I feel a bit like the warm-up act in relation to this group of amendments, so I hope that I will be able to warm people up and get on with it.
These amendments clarify clause 41, which sets out the period that a child has to live with a prospective adopter before an application may be made for an adoption order. They also make minor modifications to the provision in clause 43 that covers the process of giving notice to local authorities in non-agency adoptions.
In the case of the changes to clause 41, amendment No. 211 corrects an omission in the Bill as currently drafted, by providing that in the rare cases in which a natural parent is applying to adopt their own child, the residence period required will be the same as that for agency-approved adopters, as it is under the Adoption Act 1976.
Amendments Nos. 212 and 213 improve the wording of subsection (3), which relates to step-parent applications. They make it clear that, when a step-parent is applying to adopt a child jointly with the natural parent, the six-month residence period for step-parent applications is still to apply, as it does for single step-parent applications.
Amendments Nos. 215 to 218 concern the process of non-agency adoptions. When an adoption is not happening through an adoption agency, the adoptive applicant has to give notice to the local authority in which he has his home, so that the local authority can investigate and report to the court—an important safeguard for children in cases where an adoption agency has not been involved in selecting and matching the adopters for the child.
These amendments allow for cases in which an applicant fulfils the domicile requirements in clause 47, but does not in law currently have his home in a local authority area. It might be helpful to hon. Members if I explain that this problem was brought to our attention by the Ministry of Defence, because it relates to members of the armed services or, for example, to diplomats temporarily stationed abroad. Obviously, we would not want to block such individuals from adopting under British law simply on these grounds. The amendments would allow us in these cases to prescribe, in regulations, which should be the appropriate local authority in cases where the applicant did not currently have his home in the UK.
In addition, Government amendment No. 215 makes it clear that, although the report to the court and the investigation are the responsibility of the local authority, it could arrange for elements of them to be carried out by other suitable organisations. For example, in the case of step-parent adoption applications by service families stationed overseas, we would envisage that the Service Families Adoption Agency—a registered voluntary adoption agency—would conduct the investigation and visit the family, as required by clause 41(7), and pass the results to the relevant local authority. If the authority were satisfied, it would then submit the report to the court.
In conclusion, these amendments clarify the provisions in relation to clause 41, and ensure that an unsatisfactory situation relating particularly to our forces stationed overseas has been satisfactorily sorted out.
For fear of becoming a subsidiary to the warm-up act and being booed off the stage, I do not intend to go into any detail. In any event, we were notified of this raft of amendments late in the day.
It is difficult to see anything contentious in the amendments. I am especially pleased that the Minister has taken account of the special position of diplomats and members of the armed forces, which we raised in Committee in regard to other provisions. I hope that it will be taken into account in other parts of the Bill, but for now we have no reason to challenge the amendments. No doubt Members will wish to proceed to the next group.
Amendment agreed to.
With this it will be convenient to discuss the following: Amendment No. 311, in page 25, line 36, leave out "married".
Amendment No. 312, in page 25, line 43, leave out "married".
Amendment No. 148, in clause 47, page 28, line 41, leave out "married".
Amendment No. 10, in page 28, line 41, leave out from "couple", to end of line 42 and insert—
'(b) an unmarried couple, or
(c) one person,'.
Amendment No. 18, in page 28, line 41, leave out "or".
Amendment No. 14, in page 28, line 42, after "person", insert—
(c) an unmarried couple.'.
Amendment No. 11, in page 28, line 43, leave out "or 49" and insert—
'49 or [Adoption by unmarried couples]'.
Amendment No. 15, in page 28, line 43, leave out "or 49" and insert—
'49 or [Adoption orders unmarried couples]'.
Amendment No. 149, in page 29, line 1, leave out "spouses" and insert "couple".
Amendment No. 16, in page 29, line 2, after "section 48)", insert—
'or one member of the unmarried couple (in the case of an application under section [Adoption orders: unmarried couples]).'.
Amendment No. 12, in page 29, line 2, after "48)", insert—
'or one member of the unmarried couple (in the case of an application under section [Adoption by unmarried couples])'.
Amendment No. 150, in page 29, line 4, leave out "spouses" and insert "of the couple".
Amendment No. 13, in page 29, line 5, after "48)", insert—
'or both applicants (in the case of an application under section [Adoption by unmarried couples])'.
Amendment No. 17, in page 29, line 5, after "48", insert—
'or both applicants (in the case of an application under section [Adoption orders: unmarried couples]).'.
Amendment No. 24, in page 29, line 13, at end insert—
'(6) References in this Act to an unmarried couple will apply only to a man and a woman living together.'.
Amendment No. 151, in clause 48, page 29, line 15, leave out "married".
Amendment No. 152, in page 29, line 16, leave out "spouses" and insert "of them".
Amendment No. 153, in page 29, line 17, leave out "married".
Amendment No. 154, in page 29, line 19, leave out "spouse" and insert "of the couple".
Amendment No. 155, in page 29, line 21, leave out "spouse".
Amendment No. 156, in clause 49, page 29, line 24, at end insert—
'(1A) An adoption order may be made on the application of one person who has attained the age of 21 years if the court is satisfied that the person is the partner of a parent of the person to be adopted'.
Amendment No. 157, in page 29, line 27, leave out paragraph (a).
New clause 2—Adoption by unmarried couples—
'(1) An adoption order may not be granted on the application of an unmarried couple unless the court is satisfied—
(a) that both of the applicants are over the age of twenty–one;
(b) for the period of 2 years ending with the date of the application, the partners have lived in the same household (otherwise than merely by reason of one of them being the other's employee, tenant, lodger or boarder); and
(c) that the applicants are not close relatives of each other.
(2) "Close relative", in relation to any person, means his grandparents, parents, children, step–children, uncles and aunts, nephews and nieces, brothers and sisters and step–brothers and step–sisters.
(3) In relation to any application made under this section, the court may take into consideration the arrangements which the applicants have made, or intend to make in order to safeguard the welfare of the child involved, should their relationship break down.'.
New clause 3—Adoption orders: unmarried couples—
'(1) An adoption order may be made on the application of an unmarried couple where both members of the couple have attained the age of 21 years.
(2) An adoption order may be made on the application by an unmarried couple if the court is satisfied
(a) that they have been living together for at least two years at time of application,
(b) that the relationship between the couple is stable and is intended by each of them to be permanent, and
(c) that the unmarried couple has made arrangements to safeguard the financial and practical security of the child in the event of the ending of their relationship and to meet their joint and individual parental responsibilities.'.
New clause 13—Suitability of adopters—
'(1) Regulations under section 9 may make provision as to the matters to be taken into account by an adoption agency in determining, or making any report in respect of, the suitability of any persons to adopt a child.
(2) In particular, the regulations may make provision for the purpose of securing that, in determining the suitability of a couple to adopt a child, proper regard is had to the need for stability and permanence in their relationship'.
Amendment No. 158, in clause 131, page 74, line 51, at end insert—
'(2B) In this Act, a couple means—
(a) a married couple, or
(b) two people (whether of different sexes or the same sex) living as partners in an enduring family relationship.
(2C) Subsection (2B)(b) does not include two people one of whom is the other's parent, grandparent, sister, brother, aunt or uncle.
(2D) References to relationships in subsection (2C)—
(a) are to relationships of the full blood or half blood or, in the case of an adopted person, such of those relationships as would exist but for the adoption, and
(b) include the relationship of a child with his adoptive, or former adoptive, parents, but do not include any other adoptive relationships.
(2E) For the purposes of this Act, a person is the partner of a child's parent if the person and the parent are a couple but the person is not the child's parent'.
Amendment (a) to the amendment, in (2B)(a), leave out—
'whether of different sexes or the same sex' and insert "of different sexes".
This is an important group of amendments, which if passed could bring hope to thousands of children—hope of a happier life than that provided by serial foster-parenting, notwithstanding the efforts of hard-working, excellent, commendable foster parents; and hope of a happier life than years of childhood spent in residential care. The amendments could give those thousands of children hope of adoption, and of living in suitable homes with loving families.
The amendments are about putting the welfare of children first. They are about looking at the advice offered to us by adoption agencies, children's charities, local authorities and professionals. All those people and organisations urge us to support the amendments, which are about accepting research evidence and having an evidence-based approach—having a rational rather than an irrational basis for adoption policy.
Children, after all, must grow up in the real world. They must grow up in the 21st century, in which, whether we like it or not, 40 per cent. of children are born outside marriage, and in which many people who are committed to each other choose not to marry. That applies to 15 per cent. of households, and the figure is expected to rise to 30 per cent. In this real world, loving stable families—in the Minister's memorable words—come in all shapes and sizes. Indeed, dysfunctional families come in all shapes and sizes, including the so-called orthodox. Children do not grow up in an idealised world that never was, but that some Members who are present may wish existed.
Currently, and according to the unamended Bill, the only people allowed to apply to adopt are married couples or single people. Adoption agencies assess the suitability of applicants, and write a report for the courts that will decide whether the adoptions should proceed. Unmarried couples cannot apply to adopt as couples; single people can apply even if they are part of a couple, but they must apply as single people.
The arrangement has two impacts. First, unmarried couples cannot currently adopt as co-parents, even if they have their own non-adopted children and are both parents to them. Only one can be a parent, while the other can at best obtain secondary status, which will be recognised only until the child reaches the age of 16 or 18. That in itself has two consequences. The parents are legally unequal, one being second class, which is not in the child's best interests; and some potential adopters are deterred from applying because they cannot do so as a couple. That leaves children in residential care, or in serial foster care, rather than with suitable adoptive families. It does not make the child's interests paramount.
A higher proportion of unmarried couples than married couples may think of adopting. We hear that about 10 per cent. of potential applicants are unmarried couples who may be put off by the fact that they cannot adopt on an equal basis.
