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Lord Ackner: My Lords, I apologise to your Lordships for being so slow on the draw. I was anxious to ask the noble Lord, Lord Jenkin of Roding, just how much confidence he had that his amendment would not be fatally challenged in our courts under human rights legislation. However, I missed the opportunity to do so because someone set out on a speech. Therefore, I use the excuse with my noble and learned friend Lord Lloyd of Berwick to ask him, since he embraced forensically the noble Lord, Lord Jenkin. He did not seem to be able to answer that question or wish to answer it. In any event, the noble Lord, Lord Jenkin, will have time to reflect on the matter and we shall have the benefit of his view. He has obviously considered the problem deeply because he addressed us at some length.
In my submission, it is terribly important to keep in focus the legal position as it existed up until May of this year, when the amendment was introduced on Report in another place. As the law then stood, no one is legally excluded from consideration for adoption. Whether one is married or unmarried, cohabiting or single, gay or lesbian, young or old, or black or white, one is legally entitled to adopt. That was, of course, fully appreciated by the Government and clearly set out by the right honourable Mr Lilley, who had been Secretary of State for Social Security in the Conservative government. I refer noble Lords to col. 991 of Commons Hansard for 16th May.
In 1967, Britain signed up to the European convention on the adoption of children, which permits only married couples and single people to adopt. In the Adoption Act 1976, joint adoption could be carried out only by a married couple. Some 95 per cent of all adoptions are by married couples. The 1976 Act provided that single people could also adopt, and they made up the remaining 5 per cent.
The Government were also doubtless aware that the majority of European countries allowed joint adoption only by married couples. Some countries have introduced partnership schemes to recognise unmarried couples. However, most of those schemes specifically exclude joint adoption. For example, in the past decade Denmark, Norway, Iceland and Sweden have legalised same-sex domestic partnerships, extending to registered partnerships many of the social and economic consequences of marriage.
However, while all those countries have a reputation for being "progressive", in sexual and family matters they are certainly not permissive when it comes to child rearing by same-sex couples. Adults are not free to do as they wish in regard to children or to subject children to the effects of atypical adult sexual preferences. In Iceland and Denmark, same-sex couples may not in general adopt a child but, if one partner already has children, his or her registered partner may adopt them. In Swedish law, adoption and joint custody for registered same-sex couples are excluded. In Norway, same-sex registered partnerships may not adopt.
The Government's adoption review concluded that joint adoption should be limited to married couples because adoption by a married couple is more likely to provide the stability and security that the child needs since married couples have made a joint, publicly recognised legal commitment to each other. It also concluded that marriage provides for mutual, legal and financial obligation, and, importantly, in the event of divorce, the couple must be prepared to have plans for the future of their children scrutinised by the court. It is of course vital to bear in mind that there is currently no provision in law to protect the child's interests when unmarried couples separate.
Cohabiting couples can, of course, marry at any time and some 60 per cent of cohabitees go on to marry. The red-hot figures are that the relationships of only 4 per cent of cohabitees are expected to last for more than 10 years. I refer noble Lords to the latest British household survey, covering 10,000 persons.
Although, according to the general household survey, homosexual couples make up only 0.2 per cent of households, there is never-ending pressure to equate cohabitation with marriage and homosexual relations with heterosexual relations. The homosexual lobby seeks not merely to obtain tolerance of what to some of us appears to be an unpleasant perversion, but positive approbation. As Jack Straw pointed out, we are not concerned with homosexual rights, and there is no question of children being treated as trophies.
We must always bear in mind that we are concerned largely with the adoption of older children in care, who are highly vulnerable; we are not concerned with babies. For those children, a stable relationship and a secure environment are essential.
It is not at all clear why the Government have performed a U-turn on this issue; I hope we shall hear why. On 23rd April 2000 a Downing Street spokesman, presumably speaking on behalf of the Prime Minister, said:
Last year 300 single people adopted children. There is no evidence to support the idea that a significant number of people are put off adopting by the legal position which existed before the amendment, or that the Commons amendment will significantly, if at all, increase the pool of intending adopters.
