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'(1) Regulations under section 9 may make provision as to the matters to be taken into account by an adoption agency in determining, or making any report in respect of, the suitability of any persons to adopt a child.
(2) In particular, the regulations may make provision for the purpose of securing that, in determining the suitability of a couple to adopt a child, proper regard is had to the need for stability and permanence in their relationship'.
'(2B) In this Act, a couple means
(a) a married couple, or
(b) two people (whether of different sexes or the same sex) living as partners in an enduring family relationship.
(2C) Subsection (2B)(b) does not include two people one of whom is the other's parent, grandparent, sister, brother, aunt or uncle.
(2D) References to relationships in subsection (2C)
(a) are to relationships of the full blood or half blood or, in the case of an adopted person, such of those relationships as would exist but for the adoption, and
(b) include the relationship of a child with his adoptive, or former adoptive, parents,
but do not include any other adoptive relationships.
'whether of different sexes or the same sex'
Dr. Harris: This is an important group of amendments, which if passed could bring hope to thousands of childrenhope of a happier life than that provided by serial foster-parenting, notwithstanding the efforts of hard-working, excellent, commendable foster parents; and hope of a happier life than years of childhood spent in residential care. The amendments could give those thousands of children hope of adoption, and of living in suitable homes with loving families.
The amendments are about putting the welfare of children first. They are about looking at the advice offered to us by adoption agencies, children's charities, local authorities and professionals. All those people and organisations urge us to support the amendments, which are about accepting research evidence and having an evidence-based approachhaving a rational rather than an irrational basis for adoption policy.
Children, after all, must grow up in the real world. They must grow up in the 21st century, in which, whether we like it or not, 40 per cent. of children are born outside marriage, and in which many people who are committed to each other choose not to marry. That applies to 15 per cent. of households, and the figure is expected to rise to 30 per cent. In this real world, loving stable familiesin the Minister's memorable wordscome in all shapes and sizes. Indeed, dysfunctional families come in all shapes and sizes, including the so-called orthodox. Children do not grow up in an idealised world that never was, but that some Members who are present may wish existed.
Currently, and according to the unamended Bill, the only people allowed to apply to adopt are married couples or single people. Adoption agencies assess the suitability of applicants, and write a report for the courts that will decide whether the adoptions should proceed. Unmarried couples cannot apply to adopt as couples; single people can apply even if they are part of a couple, but they must apply as single people.
The arrangement has two impacts. First, unmarried couples cannot currently adopt as co-parents, even if they have their own non-adopted children and are both parents to them. Only one can be a parent, while the other can at best obtain secondary status, which will be recognised only until the child reaches the age of 16 or 18. That in itself has two consequences. The parents are legally unequal, one being second class, which is not in the child's best interests; and some potential adopters are deterred from applying because they cannot do so as a couple. That leaves children in residential care, or in serial foster care, rather than with suitable adoptive families. It does not make the child's interests paramount.
A higher proportion of unmarried couples than married couples may think of adopting. We hear that about 10 per cent. of potential applicants are unmarried couples who may be put off by the fact that they cannot adopt on an equal basis.
Dr. Harris: I disagree. The hon. Gentleman must know that in the case of such applications adoption agencies write reports on the circumstances, which the courts take into account. If he is saying, as he appears to be, that no unmarried couples are suitable to adopt as couplesif he is saying that a prioriI do not think he is making the child's best interests paramount. He is putting his own preferences first, and I feel it is incumbent on us all not to do that.
Mr. Peter Lilley (Hitchin and Harpenden): The hon. Gentleman said he wanted an evidenced-based approach, and that there was evidence that the present legal status deterred unmarried couples from adopting. What is that evidence? It is referred to in a letter from the British Agencies for Adopting and Fostering. When I asked the BAAF what the evidence was, it said that actually it had none.
Dr. Harris: It certainly does have evidence. I believe the evidence was gathered during national adoption week, when the BAAF recorded the reasons why people who had thought about adopting were put off. I do not want to take up the House's time, because I am sure others with expertise will deal with the right hon. Gentleman's point, but there is no doubt that many unmarried couples would like to adopt as couples, but the Bill, if unamended, will put them off.
Ms Munn: Does the hon. Gentleman agree that we only see adoption legislation approximately every 25 years? Is it not important, therefore, for legislation we introduce to take account of the next generation? Given the change in society, is it not sensible to make our own change now?
The second impact of the current position and, indeed, the unamended Bill is that although gay men and lesbians are already able to adopt, and do adopt, they cannot do so as couples. In that sense, the debate on the extension of joint adoption rights to unmarried couples has veered off its original course. Gay adoption per se is not at stake here, although people want it to be. The sexuality of an applicant in itself in no way bars him or her from the right to adopt under current law, as a single person.
There are three reasons for seeking a change in the law. First, it is not in a child's best interests, when members of a couple play equal parts in his or her life, for only one member to have full legal responsibility. The other parent is downgraded to second-class status, without the power to make vital as well as casual decisions in the child's life that call for legal guardian status. Problems are also caused when the adopter is ill or dies, as no legal relationship is left between the child and the other parent. Especially given that any residency orders are valid only until the child is 16 or l8, depending on the circumstances, that does not make the child's best interests paramount throughout his or her life.
Secondly, as I have said, many suitable unmarried couples are deterred from applying to adopt. That clearly is not in the best interests of tens of thousands of children in serial foster care, or in care waiting for suitable adoptive families.
Thirdly, the current law clearly discriminates against unmarried and same-sex couples. Given the stringent application process for adoption and the rigorous assessments that are made on a case-by-case basis, there is no justification for disqualifying a couple from adopting jointly simply because they do not possess a marriage certificate, if they clearly possess all the characteristics that the agencies would otherwise expect from suitable adoptive parents.
Dr. Harris: The hon. Gentleman may think that in an ideal situation it is in children's best interests to have mothers and fathers who are very wealthy, who have nannies and both of whom have jobs. Children today do not grow up in an ideal world. The hon. Gentleman must decide whether he thinks it better for children to be left in care, or suffer the problems that clearly result from serial foster care, than for them to be accepted into the loving stable environment provided by an unmarried couple, if that is what is on offer.
Jonathan Shaw: Certainly the most desirable adoptive arrangement is for the child to have a mother and a father who are married, but does the hon. Gentleman agree that in other circumstances it may well be in the child's best interests to be adopted according to other arrangements?