It is no surprise that we have returned to the topic with which the amendments deal. We had a lengthy debate on Report and, having studied in some detail the debate that occurred in the House of Lords, I take the view that the purpose of the original amendment was fundamentally misunderstood and misrepresented in another place. I should like to address my concerns about that misrepresentation of the purposes of the original amendment agreed to by this House.
I should like again to stress my personal strongly held belief in marriage. I do not want to cover ground that I covered in detail last time we debated the Bill, but I believe that if we had more marriage in society, we would have a much more stable society in which children are happier and perhaps stand a better chance in later life. Perhaps we as a society should spend more time considering how we support and promote marriage.
I shall set out the key objectives of the amendments. I believe that they will strengthen what is, in my view, an extremely good Bill. I pay tribute to the Minister for the way in which she has steered the measure through its various stages. I pay tribute to my right hon. Friends the Secretary of State and the Prime Minister. The Prime Minister is very much behind the proposed legislation and wishes to assist the many children within the care system.
First, I want to see a good Bill strengthened so that more children within and from the care system are able to live in stable, permanent families. We know that about 5,000 children are in homes awaiting adoptive placements. I hope that the amendments will assist them in the process of obtaining a proper family life.
Has any estimate been made of the number of couples who will come forward to adopt children as a consequence of the amendments but who are currently unwilling to adopt as individuals?
There was an adoption week in 1999. I understand that about 10 per cent. of the inquiries were from unmarried couples who were excluded from the adoption process. I cannot answer the hon. Gentleman's question in detail, as I suspect he anticipated, but I know that in the past, unmarried couples have expressed a significant interest in adoption. That is why many of us feel that a significant number of children and adolescents within the care system could be assisted as a consequence of amending the Bill.
Will my hon. Friend acknowledge the work of the Nottinghamshire Catholic Children's Society? It states in a note to me that recognition should be given to the potential family resource provided by unmarried couples. The society has worked in adoption for more than 25 years and has excellent experience. Will my hon. Friend acknowledge the veracity of the society's statement?
I have not seen that information, but it is significant that the society should come forward with such a statement. Some people with a Catholic belief have concerns about the appropriateness of what we seek to do. Many of my friends are Catholics, and they are divided. Some are strongly in support of the amendments' aims and objectives. They understand that the supporters do not wish to undermine the institution of marriage. We are about strengthening children's ability to engage in family life and to benefit from it in the way that most of us in the Chamber have done.
The amendments seek to widen the adoption pool. The available evidence shows that a significant number of people will be willing to come forward as unmarried partners to offer adoptive placements to children in the care system.
I am less happy about making the point that we need to relate legislation to the world in which we live. Within the House and elsewhere in wider society, apparently more and more people choose to live in long-term stable relationships without going through the marriage ceremony. I do not defend that necessarily, but I respect the fact that people have the right to take that course if they so wish. Many of my colleagues will be aware of a number of Members who have that form of relationship and who bring up children in stable partnerships without going through the marriage ceremony.
Is not it true that, generally, adoption law is made every 25 years? Therefore, the measures that we put in place today need to reflect not only current society but how it will change and develop in the next 25 years. It is important to recognise changes in society now.
My hon. Friend is right. I cited figures in our previous debate to show that in 25 years, approximately 20 per cent. of couples will live together without going through a marriage ceremony. I do not defend that trend, but we must live in the real world and understand that, simply because people are not married, it does not mean that they cannot bring up children appropriately in stable relationships. If unmarried parents automatically meant instability, the child welfare organisations and social services would be more involved in removing children from such relationships.
What is the hon. Gentleman's response to the statistic that 83 per cent. of cohabitations that do not become marriages break up in 10 years, whereas 60 per cent. of marriages last for life?
I do not want to argue about that figure. Unmarried applicants will go through a rigorous process to ensure that their relationship is stable. As I said in our previous debate, I have a background in adoption and guardian ad litem work. I know of cases of married couples who adopted children and whose marriages subsequently broke down. In many instances, that cannot be predicted. However, the adoption agencies and services have a good track record in examining the strengths or weaknesses of relationships. I shall return to that point, because it was raised in the Lords.
I am sure that the hon. Gentleman agrees that a loving, stable relationship is required. Does he realise that, under current law, an individual could adopt, but that if that individual was in a stable relationship and, God forbid, one of the partners died, the child could be removed from the other adoptive parent? Is not that the cruellest aspect?
That is an important point, which several hon. Members made in our previous debate. In many cases, sometimes of same-sex couples but more frequently of unmarried heterosexual couples, one partner adopts the child. When the adoptive partner dies, the child is legally in a vulnerable position. That was discussed at length in our previous debate. It is an anomaly in the current law and we must bear it in mind, as Michael Fabricant made clear.
The amendments to the Lords amendments secure the best interests of children by acknowledging that in some circumstances, they may be served by adoption by unmarried partners. Since 1989, the welfare principle has been at the heart of our legislation on child welfare. There will be general agreement in the House that it has served our children well. In any decision about their well-being, the prime objective must be their best interests throughout their lifetimes. In my view, the Bill as amended in the Lords will not ensure that those best interests are properly covered in specific circumstances.
I want to consider the main themes of the Lords' anxieties about the amendment that we passed some time ago. I hope that hon. Members have studied the relevant Hansard reports of the Lords proceedings. I do not like to say so, but one theme underpinned the debates: scarcely concealed, crude homophobia. I find that rather sad and worrying in this day and age.
On Report, my speech on the relevant amendment covered six columns of Hansard. Just two paragraphs of my speech dealt with same-sex adoption, because I believe that the main thrust of our concern should be child welfare, which is where the law has got it wrong.
May I make a bit more progress?
Having read the Hansard reports, I am puzzled about why so-called gay adoptions dominated their lordships' concerns. It seemed that, for them, the issue boiled down to that one central element. I am reminded of a conversation that I had earlier this year with a recently ennobled Labour peer who entered the House of Lords after the last general election. He told me one evening that, over the year that he had been there, the entire place had seemed to be completely obsessed with sex. As far as he could see, all they ever talked about in the other place was sex. I do not want to go into why that might be so, but it seemed to underpin those debates and to divert attention from more important issues.
I think that the hon. Gentleman and I agree on a lot in respect of this aspect of the Bill. Does he acknowledge, however, that the Bill would be more acceptable, both in the other place and in the wider country, if we separated the concepts of unmarried couples of different sexes and couples of the same sex? We might thereby get greater acceptance for what we are trying to achieve.
It might be easier for Conservative Members to deal with the matter in that way. I very much respect the hon. Gentleman's position on this issue. We discussed the broad issues when he was on the Health Select Committee, and he was party to the Committee's inquiry into looked-after children, which reinforced the concerns about adoption. Politically, it might be helpful for the Conservatives to separate those two concepts, but I do not think that the distinctions are as clear as he suggests. The way forward is to accept the fact that we are dealing with unmarried partners, who may be heterosexual, homosexual or lesbian.
Another concern is that people automatically assume that same-sex adoptions will involve homosexuals or lesbians. I know people of the same sex who live together in long-term relationships and who would be offended if they were called homosexuals or lesbians.
Perhaps I misheard the hon. Lady's question. There are many ideals in society. I worry that some of the people who end up in this place see society as being an ideal, and see their own background as one that applies to everyone else in society. Sadly, that is not the case. I know for a fact that vast numbers of children in the care system would find these debates irrelevant; all that they want is a loving home. It would not matter if the adopters were same-sex, mixed-sex, black, blue or green; those children want a loving family environment. That is where we must start from.
I was struck by some of the evidence advanced in defence of the Lords' concerns in their debate on same-sex adoptions. One peer referred to an opinion poll that had been carried out in a Labour constituency. The question that had been put to people—a fairly loaded one—was:
XIf you died would you like your children to be adopted by two homosexual men?"—[Hansard, House of Lords, 16 October 2002; Vol. 639, c. 884.]
In response, 81 per cent. of Tory voters, 71 per cent. of Labour voters, and 65 per cent. of Liberal Democrat voters said no. I wonder what the result would have been if the alternative had been proposed—of the children remaining in institutional care for the remainder of their childhood and adolescence, with numerous transient carers and, arguably, a far greater chance of abuse—because that, frankly, is the reality.
I am most grateful to the hon. Gentleman, who is generous in giving way again. Surely the point that he has just made goes to the heart of the matter. He says that the vast majority of cases involve heterosexual couples. All of them already have the power to adopt, and to adopt jointly, simply by getting married.
I very much respect the hon. Gentleman's commitment to adoption and the work that he has done. He deserves a great deal of credit for the efforts that he has put into this complex area and for pushing the Government on a number of fronts where there was a need for change. I credit him with a lot of achievement, but I disagree with him. When I met my wife, we determined to marry; we both chose to marry. I respect the fact that others may not choose the same course of action—
Okay, I shall have a word with my hon. Friend outside later.
The Lords' concern over same-sex relationships seems to be underpinned by the idea, which was not mentioned, that same-sex couples somehow present a greater risk of sexual abuse to children than heterosexuals. Having worked in social services for many years, I honestly am not sure that that is how it works out. That is not my experience as one who had to deal with—on few occasions, fortunately—children who had been abused in children's homes. By and large, that abuse was heterosexual. Certain myths are doing the rounds in the other place that perhaps underpin their lordships' misunderstanding of what we, I hope, will propose in the Commons.
The second area that concerns me, and which concerned me about the debate in the Chamber and in respect of the Lords in particular, is the general lack of knowledge of the thorough and skilled processes that are in place to deal with people who apply to adopt. The peers do not seem to understand that there is an extremely thorough and complex process that leads to a large number of applicants being rooted out.
No, I have already given way to the hon. Lady.
Sometimes, applicants are very concerned about being deemed unsuitable to adopt—that happens.
I give an example that, in one sense, illustrates the ignorance involved. Interestingly, one peer referred to a British study that found that the incidence of child abuse is 33 times higher among children living with the mother and her boyfriend than it is among those living with biological married parents. How can anyone seriously translate and apply such findings on families with fleeting live-in boyfriends to the long-term stable relationships of unmarried partners, which will be strictly required of adoption applicants? I genuinely feel that the Lords fundamentally misunderstood the processes that occur before people are allowed to adopt.
The other area that came over loud and clear is political correctness.
No, I have given way several times, and many Members want to speak. I must make progress.
A great deal of reference was made to the Commons amendments being motivated by political correctness, and I addressed that point when we discussed the matter on Report. The Lords seem to have swallowed hook, line and sinker all the tabloid tales of so-called politically correct social work decisions in adoptions. I have looked at a number of those decisions and I have talked to directors of social services about particular examples that were brought to light by the tabloids. As those directors always say, confidentiality prevents agencies such as theirs from saying why particular applicants are turned down.
I give an example. Can the House imagine a director of social services telling The Sun, XNo, Mr. X was turned down not as a Tory-voting smoker, but because medical reports from his GP show that he is being treated at a local genito-urinary medicine clinic for syphilis, which was picked up in his relationships with various sexual partners, unknown to his wife."?
That is the sort of stuff that occasionally emerges. Then we read in the tabloids that a person was turned down because he or she was a smoker, was too fat or was a Tory voter. We read all these stories, and sadly we may not be able to establish the truth; but it is not often to do with political correctness. Sound reasoning lies behind some of the decisions. I suspect that their lordships have fundamentally misunderstood the difficulties that may be involved in defending those decisions.
The hon. Gentleman made a distinction between a succession of transient live-in boyfriends and a long-term cohabiting couple. Would he care to go a little further, and say when he thinks a relationship should be deemed long-term? That is not in the amendments.
The Department of Health has issued fairly detailed guidance. XTwo years" comes to mind, although the Minister is more familiar with the guidelines than I am. There is certainly a clear requirement in relation to the stability and longevity of relationships, which is why I believe that the existing system is strong enough to ensure that the amendments will work and will benefit children.
Another theme that came over loud and clear in the House of Lords was the suggestion that the House of Commons was engaging in social engineering in relation to gay relationships and unmarried partners. On
Xresult in married couples losing their priority".—[Hansard, House of Lords, 16 October 2002; Vol. 639, c. 896.]
Who is involved in social engineering? Should it not be the child about whom we are concerned? It seems to me that the House of Lords was focusing on the adoptive applicants rather than the children and their rights.
Their lordships also feared that our amendments would undermine Church-based adoption agencies. I was interested by what my hon. Friend Ms Taylor said about the Catholic Society in support of the amendments.
After the Nottinghamshire Catholic Society sent its letter, it gave evidence to the Select Committee; I think my hon. Friend was present. The woman giving evidence said that the society was actively reviewing the issue. It has clearly completed its review, as it has now stated that it does not think that the Bill ought to remain in its present state—as amended by the Lords—and that it should recognise the paramouncy of the needs of the children.
I recall that evidence. The Committee on which we both served heard significant evidence from other agencies suggesting that the Bill should be amended. There was broad support for the Bill, but there was concern about the whole issue of unmarried applicants.
I felt that the Lords failed completely to take seriously the welfare principle underpinning the Bill. That principle is, I think, the key to an understanding of why so many of us feel that our amendment must be restored. Their lordships presumably had other preoccupations; they did not appear to recognise that if their proposal were accepted, the best interests of a certain number of children—I will not say a significant number, but a certain number—would not be fulfilled.
I wonder how many of their lordships sat down with children in the care system and asked their views. I have done that, as have several other Members who are present now. Those children fully support the opportunities that would be given to them, and to many other children in care in the future, by our amendment.
The founding principle of the Bill is that the child should be of paramount importance in the adoption process—not the parents or the adoptive parents, be they married, not married, heterosexual or, indeed, homosexual. I believe that the proposals to allow adoption by unmarried parents give the wrong answer to the basic question of how we can ensure that more children in need of adoption are adopted.
No, I am not going to give way yet. I shall give way later.
There are more than 50,000 children in care in our country. The problem is not the type of person who can adopt, but our culture of adoption. It is a question not of discrimination against unmarried couples, be they opposite or, indeed, same sex, but of what is best for the child. What will give the child the best chance in the society of today—not the society of the future or the society that some hon. Members would like to see—in which the child will be brought up?
The hon. Gentleman mentions the evidence that was put before the Special Standing Committee, of which he and I were both members. Of the 30 organisations that presented evidence, 29 approved of the amendment tabled by my hon. Friend Mr. Hinchliffe. What evidence does the hon. Gentleman want? Is that not enough?
I am sure that all hon. Members present have received an enormous amount of documentation from any number of organisations that maintains that marriage is the best state for adoptive parents. However, I do not necessarily take the advice of professionals working in adoption as the be all and end all of what is right for society as a whole.
From my experience, I admit that sometimes personal circumstances—perhaps if a strong foster or other relationship already exists—can mean that it is correct that a person, whether single or gay, or an unmarried couple, should be entitled to adopt. That is what the existing law allows.
The present adoption law does not entitle anybody to adopt: it entitles people to apply to adopt. The whole point is the need for a rigorous process to ensure that people are fit to be adoptive parents, regardless of their marital status.
The hon. Lady has hit on one of the problems with the system and I shall return to it later.
Some 95 per cent. of adopted children are placed with married couples, because of the way in which the law operates at present. We need to appreciate that the vast majority of adopted children are not adopted as babies.
Even if it were acceptable that non-marrieds should regularly be able to adopt—which I do not accept—most adopted children will know, by reason of their age, that children normally have parents who are married and not of the same sex. Indeed, only 0.1 per cent. of households are same-sex households.
I certainly am not, and for the hon. Gentleman to make that suggestion is outrageous. [Interruption.] Indeed, it is weird.
Encouragement of non-married adoption will, according to many surveys that right hon. and hon. Members have received, increase the instability of an adopted child and create a stigma.
No, I am going to move on.
Surveys have proved that in such cases children will often keep the identity of their parents a secret, both at school and from their peers. Furthermore, as has been mentioned, couples who cohabit out of marriage are statistically almost twice as likely to separate as those who are married.
We must appreciate that different parts of the country will or may have different attitudes. That is reflected in the current system, in which most adoptions take place through local authorities. That means that elected, accountable representatives can dictate policy in the area of adoption.
My hon. Friend's point about various parts of the country is important. Under the current arrangements, Cambridgeshire social services—my hon. Friend and I are both Cambridgeshire Members of Parliament—reports:
XThere remains a shortage of applicants interested and able to provide placements for older children and/or those children with special needs."
My worry is that I have not heard my hon. Friend say yet how he proposes that the system should change positively for the 25 children in the area who are waiting to find adoptive parents.
I thank my hon. Friend for making that point and I will come to it shortly. However, our allowing unmarried people and homosexual couples to adopt will not necessarily address his point. Just because homosexual couples can adopt, it does not follow that more people will want to adopt older children. My hon. Friend's point is valid but not particularly connected.
Some 85 per cent. of the population are against same-sex couples adopting, and 95 per cent. of children are adopted by married parents. To a great extent, that means that the current system represents what people want. The supporters of the motion to disagree with the Lords' amendment would have us believe that, as the hon. Member for Wakefield said, non-married adoption is necessary to encourage adoptive parents to come forward and broaden the adoption pool. It could be argued that the proposals are the opposite of what is needed. Statistics show that there is no shortage of people who want to adopt. Ms Munn made the important point that it is a question not of who wants to adopt but of who is acceptable to the professionals.
I shall just finish my point, if the hon. Lady will allow me.
Last year, only 4,000 children were adopted in this country, of whom only 3,100 came from the 50,000 children in care. The hon. Member for Wakefield said that 5,000 children out of that pool of 50,000 were waiting for adoption. I suggest that the figure should be much higher than 10 per cent.
I further suggest that accepting the proposals will not widen the pool. We need a new culture of adoption. We need a culture that insists on clinics for adoption as much as on clinics for abortion; that does not discriminate against white parents adopting black children; that stops patronising and blocking the efforts of decent prospective parents; and that does not force them through a system that often demeans and intimidates them and delays applications.
When the BBC ran a programme on adoption, there were 19,000 inquiries during its first year and 24,000 in the second year. What happened to all those people? Initial research by the BBC showed that most of them seemed to have been put off by local authorities.
To those people who hold the interests of the child paramount, I say that the proposals to allow same-sex and non-married couples to adopt are misguided. They will not work in the best interests of the child and, importantly, they will miss the root cause of the problem that faces us.
We must not allow the prejudice of those, however well-meaning, who oppose adoption by same-sex and unmarried couples to spoil the life chances of so many young people. We must always remember that the issue is not about the rights of potential parents but about the rights of young people languishing in care to be parented.
I acknowledge that the best option for bringing up children may be a man and a woman in a committed relationship, which will often mean marriage, but to suggest that marriage is the only relationship that will provide a satisfactory outcome is patent nonsense. I was brought up by my mother alone and although a father figure in the household might have been desirable—my mother always thought so—it is for others to judge whether she made a success of the venture.
In respect of the proposals, however, there is clearly prejudice against homosexuality, with the suggestion that same-sex couples are somehow damaging to the charges whom they seek to adopt. There is only one basis for such a belief. It is certainly not of the making of the individuals involved; it relates only to the prejudice created in society by some of those who oppose the provision—the homophobia that is so obvious in the other place.
