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4 Nov 2002 : Column 49—continued

Mr. Djanogly: No one here queries the statistics that say that the rate of divorce among unmarried couples is significantly—two or three times—higher than among married couples. That being the case, why should not one parent in an unmarried couple have to take responsibility?

Jonathan Shaw: The hon. Gentleman sat through the proceedings in Committee, as did I. As I said earlier, 29 out of the 30 agencies that gave evidence to us—

Mr. Djanogly: Are we going back to that again?

Jonathan Shaw: We are going back to that again. Those agencies came from right across the child care spectrum. They were not all left-wing child care agencies. We asked them time and again whether these measures would widen the pool, and whether they supported the idea of unmarried couples being able jointly to adopt. And they did. The hon. Member for East Worthing and Shoreham quoted the Minister, prior to the amendments previously tabled by my hon. Friend the Member for Wakefield. My hon. Friend listened to the debate, and was persuaded by the arguments. That is Parliament's role, and Back Benchers have tabled amendments because we believe that the case presented to us was correct. Does not that enhance the Bill and the House of Commons? Of course it does. A charge often levelled by the Conservatives is that the Government ignore the Commons. Now, when Back Benchers have an opportunity to table amendments, which the Government support, they attack my hon. Friend.

Kevin Brennan: Hansard will no doubt record the intervention of the hon. Member for Huntingdon (Mr. Djanogly), in which he asserted that the rate of divorce among unmarried couples—think about that for a moment—was higher than among married couples. Does not that show the terminal confusion of the hon. Gentleman in relation to this whole issue?

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5.15 pm

Jonathan Shaw: I suspect that it is one of the better points that the hon. Gentleman made.

Ms Munn: Did not Professor Tresiliotis, who is probably the foremost adoption expert in this country, make the point very clear when he appeared before the Committee by saying that the marital status of the person adopting has absolutely nothing to do with their suitability to provide a home for a child?

Jonathan Shaw: My hon. Friend has made her point.

Children do not choose their parents, but many find themselves in such circumstances that they have a life in care. I worked with children, as I was a social worker for 10 years.

Tim Loughton: Not that one again.

Jonathan Shaw: That one again—absolutely.

I recall attending numerous placement meetings where children were waiting for prospective adopters, but one has to say that, too often, no one had come forward or made inquiries about becoming their parent, because the children were those to whom I referred earlier—the older children who were abused and who manifested behaviour problems. We have a once in a generation opportunity to change the law. We began the process in October last year, and we have that opportunity to get it right. I have no problem with the delay, as long as we get it right.

I support all the agencies that gave evidence before our Special Standing Committee, which was one of the most stimulating processes in which I have been involved in my five years in the House of Commons. It was indeed a learning exercise, and we can reach only one conclusion: we need to widen the pool and provide more opportunity for the children I have spoken about to have a loving family. Whether that is provided by a married couple, unmarried people or people of the same or of different sex, we should not be the judge. We cannot be the adoption panel, as the adoption panels in our constituencies have that specific remit. It is for them to judge whether a particular couple meet the needs of the child, and the child's needs are paramount.

Dr. Evan Harris: It is a pleasure to contribute to the debate in support of the amendment tabled and, indeed, championed by the hon. Member for Wakefield (Mr. Hinchliffe). We have already debated the matter, although I fear that we shall rehearse many of the arguments. I am pleased, however, that the three that I set out in May still hold true.

There are three reasons to ensure that the amendment is passed. First, it is not in the child's best interests when both members of a couple play an equal part in his or her life for only one person to have legal responsibility. The other parent is downgraded to a second-class parent without the power to make vital as well as casual decisions in the child's life that call for a legal guardian. That also poses problems when the adopter is ill or dies, as it leaves no legal relationship between the child and the second and second-class parent. This is especially the case because any residency orders are valid only until the age of 16 or 18 years, depending on the circumstances.

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Secondly, the amendment is important because the current restriction deters many suitable unmarried couples from even applying to adopt, which is bad news for the tens of thousands of children in care who are waiting for suitable adoptive families. Indeed, it is a pleasure, if not a relief, that there is now a human rights opinion that supports that argument. The Joint Committee on Human Rights report says that Earl Howe's amendment

The amendment

of the convention on the rights of the child.

The third reason for returning these amendments to the Bill is the need to end discrimination against unmarried and same-sex couples. Given the stringent application process and the rigorous assessments that are made on a case-by-case basis, there is no justification for disqualifying a couple from adopting jointly simply because they do not possess a marriage certificate, if they clearly possess all the characteristics that the agency would expect of suitable adoptive parents. The Joint Committee says that it is reasonable for people to be able to apply in those circumstances.

We have heard arguments about the Fretté case. The court held that although there was a judgment to be made under the European Court of Human Rights, the French authorities were within their margin of appreciation. There were Conservatives on the Joint Committee, and there is no indication that they demurred from that view. Paragraph 24 of the report says

Paragraph 25 states

Mr. Robert Walter (North Dorset): I thank the hon. Gentleman for his references to both the Committee's

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report and the judgment of the European Court of Human Rights, but does he acknowledge that most European states that recognise same-sex relationships also prohibit same-sex adoption, and that the practice in Europe is to oppose it?

Dr. Harris: An interesting aspect of the recent judgment is that this was the first time that such a law had been challenged, or at any rate the first time that the European Court had argued that article 8, on the right to a private life, and article 14, on the right to live without discrimination, taken with another article of the convention, were relevant. Although the judgment was adverse in this case, it is likely that the court will be asked to reconsider, because the judgment was in a sense controversial. I understand that the British judge supported the minority view, of three rather than four, that the action was not proportionate. I think that the subject will be revisited; the Select Committee that we charge with advising us has expressed a clear view.

People have been deterred from applying to adopt by the existing law, and unhappiness has been engendered by those who have adopted under that law. Only yesterday, The Independent on Sunday cited an opposite-sex couple, Ken Mason and Helga Petzel, who live in Norwich with their adopted son Michael, who is 11. Michael came to live with them when he was seven and was formally adopted by Mr. Mason in May 2000. Mr. Mason is quoted as saying:

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