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4 Nov 2002 : Column 52—continued

Ms Munn: The hon. Gentleman is making the crucial point that trust is at the heart of the assessment process for prospective adopters. To suggest that people who do not believe in marriage should marry and, therefore, be hypocritical—as in the example the hon. Gentleman cites—would fundamentally undermine the trust relationship at the beginning of the process. That is not in anybody's interest.

Dr. Harris: I see the point that the hon. Lady makes. One cannot claim to be supporting marriage by forcing people into it for other motives, whatever our views on the value of marriage.

The newspaper gave another example, of a same-sex couple—Sarah Halpern, aged 45 and a teacher, Christine Lee, aged 44 and a housing officer, who live in Manchester as a couple with their adopted daughters,

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sisters Rachel and Nicola, aged 16 and 14. They were adopted when they were seven and six by Sarah, the single legal parent. Sarah is quoted as saying:

That is how people are forced to choose. Sarah continued:

Mr. Simon Thomas (Ceredigion): Does the hon. Gentleman recall the poll tax, when the Conservative party introduced the concept of joint and several liability for cohabiting and unmarried couples? Does he agree that it is curious, if not hypocritical, to argue that when it comes to paying money to the state, unmarried couples are the same as married couples, but when it comes to making a contribution to society by adopting a child, unmarried couples are second-class citizens compared to married couples? Is not that the ultimate hypocrisy? It shows that the heart of the Conservative party lies with money and not with caring for those in need in society.

Dr. Harris: That certainly applies to the Conservative party, but the present law is peculiar. When it is a question of assessment for benefits, the present law—presumably supported by the Government, in the absence of a civil partnerships register—means that people are considered married if cohabiting, but are not accorded an equal status with marriage when it comes to the many advantages of, for example, public sector pension schemes. Unmarried couples who live together lose out in both ways.

The arguments against the amendment have been put mainly by the Conservatives. The hon. Member for Huntingdon (Mr. Djanogly), who is unfortunately no longer in his place, tried to reassure us by saying that he had been the chair of a social services committee. Given what he said, that was not much reassurance, as my hon. Friend the Member for Romsey (Sandra Gidley) pointed out. He said that 83 per cent. of couples who were not married went on to break up compared with only 40 per cent. of married couples.

The first point to make, which has been made clear by statisticians and others who have done research in this area, is that we are not comparing like with like. People who do not believe that they will remain with their partner for a lifetime are more likely to be in the group of those who do not get married, because marriage involves a public commitment of some kind. That does not mean that all the people in the unmarried group do not have the same commitment as many of those in the married group. We are, by the hon. Gentleman's own definition, precluding those 17 per cent. of couples from

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applying to adopt when we allow the 40 per cent. of married couples who go on to break up to apply. That does not seem a rational approach.

5.30 pm

Andrew Selous: What does the hon. Gentleman have to say about the British household panel survey data, which show that the average length of cohabitation is only two years? Surely that is very relevant. It is not only about the numbers of couples who break up, but about how long they are together, which is not long enough to commit to a lifetime of care for a child.

Dr. Harris: The hon. Gentleman is talking in averages, and that is the problem. We are talking about particular children with particular needs. I shall come in a moment to the dangers of generalisation.

To return to the point made by the hon. Member for Huntingdon, what if more marriages than unmarried alliances split up as a proportion? I hope that that does not happen. Would he then change his view and disbar married couples from applying to adopt on that basis? It is clearly a reductio ad absurdum, which can happen with arguments put by Conservative Members. That is why it is important not to generalise—otherwise one finds oneself heading towards logical conclusions that I am sure that the hon. Gentleman would not want to draw.

The dangers of generalisation are clear. Let us suppose—although I am not suggesting for one moment that this is the case—that a sociologist came along with the supposition that parents from a particular ethnic minority group were more likely, marginally or significantly, to separate than those from the majority ethnic group in this country. On that basis, would it be reasonable to say that because, on average, they do not do as well in terms of stability, no one from that group should be allowed to apply? I think that we would abhor such a discriminatory arrangement based on a generalisation and I am sure that many, if not all, Conservative Members would be repelled by such a prospect. However, that is exactly the same logic that is being applied to a group of people—unmarried couples—who are not allowed to apply.

The hon. Member for Huntingdon also made the rather strange point that 95 per cent. of children are currently adopted by married couples and only 5 per cent. by people who are not married—that is, single people. I think that he was saying that there was therefore no need to change the law, a point that was returned to in more depth by the hon. Member for East Worthing and Shoreham (Tim Loughton). Surely, however, that is the point. We rely overwhelmingly on a single group of applicants—married couples. If there were a bar on single people applying, the hon. Member for Huntingdon would, according to his logic, have an even stronger argument because he could say that 100 per cent. of children are already adopted by married couples. The situation is peculiar.

It has been argued that expanding the pool of applicants will not lead to more people seeking to adopt. On that basis, the opponents to the Bill's proposal can relax; if such a change in the law will not bring about a significant increase in the number of adoptions by people who are not married, they can rest assured. If it

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does, and those people are judged suitable by the assessment, they should rejoice that more children will be found a place. They are in a no-win situation.

Tim Loughton: I am sure that the hon. Gentleman would be the first to admit that all this hypothesis is not based on any evidence. However, the natural conclusion of his argument is that the 99.83 per cent. of the 11 million married couples in this country who do not end up adopting are less able or likely to be less able to make adoptive parents, particularly for problem children, than those unmarried couples of whatever description who currently do not come forward. On what evidence does the hon. Gentleman think that unmarried couples could better cope with those problem children than the 99.83 per cent. of the 11 million couples who do not currently come forward and should be encouraged to do so?

Dr. Harris: That is not what I said. It is not a competition. I have never suggested that unmarried couples would make better adopters than married couples. I was pointing out that those who passed the assessment process could be equally good.

The hon. Member for Chatham and Aylesford (Jonathan Shaw) referred to research that was published today—I shall be more than happy to pass it to the hon. Member for East Worthing and Shoreham—which showed that of 430 children, there was not even one inquiry about 129. The hon. Member for Chatham and Aylesford did not have time to mention that the only inquiries received for 20 children—harder-to-place children—came from single people; and that eight children received inquiries, which, sadly, were futile, only from unmarried or same-sex couples. That suggests that there is, to use a Conservative term, Xa market" for harder-to-adopt children among couples who are currently banned even from applying. The evidence that I was sent today is clear on that point.

Mr. Brazier: The proposals will not extend the possibility for adoption to any household anywhere in the country; they will only make it possible for two people in a household to be adopters rather than one. They will not create one more place.

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