Like the hon. Gentleman, I wholly abhor any form of homophobia; I want no truck with that. However, a Department of Health-funded study found that the average length of a close homosexual relationship is only 21 months. Is not that deeply worrying as regards the lifetime of commitment needed for a damaged child?
That is precisely why such couples are unlikely to succeed in an application. Surely, we must have some confidence in the professionals who make such judgments. It is not for us as Members of Parliament to take on that responsibility, but we must offer options. That is what the proposals do.
The hon. Gentleman says that we should trust the professionals, but the whole reason for the framing of the Government's initiative—part of which is formed by the Bill—was because professional practice in a large number of local authorities was so completely dismal. Many of them failed to achieve even a 1 per cent. adoption rate for children in care.
That depends on the particular area. The record of my county, East Sussex, is relatively good. As hon. Members have pointed out, we do not know about the reasons for the refusal of adoption applications. There may be—and usually are—good reasons, but without knowing the facts, we cannot tell. I certainly do not agree that only adopters from the same ethnic background and so on should be considered, but that is a separate issue from the one that we are debating.
The bigotry against homosexuality and against couples who want to provide for young children has permeated throughout society because of what is being said. That has created prejudice that attaches not only to couples but to the charges whom they might want to take on.
It is true that many opponents acknowledge the right of individuals to live as they wish, but they simply consider that placing the precious lives of children in such a situation is wrong. I would go so far as to accept that, although this is not necessarily the case, the best chance of a successful adoption may be with a married couple including a mother and a father. That is in the main nature's way and, therefore, must have the greatest chance of success.
My wife Rosemary and I have two adopted sons, Damien and Luke, who have been a great joy to us. I hope that we have provided the stability in their lives that stereotype adopters can perhaps best and most easily provide. However, the issue is not who are the best adopters; this is not a competition, but a market. It is a fact that there are young people, many with disabilities and other challenges, who are not easily adoptable in terms of the stereotype husband and wife family, so if there are others who do feel the responsibility to take on more challenging youngsters, why should not the youngsters be given that opportunity?
We really must not allow the perceived best to become the enemy of the good. We all know that young people who spend their lives in residential care suffer significantly greater challenges in their adult life than others who are brought up in their natural homes or in adoptive relationships. The figures speak for themselves.
Of course it is not surprising that youngsters whom society has rejected, at least to the extent that no one wanted them as part of their families, reject society in turn. I ask those who oppose this humanitarian piece of legislation to search their conscience as to the reasons why they oppose it.
I understand the deep-seated religious conviction of some of my constituents, who have written to me about their belief that homosexuality and relationships outside wedlock are wrong, but, even if that is their belief, I would ask them two questions. Do they in all honesty believe that the damage to a child in being brought up in what is still today a non-orthodox family is more damaging than being brought up in residential care? Is being in a family that is not the norm more damaging than not being in a family at all?
We may be right or wrong that the wife-husband married partnership is the best option for the placement of a child in most circumstances, but, again, that is not the issue. The issue is, as I say, choosing between an orthodox family perhaps and none at all.
I do however believe that some of those who have written to me make the very good point—it was made a moment ago by Mr. Brazier—that, sometimes, children are denied the opportunity to join families because families from their ethnic or religious backgrounds cannot be found. That is wrong. I would tell the adoption authorities that exercise that sort of policy that they, like those who oppose the provision today, need to put the children first. In my view, the ability to love and nurture a child has little to do with one's colour, creed or, for that matter, sexual orientation.
In conclusion, I would add that the present provisions do not prevent children from being brought up in homosexual relationships, as has been stated already. A single person who is already permitted to adopt may well have a hidden same-sex or unmarried partner or acquire one subsequently and, even if discovered, that would not be grounds for unravelling an adoption or removing the child from the parent's care. The changes that I support simply provide for an open and honest assessment of the suitability of the individuals to adopt rather than a judgment of the individual's sexual orientation or marital preferences.
We are at the eleventh hour on what is a really good Bill. We all want it to become law, and it must become law in the interests of many thousands of damaged children throughout our constituencies.
I very much appreciate the opening comments made in moving the motion by Mr. Hinchliffe. We may disagree about the motion, but he has always had a close interest in the Bill and given it very strong support in Committee, and I believe that he and I want the same result in the interests of many children. It is the means by which we reach that result on which we may differ, but no one should doubt our sincerity in jointly wanting to achieve it.
I also want to congratulate the Minister, particularly on many of the improvements that have been made in another place with Government support. Many of us and many people in the adoption world have long fought for the improvements on the retrospective disclosure of information, on fast-tracking for young babies, on advocacy services and on inter-country adoption. All those things have happened in the other place and have greatly improved the Bill, again, with cross-party support. The Minister is to be congratulated on the work that has been done to support that in this place and in the upper House. Many Members have worked very hard since October last year on this Bill, and for long before that on its forerunners. I am very proud of the part played by my team on the Committee, and I am grateful for the responsiveness of the Minister. The Bill has been improved by the proper processes of Parliament: through the good work and expertise of members of the Special Standing Committee, and through the expertise—and especially the legal input—of noble colleagues in another place.
The improvements that we achieved in the Bill gave greater emphasis to resources for adoption support services, which is essential, and I shall return to that later. It was improved, too, in terms of disclosure of information issues, proper monitoring of inter-country adoptions, the creation of special guardianship orders, Children and Family Court Advisory and Support Service support and overhauling the entire appeal system and court procedures on placement. The fact is, however, that the amendments under discussion are neither relevant to nor contingent on any of the improvements that have been added to the Bill, yet we are in danger of getting hung up on the single ancillary issue of unmarried adoption, which now threatens to wreck the Bill or even lead to losing it. What a disservice that will be to thousands of children who are desperately looking for homes.
This is a contentious issue—none of us would deny that. Whatever our side of the argument, we can all admit that the unmarried status issue is contentious, yet it is not fundamental to the Bill. It was not in the original Bill on Second Reading, the Prime Minister's adoption review, the White Paper on adoption or a Government manifesto commitment.
I will explain why we need to separate these issues, because, as far as we are concerned—as I said just now—the whole Bill is about the welfare of the child and the rights of the child. It is not about the rights of adopters of any shape or size—
If the hon. Lady will allow me, I shall answer one intervention at a time.
We are in danger of confusing the two issues—I have referred previously to the provision being hijacked—and it is in the interests of pushing the Bill through, with all the good additions to it in the interests of children, that they are kept separate. That is why we are pushing for the three-line Whip to oppose the objections to the amendments.
Does the hon. Gentleman accept that far too many children who are currently waiting for adopters are unlikely to be able to be placed with adopters? If so, will he tell the House what other clauses in the Bill will significantly increase the number of prospective adopters who are interested in taking on children who desperately need homes?
I shall address precisely that point. These amendments, of course, do not necessarily add prospective adopters—indeed, new prospective adopters may be vying for the very same prospective adoptee children.
The hon. Gentleman said that the amendment was not in the original Bill, but does he agree that one of the purposes of having a Special Standing Committee is to weigh up all the evidence and listen to all those involved in the adoption process? As I said previously, 29 of the 30 agencies, which are of different persuasions, agreed with the proposals. The hon. Gentleman uttered not one word on the issue during the debate in Standing Committee.
If the purpose of the Special Standing Committee was to inform the debate, which it essentially was, and if the evidence in one direction was so overwhelming, one can ask why the Government have not adopted the recommendations and why the amendments, which are again having to be moved by Back Benchers, are not Government amendments. The Government do not have a line on this policy, so the hon. Gentleman could direct his question to his Front-Bench colleagues.
I want to press my hon. Friend on this point because he began his speech by referring to the sincerity of Members who have contributed to the debate. I thought that sincerity shone out of the speeches by Mr. Hinchliffe and my hon. Friend Mr. Djanogly, and that is what makes this a remarkable debate and a great House of Commons occasion. Does my hon. Friend remember, on the last day of the Conservative party conference, hearing a speech that included the statement:
XWe must first understand the way life in Britain is lived today, and not the way it was lived twenty years ago"?
Given that sentiment and the range of sincere opinions, will my hon. Friend return to the reason for the three-line whip?
I do not disagree with my right hon. Friend's remarks. If he will give me the opportunity to shine out, I will tell him exactly why we are separating the subjects of debate and why the line that we are taking is centred exclusively on the welfare of children, not on the supposed rights of potential adopters of any description.
I ask the House, in the interests of the Bill, to put to one side the issue of unmarried adopters, with the prospect of having plenty of ways to revisit it and debate it on its merits in other legislation, perhaps as part of a review of civil registration of relationships, to which I shall return in a moment.
Let me set down some markers. We have all agreed that we want the Bill, and we want to increase the number of people who come forward as potential adopters and the number of those who become adoptive parents. There is some confusion about the figures, but I believe that 3,100 looked-after children were adopted last year. This year, the figure is likely to increase to 3,800, and we seem to be well on the way to hitting the target of 5,000 and to achieving the increase of at least 40 per cent. which was requested by the Government and to which we all agreed.
We all—perhaps, given his comments on Report, with the exception of the Liberal Democrat health spokesman—accept that in an ideal world a mother and father figure is best, although not always achievable and not always entirely appropriate when dealing with certain very damaged children. We need to pay special attention to ensure that adoptive placements have as high a chance as possible of being a stable environment to give damaged children a second chance. The state usually makes a poor parent, but it has an obligation to make sure that looked-after children have the best chance of a stable upbringing.
No one is suggesting that we should move backwards from the status quo of married and single people qualifying for adoption, as set down in the 1967 convention to which we are still a signatory and the Adoption Act 1976. It is already permissible for single people, regardless of their sexuality or partnership arrangements, to adopt where they are deemed suitable on their own merits.
I am following the hon. Gentleman's argument and I respect his commitment to the needs of children, but how can he argue that it is desirable for one member of a couple to adopt a child but not two members of that partnership? How can that be in the interests of stability or the best future for children?
I am not going over the figures on stability again, but as it stands unmarried couples do not have a legal entity. The thrust of my argument is that we are pre-empting a debate on, and changes to, legislation that gives them a degree of legal entity. That is a strong point to consider.
Clause I sets out that the interests and the welfare of the child are paramount. The only rights we are talking about are those of damaged children to expect a decent opportunity for a second chance of growing up in a decent and stable family environment, and those of birth parents to expect proper due processes under the law. That was the intention and detail of the Bill first proposed by my hon. Friend Mrs. Spelman when she introduced her Adoption Bill in the last Parliament. As I think we have all agreed, however, there is no such thing as a right to adopt. I would gladly participate in a debate on the status of unmarried people, but that is for another day and another piece of legislation.
I want to make a little progress first because I have given way many times.
Conservatives subscribe to all the above and have supported the Bill throughout. I remind the House that we are here because of a vote in another place by Conservative peers with the cross-party alliance of 23 Labour peers, 46 Cross-Benchers, two Ulster Unionists, two bishops and three others. A total of 196 peers voted for the amendments with just seven Conservative peers voting against.
Regardless of their views, however, Members of the upper House had other reasons for which they were even more entitled to object to the legislation. The measure was not in the original Bill. It was changed by Back-Bench amendments and the Government have not yet shown their hand, although on past form Health Ministers have voted to back the amendments. Those amendments contravene the 1967 convention on adoption. The Government have given no sign that they want to rescind our membership of that or renegotiate its terms for everyone. We have all been labouring under the misconception that the Government are reviewing civil partnership law, including related adoption issues, and that nothing will be done to prejudge or circumvent that. In essence, the Lords voted to return the Bill to the status quo, which the Government had not said it was their intention to change.
Much rubbish has been spouted in the press about the Bill, none more so, perhaps, than a highly ill-informed piece in The Times last month by Mary Ann Sieghart which lambasted Conservatives for opposing the expansion of the right to adopt. That article fundamentally misunderstood the nature of adoption. There is no such thing as a right to adopt. I have no right under any article of European convention or any personal moral code to expect to take over responsibility and control of another human being's life in the same way that I can expect to exercise my right to vote or to have my private and family life respected. It is not a matter of opposing the change out of a bizarre wish to condemn more children to languish in care in the name of family values, as Ms Sieghart absurdly puts it. But to suggest in isolation that simply not enough prospective adopters are coming forward and that the only way to expand the pool enormously is to change the main criteria, is patently to ignore reality and the facts.
I want to address the real issues that arose from deliberations in this House and another place on the status of unmarried adopters. I want to consider widening the pool, the current obstructions to adoption inherent in the system and the legal implications of moving from marriage as a benchmark in law to a system of flat equality. That will lead me on to the Joint Committee on Human Rights before dealing with the interesting point raised by the noble Lord Alli in another place.
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman, who is being generous in giving way. Does he accept that there is agreement throughout the House that the issue has nothing to do with the right to adopt, but that his position has everything to do with denying certain individuals the right to apply to adopt?
The hon. Gentleman knows that people already have the right to apply; it is the form of assessment that is to be debated.
To return to the categories I have just outlined, I do not want to get bogged down in trading statistics and dubious research. I start from the premise that although marriage is not a dead cert, by all accounts it offers the best probability of a stable home for an adopted child. Adoption can often be worse than care if it breaks down—we are not dealing with a one-way street. Furthermore, my remarks are based on the rough premise presented by the figures from the Office for National Statistics: that cohabiting couples are more likely—by whatever margin we care to state—to split up.
XChildren 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."
XThe 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 . . . There is no provision in law to protect the child's interests when unmarried couples separate."—[Official Report, Special Standing Committee,
On the question of the stability of an adoption placement, I should like to put the following point to my hon. Friend. Although I do not disagree with him about the general proposition that married circumstances offer children a better home, success depends on the individual decisions on placement and the characteristics of the home. Given that 95 per cent. of current adoption placements are with married couples, 20 per cent., on average, will end in disruption. What is critical is the ability to find lasting, permanent, loving homes for children.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. No adoption relationship can be guaranteed to be perfect, whether the adoption is made by a married couple or by a single person who is in some form of unmarried relationship. Nothing is foolproof. What we have to explore is how to make the whole system more likely to work. That is what the Bill is really about, but it is being ignored because of the side issue.
On the question of how to widen the pool, there is some confusion about whether enough people are coming forward to adopt, as the numbers of those applying to become adoptive parents are slanted towards the shiny babies—the relatively problem-free young children, rather than the older, problem children. There is no evidence that non-married couples are better equipped to take on children with complex problems. In any case, as Jonathan Shaw said in previous debates, there is no queue of unmarried couples waiting to become adoptive parents. Our first objective should be to steer existing applicants toward more challenging problem children.
I have given way a lot, and I want to make progress, so I will not give way to the hon. Lady; otherwise, people will complain that they were unable to speak in the debate.
The people most likely to adopt problem children are surely those who are already putting themselves forward as prospective adopters. Our second objective must be to recruit prospective adopters from under-represented groups, especially ethnic minorities, from whom far more prospective adopters are needed. Our third and biggest objective must be to expand the pool from those who are currently able to adopt—married couples.
I shall not give way. I will make some progress and give way later.
Currently, about 3,100 children a year are adopted. It is said that at least 5,000 children a year need to be adopted, so there is a shortfall—these are very rough figures—of 1,900. If more children have been adopted this year, that figure will be lower. In this country at the moment there are 11 million married couples. So we need 1,900 couples to adopt one of those children each. Even if there is a rejection rate on the ground of suitability of something like 90 per cent., one in 10 people who come forward will end up adopting a child. I do not believe that the rejection rate is anything like that, but even if it were, we would need 19,000 married couples to offer to adopt. That represents 0.17 per cent. of the entire married couples pool in the country at the moment. Indeed, we are not short of new raw material, as 268,000 marriages occurred last year and for once we are seeing a slight increase in the number of people marrying.
One of the largest increases in a group of the population has been in the number of single people living alone. There are forecasts of increases in the number of single men from 7.1 million to 8.5 million, and in the number of single women from 5.8 million to 7 million over the next 10 years. So there is no potential for a numbers problem. There may be such potential in the numbers coming through at the moment, but the pool is vast enough as it is.
Are we seriously saying that we cannot widen the pool of potential adopters across the spectrum, from shiny new babies to behaviourally challenged teenagers, and that we are not confident enough of improving the strike rate of 99.83 per cent. of married couples who do not end up adopting without changing the qualifications criteria to open up the pool to unmarried couples? Does that not suggest that we have completely and utterly wasted our time on this Bill over the past year? Are we really saying that improvements in adoption support services, special guardianship orders, the adopted children register, the streamlining of court procedures on placements and the overhauling of the appeals system count for nothing? I do not believe that for a minute. I have rather more faith in this Bill than Labour Members appear to suggest by concentrating on just this one item.
My hon. Friend is making a powerful point by listing those measures. It is a shame, though, that there is not one more measure, which he proposed but which, sadly, was voted down by the Government: to water down the still very strong requirement for an ethnic match, which is one of the strongest barriers to adoption.
I will not be churlish by saying what is not in the Bill, because we have an awful lot. However, there are many things on which we still need improvement, as my hon. Friend has said.
I want to consider obstructions to adoption and why more people are not coming forward and ending up as adoptive parents. Despite some improvements, it is clear, as Lord Hunt said in another place, that
XMany of the problems that we currently face with the shortage of adoptive parents stem from the number of hurdles that they have to go through, which can lead them to becoming discouraged and finding the process very off-putting."—[Hansard, House of Lords, 21 December 0200; Vol. 620, c. 843.]
The evaluation carried out by the British Agencies for Adoption and Fostering during adoption week in 1999 stated:
XThe most frequently asked question was about the length of time it takes to be approved. Many expressed concern and fears about the process taking many years and being very gruelling, highly intrusive and upsetting."
BAAF identified a need for reassurance from agencies and for ease of contacting such agencies and getting information. It indicated a lack of responsiveness from some social services departments, and staff shortages that led to the closure of waiting lists for assessments.
The evaluation also noted a big differential in adoption rates around the country—ranging from 2 per cent. to 10 per cent. in different local authorities. It is clear that adoption is a relatively small-scale activity in many social services departments. Hopefully, the adoption register and better provision for funding trans-authority placements and support services should help to diminish those geographical disparities.
There has also been a big drop-out rate owing to problems in coping with the possibility of contact arrangements between children and birth families. Again, there are measures in the Bill to alleviate that problem. The BAAF also identified a shortage of personnel for home study assessments, which can drag on for years, and poor administration and non-availability of police checks. We all know about the current problems with the Criminal Records Bureau.
XBe My Parent" is the paper produced by the British Agencies for Adoption and Fostering, and features children available for adoption. When we see that there have been no inquiries about some of the children, we start to ask why. I pick out one or two examples from this publication. The details provided about the children include details of their ethnic descent. I have no objection to that, but under the heading Xfamily needed", ethnic requirements are specified as well. In the case of a young boy, we read that the ethnic descent is white English, and that the family needed is a white adoptive family. In another case, the child is described as being of Afro-Caribbean Jamaican ethnic descent, and needing a black adoptive family. In a further example, the ethnic descent is given as Afro-Caribbean, and the family needed is described as an Afro-Caribbean two-parent adoptive family. Under XContacts", the paper states that direct contact is planned with the maternal grandmother and half-sister, as well as letterbox contact with the birth parents.