If a couple are desperate to have a child and if there is no impediment to marriage, they have an easy answer. If there is an impediment to marriage, there is a real ground for their not being allowed to adopt as a couple.
I disagree. The hon. Gentleman must know that in the case of such applications adoption agencies write reports on the circumstances, which the courts take into account. If he is saying, as he appears to be, that no unmarried couples are suitable to adopt as couples—if he is saying that a priori—I do not think he is making the child's best interests paramount. He is putting his own preferences first, and I feel it is incumbent on us all not to do that.
The hon. Gentleman said he wanted an evidenced-based approach, and that there was evidence that the present legal status deterred unmarried couples from adopting. What is that evidence? It is referred to in a letter from the British Agencies for Adopting and Fostering. When I asked the BAAF what the evidence was, it said that actually it had none.
It certainly does have evidence. I believe the evidence was gathered during national adoption week, when the BAAF recorded the reasons why people who had thought about adopting were put off. I do not want to take up the House's time, because I am sure others with expertise will deal with the right hon. Gentleman's point, but there is no doubt that many unmarried couples would like to adopt as couples, but the Bill, if unamended, will put them off.
Does the hon. Gentleman agree that we only see adoption legislation approximately every 25 years? Is it not important, therefore, for legislation we introduce to take account of the next generation? Given the change in society, is it not sensible to make our own change now?
The second impact of the current position and, indeed, the unamended Bill is that although gay men and lesbians are already able to adopt, and do adopt, they cannot do so as couples. In that sense, the debate on the extension of joint adoption rights to unmarried couples has veered off its original course. Gay adoption per se is not at stake here, although people want it to be. The sexuality of an applicant in itself in no way bars him or her from the right to adopt under current law, as a single person.
There are three reasons for seeking a change in the law. First, it is not in a child's best interests, when members of a couple play equal parts in his or her life, for only one member to have full legal responsibility. The other parent is downgraded to second-class status, without the power to make vital as well as casual decisions in the child's life that call for legal guardian status. Problems are also caused when the adopter is ill or dies, as no legal relationship is left between the child and the other parent. Especially given that any residency orders are valid only until the child is 16 or l8, depending on the circumstances, that does not make the child's best interests paramount throughout his or her life.
Secondly, as I have said, many suitable unmarried couples are deterred from applying to adopt. That clearly is not in the best interests of tens of thousands of children in serial foster care, or in care waiting for suitable adoptive families.
Thirdly, the current law clearly discriminates against unmarried and same-sex couples. Given the stringent application process for adoption and the rigorous assessments that are made on a case-by-case basis, there is no justification for disqualifying a couple from adopting jointly simply because they do not possess a marriage certificate, if they clearly possess all the characteristics that the agencies would otherwise expect from suitable adoptive parents.
The hon. Gentleman may think that in an ideal situation it is in children's best interests to have mothers and fathers who are very wealthy, who have nannies and both of whom have jobs. Children today do not grow up in an ideal world. The hon. Gentleman must decide whether he thinks it better for children to be left in care, or suffer the problems that clearly result from serial foster care, than for them to be accepted into the loving stable environment provided by an unmarried couple, if that is what is on offer.
Certainly the most desirable adoptive arrangement is for the child to have a mother and a father who are married, but does the hon. Gentleman agree that in other circumstances it may well be in the child's best interests to be adopted according to other arrangements?
Each child's circumstances are different, and it is not necessary to accept the hon. Gentleman's point of view to recognise that we have to find the best solution in each individual case. I am not willing to condemn unmarried couples who have their own children—I am not suggesting that the hon. Gentleman is, either—and if we take the view that married parents are the ideal, we attack the many thousands of our constituents who choose not to get married for perfectly valid reasons, or cannot do so. Hon. Members can put their views—
In a moment. The hon. Gentleman will have a chance once I have made more progress.
What is at stake is making it possible for an unmarried couple to adopt jointly, so that they can both have a legal relationship with the child. It is about recognising the changing structure of social relations, and ensuring that we offer children currently in care the best opportunity of finding a home by allowing unmarried couples to consider adoption in a manner that does not downgrade their relationship. It is also about taking a stance against, and putting an end to, discrimination in whatever form.
The hon. Gentleman talks about recognising changes in social trends. Does he acknowledge that in 2000 the number of marriages in fact increased for the first time in eight years? For the avoidance of doubt about the Liberal Democrats' position, can he clarify matters by saying whether or not he thinks the best possible arrangement is for children to be brought up by a married couple consisting of a man and a woman? Advancing that argument does not diminish the alternatives; it merely states that, where available, that is the best possible scenario. Does he deny that?
This is a pointless debate, and the hon. Gentleman's position is illogical. He cannot raise one group of people to a higher status without implying that another group are of a lower status. If he asked his questions honestly, he would be more likely to find answers to them, but first he must recognise the reality of the proposition that he puts.
I am keen to make progress as I am conscious that many hon. Members want to speak.
I should point out that there are many justifications for recognising that unmarried couples are suitable for adoption purposes. The argument will be advanced that they are inherently more unstable, but it is based on poor research that does not compare like with like. Other types of partnerships who wish to adopt often last longer than many marriages. A generalising, simplistic analysis of figures that do not even compare like with like across socio-economic groups does the debate a disservice. If Miss Widdecombe argues that case later, I shall seek to intervene on her.
I also question the view that children placed into same-sex partnerships that are otherwise suitable to adopt are damaged in any way. Evidence produced by Professor Golombok, and the review conducted by the American Academy of Pediatrics, makes it clear they suffer no short-term or long-term damage, and do very well in such partnerships. Again, I shall seek to intervene on anyone who tries to argue against that evidence.
Liberal Democrats are proud to work with like-minded members of other parties to introduce this measure. In our manifesto—
I may be wrong, but I think this is the first major contribution to the Bill that the hon. Gentleman has made. In the interests of the consensus that he apparently seeks, would he not have done better to align himself much more clearly and solely with the amendments tabled by my hon. Friend Mr. Hinchliffe, who has a solid background in children's issues?
The hon. Gentleman will find that I alone among Front Benchers raised this issue on Second Reading; indeed, it was amazing that so little other discussion took place of such an important issue. He will know that, although my hon. Friend Sandra Gidley was a member of the Standing Committee that considered the Bill, I was not.
I was considering another Bill in Standing Committee, and if the hon. Gentleman inspects the record, he will find that I have contributed to such debates more frequently than he has.
Given that I am being provoked, I should point out that we had the courage to call in our manifesto for reform of the fostering and adoption law. That lends legitimacy to my argument, so Mr. Dawson should perhaps question his attack. The manifesto placed emphasis on the suitability of potential adopters and on the needs of the child, rather than on arbitrary rules that are set centrally. We also called for the registration of civil partnerships to be based in part on the legal effects and duties of marriage, including adoption and fostering. The hon. Gentleman cannot claim, therefore, that I am suddenly springing this view on the House. We have no compunction in calling for and supporting these amendments on a party Whip. In terms of the way in which hon. Members vote, it is through the party Whip that a party shares the accountability of its members.
We know that some sections of the press will pillory us for the position that we take, but it is better to face that and argue the merits of it, rather than hiding behind shifting positions, prevarication and free votes. I am not surprised that the Conservative party has a three-line Whip against the liberalisation of such matters: it is not a liberal party. Conservatives put their prejudices and illiberal views before children's welfare and considerations of fairness.
In different ways, the hon. Gentleman repeatedly refers to discrimination. Is he aware that the International Court of Human Rights recently ruled that preventing homosexual partners from adopting is not considered a breach of human rights?
I know of the case to which the hon. Gentleman mis-refers—it was heard not in the International Court of Human Rights but the lower chamber of the European Court of Human Rights. Moreover, the vote, which was four to three against the application, is being appealed, and the British judge was one of the three who voted in favour. The amendments that the hon. Gentleman is likely to support are not compatible, therefore, with human rights legislation—a point on which the Minister doubtless also has a view.
The failure of the Labour Government to support the amendments is very disappointing, given their high opinion poll rating, their large majority and the admirable interest that the Prime Minister has shown in the matter. I pay tribute to the Minister, her ministerial colleagues, and the hon. Members for Sheffield, Heeley (Ms Munn) and for Wakefield (Mr. Hinchliffe) for winning the battle for a free vote, at least. A battle it must have been, given that, on
Given that the hon. Gentleman is so concerned to make progress on this issue, will he withdraw his amendments? If accepted, they could create problems for the rest of the Bill in terms of consequential amendments. Will he instead support the amendments tabled by my hon. Friend Mr. Hinchliffe?
That is a legitimate point, which I shall come to in a moment.
We should applaud the Secretary of State for Health's personal support for these measures, but we look forward to a time when free votes are offered across the board on genuine points of principle or ethics, and when Governments accept accountability for children's welfare. [Interruption.] I have an important question for the Minister, in which hon. Members will have an interest. If this measure is adopted, what will happen when the Bill reaches the House of Lords and they reject it? Will the Minister give an undertaking now to send it back a second time. Those of us who will vote for these measures want to know that we are not doing so in vain. If necessary, will she use the Parliament Act to force through not just the Bill but the measure? It is important that the Minister replies. We know that, in the end, Governments must be responsible for getting Bills and measures through.
