My Lords, I beg to move that this Bill be now read a second time.
Every child should have the opportunity to grow up in a stable and secure loving family. When children cannot live with their birth parents, we have a responsibility to ensure that they can enjoy the kind of loving family life which most of us take for granted.
We know that outcomes have not been good for children in care. Compared with children who have not been looked after by local authorities, looked-after children have poor chances of leading successful, settled lives when they leave the care system. Adoption can provide a new start in life for many children, particularly for children who have been looked after.
But, all too often, adoption has been seen as a last resort for these children when it should have been considered as a first resort. Too often the adoption system has let children down. Council performance is too varied. In some councils, 10 per cent of looked-after children are adopted; in others, the figure is less than 2 per cent. Overall, the system, including the courts, can be slow, cumbersome and unfair. The average time taken to adopt a looked-after child is two years and nine months—an eternity in a child's eyes. We have to change that.
That is why in December 2000 the Government published a White Paper programme for transforming the adoption service. It included: better support for adopters; an end to blanket bans; clear national standards; improved funding; a national register; a task force to help to deliver improvements; a relentless effort to drive up local authority performance; and support for adoptive families, who do such a marvellous and worthwhile job.
Progress is being made. For a second year, there has been a significant increase in the number of children adopted from care, with 400 extra children a year adopted. Since the beginning of the Quality Protects initiative in April 1999, we have seen a 40 per cent increase in the number of adoptions from care. That is very encouraging. But it must continue so that by 2005 an extra 1,100 children can benefit from a stable and secure family life each year.
We have put in place challenging national adoption standards to improve all aspects of the service. Local authorities will have to implement those in full by April next year. It is encouraging that the delays in the system are being reduced. It is also encouraging that those in question are now spending less time as looked-after children before being adopted. The time has fallen from more than three years in 1998 to two years and nine months in 2001. But we need to continue that progress.
The Adoption and Permanence Taskforce is also making a real difference in the field by helping councils to achieve a step change in the performance of their adoption services and by identifying and spreading best practice. The task force's first annual report shows genuine partnership between council staff and the task force members. This year they are working with 13 more local authorities.
Other positive work is under way. That work includes: supporting local recruitment activities to find suitable families for looked-after children; making fully operational in April this year an adoption register for England and Wales; recruitment campaigns to attract more social workers into employment; and funding—another £66.5 million for adoption services over three years. Therefore, a great deal of positive work is under way but there is still much room for improvement.
To underpin all that, there needs to be a wholesale modernisation of adoption legislation. The current Adoption Act 1976 is outdated and based on legislation that dates back to 1958, and it is not consistent with the Children Act 1989.
The Bill will completely overhaul the legal framework for adoption in England and Wales. It is the result of extensive consultation. When the Bill was introduced in the other place, it was sent to a Special Standing Committee for consideration and to hear the views of all those with an interest. We have listened to the points raised and many changes have been made. I believe that the Bill is better as a result.
Perhaps I may now highlight the key provisions in the Bill. We believe that first and foremost adoption is, and must be, a service for children. That is the simple founding principle on which the whole Bill is based. Clause 1 makes the welfare of the child, in childhood and later life, the paramount consideration for the court or adoption agency in making any decision relating to adoption. That brings the law on adoption into line with the Children Act.
It is also in the interest of the child that we bear down on harmful delays to adoption. The Bill makes clear that while in placing a child for adoption all agencies must give due consideration to the child's background, there is an obligation on the courts and all the agencies involved to bear in mind at all times that delay is likely to prejudice the child's welfare. Of course, the best adoptive placement for a child should reflect his/her religious persuasion, racial origin, cultural and linguistic heritage, but only if that can be found without unnecessary or harmful delay. What counts, and what the Bill enshrines, is that the interests of the child must come first.
As a key part of our drive to reduce delay in the adoption process, we have already established an adoption register for England and Wales. The information on the register is used to suggest families for a child in cases where a local match cannot be found within an agreed period of time or where the child needs to move away from the area. The Bill places the register on a statutory footing. However, the register is only part of our efforts to bear down on harmful delay.
