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Mr. Leigh: Has the hon. Gentleman any evidence for the assertion that a tremendous number of cohabiting couples want to adopt? The British Agencies for Adoption and Fostering claims that

That organisation commissioned Cardiff university to carry out a study of almost 2,000 adoptions, in which it

I am afraid that any evidence. [Interruption.] Did the hon. Member for Chatham and Aylesford (Jonathan Shaw) not listen to the first point that I made? Some agencies deliberately flout the law and process an application

Not one of the 2,000 people in the Cardiff study was cohabiting. Where is the evidence to show that great numbers of cohabiting people want to adopt?

Jonathan Shaw: If there is evidence of people flouting the law, people should pass it on to the proper authorities, but we took evidence from 30 professional agencies and witnesses from different spectrums of child care. They were not all of one type; there was a whole variety of people. When we asked, 29 of them agreed with the amendments tabled by my hon. Friend the Member for Wakefield and said that we need to do the best that we can.

There is no assertion that scores and scores of unmarried couples want to adopt, but such an amendment would increase the pool. There is no pure equation, but we have to deal with such things in child care. We have to put our hands on our hearts and say that we will do the best that we can. We have to take a view of the world that we live in. I believe that, to increase the number of children being adopted, we should support amendment No. 158, and I commend it to the House.

Mr. Andrew Lansley (South Cambridgeshire): It seems a long time ago that a small number of hon. Members and I raised precisely this issue on Second Reading. At that time, those on the Front Benches ducked the issue. On this occasion, they have half ducked it, but it is important that, as the Secretary of State for Health said at the time, we have a debate and that the House decides. I do not normally comment on how the usual channels work and how the whipping goes on such things, but this is very much the sort of issue on which hon. Members, from their own experience, are best able to form a judgment. Things would be better done that way, rather than through the medium of a whipped vote.

I am pleased to follow, among others, the hon. Member for Wakefield (Mr. Hinchliffe) because, as he rightly said, I was a member of the Select Committee on Health under his chairmanship, when it considered children looked after by local authorities. Indeed, we recommended reform of adoption law. That reform was overdue then, and it is very welcome now.

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I do not repeat what has been said, not least by the hon. Member for Wakefield, with whom I very substantially agree—I shall come on to where and why we disagree—but I want to encourage colleagues, particularly on this side of the House, not to think about this issue as though, by resisting the hon. Gentleman's amendments, we can roll the world back to a situation where the only people who want to be adoptive parents are married couples, or where they would come forward in sufficient numbers, notwithstanding the improvements and reductions in delay that may occur as a consequence of the Bill.

Following the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Gainsborough (Mr. Leigh), let us construct the argument around the best interests of children based on what happens now, not on the proposition that there is an additional pool of prospective adopters—although I happen to agree that there would be some additional potential adoptive parents as a result of allowing unmarried couples to adopt. About 6 per cent. of those who adopt now are single. Overwhelmingly, they are in cohabiting relationships and are unmarried couples—heterosexuals in the great majority.

So the question is what is in the best interests of the child where those couples are concerned. Having established to the satisfaction of the relevant agencies and the courts that one person in that relationship is the best person to adopt the child, is it in the best interests of the child for the other person in that relationship not to have a long-term, lasting legal relationship with that child? That is not in the best interests of the child.

Conservative Members have established that, if there is a hierarchy of the best interests of the child, it is that a child should be brought up by a mother and a father, first, in a married relationship, or, if there is not a married relationship, an enduring, loving relationship. That seems to be the best way to proceed. If children are to be placed for adoption with a couple—a mother and a father—but the current constraints of the law provide that only one of those two parents can have the legal relationship with the child, that is not in the best interests of the child.

It would be advantageous to free up the possibility for couples to adopt, even though they are unmarried. The evidence that I have seen so far from our inquiry and from talking to directors of social services and others in my constituency and elsewhere and from the adoption agencies makes it perfectly clear that a number of potential parents who are unmarried have their own reasons for not wanting to marry.