In answer to the hon. Lady's question, like amendment No. 148, amendment No. 310 deletes the word "married". Amendment No. 158 defines "a couple" either as married, or as two people both over the age of 21 who are not closely related, and who live as partners in an enduring family relationship. We believe that that definition is effective, and that the amendments are good. The hon. Member for Wakefield will himself want to talk about his new clause 3, but I suspect he agrees that the wording of amendment No. 158 is superior to both previous such attempts. Therefore, I have no compunction in saying that I shall not press new clause 2 and its consequential amendments to a division. However, in a sense, amendments Nos. 310, 311, 312, 148 and 147 are all consequential on amendment No. 158—and vice versa—and there is no doubt that amendment No. 310 is necessary. If it is not agreed by the House today, the Government will have to introduce it in the House of Lords. I ask hon. Members why they intend to vote against amendment No. 310, because it is an inevitable part of the measures. That is my understanding from the British Agencies for Adoption and Fostering, which sent me a letter today stating:
"BAAF's position is that we want to see the principle of unmarried couples being able to adopt jointly going through the House today."
That is what amendment No. 310 would achieve. The BAAF continued:
"We urge MPs to vote for any amendment which will have this effect—I am unclear which will be debated but the principle is what is important at this stage."
Stonewall, which also has an interest in the issue, e-mailed me today to say:
"Re: today's vote on the right of unmarried couples to apply to adopt, Stonewall very much hopes that this proposal will be supported today by MPs. I am happy to confirm that if Amendment 310 is put to the vote that we would like to support it, as it will carry with it support for the rest of the amendments associated with it—148-158—which we also support."
I have had no notice from the Government about any technical problems—although I will listen to what the Minister has to say—but because we have a clear position on the issue, we would like to press amendment No. 310 to a division.
Amendment No. 24 and amendment (a) are simply wrong. They are discriminatory and incompatible with the Human Rights Act 1998. They have no place in a modernisation of the law. I understand the sincere reasons of those who wish to press the matter—they want to feel that, even as Conservatives, they can support the general trend of the Bill—but it is unsuitable to victimise a sub-group and refuse to allow children the benefit of being adopted by that sub-group.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for giving way, because my name appears on both the amendments that he has just mentioned. He has not yet satisfactorily answered the question from my hon. Friend Mr. Streeter so I shall ask him again. Is it the position of the Liberal Democrats that they do not believe that the best environment in which to bring up a child is with a mother and a father?
That is an academic argument, because each case is different. If there is a violent father in the household—it is usually fathers who are violent—it is not a suitable environment. Unless the hon. Gentleman is prepared to say that those of his constituents who do not live together as married husband and wife are less worthy of his consideration, I am not prepared to go any further into what is a sterile debate.
New clause 13 is important and will assume greater importance. It is the one change proposed by the hon. Member for Wakefield that I cannot support, because it would give new and unnecessary regulation-making powers to the Secretary of State. If hon. Members are serious about scrutinising the Government, they should look at the new clause carefully. General regulation- making powers exist in clause 9 already and could cover that area as they cover the functions of adoption agencies and local authorities, including writing reports for courts. Clause 1 already provides that agencies and the courts must have paramount regard to the welfare of the child throughout his life. In addition, statutory guidance already exists on the issue, and adoption agencies can provide further guidance. The additional regulatory powers are unnecessary. Moreover, we have not seen the powers, so we could be voting for restrictive secondary legislation based on measures in the Bill. The Minister might even admit that that is exactly the point of new clause 13. If the Government wanted powers in that area, they should have published the regulations before today, which is the last opportunity that the House has to see what it is being asked to accept.
The amendments are about putting the welfare of children before old-fashioned views of the world as we would like it be rather than as it is. They are about putting fair treatment before unnecessary discrimination, and putting the best interests of children—making their welfare paramount—before prejudice. I urge the House to support the amendments.
I shall speak to amendment No. 148, amendments Nos.149 to 158, which accompany it, and new clause 13. I shall not press the other amendments that stand in my name. I hope that if the debate is interrupted by the knife at 6 o'clock, we will have a separate division on amendment No. 148—and, if necessary, on the other amendments that go with it.
I am pleased to be able to contribute to a debate on this important and welcome Bill, which is long overdue. However, I have been astonished by some of the media coverage of the purpose of the amendments that I have tabled and the changes I have proposed to the Bill. The coverage in the media in the past few days has ranged from grossly inaccurate to frankly outrageous. It has been suggested that the motive behind my amendments is political correctness. I have been told by close friends among hon. Members that I am one of the most politically incorrect Members, so it is an unusual experience for me to be accused of political correctness.
"Ranged behind the BAAF are the Government"— which does not include me—
"and the moral bankrupts of the intellectual and political establishment", which presumably does include me. That is the first time I have been accused of being an intellectual.
I shall not respond to that intervention. The article continues:
"the interests of vulnerable children are just about the last thing under consideration here . . . It is the latest salvo in the relentless and illiberal campaign to destroy marriage as the fundamental reference point for family life and to give cohabitation equivalent status."
That paper is read by many people, and the letters and telephone calls that I have received show that one or two people are daft enough to believe that nonsense.
I wish to make my personal position clear. My concern is not to undermine marriage. I have a deeply held personal belief in marriage. I am married, and one of my great regrets is the extent of marriage breakdown and family breakdown that I have witnessed in our society. I also regret the failure of society to emphasise sufficiently the importance of marriage and the family in contributing to a decent, civilised and stable society. However, I was encouraged to hear from a Conservative Front Bencher that the number of marriages is going up under Labour. Perhaps we are moving in the right direction.
I have one simple concern and motivation in tabling the amendments, and that is the interests of the vulnerable children to whom Melanie Phillips refers in her article. Some hon. Members may be aware of my background, which is that before becoming an MP I spent nearly 20 years in local authority social work. I often worked on the approval of adoption applicants, which is a very skilled process. Indeed, I pay tribute to the work of the agencies and individuals involved in a difficult, challenging and important task. I spent many years working as a guardian ad litem on behalf of the courts. The guardian ad litem protects the specific interests of a child who is being placed for adoption. I was also, for several years, a member of the adoption panel for the Wakefield local authority that approved placements for adoption. By and large, it did so very successfully.
I come to the matter from the point of view of someone who knows about the situation of adoptive applicants. I know about the circumstances facing many children who could be adopted, and how their best interests might be served by a change in the law.
I entered the House in 1987. With my background, it was a privilege to be invited to serve on the Standing Committee considering the Bill that became the Children Act 1989. I pay tribute to the Conservative Government on their introduction of that fine piece of legislation. It succeeded because at its heart lay what was called the welfare principle—that the best interests of the child should underpin any decision relating to that child's welfare.
This Bill is a positive measure. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State and my hon. Friend the Minister of State deserve great praise for being able to find time in a tight parliamentary timetable to put this long overdue provision on the statute book.
The Bill reflects the personal concerns of my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister. Some two years ago I had an interesting discussion with him, and he told me that his father had been in care. I had had no idea about that, but it is clear that my right hon. Friend has some insight into the concerns of children in that situation. He has initiated what I think is a long overdue and important change in the law.
I also had the privilege, in the previous Parliament, to be Chairman of the Select Committee on Health when we conducted an inquiry into looked-after children. One of our recommendations was that there was a need to make much greater use of adoption. We also said that the law governing adoption should be reformed. That reform is contained in this Bill.
The Bill enshrines the welfare principle—the principle on which the Children Act 1989 was founded—in adoption law, but it fails in one key area. Our debate on this group of amendments is concerned with that area of failure—the fact that the Bill does not allow unmarried couples to adopt, even if a child's best interests would best be served by that. The amendments and new clauses in this group are designed to change that.
I welcome the fact that the Government have recognised that the problem exists, and I also welcome their willingness to listen. I strongly commend their decision to allow a free vote on the matter. It is exactly the sort of issue that should be left to personal conscience. Many Labour Members to whom I have spoken disagree with me on this matter, and many agree. I have talked to Conservative Members about the matter, and some of them would like to go most of the way with what I am trying to achieve. I presume, however, that they are prevented from doing so by what I understand to be a three-line Whip.
Does my hon. Friend agree that the status quo is unacceptable? At present one member of an unmarried partnership can adopt, yet the other member is left out. Surely that cannot be a basis for a permanent, loving and caring relationship with two adult carers?
That problem is at the heart of my concerns about the way in which the Bill is drafted. My hon. Friend is right: the law permits adoption by single people and joint adoption by married couples. The prohibition of joint adoption by unmarried couples is continued by clause 47. As drafted, the Bill requires that all decisions by the relevant agencies or courts must be based on the principle that the child's welfare, throughout its life, must be the paramount consideration. However, in a small number of cases the agency or court is prevented from making the decision that is most likely to promote the child's welfare. They may be few in number, but those cases are important, and that is why I think that the Bill needs to be amended.
In practice, a small number of children—possibly as few as 1 per cent.—are placed for adoption with an unmarried couple. Alternatively, a child may be placed with its existing foster carers. There is no requirement that such carers be married, and they may wish to adopt the child. Sadly for the child, in those circumstances only one of the foster parents can in law become the adoptive parent. The other partner may acquire more limited parental responsibility for the child—for example, by being granted a residence order.
However, such orders end automatically when a child is 16, or 18 at the latest. As a result, the adoptive parent's partner will have no lasting legal family relationship with the adopted child. We have to understand the implications of that. I shall not go into detail, but questions of inheritance, pensions, insurance, and in certain circumstances even nationality, need to be considered.
Most importantly to my mind, the present arrangements also affect the child's ability to have an equal relationship with both adoptive parents. That is why I propose that unmarried couples should be allowed to apply to adopt and to be approved, where suitable and where there is clear evidence of stability and permanence in their relationship.
I emphasise those conditions, as I am concerned that we should be aware of the need for permanence in the relationship of any people applying to adopt. It is worth noting that the 1983 adoption regulations for reports to adoption panels and the 1984 adoption rules concerning reports to the courts require comments on the stability of a married couple's relationship.
I know married couples who do not have an exactly stable relationship, so it is wrong to make the automatic assumption that people who are married have a stable relationship. Sadly, in my experience, that is not always the case.
