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4 Nov 2002 : Column 46continued
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 sourcechildren 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.
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
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.
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
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.
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.