I should like to conclude my observations by quoting the noble Baroness, Lady Scotland of Asthal, for whom I have a special regard and, indeed, as a fellow Bencher of the Middle Temple a special affection. She said in the debate in Committee on the Justice (Northern Ireland) Bill:
The Commons amendments we have been discussing do not pass that test. As has been pointed out, they will result in married couples losing their priority because in order to hold the balance even and prevent litigation there will be occasions when homosexualsI use that term to cover lesbian and male homosexualsand those who live together without being married are given priority to ensure that there is no allegation of unjustified preference.
Baroness Blatch: My Lords, I shall be brief. My noble friend Lord Howe opened the debate with an excellent speech. He dealt with statistics to support his case, which I shall not repeat. I share with my noble friend his reservations about any assessment that could possibly declare an unmarried couple as having a long-term, enduring, loving relationship.
I am also concerned, if the Bill extends adoption of children to gays, lesbians and unmarried couples, about the consequences for many of the church and other religious adoption societies. Despite the comments of the noble Baroness, Lady Gould, there is no putting this right after the Bill is passed. If it remains unchanged the work of those societies becomes illegal. What of a conscience clause for those who do not agree with such an extension of adoption rights? Would they be forced to accept the legal position or walk away from the field of finding placements for these vulnerable children because their conscience was not allowed for in the legislation?
Dr Joy Holloway made a contribution to this debate from her position as a specialist in paediatrics. She has had much experience of adoption in her professional capacity by producing a paper entitled Homosexual Parenting: does it make a difference? A re-evaluation of the research with adoption and fostering in mind. Dr Holloway has shown great courage, for which she has been subjected to unacceptable criticism and harassment from her employers for simply exercising her right to free speech when she made the case, supported by much scientific evidence, which supports the amendments of my noble friend Lord Howe.
I agree that a heterosexual unmarried couple who wish to adopt a child should make a legal commitment to each other through marriage which in turn would offer a more secure future to the adopted child. Too many of those who oppose my noble friend Lord Howe do so on the basis of the right of gays and lesbians to adopt and/or the right of unmarried heterosexual couples who are not prepared to make a legal commitment to each other, let alone to the child. They choose to ignore all the evidence, some of which my noble friend cited today to support his case.
So many of the children available for adoption are already emotionally bruised and, as the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Chelmsford stated, very vulnerable. It is therefore essential that they are given the best possible chance of a long-lasting, secure and loving relationship with a mother and a father.
Finally, I missed the tributes in this House to my noble friend Lady Young. I am proud to follow in my noble friend's footsteps. I shall try to bear any derision or ridicule, to which my noble friend was subjected by some of her opponents for holding strong and particular views of marriage and child protection, with
Baroness Gibson of Market Rasen: My Lords, we have been deliberating today as if adoption by single-sex couples does not currently exist; it does. Knowing that, and knowing that some councils have policies in relation to adoption by single-sex couples, I want to share briefly with the House the findings of one council.
Gateshead Council has been recognised for its work in relation to the adoption of children by being awarded the Beacon status, which is given for successful placing of children for adoption. Its placements have trebled in the past three years. Gateshead Council does not place emphasis on the sex of those applying to adopt, but on the stability of a couple's relationship. If any couple applying have had a series of short-term relationships, they would not be considered appropriate to adopt. The council would want to know, for example, how couples see their commitment to each other, how decisions are made within their partnership and whether partners support each other and meet each other's needs.
Gateshead Council has already approved adoptions by single-sex couples whereby one of the couple has adopted and the other has taken out a parental responsibility order under the Children Act. However, Gateshead Council believes it would be far better for all concerned for the single-sex couples to be equal partners sharing their commitment to the child equally from the beginning.
Like other councils, Gateshead is short of those wishing to adopt. It believes that single-sex couples in a stable relationship and single people should be able to adopt. As Jane Gray, the team leader of the family support services, told me:
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