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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.