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Mr. Deputy Speaker: Order. There are many right hon. and hon. Members trying to contribute to the debate in a very limited time. We have had two very substantial opening speeches, and I appeal for brevity from other right hon. and hon. Members.
Miss Ann Widdecombe (Maidstone and The Weald): I, too, congratulate the hon. Member for Wakefield (Mr. Hinchliffe) on a speech that was moderation and reason itself compared with the one that we heard from the Liberal Democrat Front Bench. I particularly congratulate the hon. Gentleman on his support for marriage as an underlying principle. It is a sad day for British politics when a Front-Bench spokesman
Mr. David Rendel (Newbury): Does the right hon. Lady really believe that it is better for a child to be brought up in a stable relationship between a man and a woman who are constantly abusing that child than by a couple who are unmarried but who provide warmth, security and love for their children?
I should like to address the very serious issues raised by the hon. Member for Wakefield. First and foremost, we should be seeking to give any child, but particularly an adoptive child who has already suffered considerable instability and may be very vulnerable, security and stability. It is only by maintaining the current law and by making it the norm that adoption is undertaken by married couples that security and stability can be achieved.
Miss Widdecombe: I want to make progress, as so many Members want to speak. You have asked for short contributions, Mr. Deputy Speaker, and I shall be unable to make mine short if I give wayI say that with respect, as I am sure that the hon. Gentleman would have made an interesting point.
In the name of security and stability, I believe that the present law should stand. I shall first consider security. Marriage brings not only privileges but legal responsibilities which, I believe, provide greater security for a child. If two people really wanted to adopt a child, and were considering the interests and security of that child, they should want to marryunless there was an impediment. For example, unless the cohabitee is joint legal owner of the shared home, she has no rights over the property, but when a married couple split up both spouses have statutory rights over the matrimonial home.
In the short term, a cohabitee can apply for court orders allowing herI am presuming that it would be her rather than him, although I realise that it could be the other way aroundand the child to stay in the shared home for a maximum of 12 months, whereas a married parent left with the child would be given the right to live in the home until the child reached the age of 18, and would also be granted at least 50 per cent., and sometimes between 60 and 70 per cent. or more, of the matrimonial home in their own right.
If a cohabitee lives in a home owned by the father of the childI am presuming that the parent with care is the mother, although I accept that that is not always soit is possible that he could sell the house from under them, as no entitlement for her to live there would be recorded at
The mother herself has no right to maintenance payments if she is a cohabitee, and that could be extremely important if she is left with a child, whereas the courts can make a wide range of financial orders for the support of a spouse in her own rightsuch awards are not merely dependent on the child.
Miss Widdecombe: I am sorry. I am not being awkward; I normally give way a lot, as the hon. Gentleman knows. I am following your orders, Mr. Deputy Speaker, and I am sure that you are delighted that I am doing so.
I shall now discuss stability. Statistics collected by the Office for National Statisticsnot an organisation with an axe to grindshow that 8 per cent. of married couples split up in the five years following the birth of a child, and that 25 per cent. of cohabiting couples who later marry split up. However, 52 per cent. of couples who cohabited and never married split up, so the adoptive parents of a child placed in one of those arrangements would be six and a half times more likely to split up than married adoptive parents.
The consideration of those clear factsthe type of evidence that we sought and did not get for the contrary argumentleads me to believe that we are right to maintain the security and stability that marriage offers at present. It would be dishonest if I did not tell the House that I also believe that, as a society, we should continue to distinguish in favour of marriage. We should continue to recognise that marriage confers rights but also responsibilities, so I believe that it should be actively promoted by society. The hon. Member for Wakefield would probably agree.
Miss Widdecombe: I cannot support the hon. Gentleman's amendment, but I again congratulate him. I do not dismiss either the passion or experience that he brings to the debate, but fundamentally I believe that it is in the interests of the child that married couples be the adoptive parents.
Jonathan Shaw: I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Wakefield (Mr. Hinchliffe) who made an outstanding contribution. He gave a measured speech that encapsulated the feelings of many hon. Members.
During the Special Standing Committee, we heard evidence from 30 professional organisations. The gathering of evidence from expert witnesses was certainly the best way of ensuring that the legislation was right. As several hon. Members have pointed out, we only introduce such legislation once in a generation and considerable efforts have been made on both sides of the House to get it right.
I very much agree with my hon. Friend that the current legislation is deficient. We asked all those 30 professional witnesses, representing various organisations, whether they agreed with the proposals that are now set out in my hon. Friend's amendmentI tabled a similar amendment in Committee. Twenty-nine of the witnesses agreed that we should widen the pool, especially if we are to reach the 40 per cent. increase that we all want. We all believe that adoption offers the best opportunity for stability for children.
There is a hierarchy involved. The optimum is a married couplea mother and a father. That is first and foremost. My hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff, North (Julie Morgan) referred to the number of boys who were included in the British Agencies for Adoption and Fostering "Be My Parent" booklet and pointed out how few inquiries were made about them. That is true for many, many children. At present, the pool is not wide enough so we must widen it.
We need to face the situation that I have described not only for the present but for future generations. The hon. Member for Gainsborough (Mr. Leigh) asked how many more adoptive parents there might be: we do not know. At present, unmarried couples are unable to adopt, so it is wrong to compare
It is wrong to compare the breakdown rates of cohabiting couples, who are not subject to the rigorous assessments for adoption, with those of unmarried couples who might become prospective adopters. We need to dispel the general argument put by those who oppose my hon. Friend's proposals.
The key point about such legislationwhether on adoption or child protectionis that we consider it only once in a generation, so we need to ensure that we do the best we can. Are we doing the best that we can for children who want to be adopted?
I was a social worker for more than a decade. We had permanent adoption plans for many children, but there was not a big enough pool of adoptive parents for them. When I visited such children, they would ask whether I had found them a permanent family: "Have you found me a mummy and a daddy?" I had to say, "Not yet". I had to keep saying, "Not yet, not yet".
I do not know whether the provision will change that. I do not know whether it will mean that social workers will be able to assess more adoptive families, but I believe that it is worth trying. It is certainly worth trying to ensure that we can widen the pool.