I have not seen that editorial, but I agree with the sentiments.
Dr. Harris expressed concern about new clause 13. The regulations and accompanying statutory guidance would require specific consideration of the duration and permanence of the relationship between the couple as part of the adopter assessment process. That is very important.
A constituent sent me an e-mail this morning, in which he stated that he accepted the need to open up the process to include stable unmarried couples. However, he wanted to be reassured that the process would not be opened up to unstable couples. Does my hon. Friend agree that the existence of a marriage would offer a certain amount of prime facie evidence for stability, other things being equal?
Some of the most unstable people that I have met in my life have been married. Marriage does not necessarily indicate stability. However, regardless of whether we are talking about married or unmarried couples, the existence of a stable, enduring and loving relationship is crucial when it comes to adoptive applicants securing approval.
Will not new clause 13 make it a requirement, for the first time, that the regulations should cover inquiries into suitability? It is clearly spelled out that adoptive applicants must have a relationship that is stable and permanent, and those conditions apply to married couples, single people and unmarried couples. That requirement has not existed in previous legislation covering adoption.
My hon. Friend therefore knows a bit about this subject, and I appreciate her expertise and commitment.
I want to say something about the number of children who need adoption. My hon. Friend the Minister of State may have up-to-date figures on the number of children in care, but the organisation British Agencies for Adoption and Fostering has calculated that some 5,000 more adoptive families will be needed in the next year. It is worried that the Government's aim of increasing the number of children adopted from care by 40 per cent. by 2004 will need many more adoptive applicants than are evident at present.
The hon. Gentleman is giving a very good speech, although I do not necessarily agree with his conclusions. He is at least making the case for stability. It is true that six out of 10 cohabitations turn into marriage, but of those that do not, eight out of 10 break down within 10 years. Does he think that it is wise to place a child with a couple when there is a four in five chance of that relationship breaking down? Is that in the interests of the child?
Sadly, many marriages break down within the same period. I worked with colleagues who were involved with adoptions, and sometimes the marriages broke down not long after the children were adopted, which deeply affected the children. I do not think that we can ever predict whether that will happen. I understand the hon. Gentleman's point, but we cannot guarantee that married people will stay together.
Does my hon. Friend agree that the difference is that an unmarried couple seeking to adopt a child would be subject to a rigorous assessment, and would need to demonstrate stability? We are not comparing like with like, so the example given by Mr. Leigh is not appropriate.
My hon. Friend's background, like mine, is in social work. I suspect that many Opposition Members do not have the depth of knowledge that some Labour Members who have done the job have, about the extent to which such issues are examined. It occasionally results in social workers being accused of prying into issues that they should not investigate. This has to be a thorough process, and I think that the regulations that follow what I hope will be an amended Bill will be thorough on the subject of stability and security.
I agree with some of the hon. Gentleman's arguments. He said that more people needed to offer to become adoptive parents. Has he any figures to show how many people who seek to adopt and make no progress opt for out-of-country adoption? Are those figures recorded with our lists of those waiting for adoption?
I do not have those figures; the Minister may be able to offer some advice on the subject. I have deep reservations about out-of-country adoptions. I have a vivid memory of being in Romania 10 years ago in what was supposedly an orphanage. Many people from this country wanted to adopt Romanian orphans, but I found out that most of the kids surrounding me were not orphans but had families who were too poor to look after them. The message that came over loud and clear is that we need to support the countries where those youngsters come from and ensure that they can be fed and cared for by their own families. I do not have the figures but I am uneasy about the idea of inter-country adoptions without very strict regulations.
I respect the hon. Gentleman greatly for the work that he has done on this matter, although, like my hon. Friend Mr. Leigh, I do not necessarily share his beliefs. He has done a terrific job, however, and is making a very good speech. Reference has been made to hard-to-adopt children, particularly boys of five, six and seven. What evidence does he have that if his amendment is passed into law, a queue of unmarried couples will want those hard-to-adopt children?
I cannot give an answer on individual cases. However, I know that BAAF and other organisations have had significant inquiries from unmarried couples. The information sent to all right hon. and hon. Members shows that during national adoption week in 1999, 10 per cent. of the inquiries received came from people who were unmarried and were actively considering adoption.
The figures discussed in Committee showing how many people cohabit rather than marry nowadays are worthy of note, too. I do not defend those figures—I have made my position clear—but the general household survey shows that in 2000, 11 per cent. of men and 12 per cent. of women between 16 and 59 were cohabiting, and 30 per cent. of women aged 18 to 49. I am told that according to the projections, in 20 years' time—no doubt this legislation will still apply then, because I suspect that, as has already been said, it will be 25 years before there is another Adoption Act, so we need to get it right—the figure for cohabiting couples will be 20 per cent., and may even be higher. Personally, I hope that marriage becomes fashionable—and under Labour, that may happen.
I want to emphasise the need for the thorough assessment that already takes place with regard to stability and long-term relationships. I believe that that can be delivered by the amended Bill and by regulation.
I have a lot of respect for the hon. Gentlemen who put their names to amendment (a) to amendment No. 158. I worked with them on the Health Committee, and I know their deep commitment to child welfare. However, I urge the House to oppose amendment (a). Sadly, the media interest in this debate has focused on the red herring of same-sex adoptions. Frankly, such arrangements are not my central purpose, but I believe that it could be in the interests of a particular child to be adopted by a same-sex couple, so that should not be ruled out.
I say that on the basis of the experience that I had in the late 1970s of approving, as de facto foster parents for a particular child, a lesbian couple. I had reservations and Leeds authority, which I worked for and which was in Conservative hands at the time, had very serious reservations. The decision on that placement went to the Conservative chair of the social services committee, and she agreed that the proposal was in the best interests of that child. The lady concerned is still around, and she will confirm what I say. I understand that the child was subsequently adopted by one of the women involved.
I appeal to right hon. and hon. Members to remember that we are here to deal with the best interests of the child, and those should be paramount in this debate.
Order. There are many right hon. and hon. Members trying to contribute to the debate in a very limited time. We have had two very substantial opening speeches, and I appeal for brevity from other right hon. and hon. Members.
I, too, congratulate Mr. Hinchliffe on a speech that was moderation and reason itself compared with the one that we heard from the Liberal Democrat Front Bench. I particularly congratulate the hon. Gentleman on his support for marriage as an underlying principle. It is a sad day for British politics when a Front-Bench spokesman consistently refuses to say that the best thing that a child can have is a father and mother in a stable married context. That is a great pity, and for that reason alone, I wish that we were going to vote on the hon. Gentleman's amendment first. I do not agree with it and will not support it, but I congratulate him on the very serious way in which he has tackled a difficult subject. He has raised some challenging issues.
Does the right hon. Lady really believe that it is better for a child to be brought up in a stable relationship between a man and a woman who are constantly abusing that child than by a couple who are unmarried but who provide warmth, security and love for their children?
The hon. Gentleman does not even measure up to an 11-plus standard of debate.
I should like to address the very serious issues raised by the hon. Member for Wakefield. First and foremost, we should be seeking to give any child, but particularly an adoptive child who has already suffered considerable instability and may be very vulnerable, security and stability. It is only by maintaining the current law and by making it the norm that adoption is undertaken by married couples that security and stability can be achieved.
I want to make progress, as so many Members want to speak. You have asked for short contributions, Mr. Deputy Speaker, and I shall be unable to make mine short if I give way—I say that with respect, as I am sure that the hon. Gentleman would have made an interesting point.
In the name of security and stability, I believe that the present law should stand. I shall first consider security. Marriage brings not only privileges but legal responsibilities which, I believe, provide greater security for a child. If two people really wanted to adopt a child, and were considering the interests and security of that child, they should want to marry—unless there was an impediment. For example, unless the cohabitee is joint legal owner of the shared home, she has no rights over the property, but when a married couple split up both spouses have statutory rights over the matrimonial home.
In the short term, a cohabitee can apply for court orders allowing her—I am presuming that it would be her rather than him, although I realise that it could be the other way around—and the child to stay in the shared home for a maximum of 12 months, whereas a married parent left with the child would be given the right to live in the home until the child reached the age of 18, and would also be granted at least 50 per cent., and sometimes between 60 and 70 per cent. or more, of the matrimonial home in their own right.
I am going to make progress.
If a cohabitee lives in a home owned by the father of the child—I am presuming that the parent with care is the mother, although I accept that that is not always so—it is possible that he could sell the house from under them, as no entitlement for her to live there would be recorded at the Land Registry. Matrimonial rights over property are protected by an entry on the land register. To help provide for a child, a cohabitee can apply for an order that the other party pay a lump sum, or pay for specified items such as school fees, but for a married spouse there is a duty of financial support for the children, and the payments may be substantial.
The mother herself has no right to maintenance payments if she is a cohabitee, and that could be extremely important if she is left with a child, whereas the courts can make a wide range of financial orders for the support of a spouse in her own right—such awards are not merely dependent on the child.
Certain basic securities spring from the legal status of marriage that would not be available to protect a child in what is called an "informal relationship".
I shall now discuss stability. Statistics collected by the Office for National Statistics—not an organisation with an axe to grind—show that 8 per cent. of married couples split up in the five years following the birth of a child, and that 25 per cent. of cohabiting couples who later marry split up. However, 52 per cent. of couples who cohabited and never married split up, so the adoptive parents of a child placed in one of those arrangements would be six and a half times more likely to split up than married adoptive parents.
The consideration of those clear facts—the type of evidence that we sought and did not get for the contrary argument—leads me to believe that we are right to maintain the security and stability that marriage offers at present. It would be dishonest if I did not tell the House that I also believe that, as a society, we should continue to distinguish in favour of marriage. We should continue to recognise that marriage confers rights but also responsibilities, so I believe that it should be actively promoted by society. The hon. Member for Wakefield would probably agree.
