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.