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4 Nov 2002 : Column 35—continued

Tim Loughton (East Worthing and Shoreham): We are at the eleventh hour on what is a really good Bill. We all want it to become law, and it must become law in the interests of many thousands of damaged children throughout our constituencies.

I very much appreciate the opening comments made in moving the motion by the hon. Member for Wakefield (Mr. Hinchliffe). We may disagree about the motion, but he has always had a close interest in the Bill and given it very strong support in Committee, and I

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believe that he and I want the same result in the interests of many children. It is the means by which we reach that result on which we may differ, but no one should doubt our sincerity in jointly wanting to achieve it.

I also want to congratulate the Minister, particularly on many of the improvements that have been made in another place with Government support. Many of us and many people in the adoption world have long fought for the improvements on the retrospective disclosure of information, on fast-tracking for young babies, on advocacy services and on inter-country adoption. All those things have happened in the other place and have greatly improved the Bill, again, with cross-party support. The Minister is to be congratulated on the work that has been done to support that in this place and in the upper House. Many Members have worked very hard since October last year on this Bill, and for long before that on its forerunners. I am very proud of the part played by my team on the Committee, and I am grateful for the responsiveness of the Minister. The Bill has been improved by the proper processes of Parliament: through the good work and expertise of members of the Special Standing Committee, and through the expertise—and especially the legal input—of noble colleagues in another place.

The improvements that we achieved in the Bill gave greater emphasis to resources for adoption support services, which is essential, and I shall return to that later. It was improved, too, in terms of disclosure of information issues, proper monitoring of inter-country adoptions, the creation of special guardianship orders, Children and Family Court Advisory and Support Service support and overhauling the entire appeal system and court procedures on placement. The fact is, however, that the amendments under discussion are neither relevant to nor contingent on any of the improvements that have been added to the Bill, yet we are in danger of getting hung up on the single ancillary issue of unmarried adoption, which now threatens to wreck the Bill or even lead to losing it. What a disservice that will be to thousands of children who are desperately looking for homes.

This is a contentious issue—none of us would deny that. Whatever our side of the argument, we can all admit that the unmarried status issue is contentious, yet it is not fundamental to the Bill. It was not in the original Bill on Second Reading, the Prime Minister's adoption review, the White Paper on adoption or a Government manifesto commitment.

Kevin Brennan : If the amendment is not fundamental to the Bill, and if it is a contentious issue—and for many Members an issue of conscience—why is a three-line Whip being imposed on the Opposition?

Tim Loughton: I will explain why we need to separate these issues, because, as far as we are concerned—as I said just now—the whole Bill is about the welfare of the child and the rights of the child. It is not about the rights of adopters of any shape or size—

Ms Munn: Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Tim Loughton: If the hon. Lady will allow me, I shall answer one intervention at a time.

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We are in danger of confusing the two issues—I have referred previously to the provision being hijacked—and it is in the interests of pushing the Bill through, with all the good additions to it in the interests of children, that they are kept separate. That is why we are pushing for the three-line Whip to oppose the objections to the amendments.

Ms Munn: Does the hon. Gentleman accept that far too many children who are currently waiting for adopters are unlikely to be able to be placed with adopters? If so, will he tell the House what other clauses in the Bill will significantly increase the number of prospective adopters who are interested in taking on children who desperately need homes?

Tim Loughton: I shall address precisely that point. These amendments, of course, do not necessarily add prospective adopters—indeed, new prospective adopters may be vying for the very same prospective adoptee children.

Jonathan Shaw rose—

Tim Loughton: I shall give way once more, and then I would like to make some progress, as, otherwise, we may be here for a long time.

Jonathan Shaw: The hon. Gentleman said that the amendment was not in the original Bill, but does he agree that one of the purposes of having a Special Standing Committee is to weigh up all the evidence and listen to all those involved in the adoption process? As I said previously, 29 of the 30 agencies, which are of different persuasions, agreed with the proposals. The hon. Gentleman uttered not one word on the issue during the debate in Standing Committee.

4.30 pm

Tim Loughton: If the purpose of the Special Standing Committee was to inform the debate, which it essentially was, and if the evidence in one direction was so overwhelming, one can ask why the Government have not adopted the recommendations and why the amendments, which are again having to be moved by Back Benchers, are not Government amendments. The Government do not have a line on this policy, so the hon. Gentleman could direct his question to his Front-Bench colleagues.

Mr. Michael Portillo (Kensington and Chelsea): I want to press my hon. Friend on this point because he began his speech by referring to the sincerity of Members who have contributed to the debate. I thought that sincerity shone out of the speeches by the hon. Member for Wakefield (Mr. Hinchliffe) and my hon. Friend the Member for Huntingdon (Mr. Djanogly), and that is what makes this a remarkable debate and a great House of Commons occasion. Does my hon. Friend remember, on the last day of the Conservative party conference, hearing a speech that included the statement:

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Given that sentiment and the range of sincere opinions, will my hon. Friend return to the reason for the three-line whip?

Tim Loughton: I do not disagree with my right hon. Friend's remarks. If he will give me the opportunity to shine out, I will tell him exactly why we are separating the subjects of debate and why the line that we are taking is centred exclusively on the welfare of children, not on the supposed rights of potential adopters of any description.

I ask the House, in the interests of the Bill, to put to one side the issue of unmarried adopters, with the prospect of having plenty of ways to revisit it and debate it on its merits in other legislation, perhaps as part of a review of civil registration of relationships, to which I shall return in a moment.

Let me set down some markers. We have all agreed that we want the Bill, and we want to increase the number of people who come forward as potential adopters and the number of those who become adoptive parents. There is some confusion about the figures, but I believe that 3,100 looked-after children were adopted last year. This year, the figure is likely to increase to 3,800, and we seem to be well on the way to hitting the target of 5,000 and to achieving the increase of at least 40 per cent. which was requested by the Government and to which we all agreed.

We all—perhaps, given his comments on Report, with the exception of the Liberal Democrat health spokesman—accept that in an ideal world a mother and father figure is best, although not always achievable and not always entirely appropriate when dealing with certain very damaged children. We need to pay special attention to ensure that adoptive placements have as high a chance as possible of being a stable environment to give damaged children a second chance. The state usually makes a poor parent, but it has an obligation to make sure that looked-after children have the best chance of a stable upbringing.

No one is suggesting that we should move backwards from the status quo of married and single people qualifying for adoption, as set down in the 1967 convention to which we are still a signatory and the Adoption Act 1976. It is already permissible for single people, regardless of their sexuality or partnership arrangements, to adopt where they are deemed suitable on their own merits.

Mr. Dawson: I am following the hon. Gentleman's argument and I respect his commitment to the needs of children, but how can he argue that it is desirable for one member of a couple to adopt a child but not two members of that partnership? How can that be in the interests of stability or the best future for children?

Tim Loughton: I am not going over the figures on stability again, but as it stands unmarried couples do not have a legal entity. The thrust of my argument is that we are pre-empting a debate on, and changes to, legislation that gives them a degree of legal entity. That is a strong point to consider.

Clause I sets out that the interests and the welfare of the child are paramount. The only rights we are talking about are those of damaged children to expect a decent

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opportunity for a second chance of growing up in a decent and stable family environment, and those of birth parents to expect proper due processes under the law. That was the intention and detail of the Bill first proposed by my hon. Friend the Member for Meriden (Mrs. Spelman) when she introduced her Adoption Bill in the last Parliament. As I think we have all agreed, however, there is no such thing as a right to adopt. I would gladly participate in a debate on the status of unmarried people, but that is for another day and another piece of legislation.

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