I beg to move amendment No. 21, page 9, line 10, leave out paragraph (b) and insert—
'(b) after "father" insert "and a mother".'.
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With this it will be convenient to discuss the following amendments:
No. 12, page 9, line 10, after 'parenting', insert
'and a father or male role model'.
No. 22, in clause 23, page 19, line 6, leave out from '(2)' to end of line and insert—
'after 'father', insert 'and a mother.'.'.
No. 13, page 19, line 6, after 'parenting', insert
'and a father or male role model'.
I shall speak to amendments Nos. 21 and 22, which are in my name and in the names of right hon. and hon. Members in all parts of the House. I should explain why, in the amendments, we have gone slightly further than the debate with the Government over whether the word "father" should be in the clause. We propose to retain the wording "a father" and add "and a mother".
In the Government's consultation, they received an overwhelming amount of correspondence from the public in favour of a reference to fathers and mothers. More importantly perhaps, clause 54(2)(c) refers for the first time in the Bill to gay couples acting as fathers, and I believe that in the interests of balance, there should be a reference to mothers. We propose to amend the Bill accordingly.
Since 1990 there has been a huge amount of research on the effect of absent fathers, demonstrating an increasing understanding of the importance of the role that fathers play in the home. That is not to suggest that if a family breaks up and the father leaves, that is simply bad for the children: research that we published recently, which was drawn from more than 3,000 evidence sessions, showed that the effect on those broken families is remarkable—75 per cent. of the children are more likely to fail at school, 70 per cent. are more likely to succumb to drug addiction, 50 per cent. are more likely to have serious alcohol problems, and 35 per cent. are more likely to experience some form of unemployment or welfare dependency.
The research highlights the fact that fathers bring something more profound to the parenting process, which has for too long been taken for granted. In some cases people are determined that it should not be discussed. One set of evidence published as recently as 2007 by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation states:
"Maternal 'inputs' are not consistently correlated with indices of their children's development once they enter secondary school, whereas paternal 'inputs' are so correlated. Indeed, there is an indication that teenagers' sense of self-worth is predicted by the quality of their play with their fathers some 13 years earlier."
The report goes on to say that that
"has demonstrated links between parental reports of father's involvement at the age of seven and lower levels of later police contact as reported by the mothers".
Obviously, that makes the strong and profound point that the effect of fathers on both sexes during the teenage years is important.
Something of which I had not been aware came from the research that we have conducted in the past two and a half years, and I should like to put it before the Committee. It is simply this: the effect that absent fathers have on young girls too. That issue is often forgotten. We always hear of the effect of a father's absence on young boys in respect of the whole issue of role modelling and giving them a stable beginning. However, in Britain we have some of the highest levels of under-age sexual activity, particularly among young girls, and there is very strong evidence to suggest that the effect of an absent father is to distort that further. That is because young girls more often learn empathetic and non-conditional love—something important and profound—from their fathers. They learn that it is possible to have a relationship that does not necessarily involve sex. We all know about the pressures that a young girl is under from young boys at such a time, and her relationships may have to countenance sex at an early stage. From most of the studies, it is clear that the absence of a base from which to understand how far such relationships need to go has a huge effect on such daughters.
The studies that we have been considering show consistently that such girls lose out in a way that we have not understood or even talked about enough. We know all about how sons need stable father figures who give them decent modelling, such as going out to work and having a creative relationship with the mother; however, the absence of a father is as significant for a daughter as for a son. The evidence on young daughters is also absolutely critical.
I am very grateful to the right hon. Gentleman. I apologise for intervening so early in his speech, but he was moving on to another point.
Although I accept as an ideal a great deal of what the right hon. Gentleman says, does he not accept that there are bad fathers, and that bad fathers can have a bad influence in some circumstances? The picture is not always as rosy as he paints it.
It is far from rosy, and I am not trying to paint a picture in which the simple arrival of a father makes a huge difference, regardless of what has happened with him. There are plenty of very bad fathers out there; there are fathers who are absent but arrive at particular periods and cause mayhem. We know about that. In many of the areas that I spend a lot of time visiting at the moment we see much of that. We also know about the problems surrounding those who are loosely described as stepfathers, but whom we might call "friendly father arrivals". Such men are not related to or involved with the child, and levels of abuse can follow—not sexual abuse necessarily, but violence, possibly against the mother. As Mr. Howarth knows, violence against women is at very high levels and rising.
We know all about those problems. I am not trying to paint some incredibly rosy picture. However, my point is that, on the whole, the absence of fathers has a detrimental effect on children; the vast majority of fathers are more likely to be positive influences if they are connected to and held to the family for various other reasons.
May I bring the right hon. Gentleman from the general to the specific? We are dealing with the duty on clinics when they consider applications from lesbian couples and solo parents. Does he consider that lesbian couples with children are broken families, to some of which he attached the litany of concern that he rightly has? If he does, what evidence does he have that children with lesbian parents are going off the rails?
I do not consider them to be broken families. We do not have enough data to understand exactly what the nature of the outcomes is—I shall come back to that point in a second.
We know that absent fathers have a detrimental effect on their children. That is found up and down the income scale—the percentage effect is exactly the same for people living in Chelsea as it is for people living in difficult parts of Lambeth. It is not about whether the families are broken—I used the word "broken" because they are without a father. Cohabiting and gay couples are slightly different. I shall deal with the subject of gay couples in a moment, and I hope that that will explain a little more to the hon. Gentleman.
I wonder whether my right hon. Friend is aware of the study carried out by the Office for National Statistics about six or seven years ago? It found that the incidence of behavioural disorder in 11 to 16-year-old boys was up to three times higher in households where there was a single parent or where the parents were cohabiting than it was in those households where the parents were married. That is a real issue, facing our people day to day in our streets and cities throughout this land.
I do not want to go down that road, but I will say this as a link to the intervention by Dr. Harris: the issue with regard to cohabiting is the scale of break-up. We know from the reports that have been done—we have seen endless reports and we are just beginning to get through some of them—that 50 per cent. of cohabiting relationships are likely to break up. One in two will break up before the child is five. That is an enormously high figure; the highest level of divorce for married couples with a child is one in 12. There is a particular problem with cohabitation, which brings me neatly to the Bill, because there is no recognition in it of family ties: as long as the people involved are considered to be "stable" or in loving relationships, treatment should be available. That is how the Bill stands, which makes it even more important that we reintroduce the recognition of the need for a father, because we are dealing with the strong likelihood that there are cohabiting couples who will want to undergo such treatment, and such a change would act as a strong reminder to them, much as it will do to lone parents.
The right hon. Gentleman is making general points about single parents. Can he tell the Committee what evidence he has that his assertions apply to couples who approach IVF clinics and are in receipt of such treatment? Research shows the contrary of what he is suggesting.
I do not believe that there is such a debate about research. The trends may or may not be ameliorated slightly, but over time I suggest that the level of break-up for cohabiting couples will be higher, even for those receiving IVF, than it will be for married couples. That is the nature of such relationships. I am not going to debate that with the Minister, but it is a fact. I do not think that that will change, regardless of IVF. The right hon. Lady says that I am speaking generally, and I am, because I am making a point about why there is a problem, and why the need for fathers is so important.
My right hon. Friend is making an articulate and powerful speech. Is he aware that despite the fact that it is necessary for clinics to consider the need for a father, there is no evidence that there has been any discrimination against same-sex couples or single mothers in accessing treatments?
My hon. Friend makes me jump ahead of myself. I shall come back to that point in a second because I do not believe that there is any such evidence; I agree with him on that.
If the hon. Lady wants to intervene on that point, she will be able to so in a moment, because I am coming to it.
To conclude the point about cohabiting parents, I suggest that it is the nature and the break-up of such relationships that put children in such difficulty. Recognising in the Bill that it is important for people to understand the importance of the father in a relationship can only strengthen their thought process as they go through this course of action and will hopefully act as a reference for them in the future. We cannot promise anything, but taking it away will have exactly the opposite effect. It is as though we are saying to couples, especially in the heterosexual world, that fathers are less important than mothers and that, therefore, they do not need to be considered. There is little research that any of us can claim one way or the other about outcomes for gay and lesbian couples. I draw no inference from that other than that we need more research, and I am sure that that will come in time. I—like everybody else, I hope—would want such relationships to prosper and for any child to benefit in such stable, successful relationships. I believe that the amendment would help and not act against that.
I am pleased to co-sponsor the amendment. Is it not the case that the current legal framework was fashioned two decades ago when child development theory appeared to focus almost entirely on the relationship with the mother? In the past 20 years, so much evidence has emerged of the sort that the right hon. Gentleman adduces in his well argued speech that it would be perverse to write the father out of the script, as the Bill would do if left unamended.
I agree. The Government's action is unnecessary and they have overreacted—I shall deal with that shortly. Stonewall described the change today as a tidying-up exercise, but my problem is that when one tidies up, one can also tidy out. We need to be conscious of what may be lost, and balance it against what may be gained.
Why do the Government need to make the change? Some in the gay and lesbian community will feel uneasy about the original guidance on the father, and they will have made representations. They will probably feel some unease about the amendment. I am sympathetic to that, but the key point is that unease does not mean that there is discrimination. To what extent is there discrimination? Is there simply a sense of unease that does not change any outcomes? The Government's position is that they need to remove the original clause, which referred to the father, because they perceived it as discriminating against gay or lesbian couples.
I was struck when reading the debates in the other place by the fact that the Government spokesperson made such an absolute case. He is not a lawyer but he made a case that would brook no opposition because, according to him, the original clause clearly contravened the convention on human rights and that was that. However, I do not believe that even the strongest proponent of the Government's view would go as far as that here. Even Lord Lester says that there is a strong case, but his published views state that the matter is confusing and fraught with contradictions. We must consider whether the original provision somehow constituted an abuse of rights.
I will give way shortly to the hon. Gentleman, who is easing forward on his seat. He has been active in the past two days and I want to keep him rested because he has further to go. I hope that he recognises that I have his best interests at heart.
I have not heard in our discussions about any couples who have gone to a clinic and been refused on the ground of the existing clause.
The right hon. Gentleman has made that assertion in this place and elsewhere, and I have therefore caused it to be investigated. I do not know whether he is familiar with the Birmingham women's hospital, where the eligibility criteria for Birmingham-funded treatment and entry on the waiting list for assisted conception include:
"A stable, heterosexual relationship of two years minimum."
That is direct discrimination against lesbian couples and single women. If the right hon. Gentleman wants an example, there it is.
That was a great try by the hon. Lady, but it does not work. I am debating what is in the Bill. The reality is that clause 14 is an advisory clause. Let me remind her how the Bill is phrased. It requires that account be taken of the welfare of the child,
"including the need...for a father", and, if our amendment were passed, a mother. Nowhere does the Bill say that if that situation does not pertain, people will be not be allowed that treatment. Should anybody attempt not to allow such treatment after the Bill is passed, it would be illegal.
May I take my right hon. Friend back to his point about human rights law, which was referred to in the other place? Does he agree that it is a little curious that human rights law seems to look purely at the view of the adult? What about the child? Does a child not have the right to be born with a father? Is that not the most fundamental human right that any child in the world could ask for?
I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for giving way again. Emily Thornberry made an intriguing intervention, because under Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority guidelines, discrimination for treatment on the basis of sexual orientation is not allowed. That clinic in Birmingham is therefore breaking HFEA guidelines.
I was coming to that, too. My hon. Friend is quite right. The point is that protection already exists under human rights legislation and is embedded in the Bill.
The hon. Lady will have to wait—she has had her shot and I want to finish this point. The reality is that what has been described cannot happen and should not happen. My answer, therefore, is that we will not see it happen.
On the European convention on human rights, the House is advised by the Joint Committee on Human Rights, which includes Members of the right hon. Gentleman's party. In a unanimous report, the Committee stated that "Without justification, such distinctions"—the distinctions that he wants to put into the Bill—
"may be in breach of the right to respect for private life without discrimination".
The report continued:
"Similarly, the Convention prohibits unjustified discrimination"— he has not shown justification for his position—
"between married and unmarried parents for the purposes of recognition of parental responsibility, or wider family law decisions on access and custody."
