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Lord Elton: My Lords, I know that this is a short debate and so I shall be brief. Recently I have received literature which exposes the fact that supposedly reliable contraception in the form of condoms is, statistically, not at all reliable.

Earl Russell: My Lords, at this stage I do not wish to enter into a semantic debate about the precise statistical meaning of "reliability". They are certainly a very great deal more reliable, and are a great deal more relied on, than anything that went before them.

The rethinking that this development demands is one which is to be done by private individuals. It is not a matter for the state. It is a matter for the individual conscience. Long ago we learnt that the state cannot create faith. Equally, the state cannot create love. Once we accept that, I think that we must accept that this is a matter for the private conscience.

My right honourable friend Mr Kennedy recently remarked that family life and the way we raise our children are private matters. If we understand the purposes of the state, that is clear enough. The purposes of the state are to keep the peace; to give people the opportunity to fulfil their potential in the way they choose; and to give them liberty wherein they do no harm to others. The noble Lord, Lord Pilkington of Oxenford, claims that it was a government's duty to influence people towards behaviour of which a government approved. I simply do not agree with that. It is hard enough for government to do their own job without trying to do ours for us.

Lord Northbourne: My Lords--

Earl Russell: My Lords, I am sorry, but this is a timed debate and I really cannot accept any more interventions. I have never refused an intervention before and I am sorry to have to do it now.

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I think that the noble Lord was about to refer to children. It is a legitimate point. John Stuart Mill once remarked that just because we allow others power over themselves, therefore we are the more willing to restrict the power they may have over others. To protect children against cruelty or to defend their right to education is perfectly proper for the state. But here I come to the other limit of the state, not just that it is ultra vires, but to the limits of the state's competence. The state cannot know exactly what is happening inside an individual family. It cannot take our moral decisions for us for exactly the same reasons that it cannot reach clinical decisions in medicine or make academic judgments in education.

I hear the statistics about the effects of divorce on children. I know something of this from my own experience. But the question is: what do those statistics show? They may show no more than that, all other things being equal, children fare better with happy parents than with unhappy parents. If we compare the children of divorced parents with the children of happily married parents, we are not comparing like with like. What we need to do to achieve a statistical comparison is to compare the children of divorced parents with the children of unhappy parents who have remained married. I know from my teaching experience that that can do a great deal of harm. The statistical basis for such comparison would be extremely difficult. Until we can achieve it, a certain amount of hesitation ought to be in order.

We have heard much in this debate about the married couples' tax allowance. So far as I am concerned, marriages are made in heaven and divorces are made in hell. In neither case can the state do much about it. For the state to attempt to persuade people to live in one particular way is ultra vires. What is more, I speak as one who has been 38 years married and never for a moment regretted it. However, when I compare my own relationship with that of my two sisters-in-law, who have lived as unmarried partners, the reason why I cannot assert a superiority is that I cannot perceive a difference.

Were we to be talking about a marriage in church, I would understand that. It is clearly a different type of animal. But marriage in a register office is a social recognition. A civil partnership--in which my party is pioneering the way--is also a social recognition of a partnership. Between one form of social recognition and another, I really cannot see any significant difference. I enjoy marriage, but I believe that if it is as good as the noble Baroness, Lady Young, has said, it is perfectly capable of surviving without the benefit of a tariff barrier.

I shall conclude on the question of the morning-after pill. I am glad that the Government have done what they have. Anyone who argues that it is right to inflict an unwanted pregnancy on an underage girl is putting forward a cruelty which, in my mind, does not deserve the name of morality.

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5.8 p.m.

Baroness Blatch: My Lords, once again, I join other Members of the House to congratulate my noble friend Lady Young on setting out so clearly the case for marriage and the family. Recently my noble friend has been deservedly recognised by a number of awards for her stand on moral issues affecting the family and children, on which I congratulate her most warmly. However, what is so remarkable about my noble friend is the dignified, courageous and resolute way she has withstood much aggressive criticism, intimidation and even ridicule.

