationship education and the provision of appropriate resources and support.

This redefinition of their role enables registrars to empower couples to make a success of their relationship. The registrars are based in York, Bristol, Southampton, Taunton, Yeovil, Exeter, Plymouth and Truro. They have already started to work with specially trained couple workers from the local community family trust to see how best to use the opportunities presented to them when they come to the registry office.

Promotional material including a video is now available, and couples are starting to take up the option despite the lack of proper resources in terms of manpower, funds and space in the registry offices. Experience has shown that once couples overcome their initial reluctance they can enjoy the marriage preparation and the parenting preparation classes.

Let me quote from a recent e-mail that I received from a minister in July. He said:

"We had a wedding last Friday. The couple has been on your course. He, as is often with the guys, has been really apprehensive about going. Afterwards he was wonderfully enthusiastic about the evenings and even said it was the best money I ever spent."

Work done in the USA shows that if couples are properly prepared and supported through mentor couples, divorce rates dramatically drop in the community. There is a clear demonstration that some registrars see the type of proactive work as important, and they could, perhaps, take that as part of their roles in the registration service of the future. Couples who take up the options have been very positive about their experience. That is just one example of the opportunities available to us if funding is made available to strengthen and support marriage.

Ms H Morrow: All three of our organisations agree with the statement made in a discussion paper recently from the Lord Chancellor’s Department that said that sustaining well-functioning families through supporting marriage is a legitimate public interest.

In a similar way, the explanatory and financial memorandum intends that the Marriage Bill will be a further step in strengthening the commitment to stable families. That is clearly one way to fulfil the Executive’s key theme in the Programme for Government of meeting children’s needs, which is sub-priority 4, "Growing as a Community".

The Marriage Bill provides a timely opportunity to strengthen and support marriage through incorporating in legislation the definition of marriage as the union of one man and one woman voluntarily entered into for life to the exclusion of all others, and making legislative provision for practical initiatives to support marriage.

Without those additions, the Bill is in danger of being self-defeating. The procedures and legal preliminaries to marriage may quite rightly be simplified, but the commitment and its social implications cannot. An acknowledgement of that, based on evidence presented here and elsewhere, of the value of marriage to society, is the foundation the Bill cannot do without.

Mr Weir: Many of us find much to agree with in your presentation. You picked up on two principal issues: the definition of marriage and support before marriage, by way of preparation, or during it. First I will discuss the legislation to support marriage by providing additional resources. If we assume that we are competent to allocate money to marital support services as a devolved matter, would there not be merely a requirement to give a financial commitment rather than carrying out direct legislative change?

Rev Gary Haire: Probably. The Lord Chancellor’s Department gave the money to England and Wales only. It applied neither to Scotland nor Northern Ireland because of devolved administration.

Mr Weir: If it were within our devolved power to fund additional resources for that, it would not require an amendment to the Bill, but merely a commitment from the Executive to provide that additional finance.

Rev Gary Haire: That is something that the Committee would have to clarify.

The Principal Committee Clerk: I can confirm the position. Providing additional resources for finance in support of marriage would be clearly within the devolved powers of the Assembly. It is not a matter on which it could not give consent.

Mr Weir: OK. I appreciate that.

Ms Laird: The benefit of expressing that priority in the legislation is that it will build a culture of support for marriage. In view of the divorce legislation that is coming through, that might be helpful.

Mr Weir: I appreciate that, and I agree with many of the points that you have made. However, the Bill Office has advised us that the amendments that you have suggested, and which the Committee may wish to propose also, fall outside the scope of the Bill and may be refused.

How would you react to the argument that, legally, amendments that give a further definition of marriage, or that provide specifically for marriage support services, would fall outside the scope of the Bill and would not be legally competent?

Ms Laird: First, we are not changing the definition of marriage, we are merely clarifying it. Ms Morrow made the point that when people are signing a contract they should be fully aware of all the terms of it. That could come into the registrar’s definition.

Secondly, as regards marriage support services, paragraph 7 of the explanatory and financial memorandum states that the Bill’s aim is to strengthen the commitment of stable families. Marriage support is a priority, so why not include it in the Bill?

Ms H Morrow: I understand that the explanatory and financial memorandum is in no way intended to supplement the Bill. However, the fact that reference to strengthening families and a definition of marriage are included in the memorandum — and were felt to be necessary — must mean that they are within the remit of the Bill.

Mr R Hutchinson: The problem is that they are not in the Bill.

Mr Beggs: You emphasised the importance of preparation for marriage and how it can help to sustain successful marriages. Are you concerned about shortening the period of notice for marriages?

Rev Gary Haire: Not particularly. Some American states have introduced a 30-day rule, as opposed to a three-month rule. Couples who have not undergone some sort of pre-marriage education course — which must consist of a minimum of four to six hours, taught on a specified syllabus, and conducted by a relevant party — will not be allowed to marry within 30 days. Those who have undertaken marriage preparation courses will be allowed to marry within three days.

Mr Beggs: However, as I understand it, the Bill proposes shortening the period of notice without requiring couples to undergo any preparation.

Rev Gary Haire: That is correct. A requirement to undergo some sort of preparation would be useful, but I am not sure if it can be included in the primary legislation. Marriage preparation helps couples to stay together longer and is a valuable resource for society.

