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Mr. Robert Walter (North Dorset): I thank the hon. Gentleman for giving way, because my name appears on both the amendments that he has just mentioned. He has not yet satisfactorily answered the question from my hon. Friend the Member for South-West Devon (Mr. Streeter) so I shall ask him again. Is it the position of the Liberal Democrats that they do not believe that the best environment in which to bring up a child is with a mother and a father?

Dr. Harris: That is an academic argument, because each case is different. If there is a violent father in the household—it is usually fathers who are violent—it is not a suitable environment. Unless the hon. Gentleman is prepared to say that those of his constituents who do not live together as married husband and wife are less worthy of his consideration, I am not prepared to go any further into what is a sterile debate.

New clause 13 is important and will assume greater importance. It is the one change proposed by the hon. Member for Wakefield that I cannot support, because it would give new and unnecessary regulation-making powers to the Secretary of State. If hon. Members are serious about scrutinising the Government, they should look at the new clause carefully. General regulation- making powers exist in clause 9 already and could cover that area as they cover the functions of adoption agencies and local authorities, including writing reports for courts. Clause 1 already provides that agencies and the courts must have paramount regard to the welfare of the child throughout his life. In addition, statutory guidance already exists on the issue, and adoption agencies can provide further guidance. The additional regulatory powers are unnecessary. Moreover, we have not seen the powers, so we could be voting for restrictive secondary legislation based on measures in the Bill. The Minister might even admit that that is exactly the point of new clause 13. If the Government wanted powers in that area, they should have published the regulations before today, which is the last opportunity that the House has to see what it is being asked to accept.

The amendments are about putting the welfare of children before old-fashioned views of the world as we would like it be rather than as it is. They are about putting fair treatment before unnecessary discrimination, and putting the best interests of children—making their welfare paramount—before prejudice. I urge the House to support the amendments.

Mr. David Hinchliffe (Wakefield): I shall speak to amendment No. 148, amendments Nos.149 to 158, which accompany it, and new clause 13. I shall not press the other amendments that stand in my name. I hope that if

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the debate is interrupted by the knife at 6 o'clock, we will have a separate division on amendment No. 148—and, if necessary, on the other amendments that go with it.

I am pleased to be able to contribute to a debate on this important and welcome Bill, which is long overdue. However, I have been astonished by some of the media coverage of the purpose of the amendments that I have tabled and the changes I have proposed to the Bill. The coverage in the media in the past few days has ranged from grossly inaccurate to frankly outrageous. It has been suggested that the motive behind my amendments is political correctness. I have been told by close friends among hon. Members that I am one of the most politically incorrect Members, so it is an unusual experience for me to be accused of political correctness.

I have read the article by Melanie Phillips in Monday's Daily Mail that suggested that the amendments were a deliberate attempt to destroy marriage. It states:

which does not include me—

which presumably does include me. That is the first time I have been accused of being an intellectual.

4.15 pm

Jonathan Shaw: What about being morally bankrupt?

Mr. Hinchliffe: I shall not respond to that intervention. The article continues:

That paper is read by many people, and the letters and telephone calls that I have received show that one or two people are daft enough to believe that nonsense.

I wish to make my personal position clear. My concern is not to undermine marriage. I have a deeply held personal belief in marriage. I am married, and one of my great regrets is the extent of marriage breakdown and family breakdown that I have witnessed in our society. I also regret the failure of society to emphasise sufficiently the importance of marriage and the family in contributing to a decent, civilised and stable society. However, I was encouraged to hear from a Conservative Front Bencher that the number of marriages is going up under Labour. Perhaps we are moving in the right direction.

I have one simple concern and motivation in tabling the amendments, and that is the interests of the vulnerable children to whom Melanie Phillips refers in her article. Some hon. Members may be aware of my background, which is that before becoming an MP I spent nearly 20 years in local authority social work. I often worked on the approval of adoption applicants, which is a very skilled process. Indeed, I pay tribute to the work of the agencies and individuals involved in a difficult, challenging and important task. I spent many years working as a guardian ad litem on behalf of the courts. The guardian ad litem protects the specific interests of a child who is being placed for adoption. I was also, for several years, a member of the adoption panel for the Wakefield local authority that approved placements for adoption. By and large, it did so very successfully.