The Committee went on to say that that needs to be removed in order for the provisions to comply. If the right hon. Gentleman is relying on people being able to go to the law, rather than having law that does not discriminate, I would suggest that he has got the law the wrong way round.
I am grateful for that intervention, but I simply do not agree, and I am not alone in that—there are human rights lawyers out there who do not agree with those recommendations either. I have a brief here from a human rights QC, who says that lawyers do not believe that that is how the Bill will be seen. In reality, the Government have set themselves on siding wholly with the rights of the adult. The truth, however, is that the rights of the child must also be a paramount consideration. That is the point for those who deal in this area. For instance, the UN convention on human rights and the ECHR both make it clear that the rights of a child to have such parents is the paramount consideration and that no element can override that.
The hon. Gentleman makes his point, but it is worth saying in return that I have some advice on the ECHR recommendations which is about whether it is necessary to override the rights and freedoms of others, and which would prevail. It continues:
"This works both ways in the circumstances of this Bill. The child once born has Art. 8 rights which should not be interfered with for the protection of the rights and freedoms of" anyone, including
"same sex parents unless...'necessary'".
The advice continues:
"'Necessary' here means something that is clearly required...not...anything that is thought to be socially convenient at any particular time."
The issue is the well-being of the child, not, in this case, the well-being of the adult concerned.
If hon. Members will allow me, I shall make a couple of minutes' progress, then I promise that I shall give way generously. I understand that many hon. Members want to get involved. I have some other advice relating to other cases in which this matter has been raised before. For example, a 1990 custody judgment involving a minor featured this statement about the balancing of rights:
"The question was not where" the individual child
"would get the better home. The question was: was it demonstrated that the welfare of the child positively demanded the displacement of the parental right."
That is the key to what we are saying. My view, and I believe that of eminent lawyers, is that this is a balance of rights, and in the end, in the case of human rights, the courts must place as paramount the rights of the child.
To most people outside the House, the right hon. Gentleman is simply talking common sense; they must wonder why we are even having this debate. Is it any wonder that people think politicians are out of touch with ordinary people when we have such debates? It is nonsense to suggest that we should not take into account the need for a father. We are not insisting that single women or lesbians do not have IVF treatment; the only thing we are saying is that there should be a father figure somewhere, who may be a grandfather or another relative. Many single parents depend on father figures, whether they are grandparents or other relatives. It is just pure common sense, and the fact that we are even debating it is ridiculous.
The more I listen to the hon. Lady, the more I am in danger of agreeing with her. I have to say that she is right, because we have to come back to the single point at stake; we should not be dancing on the head of a legal pin, but recognising common sense and what most people say. I shall come back to that point. On the legal debate, I simply say that I recognise that when two lawyers are in a room, there will be five or six opinions at a minimum, and one can take it whichever way one likes. I want to return to the question of where the balance lies. That is what the hon. Lady has just said, and I want to move on to it now.
Is there not a central contradiction in the right hon. Gentleman's argument? He began by saying that there are many reasons for discriminating against single parents or lesbian couples where no father is in the picture, but went on to say that we should have legislation on which four or five lawyers will come up with different opinions, when the alternative is something straightforward that cannot in any circumstances be seen as discriminatory by him or anyone else.
I do not think it discriminatory to remind people of the importance of the role of the father. Why is that discriminatory? Why does the hon. Lady want to introduce a Bill that is against the idea of fathers in any respect?
With respect, I am going to finish this. The hon. Lady may not like it, but she is going to get it. I have to say to her that that is utter nonsense. Those who signed up to the amendment and who agree with me are simply saying, "Come on, this is common sense." All we are saying is that we should take into consideration the need of a child for a father, not, "If there is no father, you will never get treatment." We are suggesting only that that be considered. [Interruption.] That is nonsense and the hon. Lady knows it; it is what is in the Bill that counts.
I have found some of the evidence rather surprising, given that the Human Rights Act 1998 takes precedence in how legislation is interpreted, which means that the legislation could not be properly interpreted as preventing lesbians or single women from receiving help in conceiving. About two minutes ago, I printed out the frequently asked questions section from the website of the Birmingham Women's Health Care NHS Trust assisted conception unit. One question is:
"Do you treat single women and lesbian couples?"
The answer is:
"Yes, these are reviewed on a case-by-case basis as with all our patients."
I must say to the hon. Gentleman that technology is a lovely thing, and while Emily Thornberry may not have liked it from me, she certainly is not going to like it from him.
All I want to say by way of conclusion to my hon. and right hon. Friends, and in this context to my hon. Friends across the Floor who have signed up to and agree with the amendments, is the following. I simply say that this comes down to the Government, to a balance of judgments, to the rights of the child versus the rights of adults, and to the importance of fathers and the demonstrable body of evidence regarding the effect of absent fathers on children and families.
We must balance all those considerations. Nothing is absolute. I am not for one moment saying to the Government that I am absolutely right; I am saying that there is a strong level of doubt about the Government's position. They need to argue the case in almost absolute terms, because it is they who are setting out to do away with the existing code. It is they who are doing away with it, not me. I am simply standing for the status quo and arguing—as ever, with legislation—that they must make their case and we will listen to it. However, the case has not been made, and I do not believe that it exists.
There might be an element of doubt, but the Government are playing absolutes over this. They say that this provision absolutely contravenes human rights, but I say that it does not and that their evidence is insufficient.
I am concluding my speech, so if the hon. Lady will forgive me, I want to let other hon. Members get in.
In regard to the way in which the advisory section should work, I believe that clinics should be sensitive to the needs of all parents, as I have stressed from the beginning. If they are sensitive, when the requirement comes up for people to take cognisance in this way, even gay and lesbian couples will think about it. It is a great prompt to allow people to think, "Yes, maybe we'll have to find some way round that. We'll have to do something". As Geraldine Smith has said, people will try because it is important. That is all that we want. We want people to recognise that fathers have a major role to play, and if they are not around, let us find a way of ensuring that their influence can still be felt.
What is important for hon. Members tonight is that they do not sit here thinking, "I am right." Rather, everyone in the House should examine their conscience and ask themselves on the basis of the balance of this argument whether they are in any doubt at all. If any Member of the House has a shade of a doubt about whether to support the amendments, I ask them to remember that it is the Government who have made the case for stripping the provision out. We have not made that case. They are the radical proponents here, not us. We are arguing for the status quo. Anyone with a scintilla of doubt in their mind should vote for the amendments, and for the status quo.
I am grateful to have an opportunity to answer the points made by Mr. Duncan Smith in full. If we are talking about scintillas of doubt, confusion or misunderstanding, I certainly believe that that has been begun by his contribution today. On the one hand, he has said that, if the provision is discriminatory, the Human Rights Act 1998 will protect lesbian couples and single women. On the other hand, he says that the Act should not be the machinery—
With respect, I did not say that it was discriminatory. I said that it was not discriminatory, and that people are protected by the convention on human rights.
So, on the one hand, the Human Rights Act can deal with any problems that might arise as a result of the wording of the provision, but, on the other, the Act should not be the engine that is pushing the Government to change the law in order to avoid any doubt. The right hon. Gentleman has stated that there are 50 opinions for every lawyer who looks at this question, yet he is against trying to clarify the law.
The hon. Lady might care to reflect on the fact that Parliament decides such questions. If we decide to do so by legislating inconsistently with the Human Rights Act, it is crystal clear that we can decide on the amendment tabled by my right hon. Friend Mr. Duncan Smith, which would override the provisions of the Human Rights Act provided that we use the words "notwithstanding the Human Rights Act 1998" in the amendment.
Well, that's all right, then— [Interruption.] I have already pointed out one example of overt discrimination, relating to the eligibility criteria used since November 2006 at Birmingham women's hospital. I am told that questions are frequently asked on the web—understandably, given the published eligibility criteria—as to whether or not lesbian couples and women are being discriminated against.
Let me finish the point, and then I will.
My point is this. Frequently asked questions and the answer are one thing, and an overt piece of discrimination is something else. If there is a lack of clarity in the current law, we have an opportunity to sort it out today. If we were to confirm the need for a father, to add the need for a mother or to move away from the carefully thought out wording proposed by the Government, there would be increased confusion—or, worse, no clear law at all. Many hospitals would have eligibility criteria for IVF treatment as explicit as that published in Birmingham, so we would then have to wrestle with the Human Rights Act.
Frankly, why, in the 21st century, are we doing this? Why are we putting ourselves in such a position? Why are we saying, "We are not really overtly discriminating against lesbians or single women, but if we are, the Human Rights Act will sort it out, even though the Human Rights Act does not apply at the moment"? Why? [Interruption.] I always worry when people say that they are only applying common sense, because all too often common sense is a cover for discrimination, narrowness and an inability to face the 21st century.
I personally thought that the hon. Lady provided a compelling example of discrimination and that the attempted rebuttal was profoundly unpersuasive. Is she aware of another example of a lesbian couple who went to an IVF clinic in pursuit of treatment and were told in terms that their best option would be to go to the pub and find themselves a man? If that is not discrimination, it is not entirely obvious what is.
The difficulty is that lesbian couples or single women who wish to have children will be influenced by the current confusion, which will be perpetuated by the amendment suggested by the right hon. Member for Chingford and Woodford Green.
Let me finish the point first.
Those people will continue to be confused and will end up believing that IVF is not for them. In that case, they may well go out to a pub and get pregnant or try other informal means of doing so. The disadvantage is simply this: there will be no details of the biological father on the register, yet that will become increasingly important as time goes on. As a result of the amendment, no more fathers will be brought into any more families. That is the central point. It is important to give legal rights to lesbian couples and single women. As far as lesbian couples are concerned, we will then at least have two legally recognised parents instead of just one. What is wrong with that?
I think that my hon. Friend displays a very patronising attitude towards lesbian women. I do not think they will be that confused by someone saying that if they go for IVF treatment they will have to take into consideration the welfare of the child and the need for a father. I would have thought that that was pretty easy to understand; my hon. Friend may think that that is difficult, but surely most reasonable people could understand it. Most people, including lesbians and single women, might well think that that would be a good thing. Unless they absolutely hated men, they might well like a positive male role figure in the child's life. It is good to have a father figure in a child's life. Do colleagues think that it is nonsense to have a male figure involved in a child's upbringing? Might it not be a good thing, if possible, or should it not at least be taken into consideration? I think that some colleagues display the fact that they are way out of touch—
It may well be the case—I certainly hope that it is—that before deciding to have children, people will appreciate that those children must be brought up in loving households. In my experience, based on the lesbian mothers whom I know, before they make the very serious decision to have children in what is not, in all circumstances, the most liberal of worlds, they look to the welfare of the child and to how they can best bring that child up. They do not need a doctor who is not trained in and has no particular experience of these matters to give them counselling on what sort of father figure they should seek, how long that father figure should be involved in their lives, and exactly what "father figure" means in what circumstances. It is not for a doctor to make that sort of decision.
We should trust the good sense of parents—of women—who do not need to be patronised by anyone, or told how they should bring up children. Motherhood is a serious matter, as is fatherhood, and we should allow parents to make serious decisions themselves.
I am very concerned about some of the comments that are being made by Conservative Members about children with single parents. I had only a mother to bring my brothers and me up. I am all right, and my brothers are all right. Of course we relied on other adults who were brought into our lives via our mother and our experience of life: many role models are available to children. Members should not make blanket judgments about children and families, and they should not demonise such a large number of children.
Does my hon. Friend agree that what purports to be common sense is reminiscent of the "back to basics" campaign of the past? Is not the insistence on a male role model for lesbian couples tantamount to saying that lesbian families are not proper family forms?
I am grateful to my hon. Friend, who is being very generous in giving way. Does she agree that the world that she is describing is not so much a common sense-free world as the real world? In the real world, there are bad fathers and sometimes bad mothers. There is no ideal version of the right combination of parents in every circumstance.
I am extremely grateful to the hon. Lady for her generosity in giving way. Whatever may be the case in Islington, in Staffordshire it is actually thought normal for a child to have a mother and a father. Does the hon. Lady think it is equally normal for a child to have two mothers?
