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26 Clause 44, page 27, line 38, after first "a" insert "married" The Commons disagreed to this amendment but propose the following amendments in lieu thereof—
26A Page 24, line 8, leave out "step-parent who" and insert "partner of a parent and the partner"
26B Page 24, line 10, leave out "step-parent" and insert "partner"
26C Page 26, line 5, leave out "married"
26D Page 26, line 7, leave out " a step-parent" and insert "the partner of a parent"
26E Page 26, line 15, leave out "married"
26F Page 26, line 22, leave out "married"
26G Page 28, line 19, leave out from "section" to "a" in line 20 and insert "50(2) by the partner of"
26H Page 38, line 19, leave out from beginning to "the" in line 20 and insert "But references in this Chapter to adoption do not include an adoption effected before"
26I Page 38, line 21, end insert— "( ) Any reference in an enactment to an adopted person within the meaning of this Chapter includes a reference to an adopted child within the meaning of Part 4 of the Adoption Act 1976".
26J Page 38, line 23, leave out from "law" to end of line 32 and insert "as if born as the child of the adopters or adopter. (1A) An adopted person is the legitimate child of the adopters or adopter and, if adopted by—
(a) a couple, or
(b) one of a couple under section 50(2), is to be treated as the child of the relationship of the couple in question."
26K Page 38, line 34, leave out paragraph (a) and insert— "(a) if adopted by one of a couple under section 50(2), is to be treated in law as not being the child of any person other than the adopter and the other one of the couple"
26L Page 38, line 40, end insert "or to any other natural relationship"
26M Page 39, line 1, leave out from 'effect" to 'from" in line 3
26N Page 39, leave out line 9 and insert "adoption"
26O Page 39, line 13, leave out from beginning to "adoptive" in line 14 and insert— "() an adopter may be referred to as an adoptive parent or (as the case may be) as an adoptive father or".
26P Page 39, leave out lines 17 to 19 and insert— "( ) Subsection (1) does not affect the interpretation of any reference, not qualified by the word "adoptive", to a relationship".
26Q Page 39, line 19, at end insert— "( ) A reference (however expressed) to the adoptive mother and father of a child adopted by—
(a) a couple of the same sex, or
(b) a partner of the child's parent, where the couple are of the same sex, is to be read as a reference to the child's adoptive parents".
26R Page 39, line 24, leave out "66(1)" and insert "66(1) and (1A)"
26S Page 40, line 10, leave out from "or" to "for" and insert "(if she does so as one of a couple) as the child of the other one of the couple"
26T Page 42, line 8, leave out "person to whom the adopter is married" and insert "other one of the couple"
26U Page 46, line 45, leave out "a married couple" and insert "two people"
26V Page 49, line 39, leave out from "the" to end of line and insert "adopters or adopter"
26W Page 51, line 3, leave out "a step-parent" and insert "the partner of a parent"
26X Page 93, line 40, leave out from "adoption"" to "Adoption" in line 41 and insert "after "1978" there is inserted "or in the"."
26Y Page 94, line 4, leave out from "(1)" to '66" in line 5 and insert "after "1976" there is inserted "or section""
26Z Page 94, line 7, leave out from "(a)" to "(2)(b)" in line 8 and insert "after "39" there is inserted "or subsection"
26AAPage 94, line 9, leave out from "(b)" to "66" in line 10 and insert "after "1976" there is inserted "or section""
26BBPage 94, line 12, leave out from "birth)" to "68(2)" in line 13 and insert "at the end of subsection (2) there is inserted "or section""
26CCPage 94, line 14, end insert— "The Adoption Act 1976 (c. 36)In section 38 of the Adoption Act 1976 (meaning of "adoption" in Part 4), in subsection (2), after "1975" there is inserted "but does not include an adoption of a kind mentioned in paragraphs (c) to (e) of subsection (1) effected on or after the day which is the appointed day for the purposes of Chapter 4 of Part 1 of the Adoption and Children Act 2002"".
26DDPage 101, line 25, leave out paragraph (a) and insert— "(a) for subsection (1)(a) there is substituted—
"(a) a Convention adoption, or an overseas adoption, within the meaning of the Adoption and Children Act 2002, or"".
26EEPage 101, line 28, leave out from "(2)(a)" to "66" in line 29 and insert "after "1976" there is inserted "or section""
26FFPage 101, line 32, leave out from "principle)" to end of line 34 and insert "for paragraph (c) of subsection (3) there is substituted— "(c) is an adopted person within the meaning of Chapter 4 of Part 1 of the Adoption and Children Act 2002"".
26GGPage 101, line 35, leave out from "(5)" to end of line 38 and insert "after "1976" there is inserted "or section 68 of the Adoption and Children Act 2002""
26HHPage 105, line 3, leave out from "mother)" to end of line 4 and insert "in subsection (2), for "child of any person other than the adopter or adopters" there is substituted "woman's child""
26IIPage 105, line 5, leave out from "father)" to end of line 6 and insert "in subsection (5)(c), for "child of any person other than the adopter or adopters" there is substituted "man's child""
26JJPage 105, line 17, leave out from "(3)" to "4" in line 18 and insert "after "1976" there is inserted "or Chapter"
26KKPage 107, line 16, leave out "11 to 13 and 17" and insert "and 11 to 13"
26LLPage 107, line 33 leave out paragraph 99
26MM Page 112, line 14, leave out paragraph 9
26NNPage 114, line 10, leave out paragraph 13
26OOPage 114, line 23, leave out paragraph 15
26PPPage 116, line 10, column 2, at end insert "except Part 4 and paragraph 6 of Schedule 2"
26QQPage 116, column 2, leave out lines 32 and 33
26RRPage 117, line 31, leave out "Section 4"
26SSPage 117, line 46, leave out "Section 85(4)"
26TTPage 119, line 10, at end insert "couple ... section 139(4)"
26UUPage 119, line 27, end insert "partner, in relation to a parent of a child . . . section 139(7)"
My Lords, I beg to move that the House do not insist on their Amendment No. 26 to which the Commons have disagreed and do agree with the Commons in their Amendments Nos. 26A to 26UU in lieu thereof.
On Report, this House debated whether adoption should be permitted by unmarried couples—whether of the opposite or same sex. By a majority of 34 votes, this House asked the other place to think again. The House of Commons has duly reconsidered the matter and, on a free vote on the government side at least, has confirmed its view that adoption by unmarried couples is both right and necessary.
I now ask this House to reconsider its decision, not for the sake of unmarried couples or for the sake of same-sex couples and not even for the sake of married couples. Not one couple in this country, whether married or not or whether opposite sex or not, has any right whatever to adopt. I ask this House to reconsider because I believe that, by so doing, it will immeasurably improve the life chances of hundreds of our most vulnerable children. Those children are central to this debate. Our only consideration should be what is in the best interests of the child. That fundamental principle derives from the Children Act 1989 and is enshrined in the first clause of this Bill.
If we are putting the child first, can there be any doubt that adoption is a much better option for children than growing up in care? On Report, I referred to the outcome statistics for children in care and I believe that they are worth repeating. Half of those under the age of 18 in prison and 26 per cent of all prisoners have been in care at some stage. Up to 20 per cent of all care leavers experience some form of homelessness within two years of leaving care. More than half of all young people leaving care at the age of 16 and over are unemployed. Some estimates put that proportion as high as 80 per cent.
Does any noble Lord present this afternoon need to be convinced that adoption is the better option? Does anyone present today not feel a sense of anger at the neglect and failure of the adoption service over the past 20 years? That neglect and failure were well chronicled in a report to the Prime Minister. It showed that adoption was not being considered for enough children. It showed the delays, where decisions about how to provide secure, stable and permanent placements, including adoption, were not being addressed early enough. It showed where such decisions were not being focused clearly enough or where action was not being taken swiftly. It showed that where plans for permanent placements, including adoption, are made, they are not delivered quickly enough from the point of view of the child's time scales. The report showed that services were not providing the support that families need throughout the process of securing and supporting adoption and permanence.
In 1996, the total time spent in care before final adoption was three years and four months. In 1999–2000, 44 per cent of children had been looked after for three or more years before adoption. Thankfully, that situation is beginning to improve. But far more needs to be done. That is why we introduced the Bill. We did so in order to reform adoption law and to make it more modern. We are introducing national adoption standards so that everyone involved in the adoption process knows what to expect. They will know how long it will take and, no matter where they live, they will receive a fair and consistent service. That is why we are placing a clear duty on councils to provide adoption support services; it is why we are establishing a new legal framework for financial support which will be fairer and more flexible; and it is why we are taking action to reduce delay in court cases involving children.
But none of that will help the children who continue to wait unless we can find suitable adopters for them. New legislation and new initiatives alone will not automatically provide an adequate supply of loving and stable new families. A never-ending number of children come into care. They have desperately sad histories and wait for another chance to be part of a loving family.
There is not a never-ending supply of adoptive families for those children. The British Association for Adoption and Fostering estimates that 5,000 new adoptive parents are needed every year. In January 2001, more than 2,000 children for whom adoption was planned did not have an adoptive family matched with them and have been waiting longer than six months. Thankfully, there is no shortage of adopters for very young infants. But those represent only one in every nine children adopted.
It is desperately sad that some of the children advertised in BAAF's March edition of Be My Parent magazine received no inquiries at all. That magazine featured 431 children waiting for adoption. The association received more than 1,200 inquiries about those children, but 129 children received no inquiries at all. Approximately half of all those children were from minority ethnic groups. Two-thirds of them were boys, and that is the point. It is evident that it continues to be difficult to place boys, black and minority ethnic children and, indeed, large sibling groups. I repeat that 129 children received no inquiries at all. What kind of future can those 129 children look forward to?
It is the firm belief of many adoption agencies and children's societies that permitting unmarried couples to adopt jointly would widen the pool of adopters. Let us reflect on what the British Agencies for Adoption and Fostering say,
"We recognise that many people who actually inquire about adoption are living in stable relationships but are not married".
We know that that deters some people from going ahead because they do not want to differentiate between two adult relationships to a child.
Alternatively, take the Association of Directors of Social Services which says that the reality is that it is very difficult to find families for those children who have had distressing early histories and who may present considerable challenges to new families. That organisation says,
"In our experience, families who succeed with those children can be quite unusual. We do not want to exclude people from the possibility of providing a loving home based on a stereotypical view of what a loving family may look like".
The Catholic Children's Society of Nottingham says,
"While we respect and value a loving married relationship in its entirety, we believe that the amendment to the Bill has the sole purpose of securing the best possible futures for children, who by virtue of their life experience, are unable to remain in their families of birth".
When we debated this matter on Report some of the discussion was more about adoption by single and gay people than adoption by couples. Frankly, I found that surprising. Single people and gay single people already can and do adopt children. Indeed, as the noble and learned Lord, Lord Lloyd of Berwick, pointed out on Report, single people have been able to adopt since 1926. If a single person is in a relationship—an opposite sex or same sex relationship—at the time of their application to adopt, the partner is also assessed. That is right and proper because a child will be entering a new family where the relationship between the adopter parent and his or her partner is bound to have a significant bearing on the success of the child's placement.
However, as the law stands, such a partner cannot adopt. In those circumstances it surely makes no sense for an unmarried couple, whether opposite sex or same sex, not to be able to adopt jointly. How much better would it be for children living in families to have a legal relationship with both their parents rather than with just one and how much more secure would that make children, who inevitably have experienced much insecurity in their young lives, feel?
I have received correspondence from children living in families where only one parent is named on the adoption order. Those children are very clear that they want a legal relationship with two parents—not just one. Indeed, how does one tell a child in those circumstances that there are different levels of importance attached to the two adult partners, one of whom is the legal parent and one of whom is not?
Much has been said in our debates on this issue about the propensity of unmarried relationships to break down. I understand the concern about the breakdown of relationships and the devastating impact that that can have on children. But people in casual or short-term relationships are unlikely to put themselves forward, and if they did, they would not get very far in the process. Serious applicants would come from a self-selecting group, prepared for the tough process that adoption assessment entails. Surely those couples should have the same right to be assessed jointly as prospective adopters as that enjoyed by married couples.
I know full well the joys of a happy marriage and I know full well that not every married couple are happy or bring stability to their children. More than four in 10 marriages end in divorce. Of the married couples divorced in 1994, 56 per cent had children under the age of 16. Not every married couple can provide a suitable home for an adopted child, yet we know that some unmarried couples can provide wonderful homes for such children.
The key is the assessment process through which we can identify with confidence those single people and those couples who have the qualities necessary to be successful adoptive parents. Adoption is about suitability and judgments based on evidence. Generalisations cannot be used to determine an assessment. That would not be in the best interests of children. Assessments cannot be determined on the basis of a perceived hierarchy of relationships. That will not keep children safe. But we can assess each prospective adopter on his or her merits so that an informed decision can be taken as to their suitability to offer a home to a vulnerable child.
For that reason the adopter assessment process is critical. It is very tough. Some potential adopters feel that it is too tough and too intrusive. That is why adopters often drop out of the process at an early stage. But the assessment process must be tough, whether for married couples or for single people, or potentially in the future for unmarried couples.
I shall describe it. Once an initial inquiry has been made about adoption, the adoption agency asks prospective adopters to an information meeting, where they can meet and speak to social workers and adoptive parents and the adoptive parents can tell them at first hand about adopting a child and of the challenges and the rewards. The social worker will answer any questions that they have about what happens or about the children who need permanent new homes.
Then a social worker will arrange to meet with the prospective adopters. That meeting gives the prospective adopters an opportunity to find out much more about what will happen if they decide to go ahead. Also the social worker will discuss with them what they want out of adoption and what they feel that they can offer a child. If at that point the social worker feels that it is not a serious application or that there is no evidence of a secure relationship, or no evidence of joint commitment, he or she raises very serious questions and the process is unlikely to go further.
If the prospective adopters decide to go ahead they need to fill in an application form. They will be asked to give permission for checks to be made. If the application is accepted, the prospective adopters will begin a longer period of preparation, assessment and training. Preparation is a time when they can find out about adoption in much more detail. They can also undertake some very important thinking about making a lifetime commitment to a child: what it means and whether they can do it. Part of the adoption agency's job is to give them that information, including the kinds of children available in the local area.