I cannot support the hon. Gentleman's amendment, but I again congratulate him. I do not dismiss either the passion or experience that he brings to the debate, but fundamentally I believe that it is in the interests of the child that married couples be the adoptive parents.
I congratulate my hon. Friend Mr. Hinchliffe who made an outstanding contribution. He gave a measured speech that encapsulated the feelings of many hon. Members.
During the Special Standing Committee, we heard evidence from 30 professional organisations. The gathering of evidence from expert witnesses was certainly the best way of ensuring that the legislation was right. As several hon. Members have pointed out, we only introduce such legislation once in a generation and considerable efforts have been made on both sides of the House to get it right.
I very much agree with my hon. Friend that the current legislation is deficient. We asked all those 30 professional witnesses, representing various organisations, whether they agreed with the proposals that are now set out in my hon. Friend's amendment—I tabled a similar amendment in Committee. Twenty-nine of the witnesses agreed that we should widen the pool, especially if we are to reach the 40 per cent. increase that we all want. We all believe that adoption offers the best opportunity for stability for children.
There is a hierarchy involved. The optimum is a married couple—a mother and a father. That is first and foremost. My hon. Friend Julie Morgan referred to the number of boys who were included in the British Agencies for Adoption and Fostering "Be My Parent" booklet and pointed out how few inquiries were made about them. That is true for many, many children. At present, the pool is not wide enough so we must widen it.
I want to speak only for a short while.
We need to face the situation that I have described not only for the present but for future generations. Mr. Leigh asked how many more adoptive parents there might be: we do not know. At present, unmarried couples are unable to adopt, so it is wrong to compare—
I shall give way in a moment.
It is wrong to compare the breakdown rates of cohabiting couples, who are not subject to the rigorous assessments for adoption, with those of unmarried couples who might become prospective adopters. We need to dispel the general argument put by those who oppose my hon. Friend's proposals.
The key point about such legislation—whether on adoption or child protection—is that we consider it only once in a generation, so we need to ensure that we do the best we can. Are we doing the best that we can for children who want to be adopted?
I was a social worker for more than a decade. We had permanent adoption plans for many children, but there was not a big enough pool of adoptive parents for them. When I visited such children, they would ask whether I had found them a permanent family: "Have you found me a mummy and a daddy?" I had to say, "Not yet". I had to keep saying, "Not yet, not yet".
I do not know whether the provision will change that. I do not know whether it will mean that social workers will be able to assess more adoptive families, but I believe that it is worth trying. It is certainly worth trying to ensure that we can widen the pool.
Has the hon. Gentleman any evidence for the assertion that a tremendous number of cohabiting couples want to adopt? The British Agencies for Adoption and Fostering claims that
"some adoption agencies process an adoption as if it is by a single person when in fact the person is cohabiting."
That organisation commissioned Cardiff university to carry out a study of almost 2,000 adoptions, in which it
"did not record any adoptions by a cohabiting couple."
I am afraid that any evidence. [Interruption.] Did Jonathan Shaw not listen to the first point that I made? Some agencies deliberately flout the law and process an application
"as if it is by a single person when in fact the person is cohabiting."
Not one of the 2,000 people in the Cardiff study was cohabiting. Where is the evidence to show that great numbers of cohabiting people want to adopt?
If there is evidence of people flouting the law, people should pass it on to the proper authorities, but we took evidence from 30 professional agencies and witnesses from different spectrums of child care. They were not all of one type; there was a whole variety of people. When we asked, 29 of them agreed with the amendments tabled by my hon. Friend the Member for Wakefield and said that we need to do the best that we can.
There is no assertion that scores and scores of unmarried couples want to adopt, but such an amendment would increase the pool. There is no pure equation, but we have to deal with such things in child care. We have to put our hands on our hearts and say that we will do the best that we can. We have to take a view of the world that we live in. I believe that, to increase the number of children being adopted, we should support amendment No. 158, and I commend it to the House.
It seems a long time ago that a small number of hon. Members and I raised precisely this issue on Second Reading. At that time, those on the Front Benches ducked the issue. On this occasion, they have half ducked it, but it is important that, as the Secretary of State for Health said at the time, we have a debate and that the House decides. I do not normally comment on how the usual channels work and how the whipping goes on such things, but this is very much the sort of issue on which hon. Members, from their own experience, are best able to form a judgment. Things would be better done that way, rather than through the medium of a whipped vote.
I am pleased to follow, among others, Mr. Hinchliffe because, as he rightly said, I was a member of the Select Committee on Health under his chairmanship, when it considered children looked after by local authorities. Indeed, we recommended reform of adoption law. That reform was overdue then, and it is very welcome now.
I do not repeat what has been said, not least by the hon. Member for Wakefield, with whom I very substantially agree—I shall come on to where and why we disagree—but I want to encourage colleagues, particularly on this side of the House, not to think about this issue as though, by resisting the hon. Gentleman's amendments, we can roll the world back to a situation where the only people who want to be adoptive parents are married couples, or where they would come forward in sufficient numbers, notwithstanding the improvements and reductions in delay that may occur as a consequence of the Bill.
Following the point made by my hon. Friend Mr. Leigh, let us construct the argument around the best interests of children based on what happens now, not on the proposition that there is an additional pool of prospective adopters—although I happen to agree that there would be some additional potential adoptive parents as a result of allowing unmarried couples to adopt. About 6 per cent. of those who adopt now are single. Overwhelmingly, they are in cohabiting relationships and are unmarried couples—heterosexuals in the great majority.
So the question is what is in the best interests of the child where those couples are concerned. Having established to the satisfaction of the relevant agencies and the courts that one person in that relationship is the best person to adopt the child, is it in the best interests of the child for the other person in that relationship not to have a long-term, lasting legal relationship with that child? That is not in the best interests of the child.
Conservative Members have established that, if there is a hierarchy of the best interests of the child, it is that a child should be brought up by a mother and a father, first, in a married relationship, or, if there is not a married relationship, an enduring, loving relationship. That seems to be the best way to proceed. If children are to be placed for adoption with a couple—a mother and a father—but the current constraints of the law provide that only one of those two parents can have the legal relationship with the child, that is not in the best interests of the child.
It would be advantageous to free up the possibility for couples to adopt, even though they are unmarried. The evidence that I have seen so far from our inquiry and from talking to directors of social services and others in my constituency and elsewhere and from the adoption agencies makes it perfectly clear that a number of potential parents who are unmarried have their own reasons for not wanting to marry.
Should we see the Bill as some form of social engineering? Is it designed to try to force people to marry in order to become adoptive parents? I think that we should conclude that people should marry if they love one another and if they want to show that to society at large by using that form of relationship. If we do not take that view—I am sorry to tell my right hon. Friend Miss Widdecombe—would we really saying that the increasing number of people in our society who have natural children and who, as a couple, do not marry are in some way not considering the best interests of their children? They have their reasons.
It is not for us to try to use adoption legislation, which should be designed around the best interests of the child, as a mechanism to effect a change in social circumstances in society at large, still less to try to go back to a different time. Many couples have their own many and varied reasons for not marrying. In some cases they face impediments to marriage. There may not be legal impediments, but there could be religious reasons and so on, which make things very difficult.
I am most grateful to the hon. Gentleman. I follow his logic entirely and share his views on social engineering. Do not his arguments apply equally to same-sex couples?
The hon. Gentleman takes me precisely to my next point. Thus far I have agreed with the hon. Member for Wakefield, and my purpose in speaking is not least to say that, if the amendments tabled by Dr. Harris were to be passed, I would want to press amendment No. 24, which is designed to define unmarried couples for this purpose as a man and a woman living together. However, if the hon. Gentleman's amendment is not passed, and amendment No. 148 and the consequential amendments associated with it were passed, I would want to press amendment No. 158(a), which is designed to remove same-sex couples from the definition of couples for this purpose.
My understanding—you will correct me if I am wrong, Mr. Deputy Speaker—is that the Division on amendment No. 158 will take place not now but on Monday, but we must make the argument now. I hope that hon. Members will understand that we can debate same-sex couples today, but we shall have to vote on Monday. I hope that, on Monday, having indicated that they are prepared to allow unmarried couples to adopt, hon. Members will not, for the reasons that I have explained, extend that to same-sex couples.
Some of the arguments that I have presented are exactly the same as those that Stonewall has put to me. I have great respect for its arguments and we have had some interesting discussions, but we have not reached the same conclusions. Stonewall says that if a child is placed for adoption with a couple who happen to be of the same sex, why should not both partners in that relationship have a long-term, lasting legal relationship? My purpose in speaking to the amendment is not perhaps the same as that of my hon. Friend Mr. Walter, whose view may be shared by other Opposition Members. Their view is that they would not wish children to be placed for adoption with a gay person in a gay relationship. That does happen—I am working on the basis of what happens now. On Second Reading, I noted—I probably did not refer to it—that last year's October issue of Be My Parent illustrated, at length, precisely such a relationship: a lesbian couple who had adopted, over time, four children. I hope that that is successful; I cannot say anything more than was set out in that newspaper.
This is the issue: why should we go on to create, for gay couples, a legal relationship that would not apply in a natural birth family? As a consequence of allowing unmarried couples to adopt, we will create, as one would normally expect, a legal mother and a legal father. As a consequence of the hon. Member for Wakefield's amendment, were it not amended as I propose, we would create two legal mothers or two legal fathers. Some other parts of legislation work on the basis of parents, but I am not persuaded that we have yet reached the point at which all our legislation should treat all parenting as wholly non-gender-specific.