The Bill includes further measures to cut down delays within the legal process by requiring courts to draw up timetables for adoption cases and issue any directions necessary to ensure that those timetables are met. In addition, the new system of placement for adoption and placement orders aims to provide a better, fairer legal process for adoption than the current widely-criticised system of freeing orders.
If we want to encourage more adoptions from care, we must go further than simply improving the legal process. We need to improve the support we give to adoptive families. Too often, adoption support services across the country are patchy and inconsistent. But that support is all the more necessary when we consider that many of those children in care waiting for an adoptive family have special needs or challenging backgrounds.
I have already expressed my admiration for the families who adopt and who overwhelmingly do a superb job. It is not an easy job because many of the children are not easy. They and their adoptive parents deserve more support. The Bill tackles the postcode lottery in adoption support services. To ensure high-quality services everywhere, the Bill requires adoption support agencies to register with the National Care Standards Commission in England and the National Assembly in Wales.
The Bill also introduces a new duty on local authorities across the country to make arrangements for the provision of adoption support services, and that will include financial support. The Bill includes a new right for all those directly affected by adoption to an assessment of their needs for adoption support services. It establishes a new independent review mechanism available for prospective adopters who feel that they are being turned down unfairly. We shall consult a wide range of adoption stakeholders in developing the independent review mechanism and the regulations to underpin it.
The Government want to see more children adopted from care. Noble Lords will be aware that as a result of a free vote in the other place, the Bill widens the prospective pool of those entitled to adopt jointly to include unmarried couples. As currently drafted, it would be for adoption agencies and the courts to decide whether an individual couple is suitable to adopt. In order to be able to be approved as adoptive parents, a couple would need to prove that they have a stable and lasting relationship and that they can provide a loving family environment for the child. We have said that we shall bring forward during the Lords' stages of the Bill the consequential amendments needed to complete the change endorsed by the other place. I am aware of the wide range of strongly-held views on this issue. That is why there was a free vote in the other place, and why there will be a free vote in this House too.
As well as promoting more adoption, we need to ensure that we are protecting vulnerable children. The Bill also enhances the current controls on advertising, payments and intercountry adoption. Your Lordships will be aware of the high-profile case last year of twins adopted overseas following an advertisement on the Internet. Adoption must be a service for children not for profit. It should happen in the interests of the child not as a commercial transaction. The Bill aims to put in place tighter safeguards to help ensure that that is, indeed, what happens. The Bill proposes a number of major changes to the laws on intercountry adoption, building on the Adoption (Intercountry Aspects) Act 1999.
We have already implemented provisions in that Act to make it an offence for a British resident to bring a child from another country into the UK for the purposes of adoption, unless they have satisfied certain requirements; for example that they are already approved adopters. It is also now illegal for anyone other than a local authority or voluntary adoption agency to assess and approve prospective adopters. Privately commissioned home studies can no longer be accepted as part of the adoption process.
The Bill now goes further in strengthening the law on intercountry adoptions. First, it introduces a new offence where a child is brought into the UK after being adopted overseas by a British resident within the previous six months without the adopters following the proper approved procedure.
Secondly, it puts in place tougher penalties for those not following the proper procedures. The maximum penalty for those adopting overseas or bringing a child into the country for the purposes of adoption in contravention of those provisions will be raised from three months' imprisonment at present to 12 months. Those who break the law could face the maximum gaol sentence, an unlimited fine or both. Thirdly, it includes a new provision that will allow the Government to ensure that in future, adoption orders made overseas will be recognised in the UK only when the systems in that country meet criteria set out in regulations here. The criteria will include ensuring that proper consents have been given by the birth parents; that the prospective adopters are suitable to adopt, and that no profit has been made for the purposes.
The Bill takes two further steps better to protect the welfare of children from exploitation. It introduces tougher penalties for those who seek to circumvent the safeguards for arranging adoptions and payments for domestic and intercountry adoptions. It doubles the current penalties to up to six months in prison, a £10,000 fine, or both.
