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Jonathan Shaw: I said that we do not know whether there is a large pool. We have to make an assessment, and that is based on what we know—on how society is shaped. We also take account of those people who provide adoptive placements for children. Some 29 of the 30 agencies agreed with the amendment tabled by my hon. Friend the Member for Wakefield (Mr. Hinchliffe).

Mr. Lilley: The hon. Gentleman is honest enough to admit that there is no evidence. I am referring to a

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lobbying body that is pre-eminent in adoption. It wrote to me pretending that there is evidence, which, on closer inspection, does not exist. Why Mrs. Collier, who seemed nice and honest, should put her name to such a tendentious letter, I do not know.

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

Mr. Lilley: I am sorry, but I must continue, for the reasons made clear by other hon. Members.

There seems to be an agenda to raise the importance of rights above responsibilities—to equate cohabitation with marriage and homosexual relations with heterosexual relations. To some extent, children are being used as pawns in that game. I accept that it would be equally wrong to use children as pawns or a bait for marriage. I am not saying that I believe we should legislate to provide the incentive to marry that only married people can adopt. That is not the reason for our approach. What matters is that we act in the interests of children—not in the interests of married couples, unmarried couples, gay people, elderly people or younger people.

Mr. Dawson rose

Kevin Brennan (Cardiff, West) rose

Mr. Lilley: I will not give way, for the reason that I gave.

The practical effect of the change will not be to bring about a significant increase in the number of people who apply to adopt. What it will do is raise the priority given to unmarried parents and reduce the questions that are asked about whether their relationship is likely to be as stable as a married relationship.

We know that overall there is a surplus of parents who want to adopt relative to the number of children. It is babies that are in short supply. What we need are more parents who are willing to adopt not the babies but the children who are harder to adopt. They are the most vulnerable children. They have the greatest difficulties and are in most need of stable relationships and a secure environment. In practice, I do not think that many of those 300 or so who have come forward to adopt and who are not married are particularly likely disproportionately to take on those children who are so hard to place.

Ms Munn: They do.

Mr. Lilley: I said, "particularly likely." I am not saying there are no examples of that happening, but those couples are likely to displace married couples from applications to adopt and reduce their priority when it comes to adopting babies. That is likely to be the major consequence of the proposed change.

It has been asked whether Conservative Members are saying that the unmarried are automatically unstable and unlikely to remain together, and so on. In fact, we are talking about statistics. The House will be given statistics showing the frequency with which unmarried couples break up as against married couples. These are statistics, and the differences can be felt. There will be unmarried couples who live together peacefully, harmoniously and lovingly all their lives. There will be unmarried couples who are as committed as any married couple. Indeed,

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from a theological point of view, in the sight of God they are married, because marriage is the commitment and not the public institutionalisation of it. Unfortunately, I do not have the insight of God—none of us has—and so I do not know who is committed and who is not. It is simply more difficult to know if people will not make the commitment public and declare it through the institution of marriage.

That is the difficulty and the problem. We are asking social workers to assess which of the comparative minority among unmarried couples are every bit as committed, as stable, as permanent and as long term as the average marriage. Of course, some of the wedded couples will break up: some are not committed and should be excluded. If they can be identified ex ante they should be excluded from adoption, although that is difficult.

It is surely foolish for us to write it into the law that consideration should be effectively uninfluenced by whether or not people make a public commitment to the responsibilities that my right hon. Friend the Member for Maidstone and The Weald (Miss Widdecombe) spelled out as being part of marriage and the commitment that is an intrinsic part of it too.

Children are not trophies to whom anyone has the right. Children are not and should not be tools of social engineering, either by those who pursue a politically correct agenda or by those of us who believe in marriage. The children we are talking about are the most vulnerable, and have the greatest difficulties if they are not satisfactorily adopted. We should be seeking the best for them, and not the best for parents.

Mr. Paul Stinchcombe (Wellingborough): I am a married man and I believe in the sanctity of marriage. I believe also that it is vital as part of the social infrastructure of modern society. I am the father of three young children. I am grateful beyond words that they are brought up in a loving, stable family environment. I also happen to be a Christian. It is because I am a Christian who believes in the family that I strongly support the amendments, whereby non-married couples, including same-sex couples, will be able to adopt children.