It strikes me that some of those requirements, set down by I know not whom, are extremely prescriptive and make it very difficult for the right potential adopters to apply or signal an interest in such children. That is part of the problems and obstructions.
Is it not right that people trying to find adoptive homes for children should seek out the best home that they can, as has been argued? It is right to try to match a child's ethnicity, but it is not right to hold out for a long time for the correct match. To try to meet the child's need in the best way first is absolutely the right thing to do.
No. I shall make progress. Clearly, many attitudes and stereotypes of matching parents with children need to change. Hopefully, that will change under the terms of the Bill.
I shall deal now with the legal minefield. In November last year, the Minister said in Committee:
XAdoption by unmarried couples would raise several complex legal questions ... It would be difficult and inappropriate to pre-empt the conclusions of the review"—[Official Report, Special Standing Committee,
—that is, the civil partnerships review. We all agreed with that. In Committee, she offered to refer adoptions to the Cabinet Office-led review of civil partnerships, which she did. That committee has not reported yet.
XWork is going on in government to carry out an investigation into the implications of establishing a partnership registration scheme. It is presently comprised of cross-departmental work. The Cabinet Office is leading in terms of following up the issues identified. I cannot give a date as regards the conclusions of the review, but work is under way."—[Hansard, House of Lords, 16 October 2002; Vol. 639, c. 917.]
It seems that confusion reigns. As my parliamentary question on the progress of the review revealed last week, it has been transferred from the Cabinet Office to the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry, so it is unclear who is leading the review. Amendments to the Bill would mean that adoption has been singled out to be fast-tracked and would circumvent the civil partnerships review.
With reference to the 24th report of the Joint Committee on Human Rights, which was published last week, I said earlier that the Joint Committee and the Secretary of State could not both be right about the human rights compatibility of the status quo, whereby adoption is available only to married couples and single people. It is odd that the ninth report of that Committee stated that the original Bill—the form to which the Lords have returned the present Bill—is compatible.
There is great legal confusion. The Bill did not raise questions relating to human rights that require to be drawn to the attention of each House. That is what the Committee said on
The hon. Gentleman makes an important point. His first question requires answering. The answer given in the report is that, after the publication of the earlier report, the case of Fretté was dealt with by the European Court of Human Rights. The court found by a majority of four to three that articles 8 and 14 of the European convention on human rights were engaged by the question of the right of unmarried couples to adopt. The further judgment went the other way, but the key point is that there is now jurisprudence to show for the first time that the Human Rights Act 1998 is engaged on the question. In addition, a case arose in South Africa—it also did so between the publication of the two reports—that is relevant to our interpretation of the United Nations convention on the rights of the child.
If the hon. Gentleman is patient, I shall mention briefly both the case of Fretté and the de Vos case in South Africa.
People can take many different legal opinions on the report, which is not helped by factual errors. It dismisses the Fretté v. France case in fairly curt terms. Page 10 refers to a lesbian couple who were refused their challenge to adopt. In fact, Philippe Fretté, the applicant, was a homosexual man who was refused an application for authorisation to adopt by the Paris social services department in May 1993 on the grounds that the applicant
Xhad no stable maternal role model" to offer, and had
Xdifficulties in envisaging the practical consequences of the upheaval occasioned by the arrival of a child."
I shall make no comment on that ruling, other than that the finding was upheld by the European Court of Human Rights as recently as February 2002. The court held that there was no right to adopt, and that, accordingly, the state was entitled to draw distinctions between homosexuals and others in the adoption process. Without venturing an opinion, I remind the House that the convention specifically allows state interference in private and family life for moral reasons. The issue of morals falls squarely within the UK's margin of appreciation and democratic process, which both domestic and international courts will respect.
The report also sets great store by a recent South African case that Dr. Harris mentioned—that of du Toit and de Vos v. the Minister for Welfare in South Africa. First, however, South Africa has a vastly bigger problem in terms of a shortage of adopters to match the many orphan children. Secondly, I am led to believe that homosexual rights are specifically enshrined in the South African constitution. The case therefore comes from a very different base, so it is offered at best as a piece of persuasive authority; but I feel that too much of the report reads as advocacy for a cause rather than objective interpretation. It also makes no mention of the European convention on the adoption of children, which was agreed to in 1967 and to which we are still a signatory. Article 6 of that convention limits application to married couples and single people. Have the Government initiated a renegotiation of the terms of the 1967 convention, or are they looking to rescind membership?
XI happily agree with many noble Lords that married couples should have priority over unmarried couples. I also agree that unmarried couples should have priority over gay couples."—[Hansard, House of Lords, 16 October 2002; Vol. 639, c. 874.]
Many hon. Members will have sympathy with that view, yet Lord Hunt specifically ruled out such a possibility in July 2002. In any case, legal opinion suggests that such an approach would certainly fall foul of the Human Rights Act 1998 in the UK courts, rather than in Strasbourg. Once marriage is removed as the benchmark for adoption, there will be no midway compromise.
I remind hon. Members that marriage is defined in the European convention on human rights as marriage between a male and a female. Lord Hooson made an interesting contribution to the debate on the report, in which he referred to the
Xdanger of the Bill creating a platform of legal equivalents".
He went on to say:
XThere is a serious problem if it is not spelled out in the Bill that we in this House and indeed elsewhere in the country do not regard these concepts as legal equivalents." .—[Hansard, House of Lords, 16 October 2002; Vol. 639, c. 899.]
That came from someone who sympathises with adoption by unmarried couples but realises that the proposals, if added to the Bill, would risk a great deal of future trouble. If the amendments are passed, there can be no middle way and no preferences.
Some will say that everything can be sorted out, in the shape of the adopter assessments on which there is now consultation. We do not know, because the Government started the consultation process only last month on what the assessment procedures should look like. There is no basis on which to take reassurance from the unknown outcome. How will an enduring unmarried relationship be defined? Enduring means something less than life long. If the relationship were any longer, those involved would surely be dead. It is also not clear from the consultation exercise whether the forms to be completed for applying to become adoptive parents even contain a question about marital status.
There are views in some quarters that the proposed change could lead to a postcode lottery in adoption, with some adoption services operating a proactive equality policy and actively looking for unmarried couples to make up the numbers, rather than relying solely on individual merits. Under the Bill, with these proposals, it would not be open to a mother to object to proposed adopters on the ground that they were unmarried. More interestingly, there is another potential source of challenge to the proposed legislation from an unlikely source—children themselves. There is a legal view that it is arguable that article 8 implies the right for a child to have a mother and a father, and that right may be violated if an adoption order is granted to two parents of the same sex.
My hon. Friend is to be congratulated because he has made a truly excellent speech, and that is because he speaks in line with his conscience. I ask him to consider for a moment what the position would be if he found himself in a minority in his party. Would he feel happy if, to vote with his conscience, he had to give up his Front-Bench position? How would he feel about that?
I am trying to deal with the substance of the issues that we are debating. I have tried to separate entirely the issue of the child's welfare. I have spent the past 12 months concentrating on the Bill with colleagues, who appeared at every sitting of the Committee and on every occasion when we have debated the measure in this place. We have shown an interest on all aspects of the 140-odd clauses in the Bill.
I am trying to answer the point raised by my right hon. Friend Mr. Portillo.
If I thought that there was a middle way in some instances, I might want to entertain the idea of giving someone a preference, or whatever. However, as I have laid out clearly, there is no middle way. In the interests of children and in the interests of avoiding all the legal wrangles, it is right that we promote our objections to the amendments.
No. I shall finish so that hon. Members on both sides of the Chamber can have their say.
This is not a straightforward matter. There are differing personal views about the suitability of who adopts, and the proposed changes are a legal minefield, with differing legal opinions based on differing and inconclusive research. Yet all this is completely incidental and academic as regards the fundamental reforms to, and improvements of, adoption that are represented by an excellent Bill. Failure to disengage from the arguments and to put them on one side for another day threatens the safe passage of the Bill, thereby sacrificing the chances of thousands of damaged children having a second chance.
The proposals to reject the amendments are uncertain in law. They would pre-empt the review of civil relationship registration. They would go against the 1967 convention, without any proposals to reform or rescind it. They would pre-empt the adoption assessment process consultation, which has only just started. They would ignore the progress that has already been made, which will be boosted substantially by the bulk of the Bill's provisions in encouraging more than 11 million married couples to come forward.
We are not considering Government amendments; there is therefore no shame in or problem with the Government's declining to support them, especially in view of all the reviews. We are looking only to return to the status quo of the Government's original Bill.
Another day should be allocated for sympathetic debates about the rights of unmarried couples, gay or otherwise, and many Conservative Members will want to participate enthusiastically in them. However, today is the day for promoting the rights of damaged children to a decent second chance in life. We must concentrate on genuinely putting the welfare and interests of children at the heart of the Bill. I therefore call on all hon. Members, whatever their personal views, to reject, in the interests of the Bill, the proposal to disagree with the Lords amendments.
Oh dear, I shall have to put that in my diary. I am sorry; I meant to say, XThank you, Madam Deputy Speaker".
Tim Loughton described the subject of our discussion as a side issue. He characterised widening the pool as a side issue. If so, why are Opposition Front-Bench spokesmen resigning? Why are other members of the shadow Cabinet being given leave of absence so that they do not have to vote on the matter? Why are former contenders for the Conservative party leadership attacking the fact that the party is not allowing a free vote? If it is a side issue, goodness help the hon. Gentleman when a genuine issue jumps up and bites him.
We are considering a genuine issue that affects children: widening the pool and providing greater opportunities for children who languish in care. The hon. Member for East Worthing and Shoreham accused other hon. Members of bandying statistics and proceeded to bandy many statistics himself. He mentioned the 1,900 people who need to come forward. In discussing widening the pool, we need to consider the sort of children for whom they are required come forward. They are not the shining babies to which the hon. Gentleman referred, but older children, who are often boys.
The British Association for Fostering and Adoption today released figures that show that 1,255 inquiries were made for 430 children in the March 2002 issue of Be My Parent. However, for 129 children, there was not a single inquirer. Those children were boys. When we talk about getting more people to adopt children, we must recognise that those children are difficult boys, who have been physically and sexually abused, and manifest difficult behaviour that requires special people to deal with it.
An unmarried foster couple might be looking after one of those damaged, abused boys. The amendment would deny them the ability to apply to adopt jointly. The hon. Member for East Worthing and Shoreham and the Lords would deny such children the opportunity for a loving, stable relationship.
The hon. Gentleman speaks with passion and knowledge, as always. However, the issue is surely not the right to adopt but the best interests of the child. All that the law asks in the best interests of the child is that the couple get married before they adopt.
Gay people cannot marry. We are not considering the right to adopt. Surely it is right that the institutions and Parliament do everything possible to ensure children's right to an opportunity for a loving family. No Labour Member who supports my hon. Friend Mr. Hinchliffe claims that people have the right to adopt. We are considering the child's right to the best possible opportunity because the child's needs are paramount. That principle underpins all child care legislation. Those who support the amendments are arguing for that.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. That point was also made earlier by Michael Fabricant. If a child is adopted by an unmarried couple, and the adoptive parent dies, the child has to go through the whole process again. Is that in the interests of the child? Of course it is not.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for giving way; he is very generous. Would he say that my loving, caring commitment to my child is a consequence of my marriage vows, or that it comes from my being naturally loving and caring, and has nothing to do with those vows at all?
My hon. Friend is indeed a loving and caring person. [Hon. Members: XHear, hear!"] I am doing well at the moment. I have called Madam Deputy Speaker XMrs." and now I have described my hon. Friend as loving and caring.
My hon. Friend would have been assessed on her ability to provide a stable relationship for her children. That is the basis on which all people are assessed. We cannot be the adoption panel. We should not talk about generalities. We need to talk about specifics, such as those difficult-to-place boys. The adoption panel makes the decisions in those cases, through rigorous assessment.
No one here queries the statistics that say that the rate of divorce among unmarried couples is significantly—two or three times—higher than among married couples. That being the case, why should not one parent in an unmarried couple have to take responsibility?
We are going back to that again. Those agencies came from right across the child care spectrum. They were not all left-wing child care agencies. We asked them time and again whether these measures would widen the pool, and whether they supported the idea of unmarried couples being able jointly to adopt. And they did. The hon. Member for East Worthing and Shoreham quoted the Minister, prior to the amendments previously tabled by my hon. Friend the Member for Wakefield. My hon. Friend listened to the debate, and was persuaded by the arguments. That is Parliament's role, and Back Benchers have tabled amendments because we believe that the case presented to us was correct. Does not that enhance the Bill and the House of Commons? Of course it does. A charge often levelled by the Conservatives is that the Government ignore the Commons. Now, when Back Benchers have an opportunity to table amendments, which the Government support, they attack my hon. Friend.
Did not Professor Tresiliotis, who is probably the foremost adoption expert in this country, make the point very clear when he appeared before the Committee by saying that the marital status of the person adopting has absolutely nothing to do with their suitability to provide a home for a child?
My hon. Friend has made her point.
Children do not choose their parents, but many find themselves in such circumstances that they have a life in care. I worked with children, as I was a social worker for 10 years.
That one again—absolutely.
I recall attending numerous placement meetings where children were waiting for prospective adopters, but one has to say that, too often, no one had come forward or made inquiries about becoming their parent, because the children were those to whom I referred earlier—the older children who were abused and who manifested behaviour problems. We have a once in a generation opportunity to change the law. We began the process in October last year, and we have that opportunity to get it right. I have no problem with the delay, as long as we get it right.
I support all the agencies that gave evidence before our Special Standing Committee, which was one of the most stimulating processes in which I have been involved in my five years in the House of Commons. It was indeed a learning exercise, and we can reach only one conclusion: we need to widen the pool and provide more opportunity for the children I have spoken about to have a loving family. Whether that is provided by a married couple, unmarried people or people of the same or of different sex, we should not be the judge. We cannot be the adoption panel, as the adoption panels in our constituencies have that specific remit. It is for them to judge whether a particular couple meet the needs of the child, and the child's needs are paramount.
It is a pleasure to contribute to the debate in support of the amendment tabled and, indeed, championed by Mr. Hinchliffe. We have already debated the matter, although I fear that we shall rehearse many of the arguments. I am pleased, however, that the three that I set out in May still hold true.
There are three reasons to ensure that the amendment is passed. First, it is not in the child's best interests when both members of a couple play an equal part in his or her life for only one person to have legal responsibility. The other parent is downgraded to a second-class parent without the power to make vital as well as casual decisions in the child's life that call for a legal guardian. That also poses problems when the adopter is ill or dies, as it leaves no legal relationship between the child and the second and second-class parent. This is especially the case because any residency orders are valid only until the age of 16 or 18 years, depending on the circumstances.
Secondly, the amendment is important because the current restriction deters many suitable unmarried couples from even applying to adopt, which is bad news for the tens of thousands of children in care who are waiting for suitable adoptive families. Indeed, it is a pleasure, if not a relief, that there is now a human rights opinion that supports that argument. The Joint Committee on Human Rights report says that Earl Howe's amendment
Xwas advocated at least partly on the ground that one could reliably say, as a general proposition, that children's long-term interests would always be better served by being adopted by a married couple rather than by an unmarried couple, because of the greater stability of married relationships. This argument seems to presuppose that the choice in every case is between those two options. In reality, the choice may be less straightforward . . . For example, one might have to choose between the child being adopted by an unmarried couple, being adopted by a single person, or not being adopted at all. Without a view of the range of options in an individual case, it is hard to say which option would best advance the child's long-term interests. Earl Howe's amendment prevents decision-makers from making that assessment, by cutting out some potentially useful options from the outset. We are therefore not convinced that this will always be the best way of securing the long-term best interests of individual children".
Xdoes not seem to make the best interests of the child the paramount consideration, as required by article 21" of the convention on the rights of the child.
The third reason for returning these amendments to the Bill is the need to end discrimination against unmarried and same-sex couples. Given the stringent application process 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 agency would expect of suitable adoptive parents. The Joint Committee says that it is reasonable for people to be able to apply in those circumstances.
We have heard arguments about the Fretté case. The court held that although there was a judgment to be made under the European Court of Human Rights, the French authorities were within their margin of appreciation. There were Conservatives on the Joint Committee, and there is no indication that they demurred from that view. Paragraph 24 of the report says
XAlthough the judgment in Fretté suggests that it might not always be necessary to base a refusal to accept a same-sex couple as adopters on evidence related to an assessment of that particular couple's suitability to adopt, the view of the French authorities in that case (which the Court accepted as within their 'margin of appreciation') was based on doubts about the desirability of same-sex parenting. However, the case provides no support for the view—reflected in Earl Howe's amendment—that it could legitimately be regarded as necessary and proportionate to the aim of protecting the best interests of the child to prevent all unmarried couples, including mixed-sex couples, from being eligible to adopt, regardless of the merits of the individual case."
Paragraph 25 states
XThat being so, in our view a blanket ban on unmarried couples being eligible to adopt children would amount to unjustifiable discrimination on the ground of marital status, violating article 14 combined with article 8."
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his references to both the Committee's report and the judgment of the European Court of Human Rights, but does he acknowledge that most European states that recognise same-sex relationships also prohibit same-sex adoption, and that the practice in Europe is to oppose it?
An interesting aspect of the recent judgment is that this was the first time that such a law had been challenged, or at any rate the first time that the European Court had argued that article 8, on the right to a private life, and article 14, on the right to live without discrimination, taken with another article of the convention, were relevant. Although the judgment was adverse in this case, it is likely that the court will be asked to reconsider, because the judgment was in a sense controversial. I understand that the British judge supported the minority view, of three rather than four, that the action was not proportionate. I think that the subject will be revisited; the Select Committee that we charge with advising us has expressed a clear view.
People have been deterred from applying to adopt by the existing law, and unhappiness has been engendered by those who have adopted under that law. Only yesterday, The Independent on Sunday cited an opposite-sex couple, Ken Mason and Helga Petzel, who live in Norwich with their adopted son Michael, who is 11. Michael came to live with them when he was seven and was formally adopted by Mr. Mason in May 2000. Mr. Mason is quoted as saying:
XWe never had any desire to parent a small baby and we felt confident that we could offer a home to a child who had not had all the advantages that we had. Marriage had never been an issue for us: we are not religious and felt it would be hypocritical to make vows before a god we didn't believe in and we also felt that we didn't need the state to ratify our relationship. When we were told that we couldn't jointly adopt, we considered getting married but, in the end, I felt sure that we had what it took without needing to.
It was clear from the outset that it would make more sense for me to be the legal parent as my work is flexible and Helga is the main breadwinner. But Helga is a fully involved parent and she should have the same rights as I have.
We have explained the difference in our legal status to Michael and we also said that if marriage was a big issue for him then we would consider it, but he is such a happy and secure child that there has been no need.
