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4 Nov 2002 : Column 26—continued

Andrew Selous (South-West Bedfordshire): What is the hon. Gentleman's response to the statistic that 83 per cent. of cohabitations that do not become marriages break up in 10 years, whereas 60 per cent. of marriages last for life?

Mr. Hinchliffe: I do not want to argue about that figure. Unmarried applicants will go through a rigorous process to ensure that their relationship is stable. As I said in our previous debate, I have a background in adoption and guardian ad litem work. I know of cases of married couples who adopted children and whose marriages subsequently broke down. In many instances, that cannot be predicted. However, the adoption agencies and services have a good track record in examining the strengths or weaknesses of relationships. I shall return to that point, because it was raised in the Lords.

Michael Fabricant (Lichfield): I am sure that the hon. Gentleman agrees that a loving, stable relationship is required. Does he realise that, under current law, an individual could adopt, but that if that individual was in a stable relationship and, God forbid, one of the partners died, the child could be removed from the other adoptive parent? Is not that the cruellest aspect?

Mr. Hinchliffe: That is an important point, which several hon. Members made in our previous debate. In many cases, sometimes of same-sex couples but more frequently of unmarried heterosexual couples, one partner adopts the child. When the adoptive partner dies, the child is legally in a vulnerable position. That was discussed at length in our previous debate. It is an anomaly in the current law and we must bear it in mind, as the hon. Member for Lichfield (Michael Fabricant) made clear.

The amendments to the Lords amendments secure the best interests of children by acknowledging that in some circumstances, they may be served by adoption by unmarried partners. Since 1989, the welfare principle has been at the heart of our legislation on child welfare. There will be general agreement in the House that it has served our children well. In any decision about their well-being, the prime objective must be their best interests throughout their lifetimes. In my view, the Bill as amended in the Lords will not ensure that those best interests are properly covered in specific circumstances.

I want to consider the main themes of the Lords' anxieties about the amendment that we passed some time ago. I hope that hon. Members have studied the relevant Hansard reports of the Lords proceedings. I do not like to say so, but one theme underpinned the debates: scarcely concealed, crude homophobia. I find that rather sad and worrying in this day and age.

On Report, my speech on the relevant amendment covered six columns of Hansard. Just two paragraphs of my speech dealt with same-sex adoption, because I believe that the main thrust of our concern should be child welfare, which is where the law has got it wrong.

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Jonathan Shaw (Chatham and Aylesford): Will my hon. Friend give way?

Mr. Hinchliffe: May I make a bit more progress?

Having read the Hansard reports, I am puzzled about why so-called gay adoptions dominated their lordships' concerns. It seemed that, for them, the issue boiled down to that one central element. I am reminded of a conversation that I had earlier this year with a recently ennobled Labour peer who entered the House of Lords after the last general election. He told me one evening that, over the year that he had been there, the entire place had seemed to be completely obsessed with sex. As far as he could see, all they ever talked about in the other place was sex. I do not want to go into why that might be so, but it seemed to underpin those debates and to divert attention from more important issues.

Mr. Robert Walter (North Dorset): I think that the hon. Gentleman and I agree on a lot in respect of this aspect of the Bill. Does he acknowledge, however, that the Bill would be more acceptable, both in the other place and in the wider country, if we separated the concepts of unmarried couples of different sexes and couples of the same sex? We might thereby get greater acceptance for what we are trying to achieve.

Mr. Hinchliffe: It might be easier for Conservative Members to deal with the matter in that way. I very much respect the hon. Gentleman's position on this issue. We discussed the broad issues when he was on the Health Select Committee, and he was party to the Committee's inquiry into looked-after children, which reinforced the concerns about adoption. Politically, it might be helpful for the Conservatives to separate those two concepts, but I do not think that the distinctions are as clear as he suggests. The way forward is to accept the fact that we are dealing with unmarried partners, who may be heterosexual, homosexual or lesbian.