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I come to the matter from the point of view of someone who knows about the situation of adoptive applicants. I know about the circumstances facing many children who could be adopted, and how their best interests might be served by a change in the law.

I entered the House in 1987. With my background, it was a privilege to be invited to serve on the Standing Committee considering the Bill that became the Children Act 1989. I pay tribute to the Conservative Government on their introduction of that fine piece of legislation. It succeeded because at its heart lay what was called the welfare principle—that the best interests of the child should underpin any decision relating to that child's welfare.

This Bill is a positive measure. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State and my hon. Friend the Minister of State deserve great praise for being able to find time in a tight parliamentary timetable to put this long overdue provision on the statute book.

The Bill reflects the personal concerns of my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister. Some two years ago I had an interesting discussion with him, and he told me that his father had been in care. I had had no idea about that, but it is clear that my right hon. Friend has some insight into the concerns of children in that situation. He has initiated what I think is a long overdue and important change in the law.

I also had the privilege, in the previous Parliament, to be Chairman of the Select Committee on Health when we conducted an inquiry into looked-after children. One of our recommendations was that there was a need to make much greater use of adoption. We also said that the law governing adoption should be reformed. That reform is contained in this Bill.

The Bill enshrines the welfare principle—the principle on which the Children Act 1989 was founded—in adoption law, but it fails in one key area. Our debate on this group of amendments is concerned with that area of failure—the fact that the Bill does not allow unmarried couples to adopt, even if a child's best interests would best be served by that. The amendments and new clauses in this group are designed to change that.

I welcome the fact that the Government have recognised that the problem exists, and I also welcome their willingness to listen. I strongly commend their decision to allow a free vote on the matter. It is exactly the sort of issue that should be left to personal conscience. Many Labour Members to whom I have spoken disagree with me on this matter, and many agree. I have talked to Conservative Members about the matter, and some of them would like to go most of the way with what I am trying to achieve. I presume, however, that they are prevented from doing so by what I understand to be a three-line Whip.

Mr. Dawson: Does my hon. Friend agree that the status quo is unacceptable? At present one member of an unmarried partnership can adopt, yet the other member is left out. Surely that cannot be a basis for a permanent, loving and caring relationship with two adult carers?

Mr. Hinchliffe: That problem is at the heart of my concerns about the way in which the Bill is drafted. My hon. Friend is right: the law permits adoption by single people and joint adoption by married couples. The

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prohibition of joint adoption by unmarried couples is continued by clause 47. As drafted, the Bill requires that all decisions by the relevant agencies or courts must be based on the principle that the child's welfare, throughout its life, must be the paramount consideration. However, in a small number of cases the agency or court is prevented from making the decision that is most likely to promote the child's welfare. They may be few in number, but those cases are important, and that is why I think that the Bill needs to be amended.

In practice, a small number of children—possibly as few as 1 per cent.—are placed for adoption with an unmarried couple. Alternatively, a child may be placed with its existing foster carers. There is no requirement that such carers be married, and they may wish to adopt the child. Sadly for the child, in those circumstances only one of the foster parents can in law become the adoptive parent. The other partner may acquire more limited parental responsibility for the child—for example, by being granted a residence order.

However, such orders end automatically when a child is 16, or 18 at the latest. As a result, the adoptive parent's partner will have no lasting legal family relationship with the adopted child. We have to understand the implications of that. I shall not go into detail, but questions of inheritance, pensions, insurance, and in certain circumstances even nationality, need to be considered.

Most importantly to my mind, the present arrangements also affect the child's ability to have an equal relationship with both adoptive parents. That is why I propose that unmarried couples should be allowed to apply to adopt and to be approved, where suitable and where there is clear evidence of stability and permanence in their relationship.

I emphasise those conditions, as I am concerned that we should be aware of the need for permanence in the relationship of any people applying to adopt. It is worth noting that the 1983 adoption regulations for reports to adoption panels and the 1984 adoption rules concerning reports to the courts require comments on the stability of a married couple's relationship.

I know married couples who do not have an exactly stable relationship, so it is wrong to make the automatic assumption that people who are married have a stable relationship. Sadly, in my experience, that is not always the case.

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