The Chairperson: Do your organisations believe that creating their own rules for the marriage ceremony is a sufficient means of regulating it? Does that regulation have to be in the Bill itself, and, if so, why? For example, if a particular denomination refused to marry a couple inside three months, would you consider that valid, or do you think that the Bill should regulate such decisions? Do you think that the Churches’ regulations are not sufficient?

Ms Laird: That is a matter for the individual Churches. None of our organisations would express a view on that matter.

Mr Close: I concur with the need for the definition of marriage to be included in the Bill, and I welcome the organisations’ stance on that.

I have difficulty with the concept of including support for marriage in the Marriage Bill. That aspect relates more to social security. Although I agree with the concept, I am not convinced that this is the right place to deal with it. I feel that it is something that should be dealt with by the Social Security Agency, which deals with financial support to families. Perhaps it is something that can be looked at for future inclusion. Am I wrong in that?

Ms Laird: It is important to set out the culture of marriage in the Marriage Bill. It is important for the Executive, or the Assembly, to show that they are committed to supporting marriage, and make provisions for that, by making it clear in the legislation. For example, the Lord Chancellor’s Department was given that provision in the Family Law Act 1996. That is what we are asking you to model it on.

Ms H Morrow: You are discussing the three-month regulation, and you feel that that falls happily within the remit of the Bill. The point of the three-month regulation is to enable couples to be adequately prepared. Consideration of marriage preparation is, therefore, within your remit and within the remit of the Bill. We are supplementing that and want to see it enshrined.

Mr M Morrow: Ms Laird began by saying that she had two main concerns. Would you remind me again what those two main concerns were?

Ms Laird: They were that the definition of marriage would be included in the legislation as well as practical initiatives to support marriage.

Mr M Morrow: Does your organisation see the definition as an important issue, irrespective of whether this Bill deals with that or not?

Ms Laird: Yes.

Mr M Morrow: Why is it important, since the Bill is not designed to deal with that? I agree with you, but I am trying to turn it round on you. Why is it important, when, in fact, the Bill is not designed to do that?

Ms Laird: It is important, because the explanatory and financial memorandum of the Bill says that its purpose is to support marriage and to help couples make it a more attractive prospect. The legal definition of marriage is there; it is just not incorporated in legislation — in particular, the concept that marriage is for life. If you are signing up to a contract you should be aware of the full terms of the contract before you do so.

Mr M Morrow: Having listened to what Peter Weir has said, you see the predicament that we are in. We have taken advice on this issue, and if we were to do certain things it might make the Bill not competent. How would you deal with that?

Ms Laird: I would strongly recommend to the Department that the provision should be included in the Bill or that it should take note of it for a future Bill.

The Principal Committee Clerk: Mr Weir referred correctly to the procedures earlier. Whether that provision is within the scope of the Bill or not, it is the Speaker who will select amendments. However, there is no bar on the Committee making recommendations or tabling an amendment that is outside the scope of the Bill. The question is, is it worth it? That is a matter for the Committee to decide.

Mr R Hutchinson: It would get it on the record.

Mr M Morrow: It is more than that. We could go through the motions to cover our own backs, so that when we meet these people in the street in six months’ time we will be able to say that we did our best, and they will say that our best was not good enough as they walk away. That covers our backs; but I am interested in more than that. I am interested in more than just a sham fight.

Ms H Morrow: May I ask a question?

The Chairperson: You can, but you may not get answers. [Laughter].

Ms H Morrow: The Minister said that the Bill is not intended to deal with the concept of marriage. However, the divorce consultation document issued by the Department of Finance and Personnel said that the divorce legislation is not the appropriate place to discuss marriage. Even in solely political terms, do you not see that as a perfect entrée? It is stated that the divorce legislation is not the appropriate place. We feel that, in the interests of society, the divorce legislation must be balanced with legislation of equivalent weight. Perhaps that is a perfect opportunity to say that if that is not the place, then we feel that the Marriage Bill is the place.

Mr M Morrow: That is not a problem, Ms Morrow. You should be sitting here. I have no problem with that at all.

The Chairperson: The divorce legislation has been mentioned. Do you believe in divorce in any form at all?

Mr R Hutchinson: That is not a fair question.

Rev Gary Haire: Chairman, that is an unfair question.

The Chairperson: I mentioned it because we have two pieces of legislation coming forward. One is for marriage and the other is for divorce. One states that marriage is for life and the other provides for its termination. That is obviously a major contradiction.

Ms Laird: CARE accepts that there are cases where there is irretrievable breakdown and that there must be legal provision for those couples. I can give you my consultation response on the divorce law.

The Chairperson: That is the next piece of legislation.

Ms Laird: Yes. I hope to be back to comment on it.

Mr M Morrow: There is no question that there are biblical terms for divorce. It is not so much the divorce. Are there biblical terms for remarriage? That is where the problem is.

Mr R Hutchinson: Yes. [Laughter].

The Chairperson: I did not intend to ask an unfair question.

Rev Gary Haire: As you rightly say, defining marriage is important in terms of one man and one woman, particularly with the emergence of the transgender issue, and how that might affect our legislation with regard to Europe. However, we are not here to discuss that.

The Chairperson: That is outside of the Bill, as they say. That is what they are telling us in relation to the other matters as well. OK. Thank you, and thanks for introducing a little bit of humour into the situation. That was beneficial.

10 September 2002 (ii) / Menu / 17 September 2002 (i)