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4 Nov 2002 : Column 39—continued

Liz Blackman: Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Tim Loughton: I want to make a little progress first because I have given way many times.

Conservatives subscribe to all the above and have supported the Bill throughout. I remind the House that we are here because of a vote in another place by Conservative peers with the cross-party alliance of 23 Labour peers, 46 Cross-Benchers, two Ulster Unionists, two bishops and three others. A total of 196 peers voted for the amendments with just seven Conservative peers voting against.

Regardless of their views, however, Members of the upper House had other reasons for which they were even more entitled to object to the legislation. The measure was not in the original Bill. It was changed by Back-Bench amendments and the Government have not yet shown their hand, although on past form Health Ministers have voted to back the amendments. Those amendments contravene the 1967 convention on adoption. The Government have given no sign that they want to rescind our membership of that or renegotiate its terms for everyone. We have all been labouring under the misconception that the Government are reviewing civil partnership law, including related adoption issues, and that nothing will be done to prejudge or circumvent that. In essence, the Lords voted to return the Bill to the status quo, which the Government had not said it was their intention to change.

Much rubbish has been spouted in the press about the Bill, none more so, perhaps, than a highly ill-informed piece in The Times last month by Mary Ann Sieghart which lambasted Conservatives for opposing the expansion of the right to adopt. That article fundamentally misunderstood the nature of adoption. There is no such thing as a right to adopt. I have no right under any article of European convention or any personal moral code to expect to take over responsibility and control of another human being's life in the same way that I can expect to exercise my right to vote or to have my private and family life respected. It is not a matter of opposing the change out of a bizarre wish to condemn more children to languish in care in the name of family values, as Ms Sieghart absurdly puts it. But to suggest in isolation that simply not enough prospective adopters are coming forward and that the only way to expand the pool enormously is to change the main criteria, is patently to ignore reality and the facts.

I want to address the real issues that arose from deliberations in this House and another place on the status of unmarried adopters. I want to consider

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widening the pool, the current obstructions to adoption inherent in the system and the legal implications of moving from marriage as a benchmark in law to a system of flat equality. That will lead me on to the Joint Committee on Human Rights before dealing with the interesting point raised by the noble Lord Alli in another place.

Kevin Brennan: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman, who is being generous in giving way. Does he accept that there is agreement throughout the House that the issue has nothing to do with the right to adopt, but that his position has everything to do with denying certain individuals the right to apply to adopt?

Tim Loughton: The hon. Gentleman knows that people already have the right to apply; it is the form of assessment that is to be debated.

To return to the categories I have just outlined, I do not want to get bogged down in trading statistics and dubious research. I start from the premise that although marriage is not a dead cert, by all accounts it offers the best probability of a stable home for an adopted child. Adoption can often be worse than care if it breaks down—we are not dealing with a one-way street. Furthermore, my remarks are based on the rough premise presented by the figures from the Office for National Statistics: that cohabiting couples are more likely—by whatever margin we care to state—to split up.

I agree with the words spoken by the current Foreign Secretary when he was Home Secretary:

The Minister of State, Department of Health, the hon. Member for Redditch (Jacqui Smith), said in the Special Standing Committee:

Mr. Lansley: On the question of the stability of an adoption placement, I should like to put the following point to my hon. Friend. Although I do not disagree with him about the general proposition that married circumstances offer children a better home, success depends on the individual decisions on placement and the characteristics of the home. Given that 95 per cent. of current adoption placements are with married couples, 20 per cent., on average, will end in disruption. What is critical is the ability to find lasting, permanent, loving homes for children.

Tim Loughton: My hon. Friend is absolutely right. No adoption relationship can be guaranteed to be perfect, whether the adoption is made by a married couple or by a single person who is in some form of unmarried relationship. Nothing is foolproof. What we

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have to explore is how to make the whole system more likely to work. That is what the Bill is really about, but it is being ignored because of the side issue.

On the question of how to widen the pool, there is some confusion about whether enough people are coming forward to adopt, as the numbers of those applying to become adoptive parents are slanted towards the shiny babies—the relatively problem-free young children, rather than the older, problem children. There is no evidence that non-married couples are better equipped to take on children with complex problems. In any case, as the hon. Member for Chatham and Aylesford (Jonathan Shaw) said in previous debates, there is no queue of unmarried couples waiting to become adoptive parents. Our first objective should be to steer existing applicants toward more challenging problem children.

Ms Munn: Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Tim Loughton: I have given way a lot, and I want to make progress, so I will not give way to the hon. Lady; otherwise, people will complain that they were unable to speak in the debate.

The people most likely to adopt problem children are surely those who are already putting themselves forward as prospective adopters. Our second objective must be to recruit prospective adopters from under-represented groups, especially ethnic minorities, from whom far more prospective adopters are needed. Our third and biggest objective must be to expand the pool from those who are currently able to adopt—married couples.

Ms Munn: Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

4.45 pm

Tim Loughton : I shall not give way. I will make some progress and give way later.

Currently, about 3,100 children a year are adopted. It is said that at least 5,000 children a year need to be adopted, so there is a shortfall—these are very rough figures—of 1,900. If more children have been adopted this year, that figure will be lower. In this country at the moment there are 11 million married couples. So we need 1,900 couples to adopt one of those children each. Even if there is a rejection rate on the ground of suitability of something like 90 per cent., one in 10 people who come forward will end up adopting a child. I do not believe that the rejection rate is anything like that, but even if it were, we would need 19,000 married couples to offer to adopt. That represents 0.17 per cent. of the entire married couples pool in the country at the moment. Indeed, we are not short of new raw material, as 268,000 marriages occurred last year and for once we are seeing a slight increase in the number of people marrying.

One of the largest increases in a group of the population has been in the number of single people living alone. There are forecasts of increases in the number of single men from 7.1 million to 8.5 million, and in the number of single women from 5.8 million to 7 million over the next 10 years. So there is no potential for a numbers problem. There may be such potential in the numbers coming through at the moment, but the pool is vast enough as it is.

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Are we seriously saying that we cannot widen the pool of potential adopters across the spectrum, from shiny new babies to behaviourally challenged teenagers, and that we are not confident enough of improving the strike rate of 99.83 per cent. of married couples who do not end up adopting without changing the qualifications criteria to open up the pool to unmarried couples? Does that not suggest that we have completely and utterly wasted our time on this Bill over the past year? Are we really saying that improvements in adoption support services, special guardianship orders, the adopted children register, the streamlining of court procedures on placements and the overhauling of the appeals system count for nothing? I do not believe that for a minute. I have rather more faith in this Bill than Labour Members appear to suggest by concentrating on just this one item.

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