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5.30 pm

I know people who genuinely believe in monogamous partnerships and who believe that that is the natural way of things, but they do not believe that marriage itself is natural. They believe that it is a man-made concept, a religious concept, a social construct of no relevance to them. In a democracy, they have rights too.

Mr. Lilley rose

Mr. Stinchcombe: There are also those who do share my belief in marriage but who find, no matter how hard they try in their own marriage, that they fail and that their marriage does not last. They have rights too, even if they do not remarry. Those rights surely extend far enough to include the right to offer to help to meet the needs of children in care by offering to be adoptive parents to them.

I do not, however, rest my case on the rights of the parent. I rest my case on the rights of the child. The child has rights too—the right to a family, the right to be loved by a family, and the right to be looked after by a family, even if that family unit does not match our ideal. We, in this House, should not sit in moral judgment over families, nor should we stand in the way of the rights of those children being met, for reasons of political or religious correctness or out of idealism.

We must strike a balance. We have an ideal, not universally shared and not realisable by Parliament. Against that ideal, we can weigh thousands of damaged, lonely, unloved, abandoned children, currently kept in care and kept out of families, when we might be able to find them a loving home. For me, that balance can yield only one result: the children must come first.

Tim Loughton: I shall speak to the generality of the amendments—

Sir Patrick Cormack: On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I do not wish to take the time of the House or

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of my hon. Friend, but would you please convey to Mr. Speaker that the timetable that the House has been constrained to follow has prevented a proper debate on both sides of the House and on all sides of the argument?

Mr. Deputy Speaker: The hon. Gentleman knows that the Speaker has nothing to do with the timetables that are presented to the House.

Tim Loughton: I have great sympathy with the comments of my hon. Friend the Member for South Staffordshire (Sir Patrick Cormack), but I shall try again to summarise the debate. I shall speak to the generality of the amendments and explain why the official Opposition will not be supporting them and why I shall advise hon. Members to vote against them.

The subject under discussion has dominated the Bill for far too long—a Bill that has 137 clauses and six schedules and is packed full of many other issues. It is those issues to which I shall direct attention.

Although the debate has been curtailed, it has been interesting. We have had some excellent contributions from all speakers—certainly as soon as the hon. Member for Oxford, West and Abingdon (Dr. Harris) sat down. It was an extraordinary revelation from a political party—the admission that a mother and father figure just happen to be, but are not exclusively, the best bet that children can have. It is astonishing that that is official Liberal Democrat policy.

We heard interesting contributions about the legal implications, moral agendas, legal rights, equality of opportunity and even reverse political correctness. However, I am not interested in any of that as regards creating a better system for adoption and adopted children, and for expanding that system, which is the subject of the Bill. That is what should concern us today, and what has concerned some of us for the past six months, since the Bill started its passage through Parliament. We have strongly supported the Bill throughout, and I have become closely involved with the subject of adoption and scrutinising the Bill.

Two over-riding considerations lie at the heart of our deliberations. The first is set out in clause 1(2), which states:

The second consideration is whether the changes proposed will improve and expand the system of adoption in this country, and thereby heighten the chances of making clause 1 a reality for more children. That is what we are here to discuss today—nothing else. Now is not the time for political agendas, for promoting gay rights agendas, or even for promoting the moral basis for the desirability of marriage. In that I agree with the comment in The Guardian editorial on 14 March when it said:

By the same token, neither should adoption be used as a means of promoting alternative lifestyles and equal opportunities for adults, as I fear increasingly it has become. In the context of this Bill, the only equal opportunity that I am interested in is the equal opportunity of a child who ends up in care as a result of a broken

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home, domestic violence or sexual abuse, or because their parents are unable to cope, often after a catalogue of personal tragedies and multiple upheavals.

Jonathan Shaw: Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Tim Loughton: I will not for the moment.

Our agenda here must be the equal opportunity of those damaged children to have a second chance to repair their lives and to be brought up in as stable, loving and fulfilling a family environment as possible to give them as fair a chance as the rest of us when they go out into the wide world outside.

Jonathan Shaw: Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Tim Loughton: I apologise, but I want to make progress.

Over recent months, many of us have been heavily lobbied on the Bill by all manner of Christian family organisations and the politically correct social worker brigade. I, like most hon. Members who have spoken today, may have strong views on those subjects on either side, but the Bill is not the means to promote them.

We have already wasted far too much time in delaying the Bill since its Committee stage ended some four months ago. We all know that it is because of the debate that has been raging between No. 10 and the rest of the Government over the issue of extending adoption to unmarried couples, which has, temporarily at least, been resolved by a free vote on the Government side, which is perfectly legitimate. But it should not have taken four months. This is desperately needed legislation that we needed yesterday, not tomorrow.

One interesting point about today's debate is its attendance. When we started the Bill's Report stage on 20 March only a handful of Members were here, mostly those who had served on the Committee. When we spoke about much more important issues earlier today, again few Members were here. Yet those issues have far more serious implications for making adoption work. Media coverage, too, has been purely on the unmarrieds issue. Yet today and on Monday we are debating much bigger issues, such as domestic violence involving children, matters of consent, procedures for overseas adoptions and contact orders.

Jonathan Shaw: Will the hon. Gentleman give way on that point?

Tim Loughton: I said that I wanted to make some progress.

We are now told that the Liberals were not due to be whipped to be here at all on Monday. They are interested only in the gay rights agenda as part of the Bill, which is disgraceful.

It is interesting that the BBC, which has been ringing round the expert adoption agencies asking specifically how many complaints they have received from unmarried couples who find that they are unable to adopt jointly, was rather surprised when it reached about the seventh of those adoption agencies to be told that it had not had any complaints about unmarried adoption, to which the BBC said that, funnily enough, nor had anybody else. That

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follows the findings in the Government's 2000 White Paper "Adoption: A New Approach" which listed the 10 main problems to overcome to improve adoption, including delays in the system, inconsistencies in the law and insufficient social worker training, but no mention of the marital status or otherwise of prospective adopters.

Despite this interesting debate, we shall urge hon. Members on both sides to vote against the amendments and to maintain the status quo, because this issue is a sideshow compared with the real concerns of promoting and improving adoption. All the research, all the statistics and all the sociological evidence show that a family that contains a married couple offers the best chance of providing a long-term stable environment for children in need of adoption.

Many may argue that long-term stable environments can also be offered by unmarried couples, whether of the opposite sex or the same sex. I am not arguing against that point here. But no one can refute the evidence that shows that married couples offer the best chances, in most cases by a long measure. Of course, it is not exclusively so and many problems still happen within those married families, as the hon. Member for Wakefield (Mr. Hinchliffe) and others have mentioned. But overall the record is much better.

Let me quote something.

Those were the words of the Foreign Secretary when he was Home Secretary in 1998. I quote:

That is from the Government's 1998 Green Paper.

I quote:

Those were the words of the Minister herself. Currently, 95 per cent. of adoptions are by married people. Seventy per cent. of children born within marriage will live their entire childhood with both natural parents, compared with 36 per cent. of children born to non-married couples. According to the Office for National Statistics, children brought up by married couples are statistically far more likely to have better health, to do better at school, to have fewer behavioural problems and to be less likely to commit a criminal offence.

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