I think it is wrong to make judgments about families, and to tell one family that they are normal and another family that they are abnormal. I think it wrong for a seven-year-old to be pushed to the edge of a playground and teased or vilified; I think it wrong to vilify single parents; and I think it wrong for the law to discriminate against lesbian couples. In this day and age, we should pass the Bill unamended.
I know that people have asked why on earth we are debating this issue, but I am very glad that we are debating it. I was a member of the Joint Committee that considered the draft Human Tissue and Embryos Bill, as it then was, last year. We recommended
"that the proposal to remove the 'need for a father'...should be put to a free vote of both Houses of Parliament. To inform that vote, the balance of view of this Committee is that it would be detrimental to remove entirely the requirement to take into account the 'need for a father'."
I was one of the Committee members who changed their minds during the submission of evidence. A number of peers, of both sexes, also changed their minds. The reason was very straightforward. I was always concerned about the broader principle of our approach to this proposed legislation. The first point was that both Houses of Parliament should set the legal framework and be the de facto bioethics commission for this country, and then once we have set the legal framework it should be for the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority to regulate—not the regulatory authority for tissue and embryos, which was going to be the body but which the Government then abandoned, but another body, and in terms laid down by Parliament.
We also made it clear that the final decision on an individual case of in vitro fertilisation treatment should be taken between the mother, the clinician and the husband or partner—that the decision should be taken at the lowest possible level. Our Committee also made it clear that we would take into account the situation regarding civil partnerships and how that had changed attitudes and how adoption and fostering authorities would not discriminate against same-sex couples: the current law does not prevent single-sex couples from adopting or fostering, or, indeed, from having IVF treatment.
In the evidence we took, it was made clear to us that single-sex couples could provide a warm background that was stable and loving, and that could be a lot better than that provided by an unhappy heterosexual family where the father abused the mother, or came home late and drunk, or hit the children. There was no question in our minds that a single-sex couple could be very good foster parents or adoptive parents. That was not the issue. What was particularly interesting was the question of why on earth this ever came near the Bill in the first place: why was there a need to take it out?
We discovered the answer to that, too. We did so on
"From a legal point of view the legislation at the moment"— the new clause that takes out the need for a father—
"does not actually seem to achieve anything. So we have looked at it from a legalistic point of view more than anything else. It does not prevent treatment being provided to single women or same-sex couples, and also does not seem to fit too comfortably with the Government's wider civil partnerships policy. So I think that is really our starting point for recommending that the need for a father reference is taken out of the legislation".
My hon. Friend brings to our attention a remarkable piece of information, and it is a great shame that Emily Thornberry is not present to hear it, as, against all the conventions of this House, she has made her speech and pushed off.
I am grateful for that information; the record has been put straight, and I will not go there.
We also took evidence from a lot of specialists and academics in this area. One of the most interesting evidence sessions involved academics from Oxford, Cambridge and elsewhere. Professor Ann Buchanan of Oxford university was asked about the need for a father. She said that
"the evidence for the roles of fathers is important," and that she and her colleagues had conducted two major studies which show that father involvement
"is strongly related to children's later educational attainment. Children with involved fathers are less likely to be in trouble with the police. Father involvement is associated with good parent-child relationships in adolescence. Father involvement protects against adult experiences of welfare and later mental health problems and it applies in different ways to both girls and boys".
That was pretty convincing, so we then listened on the same day to Professor Susan Golombok, from Cambridge. When asked about the need for a father, she said:
"In a way, it is common sense...so that fathers who are highly involved with their children, are emotionally available to their children, warm to their children and also exert a reasonable level of discipline have better adjusted children. These children also do better at school and they have better relationships with peers and so it spreads out into their wider social circles. The other side of that coin is that in families where fathers are not very involved or who are anti-social in their behaviour, who are not good parents—begging the question of what that means—the outcomes for their children can be negative. Really, it all comes down to the quality of parenting offered by fathers which makes a difference to outcomes for children."
That was pretty clear, but on Second Reading—
Does the hon. Gentleman not recognise what Professor Golombok went on to say in the same session? She said:
"Families are all very different and you find very good relationships in single-parent families and you find two-parent families with bad relationships so I do not think that you can really generalise in that way."
"What I was trying to say...is that in lesbian mother families where two women are heading the family, the presence of two parents seems to be more important than the fact that one parent is male. It is the relationship rather than the gender."
Was that not the very reason why the Committee came to its conclusion regarding two supportive parents? The overwhelming evidence that we got from Professor Golombok and, indeed, from the other academics, whether they were in support of a male figure within the household or whether they were giving evidence on lesbian couples—Golombok is the leading expert on lesbian couples—was that the supportive family unit was important, which is why we made the recommendation that we made.
The hon. Gentleman has the advantage—I cannot remember that bit of the story. However, that does not detract from the case I am making.
My final quote comes from the Second Reading of this Bill in the other place, on
"However, there is all the difference in the world between children who find themselves in a single-parent family through bereavement or breakdown of parental relationship, and those who find themselves in that situation by design...If discrimination is indeed the issue here, surely the greater discrimination is in ensuring that a child will never have any chance of knowing its natural father".
He concluded by saying:
"The child's right not to be deliberately deprived of a father is greater than any right to commission a child by IVF."—[ Hansard, House of Lords, 19 November 2007; Vol. 696, c.705-6.]
Does the hon. Gentleman therefore accept that, if single women and lesbian couples are driven away from regulated IVF clinics to other methods in order to have children, their children will never know who their natural father is because they will be outside the protection of the regulation of IVF services?
If the Minister's nightmare were to come true, she would be right, but I do not believe that it is the situation or would be in the future. When I discussed the issue of parenthood among lesbian couples with a lesbian couple who are constituents of mine, they made it clear that this does not feature on their radar screen at all.
In that case, would the hon. Gentleman like to explain why it was necessary to amend the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Act 1990 to prevent internet access to unscreened sperm for precisely the purpose that we are discussing?
That is a very important issue, but as far as I can see, it has nothing to do with this particular issue. The Science and Technology Committee in the previous Parliament, which was led by the hon. Member for Norwich, North, examined that issue specifically. We made recommendations accordingly, and I was pleased that the Government accepted them.
In conclusion, I have no desire to discriminate against single mothers, many of whom do an amazing job bringing up wonderful children in as close to a family atmosphere as possible—it is never their desire to do so in this way. I know that many same-sex couples also do an astonishing job and are very loving couples when it comes to fostering and adoption. I just hope that we will consider the offhand way in which, for legalistic reasons, the Government felt it necessary to introduce this entire clause into the Bill. In my judgment, it is simply not necessary and it is causing a great deal of distress to a lot of people. I hope that hon. and right hon. Members on both sides of the House will simply say to the Government, "Please think again. We think this is a bad idea." I hope that such people will vote against this measure.
This is an equalities issue, whether or not anyone tries to deny that, because the provision bites only on lesbian couples. This House has established over recent years a very good and honourable record of ending discrimination on the grounds of sexuality or anything else. If the amendments were to be voted through, the House would be taking a step backwards, and it would clearly be in contravention of the Human Rights Act 1998.
Okay, but the arguments have primarily been motivated by the fact that lesbian couples will want to have children; it is they who are at the root of this, and that must be completely wrong.
What would either a single woman or a lesbian couple have to do? If they were to fulfil the requirements of the current legislation or the requirements that would be in place if the amendments were to succeed, they would have to produce a token father, but there is no guarantee that such a person would have any part in the future of that child. We face a real danger, because there would undoubtedly be cases of women being forced or pressured into entering into informal arrangements, such as going to the pub to look for a likely temporary partner or receiving unlicensed, unregulated sperm, which carries all sorts of hazards to which I would not wish to see women exposed.
Has the hon. Gentleman actually read the wording of the original Act that this will amend? Let me read it to him. It says,
"unless account has been taken of the welfare of any child who may be born as a result of the treatment (including the need of that child for a father"— to which we would add "and a mother"—
"and of any other child who may be affected by the birth."
How does that provision act as an absolute device to refuse treatment?
I have a close relative who is a single woman who wishes to have a child by IVF. She is governed by the present regulations, which my right hon. Friend Mr. Duncan Smith simply seeks to preserve. If I thought that what my right hon. Friend proposes would lead to the results that the hon. Gentleman suggests, I would vote with the hon. Gentleman, but it has not. My relative has not had to go to the pub to pick someone up or to do anything that he would not want her to have to do. All she has had to do is take account of these factors. Account has been taken and she has been allowed to proceed. Speaking for myself, I hope with all my heart that she is successful.
I endorse that entirely, and I am glad that the system has worked in her case. However, it is much more realistic to retain the present wording of the Bill about supportive parenting, as that is much more important. We no longer live in a "Janet and John" world where everybody has an ideal father and an ideal mother. Let us be honest and admit that many fathers have been damaging. How many single parents are left without a supportive father for their child because the natural father has deserted them, often with associated domestic violence? I know of far more cases in which that is true than of lesbian couples having IVF.
If we follow the provisions of the Bill, we stand to guarantee supportive parenting. We are almost assured that that child will have two parents. Not only that, but should anything happen to one of those parents, there will be another clearly identified parent with parental rights to look after the child. I can see nothing wrong with that: it is entirely logical.
We do not apply such strictures to same-sex adoption. We have legislated for that and we allow lesbian couples to adopt, and be responsible for the upbringing of a child, without a father. Why should it be any different for a child produced by IVF?
The hon. Gentleman made the point that we do not make such provisions for adoption. He should recognise that adoption is a spurious example, because to go and adopt a child requires huge amounts of exhaustive inquiry into one's background, social position and what one does. Far more requirements are placed on someone who wishes to adopt than on someone in the circumstances that we are discussing. With respect, I would not use that example if I were the hon. Gentleman.
I think that the hon. Gentleman has been misled about what is possible now. Let me add to the example given by my hon. Friend Dr. Lewis. This weekend, I visited a lesbian couple who are friends of mine in my constituency. They are expecting a child within the next three months who was conceived under the present legislation, which has been entirely permissive in allowing them to do that. I wish them well.
"In the last year of statistics, over 2,000 women who were single or lesbian accessed IVF treatment".—[ Hansard, House of Lords, 21 January 2008; Vol. 698, c. 60.]
So, what people have said about access being available is correct. However, I support my hon. Friend as there is postcode discrimination in the country. That is why I support the Bill as it stands.
On discrimination, does the hon. Gentleman accept that the real discrimination takes place in the primary care trusts, which limit the number of treatments for IVF in different ways across the country? If we had proper access to IVF treatment that was fair and equitable across the whole of Great Britain, that would achieve more than our spending hours debating angels dancing on the head of a pin, as we are at the moment.
I do not disagree with the hon. Gentleman. I deplore the postcode discrimination in carrying out the National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence recommendations on the provision of IVF, but that is another can of worms. I am simply concentrating on the matter before us this afternoon. In all earnestness, I ask hon. Members to resist the amendments. They are discriminatory in practice, whether that is the intention or not, and would perhaps lead to a worse situation than the Bill would. I therefore ask hon. Members to resist them.
It is always interesting to follow Dr. Turner. The one issue on which he was absolutely correct is the disparity in PCT provision of IVF treatment, which causes a lot of angst and concern across the country. Something needs to be done about that. However, he was completely incorrect to say that the terms of the original clause in the 1990 Act, the amendments proposed by my hon. Friend Mr. Lansley and me, and those proposed by my right hon. Friend Mr. Duncan Smith are discriminatory. They are clearly not. Those Labour Members who have tried to defend the Government's position are skating on very thin ice and dancing on the head of a pin, as I hope to demonstrate in my remarks.
No one disputes that that 1990 Act has worked well. It was thoroughly thought through, and it was a detailed and widely debated provision. It was agreed at the time that the need for a father was an important factor in the welfare of a child. Both Emily Thornberry and the hon. Member for Brighton, Kemptown seem to be suggesting that we should ignore the welfare of the child, but that should always be a cornerstone of this aspect of the Bill.