It has been suggested by some that those who hold fast to the belief that marriage is the key building block of society and of its importance in family life and in the bringing up of children in some way reflect a generational gap and that they do not speak for the young. I do not accept that. Many surveys have shown that young people support marriage. In any case, most of us are mothers--some are grandparents--and we are thus very much in touch with young people. My noble friend Lady Young should not be daunted by such criticisms. I say thank God for her wise counsel on such fundamental issues. As I have listened to a number of references to fathers, I am reminded of Lady Macleod, a great Member of this House who is no longer with us. She devoted her life to charity, and especially to the organisation Children Need Fathers. Her valuable contributions to our debates echoed in my mind today as the debate progressed.

When making judgments about others, I prefer to compare what they say with what they do. In a consultation document, Supporting Families, the Government said,

    "marriage is still the surest foundation for raising families".

The noble Lord, Lord Janner, referred to the same quotation. My understanding--which is why I mention it--is that the emphasis on marriage contained within that phrase will not appear in the final document.

Noble Lords should contrast that statement with the number of policies which have been given priority by the Government in recent times. One really must challenge the sincerity of the Government on these issues. There has been, for example, the abolition of the married couples' allowance. The Government have imposed the lowering of the age of consent for homosexuality and have removed the protection for girls from buggery at the age of 16--both measures being imposed by the use of the Parliament Act before the Bill had completed its passage through both Houses. It was a constitutional outrage.

The Government are making available the morning-after pill over the counter at pharmacies and are allowing girls as young as 11 to receive the morning-after pill free on demand at school and without informing their parents. If I were a parent of an 11 year-old now, I would be mortified at the idea of that confidentiality withholding such information from me as a parent. What kind of message is it that confirms that you can do what you like as long as you either wear a condom or take the morning-after pill?

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The Government, no doubt, will continue with their efforts to repeal the ban on promoting homosexuality to children in school. The Government have also produced guidelines to schools advocating role-playing by children involving gay, lesbian, transvestite and other complex sexuality situations.

Then we have the refusal by the Government to accept bringing under the abuse of trust sections of the Sexual Offences Act thousands of mentors created by the Learning and Skills Act, who will be working closely in one-to-one relationships with vulnerable children.

I could go on. It is a very strange list of priorities which does little to support marriage and the family. The Government cannot continue to wring their hands over the growing number of insecure children, the growing crime levels among young people, the costs of family breakdown, the levels of teenage pregnancy and the growing number of children requiring care, and yet duck the issue of recognising marriage as a more stable alternative to other relationships.

It is no secret that members of the Government, led by the noble Baroness, Lady Jay, and Ms Tessa Jowell, have argued strongly to play down the promotion of marriage in public policy. They see it as no more or less significant than any other family relationship, unlike some of their other colleagues, such as Mr David Blunkett, Mr Jack Straw and Mr Paul Boateng, who take a more pro-marriage viewpoint.

From what we all read and hear, the noble Baroness and her supporters, including the Prime Minister, have won that battle. Perhaps the noble and learned Lord the Lord Chancellor will clarify the specific status of marriage in the forthcoming White Paper.

It has also been said that, because the present Cabinet Ministers' lives do not bear public scrutiny, to follow the scientific research and accept--not pontificate or direct--that marriage is the best form of relationship for a country economically and socially and for bringing up children, would expose Cabinet Members to public ridicule and the charge of hypocrisy. But human frailty or disadvantage serves only to strengthen, not weaken, the message.

I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Phillips of Sudbury. He made the distinction that marriage--which involves a very public commitment made in the company of friends and family, bringing with it obligations and duties--is not equal to other forms of relationships. I agree with him that that does not disparage other forms of relationships.