During that period of preparation, the agency will begin to assess the prospective adopters' suitability to adopt by building up a thorough profile of them. That is known as the home study. The home study is demanding; it can feel intrusive and it will take several months to complete. But at the end of the study the prospective adopters and the social workers will work together to produce a home study report. That report includes a detailed assessment of them as potential adoptive parents, along with the results of medical, police and local authority checks and personal references.
That study goes forward to an adoption panel. The prospective adopters' social worker attends that panel and the prospective adopters may also be asked to attend. The panel will recommend whether or not the prospective adopters should be approved as adoptive parents. Once approved the agency will begin to consider whether there are children waiting for adoption who may be a suitable match. Once a child or children have been identified as possibly suitable, full information about their background will be given. If the approved adopters wish to proceed, they will meet the child or children. If they all agree, and after a gradual period of introduction, the child or children will be placed with the approved adopters.
When the approved adopters and the child or children feel that they have all successfully settled down as a family, they will be able to apply to the court for an adoption order to be made. It has of course to be agreed by the courts. If the courts are not satisfied, they can reject that application. Courts have been agreeing to orders concerning married couples and single adopters, whether heterosexual or gay.
I have described the adopter assessment process in detail because I believe that it is essential to an understanding of what a tough, demanding and intensive process it should be. And it should be. It reinforces a fundamental principle at the heart of the Bill: the paramount interest of the child. That adopter assessment process will be gone through by anyone who wishes to adopt—married or unmarried, heterosexual or gay. Surely, that is the only test that must be applied, with the courts making the final judgment as to whether each adoption is in the best interests of the child.
"There would be serious problems if the law is not changed in my view and only married couples or single people remain able to adopt".
Bishop Thompson said:
"In my own Ministry often amongst children totally deprived of love, I have seen single parents abandoned by their husband or wife give exceptional care. I have also known many gay teachers, doctors, clergy, nurses and others who have demonstrated a lifetime of dedicated care of children, and indeed of people of all ages. I know of an eight-year-old child who had been through three failed placements with foster carers who was eventually adopted by a lesbian who had a partner. The child has now had five stable loving years of necessary individual attention and the future looks full of hope. I have also known married couples who, together with their natural children, have nearly been destroyed by being too brave in adopting a child who demanded all their attention".
"The essential is to create as warm, secure and loving an environment for a child as is possible, and we have to get real about both the children and the qualities required in adoptive parents. The widening of the possible choice of adoptive parents is not a failed ideal but a truly compassionate and, I believe, Christian realism to help provide extremely vulnerable children with what they most need, a loving home".
Surely, the bishop is right. Reflect on the poor outcomes for so many children left in care for year after year. Reflect on those children for whom no inquiries are made from potential adopters. Single people, heterosexual or gay, can and do adopt. What can be the objection to unmarried couples adopting with the added security it will give to children and the extension of the potential pool of adopters?
If a person or couple—married or unmarried, straight or gay—is willing to go through this intense process and is ultimately approved by the courts, should we really seek to prevent them so doing? I do not think that the children who continue to wait will thank us if we do.
Moved, That the House do not insist on their Amendment No. 26 to which the Commons have disagreed and do agree with the Commons in their Amendments Nos. 26A to 26UU in lieu thereof.—(Lord Hunt of Kings Heath.)
rose to move, as an amendment to the Motion that the House do not insist on their Amendment No. 26 to which the Commons have disagreed, and do agree with the Commons in their Amendments Nos. 26A to 26UU in lieu thereof, leave out from "House" to end and insert "do insist on their Amendment No. 26".
My Lords, the House will be grateful to the Minister for his introductory speech, which mapped out very succinctly the important issues that we are debating today. It is perhaps right that we should remind ourselves how good a Bill this is. Noble Lords from all parties and from none have supported it and have helped to improve it. We all want it to become law for the sake of the many vulnerable children whom we believe it can help in finding loving and supporting families.
We are left today however with one stand-alone issue that we have to resolve. Nearly three weeks ago your Lordships approved a series of amendments standing in my name; the effect of which was to reject the proposal made in another place that unmarried couples and same sex couples should be eligible to adopt children. Yesterday, the House of Commons disagreed with the opinion of your Lordships. It therefore falls to us today to decide whether we wish to ask the other place to think again about this important matter for a second time.
I am quite clear that the decision taken by this House on 16th October was the right one. I shall explain why. But in so doing, I preface my remarks by making one thing plain: I have always recognised that those who have campaigned for a change in the law in this area act from honourable motives. I would go further than that and say that I acknowledge the emotional force of some arguments advanced in support of such a change.
This is without doubt an issue with arguments on both sides. But my position can be summed up very simply. The rational arguments for change, when put under the microscope, do not withstand close scrutiny. Indeed, some turn out not to be arguments at all but rather assertions, unsupported by any evidence whatever.
I have looked very closely at all these arguments and my firm belief is that they are outweighed, and outweighed heavily, by the considerations that I outlined to your Lordships on Third Reading. I briefly remind the House what those considerations are. Unmarried relationships are, as a generality, much less stable and less enduring than marriages, especially those relationships where there are also children. Stability and permanence in a parental relationship are acknowledged by everyone and acknowledged in the Bill as the cornerstone of a successful adoption.
If we know—as we do—that the rate of break-up among unmarried couples with a child is six-and-a-half times greater than the break-up rate of married couples with a child, then we cannot say that as a rule cohabiting parents offer a better prospect of stability to a child than do married parents.
I start therefore from the premise that the optimum environment for raising children is marriage. Indeed, there is compelling and well-authenticated evidence that children brought up by two parents who are married fare better under every measure that one can name than children brought up by those in less formal relationships—success at school, emotional stability, employment prospects and the avoidance of the terrible traps of drugs, teenage pregnancy and crime. All those desirable characteristics are much more likely to be evidenced in children who are brought up by married parents.
That is not to say that all married parents are equally successful or that unmarried parents are incapable of achieving the same result—of course not. But we need to remember one thing. Children who are adopted are different in one very important respect from children who are not adopted: they are almost always exceedingly vulnerable and frequently very damaged. Many have suffered emotional and physical neglect. Some have been abused and some have learning difficulties with emotional damage. Those are the children who, if they are left to the tender mercies of the care system, are all too likely to wind up unqualified, unemployed, on drugs or in prison. The difficulties presented by such children can be formidable. That is why the Bill should aim for the best for such children. If we believe that the best is, as a general rule, adoption by a married couple, we must examine extremely carefully why we should accept something that falls short of it.
My Lords, I was not aware of that because no noble Lord had told me that specifically. I am grateful to the noble Lord for that information. He may want to address that point to my noble friend Lord Jenkin of Roding when he speaks.
Three main arguments are advanced by the proponents of change, which need to be stripped down and examined. The first is that at present, insufficient children are being adopted and we therefore need to widen the pool of potential adopters to include couples, including gay couples, who are not married. To me at least, that argument has real emotional force. There are indeed children, usually those with particularly difficult histories, who will never manage to find adoptive parents. If only we allowed unmarried and gay couples to adopt, so the argument runs, those children would have a better chance of finding loving homes.
That argument ignores one important and rather obvious fact. Individuals, both heterosexual and homosexual are, as the Minister said, already eligible to adopt children under current law. It is not self-evident to me that widening the pool of potential joint adopters will result in a greater number of children being adopted. There is no evidence for that. There is no evidence that there are a lot of unmarried couples who are put off the thought of adopting merely because only one of them can legally become the adoptive parent. Widening the pool was the same argument used in a similar attempt to increase the number of foster carers some years ago. It has not succeeded and that should not surprise us.
We must consider the bigger picture. At present, there are roughly 11 million married couples in the United Kingdom. That is already an enormous pool of people. Only a tiny fraction of 1 per cent of those people would need to come forward as adopters who would not otherwise have done so for the Government's adoption target to be met. There is no shortage of potential adopters. The current problem relates much more to the off-putting adoption system and the failure of many local authorities to place children for adoption in the first place.
We should remember that the White Paper forecast an increase in the number of adoptions of 40 to 50 per cent once the Bill was enacted. That forecast relied on the eligibility criteria remaining as they are—in other words, limited to married couples and single individuals only. The Government's confidence that they will achieve their adoption target on that basis is one that we can share. Almost two years ago, when the House first debated the White Paper, the noble Lord, Lord Hunt of Kings Heath, said:
"Many of the problems that we currently face with the shortage of adoptive parents stem from the number of hurdles that they have to go through, which can lead to them becoming discouraged or finding the process very off-putting".—[Official Report, 21/12/00; col. 843.]
The noble Lord could not have been more right. That is exactly the problem.
We would do well to remind ourselves of some of the matters that we have been debating during the past few months. The Bill as a whole provides the means by which the problems referred to by the Minister can be tackled and, hopefully, eliminated. I think particularly of the nationwide rolling out of adoption support services. Some local authorities succeed at placing children for adoption at five times the rate of others. The Bill will spur the worst of those to raise their game to the level of the best. Achieving that does not depend in the least on extending adoptive rights to unmarried couples.
I said a moment ago—I have used this argument consistently—that, as a matter of experience, marriage provides the optimum environment for bringing up children. That statement is the focus of the second main argument advanced by the proponents of change. They maintain that to talk about generalities in this context is irrelevant because of what will emerge from the assessment process. Every couple wanting to adopt will be subject to rigorous assessment that, among other things, will determine the stability and durability of their relationship.
I have no problem agreeing that adoption assessments uncover a great deal of information about a couple that bears directly on their suitability as potential adopters. That is a vital procedure. I do not accept that assessment can provide a sure test of the stability and permanence of a couple's relationship. One distinction between marriage and an informal kind of relationship is the fact that when two people get married, they make a lifelong commitment to each other. For me, the commitment of those two people to each other is a prerequisite for their adopting as a couple, because it underpins the commitment that they will need to make as a couple to an adopted child.
Those who argue that the assessment process will flush out the degree of commitment that exists between unmarried partners seem to be saying that that is all we need. But, with great respect to them, I do not see how that can possibly be true. Two people who live together but who are not prepared to marry are implicitly signalling that they do not regard themselves as being in a permanent, lifelong relationship.
My Lords, I am sorry that I have upset the noble Earl, which I would never willingly do, but I think that he has misconstrued me. He will know, as do I, that statistically, 60 per cent of people who live together go on to get married. I do not frown on that in any way. The context in which I am speaking is that of the long-term stability given to an adopted child. I had no intention of offending the noble Earl's sensibilities.
Two people who live together but who are not prepared to marry are signalling that they are committed to each other only up to a certain level. They may say that they are committed to each other permanently, but they have not actually gone out to do the one thing that would prove that. So if we are looking for the best indicator of a couple's commitment to a stable and permanent relationship, would we rather place our reliance on the judgment of social workers or on something much more obvious and visible: the public commitment to a lifelong relationship evidenced by marriage? To do the former would be a risk, and an entirely unnecessary one.
That brings me to a broader issue. One of the main difficulties at present with the idea of unmarried and same-sex couples being allowed to adopt is that those informal relationships enjoy no protection or underpinning in law. Those who believe in using the Bill to change the eligibility criteria for adopters must show why it is sensible to grant rights and responsibilities to unmarried partnerships without having defined the precise status of those partnerships in law.
A consultation paper on civil partnerships is currently circulating. The ramifications of civil partnerships, both legal and fiscal, are considerable, but it is perfectly possible that, if there were to be comprehensive and well thought through legislation on civil partnerships, it might provide the basis on which unmarried and same-sex couples could become adopters. At the moment, though, the necessary legal framework does not exist. If unmarried couples were allowed to adopt under this Bill, we would be pre-empting the outcome of the Government's consultation on civil partnerships in a major respect. The Minister in another place, Jacqui Smith, specifically warned about that last year. She said that it was,
"premature to commit to any changes until a comprehensive analysis of the issues and their implications had been completed".
She went on to say:
"We believe that it is better to consider adoption by unmarried couples in the wider context of partnership registration than in isolation".—[Official Report, Commons Special Standing Committee, 29/11/01; col. 383.]
The issue is especially significant in the context of property rights. Marriages can break down, but, if they do, the matrimonial court will decide on the distribution of the couple's assets in a manner that protects the welfare of the child to the maximum extent. If an unmarried or homosexual relationship breaks down, neither partner has an automatic right to the other's property. A co-habitee can be left with nothing. As legislators, we should not contemplate allowing a vulnerable adopted child to be caught up in the middle of that. Again, the Minister, Jacqui Smith, emphasised that very point in Special Standing Committee.
We need only read the recent report of the Law Commission on the subject to appreciate that the property rights of unmarried co-habitees are, at best, fraught with uncertainty. That is one of the main reasons why we ought to wait for a civil partnerships Bill, before seriously considering the possibility of granting adoption rights to unmarried and same-sex couples.
My Lords, I suggest that we hear the noble Lord, Lord Waddington, first and then the noble Lord, Lord Lester of Herne Hill.
My Lords, I want my noble friend Lord Howe to help me with one small matter. Is it not clear that, when the Government introduced the Bill, they did not consider it necessary to extend the right to adopt to unmarried couples in order to see the purpose of the Bill fulfilled and more children adopted? Does my noble friend know of any new evidence that has emerged since the Government first introduced the Bill that would account for the Government's complete change of mind?
My Lords, my noble friend is right. When it first entered the other place, the Bill was in the state that it was in when it left your Lordships' House nearly three weeks ago. I know of no evidence that might have persuaded the Government to change their mind. Indeed, I do not believe that, as a whole, the Government have changed their mind. We have not heard a statement from the Government that their policy has changed; we have heard statements from individual Ministers. That is a peculiar state of affairs.
My Lords, I listened with particular care to what the noble Earl just said about civil partnerships because of my Private Member's Bill. Am I right in thinking that he and his party said that they would oppose a civil registration scheme for heterosexual unmarried partners but favour it for gay and lesbian partners? Was not that the position taken by the noble Earl's party, and is it not still the position taken to this day?
My Lords, the position of my party is that we will look constructively and sympathetically at any legislation proposed by the Government in this area. I can go no further; we await such a Bill.