My right hon. Friend the Member for Chingford and Woodford Green made a very knowledgeable, considered and well-argued speech. He talked about the significance of the need for a father, and I shall expand on that later. He was also right to say that the amendments under consideration do not contravene human rights legislation, but does the need for a mother have to be made explicit in amendments Nos. 21 and 22? Is not that need already explicit in the fact that it is a would-be mother who presents herself for treatment?
I hope that it will help the Committee if I explain what my amendments Nos. 12 and 13 set out to do.
That is why my amendments would not remove the phrase "supportive parenting" from the Bill. I do not criticise those words, and that is why I did not put my name to the amendments tabled by my right hon. Friend the Member for Chingford and Woodford Green. My amendments would retain the phrase "supportive parenting", reinstate the need for a father and add a requirement for a "male role model". I shall explain why I have phrased those amendments like that.
My amendments recognise that supportive parenting needs to be provided, and that various types of family unit exist. It is also important that clinics disseminate information on these matters, and my amendments would also reinstate the need to consider the role of a father or, in the absence of such a person, a male role model. The amendments would thereby emphasise the importance of a father, while at the same time reflecting what happens in practice in clinics now.
John Parsons is the lead consultant at the assisted conception unit at King's college hospital. He said:
"We like to know there will be men in these children's lives. They don't have to have a father, but they should at least have a male influence in their lives."
Mr. Parsons is a clinician who provides fertility treatment every day, and who in essence is putting into practice the principle of my amendments.
As proposed, the need for a father or for a male role model is an additional requirement to the 1990 Act. It is clearly aimed at single women or lesbian couples and is therefore an additional burden on them. How can that not be discriminatory? The hon. Gentleman asserts that that is not, but what is his evidence?
First, the evidence is that that requirement is sought in clinics already, as I have said. Secondly, there is absolutely no evidence—we have heard none today—that same-sex couples and single mothers are not accessing IVF treatment. They are doing so, and my amendments propose that clinics look for a male role model, as distinct from just a female one.
Why have I put that proposal in my amendments? Many research papers—they are too numerous to quote, but they include the excellent work done by my right hon. Friend the Member for Chingford and Woodford Green and his think-tank—make clear the unique contribution made by the father. Fathers contribute academically, psychologically and socially, and also build confidence and self-esteem in their offspring. Indeed, the importance of the father is now almost uncontested in social research. It is important that children have the knowledge that engenders respect for and understanding of the opposite sex.
That understanding has been challenging enough for many of us who have lived with members of the opposite sex for most of our lives, and one can imagine how challenging it must be for people who have not. We in the Committee have to admit there is a problem in this country, where familial breakdown has led to many serious social problems such as crime, truancy, an over-reliance on the state and poor parenting skills. Social research has found that the involvement, or lack of it, of the father, not the mother, is the key determinant of teenage behavioural problems. Unbelievably, 24 per cent. of children in this country are growing up in families without a live-in father.
These amendments are not anti same-sex couples, nor anti single mothers. Of course, children can and do thrive in loving families in both same-sex and single mother households, often in very difficult circumstances. As my hon. Friend Robert Key rightly said, single mothers and same-sex couples need to be congratulated on doing such a superb job.
The second important issue—the rationale that was given for amending the 1990 Act—is that society and social attitudes have moved on in the 18 years since that Act was passed. That is generally and generically true, but they have not moved on in this matter. I am very reluctant to quote polls, because obviously, they often reflect the question that is asked, but 77 per cent. of people recognise the importance of the need for a father. Interestingly, the figure rises to 84 per cent. among 18 to 24-year-olds.
Will the hon. Gentleman explain to the Committee why he wants to put into legislation proposals that he then expects no one to take any notice of, to ensure that discrimination does not occur against lesbian couples and single women?
That intervention was very confusing; logically, it is an argument for taking out in totality reference to the need for a father under the 1990 Act. In practice, that condition has made absolutely no difference to access to treatment for same-sex couples and single mothers.
I wonder whether another response to the right hon. Lady would be very simply that we are not are seeking to remove something; she is. The Government are ripping it out; we are trying to put it back, so the Opposition are on the side of the status quo.
I agree entirely with my right hon. Friend, and my hon. Friend the Member for Salisbury forensically deconstructed the Government's logic and case for removing the consideration of the need for a father and merely inserting the phrase "supportive parenting".
Absolutely, and if there were evidence to show a detrimental impact on the child's welfare and if evidence had proved discrimination in access to IVF treatment, the Government might have a stronger case than at the moment, but none of those things has been proved.
I am afraid that I do not understand the logic of my hon. Friend's position. If he is saying that the provision on the need for a father has not worked, what is the point of keeping it in the Bill?
That is why I have tabled my amendments, which not only maintain the need for a father but extend that requirement to include male role models. As I have just said, that would mean that the current practice in clinics would continue, while ensuring that the proposal on supportive parenting was included. The amendments would thus try to address the current disparity and difference of approach adopted by parenting units.
Hon. Members on both sides of the Committee recognise that, in taking decisions, the welfare of the child is paramount. Opposition Members have gone out of their way to emphasise that the need for a father has not prevented lesbian couples or single women from getting access to IVF. So in what circumstances can the hon. Gentleman envisage that such people might be turned down? What is his definition of a father role model?
Given my hon. Friend's answer to my earlier intervention, he appears to be saying that he is attempting to strengthen the clause. Therefore, is not the logic of his position that he intends the clause to make it more difficult for lesbians and single parents to access IVF? Would not the male role model part of his proposal encourage fraud? Numerous lesbian couples could attend clinics with their hired male role model for the day. Surely, that would be totally counter-productive.
I should like to make some progress. As Lord Darzi confirmed in the other place, there is no evidence that single-sex couples or single women who present themselves for fertility treatment have been disadvantaged or faced barriers to treatment. Let me put the matter in context: in 2006, there were only 775 IVF treatment cycles, of which less than 2 per cent. were for single women or single-sex couples.
Indeed, statistics from the King's College Hospital NHS Foundation Trust show that of the 6,000 patients treated between 1995 and 2004, 500 gave rise to "welfare of the child" considerations, and 28 were refused treatment. Eight of them were refused treatment because of psychiatric problems, four because of virus infections, and two because previous children were wards of court. There were other issues, too, such as drug or alcohol abuse, or the fact that partners were in prison. There was only one case in which a single woman was refused treatment, and that was because of physical problems. There were two cases in which same-sex couples were refused treatment because of concerns about their relationship. None of the refusals was due to the fact that individuals were single or in same-sex relationships. Those statistics will be replicated across the country. They demonstrate that single women and same-sex couples do not face barriers to accessing treatment under the provisions of the 1990 Act.
Let me make some progress. The Joint Committee on the Human Tissue and Embryos (Draft) Bill concluded that there was
"little evidence that the existing provisions have caused harm"— a point that I made—and it said that it may be
"detrimental to remove...the 'need for a father'."
I hope that the central message that the hon. Gentleman wishes to send to the country will be picked up by all those fathers who are being pursued by the Child Support Agency; they are clearly failing to be fathers to their children. Is that the message that he hopes will be sent?
Interestingly enough, I was just about to come on to that point. I agree with the hon. Lady, and I support what she says. There is to be an end to anonymity for sperm donors; divorce courts are to ensure that contact with both parents is seen as beneficial; donor children are to have every opportunity to establish their origins; the Government have a policy to extend, promote and encourage paternity leave; and the Department for Work and Pensions has said:
"Fathers and mothers matter to children's development. Father-child relationships...have profound and wide ranging impacts on children".
It is odd, inconsistent, incompatible and paradoxical that the Government are promoting those policies on the one hand but wish to remove the need for a father to be considered prior to IVF on the other.
I am genuinely interested in the description of a "male role model". The hon. Gentleman mentioned grandparents when he was challenged about who qualified for that lofty position. Who else qualifies as a male role model? Celebrities, such as David Beckham, Andy Murray, or pop stars? I do not know who qualifies for the position.
The hon. Gentleman is being facetious. It is not for Parliament to detail a list of male role models; that is up to clinicians on the ground. I would suggest that the role model should be a close family member. By removing the provision, the Government are showing a disregard for the importance of fathers.
The logical corollary of my hon. Friend arguing that account must be taken of the role of the father is that the applicant's case will be damaged if there is no evidence of such a role. Does my hon. Friend not think it rather peculiar so to argue, when the only compelling academic evidence that exists shows that there is no detriment to the child who is brought up by lesbian parents?
I do not agree with the basis of my hon. Friend's argument or the point that he makes. I would argue the opposite: it is very important that there is consideration of the need for a father or a male role model when clinics decide whether to provide IVF treatment. As I pointed out earlier, the HFEA guidance makes it unlawful to discriminate against patients on the ground of sexual orientation, so that point does not apply.
The amendments are not discriminatory and apply to all patients. It is right for clinics to have the right to refuse treatment under some circumstances, whether it be mental instability or a history of child abuse or drug abuse. It is not correct to say, as some hon. Members have argued, that the retention of the reference to a father would drive people away from regulated services and the quality and safety assurances that those provide. As evidenced earlier, single women and same-sex couples have not faced barriers, and I do not see why the amendments proposed by me or by my right hon. Friend will change that.
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman, who more than anyone else has proved to the Committee why getting rid of the reference to the need for a father, or not bringing it back, is the right decision. He has also proved that the whole House can unite around the compromise on the need for supportive parenting— [Interruption.] I hope the whole House will unite around it. The hon. Gentleman has demonstrated that once we start to create tight definitions about a role model, we encounter all sorts of problems. No doubt the hon. Gentleman, who is a sensible Front-Bench spokesperson, would agree that trying—
I shall draw my remarks to a conclusion. The Bill as drafted represents a decision by the state to remove recognition of the importance of a father. What I am proposing in the amendments retains the need for consideration of supportive parenting and reinstates the importance of the need for a father or male role model. The amendments are designed to retain a male influence in a child's upbringing, providing a balanced outlook for society and ensuring that the country understands that the House of Commons still values the role that fathers or male role models should play in the welfare of children. I hope the Committee will support the amendments later.
The need for a father provision has provoked much debate here and in another place. It is important to remember the people on whom the provision has an impact. It could very well be a practical impediment to obtaining treatment. Contrary to what some Members are saying—that it has never prevented people from receiving treatment—we have heard of same-sex couples who have been refused treatment on the grounds of their sexuality. If the Committee were to reaffirm that today, we could realistically expect that position to continue and, most likely, worsen if it became endorsed as the current view of Parliament. It is a question not just of access, but of equitable access.
When providing treatment under the 1990 Act, a clinician is required to take into account the welfare of the child, including the child's need for a father. The requirement to consider a child's need for a father is removed by the Bill and replaced by a requirement for a clinician to take into account the welfare of the child, including the child's need for supportive parenting. That goes to the heart of the issue with which the Committee is struggling in this debate. How do we define "supportive parenting"? The Conservatives argue that we should include wording, which we know will have no meaning or practical effect, in legislation that is only about IVF so that we can send a wider message to the whole population about family structures. The Bill is not the right place to do that, and it is not acceptable that the House should do it.
What research has been carried out by the Minister's Department or anyone else into the likely effect on children of being brought into the world in what some of us would regard as an unnatural relationship? In the Dog and Partridge in Yateley, or the Thatched Cottage in Cove, a natural relationship is considered to comprise a mother and father. What evidence does the Minister have whether children brought up in the unnatural environment in question will prosper or suffer as a consequence?
I am grateful for the hon. Gentleman's intervention, which relates to my next point. In his opening remarks, Mr. Duncan Smith made assertions about behaviour in all families on the basis of evidence from families that had broken down. With no support or evidence, the right hon. Gentleman sought to advance the argument that the children whom we are discussing would suffer a certain fate.
The evidence, however, is available. Social research from Murray, Golombok and Brewaeys shows that children of same-sex couples develop emotionally and psychologically in a similar way to children born of heterosexual donor-inseminated couples. What counts is the quality of parenting.
No, I will not give way. Just a moment.
Quality of parenting will make the difference to the child's development. The Committee needs to face that proposition in considering the arguments.