The Bill also introduces new safeguards for advertising children for adoption. Advertising can be an effective method of encouraging more people to consider coming forward to adopt, but that activity must be properly regulated in the interests of the children concerned. The Bill therefore amends and extends existing restrictions on advertising in the Adoption Act 1976. Anyone, unless an approved adoption agency, who publishes or distributes an advertisement for the adoption of a child in the UK, will be guilty of an offence. On conviction, the individual would be liable for imprisonment for up to three months or a fine of £5,000 or both. Both offline and online advertising will be subject to those new restrictions. Advertising via the Internet will need to be compatible with the e-commerce directive. We are currently working on the regulations needed to implement the directive. When those are finalised we shall ensure that the Bill reflects them appropriately, and shall bring forward amendments to that effect, if necessary.
Adoption does not simply affect people when they are children. Adoption is for life, and we need to consider its lifelong effects. That is why the Bill includes provision to ensure consistent access to information by people who have been adopted about their background and, indeed, about the circumstances of their adoption. Where it identifies individuals, that information can be highly sensitive. That is why the Bill's provisions aim to deliver a system which tries to balance the welfare and the best interests of all those affected.
The Bill therefore establishes a single point of access to all information which could identify adopted persons and others involved in their adoption. That sensitive information will be made available only through adoption agencies. Where an agency is deciding whether to disclose identifying information we believe it is right that it should seek to consider the views and interests of those affected. But the Bill retains the right of adopted adults to have access to their original birth certificate.
Decisions made by adoption agencies about the disclosure of sensitive identifying information from the records they keep about a person's adoption will also be subject to independent review. It is right that, where adoption agencies have discretion, the people affected—both the adopted child and the birth family—have a right of review.
The Bill represents and sets out a comprehensive modernisation and reform of adoption law. It also accepts that adoption of course will not be suitable for all children. Older children may not want legally to separate from their birth parents, even though they may not want to live with them. Adoption may not be the best option for other children who are being cared for on a permanent basis by members of their wider family. But at present children have only one choice of legal permanence outside the care system—mainstream adoption. The alternatives are to stay in care, either with the local authority or with a foster family. The Bill introduces into the Children Act a further choice—new special guardianship orders. They give permanence to the child and day-to-day responsibility for his or her care to the special guardian without severing all legal ties with the child's birth family. Furthermore, the Bill provides that proper support services are available for those placements.
As a result of the debates and discussions over the past months, the Bill makes some important additional improvements to the Children Act. For example, it ensures that the courts will give proper consideration to the harmful effects of domestic violence when making decisions concerning a child. Furthermore, the Bill provides for an improved system of independent review of the progress of children looked after by local authorities, which is intended to ensure that local authority care plans are properly implemented and that the children's human rights are protected.
This is a complex and substantial Bill on a matter of great interest and importance. It gives the House an opportunity to make changes that will have a lifelong impact on thousands of children in the future: children in care who need and deserve a new family. The Bill can help give them a second chance to grow up in a permanent, secure and loving family. They deserve nothing less. I commend the Bill to the House.
Moved, That the Bill be now read a second time.—(Lord Hunt of Kings Heath.)
My Lords, this is perhaps the most long-awaited Bill to come before your Lordships' House. It is hard to recall one where so many hopes and expectations ride on the deliberations which take place here.
Before turning to the detail of the Bill, I want to talk about the task which I believe is before us. As the Minister said, this issue is one of the most difficult and complex areas on which legislators have to spend time. It represents perhaps the most acute intrusion of the state into family life. Therefore, it is immensely controversial. It represents the state seeking to replicate the best of something which is complex and which throughout history has never been perfect—family life.
The subject carries with it a great deal of passion and conviction. We are all experts on families. We all have families. That leads us to hold very strongly held views and principles about family life. But we are asked to make judgments which will affect profoundly the lives of families which are very different from ours.
As legislators on the subject we shall be advised and lobbied by a vast array of organisations. We will be persuaded after we have been presented with strongly held arguments. They will conflict because they represent the different experiences of the adoption process that people have had. All those views are valid because they stem from an individual's experience, but it does not make for an easy task to arrive at a judgment about what is presented before us.