The third main argument advanced by the proponents of change is the human rights argument. Last week, the Joint Committee on Human Rights published a report that concluded that the Bill, as amended by your Lordships, gave rise to potential violations of Article 14 of the European Convention on Human Rights, combined with Article 8, and of Article 26 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. I find myself at something of a disadvantage in the matter, since, unlike my noble friend Lord Campbell of Alloway and the noble Lord, Lord Lester of Herne Hill—two of the distinguished members of the committee—I am not a lawyer. Despite that handicap, I can say with considerable confidence that that report need not influence your Lordships' thinking to any great degree, if at all. I say that not simply because I have in front of me counsel's opinion, which concludes that the report is fundamentally flawed. It might be said that it is just another lawyer's opinion. I say it because it is clear to anyone that there is more than one way to interpret human rights.
For a start, which report of the Joint Committee are we to believe? Do we believe last week's report or the report published by the selfsame committee last December? I remind your Lordships that, at that time, the Bill proposed what was then—no doubt, still is, as I said—the Government's policy that only married couples and single individuals should be eligible to adopt children. That is exactly the policy that I advocate today. Last December's report concluded that the Bill contained no human rights difficulties at all. The Secretary of State, Mr Milburn, signed a statement of compatibility on the Bill as it originally stood, certifying that, in his view, the Bill was ECHR compliant. He would not have made such a statement, unless he had received advice from the Government Law Officers that it was safe to do so.
The Secretary of State may also have been influenced by the knowledge of our obligations under the 1967 European Convention on the Adoption of Children, which specifically restricts adoption to married couples and single individuals. That convention post-dates the signing of the ECHR, and the Joint Committee failed to mention it in its report last week.
Those who wish to change the Bill and the existing law have not made their case. The change that they seek is unnecessary, extremely risky and divorced from any coherent legal framework. For us to approve what the other place asks us to, when so much is at stake, would be thoroughly irresponsible. Therefore, I beg to move.
Moved, as an amendment to the Motion that the House do not insist on their Amendment No. 26 to which the Commons have disagreed, and do agree with the Commons in their Amendments Nos. 26A to 26UU in lieu thereof, leave out from "House" to end and insert "do insist on their Amendment No. 26".—(Earl Howe.)
My Lords, I rise early in the debate to correct something that I said on Report. I regret to say that it was not one of your Lordships who spotted the error but a member of the public—a Mr Jarvis—who seems to read my speeches with close attention.
I referred to a Scottish case in which the noble and learned Lord, Lord Hope of Craighead, gave the leading speech. The case concerned a very disabled boy, and the prospective adopter was a male nurse who was also a homosexual. At col. 879 of Hansard of 16th October, I referred to the case as a good example of an adoption order that had been made in favour of a single homosexual. I might have taken several other reported cases, but I chose to take that one. At the end of my speech, when I came back to that case, I inadvertently referred to the "prospective adopters"—in the plural. That was wrong. The law of England is the same as the law of Scotland, then as now. The only couples who can adopt are married couples. I apologise for that error; I hope that it has not misled any of your Lordships.
I am glad to have gone back to the case. On its facts, it was remarkable. The application was made on the express understanding that the child would be brought up jointly by the male nurse and his partner. The Lord Ordinary thought that that raised an important new point of principle, but the court disagreed. The case raised no important question of principle. It was simply a question of what was best for that child in those circumstances. Accordingly, the adoption order was made.
Rereading the case has made me wonder what the noble Earl's amendment is really about, at least so far as it affects homosexual couples. Is he intending to make it unlawful for children to be brought up by two homosexuals living together on the grounds so often heard that that will mean that as they grow up they will have two "mothers" or two "fathers"? If that is his intention, I must inform the noble Earl and the House that the amendment will not achieve that result. Until we turn to the amendment proposed by the noble Lord, Lord Jenkins, there is no amendment to exclude a single homosexual from the operation of Clause 50. If the amendment is passed—indeed, whether the amendment is passed or not—it will not affect in any way the validity of the Scottish case. As I think that he accepts, it will still be perfectly lawful for a single homosexual to apply for an adoption order on the basis that he and his partner will bring up the child jointly. However, if the noble Earl is content, as apparently he is content, that it should be lawful for a homosexual couple to bring up children together in that way—obviously where that is in the best interests of the child—what exactly is the advantage of making the adoption order in favour of one of those two, and not both?
That brings me to the question which the noble Baroness, Lady Strange, asked me on the previous occasion and which I failed altogether to answer, and to some of the points raised by the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Winchester. The noble Baroness was correct. Adoption does indeed involve a legal relationship, as does marriage. I can understand, although I do not agree with, the argument that if as prospective adopters a heterosexual couple are unwilling to enter into one of those legal relationships, they should not be permitted to enter into the other.
How does that argument apply in the case of homosexual couples? Since homosexual couples cannot marry, it is surely better that they should both enter into a legal relationship with the child, rather than one only. They can only do that by both becoming adopters in law.
I agree with every word that the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Winchester said about marriage and the importance of upholding marriage. But again how does that argument apply in the case of homosexual couples unless it is argued that single homosexuals should not be permitted to adopt, or perhaps only on the basis that they enter into some kind of vow of chastity? It seems to me that the question of homosexual couples and whether they should be allowed to adopt or not can have nothing to do with the question of whether we want to support the institution of marriage. It has everything to do with human beings as they are.
There is another point. Some of your Lordships may have professional experience—some perhaps even personal experience—of bringing up children who are severely disabled or damaged. I have no such experience myself. I suspect that it can be a daunting task physically, spiritually and emotionally. I can well imagine that a single homosexual might feel unable to undertake that task unless he can share the burden with his partner. Here I come close to the points made by the noble Lord, Lord Alli, in his remarkable speech three weeks ago.
If a homosexual couple are going to share the burden of bringing up a child, is it not better that they should also share the legal responsibility? Over and over again last time, and again I suspect today, I find myself asking: why on earth not? It may be that some of those who spoke or voted in favour of the amendment on the previous occasion did so because of a concern that there will be a flood of homosexual adoptions and that heterosexual couples will somehow lose out. I do not believe that to be the case for one moment.
I do not know what the number of current homosexual adoptions is: I suspect that it is quite small. It may be that there will be an increase in the number of those adoptions. Again, I would suspect that it would be quite small—perhaps very small indeed. Why do I think that? It is because the natural inclination both of those who take the first filtering decision in all adoption cases, and indeed of the learned judge, will be in favour, let us put it this way, of a heterosexual couple. At any rate, the judge will not make an order in favour of a homosexual couple unless he is satisfied—as any human being can be satisfied in matters of this kind—that that is in the best interests of the child.
My Lords, why does the noble and learned Lord believe that married couples will be favoured automatically? If the Government's wish prevailed and they were automatically favoured, surely that would be discriminatory against heterosexual couples cohabiting or homosexual couples of whichever gender.
My Lords, it is important that we should get away from any notion of discriminating in the case of a married couple, an unmarried couple or a homosexual couple because that is not what happens in practice.
My Lords, that is so because a large number of all adoptions—I cannot remember the exact percentage—are heterosexual adoptions. That is bound to be so. However, I assure the noble Baroness, Lady O'Cathain, that what we are concerned with is not a question of discrimination; it is a question of finding the right people to adopt the particular child in question.
My point is that the actual increase in homosexual adoption—and I see no reason why this should not be the case—will not be great. I cannot say minimal, but it will not be great because whole number is not great. That is the position and if we can put that question on one side—and I ask noble Lords particularly on the Conservative Benches to try to do that—the question is: what is left?
What is left is the widening gap between those who are suitable to adopt, willing to adopt and able to adopt and those who are in need of adoption. There may be other ways of making a start in filling that gap—and in this very Bill we are making a good start in filling that gap—but we will make an effective impact on that gap only if we take what I argue is the most obvious course; that is, to allow unmarried couples to adopt by including them among those who are eligible to do so.
On that aspect, I agree with every single word spoken by the noble Lord, Lord Jenkin of Roding, on the previous occasion. However, with great respect, I do not agree with what fell from the Bishops' Benches on that occasion. I have no idea how many new adoption orders will be made if we widen the pool to include heterosexual unmarried couples. I have no idea, but, despite what the right reverend Prelates say, if there were only one unmarried couple suitable, willing and able to adopt one child in need of adoption who would otherwise spend the rest of his childhood in a children's home, that child's need must come first.
Although it has been said often, I need to repeat the fact that this has nothing whatever to do with the rights of unmarried couples to adopt. It has nothing whatever to do with the rights of homosexual couples to adopt. I regret very much the timing of the report of the Human Rights Joint Committee which can only muddy the waters. I will say nothing whatever about the contents of that report because we are not concerned with human rights in any shape or form. We are concerned with human needs; the needs of children to spend the rest of their childhood, if at all possible, in a loving home of their own.
Finally, I will conclude by quoting the very wise words of Lord Kilbrandon in a case which came before this House in 1977. I am pleased to be able to say that my noble and learned friend Lord Wilberforce was a party to that decision, although it seems a long time ago. Lord Kilbrandon said:
"it could easily be productive of injustice if one were to attempt any hard and fast rule as to the attitude which the courts ought to adopt, in custody, access or adoption matters, towards those whose sexual abnormalities have denied them the possibility of a normal family life. This is because it is not possible to generalise about homosexuals, or fair to treat them as other than personalities demanding the assessment appropriate to their several individualities in exactly the same way as each heterosexual member of society must be regarded as a person, not as a member of a class or herd. Naturally, in a family law context, the fact of homosexual conduct cannot be ignored, but no more can the consequences of taking it into account be standardised".
Those are very wise words and I hope that noble Lords will have them well in mind when we come to vote on these amendments.
My Lords, we have heard three very powerful speeches, particularly those from the Front Bench. They starkly showed up the differences of opinion which divided the House when we last debated the matter on 16th October.
The Motion which I have tabled with the amendment attached rejects this all-or-nothing approach. Both my noble friend and the Minister referred frequently to unmarried couples, drawing no distinction whatever between couples which consist of a man and a woman and couples which consist of either two men or two women. My Amendment No. 26AC, with Amendment No. 26AD attached to it, makes it clear that I agree with everything the Minister said about unmarried couples which consist of a man and a woman. On the previous occasion I used the word "heterosexual". I can only refer noble Lords to the note on page 6 of the report of the Human Rights Joint Committee to get a good laugh as to what that committee thought about the word "heterosexual". It was clearly wanting to lift the sheets to see whether they were at it. On the other hand, I reject the idea of the law opening the door to adoption by two same-sex people.
The noble and learned Lord, Lord Lloyd of Berwick, was honest with the House when he confessed that he had got one case wrong last time. I, too, got something wrong last time. When I rose to intervene in the closing speech of my noble friend Lord Howe I said that no noble Lord had supported my amendment and indicated that in those circumstances I would not feel it right to try to move it. I could not have been more wrong.
I was right about what was said in the debate; no speech was made in favour of my amendment. However, as a number of noble Lords may have observed during the Division on my noble friend's amendment, I was—and I use the word advisedly—besieged by noble Lords from all parts of the House expressing their dismay that I was not going to move my amendment. Some, I know, went into my noble friend's Lobby very much as second best. They would much rather have voted for an amendment as I then had it on the Marshalled List and as I have it now.
In the past two-and-a-half weeks since that date, many other noble Lords have indicated that my amendment would have their support. I have therefore been encouraged to re-table it and it appears on the Marshalled List as Amendment No. 26AD.
Last time it would have been open to me to move it, whatever the outcome of the first vote. I was not pre-empted. This time, due to the technicalities of the drafting of the Motions—not the amendments but the Motions—to agree or disagree, if my noble friend's Motion is carried, I will be pre-empted. The House will not have an opportunity to vote on the amendments that I have tabled. If noble Lords want to vote "yes" to an unmarried man and woman couple but "no" to a same-sex couple, it will be necessary in the first instance that my noble friend's amendment be not carried. If it is carried, I will not have a chance to put that question and seek the opinion of the House.
What about the case? I will try to be brief because I know that many noble Lords want to speak. The case for widening the circle of prospective adopters to include unmarried couples is based, as the Minister made very clear, on three propositions. The first is the need to find more stable families willing to adopt the difficult, older children and reduce the numbers in local authority homes. The state is not a good parent and anyone who has studied the Waterhouse report will have to say "Hear, hear" to that.
The second reason is that we live in a period of great social change in the patterns of family life. Sadly, a rise in broken marriages and a rising divorce rate are features of life today. Equally, there are many more long-term stable relationships where couples decide, for whatever reason, not to marry. I agree with the Minister that the stringency and thoroughness of the assessment process and its emphasis on the stability, continuity and commitment of prospective adopters will be able to sort out a great many short-term unmarried relationships—and we all know about that—from the long-term stable ones. If that process is carried out equally rigorously on unmarried couples and married couples, the risks of breakdown must be very comparable.
It does not help, as some noble Lords have said, to quote overall figures for the short-lived nature of unmarried unions because they include a very large number of young people who may live together for a while before they get married or live together and then move to another partner. We know that this happens. As I said on the previous occasion, noble Lords will have come across this kind of situation within their own families.
The third reason emphasised by the Minister is that single people in informal relationships can and do adopt—but it must be desirable that a child should stand in a legal relationship with both an adoptive father and an adoptive mother. I stress those two words. Adding unmarried couples consisting of a man and a woman to the pool of adopters available will achieve that, and we should accept that proposition.
I turn now to the second leg of my amendment, which states,
"but shall not cover couples of the same sex".
On Report, I quoted from a paper where a Barnardo's research officer argued that the Bill should be extended in the way that the Government appear to wish. She said that there,
"has been no research specifically on outcomes for children adopted or fostered by lesbians or gay men".
The noble Earl, Lord Russell, chose to interpret this as,
"no research at all on the effect on children of homosexual couples".—[Official Report, 16/10/02; cols. 890-891.]
But that is not what I said. I recognise that research has been carried out where one of the partners in a same sex relationship is the natural parent of a child who then goes on to live in a gay or lesbian household, but one of the parents is already a natural parent of the child.
My Lords, I am deeply grateful to the noble Earl. I thought it right to mention this to him beforehand. I am glad that we have resolved the differences.
There has been research on children where one of the parents is the natural parent, but there has been none on children adopted or fostered into such households. The question, therefore, is whether we really need to open this door.
Of course, as the noble and learned Lord, Lord Lloyd, said, it is open to the courts to approve adoption by one partner in a same-sex relationship. I agree with him, too, that this very rarely happens; it is not the most common event. Indeed, in the hierarchy—and I know that some adoption agencies reject the concept of a hierarchy—that would come at the bottom of the list. It would be married couples first and same sex relationships at the bottom.
