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4 pm

Dr. Harris: Each child's circumstances are different, and it is not necessary to accept the hon. Gentleman's point of view to recognise that we have to find the best solution in each individual case. I am not willing to condemn unmarried couples who have their own children—I am not suggesting that the hon. Gentleman is, either—and if we take the view that married parents are the ideal, we attack the many thousands of our constituents who choose not to get married for perfectly valid reasons, or cannot do so. Hon. Members can put their views—

Mr. Djanogly rose

Tim Loughton: Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Dr. Harris: In a moment. The hon. Gentleman will have a chance once I have made more progress.

What is at stake is making it possible for an unmarried couple to adopt jointly, so that they can both have a legal relationship with the child. It is about recognising the changing structure of social relations, and ensuring that we offer children currently in care the best opportunity of finding a home by allowing unmarried couples to consider adoption in a manner that does not downgrade their relationship. It is also about taking a stance against, and putting an end to, discrimination in whatever form.

Tim Loughton: The hon. Gentleman talks about recognising changes in social trends. Does he acknowledge that in 2000 the number of marriages in fact increased for the first time in eight years? For the

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avoidance of doubt about the Liberal Democrats' position, can he clarify matters by saying whether or not he thinks the best possible arrangement is for children to be brought up by a married couple consisting of a man and a woman? Advancing that argument does not diminish the alternatives; it merely states that, where available, that is the best possible scenario. Does he deny that?

Dr. Harris: This is a pointless debate, and the hon. Gentleman's position is illogical. He cannot raise one group of people to a higher status without implying that another group are of a lower status. If he asked his questions honestly, he would be more likely to find answers to them, but first he must recognise the reality of the proposition that he puts.

Several hon. Members rose

Dr. Harris: I am keen to make progress as I am conscious that many hon. Members want to speak.

I should point out that there are many justifications for recognising that unmarried couples are suitable for adoption purposes. The argument will be advanced that they are inherently more unstable, but it is based on poor research that does not compare like with like. Other types of partnerships who wish to adopt often last longer than many marriages. A generalising, simplistic analysis of figures that do not even compare like with like across socio-economic groups does the debate a disservice. If the right hon. Member for Maidstone and The Weald (Miss Widdecombe) argues that case later, I shall seek to intervene on her.

I also question the view that children placed into same-sex partnerships that are otherwise suitable to adopt are damaged in any way. Evidence produced by Professor Golombok, and the review conducted by the American Academy of Pediatrics, makes it clear they suffer no short-term or long-term damage, and do very well in such partnerships. Again, I shall seek to intervene on anyone who tries to argue against that evidence.

Liberal Democrats are proud to work with like-minded members of other parties to introduce this measure. In our manifesto—

Mr. Dawson: I may be wrong, but I think this is the first major contribution to the Bill that the hon. Gentleman has made. In the interests of the consensus that he apparently seeks, would he not have done better to align himself much more clearly and solely with the amendments tabled by my hon. Friend the Member for Wakefield (Mr. Hinchliffe), who has a solid background in children's issues?

Dr. Harris: The hon. Gentleman will find that I alone among Front Benchers raised this issue on Second Reading; indeed, it was amazing that so little other discussion took place of such an important issue. He will know that, although my hon. Friend the Member for Romsey (Sandra Gidley) was a member of the Standing Committee that considered the Bill, I was not.

Tim Loughton: Why was the hon. Gentleman not on the Committee?

Dr. Harris: I was considering another Bill in Standing Committee, and if the hon. Gentleman inspects the record, he will find that I have contributed to such debates more frequently than he has.

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Given that I am being provoked, I should point out that we had the courage to call in our manifesto for reform of the fostering and adoption law. That lends legitimacy to my argument, so the hon. Member for Lancaster and Wyre (Mr. Dawson) should perhaps question his attack. The manifesto placed emphasis on the suitability of potential adopters and on the needs of the child, rather than on arbitrary rules that are set centrally. We also called for the registration of civil partnerships to be based in part on the legal effects and duties of marriage, including adoption and fostering. The hon. Gentleman cannot claim, therefore, that I am suddenly springing this view on the House. We have no compunction in calling for and supporting these amendments on a party Whip. In terms of the way in which hon. Members vote, it is through the party Whip that a party shares the accountability of its members.