In the past, with regard to other Bills I have often teased the Minister about his love of the word "balance". I am sure that that word will appear many times in our discussions over the coming weeks. I rather suspect that we will not achieve balance between conflicting views; we shall simply have to arrive at a judgment about which of those views should be paramount.
The Bill has been effectively subject to pre-legislative scrutiny. It has had two dry runs. It is all the better for that. In addition, during its passage through another place it was subject to a Special Standing Committee. That, too, had a beneficial effect on its wording. However, in another place, consideration of the Bill was regrettably inadequate. It was curtailed through strict programming. As we begin what I hope will be a thorough and thoughtful consideration of this wide-ranging Bill, it is worth noting that in another place the Government listened to reasoned arguments and changed their mind significantly on major issues. I hope that on all sides during our debate there will be a willingness to examine issues in depth and in a similar spirit of openness.
At the outset of our deliberations it is worth spending time clarifying what adoption and fostering is in our society today, and why the Bill is necessary. At the time of the 1976 Act—and I am very pleased to see that my noble friend Lord Hooson, one of the architects of that Bill, is in his place today—the majority of adoptions were of babies, 20 per cent of whom were born to unmarried mothers.
Happily, there have been changes in attitude since then—some reflected in the Family Law Reform Act 1987, passed by the last Conservative government—which have lessened the stigma suffered by one-parent families. During the 1970s the number of adoptions of infants dropped. At the same time, adoption of children in care increased. In the 1990s 40 per cent of adoptions were of children who had been in care. During the past 30 years the nature of adoption has changed. Rather than having children available for adoption by people unable to have children, the emphasis has changed to finding a permanent home for children who have families.
I do not want to go through at great length the statistics given by the Minister regarding the current adoption situation. I merely flag up two aspects. Many of the children up for adoption have had fractured and disrupted lives before going into care; 67 per cent have an identifiable mental health problem; and 30 per cent have statements of special educational need. Seventy per cent of children who leave care have no educational qualifications; between 14 per cent and 25 per cent of young women who leave care have a child; and, compared to the general population, those who have been looked after are 60 per cent more likely to become homeless. Thirty nine per cent of male prisoners under 21 have been looked after.
The Performance and Innovation Unit report of July 2000 identified three problems with the adoption system. First, decisions about how to provide a stable, secure and permanent placement are not made early enough or taken swiftly enough. Secondly, where plans for permanent placement are made they are not delivered quickly enough. Children wait on average nearly three years between becoming looked after and being adopted. Thirdly, services do not provide the support families need through the process of adoption and beyond into permanence.
Throughout my preparation for the Bill I have made it my business to talk to many people with personal experience of adoption and fostering. One woman's comment really tells the story behind the statistics. She said:
"I fostered a girl a few years ago. I work with children and I thought it was something I could do. The whole thing was horrendous. She was 11 when she came to me and she had been messed around so much that by the time she lived with me it was far too late. I don't know where she is now, probably burning down buildings. She needed much more help than I could give, and there was nobody to turn to for help and advice".
Sadly, that woman's experience is not exceptional. The Bill concerns children whose early experience of life has shattered their trust in adults. They have never known normal family life.
Many of the Bill's proposals are good and deserve widespread support throughout the House. The decision to make the welfare of a child throughout his or her life paramount is a welcome development on previous legislation. As a guiding principle, it is not without difficulty because of subjectivity: none the less it sets a basis on which decisions can be ranked. Special guardianship will create a new form of permanent care without severing relationships with birth parents and will in all probability be a good solution for some children.
The creation of a legally underpinned adoption register for England and Wales may speed up the process of matching children and families. The recognition that a great deal of delay in the adoption process is caused by court proceedings must have a beneficial effect. However, the will to speed up court proceedings will become a reality only if courts have the resources to do so. The provisions for step-parents are good in that they reflect the reality of life for many people.
There has been a general welcome for the proposal to allow prospective adopters who have been rejected to lodge an appeal. However, there are those who believe that the facility to appeal should apply right through the adoption process—or certainly to other stages. One of the many issues we shall need to address is the extent to which appeals can be played off against the will to speed up the adoption process.