The breakdown of family life impacts on all aspects of our lives. There are all too many children who do not enjoy a happy and loving home life; all too many children who live within very transient parental relationships; and all too many children who have no framework within which to grow and develop, and who have no basic rules by which to live a fruitful and fulfilling lifestyle. Putting marriage and the family at the heart of policy should not be abandoned because of the private lives of Cabinet Ministers. The interests of children--and subsequently the quality of life

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enjoyed by our children as they grow to become parents--will be better served if public policy supports marriage and the family.

It takes courage to ignore personal ridicule in favour of doing the right thing by our children. Let us hope that the noble and learned Lord the Lord Chancellor will announce today that marriage and the family will be restored as the surest foundation for raising families, as was set out in the Government's own consultation document. I support my noble friend.

5.15 p.m.

The Lord Chancellor: My Lords, support for families is at the core of this Government's policies. Strong and stable families are essential to the well-being of our society. They provide the young with that fair start in life which should be the birthright of every child.

However, the state can do only so much. It cannot make people happy, but it can provide the circumstances which make happiness more obtainable. In particular--my noble friend Lady Crawley drew attention to this--it can ensure that families are freed from the ache of daily poverty and social exclusion. That is why we passed the minimum wage, a measure which has done so much to underpin the cohesion of family life. It recognised the damage which could be done to families by poverty wages.

Let it be remembered that the benefits of the minimum wage gave most help to the unskilled and part-time workforce, who are predominantly women. This is no accident. We have always recognised that, especially in poor families, it is the woman who is the financial mainstay. It is she who manages the family budget and juggles the finances to ensure the children do not suffer.

It was disappointing, therefore, to find that the party opposite fought this measure through the House, clause by clause and line by line. Those opposite who speak of family values could try to explain how their opposition to the minimum wage enhanced the position of families in our society. Of course, they have changed their mind since--and we welcome all sinners come to repentance--but I am still quite sure that the British people will remember the role that they played in opposing the legislation, and act accordingly when the time comes.

It is because we believe that financial security is the bedrock of family stability that the Chancellor has brought forward a range of measures targeted at those in greatest need. Its aim is to end the scourge of child poverty, which is at its most acute in households where no one works. Tax and benefit measures have lifted 1 million children out of poverty in the life of this Parliament. Increases in child benefit, the working families' tax credit and the New Deal for lone parents have one common aim--to free our people from poverty and to give our children a better future than their parents. It is a pity that, once again, the party opposite opposed these measures. Its record, I am sure, will not go unnoticed by the British people when the time comes.

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However, not all children have the inestimable blessing of a happy home. For some, family life is disfigured by cruelty and neglect. These most vulnerable children deserve society's greatest concern. They are entitled to look to the Government for help and, in extreme cases, for rescue. The Government believe that the best people to care for children are their parents. The state, it has been said, cannot improve on nature. Provided that its welfare is secure, a child is happiest in its own home. But for those children where parental abuse or neglect is such that arrangements for their upbringing have to be made outside the family, the Government believe that being brought up in an adopted family is, in many cases, far preferable to life in a children's home, however caring, or long-term fostering.

That is why we intend to bring forward measures to cut through the bureaucratic clutter of rules that stop children having a decent home with adoptive parents. Our new proposals aim to cut out the nonsense about "non-smoking, ethnically identical" parents and to concentrate on the needs of a child to be integrated into a loving and stable home as quickly as possible. We aim to cut to 12 months the waiting time before a child is found an adoption placement. Although this is a vast improvement on the present position, it is a maximum not a minimum time-frame; for it must always be remembered that each of us has only one childhood which, once lost, can never be retrieved.

Our new proposal will deliver a 40 per cent increase in permanent placements nationally by 2005. New national standards will ensure that prospective adopters are treated fairly across the country and are not helpless in the face of the passing whims of social workers. The question should always be "Is it in this child's interests to be adopted by this family, and not remain in the care of the state?", rather than, "Is this family ideal in every way?". Very few of us would pass that test.

