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Jonathan Shaw: Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Tim Loughton: I will not.

By contrast, cohabiting couples are six times more likely to split up than married couples, and, as my right hon. Friend the Member for Maidstone and The Weald (Miss Widdecombe) said, more than half of cohabiting

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couples split up within five years of the birth of a child. They split up most often when they have children. The statistics go on and on. The figures show that gay relationships are more transitory still. Married couples offer by far the best long-term chances of stability, statistically and sociologically, and that is what we should be concentrating on. We must make it much easier and quicker for married couples to adopt, which is what the rest of the Bill is all about.

Marriage is on the increase. In 2000, there were 263,515 marriages. About 22 million marriages currently exist. So if we want to increase the current 3,000 adoptees by at least 50 per cent., as we all do, there is plenty of scope in the existing material, and we need to concentrate on why more such people are not coming forward or being approved as adopters.

All the amendments—apart from amendment No. 24, which is different—miss the point. They would open up adoption to any manner of pick-and-mix couples, including heterosexual cohabitees—even brother and sister—and same-sex couples, who have the worst record statistically.

New clause 2 also has serious technical problems. How do we define whether people are in a stable relationship? The amendments would create a mess. They would also send out the wrong signals to local authorities, which might present the courts with more unmarried couples instead of concentrating on maximising the availability of existing married couples, against whom there has been too much obstruction from the political correctness brigade in the past.

We are spending all this time discussing amendments that tackle the wrong problem. In any case, keeping the status quo means that single parent adoptions, which currently constitute 5 per cent. of all adoptions, can still continue. We are not seeking to change that situation. Unmarried couples wanting to adopt have the solution in their own hands—they can commit to each other in a long-term relationship by getting married. I quote:

Those are the words of the hon. Member for Don Valley (Caroline Flint).

No one has a right to adopt, but every abandoned child or child in care has a right to get a second chance of a stable and loving upbringing. Yet I fear that too many Members here today who are interested in this part of the Bill are in danger of putting the interests of adults ahead of those of children. I fear that this part of the Bill is in danger of being manipulated to serve a different agenda that is all about the wishes of adults. I invite all hon. Members to join us in the Lobby to vote against all the amendments that open up adoption without qualification and to put the interests of children first. I invite the Liberals in particular to put aside their whipped agenda for gay rights and to concentrate on what is best for children by voting with us.

To do so is not to be anti-gay or pro-marriage—for marriage is safe—but to be for the best interests of children. I ask hon. Members to put aside political agendas, moral crusades and issues of equal opportunity,

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deserving as those may be in a different context. The only equal rights that we should be concerned with in the context of the Bill are those of damaged children to a second chance of a stable and loving upbringing. That is best achieved by keeping the status quo and considering all the other ways of improving and expanding the whole adoption system, which is what the rest of this large Bill is intended to do. We should be getting on with that.

5.45 pm

Jacqui Smith: On Second Reading, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State suggested that there should be a debate on adoption by unmarried couples. A good debate on the subject has taken place today, with hon. Members expressing well thought-out and deeply held views. During the Bill's passage, and especially in the consultative Special Standing Committee, we received many representations. We know that the issue is sensitive and difficult. Given the variety of views, the Government have decided to allow a free vote on extending eligibility to apply to adopt jointly. I am disappointed that other parties have not seen fit to do the same.

I should like to comment on the detail of the amendments. Amendments Nos. 148 to 158 and new clause 13, which my hon. Friend the Member for Wakefield (Mr. Hinchliffe) tabled, would, for the first time, allow unmarried couples to apply jointly to adopt children. Hon. Members have understandably concentrated on principles. As a Minister, I am afraid that I have to concentrate not only on principles but on whether the legislation will work.

Mr. Leigh: Will the Minister give way?

Jacqui Smith: No.

Amendments Nos. 148 to 158 and new clause 13 would effect what hon. Members want in a way that is legally sensible and confines the definition of a couple to the Bill. The amendment that the hon. Member for Oxford, West and Abingdon (Dr. Harris) tabled would not achieve that. Clauses 47 and 48 define who is eligible to adopt. Amendments Nos. 148 to 155 would make the necessary changes, and amendment No. 158 would define a couple. I therefore hope that the hon. Member for Oxford, West and Abingdon will withdraw the amendment. It would not achieve his intention but create considerable difficulties if hon. Members wanted to accept joint adoption by unmarried couples.

As many hon. Members have said, the amendments would widen the pool of potential adoptive parents so that more vulnerable children have the chance of family life that adoption can bring. Evidence shows that there is a potential supply of couples who are willing to adopt. British Agencies for Adoption and Fostering has evidence showing 41 per cent. of unmarried couples expressing an interest in adopting jointly. However, as other hon. Members have pointed out, only 5 per cent. of adoptions are currently not by married couples. That suggests that there may be a supply of adoptive parents out there.