I know there are many unmarried couples who would make great parents but they won't come forward until the law changes."
The hon. Gentleman is making the crucial point that trust is at the heart of the assessment process for prospective adopters. To suggest that people who do not believe in marriage should marry and, therefore, be hypocritical—as in the example the hon. Gentleman cites—would fundamentally undermine the trust relationship at the beginning of the process. That is not in anybody's interest.
I see the point that the hon. Lady makes. One cannot claim to be supporting marriage by forcing people into it for other motives, whatever our views on the value of marriage.
The newspaper gave another example, of a same-sex couple—Sarah Halpern, aged 45 and a teacher, Christine Lee, aged 44 and a housing officer, who live in Manchester as a couple with their adopted daughters, sisters Rachel and Nicola, aged 16 and 14. They were adopted when they were seven and six by Sarah, the single legal parent. Sarah is quoted as saying:
XWe had been together for five years when we decided we wanted a family. The decision about who was going to be the parent had to be made right at the start and it was really upsetting. We arranged our working hours so that we could be completely equal parents and it was horrible to have to choose between us.
In the end, it was decided that I would be the adopter because my mother lives much closer."
That is how people are forced to choose. Sarah continued:
XWe have had to explain to the girls that Christine had different legal status from me and Nicola was upset to start with because, as she said, 'You're both my mums,' but she understands it now.
This law has to change—we entered into this together, and the girls are clear that we are both their parents. They had a very difficult start in life and the least they can expect is to have two legal parents and to feel as secure as possible."
Does the hon. Gentleman recall the poll tax, when the Conservative party introduced the concept of joint and several liability for cohabiting and unmarried couples? Does he agree that it is curious, if not hypocritical, to argue that when it comes to paying money to the state, unmarried couples are the same as married couples, but when it comes to making a contribution to society by adopting a child, unmarried couples are second-class citizens compared to married couples? Is not that the ultimate hypocrisy? It shows that the heart of the Conservative party lies with money and not with caring for those in need in society.
That certainly applies to the Conservative party, but the present law is peculiar. When it is a question of assessment for benefits, the present law—presumably supported by the Government, in the absence of a civil partnerships register—means that people are considered married if cohabiting, but are not accorded an equal status with marriage when it comes to the many advantages of, for example, public sector pension schemes. Unmarried couples who live together lose out in both ways.
The arguments against the amendment have been put mainly by the Conservatives. Mr. Djanogly, who is unfortunately no longer in his place, tried to reassure us by saying that he had been the chair of a social services committee. Given what he said, that was not much reassurance, as my hon. Friend Sandra Gidley pointed out. He said that 83 per cent. of couples who were not married went on to break up compared with only 40 per cent. of married couples.
The first point to make, which has been made clear by statisticians and others who have done research in this area, is that we are not comparing like with like. People who do not believe that they will remain with their partner for a lifetime are more likely to be in the group of those who do not get married, because marriage involves a public commitment of some kind. That does not mean that all the people in the unmarried group do not have the same commitment as many of those in the married group. We are, by the hon. Gentleman's own definition, precluding those 17 per cent. of couples from applying to adopt when we allow the 40 per cent. of married couples who go on to break up to apply. That does not seem a rational approach.
What does the hon. Gentleman have to say about the British household panel survey data, which show that the average length of cohabitation is only two years? Surely that is very relevant. It is not only about the numbers of couples who break up, but about how long they are together, which is not long enough to commit to a lifetime of care for a child.
The hon. Gentleman is talking in averages, and that is the problem. We are talking about particular children with particular needs. I shall come in a moment to the dangers of generalisation.
To return to the point made by the hon. Member for Huntingdon, what if more marriages than unmarried alliances split up as a proportion? I hope that that does not happen. Would he then change his view and disbar married couples from applying to adopt on that basis? It is clearly a reductio ad absurdum, which can happen with arguments put by Conservative Members. That is why it is important not to generalise—otherwise one finds oneself heading towards logical conclusions that I am sure that the hon. Gentleman would not want to draw.
The dangers of generalisation are clear. Let us suppose—although I am not suggesting for one moment that this is the case—that a sociologist came along with the supposition that parents from a particular ethnic minority group were more likely, marginally or significantly, to separate than those from the majority ethnic group in this country. On that basis, would it be reasonable to say that because, on average, they do not do as well in terms of stability, no one from that group should be allowed to apply? I think that we would abhor such a discriminatory arrangement based on a generalisation and I am sure that many, if not all, Conservative Members would be repelled by such a prospect. However, that is exactly the same logic that is being applied to a group of people—unmarried couples—who are not allowed to apply.
The hon. Member for Huntingdon also made the rather strange point that 95 per cent. of children are currently adopted by married couples and only 5 per cent. by people who are not married—that is, single people. I think that he was saying that there was therefore no need to change the law, a point that was returned to in more depth by Tim Loughton. Surely, however, that is the point. We rely overwhelmingly on a single group of applicants—married couples. If there were a bar on single people applying, the hon. Member for Huntingdon would, according to his logic, have an even stronger argument because he could say that 100 per cent. of children are already adopted by married couples. The situation is peculiar.
It has been argued that expanding the pool of applicants will not lead to more people seeking to adopt. On that basis, the opponents to the Bill's proposal can relax; if such a change in the law will not bring about a significant increase in the number of adoptions by people who are not married, they can rest assured. If it does, and those people are judged suitable by the assessment, they should rejoice that more children will be found a place. They are in a no-win situation.
I am sure that the hon. Gentleman would be the first to admit that all this hypothesis is not based on any evidence. However, the natural conclusion of his argument is that the 99.83 per cent. of the 11 million married couples in this country who do not end up adopting are less able or likely to be less able to make adoptive parents, particularly for problem children, than those unmarried couples of whatever description who currently do not come forward. On what evidence does the hon. Gentleman think that unmarried couples could better cope with those problem children than the 99.83 per cent. of the 11 million couples who do not currently come forward and should be encouraged to do so?
That is not what I said. It is not a competition. I have never suggested that unmarried couples would make better adopters than married couples. I was pointing out that those who passed the assessment process could be equally good.
Jonathan Shaw referred to research that was published today—I shall be more than happy to pass it to the hon. Member for East Worthing and Shoreham—which showed that of 430 children, there was not even one inquiry about 129. The hon. Member for Chatham and Aylesford did not have time to mention that the only inquiries received for 20 children—harder-to-place children—came from single people; and that eight children received inquiries, which, sadly, were futile, only from unmarried or same-sex couples. That suggests that there is, to use a Conservative term, Xa market" for harder-to-adopt children among couples who are currently banned even from applying. The evidence that I was sent today is clear on that point.
The proposals will not extend the possibility for adoption to any household anywhere in the country; they will only make it possible for two people in a household to be adopters rather than one. They will not create one more place.
I think that they will, because currently people may be deterred from applying as they are not allowed to adopt jointly. The hon. Gentleman might argue that a child needs two parents rather than only one—although I accept that he might not argue that in the case of same-sex couples—so at present heterosexual unmarried couples who shared his view might be deterred from applying to adopt. For example, if the hon. Gentleman were not married, he might find it difficult to apply, although I have no doubt that he would make a most suitable adoptive parent. I hope that I have addressed that point.
The hon. Member for Huntingdon argued, on the basis of an opinion poll, that a majority of people oppose the proposals. The most recent polling data that I can find are from MORI in September 2002. They show that 44 per cent. of people supported the right of same-sex couples to apply—the hardest case as regards popular opinion—while only 36 per cent. opposed that right. I have never held the view that we should go by popular opinion in matters to do with human rights—[Interruption.] I am grateful for the sympathy expressed by Labour Members for the necessity of that virtue.
People who pray in aid the fact that there is no public support for the proposals should look more carefully at the evidence from reputable organisations such as MORI rather than from partial organisations—that is the politest description—such as the Christian Institute.
The hon. Member for East Worthing and Shoreham made some important points and offered a more considered view of the alternative approach than we had heard previously. We should deal with that approach. He argued that the changes would not really expand the pool—a point that was echoed by Mr. Brazier. I do not doubt the strong commitment of the hon. Member for East Worthing and Shoreham to adoption or to the Bill. That has been shown by his contributions to the debates. However, that does not mean that he cannot be wrong about something. Even without the evidence that I have just cited from BAAF, produced today, we must ultimately make a judgment as to whether the measure will improve things.
On one side of the argument are the National Organisation for Counselling Adoptees and Parents, the Fostering Network, the National Foster Care Association, the British Agencies for Adoption and Fostering, Barnardo's, the NSPCC, NCH Action for Children, the Association of Directors of Social Services, the Local Government Association, the Children's Society, A Voice for the Child in Care, After Adoption, and so on. Ranged against them only a small number of organisations are persuaded by the views of the hon. Gentleman. That may not be conclusive evidence, but it is certainly persuasive of the fact that the hon. Gentleman is wrong in his estimation of the impact of the proposals.
I want to make two more points about the merits of this matter. The hon. Member for East Worthing and Shoreham argued that too many people were put off by the rigors of the assessment process, but, in fact, research done for BAAF in 1999, by Dr. Gilles Ivaldi, who examined applications for approval as adopters that were considered by adoption panels and voluntary adoption agencies, shows that 94 per cent. of those applications were approved as suitable. So there are many reasons why people do not pursue their initial inquiries, but it is not right to say that the assessment process is too harsh. Obviously, a balance has to be struck.
In an intervention, Andrew Selous cited the figure, to which Earl Howe referred, from the Christian Institute, which stated that the average length of a closed gay relationship was only 21 months. That figure has to be rebutted. My information suggests that that figure is an inaccurate portrayal of the findings of a survey carried out in 1992. The survey stated that the lengths of same-sex couples' relationships varied between very short and very long—up to 38 years. The mean average length of a relationship was, in fact, almost four times that suggested by Earl Howe. A follow-up study carried out by the same research team in 1998 found that the average length of gay relationship was almost six years and that, again, many couples were in considerably longer relationships.
The 2001 United Kingdom lesbian and gay census, carried out by ID Research, found that 28 per cent. of gay male couples and 22 per cent. of lesbian couples were in partnerships that had been ongoing for between five and 20 years. ID Research surveyed 10,500 lesbians and gay men nationwide—a far larger sample than the 1992 study cited by the hon. Member for South-West Bedfordshire. If we were to use averages of faithful, stable relationships, hon. Members would find it difficult to qualify for assessment, and I include the relationships of those in his own party. We must at all times avoid the temptation to generalise, because that way lie despair and destruction.
I should like to deal with the reason that we are discussing this issue yet again. I have made this point before, but it is worth rehearsing: it is unfortunate that we have to debate this issue again. The House of Lords rejected proposals similar to the amendments in lieu of the Lords amendments tabled by the hon. Member for Wakefield and supported by the Liberal Democrat party and hon. Member on both sides of the House. Those proposals were rejected not simply because of the Conservative party in the House of Lords. The Conservatives as a parliamentary force are not conclusive in that House and some would say that, although their discussions on this issue are diverting, they are not in the end relevant. To a certain extent, the problem was the hang-ups that the Labour party and, in particular, the Government have about the measure, because no Whip was placed on Labour peers.
I question whether that was right because, if we believe that this is a matter of human rights—particularly those of the child, but also those of potential adopters not to be discriminated against—we should expect parties to state their view so that people can be held to account on the party line. In that respect, the Conservatives have a point about imposing a Whip, but they are inversely wrong by 100 per cent. However, to say that this is somehow a matter of conscience and that the best interests of children should be left to the whim of individuals, without people being able to know what the party line is, appears to let the party off the hook.
If we in the Liberal Democrat party believe that something is in the best interests of children, we say that it is our party's policy, we put it in our manifesto and we impose a Whip. If Liberal Democrat Members decide that they cannot support that line, they vote against the Whip and, although no dreadful punishment goes their way, they are forced to go against the party's view. Had the Government imposed a Whip, however mild, in the House of Lords, 23 Labour peers would not have voted against an amendment similar to that supported by so many Labour Back Benchers in the House and there would not have been a miserable turnout of only 49 per cent. of the mass of Labour peers in support. There are certainly Liberal Democrat peers who are unsure about the measure. By imposing a Whip, however, we were able to secure a 63 per cent. turnout in support, and no votes against. If the Government agree with the Joint Committee on Human Rights and believe in the merits of the case, will they consider staking their reputation and honour on the matter and do the same with regard to the Labour party?
The hon. Gentleman displays yet again his childish attitude to the subject, which he displayed with regard to his amendment the last time that we discussed the matter. Clearly, whether or not a Whip on the Liberal Democrat side involves tickling Members rather than whipping them, there are issues of conscience in relation to this matter on both sides of the House. If he cannot recognise that, he is clearly a member of the Stalinist wing of his party.
There are issues of conscience on every matter considered by the House. If the hon. Gentleman is arguing that every time the Government put a Whip on there is no issue of conscience, many of the less slavishly loyal Labour Members will have words to say to him. It is not a question of whether there are issues of conscience and of people having sincerely held views; it is whether the Government are slipping and sliding away from taking responsibility for supporting the measure. The Minister did a fantastic job of defending herself against Jeremy Paxman on XNewsnight"—eight times—on the issue, but people were still left asking why, if the Government want this change, they will not ask their supporters to vote along party lines in this House and in the other place.
The hon. Gentleman is being as disingenuous as usual. He has claimed several times that the Liberal Democrats are wonderful because they have allowed a free vote, although it is Liberal Democrat policy to open up adoption. More than a third of Liberal Democrat peers did not support the measure, however, and many of them were present for the vote and actively abstained. The Liberal Democrat leader in the House of Lords, Baroness Williams, has said:
XProviding there are sufficient married couples to adopt eligible children, I believe they should be preferred over the unmarried."
She, along with more than a third of Liberal Democrat peers, did not vote in line with what the hon. Gentleman claims is his party's policy.
The hon. Gentleman makes the point that I have just made—there will be people who have differences of opinion. Had the Labour party put a Whip on, and 63 per cent. or nearly two thirds—the figures that he gave are right—turned out in favour of the amendment, we would not be having this debate now, he would not have had to cobble together the defence of his position that we heard earlier, and the measure would be put on the statute book more quickly. The measure needs to get on the statute book—in the form, I hope, amended by this group of amendments—for the best interests of children and in the interests of non-discrimination. I hope that the Government will refute the suggestion in The Independent today that senior Whitehall sources argue that if the other place does not back down, the Government will drop the measure. Those kinds of hints, which allegedly come from the Government, send the wrong signals to opponents of the measure in another place. I hope that the Minister will be very clear in her reply that the Government are committed to ensuring that the will of this House can override that of the other place, in this Session, before we prorogue.
Interventions such as that make me worry more than rumours in the newspapers about the Government's intent. I hope that the Bill will be passed as amended, and the Government should make it absolutely clear that, if it is rejected in another place, they will send it back again—even that would be something. This debate is about the rights of the child, and opportunities such as this Bill come along only once every 25 years, so the Government ought to be clear about their willingness, at the appropriate time, to use other parliamentary procedures to ensure that the Bill becomes law, in its correct form and as soon as possible.
I return to the main proposition: the Bill needs amendments (a) to (uu). I hope that there is a maximum turnout from each party for the votes, and I pay particular tribute to Conservative Members who are prepared to defy the Whip to make it clear that the rights of the child and the right not to be discriminated against come first.
It is a shocking fact that a boy over the age of five is unlikely to be adopted even though he is waiting for an adoptive home. Let us think about that for a moment. Let us think about children whom we know, perhaps a son aged seven or eight, a nephew, a next-door neighbour or a child who lives in our street. I repeat: a boy over the age of five is unlikely to find someone to offer him a permanent home.
We have heard it said many times, rightly, that this debate is not about anybody's right to adopt. Nobody has the right to adopt, and that is as it should be. I believe strongly, however, that every adult who is able to offer a loving home to a child should be allowed to do so, regardless of their situation. If they have been assessed as suitable to adopt, they should have the right to apply. If they are deemed to be suitable for a particular child, that child could have a loving home that they might not otherwise find.
As a society that values children, we should ensure that every child has the right to a loving, permanent home. We do not achieve that at the moment. Adoption is fundamentally about children; it is not about the way in which we, as adults, live our lives. It is not about our homes, our party positions or the way in which our party wants us to vote. Those are not the issues today.
I am holding in my hand XBe My Parent" magazine, which has already been referred to. It is a monthly magazine produced by the British Association for Adoption and Fostering. I could have looked at it every month when I worked in social services, but I have to tell the House that I did not. I will not get into the bidding war that we had in Committee about who has been in social services the longest—
Yes, I won. One would think that people who had spent so many years in social services dealing with these issues would have become immune to them. However, I could not look, every month, at the faces of the children in this magazine because every child smiling out from a photo is included not because someone wants to adopt them but because there is already a shortage of adopters in their local authority. Most children in most local authorities are matched with parents who have gone through the process in that area or who have made an arrangement with another local authority. Children appear in this magazine only when they are hard to place.
Hon. Members should look at the thickness of the magazine and think about how many children are included. Let us consider a few of them. The magazine says:
XRicky is a lively, active boy who loves reading, swimming, watching TV and playing computer games."
Ricky is nine. I make it clear for the record that Ricky is not the child's real name. Joel and Joseph are brothers aged two and four. Thomas, six, appears with his sister, Crystal, aged five. Sapphire, aged nine, is shown with her sister Lauren, seven. Now we move on to the children who are very hard to place, not necessarily because they are difficult but because they are siblings and need to be placed together. Adam, aged 11, is featured with Tamara, nine, and Damien, seven. Finally, a lovely group of boys, aged four to 12, smile out at us—Leonard, Thomas, Jamie and William. For 30 seconds I look at them and think, XWouldn't it be great to take those four boys home?" If my husband is listening, he will be panicking by now.
The children look nice and are smiling out from their photos, but they have all had a difficult start in life. They have experienced rejection and they have behavioural difficulties. They will test the patience of the most loving, caring and resilient person, not because they are bad children or because they want to behave like that, but because of their experiences.
The hon. Lady speaks with feeling, as always, and I strongly agree with the point that she just made. Surely, however, because of the ghastly experiences that most of those children have had in their birth families, it follows that the hard and fast requirement in many of the advertisements for a great deal of contact with the birth family is bound to put off potential adopters.
The hon. Gentleman makes an important point. One lesson we have learned over the years is that if children have an awareness of their identity and an understanding of who they are, it helps the stability of the adoptive placement. For every child, but particularly for older children, a thorough assessment is needed of what, if any, contact is in the interests of the child. For some children, the right decision is that there should be no contact, ever. That may be the case for children who have been subjected to multiple familial abuse.
For many other children, whose parents have simply been unable to provide the necessary care and support, letterbox contact may be appropriate. It may be important for older children to know that they will see grandma, for example, every six weeks, every six months or once a year. That may help them to settle. It may help a child to know that although he is not seeing his mum and dad or his older brother, they are still all right. We cannot make blanket decisions about contact because it is important not only to consider the needs of the child but—and this is where the hon. Gentleman had a valid point—to consider realistically what prospective adoptive parents can cope with. Those are the two sides of the argument.
