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Clause 41 — Child to live with adopters before application

Part of Orders of the Day — Adoption and Children Bill — [2nd Allotted Day] – in the House of Commons at 5:45 pm on 16th May 2002.

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Photo of Jacqui Smith Jacqui Smith Minister of State, Department of Health 5:45 pm, 16th May 2002

I will repeat to the hon. Gentleman what I said in Committee about the Government believing that there was scope for looking at unmarried couples being able to adopt and taking that forward through the partnership registration work that the Government were undertaking. There is nothing inconsistent in my position today.

We need to be clear about the basis of this argument. A vote for the amendments tabled by my hon. Friend the Member for Wakefield is not a vote to extend the right to adopt to unmarried people or to gay people. They already have that right. The existing legal framework for adoption already provides that single people may adopt regardless of their sex or sexual orientation; only married couples can adopt jointly. If a single person is living as part of a couple, the couple will be assessed jointly. One person will then adopt the child, and the other may acquire parental responsibility for the child by means of a residence order. This is not, therefore, about extending the right to adopt to gay people or unmarried people. Furthermore, if any hon. Members really opposed those ideas, they should, at some point during the passage of the Bill, have made their position clear. Nobody has done so.

Several hon. Members, including Mr. Lansley in his very considered speech, argued the case for stability for the child and the importance of the legal relationship that that child has with each of his parents. In the current legal framework, the child is missing having two parents, each with a legal relationship with him. We know from correspondence that we have received that adopted children worry about the difference it would make to them if, for example, their legal parent were to die leaving no one legally responsible for them. That does not provide security or stability for those children who are already living with unmarried couples and with gay people. Residence orders are not permanent. They come to an end when the child reaches the age of 16. Adoption, however, is for life.

Miss Widdecombe made much of the concept of marriage, as did other hon. Members. This Government have supported marriage, and supported assistance for married people. As we have heard, the number of married people has gone up under the Labour Government. I am happily married, or so my husband tells me. This is not an attack on marriage. It is right that we should seek stability for children, and that can be—and often is—provided by married couples. It can also be provided, however, by other families and by other couples. Nothing in these proposals will water down the crucial assessment process that has to be undertaken to determine whether a relationship is stable—whether the couple is married or not.

Under the amendments, particularly new clause 13, any couple—married or unmarried—wanting to become adoptive parents will need to prove not only that they can provide a loving family environment but that they form a stable and long-term partnership. The provisions in new clause 13 are important. All adoptive applicants must be assessed and approved by an adoption agency before they have children placed with them. That assessment will include a rigorous scrutiny of the stability of their relationship. That is right, because we are talking about stability and security; but I believe that we can deliver stability and security by means of the changes that the amendments of my hon. Friend the Member for Wakefield would make.

As my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Health made clear in answer to a parliamentary question from my hon. Friend Ms Munn, it is ultimately right for the court to decide whether to make an adoption order. It is right that what we look for in the assessment process is a stable and permanent relationship, but when we find that, it may well be possible to address the need for a larger adoption pool.

Our concern should relate to the circumstances of individual children, not statistical bantering about particular kinds of relationship. Some of the children we are considering are very troubled, and potentially difficult to place with adopters. Their relationship with specific people, including couples, who might have the skills, the stable homes and the love and care enabling them to offer something more should be at the centre of our debate.

For many adoption agencies, the choice will be not about placing children with stable married couples or with unmarried couples, but about giving a child the chance to live in a stable loving family rather than being left in care, with all the instability and poor life chances that we know that can bring.

This has been a wide-ranging debate, in which many Members have expressed the views on all sides of the argument. If the House decides to accept the amendments tabled by my hon. Friend the Member for Wakefield, the Government will undertake to table whatever consequential amendments are necessary—a considerable number—to ensure that this works in legislation. Amendments Nos. 148 to 158 and new clause 13 provide a legally workable basis on which to extend the right to adopt to unmarried couples.

Ultimately, however, the debate is not about a right to adopt. It is not about political correctness. It is not about gay rights. It is not even about parents. It is about a child's chance of being in a family, and I hope that Members will vote on that basis.