But the case made by the noble and learned Lord for giving both partners in a same sex relationship the legal status of adoptive parents is very much weaker than the case where there is both a father and a mother. I cannot be convinced that the well-being of an adopted child with two fathers or two mothers is significantly enhanced by going through the motions of giving them both legal status. I do not believe that the country is ready to accept that adoption by same sex couples should have legal equivalence—for that is what is being sought—to adoption by a couple consisting of a man and a woman. It is for that reason that if my amendment is called, as it may or may not be—
My Lords, before the noble Lord sits down, does he recall that at the opening of my speech on Report I apologised for being slow on the draw in not having asked him but having asked the noble and learned Lord, Lord Lloyd, whether or not this proposal would be fatally flawed by litigation in this country under European human rights legislation? He was not keen on answering that question. I therefore said that I looked forward to hearing the noble Lord's answer in due course because he had addressed the House at length on an amendment which he did not move.
In the interim, the noble Lord obtained from the Christian Society an opinion of counsel that his proposal would be fatally flawed. He handed that to me—I was very grateful—and then, at the very end, the noble Lord withdrew his amendment. Is not the reason for the noble Lord withdrawing his amendment on the previous occasion that he was persuaded by the opinion of counsel, provided to him by the Christian Society, which he read and then handed to me before making his concession and withdrawing his amendment?
My Lords, I can answer the question of the noble and learned Lord, Lord Ackner, by saying no. That was one opinion, but I spent the weekend—perhaps rather fruitlessly—reading not only the report of the Joint Committee on Human Rights but the whole of the judgment in the Frette case in the European Court of Human Rights on which the legal adviser to the Joint Committee based his advice. By Sunday evening I had come to exactly the same conclusion as the Government: we should not pay any attention whatever to the Joint Committee's report. I believe it to be nonsense and full of factual errors. The fact that in the other place the Minister devoted only eight lines of her speech to the issue at the end of a very long debate—the Minister in this House has not mentioned the report at all—would indicate, I suggest to the noble and learned Lord, Lord Ackner, that we can leave aside that consideration. This matter can be decided in the courts in this country under existing law. Of course such matters are open to challenge, but like my noble friend I do not believe that we should consider that factor as determining our position.
The other place has rejected my noble friend Lord Howe's proposition on at least three occasions, most recently when it rejected the amendment passed by this House on 16th October. Why should we suppose that if we send it back again it will not meet the same fate? If we try to do that, surely we risk Mr Speaker saying that there is deadlock and the Bill will fall. None of us wants that; we all agree that it is an extremely good Bill.
But if, as I hope, my noble friend Lord Howe's Motion is not carried and I can move my Motion, we shall be offering the other place a compromise that the country as a whole would approve and that the Government would be wise to accept.
My Lords, we all agree that adoption should be for the benefit of children, not adults. So the Government's commitment to put the child's welfare at the centre of the adoption process must be strongly supported.
As the noble Lord, Lord Hunt, reminded us, too many children are remaining in local authority care, which is sometimes inadequate and invariably impermanent, who deserve the opportunity to be welcomed into a loving, stable and committed home environment. The current shortage of adoptive parents, often stemming as we have heard from the number of hurdles in the adoptive process that have to be overcome, needs to be reversed. Much in the Bill tackles that.
The Minister referred to Bishop Jim and "Thought for the Day". I hope that he will continue to listen to "Thought for the Day" and be strong in his support for its retention. Bishop Jim and I agree on many matters, but on this issue we are at variance. Many in this Chamber voted against extending the opportunity for joint adoption to unmarried couples, both heterosexual and same sex, because we believe that it would be disruptive to the aims and objectives of what is otherwise an excellent and timely Bill.
If the welfare of the child is the paramount concern, we need to take seriously the damage that could be incurred by a child placed with a cohabiting couple. All potential adoptive children have an in-built vulnerability, including an understandable inevitable confusion of origin and identity, often stemming from deep feelings of rejection.
For many years I have been closely involved with adoption issues. I am convinced that there are significant risks—
My Lords, does the right reverend Prelate believe that it is better for a child to be brought up in care than by an unmarried couple, however short of ideal that may be?
My Lords, that is a persuasive point that has been made repeatedly. But there must be particular emphasis on encouraging more married couples to come into the adoption pool.
I am convinced that there are significant risks to a child's psychological development in growing up with two parents of the same gender, just as there are risks of a different but no less real kind when the adoptive parents are not formally committed to staying together.
It is argued that because the majority of those whose life chances would be vastly improved by adoption are older children and many have special needs, the pool of potential adopters should be widened to include cohabiting heterosexual and same-sex couples. But surely that is not a convincing argument. Older adoptive children often require and deserve even greater assurance of stability and security which the long-term life-long commitment of a married couple can best provide.
The sad reality is that there is only too clear evidence that, notwithstanding the rates of marriage breakdown, heterosexual relationships short of marriage are statistically much less secure and more prone to dissolution than marriages, as are same-sex relationships.
It can too easily be forgotten that the clause in the Bill stating,
"The paramount consideration must be the child's welfare", is completed with the words—
My Lords, the right reverend Prelate referred to an argument used many times that unmarried couples have less stable relationships than married couples. Perhaps he might consider the following case: two couples who have had exactly the same history; each person had two short-term serious relationships and then settled down for life. One couple have settled down for life by marrying; the other couple have settled down for life as partners without marrying.
Using the right reverend Prelate's argument, statistically the married couple would appear to be far more stable because we measure their stability only when they are married, whereas the couple who decided not to marry would be defined as not stable because they have each had three unmarried relationships. Yet we know that the history of the two couples is exactly the same. Is not the right reverend Prelate's statistical argument bogus?
My Lords, that is a scenario to which I can respond with some warmth, but the argument is essentially flawed. The married couple are making a public declaration in law to be committed to one another for life. That is the distinct difference.
In the previous debate on the issue I said that not only do I believe that the Judaeo-Christian ethic is clearly contrary to any change in the present law on this issue, but it also emphasises that it is within the context of the committed heterosexual relationship of marriage that the paramount interests of the child are best served. We spoke of children being neither pawns nor trophies. Less still should they be in the front line of what is effectively an experiment in social engineering. They need and deserve to be cared for and nurtured—
My Lords, can the right reverend Prelate explain to us why this experiment in "social engineering" is so significant when we have an assessment process that is extraordinarily rigorous? Can he also explain how that assessment is a higher risk than the public pledge that both he and the noble Earl have made much of, which has a 40 per cent failure rate in terms of marriages that break down?
My Lords, the noble Lord makes an important point. However, I still resist that view. I believe that the phrase "social engineering" is valid because we are moving into uncharted territory with the direction that this amendment is taking. I am concerned that that basis should be safeguarded as much as possible.
Children need and deserve to be cared for and nurtured, ideally within a home environment in which the complementarity of the sexes is expressed by a male and a female parent, committed to one another—
My Lords, I apologise for interrupting the right reverend Prelate, who speaks with great authority. However, from my personal experience, I have to check him on one point. I do not know how many Members of this House were brought up in care, but I was. If we put obstacles in the way of a child in care being taken into a happy and loving home, whatever origin you are talking from—whether Christian, or whatever—surely that is totally cruel and unjust. I hope that that view will be considered. Looking back over 50 years, I know how children in care are feeling. Frankly, if we are talking about depriving them of an opportunity to be taken into a loving and stable home, that would be appalling.
My Lords, I understand the noble Baroness's point of view. Earlier in my address, I mentioned that I have much personal involvement, interest, and concern with adoption issues.
This Government have consistently stated that they want to sustain the particular position of marriage as the fundamental reference point for family life and adult relationships. I cannot see how Parliament can responsibly allow the committing of children and young people for life to couples who are not committed to each other, publicly and in law, for life.
My Lords, I rise to support the Government's group of amendments, and to oppose those tabled in the names of the noble Earl, Lord Howe, and the noble Lord, Lord Jenkin of Roding, which I believe to be clearly discriminatory.
As we have said throughout these debates, the main consideration in regard to the adoption of children is their well-being. To achieve that for the maximum number of children, we must widen the net to attract all those who would make good adoptive parents. That is because it is a fact that children in public care fare a great deal worse than the majority of children in their own homes, whether with their natural or adoptive parents. Children with parents—any parents—do better at school and their physical and mental health is better. They develop better social skills and they have a much lower incidence of getting into trouble with the law. So we have a duty to find them loving parents and to ensure as best we can that their home will be stable and their environment suitable.
To leave a child in care is to condemn him to an awful life. We should not, as was the case with the noble Earl a short while ago, be comparing the lives of children in married families with those in unmarried families. We should be comparing the lives of children with some kind of family with those in care with no family. We all know which is better. Clearly, there are some people who should never be allowed to look after children—people who do not understand children's needs, and those who neglect or abuse children. Some of these people are straight, some are gay, some are single, and some are married. However, those who have the qualities that make a good parent are also a mixed bunch. Some are gay, some are straight, some are single, and some are married. Marital status and whether a person is gay or straight are unreliable predictors of parenting qualities.
What we are charged with doing in this Bill is setting the legal and regulatory framework within which individual children can be found the best possible family for them. Once prospective adopters have come forward, we have in place a very rigorous process by which they are evaluated to see whether they would be the right parents for the child. However, sadly, the amendments of the noble Earl, Lord Howe, and those of the noble Lord, Lord Jenkin, seek to remove a whole raft of good people from even being considered.
Let us turn to some of the objections—
My Lords, I am most grateful to the noble Baroness for giving way. Perhaps she could answer this question. I understand the distinction between unmarried heterosexual people and homosexuals. However, I assume that the basis of the relationship between unmarried couples is love, and that the reason for adopting a child is love. My understanding of love has two major foundation stones: the first is sacrifice; and the second is responsibility. If that is the basis of love, why do not unmarried couples make the sacrifice in order for the child to be adopted?
My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Davies, for his intervention. However, I shall address some of the issues about unmarried couples a little later in my presentation to your Lordships. Many couples express love for each other and do so, as they hope, for life in just the same way as married people do. They do it in their own way. They live their lives in their families in their own way. I do not make any value judgment about that. I do not believe that that has any effect on their ability to love and care for a child.
I turn to some of the objections that have been raised to unmarried couples being allowed to adopt. Clearly, it is not the unmarried status itself to which the noble Earl, Lord Howe, objects, or he would have proposed an amendment to stop single people adopting, as they currently can. The noble Earl based his argument on certain statistics relating to the stability of the relationship and said on Report, and also today:
"Nothing that has been said against my position today has refuted the validity of the statistics that I quoted".—[Official Report, 16/10/02; col. 909.]
I am about to refute those statistics.
The noble Earl, Lord Howe, uses figures from the Office for National Statistics to claim that unmarried couples are less stable than married ones. Stability, of course, is desirable in an adoptive home, but we are talking about particular couples adopting particular children. No one can predict which partnerships will break up. However, let us look below the surface of these statistics to see whether they are valid. We find that they ignore the fact that many cohabitees never intended to stay together for ever in the first place, or they would have got married. No one asked them about that. Anyway, such people are highly unlikely to apply to adopt and, if they did, they would most certainly be rejected.
Neither did the statistics detail the age of the couples. However, we do know that a critical factor in the stability of a union, regardless of whether it is a cohabitation or a marriage, is the age of the couple when it started. Young people tend to split up more. The Performance and Innovation Unit report on adoption shows that the average age of people applying to adopt is 35, which is well past the age where married and unmarried unions are frequently unstable.
I turn to same sex couples. The noble Earl, Lord Howe, claims that their relationships are even less stable. He quotes the Christian Institute's claim that the average length of a closed gay relationship is 21 months. What the organisation did not say was that its research was conducted for the purpose of developing sexual health strategies. It was deliberately conducted in places where younger gay men were considered likely to go for the purpose of sexual encounters; for example, pubs, clubs, and cruising areas. If a study were conducted for the same purposes with a heterosexual population in pubs, clubs and red-light districts, it might result in a similar finding. However, nobody would try to suggest that the results were typical of the heterosexual population as a whole. If they did, they would be rightly condemned.
On the subject of statistics, I shall address the claim by the noble Baroness, Lady O'Cathain, that children of gay parents have lower educational achievement. If that were good-quality evidence it might sway some people. It is important, therefore, to look at the quality of the study. It is of poor quality. The book from which the noble Baroness quoted, Children as Trophies? Examining the evidence on same-sex parenting, makes extraordinary claims that do not stand up to close scrutiny. For example, the author states that,
"the lifespan of homosexuals is so much shorter than heterosexuals" without bothering to explain that his study is based on a cohort of young men who are HIV positive and whose life expectancy is eight to 20 years shorter than that of their non-HIV-positive counterparts.
The study does not appear on any list of academic research that has been subject to peer review. In this country, we do not give much credence to research studies, published or not, that have not been subject to rigorous peer review. It must be noted that all such research carries an inbuilt bias in that the legislative background is so hostile that, while gay families do exist, they do so quietly. When civil partnerships were debated, numerous examples came to light of gay partnerships that had lasted for 30 and 40 years. It must also be noted that around 20 per cent of foster parents are unmarried. Should they not be allowed to adopt a child that they had been fostering successfully? Must that child be moved elsewhere?
Another argument against allowing unmarried or same-sex couples to be considered by the courts as adoptive parents is that the number of adoptions is rising and that 90 per cent of people who enquire about being adoptive parents do not make it through to approval. Could we not solve the problem by letting more married people through? First, I would not want to let any unsuitable people through the process just because they happened to be married. Secondly, the 90 per cent figure relates to the percentage of respondents to National Adoption Week campaigns who did not get through. But only 36 per cent of the people who responded were interested in becoming adopters; all the others had different enquiries. A reliable fact is that 90 per cent of people who get as far as going before an adoption panel are approved. It is a rigorous process.
However, there are still children in care. Barnardo's and other respected children's charities say that some children are never even placed for adoption because it is known that there will be no adopters for them. So the number of children who really need good homes is even larger than the number placed for adoption. There are currently 55,000 children in care. Every year, 5,000 children are looking for an adoptive family and most of them remain in care, where their future is highly likely to include lack of educational attainment, clashes with the law, mental illness and homelessness.