We know that some sections of the press will pillory us for the position that we take, but it is better to face that and argue the merits of it, rather than hiding behind shifting positions, prevarication and free votes. I am not surprised that the Conservative party has a three-line Whip against the liberalisation of such matters: it is not a liberal party. Conservatives put their prejudices and illiberal views before children's welfare and considerations of fairness.

Mr. Djanogly: In different ways, the hon. Gentleman repeatedly refers to discrimination. Is he aware that the International Court of Human Rights recently ruled that preventing homosexual partners from adopting is not considered a breach of human rights?

Dr. Harris: I know of the case to which the hon. Gentleman mis-refers—it was heard not in the International Court of Human Rights but the lower chamber of the European Court of Human Rights. Moreover, the vote, which was four to three against the application, is being appealed, and the British judge was one of the three who voted in favour. The amendments that the hon. Gentleman is likely to support are not compatible, therefore, with human rights legislation—a point on which the Minister doubtless also has a view.

The failure of the Labour Government to support the amendments is very disappointing, given their high opinion poll rating, their large majority and the admirable interest that the Prime Minister has shown in the matter. I pay tribute to the Minister, her ministerial colleagues, and the hon. Members for Sheffield, Heeley (Ms Munn) and for Wakefield (Mr. Hinchliffe) for winning the battle for a free vote, at least. A battle it must have been, given that, on 25 January 1999, the former Home Secretary appeared to agree with the hon. Member for Middlesbrough (Mr. Bell), who said that his understanding was that there would be no legal adoption by homosexual couples. We can safely say, therefore, that there is no unanimity on this point among the senior ranks of the Government.

Ms Munn: Given that the hon. Gentleman is so concerned to make progress on this issue, will he withdraw his amendments? If accepted, they could create problems for the rest of the Bill in terms of consequential

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amendments. Will he instead support the amendments tabled by my hon. Friend the Member for Wakefield (Mr. Hinchliffe)?

Dr. Harris: That is a legitimate point, which I shall come to in a moment.

We should applaud the Secretary of State for Health's personal support for these measures, but we look forward to a time when free votes are offered across the board on genuine points of principle or ethics, and when Governments accept accountability for children's welfare. [Interruption.] I have an important question for the Minister, in which hon. Members will have an interest. If this measure is adopted, what will happen when the Bill reaches the House of Lords and they reject it? Will the Minister give an undertaking now to send it back a second time. Those of us who will vote for these measures want to know that we are not doing so in vain. If necessary, will she use the Parliament Act to force through not just the Bill but the measure? It is important that the Minister replies. We know that, in the end, Governments must be responsible for getting Bills and measures through.

In answer to the hon. Lady's question, like amendment No. 148, amendment No. 310 deletes the word "married". Amendment No. 158 defines "a couple" either as married, or as two people both over the age of 21 who are not closely related, and who live as partners in an enduring family relationship. We believe that that definition is effective, and that the amendments are good. The hon. Member for Wakefield will himself want to talk about his new clause 3, but I suspect he agrees that the wording of amendment No. 158 is superior to both previous such attempts. Therefore, I have no compunction in saying that I shall not press new clause 2 and its consequential amendments to a division. However, in a sense, amendments Nos. 310, 311, 312, 148 and 147 are all consequential on amendment No. 158—and vice versa—and there is no doubt that amendment No. 310 is necessary. If it is not agreed by the House today, the Government will have to introduce it in the House of Lords. I ask hon. Members why they intend to vote against amendment No. 310, because it is an inevitable part of the measures. That is my understanding from the British Agencies for Adoption and Fostering, which sent me a letter today stating:

That is what amendment No. 310 would achieve. The BAAF continued:

Stonewall, which also has an interest in the issue, e-mailed me today to say:

I have had no notice from the Government about any technical problems—although I will listen to what the Minister has to say—but because we have a clear position on the issue, we would like to press amendment No. 310 to a division.

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Amendment No. 24 and amendment (a) are simply wrong. They are discriminatory and incompatible with the Human Rights Act 1998. They have no place in a modernisation of the law. I understand the sincere reasons of those who wish to press the matter—they want to feel that, even as Conservatives, they can support the general trend of the Bill—but it is unsuitable to victimise a sub-group and refuse to allow children the benefit of being adopted by that sub-group.

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