Unfortunately, we often end up talking about poor practice and about local authorities that are not doing a good job. When we do that, we do an incredible disservice to children, to hard-working social workers and to the local authorities that are doing a good job. It is always the bad cases that hit the press, but there is a lot of good work, and we need to ensure that all local authorities have good practice and achieve high standards.
I certainly agree with the hon. Lady that we need to emphasise the spectrum of quality and try to raise the standards of all local authorities as high as the best. She acknowledged that it is crucial to take into account the needs of adoptive parents if we want to get them on board. That is precisely why it seems to me so wrong to predetermine the details about optimum contact without taking into account the wishes of prospective adopters. We should let adopters get further down the line before those details are set.
I shall come on to the detail of the process shortly. Contact details are included in the magazine to give an indication of what is required. Some prospective adopters would say that they could not cope with having contact with the parents, so there would be no point in them even inquiring about certain children. Others would say that they were not sure about contact, so the issue would have to be negotiated.
It is clearly nonsense to suggest that many unmarried parents do not bring up their children in a stable relationship: they clearly do. So why do we want to rule out the possibility of unmarried couples applying to be adopters for some of the children who are waiting for a home? This is not about statistics. It is not about the number of relationships that break down or the number of people who live in gay relationships and how long they have been together. It is about matching children to homes. For that reason, I want to cover the process of applying in detail.
My hon. Friend Mr. Hinchliffe exploded some of the myths employed in the debate in the House of Lords. Similarly, I want to explode some of the myths mentioned today, especially those raised by the hon. Members for Huntingdon (Mr. Djanogly) and for East Worthing and Shoreham (Tim Loughton). Local authorities are trying to get more people to adopt. I wish that it was as easy as the hon. Member for East Worthing and Shoreham suggested. He said that we have a specific number of married couples, and that even if only a proportion of them come forward as adopters there will be homes for all the children. If it were that easy, we probably would not be having this debate, but the fact is that more children are waiting for adoptive homes than there are prospective adopters.
The local authority advertises for more adopters, perhaps for children aged four to seven, and it invites people who phone up to inquire to an open evening. At that stage, some people will decide that it is not for them. Others, however, might think that adoption is for them as a couple, but that they are not ready for it. They might have discovered that they cannot have children of their own and want to go down the route of IVF before returning in two, three or four years' time. Others might think, XWhoops. This is a big life-changing experience. Let's go away and think about it." That explains the drop-out figure. It is a serious and major decision. That might be seen as an obstacle, but I think that it is right that people properly consider whether they should proceed with an adoption.
The next process is training, where people hear more about the children. Most people do not know the background of the children who appear in XBe My Parent" or even those who are up for more straightforward adoption. They learn about the importance of identity and the adoption process. Some people at that point will decide that adoption is not for them. It might not be what they thought it would be or they might decide that they want to have a baby. That is not an obstacle; it is the natural process of people making a decision about a serious matter in their life.
People then have individual assessments with their social worker. We heard much about how social workers put people off, but most of them spend time talking to people about why they want to adopt. They consider their experiences and what they have to offer. At that stage, some people will be counselled out, as we referred to it professionally, perhaps because they have not come to terms with the fact that they cannot have their own child. That could be seen as another obstacle, but I think it is right that people properly consider whether adoption is right for them.
At the end of the process, the social worker tells the adoption panel whether a couple or single person should be approved to adopt. That follows a long discussion on what sort of child is right for them. For some people, it is an issue of gender; perhaps they have boys in their family and want to adopt a girl. For others, it is an issue of age; if they already have children, they will want the right age gap. Those details are considered. We do not have blanket approval of adoptive parents. The idea that we will end up with lots of couples vying for the same child is nonsense. People come into the process with different abilities and skills, which they offer to adopted children.
Providing everything goes smoothly, 94 per cent. of people who are presented to adoption panels are approved, which has already been mentioned. In my five years of chairing an adoption panel and being a decision maker, I think we turned down one person. Local authorities are not in the business of putting up artificial barriers to stop people adopting. There are children who need to be adopted. The social workers know them and are heartbroken because they cannot find them homes. Local authorities are not in the business of turning people away for spurious reasons.
I am listening closely. Of course the decision should be down to people on the ground, but only if they are not constrained by preconceptions. How does the hon. Lady explain the enormous disparity between the number of successful applications in different social services areas, ranging from 2 to 10 per cent? I do not know the figure for Sheffield now or in her time there, but surely those areas where the application rate is much less successful can learn from the more successful areas. That is one thing that we want.
The hon. Gentleman makes an important point. I said that there is good practice, better practice and poor practice. I am not defending poor practice. Those areas that are demonstrating poor practice need to be examined and to improve. I have no quibble with that.
What happens next to prospective adopters? Social workers have children who need placements. They tell the adoption team about them and a matching process takes place. If a social worker is lucky, she might have two or three couples or sets of people from which to choose. It is more likely that there will be one choice or the team might say that it has someone in the pipeline. It is nonsense to suggest that a social worker says, XI'm politically correct and I want a gay couple for this child." That does not happen. Social workers are desperate for families and want a couple who meet a child's needs.
In my experience social workers are more conservative—perhaps that is not in their defence—than most hon. Members. For good reasons, most of them want two parents: a mother and a father. They prefer the mum to stay at home because the children—there might be two or three of them—have such demanding needs. They will not specify the mum, but at least one parent needs to have time to spend with the children. Social workers consider each case from the point of view of the child. It would be wrong to place a young girl who has been badly sexually abused and who has a range of needs in a household where there is a man. She could not deal with that. I am not saying that all men are a risk to that child, but it might be right for that child to have two women—two mothers—to provide care and support. It is important to match the needs of the child with a family.
On specifying the ethnicity of a child, I strongly believe that most children grow up best in circumstances that reflect their identity. They do that because those parents will naturally understand that child's background, but it must not be a given. A child should not languish in care because there is no exact match. As chair of the adoption panel, I faced a proposal to match a child from a Muslim background with a family in which one parent was a Hindu. My first reaction was, XMy goodness, that is a difficult match," but when we investigated the case, looking into the child's background and the ability of the couple with whom we were placing the child to respect the child's religious background, we realised that it was absolutely the right thing to do—right for the child, because it was the best match we could get. The child was mixed race, as was the family to whom it was going.
The hon. Lady is talking about good practice, but she will remember from the Standing Committee the case of Natalie, who was in care as a baby and therefore in by far the easiest category to place. She was refused to a single mother—a woman who had the means to support her and who, like Natalie, was of middle eastern-European origin—on the ground that the lady was Christian, whereas the baby's origins were Islamic. The good practice that she describes is simply not happening across the spectrum.
The hon. Gentleman rightly highlights an example of poor practice. I am not here to defend poor practice. The Bill is about continuing to promote good practice. Since their election in 1997, the Labour Government have set out to improve adoption practice and have put in substantial additional resources. That is right, but we should set our standards high and do our best for the children, and the best thing that we can do for those children is to widen the pool. Yes, we should get more married couples to come forward to adopt—we should all talk adoption up.
My hon. Friend is aware that many children cannot be placed by local authorities and are referred to voluntary bodies. Before becoming a Member of Parliament, I worked for Barnardo's trying to place some of the most damaged children in the area in which I worked. I support my hon. Friend's point that there is a severe shortage of prospective adoptive parents to take damaged children, whether the children are physically disabled—we placed children from hospitals who physically could do hardly anything—or behaviourally disturbed, which presents a major problem—
My hon. Friend makes an important point, which goes to the heart of our debate. There are many children out there who need homes. If there were more adopters than children waiting for adoption, there might be some merit in the arguments that we have heard, but there are 5,000 children waiting for adoptive homes—not 5,000 families who want to adopt. How can we, in all conscience, deny any of those children a home?
Dr. Harris referred to eight children in respect of whom only single parents had inquired. Look into the faces of those eight children and tell them that the person making the inquiry cannot be considered for providing them with a permanent home because he or she is not married. I am not prepared to do that, and I hope that Conservative Members are not prepared to do so either.
I rise to support the motion to disagree and a number of the grouped amendments tabled by Mr. Hinchliffe, which stand in the name of several hon. Members.
At the outset, I pay tribute both to the hon. Gentleman's work and to his words on previous occasions and today. I am aware, after taking a cursory glance at his biographical details, that he married in 1982. He has considerable experience and was able to knock sideways those who cavilled at his motivation—especially people involved in parts of the media, who might suggest that he had some sort of politically correct agenda. Manifestly, he has nothing of the sort in mind. He is a champion of marriage and he is practising his commitment to it.
I, too, believe in marriage. I am—I hope, God willing—soon to demonstrate my commitment to marriage, when in 33 days' time, here in the House of Commons, I get married. I look forward to the joys of marriage, and I ought to have the humility to put on record my extreme gratitude that I have been lucky enough to find a gracious future wife who has, rather generously, agreed to slow down the process of my inevitable deterioration. That said, and fan of marriage though I am, I do not think that that institution is or should be the centrepiece or defining feature of the debate about adoption. It certainly should not be.
Several hon. Members have referred to the key statistics that lie at the heart of today's debate. Let the point be underlined: approximately 5,000 children are adopted each year; a similar number again have been decreed suitable to be adopted, but still await willing adoptive families, and those kids are languishing principally in institutional care.
I found extremely powerful the research conducted by British Agencies for Adoption and Fostering. In particular I focused on the research relating to March this year—it has been mentioned by Jonathan Shaw—concerning the group of 430 children who were potentially available for and suited to adoption. It was striking that although overall there were more than 1,200—1,255, I think—inquiries about those children, no fewer than 129 of the 430 were children in respect of whom no inquiries were made. That is a serious situation which no democratically elected politician has the right to dismiss or ignore. That is an extremely challenging state of affairs for legislators.
Alongside those bald statistics, we have to consider the obvious and, I suspect, increasing phenomenon of people coming forward who are not married, but who are cohabiting, and who have, not merely an interest in, but a passion to realise their ambition to have a child. Often, they are people who tried to have children but were unsuccessful, and they want to adopt a child.
It is in that context that the amendments tabled by the hon. Member for Wakefield have to be considered. As has been said many times, the objective of those who have tabled the amendments is to widen or extend the pool of potential adopters, and I believe that we should judge the arguments on their merits and not seek to impugn the good motives or personal integrity of those who have put their names to the amendments. Let us examine first the argument about extending the pool—a point to which I am sympathetic and which I have discussed with several people over a period of months.
A week or two ago, in the context of making what I thought was an important argument in relation to the Bill, a senior Conservative, who is himself strongly opposed to adoption by unmarried couples, said to me, XThis issue is not about gay rights." It so happens that, in the course of the remarks that excited that response, I had made absolutely no reference to gay rights, but there you go. On the point of fact, I agreed with that individual: this issue is not about the rights of gay people, or of heterosexual people, or of married people, or of unmarried people—frankly, it is not about the rights of adults at all. It is about the rights, welfare and futures of some of the most vulnerable children in our society today.
In contemplating this issue and preparing for the debate, I have had a number of conversations with the county adoption adviser in Buckinghamshire, Elaine Dibben. I am happy to say that I learned a lot from those conversations; they were extremely instructive for me. Elaine Dibben told me of a number of harrowing cases and personal tragedies of people in the county of Buckinghamshire who have been judged suitable for adoption but who are the great unwanted, discarded, forgotten children in our society.
I think, for example, of the seven-year-old boy in Buckinghamshire who has been waiting for adoption since July 2000. He is vulnerable and he needs help now. I think of the 10-year-old boy who has been waiting for adoption since January 2000. He is vulnerable and he needs help now. I think, for example, of the brother and sister respectively aged four and six years who come from mixed parentage and who waited for adoption from January 2000 until July 2001, at which point they were taken on by an adoptive family. Sadly, despite best efforts and no doubt good intentions on both sides, that arrangement did not work. Within two months, by September 2001, that brother and sister were back in institutional care, where I am sorry to say they have languished for the succeeding 14 months.
I think, for example, of the sisters aged eight and nine who have been waiting for adoption for the past 12 months. Those sisters are judged and described as hard to place on the ground—surprise, surprise, in common with a great many other siblings—that they want to stay together. They have not yet been placed. Those sisters are vulnerable and they need help now.
I think of the 18-month-old boy who has been waiting for adoption for 12 months, since he was six months old. His situation is the more serious because in addition to the institutionalised care that he has been obliged to endure, he faces threats to himself and the possible retardation of his development for the simple and sad reason that his mother was a drug addict. These are the vulnerable children in our society who are not interested in a theory or an idealisation, but in practical help, demonstrable compassion, effective assistance now.
It is generally true and acknowledged—to try to cut through some of the statistical table tennis in this debate—that there are two valid propositions. First, on the whole, there is frequently a surplus of would-be adoptive parents, but that surplus is of would-be adoptive parents who want to adopt young, healthy, female—for that read generally less difficult—and white children.
The second correct proposition is that there is in many cases a shortage of would-be adoptive parents who are willing, as many hon. Members have said, to take on and give a loving home to children in a different category. Those children might—this is often true—be older; they may very well be boys. In particular, those hard-to-place children are very likely to be those with behavioural problems, who suffer from learning difficulties, or who are afflicted by mental or physical disabilities. We have a duty to address their plight and to see what we can do about their situation.
My hon. Friend is making a passionate and eloquent speech. Those of us who have campaigned for this Bill for many years want the matters that he is raising and the tragic cases—some of which he has listed—addressed, but does he not realise that the proposal would not open one extra home? All that it would stipulate is that, if a child is to be taken into a home and adopted jointly rather than adopted by one adult in the home, that couple would need to get married.
I respect my hon. Friend's sincerity, but I utterly reject the point that he has made, and I am happy to tell him and the House why I do so. If the existing arrangements are manifestly discriminatory, send out a signal of hostility and purposely create categories of adopters—one category of which is made up of first-class citizens and the other of second-class citizens—it is scarcely surprising when some who might otherwise be interested in coming forward and adopting jointly on a basis of equality of esteem choose to give up the unequal struggle against such ludicrous arrangements which continue to obtain. I say in all sincerity to my hon. Friend that I know that he believes in his position with conviction, but the idea that one can simply lecture people and say, XYou get married and then you'll be all right, acceptable and we'll approve of you" is simply not acceptable in the century in which I think I now live.
I must emphasise that we are talking about abused, neglected and bereft children who need to be brought up physically, emotionally and spiritually in a family, headed preferably by two parents who are jointly and legally responsible for them. That does not seem to be an unreasonable request. Very often, there is not a great choice. I find it extraordinary that people talk as though the question is simply one of finding the ideal married couple. We should not view this debate in terms of two options that are juxtaposed and rivals to each other. The option of the Xideal" married couple on the one hand and of the Xflawed" and, by definition therefore, inferior unmarried and cohabiting couple on the other seems to be a wrong way to look at the matter.
The truth is that in a number of cases, as is demonstrably proven by the evidence of those who continue to languish either in institutional care or in serial and unstable fostering arrangements, the choice is different. The choice in many cases, and the choice in future as cohabitation grows, will be between the offer of a decent, loving, stable and committed home headed by two people who are not married, and the alternative which, despite the best efforts of those who provide the care, is not infrequently the living hell of institutional care or serial fostering arrangements.
Let us consider some of the arguments about whether unmarried couples should adopt. The thesis has been advanced many a time and oft, including in several speeches this afternoon, that cohabiting partners have inherently more unstable relationships. I must say to those who argue that case that we ought to remember our own political and to some extent intellectual mentor in the Conservative party, Disraeli, who, it was said, talked of
Xlies, damned lies and statistics".
It may well be valid as a general proposition, as the statistical evidence adduced would appear to suggest, that married couples' relationships are longer lasting and more stable than those of unmarried couples. However, it seems a non sequitur to generalise from those statistics when we are dealing, and when we know that we are dealing, in the context of a debate about adoption, with a specific and self-selecting group of cohabiting people who have a thirst for adoption and are coming forward in the hope that that thirst will be satisfied. That is a different category. In many cases the individuals concerned are older, and they have frequently, as I mentioned earlier, tried to have children and not been successful, which is why they have come forward and taken an interest in the adoption process. Simply to smear them as unsuitable or lesser beings is unwarranted and, in terms of attracting people to adopt, extremely counterproductive.
Right hon. and hon. Members are duty bound to take account of the nature of the process by which those who initially select themselves as potential adoptive parents come ultimately to be selected or not to be selected, as the case may be, by others. It is important, as other hon. Members have done, to focus on the specifics, the facts and the detail of the process. The way some people speak about it, anyone would think that the adoption process was the parenting equivalent of service in a fast-food restaurant. It simply is not like that.
As evidence in our various constituencies around the country conclusively shows, the process is thorough, rigorous and exacting. It is right and proper that that should be so. When people come forward, they have to go through the entire process. If, for example, they are part of a thoroughly unstable relationship, they are extraordinarily unlikely to get through the process. I want to attend to the detail, because I am concerned about the way in which generalised arguments and—dare I say it?—occasionally deliberate or inadvertent prejudices are tossed around in the course of these debates.
What can we say about the process? There might be an initial inquiry by telephone or letter. Information would then be sent out, with details of an information session. The person or couple would have to attend the information session, there would be an interview with a social worker, and a series of statutory checks would be made. There would be attendance at a preparation group, and following that, interviews with two social workers. An assessment would be started with a social worker, on the principle of home visits, of which typically there would be six or eight, conducted over a period of three months or so. Follow-up workshops would be held.
There would be referees to be visited by the social worker, there would be the crucial form F report to be completed, and there would be a second opinion visit by a second social worker. The applicants would have the opportunity to read and comment on form F. The social worker would present the report to the adoption panel, the adoption panel would make a recommendation to the adoption agency, and the adoption agency would make a decision. If, after that recitation, right hon. and hon. Members and others attending to our proceedings elsewhere are not already exhausted, I have to tell them that that is not the end of the process.
An agency decision might be made that a child would be put into a willing adoptive family, but as we all recognise, that is a trial arrangement. In due course, an assessment of the success or otherwise of that trial would be made. The assessment would be made by a judge in a family or county court. That is an extremely important safeguard. Throughout the rigorous, thorough and exacting process that I have described, certain criteria are to the fore—the stability of the couple's relationship, the extent of the networks of support available, the details of the family histories involved, and the capacity or, as it may transpire, the incapacity of the would-be adoptive parents to create space, in the widest sense of that term, for the entry of a new child into the family. It is an extremely rigorous, highly valuable and very serious process. To cavil at it or to appear to dismiss its significance or quality is cruelly unfair to those who labour long and hard in pursuit of the interests of children.
That leads me to what happens now. I pay tribute to the many right hon. and hon. Members who know a lot more about the subject than I do. I pay particular tribute to my hon. Friend Mr. Lansley, with whom I have had some productive conversations on the subject, and a number of whose contributions to debate I have read. My hon. Friend, in the best Conservative tradition, is focused on the practicalities—the here and now, the reality of what happens in the society in which we live.
