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4 Nov 2002 : Column 75continued
Under current law, anybody, in principle, can apply to adopt, but if two people want legal ties to the child, they must have legal ties to each other. [Interruption.] I think we have a view from the Gallery.
Current law does not exclude anyone. It provides simply that two people who want to adopt jointly and to have legal ties to the child should have legal ties to each other. Several speakers, including my hon. Friend the Member for Buckingham, pointed out some administrative problems. The principal one is the death of the adopting party. When a child comes into a relationship, it has no idea about the paperwork. It is important that the child feels secure and has progressed in a new home. I cannot believe that, in cases of death, the courts would frequently refuse the surviving partner the right to adopt. We are considering damaged children who require our closest attention, and the problems that afflict them are much broader and more likely to arise than the death of the adopting individual.
Nobody would argue that every marriage is perfect. From time to time, my good lady reminds me that my marriage is imperfect. I pay tribute to my wife, who has done 18 years' servicesix more than it took me to get my Territorial decorationfor putting up with me. Nobody argues that there are no stable relationships outside marriage. However, the burden of the statistics is overwhelmingly on the side of marriage. A survey that the Office for National Statistics conducted in 1997 says it all for me.
Mr. Brazier: In a moment. We hear time and again about social workers' assessments. However, appalling assessments from so many social workers, albeit not from across the board, but in many local authorities, led me to start a campaign on the subject. The idea that the views of a specific social worker on a relationship are so powerful that such statistics can be brushed aside in the best interests of the child is unconvincing.
Mr. Dawson: It is kind of the hon. Gentleman. We have moved a long way from the point about which I wanted to intervene. As someone who is steeped in the subject and has a tremendous record of concern and commitment on the issue, does he agree that if we deny the opportunity to unmarried couples to adopt jointly, we may turn away people who have something to offer to deeply damaged children? At the very least, we could undermine the basis on which a good, secure relationship could be founded with those children. Surely the hon. Gentleman does not want to do that.
Mr. Brazier: I have never argued for discrimination. We have civil law marriages in this country and, as the hon. Member for Wakefield said, the vast majority of cases involve heterosexual couples. We simply ask, if both individuals want to have legal ties to the child, is it so much to expect them to make a binding legal tie to each other? A civil marriage contract is simply that.
Mr. Bercow: If my hon. Friend had a free hand and was starting from scratch, would he prefer to prohibit individual gays adopting? If not, and acknowledging that there are many successful gay adoptions, although they form a minute proportion of the total, why is he opposed to gay couples adopting jointly to the extent of supporting a three-line Whip, which many of us believe sad and ill judged?
Mr. Brazier: Let me deal with my hon. Friend's principal point. A moment ago, I gave the statistics for heterosexual couples. I also said that, when they split, there was a problem similar to that in divorce cases, but that there was a much greater likelihood of a split between unmarried couples and that the affected children had already been badly damaged. The argument that I applied to heterosexual couples applies in spades to homosexual couples. Their partnerships last a much shorter time than those of heterosexual couples. Before my hon. Friend says that he can point to individual cases of long-lasting relationships, I accept that there are a few. However, we are dealing with a relatively small pool about which not many statistics are available.
In heterosexual relationships, couples tend to marry or break up in a year or two after the child arrives. When the pool is large enough to consider, I suspect that that will apply to homosexuals. I understand my hon. Friend's point but I do not agree with it. My point is about splitting up rather than homosexual adoption.
Mr. Hinchliffe: I have listened to the hon. Gentleman carefully and I agree with much of his speech, although not with his last comments. Does he accept that he is falling into the trap to which the hon. Member for Buckingham (Mr. Bercow) referred? He is generalising in his use of figures.
The hon. Gentleman said that social work assessments had gone wrong in the past and mentioned the problems that he experienced. There are two other checks that we should consider. The first is the role of the guardian ad litem after the assessment process and the second is that of the court. The hon. Gentleman appears to fail to accept that a range of opportunities are available for examining in detail the merits or otherwise of individual applicants.
Mr. Brazier: I am not sure whether I agree with the hon. Gentleman. The guardian ad litem service is a big issue. I know that he and other members of the Committee share the anxiety about the muddle in it. It is a scandal that could do much to undermine the good work in the Bill. I am glad that the Parliamentary Secretary, Lord Chancellor's Department, the hon. Member for Doncaster, Central (Ms Winterton), is present; she is taking a close interest in the matter. However, to answer the hon. Gentleman's point directly, I do not have much faith in the courts on family matters. Indeed, they can be only as good as the information that they receive. The guardian ad litem service was good, but has sadly suffered heavily in the past two or three years. It provides an extra safeguard but that does not greatly affect the argument.
Jonathan Shaw: The hon. Gentleman likes to use examples, often from his own postbag or constituency surgery, to illustrate and advance his argument. Perhaps I can offer him another example. Let us take a situation in which two gay men were fostering a child who had all kinds of different challenges, and it was felt that the best people to look after that child for the rest of its life were those two individuals. Would the hon. Gentleman deny that child the opportunity to be adopted by those two people?
Mr. Brazier: I am afraid that on the basis of the arguments that I have put forward, my answer would be yes. I do not, however, see any reason why one of those people should not adopt the child. I should have made it clear when I answered the question of my hon. Friend the Member for Buckingham earlier that my first choice for adoption would always be a married couple. I accept the principle of the occasional gay adoption, but only when there is no one else available. Hard cases make bad law[Interruption.] I give way to the hon. Gentleman.
Mr. Brazier: Every single child in care is a hard case, in the sense that the hon. Gentleman uses the phrase. Those who have been in care for more than a year are harder cases, and those who have been in care for more than four yearsof whom there were 12,000 when we started campaigningare very hard cases. I was referring earlier to getting further and further into legal technicalities.
Dr. Harris: I want to take the hon. Gentleman back to the important points about generalisation, and the problems surrounding it, that the hon. Member for Buckingham (Mr. Bercow) and I raised. If the hon. Member for Canterbury (Mr. Brazier) could identify a group of married people that had exactly the same rate of separation that he attributes to unmarried couplesfor example, a particular ethnic minority or, perhaps, married service men and women, although I am not suggesting that this is the case would he execute a broad ban on that group seeking to adopt? If notsince he has said that separation is the key factorwhy not?