My reason for exposing the failings of these so-called statistics is that children deserve better from us than clever debating ploys and twisted statistics. They must certainly not be used as bait for marriage. The noble Earl, Lord Howe, seems to rely a great deal on statistics. If the situation were to change whereby it could be proved that unmarried couples stayed together longer than married ones, would the supporters of his amendment want to change the law to allow only unmarried couples to adopt? What if it could be shown that Muslim or Jewish marriages lasted longest? Would they claim that only Muslim or Jewish couples could adopt? I think not. That would be ridiculous.
Some people worry that children who live with gay parents are denied either a mother- or father-figure. So, too, were my children during part of their growing period, but there were plenty of other adults to whom they could relate. If that is such a critical point, why have we been allowing single people to adopt for so many years? Should we take away the children of widows and put them with an adoptive couple? No family is an ideal family, but every loving family will try to fill whatever gaps it has in some way. Society is very mixed, and people play many different roles in the lives of children.
Another objection to same-sex couples being allowed to adopt is that their children will get teased or bullied at school. We know that children can pick on those with a difference, even those with red hair. But some children have parents who wear different clothes, some have a visible disability and some are of a minority ethnic background. We do not condone bullying on those bases; neither should we accept it on this one—I assure noble Lords that teachers do not and will not. Teachers these days are a very mixed bunch themselves, but all are trained to be sensitive to the special circumstances of each child. No longer do they assume that all children have a mummy and daddy at home, for example. It is insulting to the teaching profession to assume that teachers could not protect the adopted child of unmarried or same-sex parents from bullying.
Some people have voiced concern that children placed with gay adopters would be abused. There is no evidence that this is likely, and, anyway, such concerns are far too narrow. We should be concerned for the safety and welfare of all children, not just those who are adopted. Many high-profile cases of abuse involve step-parents, but we do not, therefore, conclude that all step-parents are evil or incapable of caring for children and we should not make such a crude assumption about gay couples either.
Anybody deemed suitable to care for children under this legislation will have had to prove that fact to social care and childcare experts, to adoption panels and ultimately to a judge. The Bill does not confer on anyone the right to adopt a child. It simply enables a wider group of good people to be eligible to have their suitability to adopt assessed by this rigorous process.
We on these Benches believe the changes to adoption law in this Bill are right, because children should not be political or ideological pawns. But they deserve the best parents who can be found: parents with infinite patience, stamina, a commitment to the child's education and good health, honesty, a sense of fun and a moral framework. Those qualities are not the preserve of married people; they are shared by unmarried, including same-sex, couples. Children who have had the worst start in life deserve the best possible support for the rest of their lives. They do not just need parents; they need the best parents. This Bill allows us to find more of those.
My Lords, I am grateful to the House for allowing me to speak in this debate, particularly because I have not participated so far. However, I have followed the debate throughout the stages of the Bill.
One of the reasons that I wanted to speak at this stage was my growing dismay at the misrepresentation, particularly in the past 24 hours, of the terms on which this debate has been conducted. It has been misrepresented as a debate between those who are interested in the rights of adults and those who are interested in the welfare of children. I exempt the noble Earl, Lord Howe, from my comments, because he specifically said the opposite this afternoon. But the description of the debate has been caricatured in that way, as anyone who has listened to, or read, the proceedings in Grand Committee, on the Floor of this House and in another place would bear witness. This is an issue not about rights but about responsibilities. We have a strong and heavy responsibility, because we have the chance to influence the future of some of the most vulnerable and damaged children in our society today—those in the care system. It is an issue in interpreting what is best for those children, where there is room for those with similar objectives to hold very different views. That extends not only across parties, but, as the right reverend Prelate has accepted, to past and present members of the Bishops' Bench. It is possible to have very different views and still be committed to the welfare of children.
On Report, the noble Baroness, Lady O'Cathain asked:
"What is the justification for amending the Bill in the other place? Is it political correctness? Is it social engineering? Or—perish the thought—is it the permanent downgrading of marriage and the family?".—[Official Report, 16/10/02; col. 882.]
My answer is "No, it is none of the above". I rather resent the assumption that those could be the only reasons for so doing. I resent that not only personally, but on behalf of all those adoption agencies and all those organisations concerned with children who, after long and deep experience and consideration, have said that they believe that this is the right way forward.
I want to take a few minutes to examine our responsibilities. The noble Earl ended by saying that we would be irresponsible to agree with the Commons in what they have said. I should like to explain why I believe that our responsibilities lead us in that direction. We have responsibilities as Members of an unelected second chamber. There is no generality here. In view of what I shall say later, I would be the last to suggest general rules. We exercised our right to ask another place to think again. They have thought again. They have had a very thoughtful debate with some excellent contributions that noble Lords will have read. Overwhelmingly, on a free vote—I know a few dog licences were issued, but it was largely a free vote—they rejected our amendment and said that they believed the original amendment made in the Commons was correct.
There are many strengths about this House. I have had the privilege to serve in another place and here. I have to say that I rather enjoy being here better than being in another place. However, one thing that we do not have is the privilege of the responsibility of direct representational obligation. We should listen very carefully to those in another place who have those obligations on issues such as this.
We have another responsibility—a responsibility as legislators to provide coherent and intellectually robust legislation. If we do not accept the amendments, I do not believe that we shall fulfil that obligation. In a way, it is being suggested, with a nudge and a wink, that we do not have to worry about this issue, because adoption by same-sex couples already happens, as does adoption by unmarried couples. It happens de facto, because single people can adopt. They are allowed to adopt only after not only they themselves, but their partners, if they are in a partnership, have been assessed as suitable parents. The only thing that we should not do is allow that de facto state to become de jure. That does not seem to be a responsible legislator's position. It seems to lay down that we prefer children to be legally in single-parent families rather than in two-parent families. That sits very ill with the commitment to the two-parent family that most of those who have articulated a commitment to marriage have spoken about.
I do not know how many of your Lordships read the article in the Guardian about the educational disadvantage suffered by children in institutional care. It struck me strongly in the context of the idea that children would somehow be disadvantaged, made fun of or stigmatised at school if they had parents who were not married or parents who were of the same sex. I am a devotee of marriage. I have spent the past 25 years bringing up children in inner London. I have seen an enormous variety of parenting from my children's friends and schoolmates. I have seen parents who were not married, step-parents, parents who were single and parents who were gay do extraordinarily good jobs of parenting. I know in my heart that if it were me—and I suspect the same is true of many children from institutions—faced with the choice of who should go in and bat for me at parents' evenings, I would rather have two parents of the same sex than one institution.
That is the dilemma that we have to consider. We have to look at whether we do a grave disservice to children who are adopted by a single person by robbing them of an element of security if that single person dies, by putting their legal status in a vulnerable position and by somehow saying to them that their parents are less good and qualitatively different, because they have not made that public commitment through a civil or religious marriage that they should have done, or because they are gay and are not able to do that. That is a terrible message to give to children who are vulnerable. It seems to fly in the face of looking at the individual.
That takes me to my third set of our responsibilities tonight. Those responsibilities are towards the children who are going to be assessed for potential adoption. We must provide the best that we can for those children. It is an issue about widening the opportunities for those children to be adopted. We have already heard about the disadvantages and risks of institutional care and the difficulty of placement. However, it is not only about increasing the numbers. As noble Lords have argued, it would be possible to increase the numbers overall simply by increasing the pool of married applicants. We are not talking just about quantity; we are talking about quality. We are talking about the right placement for every individual child. It has been taken as Gospel and as a truism on all sides of the House that children are best brought up in a two-parent family with a male role model and a female role model; a two-parent family that is there before they are conceived and continues throughout their life. That, instinctively, is what I believe. I am no radical in many areas. I am no radical as regards assisted conception, for example. However, we are not talking about children who do not exist; we are talking about children who already exist and whose lives are already not ideal. A friend of mine always used to say that those with happy marriages lead sheltered lives. However, the children we are discussing do not lead sheltered lives; they have experienced the opposite. They deserve their individual circumstances to be considered.
We have talked about the gold standard but throughout this debate I have not heard anyone argue that there are not a few children for whom, even if a married couple were available, one single adopter would be better. Some children have been so damaged by their experience that the view of social workers, of assessment panels and of judges is that the best family for them would comprise one parent giving them one-to-one care, without a partner and without other children. Those children are the exception to the rule, but there are exceptions to the rule that married parents always produce happy children. There are exceptions to every rule.
The fundamental reason I support the Commons in asking us to think again is that I consider that we sell these children short if we look at them only in terms of statistical probabilities. They are not statistics; they are individuals, each with different troubled backgrounds. Can we offer them only a rule of thumb and a best guess as to what a category of adopter would do? Are we to rule out of consideration the possibility that there are some extraordinary people out there who could offer those children the best placement? That seems to me a terrible dereliction of duty. It is not a question of social engineering. To hold a sword over people's heads and say that they can adopt only if they agree to sign on the dotted line and marry, seems rather more like social engineering to me than what I am suggesting.
The nub of the issue is whether we tackle the problem of adoption for some of the most troubled, vulnerable and damaged children in our society on the basis of statistical probabilities as regards a group of whom neither they nor their potential adoptive parents are typical, or we give them one thing to make up for all that they have suffered; that is, the right to have their case individually assessed against the widest range of people who could offer the best hope for stability—the chance to pursue happiness. For me that is what the issue is about and that is why I hope that we shall not be obdurate in our views tonight.
My Lords, I shall try to be brief. I say to the noble Baroness, Lady Hayman, that not one person who supports my noble friend on the Front Bench has ever, throughout the whole of the passage of the Bill, argued that people should be invited to sign on the dotted line and, simply because they are married, should forgo the rigorous process of assessment. I shall not give way to the noble Baroness as I have made the point and the noble Baroness has made hers.
The Bill as introduced in the House of Commons was indeed deemed to be compatible with human rights obligations. Then came the amendment proposed by a Back-Bencher in another place. The House of Lords returned the Bill to the House of Commons in its original form. Now we hear from the Joint Committee on Human Rights that if the House of Lords amendment is accepted, the Bill would be incompatible with our obligations under the human rights legislation. The Minister in another place appeared to have dismissed the conclusions of the Joint Committee; in other words, I assume that the Government stand by their original view that the Bill as originally introduced into the House was indeed compatible with human rights. I must ask the Minister for clarification. The Government cannot have it both ways. If the Bill was compatible with human rights without the Back-Bench amendment in another place, how can it now be compatible with it?
The Minister invoked the bishop who spoke on the Radio 4 programme this morning. Bishops come in many shapes and sizes and have many varying points of view. We heard a wonderful speech from the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Winchester and one with a similar view from the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Chelmsford. I predict that another bishop will speak before the end of the debate who may express a different view altogether. We can all select our favourite bishop to make our case. I make no secret of who my favourite bishops are.
In 1998 a Labour government Green Paper carried the following words,
"marriage is the surest foundation for raising children".
In February 2000, at a No. 10 Prime Minister's Office briefing, the following was reported. Responding to questions about the draft adoption Bill drawn up in 1996 by the previous government, the Prime Minister's Office said that it had been drawn up under the last Administration to address some of these issues of adoption. However, presumably because of the election, it had not been progressed further. The Labour government were seeking to deal with some of the hurdles which made it very difficult and very demoralising for couples who, for the best of reasons, were seeking to adopt children. Questioned whether some of the difficulties included, for example, white couples trying to adopt black children, the PMOS said that, like gay couples trying to adopt children, this was a side issue. The Prime Minister believed that children were best brought up in a stable relationship with a mother and a father. The PMOS stressed that we were talking about the hurdles in the way of adoption. It was important not to go down side roads.
Then in July 2000 the Prime Minister's own review of adoption stated at paragraph 3.76 on page 35:
"What was clear from our discussions with agencies was whatever effort was put into advertising, there was a huge drop-out rate from initial enquiries to the number of approved adopters. As a general rule-of-thumb, 1-in-10 of initial enquiries would result in an approved adopter".
That is only 10 per cent of those who set out to adopt. We know many of the reasons for that as they have been aired throughout our debates. Some would-be adopters are put off as they have not thought through the massive responsibility of adopting a child. Some are rejected on spurious grounds of suitability. Others, sadly, drop out because of the response they receive from some social services departments and/or adoption agencies which, according to many, are unfriendly, unsupportive or even insensitive. Many drop out because of the inordinate time that it takes to see the process through to adoption. Those points are all raised in the Prime Minister's own review published in July 2000.
I, and many others, have been accused of exaggerating those points. Therefore, I hope that I may be allowed to tell the House about a young girl whom I met only a week ago. She is a young officer in the Royal Air Force. She has been married nine years and would like a child. Adoption was suggested to her. However, she said that she could not possibly go through that as the group captain with whom she works and his wife went through the most traumatic and long process of trying to adopt. They were turned down simply because they were service people and it was likely that they might be posted around the country. As a service wife, I point out that almost all the service people whom I came across made absolutely outstanding parents. The fact that from time to time we were posted should not be a reason for not allowing such people to adopt.
I turn to the issue of heterosexual unmarried couples and the point raised by my noble friend Lord Jenkin. I agree with those who argued that my noble friend's amendment would involve unacceptable discrimination and I shall not vote for that amendment tonight.
Adopting a child is a very serious undertaking for any couple. The process is, and should be, rigorous. Couples have to meet the criteria that are set out in the Bill. However, one must question a couple who are not even prepared to make a legal commitment to each other. What security does that offer a child?
A lady on television last weekend said that she did not wish to be forced to make a commitment to marriage before God. No one is forcing anyone to make such a commitment before God, although that is what I personally should prefer. The couple can marry with little or no pomp and ceremony. My serious point is that a couple who are prepared to make a legal commitment to each other through marriage substantially improve the security and stability of the child.
Emotionally damaged children require love, stability and security. All the evidence shows that cohabiting heterosexual couples and same-sex couples may also love. However, they do not offer the same level of security and stability as married couples; security and stability are so lacking in the lives of many of these children. One partner of a same-sex or even an unmarried couple can so easily simply walk away from the relationship. There is no security there for the child.
Much has been made of single adoptive parents. The Minister knows and I know—and so does anyone who has anything to do with adoption—that such cases are very exceptional indeed. We have heard of one exceptional case; I happen to know a little about it, but not as much as the noble and learned Lord. The relationship between the medic and the child was exceptional and right on that particular occasion. That was a major deciding factor in the case. Very few children are placed with single people.