As hon. Members have made clear, one of the key criteria for our decision must be whether we believe that we can increase opportunities for children to be adopted

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into stable and secure families. There appears to be evidence that we could widen the pool of potential adopters.

Mr. Jon Owen Jones (Cardiff, Central): Will my hon. Friend help me to understand why an unmarried couple would refuse to marry if they genuinely wanted to adopt?

Jacqui Smith: I believe that there are many reasons, as several hon. Members suggested. We do not need to worry about that today. We should consider whether to increase the pool of adopters and how to promote the stability and security that many hon. Members have discussed.

Mr. Leigh: I very much hope that the hon. Lady, on behalf of the Government, will now provide leadership and advice to the House. That is her duty as a Minister. Will she please confirm that she still believes the statement that she made very firmly in Committee in November 2001? In it, she said:

Will she repeat that statement today?

Jacqui Smith: I will repeat to the hon. Gentleman what I said in Committee about the Government believing that there was scope for looking at unmarried couples being able to adopt and taking that forward through the partnership registration work that the Government were undertaking. There is nothing inconsistent in my position today.

We need to be clear about the basis of this argument. A vote for the amendments tabled by my hon. Friend the Member for Wakefield is not a vote to extend the right to adopt to unmarried people or to gay people. They already have that right. The existing legal framework for adoption already provides that single people may adopt regardless of their sex or sexual orientation; only married couples can adopt jointly. If a single person is living as part of a couple, the couple will be assessed jointly. One person will then adopt the child, and the other may acquire parental responsibility for the child by means of a residence order. This is not, therefore, about extending the right to adopt to gay people or unmarried people. Furthermore, if any hon. Members really opposed those ideas, they should, at some point during the passage of the Bill, have made their position clear. Nobody has done so.

Several hon. Members, including the hon. Member for South Cambridgeshire (Mr. Lansley) in his very considered speech, argued the case for stability for the child and the importance of the legal relationship that that child has with each of his parents. In the current legal framework, the child is missing having two parents, each with a legal relationship with him. We know from correspondence that we have received that adopted children worry about the difference it would make to them if, for example, their legal parent were to die leaving no one legally responsible for them. That does not provide security or stability for those children who are already living with unmarried couples and with gay people.

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Residence orders are not permanent. They come to an end when the child reaches the age of 16. Adoption, however, is for life.

The right hon. Member for Maidstone and The Weald (Miss Widdecombe) made much of the concept of marriage, as did other hon. Members. This Government have supported marriage, and supported assistance for married people. As we have heard, the number of married people has gone up under the Labour Government. I am happily married, or so my husband tells me. This is not an attack on marriage. It is right that we should seek stability for children, and that can be—and often is—provided by married couples. It can also be provided, however, by other families and by other couples. Nothing in these proposals will water down the crucial assessment process that has to be undertaken to determine whether a relationship is stable—whether the couple is married or not.

Under the amendments, particularly new clause 13, any couple—married or unmarried—wanting to become adoptive parents will need to prove not only that they can provide a loving family environment but that they form a stable and long-term partnership. The provisions in new clause 13 are important. All adoptive applicants must be assessed and approved by an adoption agency before they have children placed with them. That assessment will include a rigorous scrutiny of the stability of their relationship. That is right, because we are talking about stability and security; but I believe that we can deliver stability and security by means of the changes that the amendments of my hon. Friend the Member for Wakefield would make.

As my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Health made clear in answer to a parliamentary question from my hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Heeley (Ms Munn), it is ultimately right for the court to decide whether to make an adoption order. It is right that what we look for in the assessment process is a stable and permanent relationship, but when we find that, it may well be possible to address the need for a larger adoption pool.

Our concern should relate to the circumstances of individual children, not statistical bantering about particular kinds of relationship. Some of the children we are considering are very troubled, and potentially difficult to place with adopters. Their relationship with specific people, including couples, who might have the skills, the stable homes and the love and care enabling them to offer something more should be at the centre of our debate.

For many adoption agencies, the choice will be not about placing children with stable married couples or with unmarried couples, but about giving a child the chance to live in a stable loving family rather than being left in care, with all the instability and poor life chances that we know that can bring.

This has been a wide-ranging debate, in which many Members have expressed the views on all sides of the argument. If the House decides to accept the amendments tabled by my hon. Friend the Member for Wakefield, the Government will undertake to table whatever consequential amendments are necessary—a considerable number—to ensure that this works in legislation. Amendments Nos. 148 to 158 and new clause 13 provide a legally workable basis on which to extend the right to adopt to unmarried couples.

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Ultimately, however, the debate is not about a right to adopt. It is not about political correctness. It is not about gay rights. It is not even about parents. It is about a child's chance of being in a family, and I hope that Members will vote on that basis.

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