In the shifting values of modern times, there are few, if any, absolute values on which all of us agree. However, one value that comes closer than many to achieving that consensus is, I suggest, the imperative to love and cherish children. It is not only a biblical imperative. It is one that is shared by those of all faiths and of none—people who believe, like me, that the interests and needs of children are paramount and that they should always come first.

If we hold that view, it would seem that our duties today in this place are clear. First, we must examine the evidence to ascertain whether the interests of children are currently being put first. Secondly, if they are not, we must decide what needs to be done in the real world in which children live to ensure that that is remedied. Thirdly, we must decide for ourselves whether that requires statutory expression through the amendments. I shall look at those three questions in turn.

First, it is clear that children are not being put first. There are thousands of vulnerable children who are either in care or in need of care. Many of these children are fostered. Many will return to their natural family in due course, albeit sometimes under supervision and protection. Many others—especially older children,

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disabled children and hard-to-place children—will not find long-term foster families and will not return home. They are the lost children of the modern age. For them, there may be three possibilities: the street, institutionalised care homes or adoption.

Secondly, in the real world, which is the best of the three options if we are to protect children and put their interests first? It must surely be by protecting them from the street, by taking them out of institutionalised residential care, and by placing them whenever possible in long-term loving family environments, with families who are equipped to give them the care, love and support that they need. That must mean adoption on a scale which, at present, we are not achieving; we have to find about 5,000 more adoptive families every year if we are to find homes for those lost children.

Thirdly, we have to ask ourselves whether there is anything that we can and should do as parliamentarians to meet that need by passing legislation or amendments to it. Current legislation restricts the pool of adoptive families; married couples can adopt, as can single people, whether gay or straight, but unmarried couples cannot. It does not matter how long people have been in such a relationship; it does not matter how skilled and loving those people would be, or perhaps already are, as parents; it does not matter how many children are lost and whose lives are wasted in residential institutions, when they need loving homes; and it does not matter how desperate those children are. None of that matters; unmarried couples cannot adopt.

In a time of great need for more adoptive families, it is absurd that, by legislation, we are denying a pool of adoptive families who could clearly make a significant contribution any chance of adoption. No one is arguing for a lowering of the rigorous thresholds by which the suitability of adoptive parents is judged. We are talking only about adoptive parents independently judged by the adoption agencies and the courts as having the capacity and commitment to be safe and effective parents. How can it be right to preserve the legislative status quo, thereby ignoring the opportunity offered by that pool of adoptive families? There is no justification whatever for doing so.

We live in an imperfect world, in which we must do the best that we can to make things a little bit better; we should not strive for perfection or the impossible, as that would mean achieving nothing. Countless marriages end in divorce; indeed, that is one reason why we need more adoption. Many people choose not to marry again and many choose never to marry at all, but numerous people seek loving permanent relationships outside marriage. We may not like it, but it happens; that is the world in which we live. To cut all those people off from the pool of adoptive families—however decent and loving and however secure and stable their relationship may be—is to cut massively and arbitrarily the supply of loving parents who could meet the needs of children.

How can it be right to allow children to remain in care when they could be in loving, caring families instead? If children who need care can be adopted by a loving single parent, how can it be right that they cannot be adopted by a loving couple? After all, if one mum or one dad is better than none, two must surely be as acceptable as one.

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It is argued that allowing unmarried couples to adopt would demean the institution of marriage: I disagree, because the needs of the child should come first. Any argument that sacrifices the needs of the child to any other public interest, even protecting the ideal of marriage, is misguided. It subverts one moral value, the protection of children, and sacrifices it to another, the protection of the ideal of marriage, which is less realisable and important.

Protecting that ideal is less realisable than the interests of the child in care, at least from a parliamentary perspective, because while Parliament can vote to enable a child to have a better chance of finding an adoptive family, we can never vote or legislate to make people marry, or keep married couples and families together.

From a legislative perspective, protecting the ideal of marriage is also less important than protecting the interests of the child, because in any modern democracy we must legislative for everyone. As a Christian, I have a personal view of marriage and believe in its sanctity. I believe that it is a sacrament. I believe that it has spiritual and religious importance, but there are others who do not share my faith, and in our democracy, they have rights too.

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