I shall give another example, which may explain why the provision has not been removed from the statute book. A couple who fostered a child for two years—this is a true story—decided during the period of fostering that they would like to start adoption proceedings, and they did so. However, just before the court order made that a legal proposition, one partner died. The adoption eventually went through and the single parent was allowed to keep the child. By that time, there was a particular relationship.
Much has been made of the need to widen the pool of would-be adopters. I agree with that aim but, as I have already said, the effect of the Bill, which is supported by most of us in this House—certainly by most of us on these Benches—will be to widen the pool not of people who simply get married, as the noble Baroness, Lady Hayman, said, but of those who are married and who go through the rigorous process. The system will be more transparent, there will be an appeals system to deal with those who believe that they have been wrongly rejected as suitable parents and there will be more support for those who adopt children, particularly the more challenging children. The issue of widening the pool for adoption has already been addressed. It would be wise for all of us to see how that works.
My motivation, and that of those who support my noble friend Lord Howe, has nothing whatever to do with being anti-homosexual or anti-cohabiting couples. Too much of this debate—I shall incur the wrath of the noble Baroness by saying this—inside and outside Parliament has been about lifestyles and the rights of adults. I have heard it said on too many occasions that we are creating two tiers of adoptive parents. That is about the rights of those people, not about the rights of the child.
I am unequivocal in my support for my noble friends Lord Howe and Lady O'Cathain. I support the well-being of children. Some of them are damaged emotionally, physically and/or mentally. They should have the greatest stability and love. In the words of the Prime Minister, the surest way of achieving that is to place a child in a family with a mother and a father.
My Lords, I very much respect those who wish to strengthen the role of marriage in society, and I share that aim. In particular, I share the commitment of my friend the right reverend Prelate to marriage and support his work with adoption agencies.
It may be true that we have our favourite and least favourite Bishops. One of the good features of this House is that we can all listen to rational argument and, I hope, be persuaded by it. I listened with particular attention and interest to the speech of the noble Earl, who said that he had looked at the arguments as rationally as possible. I honestly believe that it would be difficult for his case to be put more strongly and persuasively than he put it.
However, perhaps the noble Earl will agree that some of his arguments were stronger than others. First, we can all agree that cohabiting relationships are statistically likely to last less long than married relationships as a general rule. The noble Earl rightly devoted most of his attention to that particular, special, selecting group of people who are willing to adopt, particularly among the group of usually older children who often have special needs. He argued, as did my friend the right reverend Prelate and the noble Baroness, Lady Blatch, that if they were going to commit themselves to a child, they should first show their commitment to one another in a public declaration. I take that point seriously. However, that applies to two different categories of people in two very different ways. Gay and lesbian couples are simply not able to make a public legal commitment to each other in this country at the moment. The noble Earl's argument falls in relation to that group of people. We may wish that the situation were otherwise, but that is the case. They are not able to make a public legal commitment to each other.
Secondly, some cohabiting heterosexual couples have genuine conscientious objections to getting married. Perhaps they have been seared by the break-up of their parents' marriage or shattered by the break-up of their friends' marriages. They honestly believe that their relationship is more likely to last if they do not commit themselves to marriage and simply commit themselves in love to one another. We must respect the conscientious objection that certain people have to marriage.
When we consider the kind of couple who might want to adopt children in that situation, we are considering a very special kind of couple and a very particular kind of commitment. As has already been pointed out, the average age of such couples is likely to be about 35. To use the language of the old prayer book, they are not going to enter into adoption unadvisedly, lightly or wantonly; they will do so after a great deal of serious thought and only with the assurance that they can commit themselves in the long term to each other and the child. With all respect to the noble Earl, I do not believe that in either of those cases his arguments are finally persuasive.
Thirdly, the noble Earl argued that this legislation will not widen the pool, as has been suggested on a number of occasions. In response, I can only say that 382 agencies, which are most concerned with this issue, believe that it will widen the pool. They include Church of England and Catholic agencies. Therefore, the people who are most concerned with this issue, who are most committed to it and who work with it day by day believe that the legislation will widen the pool.
Fourthly and finally, the noble Earl pointed out that it might be more sensible to wait for greater clarity on the nature of civil partnerships and on the kind of legal rights and responsibilities which will come about with such partnerships. No doubt there is currently a great lack of clarity in relation to property and inheritance.
But surely one thing is crystal clear: if the Bill is passed with the Commons amendment, then any child who is adopted will have a clear legal right to two parents and those two adoptive parents will have a clear legal responsibility to that child. If we believe that the legal bond of marriage strengthens a relationship, as I believe it does, then surely it follows that a legal bond between the adopted child and the adoptive parents will strengthen that relationship. The love that exists will be strengthened by the legal relationship.
The noble Earl suggested that we should go for the very best for this group of particularly vulnerable children. But, as we know, sometimes the good is the enemy of the best. I believe that, for the reasons I have suggested, the good of this particular group of very vulnerable children points to accepting the Commons amendment.
My Lords, I have been present throughout the passage of the Bill, except during one debate when I attended a board of the National Care Standards Commission. I am a practitioner. I shall not make the speech that I was intending to make because I believe that most of the points have already been raised. I stand here between two colleagues who are also practitioners—my noble friends Lord Laming and Lord Warner. I suppose we could say that, for decades, in many ways we have been responsible for trying to place such children. I am also looking around at other colleagues who have had similar experiences.
We have struggled with old adoption legislation. Improved as this is, our colleagues who have now taken up the cudgels will struggle with this legislation. The reason is that, by the time the children reach us, they are extraordinarily disturbed and difficult. That is not their fault. They have been through extraordinary experiences. I spent 15 years listening to children on the telephone at Childline and I heard about their experiences. Many of the children were in heterosexual family homes. We should not deceive ourselves that marriage and a family make a family a safe place; nor should we deceive ourselves that any relationship makes a safe place.
The noble Baroness, Lady Walmsley, made many of the points that I have chosen not to make about the way that statistics are interpreted and the way that families are characterised. I would not sully your Lordships' ears with the details, but I have heard of the worst forms of abuse taking place in families with a mother and a father where children have been extraordinarily sexually and physically abused. Those children often end up in our children's homes, where our staff make tremendous efforts to put things to rights. But no social worker in the country would say anything but, "Could we place some of these children in a family? That would be our choice". That is not always the choice that is made; sometimes there is a need for residential care.
We have talked about adopters dropping out. I have made this comment on a number of occasions: when one tells would-be adopters about the children that they are likely to adopt, it is not surprising that they drop out. I understand absolutely that many families want to adopt a baby. We know—we have said it several times in this House and throughout the debate—that there are simply not enough babies to go round. I repeat that phrase in order to emphasise how we view the matter. We should not be looking at how many babies there are to go round but at how many families we can find for every child in need. Indeed, the noble Baroness stated that very clearly. A sentiment felt strongly on both sides of the House—a view that I respect—is that we are looking for the best for every child.
However, it is necessary to look at the behaviour of some of the children to whom I refer. I believe that my noble friend Lord Warner, in his present position, is more aware of this than I am. A 10 year-old who is already sexually active, who has burgled the whole local village and who is not against a street mugging is not an easy placement. By the time that child is 14 years old, the odds of placement will be even lower and the likelihood of it happening even narrower. As someone who has tried and struggled to find homes, I can tell your Lordships that people who long to give homes to such children are simply not out there.
I believe that real issues arise in relation to placing some of those children in family homes where there are other children. In carrying out an assessment, one is careful to ensure that one does not leave other children in the family vulnerable to the sexual advances of a young man who is already abusing in his career. Therefore, many assessment decisions have to be made.
The noble and learned Lord, Lord Lloyd, whose previous speech I admired and whose speech today I admire even more, argued about the homosexual issue, and so I shall not refer to it. I simply want to remind the House that it is not in homosexual, heterosexual or single relationships where boyfriends enter the scene that children are abused; it occurs in the whole range of relationships. The real test is to get right the training and assessment of children.
I am not a lawyer and so I do not know about the human rights or property debates. I only know and understand how I would feel as a child. I heard recently of a child who, on the death of both his parents, desperately wanted to be placed with his uncle and his uncle's friend. He wanted to know what would happen to him if his uncle also died. Would he have property rights? Would he belong in the same way to this new family in which he chose to be placed? Children do not understand such subtleties; they understand only the need for love and care.
Perhaps I may tell your Lordships—I believe it is my responsibility to do so—about the voices of some of the children. I have recently been involved with the Seiff Foundation, which looks at the issue of children in prison. Earlier, a noble Lord referred to the fact that, although a statistical number of children are apparently waiting for adoption, there are many more who could use families if only we could find them. Again, about 3,000 of those young people are in prison-type institutions in this country. As we have heard time and time again, a staggering percentage have experienced the care system or have had multiple placements. Perhaps your Lordships will listen to the voice of a 14 year-old in secure accommodation:
"I'm only in secure because I've been in the care system since I was four. It's only because I'm in the care system that they can do this to me. I'm vulnerable, but I wouldn't be here if I wasn't in care".
"Since the age of 11 I've been running off and looking after myself. I'm not like a normal 15 year-old that has a family and has never run off".
I have said before that anecdote does not make evidence but I could produce hundreds and hundreds of examples of voices of children telling us about their wish to be in a secure family. Their behaviour would deny that but we know that, if we can hold on to them for long enough and give them stability, those children would settle down. These are the children for whom we should lose no opportunity to find the widest pool of alternative caring families. I take the view that finding one family for one of these children is worth while. When I started with Childline I said that if we could help one child it would be worth it, but we have helped a million.
We should not give up on these children, but putting them in ordinary families can cause a difficult situation. Some of the children say that they do not want an ordinary family relationship. There are youngsters who say that they would prefer to stay in a residential home than repeat the kind of family experience that they have had. Sometimes an alternative experience with single people, as mentioned by the noble Baroness, Lady Hayman, or in a different kind of family will give such children another chance, so that they are not put under the kind of relationship strain that they have already experienced.
The situation depends on where children find themselves. This is not a test-tube situation in which a child has a choice. Most of these children find themselves in foster homes where they have a loving relationship and then they are put forward for adoption, often with adoptive parents who are not married or who are in a gay situation, or where one of the people is a parent. The children want to feel stable with both parents. It is not about finding children for families, but about children finding themselves in families.
I am unmarried so I do not want to participate in the debate on the sanctity of marriage. I do not want to talk about the rosy picture that is often painted of family life. Let us remind ourselves that even adoptive families break down and even the best assessment processes occasionally will not make everything perfect. Let us not seek absolute perfection, but look for the best. Family breakdowns are damaging to children. I assume that every noble Lord who has spoken in the debate is not divorced and is providing the best possible context for his or her own children.
In this debate we should be discussing the assessment of applicants, the training of social workers and our ability to listen to children. In an age when we cannot attract social workers to the profession—need we ask why when we consider the type of tasks that we ask them to undertake—why have we spent such a tiny amount of time discussing the issues with half a dozen of us sitting around a table or in this Chamber, yet today, with great interest from many noble Lords, we are spending so much time discussing this matter?
We must do nothing to prevent children, especially children in trouble and those with disabilities, from finding a place that will be their emotional home. That may not be conventionally comfortable; it may not fit our beliefs—I say that as a Christian—or our prejudices, but is it really ours to take away?
My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Jenkin of Roding, described the report of the Joint Committee on Human Rights as nonsense. I believe he also found the judgments to which we referred in our report extremely unhelpful; that is the unanimous judgment of the South African constitutional court delivered in September and the minority view in the Frette v France, where the British judge, Sir Nicolas Bratza, formed part of the minority.
I am sorry that the noble Lord found our report to be nonsense. Without going into the detail of that report, I want to mention a couple of points. At this late hour noble Lords will not want me to say more. First, why did the committee, which is a unanimous, all-party and beyond-party committee, deliver its report? The answer is that one of the matters that the committee tried to deal with in scrutinising legislation is amendments that are tabled in the course of a debate, but which have not received consideration by a Minister's compatibility statement. We believe that it may help both Houses to deal with what the noble Baroness, Lady Hayman, rightly referred to as our responsibilities as legislators. We try to inform both Houses of our opinion—it is no more than an opinion—as to whether we consider an amendment likely to be regarded by the courts as compatible or incompatible with the human rights and duties by which the UK is bound.
That is why we report and we have to do so with great speed. That does not excuse the fact that our report contains one mistake for which I must apologise. It summarises the Frette v France case incorrectly. It makes it appear to be a case about a lesbian couple, but it was a case about a single homosexual man.
My other point is that when I hear noble Lords say that they do not agree with the report, I wait in vain for them to explain what they disagree with in relation to the reasoning. The constitutional court of South Africa, as one will see if one reads page 8 of the report, was faced with a child care Act with identical provisions to those in the amendment of the noble Lord, Lord Jenkin of Roding, and the amendment of the noble Earl, Lord Howe. The constitutional court of South Africa, a common law jurisdiction of high repute, unanimously decided that it would have to strike down the exclusion of homosexual couples while dealing later with the position of heterosexual couples.
We predict—it is no more than that—that if our courts were faced with a human rights challenge to the amendment of the noble Earl, Lord Howe, or the amendment of the noble Lord, Lord Jenkin of Roding, under the Human Rights Act, they would be likely to declare either or both of those amendments to be incompatible. If they made a declaration of incompatibility, the matter would return here. That is only a prediction and I am simply one member of the committee making that prediction.
My Lords, I am confused. My noble friend on the Front Bench raised this point. The Bill was drafted by the Government, supported by the Government in the other place and certified by the Government to be compatible, as the noble Lord's committee agreed. He is now saying that that is not the case and that it would fall if challenged. What has happened in-between?
My Lords, I am anxious not to take time on this matter, but we deal with that point in the report. The noble Lord, Lord Elton, can read it. We explained what has changed at the beginning of the report. He will see that this is not the Bill that was originally introduced and that the amendments tabled by the noble Earl, Lord Howe, changed the original Bill.
I suggest that if this matter had to be argued before the senior courts of this country, they would be likely to follow the constitutional court of South Africa's reasoning, as they have frequently in other human rights cases when considering the decisions of other constitutional courts across the Commonwealth. I hope that it will not be necessary—the House will reject these amendments—to employ lawyers like myself and to take up the time of the courts with the result that the matter is referred back to this place.