I accept that there is a degree to which the parenting skill often crosses gender. Some fathers are better at being mothers to their children and some mothers are better at being fathers. By and large, however, most of our legislation, although it may be written in terms of parenting, is understood in terms of the respective responsibilities of mothers and fathers. There tends to be an understanding of how parenting works in that relationship. We should consider very carefully whether to take the novel step of creating two legal mothers or two legal fathers, especially when the provision may be used more often to assist the lesbian partner of someone who has given birth to a child through donor insemination than it ever will be to assist gay couples to adopt children, who may often be older or severely disabled and for whom there is a significant lack of adoptive parents.
Does the hon. Gentleman feel that the arguments that he advanced for the deficiency of an arrangement in which one partner is the legal adoptive parent and the other is not also apply to a gay relationship? How confident is he that his amendment is compatible with the European convention on human rights.
I shall make two points in that regard.
I am not sure that the hon. Gentleman has been listening to me carefully, as the essence of my argument is that, although I accept the case in respect of unmarried couples, we would create a whole new legal situation in relation to gay couples. It is not therefore directly comparable with the situation for unmarried couples, so we should not necessarily read across.
On the European convention on human rights, the case of Frette v. France gave effectively a margin of appreciation to the French Government not to allow a gay man to adopt. I think that that was wrong, and that it was probably incompatible with convention rights.
My amendment proposes that we do not create in UK legislation at this stage a possibility for there to be two legal mothers at the same time through gay adoption. I suspect that the European Court of Human Rights, were it to consider the matter, would allow at least that margin of appreciation, as we are not precluding gay adoption. Everyone has made that clear—gay adoption happens now. It was established in a case in Scotland, which points to exactly the situation in which gay adoption is most likely to happen.
In the Scottish case, which established the principle, a nurse who had substantial experience of dealing with a child who had severe disabilities was able to adopt that child. Circumstances therefore exist in which gay adoption happens, and in which it may be in the best interests of the child. As a consequence of that, circumstances exist in which the partner in that gay relationship may seek a joint residence order. A joint residence order may not be all that gay partners want in such a relationship, but it is sufficient for the time being, while we think carefully about the consequences of trying to establish the proposition that one can have two legal mothers or two legal fathers rather than what we have understood to be the case up to now—that we should have parents, which, in British law, implies a mother and a father.
For that reason, I shall vote for the amendment in the name of the hon. Member for Wakefield—I hope that my colleagues will follow me—but I hope that he will understand if, on Monday, I seek to amend it.
I shall be brief, because I believe that much has already been said in this debate, and I commend hon. Members on both sides of the House for the way in which this issue is being discussed.
One of the problems with adoption is that we tend to approach the issue as we would that of two people having a natural child. Years ago, that was perhaps how adoption was most frequently seen—a couple who were unable to have their own children would seek to adopt a child from somebody who could not keep a child. We are now in a very different situation, in which most children who are adopted come through the care system, most are older children, and most have experienced some form of abuse and are likely to have significant emotional problems.
Today, adoption is about looking for families for children. Nowadays, in our society, families come in many types. In my view, we should not rule out any adult who, after rigorous assessment, is thought to be able to offer a loving, lifelong relationship to a child. We have heard a lot about what is considered the ideal, and about what our ideal would be were we to have children, but that is not what we are talking about. The ideal would be to have enough adoptive parents for all the children who currently seek adoptive families and for all the children whom we would like to seek adoptive families.
That is not the situation. In fact, there are more children awaiting adoption than there are adoptive parents. It is nothing short of political correctness to rule out unmarried couples whether of different sexes or the same sex. To suggest, as did Mr. Lansley, that it is okay for one person to adopt is wrong—we will be creating new legal relationships whether in relation to unmarried couples of different sexes or unmarried couples of the same sex. Indeed, it was those very technical and complex legal difficulties that delayed consideration of these amendments in Committee, as the Minister said, so I do not accept the arguments of the hon. Member for South Cambridgeshire.
We must ensure that the needs of children are put first.
The hon. Lady says that we must ensure that the needs of children are put first, and the whole House shares that concern. Does she appreciate that not all types of family are equally likely to be stable? While she is right that there are many types of families, they are not all likely to offer the adopted child the same level of security, stability and consistency.
I entirely accept that not all families are equally stable, but I reject the idea that certain types of family are less stable. We are talking about individual children being placed in individual family homes. Adoption panels and social workers spend a great deal of time trying to match children with people who can meet their needs.
I have been involved in placing children in same-sex couples. The process was particularly interesting and that was not because I found that those couples were very different from heterosexual couples. As hon. Members know, a rigorous assessment takes place. There is a full report—sometimes, it is considered to be too intrusive. I have read literally hundreds of those reports. One reads about people's life experience, childhood, work, relationships, what they do at the weekend and their experience with children. The few reports that I have read on same-sex couples struck me because they were extraordinarily ordinary. Their lives are the same as everyone else's.
Couples who are offering a home to children are focused on exactly that. They want to have children in their lives.
I read an article in an American newspaper some two months ago about a young child who was seriously ill and not expected to live and who had been adopted by a same-sex couple. Eventually, the child prospered. When the child reached the age of 10, the authorities decided that it should no longer be fostered but should be adopted. Under the law in that state—Florida—the authorities were not allowed to place the child with a same-sex couple. Legally, they had to take the child from the couple who had raised it since it was very young and place it with a different family.
Clearly, in my hon. Friend's example the needs of the child were not properly considered. That has to be the bottom line. We do not have enough adults who want to adopt. We do not have enough people offering families. We have to widen the pool and look to the future by saying that anyone who can offer the love, care and stability that children in care need should be approved and enabled to look after a child.
I approach this subject in the light of my experience as Secretary of State for Social Security, when it became clear to me, in terms of social problems, that children who had had the advantage of adoption tended to do as well if not better than average, whereas those who remained in care did far worse than average. Four times as many were unemployed. They were 12 times as likely to have no educational qualifications, 40 times as likely to go to prison, 60 times as likely to be roofless and 66 times as likely to have children who had to go into care, thus perpetuating the process.
I start from a presumption that we should encourage more and speedier adoption. When the British Agencies for Adopting and Fostering wrote to me, saying
"it does not make sense to exclude a significant proportion of the adult population from consideration" for adopting children, I was inclined to agree. I started from the position expressed by Mr. Hinchliffe, which was also described very lucidly by Jonathan Shaw. Although marriage is undoubtedly preferable—the ideal is that children should be brought up in a loving, married family—if there are not enough loving, married families to go around, in principle I would be prepared to widen the scope. After all, we allow children in care to be brought up by people who may be married or single, cohabiting or not, homosexual or otherwise.
I agree with the BAAF that it would not make sense to exclude a significant proportion of the adult population from consideration for adoption. However, no one is, in fact, excluded. Under present law, no one is legally excluded from consideration for adoption: one may be married or unmarried, cohabiting or single, gay or lesbian, young or old, or black or white: one is legally entitled to adopt. Last year, 300 single people adopted children—about 6 per cent. of the total number adopting. I do not believe that the change proposed will increase by one person the number of people with the right to adopt. The numbers argument is therefore bogus.
Having vaguely acknowledged the situation, but without making it clear, BAAF went on to say:
"BAAF research shows that many unmarried couples do not come forward for this reason"— namely, that they cannot adopt collectively as a couple; they can only adopt if one of them acts as sole legal adoptive parent. I phoned BAAF to ask for the evidence and spoke to Mrs. Felicity Collier, the chief executive of the organisation, who wrote the letter. She said that there was no evidence to that effect as such. In the letter, she was referring to a study of 500 parents during national adoption week. At the beginning of the sample, 15 per cent. were unwed; at the end, only 8 per cent. of those who carried it through to close to completion were unmarried. A disproportionate number of unmarried people had dropped out, but they were not asked why. No information was gathered on that.
So the assertion in the letter was not backed up by evidence. Indeed, no hon. Member has produced evidence today to support the idea that a significant number of people are put off adopting by the legal situation. It is certainly the case that no one is legally excluded from adopting.
I said that we do not know whether there is a large pool. We have to make an assessment, and that is based on what we know—on how society is shaped. We also take account of those people who provide adoptive placements for children. Some 29 of the 30 agencies agreed with the amendment tabled by my hon. Friend Mr. Hinchliffe.
The hon. Gentleman is honest enough to admit that there is no evidence. I am referring to a lobbying body that is pre-eminent in adoption. It wrote to me pretending that there is evidence, which, on closer inspection, does not exist. Why Mrs. Collier, who seemed nice and honest, should put her name to such a tendentious letter, I do not know.
I am sorry, but I must continue, for the reasons made clear by other hon. Members.
There seems to be an agenda to raise the importance of rights above responsibilities—to equate cohabitation with marriage and homosexual relations with heterosexual relations. To some extent, children are being used as pawns in that game. I accept that it would be equally wrong to use children as pawns or a bait for marriage. I am not saying that I believe we should legislate to provide the incentive to marry that only married people can adopt. That is not the reason for our approach. What matters is that we act in the interests of children—not in the interests of married couples, unmarried couples, gay people, elderly people or younger people.
I will not give way, for the reason that I gave.
The practical effect of the change will not be to bring about a significant increase in the number of people who apply to adopt. What it will do is raise the priority given to unmarried parents and reduce the questions that are asked about whether their relationship is likely to be as stable as a married relationship.
We know that overall there is a surplus of parents who want to adopt relative to the number of children. It is babies that are in short supply. What we need are more parents who are willing to adopt not the babies but the children who are harder to adopt. They are the most vulnerable children. They have the greatest difficulties and are in most need of stable relationships and a secure environment. In practice, I do not think that many of those 300 or so who have come forward to adopt and who are not married are particularly likely disproportionately to take on those children who are so hard to place.
I said, "particularly likely." I am not saying there are no examples of that happening, but those couples are likely to displace married couples from applications to adopt and reduce their priority when it comes to adopting babies. That is likely to be the major consequence of the proposed change.
