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Several hon. Members rose

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Michael Lord): Order. Before I call the next hon. Member, I point out to the House that time is running away and there have been several long contributions. A number of hon. Members want to catch my eye, so in order that, if possible, everyone can make a contribution, shorter speeches would be welcome.

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8.1 pm

Mr. Andrew Lansley (South Cambridgeshire): I shall certainly endeavour to meet your request, Mr. Deputy Speaker. It was in any case my intention to be brief, not least because I am only too conscious of the excellent contributions that have already been made—often based on a degree of experience—so I do not want to repeat them.

The debate comes on the heel of Second Reading debates held towards the end of the last Parliament. I join my hon. Friend the Member for Woodspring (Dr. Fox) in paying tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Meriden (Mrs. Spelman) on the introduction of her private Member's Bill. There is a sense of irony among the adoption community that a Bill intended to limit the delays in the adoption process has itself been subject to what appear to be repeated delays. If we can make progress and see this Bill swiftly through to a happy conclusion, it will be much appreciated.

May I also say a word of appreciation to my hon. Friend the Member for South Norfolk (Mr. Bacon) on his maiden speech? I enjoyed it, not least because I know his area reasonably well, although I had not realised about Abraham Lincoln's line of descent. My hon. Friend was modest enough not to note that Abraham Lincoln always described himself as a conservative.

I do not want it to appear that my support for the Bill has diminished. As colleagues have said, the measure is a good one and deserves support, but by its nature the subject will always bring out issues that we have to address, some of which have already been highlighted. I want to touch on some of them in the hope that they can be followed up during the Bill's passage.

The first point is that the Bill—rightly—is designed to put the interests and welfare of the child in paramount position, as does the Children Act 1989. However, that means that the legislation can override the necessity to seek parental consent. I want to look carefully at how we set about that in the measure. What message does the legislation send?

Clause 50 makes the circumstances clear. One of the criteria is that

of the parent—"to be dispensed with". That is simply to reiterate the primacy of the welfare of the child.

The explanatory notes refer, in the section on the welfare checklist in clause 1(4), to the importance of the child's relationship with the parents and their ability and willingness

That is indeed important. For these purposes, the word "parent" is subsumed within the word "relatives".

However, the nature of the decision to proceed with an order in circumstances where parental consent is withheld is not quite the same thing as assessing a relationship with other relatives—whether they are able instrumentally to offer a secure environment or to meet a child's needs.

The hon. Member for Lancaster and Wyre (Mr. Dawson) compared the tests on placement orders to those on care orders. That is a relevant factor, but the decision on an adoption order is a different matter from the tests that have been applied to care orders. Although it is important that there should be a threshold and, in

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legal terms, "significant harm" might be a good starting point for such a threshold, it would be better to provide that a threshold beyond significant harm needs to be found—perhaps one that looks to the long-term harm that might result to a child who continued a relationship with birth parents. It would thus be a positive decision by the court and the authorities and agencies concerned when a parent was deprived of their consent in that way.

Mr. Andrew Turner: Even during the short time that I have been a Member of Parliament, cases have come to my attention in which the process has taken so long that adoption has become inevitable. The process involves children being put into care with parents allowed only restricted access—doubtless for good reasons—to the extent that, in one case, almost three years on, the mother has, by the court's ruling, lost contact with the child because only limited access was allowed. I warmly welcome my hon. Friend's suggestion that the courts should be required to establish a higher standard for depriving a parent of their child. I also welcome the proposal in the Bill that there should be much—

Mr. Deputy Speaker: Order. The hon. Gentleman is beginning to make a speech.

Mr. Lansley: From the way in which my hon. Friend the Member for Isle of Wight (Mr. Turner) was developing his point, it would have been a good speech. I agree with him. The hon. Member for Blackpool, North and Fleetwood (Mrs. Humble) rightly pointed out the difficulties associated with delay. That reminds me that I came first to these issues, in the House, when considering the second report of the Select Committee on Health on children looked after by local authorities. Earlier we were discussing the best option for children. That Committee made it clear that if children are taken into the care of a local authority, the best option is for them to re-establish their relationship with their birth family. Nothing we say in the debate should detract from the driving objective of the Children Act 1989 and all of our remarks should be seen in that context.