There are several areas in which the Bill as drafted is deficient. Although the welfare principle is at the heart of the Bill and the deficiencies of the current court system have been noted, there is no provision in the Bill for advocacy for a child throughout the adoption process.
The proposals to improve inter-country adoption are wide ranging. For many people, the issue of inter-country adoption is difficult. There are those who question whether it is right to remove children from their birth country and whether the processes for doing so are sufficiently rigorous. Personally, I have come to the view that whatever happens, inter-country adoption will continue to take place. If so, it is better for children, adoptive families and birth families that it happens in a way that is transparent and open to scrutiny. However—as we will discover when we discuss the subject in detail—the mechanisms in this country for managing inter-country adoption are seriously inadequate. The lack of a linking agency, in particular, causes problems.
Throughout the Bill, penalties and fines are mentioned. I ask the Minister whether those penalties and fines are sufficiently high to be a deterrent. Having read the Bill, my feeling is that in some cases they will not disbar anyone who is desperate to secure a child. I raise that as a key issue.
There are three main areas that should be the focus of our deliberations, although I fear there will be great pressure to do otherwise. Private fostering and adoption remains an enormous loophole—perhaps because little is known about private fostering as much of it happens away from the attention of local authorities. Despite work on the subject, such as that of Sir William Utting's report, People Like Us, little is still known about the subject. The Bill is an opportunity for us to ensure that things such as the death of Victoria Climbie do not happen again. We should give a great deal of consideration to the regulation of private social workers and private fostering.
As I noted earlier, this is the first major adoption Bill for 25 to 30 years. That seems to be the timetable for adoption legislation. An added impetus is therefore given to one particular matter: retrospection. The Children Act 1975 provided for the first time the facility for birth parents to find out what had happened to children they had given away for adoption. It was then accepted that the facility to make contact could be beneficial both for birth parents and the child without compromising the integrity of an adoption. However, the Act was not retrospective and applied only to post-1976 adoptions. It has left an anomaly whereby birth parents—anyone who listened to Radio 4 yesterday afternoon will realise the importance of birth fathers in this matter—are barred from making inquiries via an intermediary body about what has happened to a child.
I admit that my initial feeling was that we should not go down that route, but having listened to the arguments put forward, especially by organisations such as the National Organisation for the Counselling of Adoptees and Parents, I have changed my mind. Given that anyone involved in such an inquiry will be at least 28 years old, I cannot see any good reason why the state should bar adults from making contact with people with whom they have a blood relationship. I am certain that that process will be difficult and contacts that result will not all necessarily be good, but we should extend to those people the right to make those inquiries.
In the small time left to me, I should like to consider one other major issue. Dealing with the number of adoption organisations can be mind-boggling. There are hundreds of them, reflecting as they do people's different experiences of the adoption process. But one thing above all else unites all of those organisations. That is the need for post-adoption support—not for an assessment, but for support. That is the single most important thing that we can do in the Bill to help the adoption process to work. When a placement breaks down, three lives are destroyed—those of the parents and that of the child—and it becomes ever more difficult to find a placement for a child that will work.
I understand that the Treasury want the Bill to be cost-neutral, but I ask the Government to be joined up in their thinking and to consider the cost to the Treasury, apart from anyone else, of custodial sentences, of drug and alcohol services and of homelessness services for people for whom adoption does not work. Many people go into adoption for the best of reasons and with generous hearts. One recurring phrase in my talks with people about the subject during the past few weeks is that of a child suddenly exploding. Children need to be able to find someone to talk to, to help them through that process. The press will probably portray the matter in other ways, but I believe that to be the single most important issue in the Bill.
As I said at the beginning, we will not get things right for everyone concerned with the subject—we cannot possibly do that. All we can do is to put together a legislative framework in which families, children and practitioners can together arrive at the best decision for an individual child and an individual family. Our task is to get that right.
My Lords, I start by thanking the Minister for introducing the Bill today and for his clear explanation of it. I also thank him and his colleagues for their understanding that I shall have to leave before the end of the debate—the first time that I have done such a thing in the more than 30 years in which I have been in your Lordships' House.
