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Some will say that everything can be sorted out, in the shape of the adopter assessments on which there is now consultation. We do not know, because the Government started the consultation process only last month on what the assessment procedures should look like. There is no basis on which to take reassurance from the unknown outcome. How will an enduring unmarried relationship be defined? Enduring means something less than life long. If the relationship were any longer, those involved would surely be dead. It is also not clear from the consultation exercise whether the forms to be completed for applying to become adoptive parents even contain a question about marital status.

There are views in some quarters that the proposed change could lead to a postcode lottery in adoption, with some adoption services operating a proactive equality policy and actively looking for unmarried couples to make up the numbers, rather than relying solely on individual merits. Under the Bill, with these proposals, it would not be open to a mother to object to proposed adopters on the ground that they were unmarried. More interestingly, there is another potential source of challenge to the proposed legislation from an unlikely source—children themselves. There is a legal view that it is arguable that article 8 implies the right for a child to have a mother and a father, and that right may be violated if an adoption order is granted to two parents of the same sex.

Mr. Portillo: My hon. Friend is to be congratulated because he has made a truly excellent speech, and that is because he speaks in line with his conscience. I ask him to consider for a moment what the position would be if he found himself in a minority in his party. Would he feel happy if, to vote with his conscience, he had to give up his Front-Bench position? How would he feel about that?

Tim Loughton: I am trying to deal with the substance of the issues that we are debating. I have tried to separate entirely the issue of the child's welfare. I have spent the past 12 months concentrating on the Bill with colleagues, who appeared at every sitting of the Committee and on every occasion when we have debated the measure in this place. We have shown an interest on all aspects of the 140-odd clauses in the Bill.

Liz Blackman: Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Tim Loughton: I am trying to answer the point raised by my right hon. Friend the Member for Kensington and Chelsea (Mr. Portillo).

If I thought that there was a middle way in some instances, I might want to entertain the idea of giving someone a preference, or whatever. However, as I have laid out clearly, there is no middle way. In the interests

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of children and in the interests of avoiding all the legal wrangles, it is right that we promote our objections to the amendments.

Mr. Gordon Prentice (Pendle): Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Tim Loughton: No. I shall finish so that hon. Members on both sides of the Chamber can have their say.

This is not a straightforward matter. There are differing personal views about the suitability of who adopts, and the proposed changes are a legal minefield, with differing legal opinions based on differing and inconclusive research. Yet all this is completely incidental and academic as regards the fundamental reforms to, and improvements of, adoption that are represented by an excellent Bill. Failure to disengage from the arguments and to put them on one side for another day threatens the safe passage of the Bill, thereby sacrificing the chances of thousands of damaged children having a second chance.

The proposals to reject the amendments are uncertain in law. They would pre-empt the review of civil relationship registration. They would go against the 1967 convention, without any proposals to reform or rescind it. They would pre-empt the adoption assessment process consultation, which has only just started. They would ignore the progress that has already been made, which will be boosted substantially by the bulk of the Bill's provisions in encouraging more than 11 million married couples to come forward.

We are not considering Government amendments; there is therefore no shame in or problem with the Government's declining to support them, especially in view of all the reviews. We are looking only to return to the status quo of the Government's original Bill.

Another day should be allocated for sympathetic debates about the rights of unmarried couples, gay or otherwise, and many Conservative Members will want to participate enthusiastically in them. However, today is the day for promoting the rights of damaged children to a decent second chance in life. We must concentrate on genuinely putting the welfare and interests of children at the heart of the Bill. I therefore call on all hon. Members, whatever their personal views, to reject, in the interests of the Bill, the proposal to disagree with the Lords amendments.

Madam Deputy Speaker (Sylvia Heal): I call Jonathan Shaw.

Jonathan Shaw: Thank you, Mrs.—

Mr. Chris Bryant (Rhondda): Thank you, Mrs.?

Jonathan Shaw: Oh dear, I shall have to put that in my diary. I am sorry; I meant to say, XThank you, Madam Deputy Speaker".

The hon. Member for East Worthing and Shoreham (Tim Loughton) described the subject of our discussion as a side issue. He characterised widening the pool as a side issue. If so, why are Opposition Front-Bench

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spokesmen resigning? Why are other members of the shadow Cabinet being given leave of absence so that they do not have to vote on the matter? Why are former contenders for the Conservative party leadership attacking the fact that the party is not allowing a free vote? If it is a side issue, goodness help the hon. Gentleman when a genuine issue jumps up and bites him.

We are considering a genuine issue that affects children: widening the pool and providing greater opportunities for children who languish in care. The hon. Member for East Worthing and Shoreham accused other hon. Members of bandying statistics and proceeded to bandy many statistics himself. He mentioned the 1,900 people who need to come forward. In discussing widening the pool, we need to consider the sort of children for whom they are required come forward. They are not the shining babies to which the hon. Gentleman referred, but older children, who are often boys.

The British Association for Fostering and Adoption today released figures that show that 1,255 inquiries were made for 430 children in the March 2002 issue of Be My Parent. However, for 129 children, there was not a single inquirer. Those children were boys. When we talk about getting more people to adopt children, we must recognise that those children are difficult boys, who have been physically and sexually abused, and manifest difficult behaviour that requires special people to deal with it.

An unmarried foster couple might be looking after one of those damaged, abused boys. The amendment would deny them the ability to apply to adopt jointly. The hon. Member for East Worthing and Shoreham and the Lords would deny such children the opportunity for a loving, stable relationship.

Mr. Brazier: The hon. Gentleman speaks with passion and knowledge, as always. However, the issue is surely not the right to adopt but the best interests of the child. All that the law asks in the best interests of the child is that the couple get married before they adopt.

Jonathan Shaw: Gay people cannot marry. We are not considering the right to adopt. Surely it is right that the institutions and Parliament do everything possible to ensure children's right to an opportunity for a loving family. No Labour Member who supports my hon. Friend the Member for Wakefield (Mr. Hinchliffe) claims that people have the right to adopt. We are considering the child's right to the best possible opportunity because the child's needs are paramount. That principle underpins all child care legislation. Those who support the amendments are arguing for that.

Liz Blackman: If we consider the welfare of the child to be paramount, should not a child's right to have a legal relationship with both adoptive parents be central to that welfare?

Jonathan Shaw: My hon. Friend is absolutely right. That point was also made earlier by the hon. Member for Lichfield (Michael Fabricant). If a child is adopted

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by an unmarried couple, and the adoptive parent dies, the child has to go through the whole process again. Is that in the interests of the child? Of course it is not.

Ms Dari Taylor: I am grateful to my hon. Friend for giving way; he is very generous. Would he say that my loving, caring commitment to my child is a consequence of my marriage vows, or that it comes from my being naturally loving and caring, and has nothing to do with those vows at all?

Jonathan Shaw: My hon. Friend is indeed a loving and caring person. [Hon. Members: XHear, hear!"] I am doing well at the moment. I have called Madam Deputy Speaker XMrs." and now I have described my hon. Friend as loving and caring.

My hon. Friend would have been assessed on her ability to provide a stable relationship for her children. That is the basis on which all people are assessed. We cannot be the adoption panel. We should not talk about generalities. We need to talk about specifics, such as those difficult-to-place boys. The adoption panel makes the decisions in those cases, through rigorous assessment.

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