I want to reintroduce that balance, while recognising that in the Select Committee the problems that we encountered were mainly to do with delay. It was obvious that in some cases it would never be possible to reunite or re-establish the birth family. However, there were often delays and, as the hon. Member for Blackpool, North and Fleetwood rightly said, the length of time that can count as reasonable delay varies according to the age and circumstances of the child. Unhappily, there were sometimes great delays in the cases of very young children that wholly vitiated what might otherwise have been successful early adoptions.

My second point relates to the wishes of the child. The explanatory notes for clause 126 make it clear that the rules of procedure implemented by the Lord Chancellor's Department would be intended to ensure that the child should be a party to any order proceedings. I hope that, even at this stage, it might be possible for the Government to consider whether the intention that they have expressed can be built into the legislation in some way.

My third point, which other hon. Members have mentioned, involves giving due consideration to religious persuasion, racial origin and cultural and linguistic background. I disagree with what the hon. Member for

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Oxford, West and Abingdon (Dr. Harris), who spoke for the Liberal Democrats, said about religious persuasion. How religious persuasion might form part of cultural and other background issues has to be borne in mind, and no hon. Member would dispute the necessity of giving such matters due consideration, but in circumstances that I have encountered in my constituency, such decisions can translate into a hangover involving the idea that we are looking for adoptive parents and the relationship with adopted children to mimic to the outside world the sense that those children are indeed the natural children of those parents. In many circumstances, that may not be the intention of the adoptive parents or the adopted child.

In this day and age, when families live in so many different circumstances of mixed-race backgrounds, ethnicity and so on, we should not be hung up on the desirability of appearing to mimic natural families when considering adoptive circumstances. It is important therefore to consider the nature of the circumstances that can be provided by those parents who put themselves forward to adopt. It is not that we should be colour blind in any sense, but if adoptive parents can satisfactorily show the agencies that they are aware of the differences in the cultural background of the potential adopted children and how they can sustain them, there is no reason why we should not support that. A degree of political correctness is involved in trying to stop that happening or in getting that balance wrong. We should certainly seek to signal—in debating the Bill, if not in its text—the desirability of shifting that balance.

The final issue that I want to raise is that of non-married couples. In thinking about the legislation and in raising the issue with the Secretary of State after the hon. Member for Stourbridge (Ms Shipley), I was aware that if we say we must try not to be politically correct because we must consider the welfare of the child—and, in many instances today, the welfare of children may well involve the potential adoptive parents showing that they can look after the children and can give them a loving background regardless of the fact that those children may not come from the same ethnic or cultural background—it should logically follow that that also involves doing so in relation to the status of the adoptive parents themselves.

I may be challenging those on both Front Benches about an issue that they perhaps want to duck for the time being, but the freedom of the Back Benches allows one not to have to duck such issues, and the logic of our approach—putting the welfare of children first—suggests that there are circumstances in which we should accept adoption by unmarried couples because they can provide the loving home and the stable surroundings in which children can be adopted successfully.

I am not so blinkered as not to understand that there are married couples whose marriages will not be sustained, who cannot necessarily provide the long-term stable circumstances as well as unmarried couples, who may well show in all reasonableness that they can provide those circumstances. Where that is the case, we should allow such adoption.

Indeed, we should also accept that there may be couples whose inability to remarry, for religious reasons or otherwise, may be a perfectly reasonable explanation of why they could not marry to make themselves a couple available to adopt. Although there may be a presumption

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that couples should seek to marry to provide the best circumstances in which to bring up children—I hope that it is common ground around the House that marriage provides the best circumstances in which to bring up children successfully—those are not the only circumstances for successful adoption, nor necessarily the best for any individual couple. Not all couples can meet that test. If they cannot, we should not necessarily debar them from being a couple who are available to adopt.

If we are living in the real world—the hon. Member for Sheffield, Heeley (Ms Munn) alluded to this—the truth is that many couples are adopting when they are not married. Even same-sex couples are adopting, and they are clearly not married. The issue of civil partnerships, which was discussed a few days ago, is neither here nor there; the issue is whether the agencies can consider the underlying intentions, circumstances, competencies and the loving environment that a couple can provide. If they can provide all that, we ought to make adoption available to them.

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