As we know, couples who are cohabiting already adopt. That is true not only of heterosexual couples, but of gay couples. However, they do not adopt jointly, so they face the peculiarly unenviable dilemma of deciding which of them is to have the status of the adoptive parent, and which of them is to accept the lesser role of second-class citizen whose fate and limitation it is, perhaps, to acquire a residence order which will lapse when the child involved reaches the age of 16 or 18.
I hope that it will command general assent to say that, quite apart from the fact that such a discriminatory arrangement within the family creates injustice, inequality, instability and possibly unhappiness in the mind of the child, who will naturally view both partners as his or her parents, there are also damaging practical consequences that flow from that peculiarly anomalous legal arrangement. For example, if the adoptive parent dies, the adoptive parent's partner—that is to say, from the vantage point of the child, his or her other parent—will not have an automatic right to become the adoptive parent. He or she will have to go through the whole process, with all the attendant uncertainty and stress, and the possibility of a sad culmination of events. If, for example, the adoptive parent's partner dies, there can be many instances in which the child does not have a right to inherit the estate of his or her other parent. If the couple split up, the partner who is not the adoptive parent currently has no responsibility in law to contribute to the cost of maintaining the child.
Those are significant downsides and injustices, about which we should not be complacent. If, on the other hand, we go for reform, tidy up the law and practise the principle of equity, the situation could be a great deal better. Under child support legislation and under the relevant schedule of the Children Act 1975, the interests of the child will be safeguarded and promoted, in terms of the opportunity to make maintenance orders, and in terms of the transfer and settlement of property. Those are important considerations.
I shall focus now on the consensus in support of reform, which is a powerful consideration. The hon. Members for Chatham and Aylesford and for Oxford, West and Abingdon (Dr. Harris) have, in the course of the debates, made much of the organisations that support reform, and they have been right to do so. I simply pose the question, and I admit that I pose it in particular to some of my right hon. and hon. Friends, whether it is entirely wise to ignore or disregard the fact that 29 of the 30 organisations that gave evidence and made representations to the Special Standing Committee on the Bill argued in favour of these particular amendments or, at any rate, the principle that underlies them. I think that that is an extremely relevant consideration. I do not say that it is conclusive of itself, but it is a material consideration. Simply to dismiss as the politically correct social worker brigade the organisations whose daily responsibility and privilege it is to cater for the interests of children betrays a degree of arrogance and ignorance that is unworthy of a serious debate on these important subjects. The people in those organisations know what they are talking about.
I am listening with great interest to my hon. Friend, who is clearly speaking with great passion and conviction in dealing with a matter about which he feels very strongly. On the number of organisations that support a particular argument, he will recall when 264 economists, I think, wrote to The Times to say that the policies of the then Chancellor of the Exchequer, Geoffrey Howe, were incorrect. Lord Howe ignored that advice and was later proved to have been right in doing so.
I must admit that I do not think that a powerful argument. However, I shall do my best to improve it. With characteristic self-effacement, my hon. Friend understated what I confess I believe to be a poor case. He referred to 264 economists, but in fact, of course, 364 economists excoriated my right hon. and noble Friend Baroness Thatcher of Kesteven and her colleagues for pursuing those economic policies. I say to him that economics is a notoriously inexact science. If one meets any three economists, one will unfailingly hear at least five opinions, so it does not seem to me that we should be too influenced by that consideration.
What we are talking about are people in professional practice dealing not with theories and isolated models such as those in the discipline of economics, but with the practice of social work, care for children, human understanding, interpersonal relations and societal development. Those are very important differences.
May I assist the hon. Gentleman in strengthening his argument in respect of the 29 agencies that gave evidence to the Special Standing Committee? Members of the Committee had the opportunity to cross-examine those agencies and put questions to them. Their submissions were not merely letters in a newspaper; we had the opportunity to put questions and test their arguments.
I agree. I should add that it seems a poor line of argument merely to say that, as the amendments were not proposed at the outset and arose only at a later stage, they cannot be of much significance. What is the point of having a number of different stages in the passage of a Bill, including pre-legislative scrutiny, as now favoured by the Government, and the opportunity for specialist representations to be made, if one simply dismisses them out of hand when they happen to conflict with one's preconceptions? I was influenced by what happened and I took the trouble to read the evidence.
I should like to conclude with reference to the parliamentary management of this issue. There has been a good deal of discussion in the past few days, as people may have noticed, about the way in which the subject has been handled, especially on the Opposition Benches. The judgment was made to impose a three-line Whip—that is to say, to instruct Conservative Members of Parliament to vote against the amendments. I must emphasise that this is the second occasion on which that has been done. It was done last May and it has been done again.
I do not mind saying to the House that in May this year, after much soul searching, and with a heavy heart and, frankly, a guilty conscience, I did what is not customary for me and stayed away. I did not take part. If I remember rightly, I sat instead in my office. I had on this occasion to ask myself how I should react to the situation that has been presented to me and which other hon. Members will have to address. Of course, there is never any shortage of well intentioned and often friendly people who will say, XDon't go to the wall over it; it's not worth having a big fight. After all, it is only one issue, and"—wait for it—Xit's the Government's problem to get their Bill; and if they lose it, that's their tough luck." That would be the easy way out. I think that it would be a cop-out, a get-out and a sell-out for somebody who feels as strongly as I do on this matter to take that course of action. I concluded that I was not prepared to convict myself of that abdication of responsibility.
I think that the amendments tabled by the hon. Member for Wakefield and supported by others are sound. They offer hope and could make the situation better. I believe that what we need in this debate is less prejudice and more fairness. We should aspire to govern Britain as she is, not Britain as she was. We should govern on the basis of enduring principles adapted for proper application to the circumstances of the time. What we need are open minds, generosity of spirit and a readiness to understand the point of view of others. For goodness' sake, let us try to think outside the box—the way in which we, our party members or others who think or live like us, would naturally react. I am concerned about those damaged, bereft, neglected and vulnerable children, and I am not prepared to pass up any practical opportunity that might enable us to make their lives better.
It has been a privilege to serve in the shadow Cabinet over the past 14 months under the leadership of my right hon. Friend Mr. Duncan Smith. I am grateful to him for the opportunities that he has given to me. I hope that I have made some very modest contribution, and I look forward to supporting him and my party in the Lobbies and on these Benches in the weeks, months and years ahead.
I conclude simply by thanking my hon. and right hon. Friends for the courtesy and understanding that they have shown me on the occasion of the decision that I have felt compelled to make.
I commend Mr. Bercow for his fine speech. At any event, my speech was going to be very short and to the point, but I have since revised it to being extremely brief. By this stage of the debate, the main points will have been aired, but I want to emphasise a couple of points that are worth either the repeating or the sharing.
Although it sounds extremely crude to say so, I believe that the issue is about supply and demand. It is about demand for good-quality parents to come forward. Currently, the supply of such parents does not match the demand of children: notably those who are languishing in local children's homes, as the hon. Member for Buckingham said. That must be at the forefront of our minds. It has been suggested that 5,000 children are in care. That number could even be slightly higher, but every one of those children is a child without a safe, secure and loving context. The longer those children stay in children's homes, the longer they will have to learn as a norm the worst ways of children who are older than them, who got into the system before them, and who are even more abused and rejected than the younger ones who are coming through.
That is the issue; it is about encouraging good-quality parents to come forward and offer those children hope. That is what the children try to cling to. My hon. Friend Ms Munn spoke movingly about children who never saw anybody come forward and make an offer to adopt them or even express interest in them so as to raise a little hope or start the process.
There are two main reasons why supply and demand do not match one another. One of them is the profile of the children, about which I and many other hon. Members have talked. They are not cuddly babies any more, but challenging children, many of whom have special needs. The other factor that has not helped is the legislation under which we are currently working, which is 25 years old. Any legislation that is 25 years old has difficulties keeping up with the pace of change. Adoption legislation is no exception. The Bill is an excellent piece of legislation, but the issue about unmarried parents and same-sex couples is not a bolt-on concept. It is not something that can be ignored while the rest of the Bill sails through, everything being all right and supply meeting demand.
It is crucial to attract more good-quality parents and to widen the pool. Failing that, we are talking a good talk but we are not solving the problem. If we do not adopt that approach, we shall find in two years' time after this wonderful debate that there are the same statistics. That is not what we should be about.
If we do not accept the amendments, we shall be saying to the child, XYou are not entitled or allowed to have a legal relationship with both the adults in your life who provide you with a loving, caring home. You are allowed only one." I think back quite a long way. If I had been in that situation as a teenager—perhaps a damaged teenager or a stroppy teenager—I would have exploited it to the maximum. At the same time, I would have felt insecure. The message that is given to adults who are coming forward to offer their parenting skills—this applies especially to the one who is not adopting the child—is that they are not quite up to the mark. They feel that they are being told, XYou are not quite up to the mark. We do not value you in the same way as we value your partner."
Adults go through a rigorous selection process. We marvel and are delighted when such parents produce wonderful, secure and loving homes for children through adoption. However, the basic message is, XCarry on as you were doing and as you are doing, but we ain't going to recognise you." That is not only a matter of equality. Indeed, it is a practical matter. It is one that sends a wrong signal and will not result in more parents coming forward. It is the reason why few parents have come forward who are in an unmarried relationship or who are part of a single-sex couple.
Opposition Members, especially those who are against the amendments, have said that about 90 to 95 per cent. of couples who are adopting are married. That is not surprising. One of the main messages being given out by current legislation—I hope that future legislation will not do so—is, XYou are not quite valued in the same way as your married neighbours." The situation is wrong from a practical point of view as well as in terms of equity.
I was extremely concerned by the veiled threat of Tim Loughton, who spoke from the Opposition Front Bench—in fact, there was not much veiled about it—when he suggested that there is a severe danger that the proposed legislation, as a package, will not pass through Parliament if things go wrong for him tonight. I hope that I have misinterpreted his remarks. The hon. Gentleman seemed to be saying, XIf we do not get a resolution that goes our way, the Bill will be in danger of collapsing." Obviously we are faced with prorogation. I hope that what the hon. Gentleman suggests is not the case.
The Bill is a fine piece of proposed legislation. With others on both sides of the Chamber, I have been heavily involved with it. However, it will be a fine piece of legislation only if it is implemented in full and if we can get additional prospective caring and loving parents into the system that offers many damaged children a real opportunity and a real chance.
It is a privilege to have the opportunity again to speak on adoption. I am pleased to follow Liz Blackman, who has been closely concerned with the Bill throughout its consideration.
I shall start with two general points. First, I support all those on both sides of the Chamber who have said that it is an excellent Bill. I have been campaigning for six years for the adoption of children who are in care. I have looked with horror at the extraordinary spectrum. When the campaign started, fewer than 1 per cent. of children in care in many local authorities were adopted. Some of the best authorities were achieving an adoption rate of more than 12 per cent. Behind these bleak statistics there are many horrifying cases.
The measures in the Bill have been ably listed by my hon. Friend Mr. Loughton. They range from the introduction of the national register to the provisions to speed up the current desperately slow court procedure. So many lawyers are calling for a faster process. There are also the guidelines for social workers and adoption panels. There is so much positive material in the Bill that will improve the chances of children in care being adopted.
Secondly, I shall draw the interest of the House to a case that may be of use in developing regulations. An especially horrifying case was put before the all-party group on adoption, the details of which I have sent to the Secretary of State, which concerned an adoption that had broken down. By chance, it involved one of the right hon. Gentleman's constituents, and I received a most courteous reply about it. The father who adopted the child was a social worker and was familiar with working with children. The case illustrates the extreme importance of psychiatric assessments in cases where allegations are made against parents. In the instance to which I am referring, the allegations were made by a deeply damaged girl after 10 years of successful adoption. She made terrible allegations that were proved to be entirely false. I am grateful to the Secretary of State for agreeing to examine the case. In considering the Bill on a broad spectrum, we never discussed proper psychological assessments after, tragically, adoption has started to break down.
Members on both sides of the House—not least my hon. Friend Mr. Bercow, in his powerful speech—have acknowledged that we are talking not about the rights of adults. Instead, the issue is about the interests of the child. I was privileged to serve on the Special Standing Committee under the extremely able chairmanship of Mr. Hinchliffe, who managed to combine impartiality for most of the time while making his own powerful points when he wanted to do so. I believe that there was only one organisation that argued against the provision that the rights of the child should be paramount. That was the British Association for Adoption and Fostering, which wanted to enter a caveat. Basically, however, almost all organisations accepted that children's rights should be paramount. I think that every Member who has contributed to the debate agrees that that is common ground.
We are dealing in many instances with desperately damaged children. There is one case from my constituency surgery that involves two little boys, which illustrates the baggage that children bring with them. The two children were unconnected except that they had the same adoptive parents. From memory, they were aged six and seven when they were adopted. One child had been pushed out into the cold so often that he suffered severe frostbite in his feet. He had to be treated for gangrene and came close to amputation. The other child had been kept locked in a cellar for so long that he had no speech skills.
It is against that background that we must ask how we can best help such children. No one in the Chamber has any doubt that those of us who accept the argument that I am advancing on the Opposition Benches feel every bit as strongly about doing well for these children as those who oppose the argument.
In principle, the proposed change provides no extra placement anywhere in the country.
If I may finish the point, I shall be delighted to give way to the hon. Gentleman. I did that many times in Committee, and he often returned the favour.
Under current law, anybody, in principle, can apply to adopt, but if two people want legal ties to the child, they must have legal ties to each other. [Interruption.] I think we have a view from the Gallery.
Absolutely. As a Catholic, I am used to hearing exasperated priests preaching through babies' noises. That is what it is all about.
Current law does not exclude anyone. It provides simply that two people who want to adopt jointly and to have legal ties to the child should have legal ties to each other. Several speakers, including my hon. Friend the Member for Buckingham, pointed out some administrative problems. The principal one is the death of the adopting party. When a child comes into a relationship, it has no idea about the paperwork. It is important that the child feels secure and has progressed in a new home. I cannot believe that, in cases of death, the courts would frequently refuse the surviving partner the right to adopt. We are considering damaged children who require our closest attention, and the problems that afflict them are much broader and more likely to arise than the death of the adopting individual.
Nobody would argue that every marriage is perfect. From time to time, my good lady reminds me that my marriage is imperfect. I pay tribute to my wife, who has done 18 years' service—six more than it took me to get my Territorial decoration—for putting up with me. Nobody argues that there are no stable relationships outside marriage. However, the burden of the statistics is overwhelmingly on the side of marriage. A survey that the Office for National Statistics conducted in 1997 says it all for me.
The survey showed that a child born 10 years earlier, in 1987, whose parents were married had an 81 per cent. chance of being with parents who remained married in 1997. A child born into an allegedly stable relationship in 1987, whose parents did not get married almost immediately afterwards, had only a 15 per cent. chance of being with parents who remained in a stable relationship 10 years later.
In a moment. We hear time and again about social workers' assessments. However, appalling assessments from so many social workers, albeit not from across the board, but in many local authorities, led me to start a campaign on the subject. The idea that the views of a specific social worker on a relationship are so powerful that such statistics can be brushed aside in the best interests of the child is unconvincing.
It is kind of the hon. Gentleman. We have moved a long way from the point about which I wanted to intervene. As someone who is steeped in the subject and has a tremendous record of concern and commitment on the issue, does he agree that if we deny the opportunity to unmarried couples to adopt jointly, we may turn away people who have something to offer to deeply damaged children? At the very least, we could undermine the basis on which a good, secure relationship could be founded with those children. Surely the hon. Gentleman does not want to do that.
I have never argued for discrimination. We have civil law marriages in this country and, as the hon. Member for Wakefield said, the vast majority of cases involve heterosexual couples. We simply ask, if both individuals want to have legal ties to the child, is it so much to expect them to make a binding legal tie to each other? A civil marriage contract is simply that.
If my hon. Friend had a free hand and was starting from scratch, would he prefer to prohibit individual gays adopting? If not, and acknowledging that there are many successful gay adoptions, although they form a minute proportion of the total, why is he opposed to gay couples adopting jointly to the extent of supporting a three-line Whip, which many of us believe sad and ill judged?
Let me deal with my hon. Friend's principal point. A moment ago, I gave the statistics for heterosexual couples. I also said that, when they split, there was a problem similar to that in divorce cases, but that there was a much greater likelihood of a split between unmarried couples and that the affected children had already been badly damaged. The argument that I applied to heterosexual couples applies in spades to homosexual couples. Their partnerships last a much shorter time than those of heterosexual couples. Before my hon. Friend says that he can point to individual cases of long-lasting relationships, I accept that there are a few. However, we are dealing with a relatively small pool about which not many statistics are available.
In heterosexual relationships, couples tend to marry or break up in a year or two after the child arrives. When the pool is large enough to consider, I suspect that that will apply to homosexuals. I understand my hon. Friend's point but I do not agree with it. My point is about splitting up rather than homosexual adoption.
I have listened to the hon. Gentleman carefully and I agree with much of his speech, although not with his last comments. Does he accept that he is falling into the trap to which Mr. Bercow referred? He is generalising in his use of figures.
The hon. Gentleman said that social work assessments had gone wrong in the past and mentioned the problems that he experienced. There are two other checks that we should consider. The first is the role of the guardian ad litem after the assessment process and the second is that of the court. The hon. Gentleman appears to fail to accept that a range of opportunities are available for examining in detail the merits or otherwise of individual applicants.
I am not sure whether I agree with the hon. Gentleman. The guardian ad litem service is a big issue. I know that he and other members of the Committee share the anxiety about the muddle in it. It is a scandal that could do much to undermine the good work in the Bill. I am glad that the Parliamentary Secretary, Lord Chancellor's Department, Ms Winterton, is present; she is taking a close interest in the matter. However, to answer the hon. Gentleman's point directly, I do not have much faith in the courts on family matters. Indeed, they can be only as good as the information that they receive. The guardian ad litem service was good, but has sadly suffered heavily in the past two or three years. It provides an extra safeguard but that does not greatly affect the argument.
The hon. Gentleman likes to use examples, often from his own postbag or constituency surgery, to illustrate and advance his argument. Perhaps I can offer him another example. Let us take a situation in which two gay men were fostering a child who had all kinds of different challenges, and it was felt that the best people to look after that child for the rest of its life were those two individuals. Would the hon. Gentleman deny that child the opportunity to be adopted by those two people?
I am afraid that on the basis of the arguments that I have put forward, my answer would be yes. I do not, however, see any reason why one of those people should not adopt the child. I should have made it clear when I answered the question of my hon. Friend the Member for Buckingham earlier that my first choice for adoption would always be a married couple. I accept the principle of the occasional gay adoption, but only when there is no one else available. Hard cases make bad law—[Interruption.] I give way to the hon. Gentleman.
Every single child in care is a hard case, in the sense that the hon. Gentleman uses the phrase. Those who have been in care for more than a year are harder cases, and those who have been in care for more than four years—of whom there were 12,000 when we started campaigning—are very hard cases. I was referring earlier to getting further and further into legal technicalities.