There is much in the Bill that we can all welcome. I agree that it is a very important Bill—hence the views expressed here today and in another place. Indeed, much of it is based on the research and work of the previous Conservative government, especially their White Paper of 1993.
My particular interest in the matter comes because the first committee of which I became chairman in the days when I was in local government was an adoption committee. Within my family circle, there are three adopted children who have brought us all the greatest joy and happiness—and I believe that we have brought joy and happiness to them as well.
So we can all welcome the principle that there should be more adoption as being in the best interests of many children—here I very much agree with the point made by the Minister in his opening remarks. And I believe we all agree that the needs of the child should be paramount, a point to which we shall return at later stages in the passage of the Bill.
I shall refer first to some statistics relating to adoption that are central to the Bill. Since 1976, the number of adoptions has fallen from 21,000 each year to 5,000 today. But that figure includes a growing proportion of looked-after children; we must all welcome that. If we examine the statistics in more detail, we find a snapshot figure of 58,900 for the number of children in care. However, as the Government's White Paper makes clear, 70 per cent of those children will, in any given year, return home within a year, and 40 per cent will do so within eight weeks.
The real concern—in many ways, the basis of the Bill—is over the other 30 per cent of children who do not return home within a year. Only about 6,800 are in residential children's homes; the rest are in foster homes. That means that local authorities are using fostering when adoption would be more appropriate. As the Prime Minister's review made clear, adoption is, for some social workers, a measure of last resort. I am glad that the number of adopted children from care has risen from 1,900 in 1997 to 3,100 in 2001. That suggests that the Government's target of 40 per cent more adoptions by 2004 is almost certain to be reached. I greatly welcome that.
There are many detailed proposals in the Bill aimed at achieving that increase in the number of adoptions. I have no doubt that there will be lengthy debate on clauses relating to whether the proposals for a reduction in the delays in adoption are adequate, whether the safeguards relating to Internet adoptions are sufficient or whether the duty placed on local authorities to provide post-adoption support is adequate. On that matter, I have some sympathy with the points made by the British Association for Adoption and Fostering and already raised by the noble Baroness, Lady Barker. The question of support for adoptive parents is one of great concern.
There is a reaffirmation of existing safeguards relating to arrangements for adopting children or advertising children for adoption other than through adoption agencies. There is also the matter of regulations governing overseas adoptions and the question of the appeals procedure. However, over and above those issues and others, I have a very real concern that far too much is being left to regulations that are, as yet, unpublished. We shall need to review those very carefully, and I am sure that we will return to that matter at various stages in the Bill's passage. It is a matter of great importance and is too important to be left to some future date.
There is a need for a change of attitude on the part of many social workers. As the Minister said, there are great variations between local authorities on the matter of adoption. As I understand it, the figures for adoption of looked-after children range from 1 per cent, for some authorities, to 14 per cent. The stories of the difficulties faced by would-be adopters are legion. Some are turned down because they are too rich or too fat or their house is too tidy—even because of their dietary habits.
The Prime Minister's review revealed that only one in 10 inquiries made by prospective adopters resulted in approval: 90 per cent were lost. That is a devastating statistic, and it must be corrected. What appear to be endemic attitudes—among some social workers, at least—must be changed. Otherwise, many of the good provisions in the Bill will be lost. After all, the people who are to work with the Bill must believe in it, if it is to work at all. Some local authorities have begun to clear the backlog of adoption applications, but there is a danger that that could, as it were, plateau out after the first impetus is over.
I come now to the most contentious part of the Bill— Clauses 44, 48, 49 and 103(4), introduced at the Report stage of the Bill's passage through the other place. The clauses would allow co-habiting and same-sex couples to adopt for the first time. As I understand it, the principal argument used was that it would widen the pool of would-be adopters, based on the view that there are not enough couples wanting to adopt. I am sure that the House will not be surprised to hear that I oppose those amendments. Every piece of evidence shows that marriage provides stability and security for children.
In the Special Standing Committee, it was said that,
"marriage, above all other relationships, provides stability and security for children".
