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The hon. Member for Oxford, West and Abingdon (Dr. Harris) expressed concern about new clause 13. The regulations and accompanying statutory guidance would require specific consideration of the duration and permanence of the relationship between the couple as part of the adopter assessment process. That is very important.
Mr. Hinchliffe: Some of the most unstable people that I have met in my life have been married. Marriage does not necessarily indicate stability. However, regardless of whether we are talking about married or unmarried couples, the existence of a stable, enduring and loving relationship is crucial when it comes to adoptive applicants securing approval.
Ms Munn: Will not new clause 13 make it a requirement, for the first time, that the regulations should cover inquiries into suitability? It is clearly spelled out that adoptive applicants must have a relationship that is stable and permanent, and those conditions apply to married couples, single people and unmarried couples. That requirement has not existed in previous legislation covering adoption.
Mr. Hinchliffe: My hon. Friend is right, and I pay tribute to her for the long and hard work that she done on this measure. Her background is in social work, and she worked in my constituency some time ago.
I want to say something about the number of children who need adoption. My hon. Friend the Minister of State may have up-to-date figures on the number of children in care, but the organisation British Agencies for Adoption and Fostering has calculated that some 5,000 more adoptive families will be needed in the next year. It is worried that the Government's aim of increasing the number of children adopted from care by 40 per cent. by 2004 will need many more adoptive applicants than are evident at present.
Julie Morgan (Cardiff, North): Is my hon. Friend aware of the statement made in the media today by the director of BAAF, to the effect that the organisation can get no applicants at all to appear in its "Be My Parent" book who want to adopt boys of more than five or six years of age?
Mr. Hinchliffe: The briefing sent by BAAF to Members refers to that point. It is worrying that many children do not have the opportunity of the loving family environment that all or most of us take for granted.
Mr. Edward Leigh (Gainsborough): The hon. Gentleman is giving a very good speech, although I do not necessarily agree with his conclusions. He is at least making the case for stability. It is true that six out of 10 cohabitations turn into marriage, but of those that do not, eight out of 10 break down within 10 years. Does he think
Mr. Hinchliffe: Sadly, many marriages break down within the same period. I worked with colleagues who were involved with adoptions, and sometimes the marriages broke down not long after the children were adopted, which deeply affected the children. I do not think that we can ever predict whether that will happen. I understand the hon. Gentleman's point, but we cannot guarantee that married people will stay together.
Jonathan Shaw: Does my hon. Friend agree that the difference is that an unmarried couple seeking to adopt a child would be subject to a rigorous assessment, and would need to demonstrate stability? We are not comparing like with like, so the example given by the hon. Member for Gainsborough (Mr. Leigh) is not appropriate.
Mr. Hinchliffe: My hon. Friend's background, like mine, is in social work. I suspect that many Opposition Members do not have the depth of knowledge that some Labour Members who have done the job have, about the extent to which such issues are examined. It occasionally results in social workers being accused of prying into issues that they should not investigate. This has to be a thorough process, and I think that the regulations that follow what I hope will be an amended Bill will be thorough on the subject of stability and security.
Rev. Martin Smyth (Belfast, South): I agree with some of the hon. Gentleman's arguments. He said that more people needed to offer to become adoptive parents. Has he any figures to show how many people who seek to adopt and make no progress opt for out-of-country adoption? Are those figures recorded with our lists of those waiting for adoption?
Mr. Hinchliffe: I do not have those figures; the Minister may be able to offer some advice on the subject. I have deep reservations about out-of-country adoptions. I have a vivid memory of being in Romania 10 years ago in what was supposedly an orphanage. Many people from this country wanted to adopt Romanian orphans, but I found out that most of the kids surrounding me were not orphans but had families who were too poor to look after them. The message that came over loud and clear is that we need to support the countries where those youngsters come from and ensure that they can be fed and cared for by their own families. I do not have the figures but I am uneasy about the idea of inter-country adoptions without very strict regulations.
Mr. Streeter: I respect the hon. Gentleman greatly for the work that he has done on this matter, although, like my hon. Friend the Member for Gainsborough (Mr. Leigh), I do not necessarily share his beliefs. He has done a terrific job, however, and is making a very good speech. Reference has been made to hard-to-adopt children, particularly boys of five, six and seven. What evidence does he have that if his amendment is passed into law, a queue of unmarried couples will want those hard-to-adopt children?
The figures discussed in Committee showing how many people cohabit rather than marry nowadays are worthy of note, too. I do not defend those figuresI have made my position clearbut the general household survey shows that in 2000, 11 per cent. of men and 12 per cent. of women between 16 and 59 were cohabiting, and 30 per cent. of women aged 18 to 49. I am told that according to the projections, in 20 years' timeno doubt this legislation will still apply then, because I suspect that, as has already been said, it will be 25 years before there is another Adoption Act, so we need to get it rightthe figure for cohabiting couples will be 20 per cent., and may even be higher. Personally, I hope that marriage becomes fashionableand under Labour, that may happen.
I want to emphasise the need for the thorough assessment that already takes place with regard to stability and long-term relationships. I believe that that can be delivered by the amended Bill and by regulation.
I have a lot of respect for the hon. Gentlemen who put their names to amendment (a) to amendment No. 158. I worked with them on the Health Committee, and I know their deep commitment to child welfare. However, I urge the House to oppose amendment (a). Sadly, the media interest in this debate has focused on the red herring of same-sex adoptions. Frankly, such arrangements are not my central purpose, but I believe that it could be in the interests of a particular child to be adopted by a same-sex couple, so that should not be ruled out.
I say that on the basis of the experience that I had in the late 1970s of approving, as de facto foster parents for a particular child, a lesbian couple. I had reservations and Leeds authority, which I worked for and which was in Conservative hands at the time, had very serious reservations. The decision on that placement went to the Conservative chair of the social services committee, and she agreed that the proposal was in the best interests of that child. The lady concerned is still around, and she will confirm what I say. I understand that the child was subsequently adopted by one of the women involved.