As the Minister may recall, I said that the body of evidence on that issue was not yet good enough for her to make any judgment whatever. I did not draw any inference; I simply said that she could not draw on the evidence and nor could I.
However, the point that I wanted to make to her was this: the wording of the Bill is far more complex than the simple wording that we wish to put back in the Bill. My hon. Friend Mark Simmonds got caught up in the issue of what a role model is. What can we expect from clinicians as they start to define the whole issue of what is or is not supportive parenting? We are putting a huge burden on them. There should be simplicity—a statement about the role of a father. That is easy to do.
The right hon. Gentleman cannot have it both ways. He uses so-called evidence about family structure, which is not relevant to this debate. However, when the evidence that such families involve good parents and that the children have no problems is put to him, he does not want to consider it. Then he asserts that there is no discrimination in respect of the need for a father and that that provision should be put back in the Bill because it is important—even though he says that it is completely ignored in the debate, a contention that I dispute.
If the right hon. Gentleman will be patient and let me finish my response to his intervention, I shall be happy to let him intervene again. However, I say to him that when he is in a hole, he should stop digging.
I have to say that I hope the right hon. Lady does not emerge out of her hole, but here we go. She is of course eliding two different things. I referred to her so-called data about same-sex couples. I said that there was no real body of evidence on them yet, and that we should infer nothing about them either way. However, in respect of the vast bulk of couples—heterosexual couples—who have IVF, there is a huge amount of evidence concerning the absence of fathers and its effect on families. The right hon. Lady can do whatever she likes, but she cannot run away from that. The body of evidence shows that the absence of fathers has a detrimental effect on children, regardless of family income. The right hon. Lady does not have a way out of that.
The right hon. Gentleman wants to start with a different proposition entirely from that of the Government. It is the view of the Government that all parents assessed for treatment would be assumed to be supportive parents unless there were evidence to the contrary—
I will just make this point, and then I shall take interventions.
A supportive parent would be willing and able to make a commitment to safeguard and promote the child's health, development and welfare and to provide direction and guidance in a manner appropriate to the age and development of the child. The right hon. Member for Chingford and Woodford Green wants to start with the proposition that we should consider them to be bad parents unless we give them an additional test.
I thank my right hon. Friend for giving way; I just want a point of information. My problem with the issue concerns not the parents, but the child. I know that the child has a right, at the age of 18, to find out who its father is, but what if the child decides it has a need for a father at the age of 10 or 12? What kind of support mechanisms will be in place to ensure that that child will have access to its father?
As my hon. Friend knows, the Bill introduces a provision to ensure that the child will have access at the age of 18, or 16 if necessary, to the details of their natural father. Indeed, if couples are driven away from the regulated service, the child will never know those details. The parents have the responsibility to make clear to that child their relationship with either parent and the possibility of an absent natural father. It is made clear during the counselling and access to IVF treatment that that is a matter for the parents. I entirely agree with my hon. Friend's proposition that it is crucial in this process that parents are motivated by what is best for the child and the child's development, which includes information about whether they were the result of a donor insemination and about the progress being made.
I commend the way in which the right hon. Lady has treated this debate, and the other debates, but I think she is foundering on this issue. Her case rests on the interpretation of good parenting. Would she regard it as acceptable that good parenting should include those who want to deny the role of fathers or male role models? Men and women are different and they provide different role models to children. Both role models are necessary for the upbringing of children. That is all that the present legislation attempts to say, and what the Bill would remove—wrongly, in my view.
I do not disagree with the hon. Gentleman about the quality of parenting being crucial. The removal of the requirement to take into account the child's need for a father is not about doing away with fathers or doing anything that does not recognise the important role that fathers can and do play in the upbringing of children. We are ensuring that the law reflects current practice and family set-ups, and current legislation on human rights and discrimination. The wording in it should have meaning for those who have to make decisions on whether or not the child, as a result of IVF, is going to have quality parenting and support.
I note that the Minister places great importance on the quality of parenting. Can she envisage, down the road, a child going to primary school and being collected by two females or two males, and the bullying and abuse to which such children will be exposed—or going into their parents' bedroom, as is natural for a child to do, and finding two women or two men making love?
With respect, I do not think that those comments have any place in the debate. Children are loved by many adults in families, extended families and neighbourhoods. It is crucial to consider the safety and nurture of the child.
I appreciate that Mrs. Robinson has passionate views, and I respect her integrity on the matter, but I happen to disagree with her. I put it to the Minister that the hon. Lady's argument is not simply against gay couples having access to IVF treatment but against gay adoption, the legal age of consent and gay equality per se.
I believe that the debate would be improved if all hon. Members were direct and open about their views on the subject. Mrs. Robinson should be given credit for being one of the few who is brutally honest about her views and expresses them in the Chamber. I hope that other hon. Members will do that instead of trying to conceal their arguments.
We are all seriously passionate about getting the matter right. We want to get it right because the welfare of the child is crucial to us all. However, the research has been repeated time and again, and I cannot understand why the Committee is so unprepared to hear what MacCallum and Golombok are saying. The conclusions of their research, "Children raised in fatherless families from infancy: a follow-up of children of lesbian and single heterosexual mothers at early adolescence", are clear. Being without a resident father from infancy does not seem to have had negative consequences for children. There is no evidence that the mother's sexual orientation influences parent-child interaction or the child's socio-emotional development. Those statements are clear and made by people who are not pushing a line. They are conducting research and reporting fairly and objectively. Why is the Committee so resistant to listening to them?
My hon. Friend makes her point passionately, as she has done in previous debates. The Committee is not saying that we do not need fathers; we are broadening our understanding to recognise the quality of parenting and the impact on the child, which should be paramount at all stages.
Let me make a little progress, and then of course I will take more interventions. However, I am conscious of time.
The amendments would have a wide-ranging, discriminating effect on access to treatment for single women and same-sex couples. Instead of being in the child's interests, they would drive single women and same-sex couples away from the safety of the regulated services. That is a retrograde step, which we should not risk: every hon. Member who has spoken has said that ensuring the safety and nurture of the child is paramount. The legislation should be fair to all people who seek treatment, whether they are in same-sex couples, single women or in heterosexual couples. If the provision specifying the need for a father or the equivalent was retained, the legislation would place additional burdens on single women and same-sex female couples. That is the point that we need to address, albeit in the context of there being no evidence to suggest that such women make bad parents and should therefore be required to take additional steps.
No, I would like to make some progress.
The Bill requires a clinician to take into account the welfare of the child, including that child's need for supportive parenting. That is based on the fact that, as I have repeatedly said, the quality of parenting makes the most difference, not the gender of the parents per se. That is why the Bill requires the consideration of the child's need for supportive parenting, not the gender of the parents. The Bill strikes the correct balance between protecting the interests of the child to be born by requiring that their welfare is considered, and the right to supportive parenting.
No, I will not.
Reference has been made to the recommendations of the Joint Committee on the Bill. The Committee recommended that
"'(including the need of that child for a father)' should be retained but in an amended form in a way that makes clear it is capable of being interpreted as the 'need for a second parent' in line with the parenthood provisions currently in Part 3 of the draft Bill. In making this recommendation, we do not seek to discriminate against single women seeking treatment".
The Joint Committee recommended an amended version, but its deliberations and recommendations also showed the difficulty of settling on different definitions. Therefore, the suggestions in the Bill as amended provide for that quality parenting. We intend to strike the correct balance between protecting the child and providing those supportive arrangements.
Mark Simmonds, who tabled amendments Nos. 12 and 13, has made thoughtful contributions throughout this debate, but he has fallen into his own trap. He seeks to replace consideration of the need for a father by proposing that clinicians should take into account the child's need for supportive parenting—that is what the Bill says now—and a father or male role model. However, he fails to tell us how. Amendments Nos. 12 and 13 do not say that all families should have a father; in fact, if anything, they suggest that any male role model could easily replace a father. Surely that is not the intention of the Committee.
The hon. Gentleman's amendments more or less say that any man will do, which does not fit with the considerations of quality parenting. Will women who are not being treated with a man have to bring one along for the sake of it? Is that what is being suggested? Evidence was provided to the Select Committee on Science and Technology of women having to bring along a letter signed by a man—any man. Is that what we want? The hon. Gentleman advanced the main point in his argument. This issue is about reflecting the concept of quality of parenting, recognising the diversity of families and judging clearly whether individuals can provide the necessary parenting. That has to be right.
Amendments Nos. 21 and 22, which were tabled by the right hon. Member for Chingford and Woodford Green and are supported by others, would require clinicians to take into account the need of any resulting child for a father and a mother. A general argument against both of the amendments is that they would be discriminatory because, as with the provision on the need for a father, they would create an additional hurdle for female couples and single women who seek treatment. Given the position of this House and the Government on civil partnerships and on adoption by same-sex couples, in my view as a Minister I would say it was wholly inappropriate to retain that additional, discriminatory burden.
Those who oppose the removal of the need for a father provision talk about it not making any difference anyway. They want a provision in the Bill to send a signal about family structures, but then say that no one should take any notice of it. That cannot be right. Some hon. Members have commented that the current provision does not prevent single women and same-sex couples from accessing treatment and say that it therefore does no harm. That assertion has been challenged repeatedly in today's debate, and I challenge it. I say to the Committee that there is an impact and that we should not allow that discrimination to continue.
Yes, we did consult on the change, and the full consultation was published. My hon. Friend follows these matters closely, so I am sure that she will have studied it in some depth and seen the arguments for and against the proposal. The House must also consider those arguments and how to respond. It is one thing for the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority and clinics to interpret a provision that was passed almost 20 years ago in a way that allows same-sex couples and single women to access treatment, but it is quite another thing for such an interpretation to continue if the position is reaffirmed by this House in 2008.
No, I will not.
Including a reference to the need for a father or for a male role model would send the message from Parliament that we want to return to what was the position when the 1990 Act was introduced, when additional tests were imposed on certain groups of people. Such a provision would not be so harmless or meaningless if it were reintroduced. Those Opposition Members who had said that they hoped these matters would not affect their family or friends would need to think again.
Let me clarify the Government's position. Does the Minister believe that a child in a family unit containing a mother and a father has any advantage compared with a child in a family unit with two mums—supposing that all the parents are loving? Are the Government really saying that there is no advantage in having a loving mother and father compared with two loving parents who are both female?
No, the hon. Gentleman knows that that is not the Government's position. He is seeking to use a particular provision on access to IVF treatment to argue a general position that he knows full well is not universally accepted by all our communities. In my humble opinion, it is the duty of the House to ensure that we reflect all those who make up our communities, and all the family units. When deciding whether people can have access to IVF treatment, the absolute cornerstone must be the quality of the parenting. That is precisely what the Government are seeking to take into account.
It is nonsensical to say that it is better for a child to have a mother and a father, while also arguing that the amendments would not prevent people from accessing treatment. The need for a father provision would be discriminatory, if it were reinserted. In order to protect the interests of same-sex couples and single women, and their donor-conceived children, it is important that this legislation should be passed unamended, to ensure that it is fair, that it offers equitable access and that it recognises the complexities of the Britain we live in today.
On a point of order, Mrs. Heal. I do not wish to detain Dr. Harris, but I should like to point out that we have just over an hour left for this part of the debate. Do you have any power to influence the length of speeches? Those of us who take one particular view have had no opportunity to place it in this debate.
The First Deputy Chairman:
That is hardly a point of order for the Chair, but, as always, I hope that Members, knowing the pressure of time, will be as concise as possible in their remarks. More to the point, perhaps, I hope that Members who are making interventions will not use them to make speeches.
May I say to Sir Patrick Cormack that I am certainly aware of the issue that he has raised? There are people behind me on the Liberal Democrat Benches who want to speak, and there is a dilemma about whether to take interventions, which I hope I shall get through.
The Liberal Democrats have a party policy against unjustified discrimination, such as the inclusion of a provision in the Bill for the need for a father. I hope to show that the proposal is discriminatory and unjustified. This is a free vote issue for the Liberal Democrats as well, however. Everyone has a personal view on the matter, and I am sure that there will be many splits within parties. I am reminded that, when Woody Allen was asked for his personal view on lesbian parents, he said that he did not understand how children survived with even one mother, let alone two. Unusually, I think that he was wrong, because the evidence is clear that children in such families do very well. I am pleased to see Mr. Duncan Smith smiling at that.
