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4 Nov 2002 : Column 89—continued

Dr. Evan Harris: Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Andrew Selous: No, I wish to make progress.

I have some sympathy with the arguments advanced by the Labour peer Lord Alli in the other place. He believes that married couples should have preference over unmarried couples, who, in turn, should have preference over homosexual couples. If there were a degree of hierarchy supporting the status of marriage, that could usefully be considered.

We need to think seriously tonight before we support the motion that will overturn the decisions taken in the House of Lords. There is a considerable body of concern about what the Government are planning to do.

8 pm

Ivan Massow, a prominent gay business man, has expressed concern about gay adoption. He is worried about what might happen in the playground, where children might not be politically correct. The same view is held by Michael Brown, a former Conservative MP, who is also homosexual.

Dr. Harris rose—

Mr. Bryant rose—

Andrew Selous: I want to make a little progress.

I have also been influenced by the debate in the House of Lords in which the Bishop of Winchester clearly explained why the Lords should agree to their amendment. My own bishop, the Bishop of St. Albans, has concerns. Members of many churches in my constituency are anxious about what will happen this evening.

Contrary to the remarks of the hon. Member for Oxford, West and Abingdon (Dr. Harris), opinion polls conducted not by disreputable organisations but by ICM showed that 71 per cent. of parents have grave concerns about adoption by same-sex couples.

We know that most European countries do not allow what we are proposing to do. We know that the Government, on five occasions, have argued against the proposals. The Foreign Secretary has made such arguments strongly. Indeed, when the Minister of State, Department of Health, the hon. Member for Redditch (Jacqui Smith), commented on the adoption law review, she did not agree with the proposals that we are

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discussing. We know that 23 Labour peers disagree with the proposals, as does the leader of the Liberal Democrats in the House of Lords.

Many Members have rightly asked how we can widen the pool of people who are prepared to adopt. We have heard harrowing stories from hon. Members on both sides of the House about children who need to be adopted. I pay tribute to colleagues, such as the hon. Member for Stockton, South (Ms Taylor), who have had the courage to adopt. We need to enlarge the pool of people who are prepared to take that courageous decision.

We need a massive advertising campaign to tell people about adoption. We need to give adoptive parents much greater support. I am prepared to put my money where my mouth is and, as a Conservative, to advocate that my constituents and I should pay higher taxes to support those who would be prepared to adopt children.

That is the way forward. We need a positive campaign to persuade more married couples to adopt. We need to remove some of the procedures. My hon. Friend the Member for Huntingdon (Mr. Djanogly) pointed out that although about 29,000 people responded to a BBC programme on adoption, only a few went on with the process. We should take away unnecessary barriers to adoption.

That is how we shall extend the pool so that we can ensure that seriously damaged children, who deserve a stable, loving family home, receive the support that they so desperately need.

Mr. Dawson : Although I have been listening to the debate for four and a half hours, I am still a bit ambivalent about it. I realise that this has been a grand parliamentary occasion and that there have been excellent contributions from both sides. However, I am worried that it could provide the media with another opportunity to characterise the whole of an excellent Bill by one provision, rather than by the major developments in adoption work that the measure will bring about.

I am sorry that other speakers have not sufficiently emphasised the quality of the Bill. It will extend the number of people who will be keen to adopt because it will support them better. It will provide the support that adoptive parents need, the lack of which led to the breakdown of many placements in the past. Assessment and recruitment will be better. The focus will be on ensuring that good practice is developed throughout the country.

The debate has been very good indeed. I pay tribute to the hon. Member for Buckingham (Mr. Bercow) who made a remarkable speech. It is appropriate to congratulate him on both his speech and his forthcoming marriage. There has been the usual social work debate, characterised by the tedious contributions of my colleagues—some of whom have not had as much social work experience as me and some of whom have had many more years experience than me, but they lay on with a trowel the length of time that they have worked for social services.

People have also compared the length of time that they have been married. I am pleased to point out to the hon. Member for Buckingham, who brought up the subject, that I have been married for much longer than

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my hon. Friend the Member for Wakefield (Mr. Hinchliffe). By the time of the marriage of the hon. Member for Buckingham, I shall have been married for 29 years. The hon. Gentleman probably faces the same amount of time on the bleak wastes of the Opposition Benches if he continues his current political trajectory. However, after his speech this evening, I can assure him that there is a place for him in the next Government recruitment campaign for social workers. He gave a magnificent exposition of the qualities of that fine profession.