I want to take the hon. Gentleman back to the important points about generalisation, and the problems surrounding it, that Mr. Bercow and I raised. If Mr. Brazier could identify a group of married people that had exactly the same rate of separation that he attributes to unmarried couples—for example, a particular ethnic minority or, perhaps, married service men and women, although I am not suggesting that this is the case— would he execute a broad ban on that group seeking to adopt? If not—since he has said that separation is the key factor—why not?
I do not know of any such category. Service families are not such an example. It is true, sadly, that the divorce rate in the Army and the Navy is higher than the national average, but it does not begin to compare with the staggering amount of separations among unmarried couples. It reflects the overstretch that the armed services suffer from at the moment. So I know of no such category, but if I did I would not support a ban on any particular ethnic group. Civil marriage does not ask that people have a particular religion, or anything else other than that they make a public commitment of permanence. That is all it asks. In the debates that took place in the 19th century about the introduction of civil marriage, I would have been on the side of those who wanted to introduce it, precisely because it provided an opportunity for people of no particular religious faith to make a public, legally binding commitment. That is all it involves, and it seems to me to be a perfectly reasonable criterion for adoption by two people who both want legal ties to the child.
I am extremely grateful to my hon. Friend for giving way; he is always generous in that respect. I want to clarify exactly what his position is. Is he arguing his absolutist stance in support of only married couples being allowed to adopt to the extent that, even if the only reason why an otherwise thoroughly suitable couple could not adopt was that there were religious impediments to their marriage, he would still rule them out?
The short answer to that is no, because religious impediments would not stop them having a civil arrangement. Forgive me, but that really is not an argument at all.
I want to finish by making a wider point. In his excellent speech, my hon. Friend the Member for East Worthing and Shoreham touched on the fact that there were several other ways in which we could broaden the pool. I want to mention two of them. These measures would introduce extra homes and provide extra opportunities for children in care to be adopted, not through a technicality involving a one-person adoption in a two-person home. They would provide real extra homes.
The first measure would involve a relatively small redrafting of the first clause of the Bill. We had an indication on the Floor of the House from the Minister's predecessor, Mr. Hutton, that he appeared to be in favour of such a redrafting, which would alter clause 1(5) so that the requirements on ethnicity and religion would be subservient to the provision in clause 1(3) that there should be no undue delay. Some of the examples that my hon. Friend the Member for East Worthing and Shoreham read out illustrated that many local authorities still take the view that they would rather not have a child adopted at all than let the child go to a family that does not match the ethnicity or religion of that child. That is the real scandal.
The second example involves contact. I think that Mr. Foster mentioned this earlier, and I accept his point that a balance has to be struck. We have to consider the circumstances of the child in the birth family from which he or she was extracted. We must, of course, take account of the fact that the child may have made a real bond with an auntie or a granny, or someone else who played no part at all in the unhappy circumstances that led to the child being taken into care. We must also, however, make a reasonable assessment of what it is fair to ask an adoptive parent to take on. In my view, this can only be done after an adoptive couple has been lined up. It cannot, as those wretched advertisements suggest, be prejudged, if we want adoptive parents to take on damaged children.
I have not had the courage to adopt a child, but Ms Taylor has done so and she knows how much I admire her for sharing her experiences with us. If I had had the courage to take on those two little boys who I mentioned earlier, with all that history, and someone had said to me—as the courts more and more frequently do these days; we even have advertisements from the British Agencies for Adoption and Fostering that apparently prejudge these decisions—XAh, but we want there to be letter-box contact with the birth parents", I cannot believe that even the bravest adoptive parents in the land would stand for it. If someone is taking on really damaged children, they cannot be expected to accept mail from the parents who inflicted the damage; that sort of decision must be made later in the process. That is my second suggestion for widening the pool. Social workers in my own area, including the former director of social services, have told me of individual adoptions that would otherwise have gone through but did not do so because of court rulings on contact with the birth family.
I shall end where I came in: this is not the burning issue of the hour. The measure was not even in the original Bill. This is a good Bill, and I believe that the best way to look after these children is by extending the opportunities in the way that has just been described, rather than by going down the route of introducing fresh legal complexities—because that is all that this is—to adoption.
This is the third time that I have spoken in a debate on the Adoption and Children Bill. Each time, it has been a pleasure, because everyone speaks with such warmth and commitment. Although I disagree with much of what Mr. Brazier said, I totally applaud his integrity. It was a positive treat to listen to the powerful speech by Mr. Bercow. It was seriously timely, and I see him as a Member who is making a commitment to a good Bill by reinstating amendments and by putting his career second. Well done!
This is an excellent Bill. It offers services, opportunities and controls, and, crucially, it says that the rights of children should be put first and foremost. It will speed up the process and introduce a gamut of services to provide support if breakdown in adoption is threatened. Most particularly and specifically, it will widen the pool of potential adopters. That is the essence of the debate for us all: how do we widen the pool of adoptive parents?
Many believe that because the Bill is good and because it will speed up the processes, those things will of themselves increase the number of potential adopters. I am sad to say that, although that will have an effect, it will not answer the charge. We want to widen the pool and increase the number of people who want to take on an adoptive child, but we must encourage them to accept that many such children have histories—seriously damaged histories—that they will have to cope with. That is an enormous task, so, as Tim Loughton said, widening the pool is not straightforward. I suggest to him, however, that his argument to the House is based much more on confused prejudice than on careful thought.
The amendment that my hon. Friend Mr. Hinchliffe introduced, which I hope is reinstated by the House tonight and respected by the other place, aims most particularly at widening the pool, giving people the opportunity to have an equal, open and fair relationship with the children whom their partners may have adopted. Most crucially, in aiming to widen the pool, the amendment acknowledges a statement that has been made time and again in the debate, but I shall make it again: we are giving children an opportunity to live in a loving, stable family.
Sharing my experience with the House, let me say again that I worked in a care establishment. I shall not criticise it, but in no way, shape or form is it better to put a child of four, six or nine with other children in a dormitory where there is no mum, no special relationship and no shoulder to cry on so that the child who is crying can feel that he or she will be treated with sympathy. The answer that is given so many times is, XDon't be so silly—get to sleep." That is because one care worker has to look after 15 children who all need help and attention. How on earth can we conclude that the loving relationship that produces a well-balanced child is present in such circumstances? It is not.
Some children go from home to home. There is nothing wrong with the homes, but after 40 different ones, such children find it impossible to establish a relationship that is seriously stable and has controls to it. The children are shunted from one to another and believe that nobody wants or loves them.
Children in the care establishment where I worked looked at me and said, XMiss, do you think that, one day, someone will want me to live with them?" Does the House think that I ever had the confidence to say to a child, XThere is nobody there for you and nobody wants you. You're 14, and you have serious problems. It will take a serious family to take you on board, and you need a lot of support so that you can live in that family." I could not tell a child those things—I did not have the courage.
The plain fact is that, every year, 2,000 children live the reality of that statement—there is no one there for them. Members are putting to the House their clear, committed ideas on married couples and saying that they are the best and the ideal. Nobody denies or doubts that, but often, we are not dealing with the best or the ideal. We live with reality. A constituent phoned me, as she knew that the debate was taking place today. She said, XI ask you to say one thing in that House of Commons: legislators, get real." I ask the House to do that.
I want to widen the debate, as we often believe that some groups in our communities will never accept that unmarried couples have the right to adopt or that unmarried gay couples, or gay couples that cannot marry, have no right to adopt. I refer to a letter from the Nottingham branch of the Catholic Children's Society, which, for 50 years, has been recruiting and placing children for adoption:
XThrough innovative and pioneering practice in the Voluntary Adoption Sector over two decades, many excellent placements have been achieved for older children with troubled histories with single carers, who would not previously have been considered suitable for adoptive parenting because of their lone status during a time when marriage was perceived by society as the 'norm'."
The society takes matters a stage further by saying that it has
X5,000 children who currently wait for such family placements . . . recognition should be given to the potential family resources provided by couples who are not married, but can show, through an increasingly rigorous Adoption Preparation and Assessment Programme, that they have the necessary stability and commitment, both to each other and to any child or children they may parent."
I put that statement to the House. It takes a lot for a Catholic organisation—I am an Anglo-Catholic—to move in such a direction and to see the need to identify such appropriateness. I can only ask hon. Members to hear what the society is saying.
In the House of Lords debate, it was implied in much that was said that natural parents are best. I ask the Members of the other place who made such comments to accept that they are undermining the serious manner and the whole process of adoption. Natural parents listened to what one of them said: the view was that only birth parents could provide young children with successful relationships, love and security, and that anything less was second best, with gay parenting at the bottom.
I found it quite disturbing that thoughtful people in the other place held such a view; I felt quite reduced by it. I am an adoptive parent of some 21 years, and I do not think that my love for my child has been less than that which any other person might have offered. The House knows me well—I think that my love has been less questioning and more evident than that of many others. I found that view seriously unacceptable.
For me, the Bill is about widening the group that could or would consider becoming adoptive parents. The scrutiny of potential adopters does not involve the marriage contract, but, importantly, it is rigorous. It attempts competently to define whether they could produce a stable home and a loving relationship. That is what we are here to achieve in widening the pool. I hope that the House accepts that reintroducing the amendment will help to achieve the loving home longed for by thousands of children.
It is a privilege to follow Ms Taylor, who spoke from the heart. Participating in the debate is a humbling experience, because many contributions have been excellent in so many different ways. At this stage, therefore, I want not to rehearse previous arguments, but to consider the question that the House must answer at the debate's conclusion.
One of the excellent speeches was made by my hon. Friend Tim Loughton, who presented a difficult case in an exemplary fashion. However, I want to question one or two aspects of it.
This does not strike me as a side issue. It was not part of the original Bill, but if Conservative Members try to justify—or exclude from justification—any aspect of a Bill not originally introduced by the Government, we deny ourselves a range of valuable arguments. Moreover, we must consider the nature of the Bill with which we are dealing, and compare it with the legislation of 26 years ago. This Bill proposes that a child's interests throughout its life should be the paramount consideration, not that its interests throughout childhood should be the first consideration.
That important change means that we must think hard about all the circumstances of adoption at this point. It would be remiss of us to transfer any aspect of the decision that must be made to a point in the future, or to a separate discussion in a civil partnerships review. If we are genuinely considering the best interests of children in relation to the adoption system, we should think through all the aspects. That was contemplated on Second Reading, not least by Ministers. I remember the Secretary of State for Health, who is present, saying that he looked forward to the debate in the Special Standing Committee, the implication being that if there was a justification for a further change he would have no objection. That turned out to be the case.
I pay tribute to Mr. Hinchliffe, who fostered my original interest in, and understanding of, the immense difficulties experienced by children who are looked after by local authorities, when we served together on the Select Committee on Health. I would feel resentful if it were thought that I, along with some of my hon. Friends and, indeed, Labour Members, was promoting this issue purely in order to campaign on Xlifestyle" issues. The hon. Member for Wakefield and I probably have similar views on many of the matters that we are discussing, but we hold those views less on the basis of any assertion about the lifestyles of adults than on that of the interests of children. Happily, that has been the context of the debate: we are all keen to establish what is in children's best interests.
I think that all the legal arguments can be dealt with in the same context. If it is true that children's best interests should be paramount—which was established by the United Nations convention on the rights of the child—it follows logically that if by extending the ability to adopt to, for instance, unmarried couples we can improve children's prospects by one jot, we are obliged to do that.
I do not know—other Conservative Members have asked the question—whether at the end of the process it will be possible for all children placed for adoption to be adopted by married couples because of improvements elsewhere in the Bill; but even if that is so, we cannot know at this point. We must allow for the possibility that we do not meet all our objectives in terms of securing suitable adoptive parents, even with all the other measures in the Bill. It would be remiss of us not to take the opportunity presented to us now.
It has always seemed straightforward to me. We must contemplate offering the possibility of adoption to unmarried couples, because some will have been deterred in the past by the structure of the legislation, by the presumptions implicit in that legislation and, not least, by the difficulty of determining who is the adoptive parent and who is not. It must be in the interests of children to establish a lasting legal relationship. In the past, when residency orders have been involved, they have expired when children have reached a certain age. If we are now to be concerned about children's interests throughout their lives, by definition we must look beyond residency orders and try to create that lasting legal relationship.
All Members must think about how they will vote, but that applies particularly to Conservative Members, because we are being asked to support the House of Lords and to oppose the hon. Member for Wakefield. That would cause me immense difficulty. The hon. Gentleman and I discussed an amendment along these lines at the beginning of the year, or perhaps last year. I made it clear on
Is my hon. Friend aware that one of the justifications for the imposition of a three-line Whip on this occasion is: XWe did it last time; we could have allowed a free vote but we did not, and it would look bad to change tack now"? Does my hon. Friend agree that it is more important to be right than to be consistent, and that in any case it is more important to be consistent with what was right at the Conservative party conference in Bournemouth than to be consistent with what was wrong in May?
My hon. Friend leads me into difficult territory. I can only say that for me to change tack now would constitute a substantial inconsistency. He is right, though. More to the point, I would be voting contrary to my judgment and conscience, and I can only applaud the way in which my hon. Friend is exercising his responsibility to vote according to his judgment and conscience.
I am persuaded of the desirability of pursuing the interests of children, to the extent that couples should be permitted to adopt. The question that some will remember from the debates on 16 and
No. I would hope that the hon. Lady would gather from the context of my argument that I am not saying that. I want to ensure the maximum possible use of adoption as an alternative to institutional care. But—there is always a but—we have to set the framework for those decisions and we cannot set out a hierarchy. We cannot simply say that all married couples should be given priority over all unmarried couples, who should be given priority over same-sex couples. In individual circumstances it will be right for a person in a same-sex relationship to be the adoptive parent.
In British society today it is a normal outcome for a child to be in a relationship with two adoptive parents who are a man and a woman living together, but for a child to have a legal relationship with both partners in a same-sex relationship would not normally happen and would happen solely at the behest of adoption legislation. That is my problem with the issue.
The hon. Gentleman, tonight and previously, has been very clear about his reasons for opposing adoption by same-sex couples. However, he will recognise the conflict with his initial presumption. If we could increase the number of suitable homes for children by allowing adoption by same-sex couples, it would be important to do that, even at the cost—as he sees it—of creating an artificial situation legally with a child having two fathers or two mothers. How does he balance those two sincerely held positions?
The greatest number of potential adopters is among unmarried couples, with a smaller number among same-sex couples. Same-sex couples, when considering adoption as a possibility, will be aware that in natural circumstances only one of them could be the natural parent. For a same-sex couple to care for a child does not require both of them to be parents, because that is not what occurs naturally. For example, if a woman has a child and then enters a same-sex relationship, she would not expect her partner to be the mother of that child. We are talking about normal circumstances.
I admit that I am making fine distinctions, but they are important legally. The preponderant issue is whether adoption should be restricted to married couples and single people, rather than to couples generally, and on that point the burden of the argument lies heavily with the hon. Member for Wakefield and with the conclusion that we have to disagree with the Lords in this amendment. When the matter returns to the other place, it will be for the Lords to decide whether they should think again about their amendment, or to give ground gracefully.
Whatever happens, the Bill should pass later this week. I have no doubt about that, and that should be common ground on both sides of the House and with the other place. Constitutionally, the other place would be well advised to bear in mind the fact that all parties in this House are committed to adoption legislation and that we have always been clear about the desirability of achieving that legislation as quickly as possible. It would be extraordinarily undesirable for the Bill to be put back to a future Session.
When the Lords act as a check on this House, they generally do so as a revising Chamber, to ensure that what we do works and is technically competent, or as a check on the power of the Executive. Neither case applies here. The Bill is technically competent and the original amendment was tabled by Back Benchers on both sides of the House. It is not the Government's amendment. Therefore, the essence of the argument with their Lordships is that we are seeking to express a view on behalf of the country about this current social issue. It must be right that the House of Commons is better at doing that than the House of Lords. I hope that the Lords will give ground gracefully.
I wish to pay tribute to many of the speeches made in this debate, not least those by my hon. Friend Mr. Hinchliffe, by Mr. Lansley, who made a thoughtful contribution, and by Mr. Bercow, who like myself is short of stature but whose speech cast a long shadow across the Chamber. Worryingly for Labour Members, he perhaps defined a way forward for his own party's attitude to social issues.
I also wish to pay tribute to Tim Loughton, who spoke from the Opposition Front Bench. I have been involved with the Bill from the beginning and have heard many of the eloquent contributions made by him. Today's was no exception. He made a good job of a bad case, unlike Dr. Harris, who did exactly the opposite in making a bad job of a good case. Indeed, the last time that we discussed the issue, he did equally well.
The Bill is not about political correctness. One has only to consider the names of hon. Members supporting the motions to disagree this evening to see that they are not soft southerners or Islington wine bar politically correct types. Indeed, it would be soft southerners and Islington wine bar types who would run a mile from the motions, because they would be worried about headlines in the Daily Mail. That is not the case. The names include my hon. Friends the Members for Wakefield, for Lancaster and Wyre (Mr. Dawson), for Sheffield, Heeley (Ms Munn) and for Stockton, South (Ms Taylor), who is not a northerner by birth but is Welsh and from the Rhondda valley. Even my hon. Friend Jonathan Shaw is a horny-handed son of toil who is able to entertain hon. Members with Kentish drinking songs. So this is not a matter of political correctness. In fact, it has everything to do with common sense.
As has been said many times in the debate, no one has the right to adopt. This debate is about doing what is right for the individual child, not for children in general. The weakness of the Opposition's arguments is that they focus on the child as an abstract concept, not on the individual child and his or her circumstances. The issue is one of common sense. We are not arguing that adoption by unmarried couples is the ideal, but it is wrong to make the ideal the enemy of the good when we are considering the interests of the child.
In pursuing change, we do not have to argue that unmarried people, whatever their sexuality, should be allowed to apply to adopt. They may already adopt—but as individuals. Indeed, they can foster as couples, but they are not allowed to adopt as couples. The opponents of the motion to disagree have not tried to amend the Bill to stop single people adopting. Therefore, their case must be that it is all right for a single person to adopt, even one who has a partner and is in a stable relationship, but it is not okay for a couple to adopt, even when they are assessed to be in a long-term, stable and loving relationship. That leaves the opponents of the motion to disagree with only a statistical argument about the rate of failure of unmarried couples' relationships, but they have no moral argument to make.
The statistics that opponents of the motion are advancing are deeply flawed, because they are not comparing the right samples. They are considering only the generality of statistics on unmarried couples. They are not looking at the unmarried couples who are putting themselves forward as adopters. They are not comparing the level of failure of relationships between unmarried couples and the number of children who are in institutional care. For some children, institutional care can be the right thing. From time to time, it may be right for certain children to be in care, but the overwhelming evidence is that it is better for them to be adopted.
I shall cut short my remarks because I know that other hon. Members want to speak and I want to be helpful to them. I have studied the debates in the House of Lords, and I believe that for some this argument is about the fear of a gay contagion, as if somehow it is possible for children who are adopted by unmarried or same-sex unmarried couples—such occurrences are very rare and will still be rare when the Bill is passed—to catch homosexuality from their adoptive parents. That is absurd, but it seems to be an underlying factor. It is impossible, of course, to catch homosexuality from parents, since, by definition, the parents of homosexuals are heterosexual.