It has been asked whether Conservative Members are saying that the unmarried are automatically unstable and unlikely to remain together, and so on. In fact, we are talking about statistics. The House will be given statistics showing the frequency with which unmarried couples break up as against married couples. These are statistics, and the differences can be felt. There will be unmarried couples who live together peacefully, harmoniously and lovingly all their lives. There will be unmarried couples who are as committed as any married couple. Indeed, from a theological point of view, in the sight of God they are married, because marriage is the commitment and not the public institutionalisation of it. Unfortunately, I do not have the insight of God—none of us has—and so I do not know who is committed and who is not. It is simply more difficult to know if people will not make the commitment public and declare it through the institution of marriage.
That is the difficulty and the problem. We are asking social workers to assess which of the comparative minority among unmarried couples are every bit as committed, as stable, as permanent and as long term as the average marriage. Of course, some of the wedded couples will break up: some are not committed and should be excluded. If they can be identified ex ante they should be excluded from adoption, although that is difficult.
It is surely foolish for us to write it into the law that consideration should be effectively uninfluenced by whether or not people make a public commitment to the responsibilities that my right hon. Friend Miss Widdecombe spelled out as being part of marriage and the commitment that is an intrinsic part of it too.
Children are not trophies to whom anyone has the right. Children are not and should not be tools of social engineering, either by those who pursue a politically correct agenda or by those of us who believe in marriage. The children we are talking about are the most vulnerable, and have the greatest difficulties if they are not satisfactorily adopted. We should be seeking the best for them, and not the best for parents.
I am a married man and I believe in the sanctity of marriage. I believe also that it is vital as part of the social infrastructure of modern society. I am the father of three young children. I am grateful beyond words that they are brought up in a loving, stable family environment. I also happen to be a Christian. It is because I am a Christian who believes in the family that I strongly support the amendments, whereby non-married couples, including same-sex couples, will be able to adopt children.
In the shifting values of modern times, there are few, if any, absolute values on which all of us agree. However, one value that comes closer than many to achieving that consensus is, I suggest, the imperative to love and cherish children. It is not only a biblical imperative. It is one that is shared by those of all faiths and of none—people who believe, like me, that the interests and needs of children are paramount and that they should always come first.
If we hold that view, it would seem that our duties today in this place are clear. First, we must examine the evidence to ascertain whether the interests of children are currently being put first. Secondly, if they are not, we must decide what needs to be done in the real world in which children live to ensure that that is remedied. Thirdly, we must decide for ourselves whether that requires statutory expression through the amendments. I shall look at those three questions in turn.
First, it is clear that children are not being put first. There are thousands of vulnerable children who are either in care or in need of care. Many of these children are fostered. Many will return to their natural family in due course, albeit sometimes under supervision and protection. Many others—especially older children, disabled children and hard-to-place children—will not find long-term foster families and will not return home. They are the lost children of the modern age. For them, there may be three possibilities: the street, institutionalised care homes or adoption.
Secondly, in the real world, which is the best of the three options if we are to protect children and put their interests first? It must surely be by protecting them from the street, by taking them out of institutionalised residential care, and by placing them whenever possible in long-term loving family environments, with families who are equipped to give them the care, love and support that they need. That must mean adoption on a scale which, at present, we are not achieving; we have to find about 5,000 more adoptive families every year if we are to find homes for those lost children.
Thirdly, we have to ask ourselves whether there is anything that we can and should do as parliamentarians to meet that need by passing legislation or amendments to it. Current legislation restricts the pool of adoptive families; married couples can adopt, as can single people, whether gay or straight, but unmarried couples cannot. It does not matter how long people have been in such a relationship; it does not matter how skilled and loving those people would be, or perhaps already are, as parents; it does not matter how many children are lost and whose lives are wasted in residential institutions, when they need loving homes; and it does not matter how desperate those children are. None of that matters; unmarried couples cannot adopt.
In a time of great need for more adoptive families, it is absurd that, by legislation, we are denying a pool of adoptive families who could clearly make a significant contribution any chance of adoption. No one is arguing for a lowering of the rigorous thresholds by which the suitability of adoptive parents is judged. We are talking only about adoptive parents independently judged by the adoption agencies and the courts as having the capacity and commitment to be safe and effective parents. How can it be right to preserve the legislative status quo, thereby ignoring the opportunity offered by that pool of adoptive families? There is no justification whatever for doing so.
We live in an imperfect world, in which we must do the best that we can to make things a little bit better; we should not strive for perfection or the impossible, as that would mean achieving nothing. Countless marriages end in divorce; indeed, that is one reason why we need more adoption. Many people choose not to marry again and many choose never to marry at all, but numerous people seek loving permanent relationships outside marriage. We may not like it, but it happens; that is the world in which we live. To cut all those people off from the pool of adoptive families—however decent and loving and however secure and stable their relationship may be—is to cut massively and arbitrarily the supply of loving parents who could meet the needs of children.
How can it be right to allow children to remain in care when they could be in loving, caring families instead? If children who need care can be adopted by a loving single parent, how can it be right that they cannot be adopted by a loving couple? After all, if one mum or one dad is better than none, two must surely be as acceptable as one.
It is argued that allowing unmarried couples to adopt would demean the institution of marriage: I disagree, because the needs of the child should come first. Any argument that sacrifices the needs of the child to any other public interest, even protecting the ideal of marriage, is misguided. It subverts one moral value, the protection of children, and sacrifices it to another, the protection of the ideal of marriage, which is less realisable and important.
Protecting that ideal is less realisable than the interests of the child in care, at least from a parliamentary perspective, because while Parliament can vote to enable a child to have a better chance of finding an adoptive family, we can never vote or legislate to make people marry, or keep married couples and families together.
From a legislative perspective, protecting the ideal of marriage is also less important than protecting the interests of the child, because in any modern democracy we must legislative for everyone. As a Christian, I have a personal view of marriage and believe in its sanctity. I believe that it is a sacrament. I believe that it has spiritual and religious importance, but there are others who do not share my faith, and in our democracy, they have rights too.
I know people who genuinely believe in monogamous partnerships and who believe that that is the natural way of things, but they do not believe that marriage itself is natural. They believe that it is a man-made concept, a religious concept, a social construct of no relevance to them. In a democracy, they have rights too.
There are also those who do share my belief in marriage but who find, no matter how hard they try in their own marriage, that they fail and that their marriage does not last. They have rights too, even if they do not remarry. Those rights surely extend far enough to include the right to offer to help to meet the needs of children in care by offering to be adoptive parents to them.
I do not, however, rest my case on the rights of the parent. I rest my case on the rights of the child. The child has rights too—the right to a family, the right to be loved by a family, and the right to be looked after by a family, even if that family unit does not match our ideal. We, in this House, should not sit in moral judgment over families, nor should we stand in the way of the rights of those children being met, for reasons of political or religious correctness or out of idealism.
We must strike a balance. We have an ideal, not universally shared and not realisable by Parliament. Against that ideal, we can weigh thousands of damaged, lonely, unloved, abandoned children, currently kept in care and kept out of families, when we might be able to find them a loving home. For me, that balance can yield only one result: the children must come first.
On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I do not wish to take the time of the House or of my hon. Friend, but would you please convey to Mr. Speaker that the timetable that the House has been constrained to follow has prevented a proper debate on both sides of the House and on all sides of the argument?
I have great sympathy with the comments of my hon. Friend Sir Patrick Cormack, but I shall try again to summarise the debate. I shall speak to the generality of the amendments and explain why the official Opposition will not be supporting them and why I shall advise hon. Members to vote against them.
The subject under discussion has dominated the Bill for far too long—a Bill that has 137 clauses and six schedules and is packed full of many other issues. It is those issues to which I shall direct attention.
Although the debate has been curtailed, it has been interesting. We have had some excellent contributions from all speakers—certainly as soon as Dr. Harris sat down. It was an extraordinary revelation from a political party—the admission that a mother and father figure just happen to be, but are not exclusively, the best bet that children can have. It is astonishing that that is official Liberal Democrat policy.
We heard interesting contributions about the legal implications, moral agendas, legal rights, equality of opportunity and even reverse political correctness. However, I am not interested in any of that as regards creating a better system for adoption and adopted children, and for expanding that system, which is the subject of the Bill. That is what should concern us today, and what has concerned some of us for the past six months, since the Bill started its passage through Parliament. We have strongly supported the Bill throughout, and I have become closely involved with the subject of adoption and scrutinising the Bill.
Two over-riding considerations lie at the heart of our deliberations. The first is set out in clause 1(2), which states:
"The paramount consideration of the court or adoption agency must be the child's welfare, throughout his life".
The second consideration is whether the changes proposed will improve and expand the system of adoption in this country, and thereby heighten the chances of making clause 1 a reality for more children. That is what we are here to discuss today—nothing else. Now is not the time for political agendas, for promoting gay rights agendas, or even for promoting the moral basis for the desirability of marriage. In that I agree with the comment in The Guardian editorial on
"Adoption should not be used as a means of promoting marriage; it is children's interests which should be paramount."
By the same token, neither should adoption be used as a means of promoting alternative lifestyles and equal opportunities for adults, as I fear increasingly it has become. In the context of this Bill, the only equal opportunity that I am interested in is the equal opportunity of a child who ends up in care as a result of a broken home, domestic violence or sexual abuse, or because their parents are unable to cope, often after a catalogue of personal tragedies and multiple upheavals.
I will not for the moment.
Our agenda here must be the equal opportunity of those damaged children to have a second chance to repair their lives and to be brought up in as stable, loving and fulfilling a family environment as possible to give them as fair a chance as the rest of us when they go out into the wide world outside.
I apologise, but I want to make progress.
