DIY wedding chaos

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The Independent Online
IT HAS been a lengthy relationship, marked by devotion to duty, dignity, and respect. But now the partners are estranged. The Crown and the registrars of births, marriages and deaths have fallen out.

The cause of the dispute is the 1994 Marriage Act, which enables couples from 1 April this year to arrange to have their weddings conducted away from the register offices.

But one key aspect of the new era of weddings was overlooked; the 1,700 register office staff were not consulted.

"We asked for negotiations, and it upsets staff that nothing was put in place before the changes were introduced," said David Spencer, the Unison official representing register office staff.

The staff, who are paid by local councils but employed by the Crown, have asked for improved pay and conditions in return for operating the peripatetic, seven-day service introduced by the Act. Extra revenue will be brought in by the new weddings because couples who want a secular ceremony away from a register office will pay more.

"Double time for Saturday afternoons or Sundays is not necessarily what everyone wants. Some would prefer time off in lieu," said Mr Spencer.

Workloads have already doubled since January, when the Act lifted restrictions on couples marrying in registration districts where they are not resident, leading to increased paperwork. But the added volume of work has not been incorporated in Whitehall yardsticks for financing the service.

"The Act was ill-conceived and went through without consultation. Our status is a mess,'' said Karen Knapton of the Society of Registration Officers.

Officers say they are in favour of reform, but not the piecemeal, under- funded package of the new Act. Although they are forbidden from taking strike action, their anger could cause an improbable outbreak of militancy. Staff have spoken privately about wildcat impediments to marriage, such as working-to-rule and a withdrawal of goodwill.

If registrars are conducting a marriage at the local Trusthouse Forte, who will run the office? How are officers to get from one wedding to another - on the bus, or in the mayor's limo?

"We are also supposed to ensure that no food or drink has been consumed in the room for an hour before the service," Ms Knapton said. "Imagine telling a couple they cannot be married because half the guests are drunk."