I agree with the Minister that the removal of the need for a father provision from the Bill had nothing to do with attacking fathers or fatherhood, which is a ridiculous allegation, or with not wanting to tackle the problem of broken homes. I certainly recognise that problem and the consequences that it has for children, but the legislation is not about broken homes—in fact, it is about precisely the opposite. It is about a couple or an individual seeking to create a family and a home, and taking a serious decision to undergo treatment, which is not a decision to be undergone lightly. Many children are brought into the world in an unplanned moment, but the provision deals with people who are making a specific decision to create a family. It is astonishing that it should be seen as some kind of an attack on families.
Emily Thornberry very effectively pointed out that the need for a father provision has not brought a single extra father into a family, or retained a man in a family— [ Interruption. ] I thought that my mentioning her might make her stay in the Chamber; obviously not. Perhaps she has another Division to attend.
I just do not understand why anyone believes that young men who act irresponsibly and abandon their partners and families are suddenly going to read the statute on IVF treatment—these men are usually fertile—and decide to mend their ways. I have to say that I cannot see that happening.
Does the hon. Gentleman accept that this is not about bringing more fathers into families, but about state recognition of the importance of fatherhood within families? If this provision goes through unamended, we will send out the message that it does not matter whether there is a father, while at the same time Government policy says that it does.
I have always taken the view that statute should not be used simply to send out a message, as there are other ways of sending out messages. Politicians with skill—the hon. Gentleman is one of them—can find other ways.
The right hon. Member for Chingford and Woodford Green provided us with statistics about broken families. He then tried to argue—I think rightly—that he did not intend his amendment to affect lesbian families or those of solo parents. However, in an intervention on Dr. Turner, Geraldine Smith corrected that, stating that the amendment would affect not only lesbian families, but those of solo parents as well.
I will come on to the welfare of the child in a few moments, which is probably the easiest way to deal with the hon. Lady's intervention.
We must remember the origin of the provision. In 1990, when this provision was put into the Bill, one of our Houses had voted by a majority of just one not to ban unmarried couples from accessing regulated IVF therapy. The sort of thinking going on at that time by some hon. Members here and, indeed, in the other place, was entirely different from that of today. It would be unthinkable for us to pass legislation to prevent unmarried couples from accessing IVF.
Mark Simmonds should, I think, concede that his amendment has no advantages over that proposed by the right hon. Member for Chingford and Woodford Green, and it has many disadvantages. One disadvantage was pointed out in a penetrating intervention by Mr. Vaizey, who argued that if the provision had any effect it would be a bad one, and that if it did not have an effect it would be pointless.
A doctor who would like to see male role models has been cited—this issue will crop up again in the debate on the next group of amendments. If medical opinion is to be cited, however, it is sensible to look at consensus medical opinion rather than picking out one particular doctor—I can pick out one doctor very easily, and that person might have two opinions. We should look at what the British Medical Association thinks. It represents doctors, so—as far as these things go—it is a relatively democratic policy-making body. Another body is the British Fertility Society, which represents all the doctors working in that area. It wants shot of the need for a father provision, because it would tempt doctors to discriminate, which they do not want to do. It thinks that such a provision would be anachronistic, and it would be appalled if the House allowed colleagues to discriminate.
The hon. Gentleman has said that those organisations want shot of the advisory provisions, but have not the Government stumbled into an even worse case, as their proposals now ask doctors to interpret in a way that they did not have to under the "father" provision? Now they have to interpret what the definition of supporting parenting really means for them.
Doctors will have to do that, which is why the HFEA produces a code of practice. It is easy to set out the code in a non-discriminatory, light-touch way. I believe that the right hon. Member for Chingford and Woodford Green is sincere in proposing his amendment. I do not doubt the sincerity of the hon. Member for Boston and Skegness either, but it struck me that there are political aspects behind the amendment. I do not think that his heart is really in the idea of a male role model or asking a gynaecologist, of all people, to decide who a male role model should be.
We need to recognise that there is a problem with any sort of test. Fertile individuals are not required to pass a parenting test by the state before becoming pregnant, so why should the infertile? Many people, including the BMA, would argue that even the Government's wording goes too far in creating a hurdle for the infertile to cross, which the fertile do not have to. Many or almost all of the unsatisfactory families, if I may put it that way, come from the fertile part of the population, not from infertile people seeking infertility treatment.
I am listening to the hon. Gentleman's speech with interest. Can he explain why the part of the Bill entitled "Parenthood in cases involving assisted reproduction" contains an entire section on the meaning of "father" and on "fatherhood conditions"? Is he suggesting, as I suspect that the Minister is, that those words should be replaced by the words "supportive parenting"? That would not work, would it?
I am afraid that I do not follow the hon. Gentleman's point, and I do not know which part of the Bill he is referring to. I therefore do not want to be drawn into a discussion, but hopefully the hon. Gentleman will have a chance to pursue the matter further.
There are really only two questions to be asked. The first is whether the discrimination—or the measure—is justified. The research is clear and is summarised by the British Medical Association, which says that there is no evidence that children do badly in families of that kind. According to the BMA,
"Social research on children born to these families has given similar findings to those children born to solo mothers. Their emotional and psychological development is comparable to children born of donor insemination to two heterosexual parents. In fact, the second female parent often has greater parent-child interaction than do the fathers in the heterosexual couples."
The reference for that quotation is one of those cited by the Minister—I know that the same briefing has been sent to all Members. Murray and Golombok made the results of their research very clear. They also looked into the question of solo mothers, and recognised the difference between different types of mothers on their own. Widows are different from young women who have been abandoned by the fathers of their children and who are living in poverty. Solo parents are often well-resourced, given that they often have to obtain private treatment. They often have established careers, and do not have partners. They are entirely different from families of the kind that the right hon. Member for Chingford and Woodford Green has examined in great detail during his tours around the country.
One thing troubles me. The hon. Gentleman has constantly referred to the question of treatment. The word "treatment" usually suggests the existence of an illness. What I am not clear about is whether the absence of a child constitutes an illness in the case of single-sex couples.
There is a philosophical discussion to be had about what is the nature of illness and of treatment. I see that Ms Taylor, who chairs the all-party parliamentary group of infertility, is present. I know that she has had long arguments with primary care trusts about whether they should provide such treatment. It is not easy to decide that matter now, but it should be noted that the National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence, which considers those issues and considers priorities relating to fertility and non-fertility, recognises that infertility is a condition that requires treatment. I think it reasonable to say that donor insemination for lesbian couples should be allowed, particularly because it is cheaper than in vitro fertilisation. In fact, I think that the situation would be legally questionable if it were not. I hope that I have addressed the hon. Gentleman's point, even if I have not satisfied him.
I want briefly to deal with the evidence given to the Joint Committee by Professor Golombok. I have a huge amount of respect for Robert Key, but I do not think that one of the many quotations that he read out was exactly the right quotation. In the evidence session of
"these greater difficulties for children in one-parent homes are very much associated with the circumstances of being in a one-parent family rather than just whether or not there is a father present. For example, a drop in income, lack of social support for the family, a disrupted relationship with the father with whom they had often spent many years and separation from that father, and moving into stepfamilies. There are all kinds of factors involved so although children in one-parent families overall do seem to be disadvantaged, it is very important to look at why."
If a child has a father and that father goes, it is a different scenario from being brought up without a father in the direct household. I think Professor Golombok makes that clear, and the same applies to lesbian couples.
The second question concerns discrimination. I was surprised by what the right hon. Member for Chingford and Woodford Green said about the Human Rights Act, because I think that it showed a failure to understand what the Act is about. It does not just provide a remedy. It is not just about saying, "You will suffer. Okay, suffer, and then in a few years' time when you have gone through the courts—if you have the resources and the wherewithal—you will have a remedy." The Human Rights Act, which he prayed in aid, along with human rights law—it was unusual for him to do so, but he did so when it suited him—is about ensuring that there is a framework for legislation and the behaviour of the state that does not intrude into private matters in breach of individual liberties.
I should have thought that Conservative Members would recognise the importance of restraining the state and its unreasonable intervention in private matters. That is why Ted Webb was right to say that there was a legal obligation for the Government—I urged this on the Government—to ensure that their laws are as compliant as possible. In the absence of justification for intervention, the present law is simply not compliant.
Let me now give three examples of discrimination, because that has been requested.
Would the hon. Gentleman's concerns about discrimination not be satisfied by clause 53, "Interpretation of references to father etc.", which refers to the father and the woman who is the other parent? In cases in which a woman is
"in civil partnership at time of treatment" or treatment is
"provided to woman who agrees that second woman to be present", references to the father of the child who has a parent
"by virtue of that section" could also be read as a reference to the woman, who would be classified as the "other parent". In terms of the legal definition, there would not be the discrimination that concerns the hon. Gentleman. That is the point that the Joint Committee made in its recommendations.
I believe that that is about birth certificates, and bringing provisions into line. The Minister has indicated that I am right, which is an achievement for me nowadays. I pay tribute to my hon. Friend Mr. Willis, who chaired the Committee. He recognised the difficulty of teasing the issues apart.
I merely want to confirm that the hon. Gentleman is absolutely right. Mr. Burrowes was referring to the definition section concerning birth certificates, legitimacy and nationality, which has nothing to do with parenthood.
I thank the hon. Gentleman.
I was going to give three brief examples relating to discrimination, but I shall now confine myself to two. In an e-mail, Natalie Gamble, a fertility lawyer dealing with discrimination cases, has stated:
"to say that no lesbian couples are denied treatment as a result of the need for a father provision is simply untrue. I have had five clients in the past year who have got in touch for advice after being denied access to treatment. In one case at a private clinic a couple were told that the waiting list for donor sperm was very long and they could not even be put on it because they were a same sex couple. In another case a primary care trust eligibility criteria for NHS funding stated explicitly that, due to the duty to consider the need for a father, lesbian couples were not eligible for funding even if they were infertile."
That may or may not be the Birmingham case, but I can tell my hon. Friend John Hemming—although he is no longer present—that the "frequently asked question" that he read out applied to private funders. The NHS eligibility criterion was discriminatory, which it should not have been because that is unlawful.
Many clinics, including Bourn Hall—cited by Mr. Lansley as being in his constituency—used to refuse lesbian couples, until they realised that they need the money. However, they no longer need the money, as lesbian couples are forced to pay because they cannot obtain NHS treatment.
Another example from the same lawyer is an account by a client, whom I cannot name for obvious reasons but who says "He"—I think that refers to the clinician—
"got out his criteria list, underlined the word 'heterosexual' and ringed the word 'stable' in the sentence 'Needs to have been in a stable heterosexual relationship of at least 2 years'. Later he also referred to the sentence at the bottom of the list of criteria which said 'Welfare of the child issues', saying 'It could also be seen as a welfare of the child issue'."
Those are just two examples, but they explain why the Equality and Human Rights Commission has issued this statement:
"The central issue here is not fatherhood; it is fairness. The current legalised discrimination in the provision of IVF services is something that we should be ashamed of as a country. We agree with the Government that parliament should not let another day go by in which single women and lesbian couples are denied access to fertility treatment on exactly the same basis as everyone else."
Even if they receive that treatment, they should receive it on the same basis as everyone else.
The quotation continues:
"The Commission understands the importance of male role models for children, but believes that this is, in principle and in practice, a matter for the parents themselves, and not an issue for legislation. We shouldn't be the sort of authoritarian society"
—Trevor Phillips is saying this—
" in which an 80 per cent. male House of Commons presumes to instruct women on how and with whom they bring children into the world."
I am keen to finish my speech, because others wish to speak.
I have spoken to clinicians about what the Bill will mean, and I want to reinforce a point made by the Minister. Fortunately, the code of practice currently enables the need for a father provision to be dealt with in a relatively moderate way, but if we voted for a requirement for clinics to observe a need for a father provision, they would have to apply the test to every group of people in order not to discriminate. John Parsons at King's College hospital has said that in eight years he and his colleagues have conducted 8,000 treatment cycles with 6,000 patients. Going through a detailed role model test with 6,000 patients would be a huge burden.