Over recent months, many of us have been heavily lobbied on the Bill by all manner of Christian family organisations and the politically correct social worker brigade. I, like most hon. Members who have spoken today, may have strong views on those subjects on either side, but the Bill is not the means to promote them.
We have already wasted far too much time in delaying the Bill since its Committee stage ended some four months ago. We all know that it is because of the debate that has been raging between No. 10 and the rest of the Government over the issue of extending adoption to unmarried couples, which has, temporarily at least, been resolved by a free vote on the Government side, which is perfectly legitimate. But it should not have taken four months. This is desperately needed legislation that we needed yesterday, not tomorrow.
One interesting point about today's debate is its attendance. When we started the Bill's Report stage on
I said that I wanted to make some progress.
We are now told that the Liberals were not due to be whipped to be here at all on Monday. They are interested only in the gay rights agenda as part of the Bill, which is disgraceful.
It is interesting that the BBC, which has been ringing round the expert adoption agencies asking specifically how many complaints they have received from unmarried couples who find that they are unable to adopt jointly, was rather surprised when it reached about the seventh of those adoption agencies to be told that it had not had any complaints about unmarried adoption, to which the BBC said that, funnily enough, nor had anybody else. That follows the findings in the Government's 2000 White Paper "Adoption: A New Approach" which listed the 10 main problems to overcome to improve adoption, including delays in the system, inconsistencies in the law and insufficient social worker training, but no mention of the marital status or otherwise of prospective adopters.
Despite this interesting debate, we shall urge hon. Members on both sides to vote against the amendments and to maintain the status quo, because this issue is a sideshow compared with the real concerns of promoting and improving adoption. All the research, all the statistics and all the sociological evidence show that a family that contains a married couple offers the best chance of providing a long-term stable environment for children in need of adoption.
Many may argue that long-term stable environments can also be offered by unmarried couples, whether of the opposite sex or the same sex. I am not arguing against that point here. But no one can refute the evidence that shows that married couples offer the best chances, in most cases by a long measure. Of course, it is not exclusively so and many problems still happen within those married families, as Mr. Hinchliffe and others have mentioned. But overall the record is much better.
Let me quote something.
"Children in my judgment, and I think it's the judgment of almost everyone including single parents, are best brought up where you have two natural parents in a stable relationship. There's no question about that. What we know from the evidence is that, generally speaking, that stability is more likely to occur where the parents are married than where they're not."
"Marriage is still the surest foundation for raising children and remains the choice of the majority of people in Britain."
That is from the Government's 1998 Green Paper.
"The adoption law review, when considering this issue, concluded that joint adoption should remain limited to married couples on the grounds that adoption by a married couple was more likely to provide the stability and security that the child needed because married couples have made a joint, publicly recognised, legal commitment to each other. In addition, marriage provides for mutual legal and financial obligations, and importantly in the event of divorce, the couple must be prepared to have plans for the future of their children scrutinised by the courts. There is no provision in law to protect the child's interests when unmarried couples separate."
Those were the words of the Minister herself. Currently, 95 per cent. of adoptions are by married people. Seventy per cent. of children born within marriage will live their entire childhood with both natural parents, compared with 36 per cent. of children born to non-married couples. According to the Office for National Statistics, children brought up by married couples are statistically far more likely to have better health, to do better at school, to have fewer behavioural problems and to be less likely to commit a criminal offence.
I will not.
By contrast, cohabiting couples are six times more likely to split up than married couples, and, as my right hon. Friend Miss Widdecombe said, more than half of cohabiting couples split up within five years of the birth of a child. They split up most often when they have children. The statistics go on and on. The figures show that gay relationships are more transitory still. Married couples offer by far the best long-term chances of stability, statistically and sociologically, and that is what we should be concentrating on. We must make it much easier and quicker for married couples to adopt, which is what the rest of the Bill is all about.
Marriage is on the increase. In 2000, there were 263,515 marriages. About 22 million marriages currently exist. So if we want to increase the current 3,000 adoptees by at least 50 per cent., as we all do, there is plenty of scope in the existing material, and we need to concentrate on why more such people are not coming forward or being approved as adopters.
All the amendments—apart from amendment No. 24, which is different—miss the point. They would open up adoption to any manner of pick-and-mix couples, including heterosexual cohabitees—even brother and sister—and same-sex couples, who have the worst record statistically.
New clause 2 also has serious technical problems. How do we define whether people are in a stable relationship? The amendments would create a mess. They would also send out the wrong signals to local authorities, which might present the courts with more unmarried couples instead of concentrating on maximising the availability of existing married couples, against whom there has been too much obstruction from the political correctness brigade in the past.
We are spending all this time discussing amendments that tackle the wrong problem. In any case, keeping the status quo means that single parent adoptions, which currently constitute 5 per cent. of all adoptions, can still continue. We are not seeking to change that situation. Unmarried couples wanting to adopt have the solution in their own hands—they can commit to each other in a long-term relationship by getting married. I quote:
"Why would a cohabiting couple not see—not necessarily in church, but under the law—defining their relationship in terms of a more public, legal contract as being a precursor to actually adopting a child?"
Those are the words of Caroline Flint.
No one has a right to adopt, but every abandoned child or child in care has a right to get a second chance of a stable and loving upbringing. Yet I fear that too many Members here today who are interested in this part of the Bill are in danger of putting the interests of adults ahead of those of children. I fear that this part of the Bill is in danger of being manipulated to serve a different agenda that is all about the wishes of adults. I invite all hon. Members to join us in the Lobby to vote against all the amendments that open up adoption without qualification and to put the interests of children first. I invite the Liberals in particular to put aside their whipped agenda for gay rights and to concentrate on what is best for children by voting with us.
To do so is not to be anti-gay or pro-marriage—for marriage is safe—but to be for the best interests of children. I ask hon. Members to put aside political agendas, moral crusades and issues of equal opportunity, deserving as those may be in a different context. The only equal rights that we should be concerned with in the context of the Bill are those of damaged children to a second chance of a stable and loving upbringing. That is best achieved by keeping the status quo and considering all the other ways of improving and expanding the whole adoption system, which is what the rest of this large Bill is intended to do. We should be getting on with that.
On Second Reading, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State suggested that there should be a debate on adoption by unmarried couples. A good debate on the subject has taken place today, with hon. Members expressing well thought-out and deeply held views. During the Bill's passage, and especially in the consultative Special Standing Committee, we received many representations. We know that the issue is sensitive and difficult. Given the variety of views, the Government have decided to allow a free vote on extending eligibility to apply to adopt jointly. I am disappointed that other parties have not seen fit to do the same.
I should like to comment on the detail of the amendments. Amendments Nos. 148 to 158 and new clause 13, which my hon. Friend Mr. Hinchliffe tabled, would, for the first time, allow unmarried couples to apply jointly to adopt children. Hon. Members have understandably concentrated on principles. As a Minister, I am afraid that I have to concentrate not only on principles but on whether the legislation will work.
Amendments Nos. 148 to 158 and new clause 13 would effect what hon. Members want in a way that is legally sensible and confines the definition of a couple to the Bill. The amendment that Dr. Harris tabled would not achieve that. Clauses 47 and 48 define who is eligible to adopt. Amendments Nos. 148 to 155 would make the necessary changes, and amendment No. 158 would define a couple. I therefore hope that the hon. Member for Oxford, West and Abingdon will withdraw the amendment. It would not achieve his intention but create considerable difficulties if hon. Members wanted to accept joint adoption by unmarried couples.
As many hon. Members have said, the amendments would widen the pool of potential adoptive parents so that more vulnerable children have the chance of family life that adoption can bring. Evidence shows that there is a potential supply of couples who are willing to adopt. British Agencies for Adoption and Fostering has evidence showing 41 per cent. of unmarried couples expressing an interest in adopting jointly. However, as other hon. Members have pointed out, only 5 per cent. of adoptions are currently not by married couples. That suggests that there may be a supply of adoptive parents out there.
As hon. Members have made clear, one of the key criteria for our decision must be whether we believe that we can increase opportunities for children to be adopted into stable and secure families. There appears to be evidence that we could widen the pool of potential adopters.
I believe that there are many reasons, as several hon. Members suggested. We do not need to worry about that today. We should consider whether to increase the pool of adopters and how to promote the stability and security that many hon. Members have discussed.
I very much hope that the hon. Lady, on behalf of the Government, will now provide leadership and advice to the House. That is her duty as a Minister. Will she please confirm that she still believes the statement that she made very firmly in Committee in November 2001? In it, she said:
"joint adoption should remain limited to married couples on the grounds that adoption by a married couple was more likely to provide the stability and security that the child needed because married couples have made a joint, publicly recognised, legal commitment to each other."—[Official Report, Special Standing Committee,
Will she repeat that statement today?
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.
As has been said, this was a good debate, but it was curtailed by the timetable and the speech of Tim Loughton, which was an over-long rant, with no interventions. In that respect, he outdid all his senior Back-Bench colleagues in intolerance.
As the hon. Gentleman said, this should be about the promotion of neither marriage nor alternative lifestyles but about putting the child first. However, I think that he will come to regret labelling adoption agencies, the NSPCC, Barnardo's, the National Children's Bureau, the Children's Society and the Law Society as the politically correct social worker brigade—just as Mr. Lilley will come to regret his reference to the use of children in social engineering. I disagreed with his speech and he should have the courage to say that he simply disagrees with me.
Unlike the right hon. Gentleman, I gave way about 10 times in my speech. I also urge hon. Members to put pressure on the Government to push the measure through the Lords, because we need it. In asking hon. Members to support amendment No. 148, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.
Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.
It being Six o'clock, Madam Deputy Speaker pursuant to Order [this day] to put forthwith the Questions necessary for the disposal of the business to be concluded at that hour.