This is a serious debate and it is right and proper that Labour Members have a free vote. It is a matter of conscience. The adoption process is complex. Not only is there intensely difficult work to assess prospective adopters, but there is also the matching of children and young people who have been through appalling experiences, which would knock all of us sideways, in appropriate placements.

I want to give the House a word of caution, indeed censure. It is vital that we realise that adoption is part of a system. We talk about the desirability of adopting 5,000 children who are in care, but there are actually 55,000 children in care. Most of them will go back to their homes, which I welcome; we need to improve the facilities for working with families. However, many of them will remain in foster care, so I was distressed to hear some of the descriptions of foster care during the debate.

Long-term and short-term fostering are important options for children, as is residential care. The Government have performed magnificently by investing in all those forms of care. They have developed policy throughout the whole care system nationwide and various initiatives are being implemented.

I was a few minutes late for the debate because I was at the launch of a splendid initiative launched by A Voice for the Child in Care, which will ensure that the voices of children and young people are heard more and more as opportunities are transformed in children's services. We should acknowledge both the value of the whole care system and that each part of it should be developed to provide for the needs of children.

We are talking about the needs of children. This is a matter of conscience. Members who are minded to vote with the House of Lords and indeed the Members of that place should search their consciences.

Whatever well founded principles one has about marriage or Christian principles governing the way that people should live their lives, it cannot be right to put them above the individual needs of children who require placements. We require an extraordinary range of talents and different placements for the many children who need to be adopted. We must ensure that the needs of children who require adoptive placements are met.

I cannot think it right that any Member of the House or the other place puts even well established and firmly held principles above the needs of individual children. Surely we cannot say that any individual child should lose out on the lifetime opportunity of stability and family life because we think that we should put off a decision until we have got the law right, that we should

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stand on our principles about marriage, or that we should put anything before the needs of individual children. My vote tonight is with the children.

The Minister of State, Department of Health (Jacqui Smith): Once again, we have had a very good and well considered debate on this issue. The majority of hon. Members who have spoken have made it clear that, as the Government believe, our only consideration should be what is in the best interests of the child. That fundamental principle, which derives from the Children Act 1989, is enshrined, as my hon. Friend the Member for Wakefield (Mr. Hinchliffe) said, in the Bill's very first clause.

The Government's objective in the Bill and in the action that we have taken since the Prime Minister's review of adoption is to increase the number of children who have the opportunity through adoption to grow up as part of a loving, stable and permanent family, and there are encouraging signs that our drive to increase adoption is working. The number of children adopted from care is increasing. Nearly 3,100 children were adopted from care last year—1,200 more than in 1997.

The Bill and all the improvements that it will bring to the adoption system and the money that we are investing in the adoption service and improving adoption support can only build on that progress. Although the hon. Member for East Worthing and Shoreham (Tim Loughton) agreed that that was important, he seemed to argue that, somehow, this was a case of either taking forward the action that the Government already have in train or supporting the amendments in lieu of the Lords amendments. Of course that is not the case.

As many hon. Members have said, the ability to widen the pool of adopters that the amendments in lieu would provide is a very important part of what the Government are trying to do in relation to adoption, but it is worth taking up a few of the points that hon. Members made about what more we need to do to encourage adopters.

First, the hon. Member for Canterbury (Mr. Brazier) suggested that, we had not properly tackled the need to ensure that families came forward and that we were putting delays into the system. I have to repeat to him that the key point in the adoption standards, which form the basis for all our work, is that children will be matched with families who can best meet their needs and that they will not be left waiting indefinitely for a perfect family.

The hon. Gentleman also reiterated his view that the Bill will require an ethnic match and that that will hold up the ability for children to be adopted. That is just not true; as we have frequently said, clause 1(5) will simply require that, when placing children for adoption, the agency

That cannot override the duty in clause 1(3) to bear in mind the fact that delay is likely to prejudice welfare. We have the clear requirement in the national standards.

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