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4 Nov 2002 : Column 42—continued

Mr. Brazier: My hon. Friend is making a powerful point by listing those measures. It is a shame, though, that there is not one more measure, which he proposed but which, sadly, was voted down by the Government: to water down the still very strong requirement for an ethnic match, which is one of the strongest barriers to adoption.

Tim Loughton: I will not be churlish by saying what is not in the Bill, because we have an awful lot. However, there are many things on which we still need improvement, as my hon. Friend has said.

I want to consider obstructions to adoption and why more people are not coming forward and ending up as adoptive parents. Despite some improvements, it is clear, as Lord Hunt said in another place, that

I agree.

The evaluation carried out by the British Agencies for Adoption and Fostering during adoption week in 1999 stated:

BAAF identified a need for reassurance from agencies and for ease of contacting such agencies and getting information. It indicated a lack of responsiveness from some social services departments, and staff shortages that led to the closure of waiting lists for assessments.

The evaluation also noted a big differential in adoption rates around the country—ranging from 2 per cent. to 10 per cent. in different local authorities. It is clear that adoption is a relatively small-scale activity in many social services departments. Hopefully, the adoption register and better provision for funding trans-authority placements and support services should help to diminish those geographical disparities.

There has also been a big drop-out rate owing to problems in coping with the possibility of contact arrangements between children and birth families. Again, there are measures in the Bill to alleviate that problem. The BAAF also identified a shortage of

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personnel for home study assessments, which can drag on for years, and poor administration and non-availability of police checks. We all know about the current problems with the Criminal Records Bureau.

XBe My Parent" is the paper produced by the British Agencies for Adoption and Fostering, and features children available for adoption. When we see that there have been no inquiries about some of the children, we start to ask why. I pick out one or two examples from this publication. The details provided about the children include details of their ethnic descent. I have no objection to that, but under the heading Xfamily needed", ethnic requirements are specified as well. In the case of a young boy, we read that the ethnic descent is white English, and that the family needed is a white adoptive family. In another case, the child is described as being of Afro-Caribbean Jamaican ethnic descent, and needing a black adoptive family. In a further example, the ethnic descent is given as Afro-Caribbean, and the family needed is described as an Afro-Caribbean two-parent adoptive family. Under XContacts", the paper states that direct contact is planned with the maternal grandmother and half-sister, as well as letterbox contact with the birth parents.

It strikes me that some of those requirements, set down by I know not whom, are extremely prescriptive and make it very difficult for the right potential adopters to apply or signal an interest in such children. That is part of the problems and obstructions.

Ms Munn: Is it not right that people trying to find adoptive homes for children should seek out the best home that they can, as has been argued? It is right to try to match a child's ethnicity, but it is not right to hold out for a long time for the correct match. To try to meet the child's need in the best way first is absolutely the right thing to do.

Tim Loughton: But on what grounds can the hon. Lady judge that she or I are not equally suitable to adopt one of those young children who are described as requiring somebody of Afro-Caribbean descent to adopt them? It is yet another obstruction.

Ms Munn rose—

Tim Loughton: No. I shall make progress. Clearly, many attitudes and stereotypes of matching parents with children need to change. Hopefully, that will change under the terms of the Bill.

I shall deal now with the legal minefield. In November last year, the Minister said in Committee:

—that is, the civil partnerships review. We all agreed with that. In Committee, she offered to refer adoptions to the Cabinet Office-led review of civil partnerships, which she did. That committee has not reported yet.

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In a statement in another place two weeks ago, Lord Hunt said:

It seems that confusion reigns. As my parliamentary question on the progress of the review revealed last week, it has been transferred from the Cabinet Office to the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry, so it is unclear who is leading the review. Amendments to the Bill would mean that adoption has been singled out to be fast-tracked and would circumvent the civil partnerships review.

With reference to the 24th report of the Joint Committee on Human Rights, which was published last week, I said earlier that the Joint Committee and the Secretary of State could not both be right about the human rights compatibility of the status quo, whereby adoption is available only to married couples and single people. It is odd that the ninth report of that Committee stated that the original Bill—the form to which the Lords have returned the present Bill—is compatible.

There is great legal confusion. The Bill did not raise questions relating to human rights that require to be drawn to the attention of each House. That is what the Committee said on 17 December 2001. What has changed in the meantime? Certainly, the membership of the Committee has not changed. The point is that its 24th report is only an opinion. It will carry no weight in law until it is challenged by the courts, yet the status quo before the Bill's introduction was not challenged in the UK courts.

Dr. Evan Harris: The hon. Gentleman makes an important point. His first question requires answering. The answer given in the report is that, after the publication of the earlier report, the case of Fretté was dealt with by the European Court of Human Rights. The court found by a majority of four to three that articles 8 and 14 of the European convention on human rights were engaged by the question of the right of unmarried couples to adopt. The further judgment went the other way, but the key point is that there is now jurisprudence to show for the first time that the Human Rights Act 1998 is engaged on the question. In addition, a case arose in South Africa—it also did so between the publication of the two reports—that is relevant to our interpretation of the United Nations convention on the rights of the child.

Tim Loughton: If the hon. Gentleman is patient, I shall mention briefly both the case of Fretté and the de Vos case in South Africa.

People can take many different legal opinions on the report, which is not helped by factual errors. It dismisses the Fretté v. France case in fairly curt terms. Page 10 refers to a lesbian couple who were refused their challenge to adopt. In fact, Philippe Fretté, the applicant, was a homosexual man who was refused an

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application for authorisation to adopt by the Paris social services department in May 1993 on the grounds that the applicant

to offer, and had

I shall make no comment on that ruling, other than that the finding was upheld by the European Court of Human Rights as recently as February 2002. The court held that there was no right to adopt, and that, accordingly, the state was entitled to draw distinctions between homosexuals and others in the adoption process. Without venturing an opinion, I remind the House that the convention specifically allows state interference in private and family life for moral reasons. The issue of morals falls squarely within the UK's margin of appreciation and democratic process, which both domestic and international courts will respect.

The report also sets great store by a recent South African case that the hon. Member for Oxford, West and Abingdon (Dr. Harris) mentioned—that of du Toit and de Vos v. the Minister for Welfare in South Africa. First, however, South Africa has a vastly bigger problem in terms of a shortage of adopters to match the many orphan children. Secondly, I am led to believe that homosexual rights are specifically enshrined in the South African constitution. The case therefore comes from a very different base, so it is offered at best as a piece of persuasive authority; but I feel that too much of the report reads as advocacy for a cause rather than objective interpretation. It also makes no mention of the European convention on the adoption of children, which was agreed to in 1967 and to which we are still a signatory. Article 6 of that convention limits application to married couples and single people. Have the Government initiated a renegotiation of the terms of the 1967 convention, or are they looking to rescind membership?

Finally, on the legal process, I should like to mention Lord Alli's interesting and thoughtful intervention in the House of Lords. At column 874, he said:

Many hon. Members will have sympathy with that view, yet Lord Hunt specifically ruled out such a possibility in July 2002. In any case, legal opinion suggests that such an approach would certainly fall foul of the Human Rights Act 1998 in the UK courts, rather than in Strasbourg. Once marriage is removed as the benchmark for adoption, there will be no midway compromise.

I remind hon. Members that marriage is defined in the European convention on human rights as marriage between a male and a female. Lord Hooson made an interesting contribution to the debate on the report, in which he referred to the

He went on to say:

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That came from someone who sympathises with adoption by unmarried couples but realises that the proposals, if added to the Bill, would risk a great deal of future trouble. If the amendments are passed, there can be no middle way and no preferences.

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