I ask those Members who support either of the amendments in question why they want to introduce a measure that could be unfair, and at best would be ineffective and bureaucratic. That is not the right thing to do. The Committee should support the Bill as it stands.
I shall try to be brief, as I know that many Members wish to speak.
First, let me strongly state that no Member disputes the love, care and commitment given to children by many lone and same-sex parents. That is not the issue; no one is questioning that. We have heard some third-hand evidence of cases where there may have been discrimination, but I have never been presented with the name of a woman or a specific case where someone has said, "I've been refused fertility treatment because of the need for a father." I find it strange that we have had the Joint Committee and witnesses have been called, yet no one has come forward and said, "I've been discriminated against," and that instead we only have vague third-hand examples. If any Member can offer a case or name someone who has been discriminated against—or tell me about that in private—I would be happy to hear, because I have never heard such evidence.
This is an important point, and I wish to turn it around. I have asked such infertile women and couples time and again to write to their Member of Parliament and to speak loudly about the fact that they are discriminated against. On the whole, they will not do so. They are very shy, and they are seriously concerned. As they do not wish to express that publicly, the fact that they do not should not come as a surprise to my hon. Friend.
I do not think any Member is going to get up and start naming names. My hon. Friend recently heard Dr. Harris give many examples from legal practitioners in the field of solo women and lesbian couples in that situation. We have all received those briefings, so my hon. Friend must have done so as well. Is she not trying to walk the same invisible line as the Opposition, which is to say, "We need these provisions, but actually they will have no effect"?
First, let me say that this is not a party political issue. There will be a free vote tonight, and many Labour Members share my views.
In IVF treatment, the interests of the child must be paramount. IVF must not be about the potential parents; it must be about what is best for that child. I cannot see what harm is being done by saying to a lesbian couple or single woman who goes for IVF treatment, "For the welfare of the child, can you consider the need for a father? If there is not a father, is there a potential father figure?" Even having that discussion must do some good, and must make people think.
I suspect that there has not been a problem—or no one has come forward and said there is a problem and they have been affected—because most lesbians and single women going for IVF treatment are responsible. They take the decision that they want to have children and they look at what that involves, including whether there is a father figure—albeit, perhaps, a grandparent or someone else in the wider family—who could be a positive male role model for the child.
I do not think any Member doubts the hon. Lady's sincerity, and when she took part in the consideration of the draft Bill she raised these points. Will she, however, be kind enough to answer the point made by my hon. Friend Dr. Harris? By putting this requirement back in, does the hon. Lady intend there to be criteria that a lesbian couple or a solo parent—or, indeed, a heterosexual couple—would have to satisfy, and that if they did not do so they would be denied treatment? Also, what would be the test to prove that there was a satisfactory male role model?
I am saying that, under the status quo, no one to date has come forward and said that they have been denied treatment. If the hon. Gentleman is aware of someone who has, perhaps he could tell me who they are.
The Government consulted on this issue. It is important to hear the views of the British public; as we represent them, we should take their views into consideration.
Acts go unreported in many fields. Rape is an example; that goes unreported. The rape statistics are understated. Does the hon. Lady think that that means that we should not seriously deal with the issue of rape?
I have moved on to the issue of public consultation. The consultation made it clear that most people thought the legislation should be left as it was—that it was okay, and it was not causing a problem. That was the response when the Government asked people what they thought. We could look at any of the opinion polls that have been conducted. The most recent one was in December 2007; 77 per cent. of people said that the need for a father should be taken into consideration.
Most people will think that this issue is about not discrimination, but common sense. I am sure that if we were to ask lesbians and single women, a great many would agree with my point of view and would not see a problem with it. This issue is more to do with vocal lobby groups making points.
I have a great deal of respect for my hon. Friend and she often speaks good common sense, but I have to say that in this one instance she must understand that if she were to talk to most lesbians in this country about the amendment she is supporting she would discover that they find it profoundly offensive, because effectively it is saying, "You're not enough. You're not sufficient. Your family is not complete."
It might surprise my hon. Friend to know that I do talk to many lesbians, and quite a few of them have a great deal of common sense and would not find any problem with this. So it depends who we talk to; maybe lesbians in Lancashire are a bit more down to earth than lesbians in London.
I spoke on this subject on Second Reading, so I do not want to speak on it now for too long, but let me make the following appeal to all Members: this is about common sense and what is in the best interests of the child, and it is also about saying that fathers have a role to play. Dr. Harris talked about instructing women about bringing children into the world, but may I finally say that women need a man if they are to bring a child into the world? That is a fact of life at the moment; science has not changed that yet, so there is nothing we can do about it. Therefore, fathers are pretty important.
The hon. Lady said at the outset of her remarks that she accepted readily that there were plenty of good and loving lesbian parents. However, she then went on constantly to reiterate the alleged need for the father. For the avoidance of doubt and in pursuance of the intervention of Chris Bryant, may I ask her whether she is therefore saying that they are good parents only if a third person is introduced as well? If she is saying that, that is profoundly insulting, as well as having the disadvantage of being wrong.
No, I am saying that it is common sense just to take into consideration the need for a father, and if a child has not got a father to realise that it might be a good thing if there were a father figure—a male figure—in their life, because that is important. Men and women are different; that is just a fact of life. They bring different things to parenthood. Sometimes when there are two same-sex parents, it is a good idea also to have someone who can act as a male role model. That is not discriminating against anyone. That is just enhancing the upbringing of the child; it is just helping. At the end of the day, this is not about discrimination; it is about the child.
Geraldine Smith speaks with a degree of refreshing candour and common sense, and she underlines the fact that this is not, never has been and never should be a party political issue. I am as far apart from my hon. Friend John Bercow, whom in other ways I admire very much, on this issue as I could possibly be from anyone.
I have listened to this afternoon's debate with profound depression. When I entered this House in 1970, if somebody had told me that nearly 40 years thence, the House would debate the need for a father, I would have thought that that person had taken leave of his senses. What we are talking about is the natural order of things, and I make no apology for standing up for what I believe to be the natural order of things. [ Interruption. ] It may well be that people can barrack, but I happen to be the first chairman of the all-party committee for widows and single-parent families in this House. We came together and founded that group in 1974 because we believed in helping single-parent families as much as we possibly could, and a very good committee it was, too. My hon. Friend Mr. Cash became a member of it after he joined the House.
Another Committee that I was much involved with as long ago as 1970—with Lord Janner, then Greville Janner, the former Member for Leicester, North-West—had at its heart the preservation and advancement of proper human rights. That was the all-party parliamentary committee for Soviet Jews—for the release of Soviet Jewry—and we stood for what we considered to be those human rights of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness that have now been so distorted, so altered, so extended as to cover a whole range of things that really are not human rights at all. At the root of the Bill that we are discussing this afternoon is the Government's realisation that if they did not insert certain words into it, they would be going against the Human Rights Act that we passed some 10 years ago, and which the House really ought to look at again. It is one thing to defend and advance the proper human rights that, for instance, the people of Burma, for whom my hon. Friend the Member for Buckingham stands up with great vigour, are completely deprived of. It is another thing entirely to extend and distort that concept of human rights, so that some people in this place, and many outside this place, are afraid to say—that it is a natural thing for a family to consist of a man and a woman who have children, and who give those children a natural and a proper home.
When I listened this afternoon to some of the surreal exchanges that have taken place, I could not help but remember the immortal words of Mr. Bumble, who said:
"If the law supposes that...the law is a ass".
We in this Committee this afternoon are responsible for the law and for trying, I hope, to bring a little balance into the law.
I listened with considerable admiration to my right hon. Friend Mr. Duncan Smith when he moved his amendment. He did it with passion and clarity and with a degree of real modesty, but I have to say that I do not think that he went far enough. Although I have many friends who are lesbian or gay, I nevertheless do not believe that a lesbian pair of women or a gay pair of men can provide the same degree of balance, harmony and domestic comfort as parents of the opposite sex can. That is not to say that there are not many parents—men and women, married and unmarried—who are very bad and very cruel to children.
We are talking about families—the Government have even elevated the word "families" into the title of one of the Departments of State. If we are intent on promoting the concept of the family, why do we run away from the importance of the role of the father?
Given the logic of my hon. Friend's case, if a mother and a father had treatment, the mother became pregnant and the father then left the mother, should the mother then be made to terminate the pregnancy?
That is a most fatuous intervention. I have never heard such a ridiculous intervention from a so-called intelligent man. Of course not, and the hon. Gentleman almost abuses himself by asking the question. It is a ridiculous question to ask.
There can be domestic problems between any people—of course there can. Within our own family in Parliament, there are those who have strong marriages and those who do not have marriages at all. We represent all sorts of conditions of men and women, but I make no apology for saying in this House that I believe that the natural family unit is the man, woman and children. There are cases where children do not have that advantage because the mother has been deserted. I suppose that I have as many cases in my surgery as colleagues do of women coming to ask for help with the Child Support Agency, and of women whose husbands have behaved utterly despicably. I have many examples in my constituency of single women who, with great courage and enormous sacrifice, skill and dedication, brought up their families. My cousins, twins, were 55 last week. Their father was so badly injured in the war that he died within weeks of their being born. My aunt brought those men up to be the fine men they are today. All of us can replicate that sort of experience, but in doing so and in relaying it to the Committee, we should not, out of a misguided concept of equality and fairness, pretend that there is an automatic right for anyone to have a child, regardless of sex.
No, because I am conscious of the fact that I, too, wanted to get in to speak, and that others want to follow me, so I will try to bring my remarks to a close quite quickly.
I am happy to hold to the view that no one has the right to a child. I happen to believe that a child is God-given, but—
And sometimes by a doctor, and sometimes by a test-tube. However, I say to the hon. Gentleman and to anybody else in this Committee that a child who is deliberately brought into the world with no desire that there should be a man and a woman as the parents is brought into it with a disadvantage. In so far as the amendment moved by my right hon. Friend the Member for Chingford and Woodford Green goes some way toward redressing the balance in the Bill before us, it deserves the support of the whole Committee.
This is obviously a passionate debate and people have serious concerns about the outcome of the vote tonight. I was delighted when Mr. Duncan Smith said that there were only a few studies that were up to date. That was a very important statement for all of us, because it told us that what we are attempting to assess is new and difficult, and that there are serious complications. He could have continued by saying that there are few new and up-to-date studies for us to use in making an assessment, and that many of the outcomes in terms of gay and homosexual family structures have been defined according to the author's preference in the research, which has clearly defined the questions being asked. We know that we are in a very difficult area when we are examining research and hoping that it will give us objective judgments upon which we make a judgment as to whether we need to provide for the need for a father or for a stable home.
Much that has been said is important. The quality of parents is much more relevant than their gender to how they determine and deliver the emotional, social and educational achievements of their children. It is also important for us to accept that all the research that has been published—like many other hon. Members, I have looked at a mountain of it—references not homosexuals or heterosexuals who have benefited from IVF, but parents who have adopted or have fostered. We all face the serious problem of trying to unscramble the research to make a fair, representative and objective analysis.
My hon. Friend is making a thoughtful and profound contribution. I do not intend to repeat the speech that I made 18 years ago on this issue, but would she concede that there is a difference between the issue of same-sex couples being suitable to foster a child at a particular point in that child's life in the interests of the child—that was agreed by the authority that I led 25 years ago—and the creation of a child, and the belief that the creation of that child is somehow a right, in circumstances outwith the normality of how we would proceed were we not able to implement IVF? That is quite different from the situation of those seeking a child through the course of a marriage or a separate relationship. Would she therefore agree that this is not about equality or rights, and that it is about the nature of procreation and the way in which we proceed in respect of a policy in the nation, rather than an individual right for a human being?
It might not surprise my right hon. Friend to learn that I do not agree with him. That which is appropriate for children who are adopted or fostered is equally appropriate for any who are produced by IVF; I see no difference at all, because parenting is parenting.