Another concern is that people automatically assume that same-sex adoptions will involve homosexuals or lesbians. I know people of the same sex who live together in long-term relationships and who would be offended if they were called homosexuals or lesbians.

Angela Watkinson (Upminster): Does the hon. Gentleman not agree that a child who is brought up by a couple of the same sex would automatically be denied either a father or a mother?

Mr. Hinchliffe: Perhaps I misheard the hon. Lady's question. There are many ideals in society. I worry that some of the people who end up in this place see society as being an ideal, and see their own background as one that applies to everyone else in society. Sadly, that is not the case. I know for a fact that vast numbers of children in the care system would find these debates irrelevant; all that they want is a loving home. It would not matter if the adopters were same-sex, mixed-sex, black, blue or green; those children want a loving family environment. That is where we must start from.

I was struck by some of the evidence advanced in defence of the Lords' concerns in their debate on same-sex adoptions. One peer referred to an opinion poll that

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had been carried out in a Labour constituency. The question that had been put to people—a fairly loaded one—was:

In response, 81 per cent. of Tory voters, 71 per cent. of Labour voters, and 65 per cent. of Liberal Democrat voters said no. I wonder what the result would have been if the alternative had been proposed—of the children remaining in institutional care for the remainder of their childhood and adolescence, with numerous transient carers and, arguably, a far greater chance of abuse—because that, frankly, is the reality.

Jonathan Shaw: Does my hon. Friend agree that at least those Tory voters in that constituency had a chance to say what they really feel?

Mr. Hinchliffe: I want to stick to the issues, not be drawn into what may or may not be happening on the other side of the Chamber.

Mr. Julian Brazier (Canterbury): I am most grateful to the hon. Gentleman, who is generous in giving way again. Surely the point that he has just made goes to the heart of the matter. He says that the vast majority of cases involve heterosexual couples. All of them already have the power to adopt, and to adopt jointly, simply by getting married.

Mr. Hinchliffe: I very much respect the hon. Gentleman's commitment to adoption and the work that he has done. He deserves a great deal of credit for the efforts that he has put into this complex area and for pushing the Government on a number of fronts where there was a need for change. I credit him with a lot of achievement, but I disagree with him. When I met my wife, we determined to marry; we both chose to marry. I respect the fact that others may not choose the same course of action—

Jonathan Shaw: To marry you?

Mr. Hinchliffe: Okay, I shall have a word with my hon. Friend outside later.

The Lords' concern over same-sex relationships seems to be underpinned by the idea, which was not mentioned, that same-sex couples somehow present a greater risk of sexual abuse to children than heterosexuals. Having worked in social services for many years, I honestly am not sure that that is how it works out. That is not my experience as one who had to deal with—on few occasions, fortunately—children who had been abused in children's homes. By and large, that abuse was heterosexual. Certain myths are doing the rounds in the other place that perhaps underpin their lordships' misunderstanding of what we, I hope, will propose in the Commons.

The second area that concerns me, and which concerned me about the debate in the Chamber and in respect of the Lords in particular, is the general lack of knowledge of the thorough and skilled processes that are in place to deal with people who apply to adopt.

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The peers do not seem to understand that there is an extremely thorough and complex process that leads to a large number of applicants being rooted out.

Angela Watkinson: Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Hinchliffe: No, I have already given way to the hon. Lady.

Sometimes, applicants are very concerned about being deemed unsuitable to adopt—that happens.

I give an example that, in one sense, illustrates the ignorance involved. Interestingly, one peer referred to a British study that found that the incidence of child abuse is 33 times higher among children living with the mother and her boyfriend than it is among those living with biological married parents. How can anyone seriously translate and apply such findings on families with fleeting live-in boyfriends to the long-term stable relationships of unmarried partners, which will be strictly required of adoption applicants? I genuinely feel that the Lords fundamentally misunderstood the processes that occur before people are allowed to adopt.

The other area that came over loud and clear is political correctness.

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