The evidence backs that up. On a range of social indicators, the children of married couples generally have much better outcomes in life. In general, they have better health, do better at school, are safer from child abuse, have fewer behavioural problems and are less likely to have under-age sex. I could go on. It is a devastating statistic that the rate of infant mortality is between 25 per cent and 35 per cent lower among the children of married parents than it is among children of co-habiting parents.
I do not understand why the Government have performed a U-turn on the issue. The Minister did not explain that fully. On 23rd April 2000, a Downing Street spokesman—presumably speaking on behalf of the Prime Minister—said:
"There are no plans to change the law to allow gays to adopt. This is about finding loving families to adopt children".
Barely six months ago, in November 2001, the Health Minister, Jacqui Smith, said:
"Joint adoptions should remain limited to married couples, on the grounds that a married couple is more likely to provide the stability and security a child needs".
She went on to say:
"Adoption by unmarried couples would raise several complex legal questions about, for example, the legal definition and treatment of an unmarried couple. There is no standard definition of an unmarried couple who are living together in the same way as a married couple . . . although it may be possible through legislation to establish a legal relationship between each of the unmarried partners and the child, there would still be no legal relationship or mutual obligation between the two partners. That could lead to difficulties which we must consider in detail. It would be difficult and inappropriate to deal with the other complex issues involved, such as nationality and inheritance, the treatment of adopted children of unmarried couples, compared with the treatment of natural children—in isolation from the lively debate that I have referred to . . . It would be difficult and inappropriate to pre-empt the conclusions of the civil partnerships review".—[Official Report, Commons Special Standing Committee, 29/11/01; cols. 384-5.]
That is a clear statement.
One of the reasons given for why electorates are not voting and are alienated from the political establishment is that leading members of Governments make statements and then, six months later, completely change their mind and say the opposite. That is a serious point. We need look no further than what has happened with this Bill for one of the reasons for political disillusionment.
What does the reference in the Bill to "an enduring relationship" mean? That must mean that it is intended to last—but for how long? I have taken some legal advice on the matter, and I understand that there is no commonly understood concept of what constitutes an enduring relationship. There is a real danger that that test will become self-defining and that judges and adoption agencies will find it invidious to make value judgments about the quality of individual relationships and will allow matters to go forward on a couple's say-so.
We need from the Government a clear explanation of how they imagine it is all going to work. These are matters of great importance which have yet to be resolved. I am bound to say that the needs of the child are not being treated as paramount in these considerations. The argument has become about the rights of adults.
I recall clearly our debate some 18 months ago on the Government's Bill to lower the age of consent. We had a Second Reading in April but there was no Committee stage. It was almost at the end of the parliamentary Session, so no time was available until the last minute for either Report stage or Third Reading. At that point, the Government invoked the Parliament Acts to complete that piece of legislation. It is my opinion and that of many people that, whatever the Parliament Acts were intended for, they were not to be invoked on an issue of a free vote and a matter of conscience. It would be helpful to know that the same kind of procedure will not be enacted on anything that may transpire at later stages of the Bill in your Lordships' House.
Before closing, perhaps I may make the following points. These new clauses in effect mean the downgrading of marriage once again. The fact is that co-habitees are by definition unwilling to make a permanent commitment to each other. Why should we believe that they will be willing to make a permanent commitment to a child? All the evidence is that co-habiting couples are far more likely to break up than married couples, nor is there evidence that unmarried couples want to adopt. If there was, there would be a greater use made of the loophole in the law whereby a single person can adopt when co-habiting.
On the point of same-sex couples, it is important to emphasise a point on which I should have thought we could all agree: that a child needs a father and a mother. As the right honourable Jack Straw said:
"We should not see children as trophies to validate a particular lifestyle".
This is an important issue and a serious debate. It is not one for a debating society, nor for the spin doctors, nor for the political advisers, nor for political correctness. It is about the lives of children. Those of use who have seen what tragic starts these children have had in life know how serious the issue is. Children, who have no vote, should be able to look to adults to protect them and see that in all circumstances their needs are paramount in any decisions about their future.