For the most part, as my hon. Friend says. However, the fear of that happening is an underlying theme throughout this argument.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Buckingham on his courage and integrity in supporting the motion to disagree tonight and sacrificing so much in doing so.
Perhaps the hon. Gentleman has not sacrificed so much—I accept what my hon. Friend Mr. Edwards says. The hon. Gentleman's attitude contrasts starkly with that of Mr. Evans, who speaks on Welsh affairs for the Conservative party. The hon. Gentleman has chosen to be on an oil rig in the middle of the North sea rather than face the prospect of trooping through the Division Lobbies with his party this evening.
It is incredible that in the 21st century, a so-called modern political party should seek to corral the individual consciences of its Members of Parliament in the way that the Conservative party has done tonight. It is not worthy of being called the nasty party, because that suggests that what its members do is based on an ideology or a Machiavellian plan to get back into power. Perhaps the remarks that I understand were made recently by Mr. Mackay in the 1922 committee about Gerald Ratner's description of his company might be a more suitable description of the Conservatives than the nasty party.
I support my hon. Friend Tim Loughton in resisting the motion to disagree. I have listened with great interest to the speeches this evening. I do not dispute the motivation or sincerity of right hon. and hon. Members on both sides of the House who have spoken in support of the motion; I simply ask that they extend the same courtesy to me as I try to make my case.
I believe, as we all do, that adopted children deserve the very best possible environment. We are all united on that—there is no dispute between us. Clause 1(2) states:
XThe paramount consideration of the court or adoption agency must be the child's welfare".
We all agree on that. Then come the three words Xthroughout his life", and that is the aspect on which I wish to concentrate.
Labour Members have criticised the statistics, but I would like to come to the defence of the statistics. Indeed, my hon. Friend Mr. Bercow referred to Disraeli's dictum about lies, damned lies and statistics. However, we know that married couples are more likely to stay together than unmarried couples. We know that the average length of cohabitation is only two years. We know that 83 per cent. of cohabitations will break up within 10 years. I am sure that everybody—married couples, unmarried couples or same-sex couples— starts their relationship hoping that it will be permanent. No one enters a relationship hoping anything else. However, we know from the statistics and the evidence, which we are not here to dispute tonight, that married relationships provide the most permanent form of security, and that is what we are concerned about for adopted children. Of course unmarried and same-sex couples start out intending their relationship to be permanent but, sadly, that does not prove to be the case.
The hon. Gentleman mentions statistics. Is it not the case that many cohabiting couples have no intention of remaining together and have no children to care for? It is therefore misleading to compare them with married couples, who may well have children and may want them.
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for making that point. However, I think that my argument is backed up by the fact that cohabiting couples are, sadly, six and a half times more likely than married couples to split up after the birth of a child. I am concerned about permanence and continuing stability for these very damaged children. That is not to make any judgment about what people do in their private life. I do not believe that anyone in this country is a second-class citizen, as my hon. Friend the Member for Buckingham seemed to imply some of us might believe. Parliament deciding who has the care of adopted children is different from private individuals making their own choices.
With respect, it is not Parliament that is making the decision in individual cases but the courts. Rather than referring to generalities, why does the hon. Gentleman not concede the power to the court to look at each case, make its own assessment in respect of each child and reach a considered decision? He is seeking to deprive the courts of that right.
We deal with generalities in this place. I dare say that some young children of 12 or 13 years old would be perfectly capable of driving a car or exercising positions of responsibility, but we do not allow them that right. There are many issues on which this House, quite properly, generalises.
No, I wish to make progress.
I have some sympathy with the arguments advanced by the Labour peer Lord Alli in the other place. He believes that married couples should have preference over unmarried couples, who, in turn, should have preference over homosexual couples. If there were a degree of hierarchy supporting the status of marriage, that could usefully be considered.
We need to think seriously tonight before we support the motion that will overturn the decisions taken in the House of Lords. There is a considerable body of concern about what the Government are planning to do.
Ivan Massow, a prominent gay business man, has expressed concern about gay adoption. He is worried about what might happen in the playground, where children might not be politically correct. The same view is held by Michael Brown, a former Conservative MP, who is also homosexual.
I want to make a little progress.
I have also been influenced by the debate in the House of Lords in which the Bishop of Winchester clearly explained why the Lords should agree to their amendment. My own bishop, the Bishop of St. Albans, has concerns. Members of many churches in my constituency are anxious about what will happen this evening.
We know that most European countries do not allow what we are proposing to do. We know that the Government, on five occasions, have argued against the proposals. The Foreign Secretary has made such arguments strongly. Indeed, when the Minister of State, Department of Health, Jacqui Smith, commented on the adoption law review, she did not agree with the proposals that we are discussing. We know that 23 Labour peers disagree with the proposals, as does the leader of the Liberal Democrats in the House of Lords.
Many Members have rightly asked how we can widen the pool of people who are prepared to adopt. We have heard harrowing stories from hon. Members on both sides of the House about children who need to be adopted. I pay tribute to colleagues, such as Ms Taylor, who have had the courage to adopt. We need to enlarge the pool of people who are prepared to take that courageous decision.
We need a massive advertising campaign to tell people about adoption. We need to give adoptive parents much greater support. I am prepared to put my money where my mouth is and, as a Conservative, to advocate that my constituents and I should pay higher taxes to support those who would be prepared to adopt children.
That is the way forward. We need a positive campaign to persuade more married couples to adopt. We need to remove some of the procedures. My hon. Friend Mr. Djanogly pointed out that although about 29,000 people responded to a BBC programme on adoption, only a few went on with the process. We should take away unnecessary barriers to adoption.
That is how we shall extend the pool so that we can ensure that seriously damaged children, who deserve a stable, loving family home, receive the support that they so desperately need.
Although I have been listening to the debate for four and a half hours, I am still a bit ambivalent about it. I realise that this has been a grand parliamentary occasion and that there have been excellent contributions from both sides. However, I am worried that it could provide the media with another opportunity to characterise the whole of an excellent Bill by one provision, rather than by the major developments in adoption work that the measure will bring about.
I am sorry that other speakers have not sufficiently emphasised the quality of the Bill. It will extend the number of people who will be keen to adopt because it will support them better. It will provide the support that adoptive parents need, the lack of which led to the breakdown of many placements in the past. Assessment and recruitment will be better. The focus will be on ensuring that good practice is developed throughout the country.
The debate has been very good indeed. I pay tribute to Mr. Bercow who made a remarkable speech. It is appropriate to congratulate him on both his speech and his forthcoming marriage. There has been the usual social work debate, characterised by the tedious contributions of my colleagues—some of whom have not had as much social work experience as me and some of whom have had many more years experience than me, but they lay on with a trowel the length of time that they have worked for social services.
People have also compared the length of time that they have been married. I am pleased to point out to the hon. Member for Buckingham, who brought up the subject, that I have been married for much longer than my hon. Friend Mr. Hinchliffe. By the time of the marriage of the hon. Member for Buckingham, I shall have been married for 29 years. The hon. Gentleman probably faces the same amount of time on the bleak wastes of the Opposition Benches if he continues his current political trajectory. However, after his speech this evening, I can assure him that there is a place for him in the next Government recruitment campaign for social workers. He gave a magnificent exposition of the qualities of that fine profession.
This is a serious debate and it is right and proper that Labour Members have a free vote. It is a matter of conscience. The adoption process is complex. Not only is there intensely difficult work to assess prospective adopters, but there is also the matching of children and young people who have been through appalling experiences, which would knock all of us sideways, in appropriate placements.
I want to give the House a word of caution, indeed censure. It is vital that we realise that adoption is part of a system. We talk about the desirability of adopting 5,000 children who are in care, but there are actually 55,000 children in care. Most of them will go back to their homes, which I welcome; we need to improve the facilities for working with families. However, many of them will remain in foster care, so I was distressed to hear some of the descriptions of foster care during the debate.
Long-term and short-term fostering are important options for children, as is residential care. The Government have performed magnificently by investing in all those forms of care. They have developed policy throughout the whole care system nationwide and various initiatives are being implemented.
I was a few minutes late for the debate because I was at the launch of a splendid initiative launched by A Voice for the Child in Care, which will ensure that the voices of children and young people are heard more and more as opportunities are transformed in children's services. We should acknowledge both the value of the whole care system and that each part of it should be developed to provide for the needs of children.
We are talking about the needs of children. This is a matter of conscience. Members who are minded to vote with the House of Lords and indeed the Members of that place should search their consciences.
Whatever well founded principles one has about marriage or Christian principles governing the way that people should live their lives, it cannot be right to put them above the individual needs of children who require placements. We require an extraordinary range of talents and different placements for the many children who need to be adopted. We must ensure that the needs of children who require adoptive placements are met.
I cannot think it right that any Member of the House or the other place puts even well established and firmly held principles above the needs of individual children. Surely we cannot say that any individual child should lose out on the lifetime opportunity of stability and family life because we think that we should put off a decision until we have got the law right, that we should stand on our principles about marriage, or that we should put anything before the needs of individual children. My vote tonight is with the children.
Once again, we have had a very good and well considered debate on this issue. The majority of hon. Members who have spoken have made it clear that, as the Government believe, our only consideration should be what is in the best interests of the child. That fundamental principle, which derives from the Children Act 1989, is enshrined, as my hon. Friend Mr. Hinchliffe said, in the Bill's very first clause.
The Government's objective in the Bill and in the action that we have taken since the Prime Minister's review of adoption is to increase the number of children who have the opportunity through adoption to grow up as part of a loving, stable and permanent family, and there are encouraging signs that our drive to increase adoption is working. The number of children adopted from care is increasing. Nearly 3,100 children were adopted from care last year—1,200 more than in 1997.
The Bill and all the improvements that it will bring to the adoption system and the money that we are investing in the adoption service and improving adoption support can only build on that progress. Although Tim Loughton agreed that that was important, he seemed to argue that, somehow, this was a case of either taking forward the action that the Government already have in train or supporting the amendments in lieu of the Lords amendments. Of course that is not the case.
As many hon. Members have said, the ability to widen the pool of adopters that the amendments in lieu would provide is a very important part of what the Government are trying to do in relation to adoption, but it is worth taking up a few of the points that hon. Members made about what more we need to do to encourage adopters.
First, Mr. Brazier suggested that, we had not properly tackled the need to ensure that families came forward and that we were putting delays into the system. I have to repeat to him that the key point in the adoption standards, which form the basis for all our work, is that children will be matched with families who can best meet their needs and that they will not be left waiting indefinitely for a perfect family.
The hon. Gentleman also reiterated his view that the Bill will require an ethnic match and that that will hold up the ability for children to be adopted. That is just not true; as we have frequently said, clause 1(5) will simply require that, when placing children for adoption, the agency
Xmust give due consideration to the child's . . . racial origin and cultural and linguistic background."
That cannot override the duty in clause 1(3) to bear in mind the fact that delay is likely to prejudice welfare. We have the clear requirement in the national standards.
I have some sympathy with those hon. Members who have expressed concern about the way in which the assessment process is carried out. Of course that is why we are also undertaking a fundamental review of the assessment process, to ensure that prospective adopters have better education and information, that there is more consistency and transparency in the process, and that we are clear when people come forward as prospective adopters about what will be asked of them.
Mr. Lansley called for recruitment activities to be supported, and we are already providing such support. Under the Bill, we will introduce an independent review for possible adopters who are turned down by adopter panels, to provide more certainty about the process.
Andrew Selous called for tax rises to help adoption support. I do not remember him and other Conservative Members voting for the investment outlined in the Budget. Nevertheless, the Government are investing #70 million in improved adoption support, which will enable people to come forward with more certainty that they will have the support that they need to take on some of those very difficult children. So we are making progress, but there is no room for complacency.
As we have heard, BAAF estimates that 5,000 new adoptive parents are needed every year. It says that there is no shortage of adopters for very young children, but they represent only one in every nine children adopted, and we recognise that and several hon. Members have made that point.
Many hon. Members have referred to BAAF's publication, XBe My Parent", and to the fact that, in one month alone, 431 children appeared and that there were 1,255 inquiries about them, but the crux of the matter is that 65 of those individuals and 64 groups of siblings received no inquiry at all. As many hon. Members have very powerfully said, no one felt able to express an interested in adopting the eight-year-old boy who is interested in football and swimming and is lively but who has mild learning disabilities and has been in care for the past four years. No one felt able to offer the stable family life that children need so much to the five-year-old boy who is keen on computer games, bicycling and dogs but who was taken into care at the age of one. That is the basis of my support for the amendments in lieu of the Lords amendments—measures that will make a difference to the possible pool of those who can provide a family life to those children.
In supporting my hon. Friend the Member for Wakefield, I should like to point out that amendments (a) to (uu) in lieu would complete the changes necessary to the Bill that are consequent on the decision to allow unmarried couples to adopt jointly. Those amendments fall into three main groups. The first group contains those amendments that would replace references throughout the Bill to Xmarried couple", Xstep-parents" and Xpersons to whom the adopter is married" with references to Xcouple", Xtwo-people adopters", Xpartner" and Xpartner of a parent", and insert the new definitions of Xcouple" and Xpartner" in relation to a parent in the glossary contained in schedule 6.
The second group contains amendments that would ensure that adopted people have a clear legal status, irrespective of whether adopted before or after the Bill is enacted or whether by a married couple, a single adopter or an unmarried couple. The amendments would enable relationships created by adoption to be described in law as adoptive relationships, and they would also preserve the status of people adopted prior to the Bill.
The third group contains amendments to adoption and other legislation consequent on the changes to the legal status of adopted people. When the House votes, as I hope that it does, for the principle of allowing unmarried people to adopt, that will ensure that the necessary consequential amendments are included. I want to make it clear that the House will have an opportunity to vote on all the amendments in the group. I want to ensure that the House has a chance to express its views on these and any amendments in lieu where appropriate. In addition, I would move any outstanding motions to disagree to Lords amendments if and when the knife falls—
XAs amended at Report stage in the House of Lords, the Bill may . . . no longer be compatible with the right of children to have their best interests treated as the paramount consideration under CRC Article 23, and is likely to be incompatible with the rights of unmarried couples, wishing to be considered jointly as potential adoptive parents, to be free from discrimination under ECHR Article 14 combined with Article 8, and under ICCPR Article 26."
The Government took legal advice when the Bill was introduced in the House of Commons, which was that the position in the 1976 Act and in the Bill as it then stood was, on balance, defensible on ECHR grounds. As we have heard, the Committee has now given its view that the Bill as amended by the Lords is incompatible with convention rights, and the Government do not necessarily accept the reasoning of the Committee. We recognise, however, as we always have, that in the light of developing case law—not least some of that cited by the hon. Gentleman—there is a risk that the current law and the Bill as it stands would be found to be incompatible. Clearly, much will depend on the circumstances of individual cases. I shall now return to the key issues.
Much has been said about the propensity of unmarried relationships to break down—that was a key part of the arguments of Andrew Selous. We are not suggesting, however, that all unmarried couples or all same-sex couples should have a right to adopt. We are simply saying that these couples should have the same right to be assessed jointly as prospective adopters as that enjoyed by married couples.
When considering the suitability of couples as adopters, agencies and the courts are not assessing from the public at large but from a small self-selecting group who have decided that they would like to adopt. Incidentally, we should be grateful to and encourage that group of people, not label them as being concerned about making a lifestyle choice, as Mr. Duncan Smith did at the weekend.
The overall statistics are not, therefore, a helpful guide. People who are in casual, short-term relationships are most unlikely to put themselves forward as prospective adopters, and if they did, they would certainly not advance beyond the first stage of the approval process. The key is in the assessment process, which ensures that we can identify with confidence those single people and couples that have the qualities needed to be successful adoptive parents. Adoption is about making judgments about suitability and judgements based on evidence, not judgments based on generalisation and—dare I say it—sometimes prejudice. One cannot use generalisation to determine assessment—that is not acting in the best interests of children. One can, however, assess each prospective adopter on their own merits so that an informed decision can be taken as to their suitability to offer a home to a vulnerable child. That is why the adopter assessment process is critical, and the assessment process is tough. That point was made by my hon. Friend Ms Munn, and in the brave and wise speech of Mr. Bercow, which reflected the in-depth analysis that he has undertaken of this issue.
We have spelled out in the framework for assessment, which is currently out for consultation, the tough questions that will need to be asked about the stability and security of the relationship of any couple coming forward to be potential adopters. The sorts of issues that social workers will seek to discuss with them will be about the history of their current relationship and any previous relationships, what makes that relationship work, whether the relationship has been severely tested and survived, how the couple go about resolving difficulties, how they perceive commitment, where they see themselves in 20 years' time, how decisions are made within the partnership, how conflict is dealt with in the relationship, and whether both partners support each other and meet each others' needs. We are asking whether people believe that those are the crucial factors that need to be discussed. It seems to me that that is a tough and rigorous approach to ensuring that we make clear that couples who come forward to adopt will be in very stable relationships. That is the toughness of the assessment that hon. Members have outlined today.
Some have seen these amendments as an attack on marriage. That is rubbish. My marriage is not made stronger by knowing that the loving, caring and skilled potential parents down the road are prevented from offering a home to a child because they are not married. Marriage is not the strong institution that I believe it to be if it has to be protected by limiting the life chances of vulnerable children.
Many Members have rightly argued that what we need to ensure for children is stability and security. Of course, single people, including gay people, can already adopt. They have been able to do so since 1926. Some of them will be in long-term relationships, and the assessment process already considers the nature of those relationships. What the reforms will do is enable adopted children to have a long-term legal relationship with two parents. I fail to see how that undermines security and stability. Children have written to the Department of Health outlining some of the concerns expressed by Dr. Harris about the security that comes from a legal relationship with two parents. Mr. Brazier, in response to my hon. Friend Jonathan Shaw, demonstrated the illogicality of the position that opposes these reforms.
The hon. Member for Canterbury would accept a child being adopted by one member of a gay relationship but would resist the stability that allowing both to have a legal relationship with that child would ensure.
On a point of order, Madam Deputy Speaker. Is it not a convention of the House that if the Member speaking refers to a Member who is present in the Chamber, who then seeks to intervene, he or she gives way?
Hon. Members would have been disappointed if I had not referred to them.
This debate is about making difficult but fundamental choices for children. It is about whether our adoption system should be based on the needs of individual children and families or on dogma backed up by dodgy statistics. It is about whether we focus on the reality of modern children and families or on outdated visions of a supposedly perfect family life. It is about whether more children are adopted or whether they end up staying in care. The alternatives for the children whom I mentioned earlier are not to be adopted by a married couple or to be adopted by an unmarried couple, but to be adopted or to stay in care.
For some Members, the choice is between being nice or nasty. Of course, Labour Members are free to vote to be nice, but Conservative Members have been whipped to be nasty, and there have been times in the debate when it has felt rather like intruding on private grief. This is a difficult issue, as my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State pointed out on Second Reading. We said that we would listen; we have listened and that is why these reforms are being introduced. I repeat: nobody has a right to adopt—