Our proposals recognise that some children have special difficulties: not all are the endearing babes in arms of romantic fiction. Our proposals for post-adoption services will help support them into a new home. Other children want to maintain a legal link with their parents. For these we propose a new concept of "special guardianship" which would provide the security of a permanent home while still retaining some links with the birth family. This will be of especial value in our ethnic communities, where religious objections to adoption, as we know, are sincerely held and must be respected.

The Government believe that every child has the right to a secure upbringing. Most families can provide that for themselves, but there is a special duty on society to take particular care of children who do not have that advantage. These are our most vulnerable dependants. If they move from pillar to post in short-term care, with 20 per cent having three or more foster placements in a year, then is it any wonder that they become disaffected and alienated? Is it any wonder if they drift into unemployment and crime? Is it any wonder that they in their turn prove unsatisfactory

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parents and that the whole cycle is repeated in the next generation? We must work to break this cycle of deprivation now. The Government's new adoption proposals will ensure that the welfare of these children is put first and that they are given the chance of a good upbringing to equip them for the responsibilities of citizenship.

I listened, as ever, with care but with growing wonder to the speech of the noble Baroness, Lady Young. If only I could be as sure of anything as she is about everything, how simple life would be! But the picture she paints of her ideal society is one which few would recognise outside the plot of a 1950s Ealing film. Of course it is true that there is more divorce, that there are more teenage pregnancies and more lone parents than when I was growing up. But it needs to be remembered that the rosy picture of the dutiful and subservient housewife and the stern but kindly paterfamilias, living in a semi in leafy suburbia with two well-mannered and obedient children, often masked the brutal reality of a loveless marriage, based on the financial dependence of the neglected wife in a home ruled by fear and where hypocrisy played a prominent role. I strongly believe that the society of today, with all its many faults, is a gentler, more civilised and more tolerant community in which to bring up children than ever it was when I was a boy.

The key to our progress has been our growing tolerance--tolerance not only of those with whom we have no quarrel, but of those whose lifestyles we find uncongenial. After all, we are all minorities in one way or another. Lawyers are certainly minorities, and perhaps not much loved ones at that!

Let me make one thing plain. A loving marriage between two parties of the opposite sex provides, for the overwhelming majority in our country, the best assurance of a happy personal life and provides the surest foundation upon which to rear a successful family. But I know of no words of Christ which in any way condemn any loving relationship. His harshest judgment was on the self-righteous.

The noble Baroness has told the House what she is against and what she condemns. On the whole, I incline to the view that those of us in positions of privilege in this House should pause long before criticising those of whose lifestyles we disapprove.

The Government will spare no effort in their quest for the best means of supporting families. I have, in a spirit of mediation and good will, looked far and wide at the views of others. I have found valuable help in a document entitled Clear Blue Water--Common Sense in the Conservative Party. It was launched last year by Nigel Evans MP, a Front Bench spokesman and vice-chairman of the Conservative Party. It says this:

    "Conservatives should seek equality before the law".

I entirely agree. We all should.

    "Conservatives should therefore support: an equal age of consent; the abolition of Clause 28; and the right of Gay marriage".

These words caused me puzzlement, but perhaps the noble Baroness is in a better position than I to enlighten the House. Is this still the Conservative position? I look forward to hearing her reply.

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I yield to no one in my defence of the family, but our country is changing and this House, if it is to lead the nation, must respond to those changes. In the time of the noble and learned Lord, Lord Hailsham, homosexuality was regarded as an absolute bar to becoming a judge. I always thought this blinkered and prejudiced policy indefensible in the modern world and was delighted when my predecessor, the noble and learned Lord, Lord Mackay, abrogated it. I have carried this reform forward. Now, a man or woman who wants to become a judge is judged solely on his or her merits irrespective of sexual orientation, ethnic origin, gender or disability provided that he or she is able to fulfil the duties of the office, again on merit. Surely that is the way ahead. Surely it is the best way to get the best judges and the best system of justice.

What we must recognise in this House is that the concept of what is or is not a family is changing. More and more people are living together without marrying; more and more children are being born to lone parents--

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