Should we see the Bill as some form of social engineering? Is it designed to try to force people to marry in order to become adoptive parents? I think that we should conclude that people should marry if they love one another and if they want to show that to society at large by using that form of relationship. If we do not take that view—I am sorry to tell my right hon. Friend the Member for Maidstone and The Weald (Miss Widdecombe)—would we really saying that the increasing number of people in our society who have natural children and who, as a couple, do not marry are in some way not considering the best interests of their children? They have their reasons.

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It is not for us to try to use adoption legislation, which should be designed around the best interests of the child, as a mechanism to effect a change in social circumstances in society at large, still less to try to go back to a different time. Many couples have their own many and varied reasons for not marrying. In some cases they face impediments to marriage. There may not be legal impediments, but there could be religious reasons and so on, which make things very difficult.

Mr. Dawson: Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Lansley: I shall give way to the hon. Gentleman because he is the chairman of the all-party group on children and young people in care.

Mr. Dawson: I am most grateful to the hon. Gentleman. I follow his logic entirely and share his views on social engineering. Do not his arguments apply equally to same-sex couples?

Mr. Lansley: The hon. Gentleman takes me precisely to my next point. Thus far I have agreed with the hon. Member for Wakefield, and my purpose in speaking is not least to say that, if the amendments tabled by the hon. Member for Oxford, West and Abingdon (Dr. Harris) were to be passed, I would want to press amendment No. 24, which is designed to define unmarried couples for this purpose as a man and a woman living together. However, if the hon. Gentleman's amendment is not passed, and amendment No. 148 and the consequential amendments associated with it were passed, I would want to press amendment No. 158(a), which is designed to remove same-sex couples from the definition of couples for this purpose.

My understanding—you will correct me if I am wrong, Mr. Deputy Speaker—is that the Division on amendment No. 158 will take place not now but on Monday, but we must make the argument now. I hope that hon. Members will understand that we can debate same-sex couples today, but we shall have to vote on Monday. I hope that, on Monday, having indicated that they are prepared to allow unmarried couples to adopt, hon. Members will not, for the reasons that I have explained, extend that to same-sex couples.

Some of the arguments that I have presented are exactly the same as those that Stonewall has put to me. I have great respect for its arguments and we have had some interesting discussions, but we have not reached the same conclusions. Stonewall says that if a child is placed for adoption with a couple who happen to be of the same sex, why should not both partners in that relationship have a long-term, lasting legal relationship? My purpose in speaking to the amendment is not perhaps the same as that of my hon. Friend the Member for North Dorset (Mr. Walter), whose view may be shared by other Opposition Members. Their view is that they would not wish children to be placed for adoption with a gay person in a gay relationship. That does happen—I am working on the basis of what happens now. On Second Reading, I noted—I probably did not refer to it—that last year's October issue of Be My Parent illustrated, at length, precisely such a relationship: a lesbian couple who had

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adopted, over time, four children. I hope that that is successful; I cannot say anything more than was set out in that newspaper.

5 pm

This is the issue: why should we go on to create, for gay couples, a legal relationship that would not apply in a natural birth family? As a consequence of allowing unmarried couples to adopt, we will create, as one would normally expect, a legal mother and a legal father. As a consequence of the hon. Member for Wakefield's amendment, were it not amended as I propose, we would create two legal mothers or two legal fathers. Some other parts of legislation work on the basis of parents, but I am not persuaded that we have yet reached the point at which all our legislation should treat all parenting as wholly non-gender-specific.

I accept that there is a degree to which the parenting skill often crosses gender. Some fathers are better at being mothers to their children and some mothers are better at being fathers. By and large, however, most of our legislation, although it may be written in terms of parenting, is understood in terms of the respective responsibilities of mothers and fathers. There tends to be an understanding of how parenting works in that relationship. We should consider very carefully whether to take the novel step of creating two legal mothers or two legal fathers, especially when the provision may be used more often to assist the lesbian partner of someone who has given birth to a child through donor insemination than it ever will be to assist gay couples to adopt children, who may often be older or severely disabled and for whom there is a significant lack of adoptive parents.

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