I wish to put on record some of my concerns about this debate. The debate is not just about whether every child needs a father or a stable home; it is about the IVF treatment available to couples or women. First and foremost, people have said that a serious disparity is involved. The absolute statement made is that the national health service produces very little in terms of National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence agreements; the great majority of women and couples have to access private clinics, and in so doing they have to stump up between £5,000 and £10,000.
Let us consider how women and couples access this treatment. They are attempting to do that which comes naturally for so many people: conceive a child. They put not only their investment, but so much of themselves on the line. I find it inconceivable——to use an unintentional pun—that they would not love, cherish, protect the child and provide it with a stable home.
The other statement with which the House should attempt to come to terms is the one that the hundreds and thousands of women who request this treatment have to face from medics on a regular basis: "The treatment has failed." It does not just fail once; it fails month after month. Invariably, women do not access the treatment until they are over 30—often they are over 35—and there are a variety of other reasons why they are excluded from treatment. Such women have five years when their fecundity would support their conceiving naturally or with the help of IVF, so in agonising over whether a statement about a father should be placed in the Bill, we should get the rounded picture, because there is a rounded picture to be obtained.
We are talking about a very emotional consultation. I am explaining it, although I think most people in the Chamber know about it, because the amendment seeks to require the medic to demand one further qualification, and deliver another responsibility. He or she would have to ask the person seeking IVF treatment, "Have you got a male? Is there a father figure who will be able to provide the stability that we think is appropriate?" A medic would have to ask that, on top of all the other things that they say to incredibly emotional women who are strung up about one thing only: their desire to have a baby. Does the amendment anticipate the woman taking along with her any male to fulfil that role, so that she has a partner? Will this be policed? Will the medics be asked to prove that they have checked that this qualification is in place? This afternoon, we are hearing a determination, or an attempt to say, that father figures are so important that medics must be made part of the judgment as to whether a woman has a stable relationship or not.
That is the whole point. The hon. Gentleman makes a good point, because how would we take account of these things? There would have to be a process by which people make a judgment. I am trying to say to the House that medics have a seriously difficult situation to handle, that we would be adding one more part to that and that that would be very problematic for them.
I chair the all-party group on infertility. I see women with serious illnesses and medical problems on a regular basis—and their partners—so I have that one-to-one relationship with them. They are extraordinarily uptight people; they feel that there is something wrong with them, they do not want to expose it to others and they face enough problems without our adding this. They want, and will produce, a stable family. The amendment is discriminatory, but worse than that, it just does not make sense, and I shall support the Bill's remaining intact tonight.
May I make a few comments to endorse the passion that we have heard from my hon. Friend Sir Patrick Cormack and the comments of Geraldine Smith, who spoke with enormous common sense? I do not want to vilify, or discriminate against, anybody, but I am concerned about how this debate has gone, and about the undermining of the role of fathers, the message that that sends out about fatherhood and the resulting effect on our children's welfare.
The clause sits rather uncomfortably in the Bill, which is why I support the amendment tabled by my right hon. Friend Mr. Duncan Smith. This part of the Bill, unlike the rest of it, is not about the power of scientists; it is about the power of political correctness and it is about a misconceived notion of equality and fairness, which has been behind many of the objections that we have heard from those on the Labour Benches. There are echoes of the Bill on same-sex adoption from many years ago. I think that we have moved on a long way since then, but I should point out an essential difference. That Bill dealt with children in care who were born of, and may have spent time with, two parents but then needed to be given the opportunity for a stable upbringing. Here we are dealing with children who will, by design, never have a father. We are talking about artificially creating life that will become a child who will, under these terms, know no father and have no father's influence in his or her upbringing, and whose only connection with a father will have been a momentary collision of gametes in a test tube at the point of conception. That is what will happen if the Government get their way.
I support this amendment not primarily from any religious or moral considerations, less still any intention to undermine the credibility and dedication of single mothers who have been left to bring up children on their own for whatever reason, or even the suitability of same-sex couples to bring up children. My primary concern is for the welfare of the child, which we are all bound to take into account under clause 1 of the Children Act 1989, and in practice because it is the right priority to have.
I am annoyed, more than anything else, by the constant talk of the rights of adults to have a child—not the rights of a child—as if they are the latest must-have accessory on a par with the right to water or warmth. The overwhelming right here must be the right of a child to enjoy and benefit from the society and nurture of his or her parents and family. Not to acknowledge that is to diminish the role of both parents.
The figures speak for themselves and many have been related to the Committee already, but the influence of a father is indisputable in the mental health of a child; in the educational development of a child; in the susceptibility of a child to fall foul of the law; in the likelihood that a child will live in poverty; in the likelihood that a child will be involved in teenage pregnancy; and so on. Those figures are incontrovertible. Statistically, depriving children born by IVF of the need to take account of a father's role when considering the creation of that child is to condemn that child to a much greater likelihood of underachievement and unhappiness.
The amendment does not specify that the father has to be there, but regard must be given to the benefits that a father, or the alternative father figures that have been mentioned, can bring to bear for the good of the child. That is why opinion polls show that 80 per cent. of people are opposed to the changes in the Bill. I have not had a single letter urging me to vote any way other than against the existing provisions in the Bill and in favour of the amendments.
Fathers bring something distinctive to the parenting process and we should never forget that. They have been referred to as the forgotten contributors to child development. But the framing of the Bill sends out another damaging message that threatens to undermine fatherhood and the role of fathers. Many fathers feel sidelined after the failure of the Government to accept amendments on the presumption of shared parenting in the Children and Adoption Act 2006. I am also concerned by the many references in this debate to absent fathers who have done the dirty and run away. There are many absent fathers who are denied access to their children because they are the non-resident parent. They would like to be the resident parent or to have access to their children, but have been denied that by the courts. Let us not vilify all fathers who happen not to be resident parents.
I am sure that the statistics that the hon. Gentleman cites are correct, but does he agree that in some cases it is right that the father be excluded from a child's life because he would be a bad influence?
That goes without saying, but there are many fathers who lose contact with their children unintentionally after the break-up of a marriage. They are not all absent from the home because they have done a flit and forsaken their responsibilities. I want to introduce some balance to the debate, because many fathers feel aggrieved and undermined. Legislation that says that fathers are no longer necessary to the nucleus of a family reinforces that dangerous feeling that many fathers already experience.
Families Need Fathers has said about the Bill:
"We believe this proposal sends out an extremely worrying message that makes fathers redundant in the upbringing of children. In an environment where significant societal problems are caused by the lack of a father in a child's life, the Government should be making every attempt to consolidate a father's position, rather than weaken it."
This legislation would weaken the father's position—
No, because others wish to speak.
At a time when fathers are spending more time than ever with their children—eight times as much as they did 30 years ago—when fathers in families in which women work carry out a third of parental care, and when fathers are more eager than ever to play a central role in the daily lives of their children, is it not ironic that this Bill would undermine that important role? I support this amendment because it is balanced. It would send out an important message to cohabiting couples as well as to same-sex couples and anybody else interested in IVF. It is not discriminatory or vilifying. It is supported by the public. It is the right thing to do because it is in the best interests of the child. It is common sense in my constituency and in my world, and that is a good thing and the amendment should be supported.
There is a strange irony in this debate. Either the original clause in the 1990 Act has had some effect, in which case the logic is that the status quo should preclude lesbians or single women from receiving IVF treatment, or the clause has had no effect and the amendment is just a declaratory gesture that, as Tim Loughton has just said, its supporters wish to continue. However, that declaratory statement will not have the slightest effect on a young gentleman on a Friday night, when he has had a few pints. He will not say, "Oh, I remember. That Bill that Parliament passed last week said that there has to be a father, so I'm not going to have any unprotected sex tonight." Nor will it ensure that a single father participates in the raising of his child.
Many hon. Members on both sides of the Committee passionately want to ensure that the interests of the child are protected, but the amendment would do nothing to protect the rights of children. However, it would send the message out to lesbians and single women that they should not apply for IVF.
It may be that many lesbians have been allowed to have IVF over the past few years, and we have had evidence presented that that has been the case, but in some areas IVF clinics have told them that they do not qualify simply because of their sexuality and because a father would not be involved. I do not think that we should now restate the 1990 Act, thereby making the HFEA tell all clinics that they should start discriminating against people on grounds of their sexuality.
Both Mr. Howarth and Mr. Cash referred to what they believed to be "normality", and the views in the Dog and Duck in Yateley or wherever it was, and in Staffordshire. They also referred to the natural order and what is natural. The truth is that IVF is not, in the strictest sense, natural. It is assisted conception, and it is one of the great joys that doctors have been able to bring to many families around the country. I do not believe that lesbian couples or single women who have gone through the difficult process of deciding that they passionately want a child to bring up in a loving and caring environment are the problem that Mr. Duncan Smith suggested.
When we start to impose our understanding of what is normal or natural on others, we are treading a very dangerous path. I for one was taught as a child,
"Judge not that ye be not judged."
I speak tonight saddened by the approach taken by right hon. and hon. Members who wish to airbrush out the role of fatherhood. I notice that there are many grins on faces, but I stand by my faith and the word of God that man was created in the image of God and that woman was created from the rib of Adam to be his helpmeet and companion. That is the natural progression of procreation.
I am so sorry that hon. Members are abusing my position as a Christian and that they will not listen to me or give me due respect. I ask where the rights of the Christian people of this country are, because they have spoken. A recent poll reported in the press here showed that 80 per cent. of people recognise the need for the traditional family. Hon. Members can all breathe sighs of relief or indignation, but I am telling the House that the word of God says that procreation is through a man and a woman. We are moving mountains to facilitate immorality and to bring the rights of lesbians above all others in this country. It is a shame, and hon. Members ought to hang their heads in shame.
I rise to sum up the issues before us. I will not follow on from the comments of Mrs. Robinson, but I will pick up on the comments made by Chris Bryant, who said that we could not make our minds up about whether the current system has worked or not. That is a legitimate question. We can argue that the status quo has worked, to a degree. Of course, the Bill will make it easier for couples of all varieties to get IVF treatment, but in the more limited context of the 1990 Act, it can be argued that the advisory section on fathers had an effect. It has been part of the tapestry that has allowed people to understand the need to take a balanced judgment about the importance of a father.
I find it intriguing that people say, "If it is not any good, why not get rid of it?" In truth, the point tonight is that the Government's position is far more complicated than that which was in existence until they introduced the Bill. We will be asking clinicians to make a judgment, after they have gone through a long list of criteria, about which group of parents is supportive or not supportive. That is far more complicated and judgmental than current practice and will lead, I anticipate, to a large number of problems. We are asking clinicians to do something that they do not really want to do—that is, to judge the way in which people interrelate. The idea of taking cognisance of the role of a father is simple. That requirement asks clinicians to discuss the issue, and as long as those who are seeking the treatment have taken it into consideration, that is fine. That is why there has not been a single case of anyone having the treatment taken from them.
I compliment my hon. Friends the Members for Salisbury (Robert Key) and for East Worthing and Shoreham (Tim Loughton), and Geraldine Smith on their excellent contributions. I think that Emily Thornberry was on the wrong track. As gently as I can, I tell her that if an hon. Member uses a piece of evidence in Committee, they have to get it absolutely right.
In conclusion, I want to press amendment No. 21 to a vote. Dr. Harris said that this is about fairness, not fatherhood—but if the clause does not say that fatherhood is important, there will be no fairness in the Bill. I say to all those who are unsure or in doubt that those of us who tabled the amendment do not have to justify our position. The Government, who have made the radical move to change the provision, have to justify their decision. They have failed to do so. They will tear up the reasonable guidance and substitute a mess. I therefore want to press amendment No. 21 to a Division.
Question accordingly negatived.
It being more than three hours after the commencement of proceedings on the Bill, The Temporary Chairman put forthwith the Questions necessary for disposal of the business to be concluded at that hour, pursuant to Order [
Amendment proposed: No. 12, page 9, line 10, after 'parenting', insert
'and a father or male role model'.— [Mark Simmonds.]
The Committee divided: Ayes 222, Noes 290.