My Lords, I have thrown away my original speech because many powerful points that I wanted to make have already been made. I want to emphasise and support my noble friend Lady Hayman who spoke about widening the pool of adopters. The right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Oxford and the noble Baroness, Lady Howarth, also mentioned that. As the noble Baroness, Lady Howarth, said, most people who want to adopt, want to adopt babies, not difficult children. Therefore, the pool needs to be widened. Children who are difficult to adopt are often left in care.
I want to quote from yesterday's Daily Mail—a journal that I do not often read—and from a spread about a lesbian couple, the headline of which reads,
"Liz and Josette have been together for 17 years and have adopted three emotionally disturbed girls".
I shall read out the letter from one of those girls which pulls together some of the points that have been made by many noble Lords about the problems of children who are not adopted. The girl said:
"Dear Lords and MPs, I am adopted and I would like to have both of my mums' names on my adoption certificate.
"I want two legal parents and I don't care if they are married. I did not want a dad because of some private things I cannot say.
"I already had a mum and dad and I have a birth certificate to prove it. They were very bad and I never ever want to see them again.
"I am a good girl at school and I work very hard and I feel like you make us feel punished and wrong again. I feel you telling me my family is wrong. I think you are being horrible to us".
The question is whether this girl is better off in a children's home than with these two parents and her siblings, who clearly love her.
I implore your Lordships to think again about the flexibility which is essential to allow such children to be adopted.
My Lords, perhaps we could draw a few threads together and consider a possible time limit. We started at 3.15. Are your Lordships agreeable to contributions being concluded, other than those of Members winding up, by about 6.30? There would then be an opportunity for the noble Lord, Lord Jenkin, the noble Earl, Lord Howe, and others to speak. Would that be too early for your Lordships?
My Lords, the noble Baroness, Lady O'Cathain, is glaring at me and saying, "6.15". I therefore capitulate.
My Lords, I thank the noble and learned Lord. I too have a speech—not very long—prepared. Most of what I was going to say has been said already.
It is disappointing that the other place rejected the amendment which was passed so conclusively in this House on 16th October. I know that there are those—and this point was mentioned again today by the noble Baroness, Lady Hayman—who feel that this House is undemocratic because noble Lords are not elected. A great number of people outside this House have followed this issue extremely carefully. The mailbags have shown where the preponderance of preference lies. I think that this House has actually done a great service to this issue and has listened, whereas the other House has not necessarily listened. I do think that that is democratic.
Let us remember that the vote on this issue was won here only because of support from all sides of the House—either actively voting for the amendment or abstaining for their own special reasons. It is not a Conservative issue only; it is an issue for us all. It is an issue only about children. It is that we should get more damaged children "rescued" from the instability of changing foster placements or from institutional care, offered a permanent, stable home and given a fresh, new start by loving people who put the welfare and the care of those children above other considerations. That, in essence, is what we all wish for each of these children.
"dogma backed up by dodgy statistics".—[Official Report, Commons, 4/11/02; col 96.]
Statistics have been misquoted in this House today which imply that we said that couples who marry have the same kind of stability as couples who cohabit. The Office for National Statistics' figures, which were quoted before, state that, for couples who are married and have a child, within five years of the birth of that child 8 per cent split up; and for couples who cohabit and have a child, within five years 52 per cent of them split up. That is the salient difference when we talk about the stability of married couples and of cohabiting couples.
People talk about cohabiting couples in loving relationships. They will have to commit to this child—a very difficult child as has been pointed out. We all know these children are not babies. They have been fostered. They are children who have been in and out of institutional care. If heterosexual couples are prepared to commit to this child in a legal way, why can they not commit to each other? No one—the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Oxford in particular has certainly not convinced me about that—
My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness for giving way. Does she not know of some couples who cannot get married because one of them is married already and for various reasons cannot get divorced?
My Lords, yes, I think I do. They probably do not want to adopt, do they?
Because of the proposals in the Bill, we are all talking about widening the pool of adopters. Absolutely, that is what we want to do. But let us not forget that the pool has been widened significantly since 1997 when the Prime Minister took a personal interest in the issue. At that stage 1,900 children—out of a potential 5,000 offered for care—were adopted. This year the figure is 3,800, which has hit the Government's target for the year 2004. The momentum started with the Prime Minister. The pool will be widened further once the Bill becomes an Act. I am absolutely convinced of that. Again those 3,800 children are not babies but damaged children.
The amendment to the Bill in its passage through the other place aims to widen the pool. I think that is not necessary. I do not want to get involved in the legal minefield. I shall not. But in the interests of brevity I should just like to say that these are not dogma and dodgy statistics but statistics supplied by the Office for National Statistics.
Looking at the matter from another angle—and this is my last point—is there a large demand by non-married couples to adopt? I think not. The British Association for Adoption and Fostering's study of 1,932 adoptions reported not one case involving a person adopting a child while living with a partner. That is the agency which sent us all this information, including Be My Parent. The same study found three reported cases of a homosexual being approved as an adopter. Homosexual adoptions comprised 0.2 per cent of all those approved.
What we really want to ensure is preference for adoption by married couples in the interests of damaged children. This was supported by the Government's statement in the Green Paper on the family that,
"marriage is the surest foundation for raising children".
Unless this House insists on the amendment we are debating, not only will we be flying in the face of the Government's commitment to the married family but we shall also take a huge risk with the long-term prospects of the damaged children we so much wish to protect.
My Lords, unlike the noble Baroness, Lady Howarth, I have not been able to be here throughout every stage of the Bill. I am grateful for the opportunity to say something today, albeit briefly.
A great deal has already been said in the debate today. I shall not try to rehearse it. Indeed, I could not say it as well. The Minister set out very clearly the rigorous process that adoptive parents have to go through. That is only part of the process. They then have to go to court. The noble and learned Lord, Lord Lloyd, set out at Report and again today the kind of thinking that courts adopt when they consider matters of this kind.
In 1961, I first started to work in courts which dealt with, in those days, family matters. I was struck by the great care and concern of the courts which dealt with these matters. I was aware of the anxious thought that was devoted to trying to ensure that all parties were treated fairly, but in particular that the interest of the child was always kept at the centre of the court's attention.
Of course we should all like to see children placed in what might be described as ideal situations, whatever that may be. The reality is that courts rarely deal with ideal situations; they deal with quite difficult situations where a great deal of sensitivity has to be displayed and a great deal of careful judgment has to be exercised.
I mean this as a compliment when I say that in the years of my involvement in the courts I never thought that they were remotely interested in or influenced by what might be called social engineering or political correctness. They have always devoted their time and energy to carrying out their main function, which is applying the law to the best needs of the individual child.
Some children come forward for adoption having had bad experiences. But it is not possible to legislate for every possibility. Perhaps I may suggest one possibility to illustrate the point that I want to make. Let us imagine a family with two young children and the parents are killed in a car accident. Fortunately, there is a loving maiden aunt, who willingly offers the children a home and her care. In due time, the maiden aunt decides that, for the long-term security of the children, she will seek to adopt them. During the adoption process it emerges, first, that she is engaged in a long-term lesbian relationship and, secondly, that her health has some questionable aspects to it. In the long-term interests of the children and their security, it may well be thought sensible for both women to adopt the children. The reality at present is that are they unable to do so.
Parliament cannot anticipate every possible human situation where adoption may be necessary and where it may be right for a child or children. What Parliament can do is to create a framework of legislation allowing judges and those in the courts who deal with these difficult matters to exercise careful judgment about the best interests of the child, given the reality of the situation in which he or she finds herself. That reality cannot always be anticipated by Parliament. Parliament has to create a situation where it is possible for the courts to exercise such judgment. I suggest that that is best achieved by allowing the amendments from the other place to go through.
My Lords, I came to this House today with an open mind—having "sat on the fence" at Third Reading—determined to reach a conclusion. This has been a fascinating and brilliant debate. It has certainly helped me to reach—albeit agonisingly—a decision. I shall vote with the Government.
I should be grateful if the Minister would respond to the following point. Ironically, it touches directly on a point made by the previous speaker. It concerns the efficacy of the assessment process. Everyone in this House has been caught up with the effectiveness, the wisdom, of the means of arriving at an adoption decision. I was struck by what the noble Lord, Lord Alli, generously said at Third Reading:
"I happily agree with many noble Lords that married couples should have priority over unmarried couples. I also agree that unmarried couples should have priority over gay couples".—[Official Report, 16/10/02; col. 874.]
He was indicating that in the assessment process one can expect the adoption panel, social workers and the court to take account of all the considerations of which those comments are a part.
However, thinking back to the early days of my own career when I acted in adoption cases, I have to say that the second part of the two-part process—namely, where the judge reaches a decision in court—was cursory at best. During the past two days, I have checked on this with current practitioners of adoption law. Both confirmed that, in the phrase used by one, it is a "victory parade". He said that by the time the case comes to court, it is over and done with. These days, there are photographers, flowers, even drink, and everyone is dressed in their best bib and tucker. It is not, so I am informed by current practitioners, a very effective second part of the process, and that is the norm in most courts—it may vary from court to court.
Since everyone rightly places such importance on this two-part process, the Government may be well advised to inquire as to the extent to which the second part of the process is a real one. If it is an unreal one—and I suspect that it is—the House, and indeed the country, would be greatly reassured if it were given the efficacy that many assume it to have.
I voted as I did, along with a sizeable number of Members of this House—which may well be reflected in the Lobbies this evening—to make a point on the question of same-sex adoption, aspects of which concern me. I have never been opposed to adoption by heterosexual unmarried couples.
The debate has indicated that we should be very careful about voting down the proposition that has come to us from the Commons in that area. Society has changed; and we have a duty to reflect those changes. My position was half set out, both on the previous occasion and on this one, by the noble Lord, Lord Jenkin of Roding. It is not that I am altogether concerned about certain types of same-sex adoption—in particular, lesbian adoption. There is adequate evidence of many successful placements of children in lesbian circumstances. My main concern relates to the placing of boy children in a household where two men are the official adoptive parents.
It is not the question of abuse that concerns me. That question will be adequately dealt with during the assessment process. It is likely that there will be less abuse given that an assessment process has taken place than in heterosexual conditions—that is to say, under normal parenting arrangements. I am worried about what will happen in the mind of a boy child in those conditions. I have seen no evidence, work or description of conditions relating to such cases.
As I understand it, technically, boys can currently be adopted by individual homosexual men—who on occasions, I presume, live with their partners. There must be work available in this area, but I cannot locate it. Have Members of this House seen any of this material? It is simply not available. All I ask is this. Before we take a decision of this magnitude, let us see some evidence of what happens in such circumstances.
I am worried about the position of boys in the local community. The noble Baroness, Lady Walmsley, referred to bullying. In some communities bullying is extremely difficult to handle. When I ask how children will manage, I am told that they will be helped—but by whom? It is often difficult for a child who is bullied to find the necessary help to stop the bullying. I am worried that boys in those conditions may well be targeted.
My Lords, I do not think that I have ever interrupted a noble Lord's speech before, but does the noble Lord think that we should allow bullying on the basis of colour or disability to continue? If not, why should we allow it to continue on this issue?
The answer to the noble Baroness is no.
Boys may well reject their family environment. In certain conditions, they may turn against society. I do not know, because there is no evidence and no one has provided any information about what happens in such conditions. They may become anti-social. I do not know. But people are asking such questions. Concern is naturally expressed by those who take an interest in the matter. Could boys in such conditions become sexually confused? I understand that that has not been a difficulty in the case of lesbian adoption, so perhaps that anxiety should not trouble me.
Last week, I consulted widely for a day and a half, not with the national professional bodies but with individual social workers in various parts of the country. I offered them anonymity during my conversations. I told them that I would not repeat what they had said in terms of identifying them under any conditions, and I asked them for an honest view on the implications of the provision.
What surprised me is that there was division among social service workers on the ground that is not reflected in the case made by the national bodies to this institution of Parliament. There are mixed views within teams dealing with such matters. But I had not heard the other view, which is expressed by social workers and people in family placement teams. I had heard only one view: that being expressed in the main by their national representative bodies.
There is clearly satisfaction within social service departments and family placement units over the apparently widespread success of lesbian adoption, but repeated reference was made to the fact that no research had been carried out in the area. I found that most worrying. Most of those to whom I talked will no doubt read the report of what I have to say tonight. I must also report that during most of my conversations, underlying anxiety was expressed about some of the Bill's consequences. Indeed, I am told that some people in the field—in the front line—will simply not refer children into same-sex adoptions where a couple have joint adoption responsibility.
I conclude that we need more information before we go down that route. Curiously, my position tonight will not necessarily obtain in the long term. In a future society, when people are even more readily able to understand same-sex relationships, this debate may well appear irrelevant. We may entirely adopt the Government's position on the matter. I simply believe that we do not yet have sufficient information.
My Lords, perhaps we can just hear from the noble Earl, Lord Erroll. He has been waiting a long time and always speaks briefly.
My Lords, I shall speak for only one minute. First, I want to make clear that I am neither homophobic nor homosexual. I feel that the speech of the noble and learned Lord, Lord Lloyd of Berwick, was addressed to the amendment tabled by the noble Lord, Lord Jenkin of Roding, which I shall therefore not be supporting. However, the amendment tabled by the noble Earl, Lord Howe, carries much merit because it would not stop any of the cases of homosexual adoption of which we have heard. It would allow only one partner's name to go onto the bit of paper. That will be of benefit, because problems arise if there is a break-up. It will avoid the tug of love that currently arises in a divorce.
There is no legal framework to deal with a tug of love in the case of an unmarried couple who are separating. Until that is set up, we should not provide a framework in which that tug of love can happen. Some such relationships will break down. I cannot see why a couple who are happy living together will have a problem with putting only one name on the adoption paper. I cannot see why that will be a bar. If they are unmarried and heterosexual, they have only to visit a registrar, which is simple. I see no possible argument against the amendment tabled by the noble Earl, Lord Howe.
My Lords, after a long, passionate, thoughtful and compelling debate, the issue remains clear. Our decision concerns the definition of who shall be qualified to apply to become an adoptive parent and, in particular, whether to extend that qualification to gay and straight unmarried couples—always remembering that today, as for many years, gay and straight individuals living in couples can adopt children. That is what this debate is about.
A great deal of statistical argument has been advanced, into which I shall not enter. Instead, I remind your Lordships of my noble friend Lady Walmsley's extremely cogent speech about the statistical issues. I also remind your Lordships of the argument advanced so forcefully by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Lloyd of Berwick, in our debate on 16th October. He said that in a case in which adoption of a child is in question, the judge and everyone else are concerned not with an average couple but with whether the couple concerned can provide a home for that child. We should remember that at the end of the debate.
At present, a single person, whether gay or straight and whether living in a couple or not, can adopt a child. It is illogical to allow that to continue but to prevent a couple from adopting a child together. The noble Baroness, Lady Hayman, told us that that argument was unworthy of a legislative assembly. After all, two parents are better than one and joint parenting is more effective than parenting by one person with the other person not sharing responsibility. A child adopted by a couple has a far greater hope of continuity of parenting in the case of the death of one parent, because that child will have another parent whose responsibility will continue.
Where couples separate—married as well as unmarried couples separate—if both are loving parents, they may both remain as loving parents to that child, even if they are no longer living together. A child would, arguably, have greater financial security with a couple if both members of that couple were its parents.
The main objective of the Bill is to reform the system of adoption so as to reduce the length of time taken to arrange a suitable adoption and to enable more children to find adoptive parents. The principal consideration for everybody involved is the welfare of the child throughout its life. A relevant fact is that the greatest predictor of offending behaviour is upbringing in a children's home. The second is the total breakdown of the family life of a child in its birth family, which amounts to the same thing. Children, especially if they have been traumatised by their early life or have had to be removed from their birth home, need adoptive parents with the stamina, commitment and mutual solidarity to provide a secure, lifelong, loving home.
If the Government's amendments can widen the circle from which parents can come, who are we to stand in the way? When the time comes, I will support the Government, and I hope that the majority of your Lordships will do likewise.
My Lords, it has, once again, been an intense and passionate debate. I am heartened by the consensus in all parts of the House on our shared determination to improve adoption. Like the noble Baroness, Lady O'Cathain, I rejoice that there are encouraging signs that the drive to increase adoptions is working.
I listened carefully to those who argued that, if we continued to make that progress, we could rely solely on married couples. However, that simply is not the view of those who know best, those who deal with adoption day in and day out. We should listen to the noble Baroness, Lady Howarth of Breckland, to the many adoption agencies and to the British Association for Adoption and Fostering. They say that the evidence proves categorically that it is not easy to find families for children waiting to be adopted and that we must widen the eligibility criteria to encourage more adopters to come forward. They say that an increasing number of single people, some of whom live with a partner, is interested in adoption. They say that we simply cannot afford to exclude such people on arbitrary grounds related to their marital status. If we are serious about finding families for children, we must welcome applications from all families who believe that they have something to offer and judge each application on its merits.
Some ask, "Why, if unmarried couples are so committed, don't they get married?". The debate is not about the reasons why unmarried couples are unable to or choose not to marry. It is about increasing the number of vulnerable children who have the opportunity to grow up as part of a stable, loving and permanent family. That must be the test. Any couple wishing to become adoptive parents must prove not only that they can provide a loving and stable environment for a child but that their relationship is sound and likely to last.
There are many reasons why people who live together may not marry. It may have nothing to do with their commitment; it may, as the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Oxford suggested, be because of the trauma of an earlier failed marriage. Gay couples, of course, cannot marry. Society is as it is, not as we would wish it to be. It is as it is. In 2000, more than 40 per cent of births were outside marriage. More than 40 per cent of marriages end in divorce. No doubt, noble Lords wish that that were not so, but it is.
The noble Earl, Lord Howe, asked about the civil registration of partnerships. He asked why we were not waiting for that. We are looking at that matter across government, but children do not have time to wait. The opportunity to legislate on adoption comes very infrequently. Now is the time to settle the matter once and for all. The noble Earl spoke about the breakdown of unmarried relationships and about how a co-habitee could be left with nothing and the child left in the middle. The Children Act 1989 places all children on an equal footing, whatever the marital status of their parents. All couples with children have remedies, on the breakdown of marriage and co-habitation, in respect of children. The Children Act enables orders for maintenance or for adjustments of property to be made, as well as lump sums, in favour of the children of those parents. As the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Oxford said, a legal relationship to two adoptive parents is surely a source of strength and security to the adoptive child.
I say to the noble Baroness, Lady O'Cathain, that I cannot accept the concept of a hierarchy of relationships. In the end, it undermines the paramountcy of the child. It says that a married couple should always be considered in a higher category than an unmarried couple, whether of the same or opposite sex. If the child is central to our concerns, we cannot close the door to whole groups of potential adoptive families. Our approach must recognise that the child's interests are paramount. Each applicant must be judged on his or her merits, as the noble Lord, Lord Laming, suggested.
The noble Lord, Lord Phillips of Sudbury, always makes relevant contributions to our debates. He asked how good the courts were as a check. Under Clause 1, the courts will always be obliged to consider the child's welfare as the paramount consideration. The court can make the adoption order only if it is satisfied that that is better for the child than not doing so. The court must consider full reports on cases from the adoption agencies. Often, it is their reading of those reports that exercises and informs the judges. That will all be set out in court rules.
The Bill also allows the courts to commission independent reports on the case from a CAFCASS officer, if they think it necessary. Family Division judges are trained in children's issues. I pay tribute to the noble and learned Lord, Lord Mackay of Clashfern, for his extraordinary initiative in the area. Specialist adoption centres have been introduced, so that expert judges can deal with adoptions. I assure the noble Lord, Lord Phillips of Sudbury, that there will be thorough training for the judiciary in implementing the Bill. The transient relationships so feared by the noble Earl, Lord Howe, when speaking about co-habitees, simply would not get past the starting post of the tough adopter assessment process that I set out today—let alone getting anywhere near a child.
There is the question of the European Convention on Human Rights and the interesting report of the Joint Committee. When the Bill was introduced into the Commons, the Government took legal advice. That advice was that the position in the Adoption Act 1976 and the Bill, as it stood, was, on balance, defensible on ECHR grounds. The committee has now given its view that the Bill, as amended by the Lords, is incompatible with convention rights. The Government do not necessarily accept the committee's reasoning, but we recognise—as we always have—that, in the light of developing case law, there is always a risk that current law and the Bill, as it stands, could be found to be incompatible. Much will depend on the circumstances of the case.
We have always recognised that, in this area, compatibility was an "on balance" judgment. We have always realised that current law and the Bill, as introduced in October in another place, could be open to challenge. The JCHR report draws attention to that.
My Lords, the noble Baroness is a highly experienced Member of this House and a highly experienced Minister. She will know that many judgments have to be made on balance. On the advice my right honourable friend was given, on the balance of argument, he felt able to sign that certificate. I believe that I have given as full—
My Lords, I am grateful to the Minister for giving way. Is he aware that the report of the Joint Committee relied for its decision on the fact that there had been a case which has already been referred to—the Frette case—between when the Bill was first introduced and when the amendments were passed a fortnight ago? Is the Minister also aware that the decision in that case went the other way? The only way that the Joint Committee could justify its view was to say that the case was wrong and would have to be reviewed. That cannot be regarded as a serious contribution to the human rights debate.
My Lords, I am aware of the cases to which the noble Lord refers. That is why I said carefully that the Government do not necessarily accept the reasoning of the committee.
My Lords, does the Minister agree that the Human Rights Act expressly frees our judges not to be bound by a majority decision of a chamber of the court, but to be able to be persuaded by other cases such as that in the South African constitutional court? Does he also agree that that is why it is a difficult judgment as to where our courts would finally strike the balance in the way that the Minister had himself to do?
My Lords, that is a ridiculous point to make. Ministers make decisions and judgments on the basis of evidence and argument and they have to make them often on the balance of argument. That is all I have said. My right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Health was confident when he signed that certificate that he was right to do so. It was based on the balance of argument.
I turn briefly to the noble Lord, Lord Jenkin. He agrees with me up to a point. Particularly, he accepts the thoroughness of the adoption assessment process. However, I have a problem with his amendment because I believe that what he proposes is surely discrimination. Both the noble Lord and my noble friend Lord Campbell-Savours raised the issue of research. I have looked at varying degrees of research. More is needed—I have no doubt about that. However, there is no evidence to suggest that children of gay men and lesbians are significantly more likely than children of heterosexual people to become homosexual. Indeed, most lesbian and gay people grow up in heterosexual families.
There is growing evidence based on outcomes for children living in same-sex households. No reliable research to date has identified significant differences between lesbian and gay parents and their heterosexual counterparts. When I look at the challenging childcare taken on by some gay adopters I do not excoriate them, I salute them for their courage and determination at what they are giving to young people. Rather than just worry about children's security in that area, let us do what we can to increase it. Children being looked after by a couple, only one of whom at the moment is able legally to adopt them, have made it clear time and again that they want a legal relationship with two parents and not just one.
The noble Baroness, Lady O'Cathain, referred to the question of whether the reason for bringing back this amendment is one not of concern for the child, but of concern for political correctness or social engineering. Perhaps I may say—
My Lords, I apologise. It is something the noble Baroness said on Report and was referred to by a number of other noble Lords. I want to say clearly that there is no question here of social engineering. It is simply a question of seeking to provide the best basis possible for ensuring that vulnerable people are given all the support they can get within loving families. As my noble friend Lady Hayman said, there is not a division between those who argue for the rights of children against the rights of adults. This is about children.
It is why we made so many improvements to the Bill, such as advocacy, financial support, ensuring rights of access to information about adoption, and improved placement provision. Those amendments were supported and inspired by adoption and children's organisations. Noble Lords have listened to them and attached their names to so many of the key amendments which we have accepted in a spirit of consensus.
On the question of unmarried couples, why would noble Lords, who have faithfully replayed the views of those organisations on so many occasions, reject the wisdom and experience of those organisations such as BAAF and Barnado's? Listen to Barnado's. It says that the issue has been portrayed as an attack on marriage and a dilution of the importance of the family. In fact, says Barnado's, it is the opposite in that those amendments seek to strengthen the security of couples who wish to provide a secure home base for an adopted child, but who do not choose to, or cannot, marry. Barnado's recognises that the Bill's construction is such as to ensure that the child's interests are paramount.
It was the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Chelmsford who mentioned the question of social engineering. I can reassure him that it is not. It is about children—vulnerable children, often lonely children, children with multiple deprivation, or children who have been grossly neglected. Of all the Bills that I have taken through your Lordships' House—and that is quite a few—this is by far the most important. My noble friend Lady Billingham summed it up so well. The Bill will give hope to thousands and thousands of young people. It would be so much better if unmarried couples can be permitted to adopt jointly. I urge the House to reject the noble Earl's amendment.
My Lords, this has been a good debate and it is time to vote. I shall make one or two points. Many noble Lords will have made up their minds on the issue long before we started debating today. The best I can hope to do is influence those who have not done so. To those noble Lords I say that I have not heard anything today which has tempted me to change my mind. I believe that the Commons amendments are misconceived.
I say to the noble and learned Lord, Lord Lloyd, that I do not believe he did anything to counter the point that I was trying to make—and made very well by the noble Earl, Lord Erroll—that to grant rights to unmarried partnerships without defining the nature and status of those partnerships in law is premature and exceedingly ill-advised, not least in the area of property rights when the relationship breaks down.
My Lords, I thank the noble Earl for giving way. It is a fallacy to talk about giving rights to unmarried partners. What we are talking about is giving rights to the adopted children of single people who live with partners who would have no legal responsibilities towards them otherwise.
My Lords, I agree that this is not a debate about the rights of adults and there is no difference between us there. But like it or not, the effect of the Commons amendments would be to grant rights to individuals who do not have those rights at the moment. That was all that I was seeking to say.
The Minister knows perfectly well that the Children Act provisions are much weaker than those available to the matrimonial court. The Minister in another place, Jacqui Smith, had it right last November when she argued cogently and at length for the law to remain as it is for that reason and for others. Above all, a change in the law would do the one thing which none of us wants; that is, to take a gamble and thereby create an added risk for very vulnerable children. Is it right that we should place a child into a legal relationship with two adults who have no legal relationship with each other? I do not think so.
Those who say that there is nothing worse than being in the care system need to reflect on whether there is in fact something potentially worse; that is, to be an adopted child and then suffer the trauma of an adoption that breaks down when the adopters split up. That is the risk that my amendments are trying to minimise.
I am dismayed by the raft of new amendments from another place not only because they have not been properly debated, or debated at all, but because of what they do. It is perhaps enough to say that they have the effect of undermining marriage in what I see as a deeply regrettable way.
One thing I do feel is that this should not be a debate about discriminating between one group of cohabitees and another. There may be some of your Lordships who feel inclined to vote for the amendment in the name of my noble friend Lord Jenkin. I hope that anyone in that position will think again. But if they cannot, I hope that at the very least they will vote for my amendment in the first instance. I say that for two reasons. The first is that to vote against me or to abstain would split the vote. The second is that my noble friend's amendment, which he has presented as a compromise, is in fact no such thing. It stands not a ghost of a chance of being accepted by the Government. If the Bill runs the risk of running out of time, my amendment is more likely to be accepted for the very good reason that it represents the Government's own policy. If there is any concern about ECHR compatibility, it surely centres on my noble friend's amendment. For that reason, I do not believe that the Government, or for that matter another place, would wish to entertain it.
It is a very important matter. The House is entitled to reject the Commons amendments for a second time. It is entitled at least to urge the Government to implement their own policy. I believe that it should now do so and I therefore commend the amendment to the House.
Resolved in the negative, and amendment disagreed to accordingly.
26ACLord Jenkin of Roding moved, as an amendment to the Motion that the House do not insist on its Amendment No. 26 to which the Commons have disagreed, and do agree with the Commons in their Amendments Nos. 26A to 26UU in lieu thereof, leave out from "26" to end and insert ", do disagree with the Commons in their Amendments Nos. 26A to 26UU in lieu thereof, and do propose the following amendments in lieu of the Commons amendments— 26AD Page 27, line 39, at end insert "provided that such regulations shall cover married couples, unmarried couples consisting of a man and a woman living together and single persons, but shall not cover couples of the same sex"
26AEPage 83, line 28, leave out "(whether"
26AFPage 83, line 28, leave out "or the same sex)" "
On Question, amendments negatived.
On Question, Motion agreed to.